He seemed to take pleasure in the society of his old professorial friends, and one of them he once brought to my table. This was a professor of history, deeply conversant with the affairs of the empire; and we discussed the character and career of Catherine II. The two men together brought out a mass of curious information, throwing a strange light into transactions which only the most recent historians are beginning to understand, among these the assassination of Czar Peter III, Catherine's husband. On one occasion when Pobedonostzeff was visiting me I tested his knowledge in regard to a matter of special interest, and obtained a new side-light upon his theory of the universe. There is at present on the island of Cronstadt, at the mouth of the Neva, a Russo-Greek priest, Father Ivan, who enjoys throughout the empire a vast reputation as a saintly worker of miracles. This priest has a very spiritual and kindly face; is known to receive vast sums for the poor, which he distributes among them while he himself remains in poverty; and is supposed not merely by members of the Russo-Greek Church, but by those of other religious bodies, to work frequent miracles of healing. I was assured by persons of the highest character—and those not only Russo-Greek churchmen, but Roman Catholics and Anglicans—that there could be no doubt as to the reality of these miracles, and various examples were given me. So great is Father Ivan's reputation in this respect that he is in constant demand in all parts of the empire, and was even summoned to Livadia during the last illness of the late Emperor. Whenever he appears in public great crowds surround him, seeking to touch the hem of his garment. His picture is to be seen with the portraits of the saints in vast numbers of Russian homes, from the palaces of the highest nobles to the cottages of the humblest peasants.
It happened to me on one occasion to have an experience which I have related elsewhere, but which is repeated here as throwing light on the ideas of the Russian statesman.
On my arrival in St. Petersburg my attention was at once aroused by the portraits of Father Ivan. They ranged from photographs absolutely true to life, which revealed a plain, shrewd, kindly face, to those which were idealized until they bore a near resemblance to the conventional representations of Jesus of Nazareth.
One day, in one of the most brilliant reception-rooms of the Northern capital, the subject of Father Ivan's miracles having been introduced, a gentleman in very high social position, and entirely trustworthy, spoke as follows: "There is something very surprising about these miracles. I am slow to believe in them; but there is one of them which is overwhelming and absolutely true. The late Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, Archbishop Isidore, loved quiet, and was very averse to anything which could possibly cause scandal. Hearing of the wonders wrought by Father Ivan, he summoned him to his presence and sternly commanded him to abstain from all the things which had given rise to these reported miracles, as sure to create scandal, and with this injunction dismissed him. Hardly had the priest left the room when the archbishop was struck with blindness, and he remained in this condition until the priest returned and restored his sight by intercessory prayer." When I asked the gentleman giving this account if he directly knew these facts, he replied that he was, of course, not present when the miracle was wrought; but that he had the facts immediately from persons who knew all the parties concerned, as well as all the circumstances of the case; and, indeed, that these circumstances were matter of general knowledge.
Sometime afterward, being at an afternoon reception in one of the greater embassies, I brought up the same subject, when an eminent general spoke as follows: "I am not inclined to believe in miracles,—in fact, am rather skeptical; but the proofs of those wrought by Father Ivan are overwhelming." He then went on to say that the late metropolitan archbishop was a man who loved quiet and disliked scandal; that on this account he had summoned Father Ivan to his palace, and ordered him to put an end to the conduct which had caused the reports concerning his miraculous powers; and then, with a wave of his arm, had dismissed him. The priest left the room, and from that moment the archbishop's arm was paralyzed; and it remained so until the penitent prelate summoned the priest again, by whose prayers the arm was restored to its former usefulness. There was present at the time another person besides myself who had heard the previous statement as to the blindness of the archbishop; and, on our both asking the general if he was sure that the archbishop's arm was paralyzed as stated, he declared that he could not doubt it, as he had the account directly from persons entirely trustworthy who were cognizant of all the facts.
Sometime later, meeting Pobedonostzeff, I asked him which of these stories was correct. He answered immediately, "Neither: in the discharge of my duties I saw the Archbishop Isidore constantly down to the last hours of his life, and no such event ever occurred. He was never paralyzed and never blind." But the great statesman and churchman then went on to say that, although this story was untrue, there were a multitude of others quite as remarkable in which he believed; and he gave me a number of legends showing that Father Ivan possessed supernatural knowledge and miraculous powers. These he unfolded to me with much detail, and with such an accent of conviction that we seemed surrounded by a mediaeval atmosphere in which signs and wonders were the most natural things in the world.
As to his action on politics since my leaving Russia, the power which he exercised over Alexander III has evidently been continued during the reign of the young Nicholas II. In spite of his eighty years, he seems to be, to-day, the leader of the reactionary party.
During the early weeks of The Hague Conference, Count Munster, in his frequent diatribes against its whole purpose, and especially against arbitration, was wont to insist that the whole thing was a scheme prepared by Pobedonostzeff to embarrass Germany; that, as Russia was always wretchedly unready with her army, The Hague Conference was simply a trick for gaining time against her rivals who kept up better military preparations. There may have been truth in part of this assertion; but the motive of the great Russian statesman in favoring the conference was probably not so much to gain time for the army as to gain money for the church. With his intense desire to increase the stipends of the Russian orthodox clergy, and thus to raise them somewhat above their present low condition, he must have groaned over the enormous sums spent by his government in the frequent changes in almost every item of expenditure for its vast army—changes made in times of profound peace, simply to show that Russia was keeping her army abreast of those of her sister nations. Hence came the expressed Russian desire to "keep people from inventing things." It has always seemed to me that, while the idea underlying the Peace Conference came originally from Jean de Bloch, there must have been powerful aid from Pobedonostzeff. So much of good—and, indeed, of great good—we may attribute to him as highly probable, if not certain.
But, on the other hand, there would seem to be equal reason for attributing to him, in these latter days, a fearful mass of evil. To say nothing of the policy of Russia in Poland and elsewhere, her dealings with Finland thus far form one of the blackest spots on the history of the empire. Whether he originated this iniquity or not is uncertain; but when, in 1892, I first saw the new Russian cathedral rising on the heights above Helsingfors,—a structure vastly more imposing than any warranted by the small number of the "orthodox" in Finland,—with its architecture of the old Muscovite type, symbolical of fetishism, I could not but recognize his hand in it. It seemed clear to me that here was the beginning of religious aggression on the Lutheran Finlanders, which must logically be followed by political and military aggression; and, in view of his agency in this as in everything reactionary, I did not wonder at the attempt to assassinate him not long afterward.
During my recent stay in Germany he visited me at the Berlin Embassy. He was, as of old, apparently gentle, kindly, interested in literature, not interested to any great extent in current Western politics. This gentle, kindly manner of his brought back forcibly to my mind a remark of one of the most cultivated women I met in Russia, a princess of ancient lineage, who ardently desired reasonable reforms, and who, when I mentioned to her a report that Pobedonostzeff was weary of political life, and was about to retire from office in order to devote himself to literary pursuits, said: "Don't, I beg of you, tell me that; for I have always noticed that whenever such a report is circulated, it is followed by some new scheme of his, even more infernal than those preceding it."
So much for the man who, during the present reign, seems one of the main agents in holding Russian policy on the road to ruin. He is indeed a study. The descriptive epithet which clings to him—"the Torquemada of the nineteenth century"—he once discussed with me in no unkindly spirit; indeed, in as gentle a spirit as can well be conceived. His life furnishes a most interesting study in churchmanship, in statesmanship, and in human nature, and shows how some of the men most severely condemned by modern historians—great persecutors, inquisitors, and the like—may have based their actions on theories the world has little understood, and may have had as little conscious ferocity as their more tolerant neighbors.
WALKS AND TALES WITH TOLSTOI—MARCH, 1894
Revisiting Moscow after an absence of thirty-five years, the most surprising thing to me was that there had been so little change. With the exception of the new gallery of Russian art, and the bazaar opposite the sacred gate of the Kremlin, things seemed as I had left them just after the accession of Alexander II. There were the same unkempt streets; the same peasantry clad in sheepskins; the same troops of beggars, sturdy and dirty; the same squalid crowds crossing themselves before the images at the street corners; the same throngs of worshipers knocking their heads against the pavements of churches; and above all loomed, now as then, the tower of Ivan and the domes of St. Basil, gloomy, gaudy, and barbaric. Only one change had taken place which interested me: for the first time in the history of Russia, a man of world-wide fame in literature and thought was abiding there—Count Leo Tolstoi.
On the evening of my arrival I went with my secretary to his weekly reception. As we entered his house on the outskirts of the city, two servants in evening dress came forward, removed our fur coats, and opened the doors into the reception-room of the master. Then came a surprise. His living-room seemed the cabin of a Russian peasant. It was wainscoted almost rudely and furnished very simply; and there approached us a tall, gaunt Russian, unmistakably born to command, yet clad as a peasant, his hair thrown back over his ears on either side, his flowing blouse kept together by a leathern girdle, his high jack-boots completing the costume. This was Tolstoi.
Nothing could be more kindly than his greeting. While his dress was that of a peasant, his bearing was the very opposite; for, instead of the depressed, demure, hangdog expression of the average muzhik, his manner, though cordial, was dignified and impressive. Having given us a hearty welcome, he made us acquainted with various other guests. It was a singular assemblage. There were foreigners in evening dress, Moscow professors in any dress they liked, and a certain number of youth, evidently disciples, who, though clearly not of the peasant class, wore the peasant costume. I observed these with interest but certainly as long as they were under the spell of the master they communicated nothing worth preserving; they seemed to show "the contortions of the sibyl without the inspiration."
The professors were much more engaging. The University of Moscow has in its teaching body several strong men, and some of these were present. One of them, whose department was philosophy, especially interested and encouraged me by assurances that the movement of Russian philosophy is "back to Kant." In the strange welter of whims and dreams which one finds in Russia, this was to me an unexpected evidence of healthful thought.
Naturally, I soon asked to be presented to the lady of the house, and the count escorted us through a series of rooms to a salon furnished much like any handsome apartment in Paris or St. Petersburg, where the countess, with other ladies, all in full evening dress, received us cordially. This sudden transition from the peasant cabin of the master to these sumptuous rooms of the mistress was startling; it seemed like scene-shifting at a theater.
After some friendly talk, all returned to the rooms of the master of the house, where tea was served at a long table from the bubbling brazen urn—the samovar; and though there were some twenty or thirty guests, nothing could be more informal. All was simple, kindly, and unrestrained.
My first question was upon the condition of the people. Our American legation had corresponded with Count Tolstoi and his family as to distributing a portion of the famine fund sent from the United States, hence this subject naturally arose at the outset. He said that the condition of the peasants was still very bad; that they had very generally eaten their draught-animals, burned portions of their buildings to keep life in their bodies, and reduced themselves to hopeless want. On my suggesting that the new commercial treaty with Germany might help matters, he thought that it would have but little effect, since only a small portion of the total product of Russian agriculture is consumed abroad. This led him to speak of some Americans and Englishmen who had visited the famine-stricken districts, and, while he referred kindly to them all, he seemed especially attracted by the Quaker John Bellows of Gloucester, England, the author of the wonderful little French dictionary. This led him to say that he sympathized with the Quakers in everything save their belief in property; that in this they were utterly illogical; that property presupposes force to protect it. I remarked that most American Quakers knew nothing of such force; that none of them had ever seen an American soldier, save during our Civil War, and that probably not one in hundreds of them had ever seen a soldier at all. He answered, "But you forget the policeman." He evidently put policemen and soldiers in the same category—as using force to protect property, and therefore to be alike abhorred.
I found that to his disbelief in any right of ownership literary property formed no exception. He told me that, in his view, he had no right to receive money for the permission to print a book. To this I naturally answered that by carrying out this doctrine he would simply lavish large sums upon publishers in every country of Europe and America, many of them rich and some of them piratical; and that in my opinion he would do a much better thing by taking the full value of his copyrights and bestowing the proceeds upon the peasantry starving about him. To which he answered that it was a question of duty. To this I agreed, but remarked that beneath this lay the question what this duty really was. It was a pleasure to learn from another source that the countess took a different view of it, and that she had in some way secured the proceeds of his copyrights for their very large and interesting family. Light was thus thrown on Tolstoi's remark, made afterward, that women are not so self-sacrificing as men; that a man would sometimes sacrifice his family for an idea, but that a woman would not.
He then went on to express an interest in the Shakers, and especially in Frederick Evans. He had evidently formed an idea of them very unlike the reality; in fact, the Shaker his imagination had developed was as different from a Lebanon Shaker as an eagle from a duck, and his notion of their influence on American society was comical.
He spoke at some length regarding religion in Russia, evidently believing that its present dominant form is soon to pass away. I asked him how then he could account for the fact that while in other countries women are greatly in the majority at church services, in every Russian church the majority are men; and that during the thirty-five years since my last visit to Moscow this tendency had apparently increased. He answered, "All this is on the surface; there is much deeper thought below, and the great want of Russia is liberty to utter it." He then gave some examples to show this, among them the case of a gentleman and lady in St. Petersburg, whose children had been taken from them and given to Princess ——, their grandmother, because the latter is of the Orthodox Church and the former are not. I answered that I had seen the children; that their grandmother had told me that their mother was a screaming atheist with nihilistic tendencies, who had left her husband and was bringing up the children in a scandalous way,—teaching them to abjure God and curse the Czar; that their father had thought it his duty to give all his property away and work as a laborer; that therefore she—the grandmother—had secured an order from the Emperor empowering her to take charge of the children; that I had seen the children at their grandmother's house, and that they had seemed very happy. Tolstoi insisted that this statement by the grandmother was simply made to cover the fact that the children were taken from the mother because her belief was not of the orthodox pattern. My opinion is that Tolstoi was mistaken, at least as to the father; and that the father had been led to give away his property and work with his hands in obedience to the ideas so eloquently advocated by Tolstoi himself. Unlike his master, this gentleman appears not to have had the advantage of a wife who mitigated his ideas.
Tolstoi also referred to the difficulties which translators had found in securing publishers for his most recent book—"The Kingdom of God." On my assuring him that American publishers of high standing would certainly be glad to take it, he said that he had supposed the ideas in it so contrary to opinions dominant in America as to prevent its publication there.
Returning to the subject of religion in Russia, he referred to some curious incongruities; as, for example, the portrait of Socrates forming part of a religious picture in the Annunciation Church at the Kremlin. He said that evidently some monk, who had dipped into Plato, had thus placed Socrates among the precursors of Christ. I cited the reason assigned by Melanchthon for Christ's descent into hell—namely, the desire of the Redeemer to make himself known to Socrates, Plato, and the best of the ancient philosophers; and I compared this with Luther's idea, so characteristic of him, that Christ descended into hell in order to have a hand-to-hand grapple and wrestle with Satan. This led Tolstoi to give me a Russian legend of the descent into hell, which was that, when Christ arrived there, he found Satan forging chains, but that, at the approach of the Saviour, the walls of hell collapsed, and Satan found himself entangled in his own chains, and remained so for a thousand years.
In regard to the Jews, he said that he sympathized with them, but that the statements regarding the persecution of them were somewhat exaggerated. Kennan's statements regarding the treatment of prisoners in Siberia he thought overdrawn at times, but substantially true. He expressed his surprise that certain leading men in the empire, whom he named, could believe that persecution and the forcible repression of thought would have any permanent effect at the end of the nineteenth century.
He then dwelt upon sundry evil conditions in Russia, on which my comment was that every country, of course, had its own grievous shortcomings; and I cited, as to America, the proverb: "No one knows so well where the shoe pinches as he who wears it." At this he asked me about lynch law in the United States, and expressed his horror of it. I showed him that it was the inevitable result of a wretched laxity and sham humanity in the administration of our criminal law, which had led great bodies of people, more especially in the Southern and extreme Western parts of the country, to revert to natural justice and take the law into their own hands; and I cited Goldwin Smith's profound remark that "some American lynchings are proofs not so much of lawlessness as of a respect for law."
He asked me where, besides this, the shoe pinched in the United States. I told him that it pinched in various places, but that perhaps the worst pinch arises from the premature admission to full political rights of men who have been so benumbed and stunted intellectually and morally in other countries that their exercise of political rights in America is frequently an injury, not only to others, but to themselves. In proof of this I cited the case of the crowds whom I had seen some years before huddled together in New York tenement-houses, preyed upon by their liquor-selling landlords, their families perishing of typhoid and smallpox on account of the negligence and maladministration of the local politicians, but who, as a rule, were almost if not quite ready to mob and murder those of us who brought in a new health board and a better order of things; showing him that for years the very class of people who suffered most from the old, vile state of things did their best by their votes to keep in power the men who maintained it.
We then passed to the subject of the trans-Siberian Railway. In this he seemed interested, but in a vague way which added nothing to my knowledge.
Asking me regarding my former visit to Moscow, and learning that it was during the Crimean War, he said, "At that time I was in Sebastopol, and continued there as a soldier during the siege."
As to his relations with the imperial government at present, he said that he had been recently elected to a learned society in Moscow, but that the St. Petersburg government had interfered to stop the election; and he added that every morning, when he awoke, he wondered that he was not on his way to Siberia.
On my leaving him, both he and the countess invited me to meet them next day at the Tretiakof Museum of Russian Pictures; and accordingly, on the following afternoon, I met them at that greatest of all galleries devoted purely to Russian art. They were accompanied by several friends, among them a little knot of disciples—young men clad in simple peasant costume like that worn by the master. It was evident that he was an acknowledged lion at the old Russian capital, for as he led me about to see the pictures which he liked best, he was followed and stared at by many.
Pointing out to me some modern religious pictures in Byzantine style painted for the Cathedral of Kieff, he said, "They represent an effort as futile as trying to persuade chickens to reenter the egg-shells from which they have escaped." He next showed me two religious pictures; the first representing the meeting of Jesus and Pilate, when the latter asked, "What is truth?" Pilate was depicted as a rotund, jocose, cynical man of the world; Jesus, as a street preacher in sordid garments, with unkempt hair flowing over his haggard face,—a peasant fanatic brought in by the police. Tolstoi showed an especial interest in this picture; it seemed to reveal to him the real secret of that famous question and its answer; the question coming from the mighty of the earth, and the answer from the poor and oppressed.
The other picture represented the Crucifixion. It was painted in the most realistic manner possible; nothing was idealized; it was even more vividly realistic than Gebhardt's picture of the Lord's Supper, at Berlin; so that it at first repelled me, though it afterward exercised a certain fascination. That Tolstoi was deeply interested was clear. He stood for a time in silence, as if musing upon all that the sacrifice on Calvary had brought to the world. Other representations of similar scenes, in the conventional style of the older masters, he had passed without a glance; but this spectacle of the young Galilean peasant, with unattractive features, sordid garb, poverty-stricken companions, and repulsive surroundings, tortured to death for preaching the "kingdom of God" to the poor and down-trodden, seemed to hold him fast, and as he pointed out various features in the picture it became even more clear to me that sympathy with the peasant class, and a yearning to enter into their cares and sorrows, form the real groundwork of his life.
He then took me to a small picture of Jesus and his disciples leaving the upper room at Jerusalem after the Last Supper. This, too, was painted in the most realistic manner. The disciples, simple-minded fishermen, rude in features and dress, were plodding homeward, while Christ himself gazed at the stars and drew the attention of his nearest companions to some of the brightest. Tolstoi expressed especial admiration for this picture, saying that at times it affected him like beautiful music,—like music which draws tears, one can hardly tell why. It was more and more evident, as he lingered before this and other pictures embodying similar ideas, that sympathy for those struggling through poverty and want toward a better life is his master passion.
Among the pictures, not to be classed as religious, before which he thus lingered were those representing the arrest of a nihilist and the return of an exile from Siberia. Both were well painted, and both revealed the same characteristic—sympathy with the poor, even with criminals.
Some of the more famous historical pictures in the collection he thought exaggerated; especially those representing the fury of the Grand Duchess Sophia in her monastery prison, and the remorse of Ivan the Terrible after murdering his son.
To my surprise, he agreed with me, and even went beyond me, in rating landscape infinitely below religious and historical painting, saying that he cared for landscape-painting only as accessory to pictures revealing human life.
Among genre pictures, we halted before one representing a peasant family grouped about the mother, who, with a sacred picture laid upon her breast, after the Russian manner, was dying of famine. This also seemed deeply to impress him.
We stopped next before a picture of a lady of high birth brought before the authorities in order to be sent, evidently against her will, to a convent. I cited the similar story from Manzoni's "Promessi Sposi"; but, to my surprise, he seemed to know little of that most fascinating of historical romances. This led to a discussion in which he said he had once liked Walter Scott, but had not read anything of his for many years; and he seemed interested in my statement that although always an especial admirer of Scott, I had found it almost impossible to induce the younger generation to read him.
Stopping before a picture of Peter the Great's fatal conference with his son Alexis, in reply to my remark upon the marvel that a prince of such genius as Peter should have appeared at Moscow in the seventeenth century, he said that he did not admire Peter, that he was too cruel,—administering torture and death at times with his own hands.
We next halted before a picture representing the horrible execution of the Strelitzes. I said that "such pictures prove that the world does, after all, progress slowly, in spite of what pessimists say, and that in order to refute pessimists one has only to refer to the improvements in criminal law." To this he agreed cordially, and declared the abolition of torture in procedure and penalty to be one great gain, at any rate.
We spoke of the present condition of things in Europe, and I told him that at St. Petersburg the opinion very general among the more thoughtful members of the diplomatic corps was that war was not imminent; that the Czar, having himself seen the cruelties of war during the late struggle in the Balkans, had acquired an invincible repugnance to it. He acquiesced in this, but said that it seemed monstrous to him that the peace of the empire and of Europe should depend upon so slender a thread as the will of any one man.
Our next walk was taken across the river Moskwa, on the ice, to and through the Kremlin, and as we walked the conversation fell upon literature. As to French literature, he thought Maupassant the man of greatest talent, by far, in recent days, but that he was depraved and centered all his fiction in women. For Balzac, Tolstoi evidently preserved admiration, but he cared little, apparently, for Daudet, Zola, and their compeers.
As to American literature, he said that Tourgueneff had once told him that there was nothing in it worth reading; nothing new or original; that it was simply a copy of English literature. To this I replied that such criticism seemed to me very shallow; that American literature was, of course, largely a growth out of the parent stock of English literature, and must mainly be judged as such; that to ask in the highest American literature something absolutely different from English literature in general was like looking for oranges upon an apple-tree; that there had come new varieties in this growth, many of them original, and some beautiful; but that there was the same sap, the same life-current running through it all; and I compared the treatment of woman in all Anglo-Saxon literature, whether on one side of the Atlantic or the other, from Chaucer to Mark Twain, with the treatment of the same subject by French writers from Rabelais to Zola. To this he answered that in his opinion the strength of American literature arises from the inherent Anglo-Saxon religious sentiment. He expressed a liking for Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whittier, but he seemed to have read at random, not knowing at all some of the best things. He spoke with admiration of Theodore Parker's writings, and seemed interested in my reminiscences of Parker and of his acquaintance with Russian affairs. He also revered and admired the character and work of William Lloyd Garrison. He had read Longfellow somewhat, but was evidently uncertain regarding Lowell,—confusing him, apparently, with some other author. Among contemporary writers he knew some of Howells's novels and liked them, but said: "Literature in the United States at present seems to be in the lowest trough of the sea between high waves." He dwelt on the flippant tone of American newspapers, and told me of an interviewer who came to him in behalf of an American journal, and wanted simply to know at what time he went to bed and rose, what he ate, and the like. He thought that people who cared to read such trivialities must be very feeble-minded, but he said that the European press is, on the whole, just as futile. On my attempting to draw from him some statement as to what part of American literature pleased him most, he said that he had read some publications of the New York and Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, and that he knew and liked the writings of Felix Adler. I then asked who, in the whole range of American literature, he thought the foremost. To this he made an answer which amazed me, as it would have astonished my countrymen. Indeed, did the eternal salvation of all our eighty millions depend upon some one of them guessing the person he named, we should all go to perdition together. That greatest of American writers was—Adin Ballou! Evidently, some of the philanthropic writings of that excellent Massachusetts country clergyman and religious communist had pleased him, and hence came the answer.
The next day he came over to my hotel and we went out for a stroll. As we passed along the streets I noticed especially what I had remarked during our previous walks, that Tolstoi had a large quantity of small Russian coins in his pockets; that this was evidently known to the swarms of beggars who infest the Kremlin and the public places generally; and that he always gave to them.
On my speaking of this, he said he thought that any one, when asked for money, ought to give it. Arguing against this doctrine, I said that in the United States there are virtually no beggars, and I might have gone on to discuss the subject from the politico-economical point of view, showing how such indiscriminate almsgiving in perpetual driblets is sure to create the absurd and immoral system which one sees throughout Russia,—hordes of men and women who are able to take care of themselves, and who ought to be far above beggary, cringing and whining to the passers-by for alms; but I had come to know the man well enough to feel sure that a politico-economical argument would slide off him like water from a duck's back, so I attempted to take him upon another side, and said: "In the United States there are virtually no beggars, though my countrymen are, I really believe, among the most charitable in the world." To this last statement he assented, referring in a general way to our shipments of provisions to aid the famine-stricken in Russia. "But," I added, "it is not our custom to give to beggars save in special emergencies." I then gave him an account of certain American church organizations which had established piles of fire-wood and therefore enabled any able-bodied tramp, by sawing or cutting some of it, to earn a good breakfast, a good dinner, and, if needed, a good bed, and showed him that Americans considered beggary not only a great source of pauperism, but as absolutely debasing to the beggar himself, in that it puts him in the attitude of a suppliant for that which, if he works as he ought, he can claim as his right; that to me the spectacle of Count Tolstoi virtually posing as a superior being, while his fellow-Russians came crouching and whining to him, was not at all edifying. To this view of the case he listened very civilly.
Incidentally I expressed wonder that he had not traveled more. He then spoke with some disapprobation of travel. He had lived abroad for a time, he said, and in St. Petersburg a few years, but the rest of his life had been spent mainly in Moscow and the interior of Russia. The more we talked together, the more it became clear that this last statement explained some of his main defects. Of all distinguished men that I have ever met, Tolstoi seems to me most in need of that enlargement of view and healthful modification of opinion which come from meeting men and comparing views with them in different lands and under different conditions. This need is all the greater because in Russia there is no opportunity to discuss really important questions. Among the whole one hundred and twenty millions of people there is no public body in which the discussion of large public questions is allowed; the press affords no real opportunity for discussion; indeed, it is more than doubtful whether such discussion would be allowed to any effective extent even in private correspondence or at one's own fireside.
I remember well that during my former stay in St. Petersburg, people who could talk English at their tables generally did so in order that they might not betray themselves to any spy who might happen to be among their servants.
Still worse, no one, unless a member of the diplomatic corps or specially privileged, is allowed to read such books or newspapers as he chooses, so that even this access to the thoughts of others is denied to the very men who most need it.
Like so many other men of genius in Russia, then,—and Russia is fertile in such,—Tolstoi has had little opportunity to take part in any real discussion of leading topics; and the result is that his opinions have been developed without modification by any rational interchange of thought with other men. Under such circumstances any man, no matter how noble or gifted, having given birth to striking ideas, coddles and pets them until they become the full-grown, spoiled children of his brain. He can at last see neither spot nor blemish in them, and comes virtually to believe himself infallible. This characteristic I found in several other Russians of marked ability. Each had developed his theories for himself until he had become infatuated with them, and despised everything differing from them.
This is a main cause why sundry ghastly creeds, doctrines, and sects—religious, social, political, and philosophic—have been developed in Russia. One of these religious creeds favors the murder of new-born children in order to save their souls; another enjoins ghastly bodily mutilations for a similar purpose; others still would plunge the world in flames and blood for the difference of a phrase in a creed, or a vowel in a name, or a finger more or less in making the sign of the cross, or for this garment in a ritual, or that gesture in a ceremony.
In social creeds they have developed nihilism, which virtually assumes the right of an individual to sit in judgment upon the whole human race and condemn to death every other human being who may differ in opinion or position from this self-constituted judge.
In political creeds they have conceived the monarch as the all-powerful and irresponsible vicegerent of God, and all the world outside Russia as given over to Satan, for the reason that it has "rejected the divine principle of authority."
In various branches of philosophy they have developed doctrines which involve the rejection of the best to which man has attained in science, literature, and art, and a return to barbarism.
In the theory of life and duty they have devised a pessimistic process under which the human race would cease to exist.
Every one of these theories is the outcome of some original mind of more or less strength, discouraged, disheartened, and overwhelmed by the sorrows of Russian life; developing its ideas logically and without any possibility of adequate discussion with other men. This alone explains a fact which struck me forcibly—the fact that all Tolstoi's love of humanity, real though it certainly is, seems accompanied by a depreciation of the ideas, statements, and proposals of almost every other human being, and by virtual intolerance of all thought which seems in the slightest degree different from his own.
Arriving in the Kremlin, he took me to the Church of the Annunciation to see the portrait of Socrates in the religious picture of which he had spoken; but we were too late to enter, and so went to the Palace of the Synod, where we looked at the picture of the Trinity, which, by a device frequently used in street signs, represents, when looked at from one side, the suffering Christ, from the other the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, and from the front the Almighty as an old man with a white beard. What Tolstoi thought of the doctrine thus illustrated came out in a subsequent conversation.
The next day he came again to my rooms and at once began speaking upon religion. He said that every man is religious and has in him a religion of his own; that religion results from the conception which a man forms of his relations to his fellow-men, and to the principle which in his opinion controls the universe; that there are three stages in religious development: first, the childhood of nations, when man thinks of the whole universe as created for him and centering in him; secondly, the maturity of nations, the time of national religions, when each nation believes that all true religion centers in it,—the Jews and the English, he said, being striking examples; and, finally, the perfected conception of nations, when man has the idea of fulfilling the will of the Supreme Power and considers himself an instrument for that purpose. He went on to say that in every religion there are two main elements, one of deception and one of devotion, and he asked me about the Mormons, some of whose books had interested him. He thought two thirds of their religion deception, but said that on the whole he preferred a religion which professed to have dug its sacred books out of the earth to one which pretended that they were let down from heaven. On learning that I had visited Salt Lake City two years before, he spoke of the good reputation of the Mormons for chastity, and asked me to explain the hold of their religion upon women. I answered that Mormonism could hardly be judged by its results at present; that, as a whole, the Mormons are, no doubt, the most laborious and decent people in the State of Utah; but that this is their heroic period, when outside pressure keeps them firmly together and arouses their devotion; that the true test will come later, when there is less pressure and more knowledge, and when the young men who are now arising begin to ask questions, quarrel with each other, and split the whole body into sects and parties.
This led to questions in regard to American women generally, and he wished to know something of their condition and prospects. I explained some features of woman's condition among us, showing its evolution, first through the betterment of her legal status, and next through provision for her advanced education; but told him that so far as political rights are concerned, there had been very little practical advance in the entire East and South of the country during the last fifty years, and that even in the extreme Western States, where women have been given political rights and duties to some extent, the concessions have been wavering and doubtful.
At this, he took up his parable and said that women ought to have all other rights except political; that they are unfit to discharge political duties; that, indeed, one of the great difficulties of the world at present lies in their possession of far more consideration and control than they ought to have. "Go into the streets and bazaars," he said, "and you will see the vast majority of shops devoted to their necessities. In France everything centers in women, and women have complete control of life: all contemporary French literature shows this. Woman is not man's equal in the highest qualities; she is not so self-sacrificing as man. Men will, at times, sacrifice their families for an idea; women will not." On my demurring to this latter statement, he asked me if I ever knew a woman who loved other people's children as much as her own. I gladly answered in the negative, but cited Florence Nightingale, Sister Dora, and others, expressing my surprise at his assertion that women are incapable of making as complete sacrifices for any good cause as men. I pointed to the persecutions in the early church, when women showed themselves superior to men in suffering torture, degradation, and death in behalf of the new religion, and added similar instances from the history of witchcraft. To this he answered that in spite of all such history, women will not make sacrifices of their own interest for a good cause which does not strikingly appeal to their feelings, while men will do so; that he had known but two or three really self-sacrificing women in his life; and that these were unmarried. On my saying that observation had led me to a very different conclusion, his indictment took another form. He insisted that woman hangs upon the past; that public opinion progresses, but that women are prone to act on the opinion of yesterday or of last year; that women and womanish men take naturally to old absurdities, among which he mentioned the doctrines of the Trinity, "spiritism," and homeopathy. At this I expressed a belief that if, instead of educating women, as Bishop Dupanloup expressed it, "in the lap of the church (sur les genoux de l'eglise)," we educate them in the highest sense, in universities, they will develop more and more intellectually, and so become a controlling element in the formation of a better race; that, as strong men generally have strong mothers, the better education of woman physically, intellectually, and morally is the true way of bettering the race in general. In this idea he expressed his disbelief, and said that education would not change women; that women are illogical by nature. At this I cited an example showing that women can be exceedingly logical and close in argument, but he still adhered to his opinion. On my mentioning the name of George Eliot, he expressed a liking for her.
On our next walk, he took me to the funeral of one of his friends. He said that to look upon the dead should rather give pleasure than pain; that memento mori is a wise maxim, and looking upon the faces of the dead a good way of putting it in practice. I asked him if he had formed a theory as to a future life, and he said in substance that he had not; but that, as we came at birth from beyond the forms of space and time, so at death we returned whence we came. I said, "You use the word 'forms' in the Kantian sense?" "Yes," he said, "space and time have no reality."
We arrived just too late at the house of mourning. The dead man had been taken away; but many of those who had come to do him honor still lingered, and were evidently enjoying the "funeral baked meats." There were clear signs of a carousal. The friends who came out to meet us had, most of them, flushed faces, and one young man in military uniform, coming down the stairs, staggered and seemed likely to break his neck.
Tolstoi refused to go in, and, as we turned away, expressed disgust at the whole system, saying, as well he might, that it was utterly barbarous. He seemed despondent over it, and I tried to cheer him by showing how the same custom of drinking strong liquors at funerals had, only a few generations since, prevailed in large districts of England and America, but that better ideas of living had swept it away.
On our way through the street, we passed a shrine at which a mob of peasants were adoring a sacred picture. He dwelt on the fetishism involved in this, and said that Jesus Christ would be infinitely surprised and pained were he to return to earth and see what men were worshiping in his name. He added a story of a converted pagan who, being asked how many gods he worshiped, said: "One, and I ate him this morning." At this I cited Browning's lines put into the mouth of the bishop who wished, from his tomb,
"To hear the blessed mutter of the mass, And see God made and eaten all day long."
I reminded him of his definition of religion given me on one of our previous walks, and he repeated it, declaring religion to be the feeling which man has regarding his relation to the universe, including his fellow-men, and to the power which governs all.
The afternoon was closed with a visit to a Raskolnik, or Old Believer, and of all our experiences this turned out to be the most curious. The Raskolniks, or Old Believers, compose that wide-spread sect which broke off from the main body of the Russian Church when the patriarch of Moscow, Nikon, in the seventeenth century attempted to remove various textual errors from the Bible and ceremonial books. These books had been copied and recopied during centuries until their condition had become monstrous. Through a mistake of some careless transcriber, even the name of Jesus had been travestied and had come to be spelled with two e's; the crudest absurdities had been copied into the test; important parts had become unintelligible; and the time had evidently arrived for a revision. Nikon saw this, and in good faith summoned scholars from Constantinople to prepare more correct editions; but these revised works met the fate which attends such revisions generally. The great body of the people were attached to the old forms; they preferred them, just as in these days the great body of English-speaking Protestants prefer the King James Bible to the Revised Version, even though the latter may convey to the reader more correctly what was dictated by the Holy Spirit. The feeling of the monks, especially, against Nikon's new version became virulent. They raised so strong an opposition among the people that an army had to be sent against them; at the siege of the Solovetsk Monastery the conflict was long and bloody, and as a result a large body of people and clergy broke off from the church. Of course the more these dissenters thought upon what Nikon had done, the more utterly evil he seemed; but this was not all. A large part of Russian religious duty, so far as the people are concerned, consists in making the sign of the cross on all occasions. Before Nikon's time this had been done rather carelessly, but, hoping to impress a religious lesson, he ordered it to be made with three extended fingers, thus reminding the faithful of the Trinity. At this the Raskolniks insisted that the sign of the cross ought to be made with two fingers, and out of this difference arose more bitterness than from all other causes put together. From that day to this the dissenters have insisted on enjoying the privilege of reading the old version with all its absurdities, of spelling the word Jesus with two e's, of crossing themselves with two fingers, and of cursing Nikon.
This particular Raskolnik, or Old Believer, to whom Tolstoi took me, was a Muscovite merchant of great wealth, living in a superb villa on the outskirts of the city, with a large park about it; the apartments, for size and beauty of decoration, fit for a royal palace—the ceilings covered with beautiful frescos, and the rooms full of statues and pictures by eminent artists, mainly Russian and French. He was a man of some education, possessed a large library, loved to entertain scientific men and to aid scientific effort, and managed to keep on good terms with his more fanatical coreligionists on one side and with the government on the other, so that in emergencies he was an efficient peacemaker between them. We found him a kindly, gentle old man, with long, white hair and beard, and he showed us with evident pleasure the principal statues and pictures, several of the former being by Antokolski, the greatest contemporary Russian sculptor. In the sumptuous dining-room, in which perhaps a hundred persons could sit at table, he drew our attention to some fine pictures of Italian scenes by Smieradsky, and, after passing through the other rooms, took us into a cabinet furnished with the rarest things to be found in the Oriental bazaars. Finally, he conducted us into his private chapel, where, on the iconostas,—the screen which, in accordance with the Greek ritual, stands before the altar,—the sacred images of the Saviour and various saints were represented somewhat differently from those in the Russo-Greek Church, especially in that they extended two fingers instead of three. To this difference I called his attention, and he at once began explaining it. Soon he grew warm, and finally fervid. Said he: "Why do we make the sign of the cross? We do it to commemorate the crucifixion of our blessed Lord. What is commemorated at the crucifixion? The sacrifice of his two natures—the divine and the human. How do we make the sign? We make it with two fingers, thus"—accompanied by a gesture. "What does this represent? It represents what really occurred: the sacrifice of the divine and the human nature of our Lord. How do the Orthodox make it?" Here his voice began to rise. "They make it with three fingers"—and now his indignation burst all bounds, and with a tremendous gesture and almost a scream of wrath he declared: "and every time they make it they crucify afresh every one of the three persons of the holy and undivided Trinity."
The old man's voice, so gentle at first, had steadily risen during this catechism of his, in which he propounded the questions and recited the answers, until this last utterance came with an outcry of horror. The beginning of this catechism was given much after the manner of a boy reciting mechanically the pons asinorum, but the end was like the testimony of an ancient prophet against the sins which doomed Israel.
This last burst was evidently too much for Tolstoi. He said not a word in reply, but seemed wrapped in overpowering thought, and anxious to break away. We walked out with the old Raskolnik, and at the door I thanked him for his kindness; but even there, and all the way down the long walk through the park, Tolstoi remained silent. As we came into the road he suddenly turned to me and said almost fiercely, "That man is a hypocrite; he can't believe that; he is a shrewd, long-headed man; how can he believe such trash? Impossible!" At this I reminded him of Theodore Parker's distinction between men who believe and men who "believe that they believe," and said that possibly our Raskolnik was one of the latter. This changed the subject. He said that he had read Parker's biography, and liked it all save one thing, which was that he gave a pistol to a fugitive slave and advised him to defend himself. This Tolstoi condemned on the ground that we are not to resist evil. I told him of the advice I had given to Dobroluboff, a very winning Russian student at Cornell University, when he was returning to Russia to practise his profession as an engineer. That advice was that he should bear in mind Buckle's idea as to the agency of railways and telegraphs in extending better civilization, and devote himself to his profession of engineering, with the certainty that its ultimate result would be to aid in the enlightenment of the empire; but never, on any account, to conspire against the government; telling him that he might be sure that he could do far more for the advancement of Russian thought by building railways than by entering into any conspiracies whatever. Tolstoi said the advice was good, but that he would also have advised the young man to speak out his ideas, whatever they might be. He said that only in this way could any advance ever be made; that one main obstacle in human progress is the suppression of the real thoughts of men. I answered that all this had a fine sound; that it might do for Count Tolstoi; but that a young, scholarly engineer following it would soon find himself in a place where he could not promulgate his ideas,—guarded by Cossacks in some remote Siberian mine.
He spoke of young professors in the universities, of their difficulties, and of the risk to their positions if they spoke out at all. I asked him if there was any liberality or breadth of thought in the Russo-Greek Church. He answered that occasionally a priest had tried to unite broader thought with orthodox dogma, but that every such attempt had proved futile.
From Parker we passed to Lowell, and I again tried to find if he really knew anything of Lowell's writings. He evidently knew very little, and asked me what Lowell had written. He then said that he had no liking for verse, and he acquiesced in Carlyle's saying that nobody had ever said anything in verse which could not have been better said in prose.
A day or two later, on another of our walks, I asked him how and when, in his opinion, a decided advance in Russian liberty and civilization would be made. He answered that he thought it would come soon, and with great power. On my expressing the opinion that such progress would be the result of a long evolutionary process, with a series of actions and reactions, as heretofore in Russian history, he dissented, and said that the change for the better would come soon, suddenly, and with great force.
As we passed along the streets he was, as during our previous walks, approached by many beggars, to each of whom he gave as long as his money lasted. He said that he was accustomed to take a provision of copper money with him for this purpose on his walks, since he regarded it as a duty to give when asked, and he went on to say that he carried the idea so far that even if he knew the man wanted the money to buy brandy he would give it to him; but he added that he would do all in his power to induce the man to work and to cease drinking. I demurred strongly to all this, and extended the argument which I had made during our previous walk, telling him that by such giving he did two wrongs: first, to the beggar himself, since it led him to cringe and lie in order to obtain as a favor that which, if he did his duty in working, he could claim as a right; and, secondly, to society by encouraging such a multitude to prey upon it who might be giving it aid and strength; and I again called his attention to the hordes of sturdy beggars in Moscow. He answered that the results of our actions in such cases are not the main thing, but the cultivation of proper feelings in the giver is first to be considered.
I then asked him about his manual labor. He said that his habit was to rise early and read or write until noon, then to take his luncheon and a short sleep, and after that to work in his garden or fields. He thought this good for him on every account, and herein we fully agreed.
On our return through the Kremlin, passing the heaps and rows of cannon taken from the French in 1812, I asked him if he still adhered to the low opinion of Napoleon expressed in "War and Peace." He said that he did, and more than ever since he had recently read a book on Napoleon's relations to women which showed that he took the lowest possible view of womankind. I then asked him if he still denied Napoleon's military genius. He answered that he certainly did; that he did not believe in the existence of any such thing as military genius; that he had never been able to understand what is meant by the term. I asked, "How then do you account for the amazing series of Napoleon's successes?" He answered, "By circumstances." I rejoined that such an explanation had the merit, at least, of being short and easy.
He then went on to say that battles are won by force of circumstances, by chance, by luck; and he quoted Suvaroff to this effect. He liked Lanfrey's "History of Napoleon" and Taine's book on the Empire, evidently because both are denunciatory of men and things he dislikes, but said that he did not believe in Thiers.
We came finally under the shade of the great tower and into the gateway through which Napoleon entered the Kremlin; and there we parted with a hearty good-bye.
The question has been asked me, at various times since, whether, in my opinion, Tolstoi is really sincere; and allusion has been made to a book published by a lady who claims to have been in close relations with his family, which would seem to reveal a theatrical element in his whole life. To this my answer has always been, and still is, that I believe him to be one of the most sincere and devoted men alive, a man of great genius and, at the same time, of very deep sympathy with his fellow-creatures.
Out of this character of his come his theories of art and literature; and, despite their faults, they seem to me more profound and far-reaching than any put forth by any other man in our time.
There is in them, for the current cant regarding art and literature, a sound, sturdy, hearty contempt which braces and strengthens one who reads or listens to him. It does one good to hear his quiet sarcasms against the whole fin-de-siecle business—the "impressionism," the "sensationalism," the vague futilities of every sort, the "great poets" wallowing in the mud of Paris, the "great musicians" making night hideous in German concert-halls, the "great painters" of various countries mixing their colors with as much filth as the police will allow. His keen thrusts at these incarnations of folly and obscenity in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and especially at those who seek to hide the poverty of their ideas in the obscurity of their phrases, encourage one to think that in the next generation the day of such pretenders will be done. His prophesying against "art for art's sake"; his denunciation of art which simply ministers to sensual pleasure; his ridicule of art which can be discerned only by "people of culture"; his love for art which has a sense, not only of its power, but of its obligations, which puts itself at the service of great and worthy ideas, which appeals to men as men—in this he is one of the best teachers of his time and of future times.
Yet here come in his unfortunate limitations. From his substitutions of assertion for inference, and from the inadequacy of his view regarding sundry growths in art, literature, and science, arises endless confusion.
For who will not be skeptical as to the value of any criticism by a man who pours contempt over the pictures of Puvis de Chavannes, stigmatizes one of Beethoven's purest creations as "corrupting," and calls Shakspere a "scribbler"!
Nothing can be more genuine than his manner: there is no posing, no orating, no phrase-making; a quiet earnestness pervades all his utterances. The great defect in him arises, as I have already said, from a peculiarity in the development of his opinions: namely, that during so large a part of his life he has been wont to discuss subjects with himself and not with other men; that he has, therefore, come to worship idols of his own creation, and often very unsubstantial idols, and to look with misgiving and distrust on the ideas of others. Very rarely during our conversations did I hear him speak with any real enthusiasm regarding any human being: his nearest approach to it was with reference to the writings of the Rev. Adin Ballou, when he declared him the foremost literary character that America has produced. A result of all this is that when he is driven into a corner his logic becomes so subtle as to be imperceptible, and he is very likely to take refuge in paradoxes.
At times, as we walked together, he would pour forth a stream of reasoning so lucid, out of depths so profound and reach conclusions so cogent, that he seemed fairly inspired. At other times he would develop a line of argument so outworn, and arrive at conclusions so inane, that I could not but look into his face closely to see if he could be really in earnest; but it always bore that same expression—forbidding the slightest suspicion that he was uttering anything save that which he believed, at least for the time being.
As to the moral side, the stream of his thought was usually limpid, but at times it became turbid and his better ideas seemed to float on the surface as iridescent bubbles.
Had he lived in any other country, he would have been a power mighty and permanent in influencing its thought and in directing its policy; as it is, his thought will pass mainly as the confused, incoherent wail and cry of a giant struggling against the heavy adverse currents in that vast ocean of Russian life:
"The cry of some strong swimmer in his agony."
The evolution of Tolstoi's ideas has evidently been mainly determined by his environment. During two centuries Russia has been coming slowly out of the middle ages—indeed, out of perhaps the most cruel phases of mediaeval life. Her history is, in its details, discouraging; her daily life disheartening. Even the aspects of nature are to the last degree depressing: no mountains; no hills; no horizon; no variety in forests; a soil during a large part of the year frozen or parched; a people whose upper classes are mainly given up to pleasure and whose lower classes are sunk in fetishism; all their poetry and music in the minor key; old oppressions of every sort still lingering; no help in sight; and, to use their own cry, "God so high and the Czar so distant."
When, then, a great man arises in Russia, if he gives himself wholly to some well-defined purpose, looking to one high aim and rigidly excluding sight or thought of the ocean of sorrow about him, he may do great things. If he be Suvaroff or Skobeleff or Gourko he may win great battles; if he be Mendeleieff he may reach some epoch-making discovery in science; if he be Derjavine he may write a poem like the "Ode to God"; if he be Antokolsky he may carve statues like "Ivan the Terrible"; if he be Nesselrode he may hold all Europe enchained to the ideas of the autocrat; if he be Miloutine or Samarine or Tcherkassky he may devise vast plans like those which enabled Alexander II to free twenty millions of serfs and to secure means of subsistence for each of them; if he be Prince Khilkoff he may push railway systems over Europe to the extremes of Asia; if he be De Witte he may reform a vast financial system.
But when a strong genius in Russia throws himself into philanthropic speculations of an abstract sort, with no chance of discussing his theories until they are full-grown and have taken fast hold upon him,—if he be a man of science like Prince Kropotkin, one of the most gifted scientific thinkers of our time,—the result may be a wild revolt, not only against the whole system of his own country, but against civilization itself, and finally the adoption of the theory and practice of anarchism, which logically results in the destruction of the entire human race. Or, if he be an accomplished statesman and theologian like Pobedonostzeff, he may reason himself back into mediaeval methods, and endeavor to fetter all free thought and to crush out all forms of Christianity except the Russo-Greek creed and ritual. Or, if he be a man of the highest genius in literature, like Tolstoi, whose native kindliness holds him back from the extremes of nihilism, he may rear a fabric heaven-high, in which truths, errors, and paradoxes are piled up together until we have a new Tower of Babel. Then we may see this man of genius denouncing all science and commending what he calls "faith"; urging a return to a state of nature, which is simply Rousseau modified by misreadings of the New Testament; repudiating marriage, yet himself most happily married and the father of sixteen children; holding that Aeschylus and Dante and Shakspere were not great in literature, and making Adin Ballou a literary idol; holding that Michelangelo and Raphael were not great in sculpture and painting, yet insisting on the greatness of sundry unknown artists who have painted brutally; holding that Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and Wagner were not great in music, but that some unknown performer outside any healthful musical evolution has given us the music of the future; declaring Napoleon to have had no genius, but presenting Koutousoff as a military ideal; loathing science—that organized knowledge which has done more than all else to bring us out of mediaeval cruelty into a better world—and extolling a "faith" which has always been the most effective pretext for bloodshed and oppression.
The long, slow, every-day work of developing a better future for his countrymen is to be done by others far less gifted than Tolstoi. His paradoxes will be forgotten; but his devoted life, his noble thoughts, and his lofty ideals will, as centuries roll on, more and more give life and light to the new Russia.
OFFICIAL LIFE IN ST. PETERSBURG—1892-1894
The difficulties of a stranger seeking information in Russia seem at times insurmountable. First of these is the government policy of suppressing news. Foreign journals come to ordinary subscribers with paragraphs and articles rubbed out with pumice or blotted out with ink; consequently our Russian friends were wont to visit the legation, seeking to read in our papers what had been erased in their own, and making the most amusing discoveries as to the stupidity of the official censorship: paragraphs perfectly harmless being frequently blotted out, and really serious attacks on the government unnoticed.
Very striking, as showing control over the newspaper press, was an occurrence during my first summer at Helsingfors. One day our family doctor came in, and reported a rumor that an iron-clad monitor had sunk, the night before, on its way across the gulf from Reval. Soon the story was found to be true. A squadron of three ships had started; had encountered a squall; and in the morning one of them—an old-fashioned iron-clad monitor—was nowhere to be seen. She had sunk with all on board. Considerable speculation concerning the matter arose, and sundry very guarded remarks were ventured to the effect that the authorities at Cronstadt would have been wiser had they not allowed the ship to go out in such a condition that the first squall would send her to the bottom. This discussion continued for about a week, when suddenly the proper authorities served notice upon the press that nothing more must be said on the subject.
This mandate was obeyed; the matter was instantly dropped; nothing more was said; and, a year or two afterward, on my inquiring of Admiral Makharoff whether anything had ever been discovered regarding the lost ship and its crew, he answered in the negative.
But more serious efforts than these were made to control thought. The censorship of books was even more strongly, and, if possible, more foolishly, exercised. At any of the great bookshops one could obtain, at once, the worst publications of the Paris press; but the really substantial and thoughtful books were carefully held back. The average Russian, in order to read most of these better works, must be specially authorized to do so.
I had a practical opportunity to see the system in operation. Being engaged on the final chapters of my book, and needing sundry scientific, philosophical, and religious treatises, such as can be bought freely in every city of Western Europe, I went to the principal bookseller in St. Petersburg, and was told that, by virtue of my diplomatic position, I could have them; but that, in order to do so, I must write an application, signing it with my own name, and that then he would sell them to me within a few days. This took place several times.
Still another difficulty is that, owing to lack of publicity, the truth can rarely be found as regards any burning question: in the prevailing atmosphere of secrecy and repression the simplest facts are often completely shut from the foreign observer.
Owing to the lack of public discussion, Russia is the classic ground of myth and legend. One sees myths and legends growing day by day. The legend regarding the cure of the Archbishop of St. Petersburg by Father Ivan of Cronstadt, which I have given in a previous chapter, is an example. The same growth of legend is seen with regard to every-day matters. For example, one meets half a dozen people at five-o'clock tea in a Russian house, and one of them says: "How badly the Emperor looked at court last night." Another says: "Yes; his liver is evidently out of order; he ought to go to Carlsbad." Another says: "I think that special pains ought to be taken with his food," etc., etc. People then scatter from this tea-table, and in a day or two one hears that sufficient precaution is not taken with the Emperor's food; that it would not be strange if some nihilist should seek to poison him. A day or two afterward one hears that a nihilist HAS endeavored to poison the Emperor. The legend grows, details appear here and there, and finally there come in the newspapers of Western Europe full and careful particulars of a thwarted plot to poison his Majesty.
Not the least of the embarrassments which beset an American minister in Russia is one which arose at various times during my stay, its source being the generous promptness of our people to take as gospel any story regarding Russian infringement of human rights. One or two cases will illustrate this.
During my second winter, despatches by mail and wire came to me thick and fast regarding the alleged banishment of an American citizen to Siberia for political reasons; and with these came petitions and remonstrances signed by hundreds of Americans of light and leading; also newspaper articles, many and bitter.
On making inquiries through the Russian departments of foreign affairs and of justice, I found the fact to be that this injured American had been, twenty years before, a Russian police agent in Poland; that he had stolen funds intrusted to him and had taken refuge in America; that, relying on the amnesty proclaimed at the accession of the late Emperor, he had returned to his old haunts; that he had been seized, because the amnesty did not apply to the category of criminals to which he belonged; that he had not been sent to Siberia; that there was no thought of sending him there; but that the authorities proposed to recover the money he had stolen if they could. Another case was typical: One day an excellent English clergyman came to me in great distress, stating that an American citizen was imprisoned in the city. I immediately had the man brought before a justice, heard his testimony and questioned him, publicly and privately. He swore before the court, and insisted to me in private, that he had never before been in Russia; that he was an American citizen born of a Swedish father and an Alaskan mother upon one of the Alaskan islands; and he showed a passport which he had obtained at Washington by making oath to that effect. On the other hand appeared certain officers of the Russian navy, in excellent standing, who swore that they knew the man perfectly to be a former employee of their engineering department and a deserter from a Russian ship of war in the port of St. Petersburg. It was also a somewhat significant fact that he spoke Russian much better than English, and that he seemed to have a knowledge of Russian affairs very remarkable for a man who had never been in Russia; but to account for this he insisted upon the statement as to his birth in Alaska. Appearances were certainly very strongly against him, and he was remanded to await more testimony in his favor; but the next thing I heard was that he had escaped, had arrived in New York, was posing as a martyr, had graciously granted interviews to various representatives of the press, and had thereby stimulated some very lurid editorials against the Russian Government.
Another case was that of a Russian who, having reached the United States, burdened the files of the State Department and of the legation with complaints against the American minister because that official did not send out the man's wife to him. The minister had, indeed, forwarded the necessary passports, but the difficulty was that the German authorities would not allow the woman to enter Germany without showing herself to be in possession of means sufficient to prevent her becoming a public charge; and these her husband could not, or would not, send, insisting that now that he was naturalized he had a right to have his wife brought to America.
I have no apology to make for the Russian system—far from it; but I would state, in the interest of international comity, that it is best for Americans not to be too prompt in believing all the stories of alleged sufferers from Russian despotism, and especially of those who wish to use their American citizenship simply in order to return to Russia and enjoy business advantages superior to those of their neighbors.
That there are many meritorious refugees cannot be denied; but any one who has looked over extradition papers, as I have been obliged to do, and seen people posing as Russian martyrs who are comfortably carrying on in New York the business of counterfeiting bank-notes, and unctuously thanking God in their letters for their success in the business, will be slow to join in the outcries of refugees of doubtful standing claiming to be suffering persecution on account of race, religion, or political opinion.
Nor are Russian-Americans the only persons who weary an American representative. One morning a card was brought in bearing an undoubted American name, and presently there followed it a tall raw-boned man with long flaxen hair, who began orating to me as follows: "Sir, you are an ambassador from the President of the United States; I am an ambassador from God Almighty. I am sent here to save the Emperor. He is a good man; he is followed up by bad men who seek his life; I can save him; I will be his cup-bearer; I WILL DRIVE HIS TEAM." This latter conception of the Emperor's means of locomotion struck me as naive, especially in view of the fact that near my house was an immense structure filled with magnificent horses for the Emperor and court—a veritable equine palace. "Yes," said my visitor; "I will drive the Emperor's team. I want you to introduce me to him immediately." My answer was that it was not so easy to secure a presentation to the Emperor, offhand; that considerable time would be necessary in any case. To this my visitor answered: "I must see him at once; I am invited to come by the Empress." On my asking when he received this invitation, he said that it was given him on board the steamer between New York and Hamburg, her Majesty and her children being the only other passengers besides himself in the second-class cabin. To this I said that there must certainly be some mistake; that her Majesty rarely, if ever, traveled on public lines of steamers; that if she had done so, she certainly would not have been a passenger in the second cabin. To this he answered that he was absolutely certain that it was the Empress who had given him the invitation and urged him to come and save the Emperor's life. On my asking him the date of this invitation, he looked through his diary and found it. At this, sending for a file of the official newspaper of St. Petersburg, I showed him that on the day named her Majesty was receiving certain officials at the palace in St. Petersburg; whereat he made an answer which for the moment threw me completely off my balance. He said, "Sir, I have lived long enough not to believe everything I see in the newspapers."
I quieted him as best I could, but on returning to his hotel he indulged in some very boisterous conduct, one of the minor features of which was throwing water in the faces of the waiters; so that, fearing lest actions like this and his loud utterances regarding the Emperor and Empress might get him into trouble, I wrote a friendly letter to the prefect of St. Petersburg, stating the case, and asking that, if it was thought best to arrest the man, he should be placed in some comfortable retreat for the insane and be well cared for until I could communicate with his friends in America. Accordingly, a day or two afterward, a handsome carriage drove up to the door of his hotel, bearing two kindly gentlemen, who invited him to accompany them. Taking it for granted that he was to be escorted to the palace to meet his Majesty, he went without making any objections, and soon found himself in commodious rooms and most kindly treated.
It being discovered that he was an excellent pianist, a grand piano was supplied him; and he was very happy in his musical practice, and in the thought that he was lodged in the palace and would soon communicate his message to the Emperor. At various times I called upon him and found him convinced that his great mission would soon be accomplished; but after a week or ten days he began to have doubts, and said to me that he distrusted the Russians and would prefer to go on and deliver a message with which he was charged to the Emperor of China. On my showing him sundry difficulties, he said that at any rate there was one place where he would certainly be well received—Marlborough House in London; that he was sure the Prince of Wales would welcome him heartily. At last, means having been obtained from his friends, I sought to forward him from St. Petersburg; but, as no steamers thence would take a lunatic, I sent my private secretary with him to Helsingfors, and thence secured his passage to America.
A very curious feature in the case, as told me afterward by a gentleman who traveled in the same steamer, was that this American delighted the company day after day with his music, and that no one ever saw anything out of the way in his utterances or conduct. He seemed to have forgotten all about his great missions and to have become absorbed in his piano.
Among the things to which special and continued attention had to be given by the legation was the Chicago Exposition. I was naturally desirous to see it a success; indeed, it was my duty to do everything possible to promote it. The magnificent plans which the Chicago people had developed and were carrying out with such wonderful energy interested thinking Russians. But presently came endeavors which might easily have brought the whole enterprise into disrepute; for some of the crankish persons who always hang on the skirts of such enterprises had been allowed to use official stationery, and they had begun writing letters, and even instructions, to American diplomatic agents abroad.
The first of these which attracted my attention was one requesting me to ask the Empress to write a book in the shape of a "Report on Women's Work in Russia," careful instructions being given as to how and at what length she must write it.
A letter also came from one of these quasi-officials at Chicago, not requesting, but instructing, me to ask the Emperor to report to his bureau on the condition of the empire; funnily enough, this "instruction" was evidently one of several, and they had been ground out so carelessly that the one which I was instructed to deliver to the Emperor was addressed to the "King of Holland." It was thus made clear that this important personage at Chicago, who usurped the functions of the Secretary of State, had not even taken the trouble to find out that there was no such person as a "King of Holland," the personage whom he vaguely had in mind being, no doubt, the Queen Regent of the Netherlands.
Soon there followed another of these quasi-instructions, showing another type of crankishness. Beginning with the weighty statement that "the school-boys of every country are the future men of that country," it went on with a declaration that it had been decided to hold a convention of the school-children of the world at Chicago, in connection with the Exposition, and ended by instructing me to invite to its deliberations the school-children of Russia. Of course I took especial care not to communicate any of these things to any Russian: to have done so would have made the Exposition, instead of the admiration, the laughing-stock of the empire; but I wrote a letter to the assistant secretary of state, Mr. Quincy, who presently put an end to these vagaries.
One is greatly struck in Russia by the number of able and gifted men and women scattered through Russian society, and at the remarkable originality of some of them. The causes of this originality I touch in my chapter on Tolstoi.
It was a duty as well as a pleasure for me to keep up my acquaintance with persons worth knowing; and, while many of the visits thus made were perfunctory and tedious, some were especially gratifying. My rule was, after office hours in the afternoon, to get into the open sledge; to make my visits; and as a result, of course, to see and hear a vast deal of frivolity and futility, but, from time to time, more important things.