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THREE PEOPLES ON THE PRECIPICE
Saint Petersburg, January 1861
In the Winter Palace two court functionaries walked down a long gallery towards a pair of massive bronze doors. They tapped thrice with their wands, ebony batons surmounted with double-headed eagles. The doors were thrown open, and the Tsar of Russia emerged from the seclusion of his private apartments, together with his Tsaritsa.
As he passed through galleries of his palace, the Tsar acknowledged, with the merest nod of his head, the bows and curtsies of the court. Every so often he would catch the eye of some devoted servant of the state, dressed, after the fashion of the eighteenth century, in silk stockings and a coat heavy with gold embroidery. The happy courtier, his face flushed with pride, would look about to see whether those around him had observed the mark of imperial approbation.
The Tsar and Tsaritsa proceeded to the Nicholas Hall, blazing with the light of a dozen chandeliers and ten thousand candles. Diamonds and sapphires sparkled on aristocratic bosoms; the cross and star of Alexander Nevsky flashed on glittering uniforms; moiré sashes shimmered. The chevalier guards, specially selected, out of the immensity of Russia, for their good looks, stood to attention in white tunics and polished breastplates. It was a spectacle meant to impress; and it did impress. Foreign visitors struggled to do justice to the triple pomp of guards and grooms and gold-laced grandees that hedged this man whose Empire stretched from Poland to the Pacific, from the snows of Siberia to the vineyards of the Crimea, and encompassed a sixth of the land surface of the earth. Some thought the Winter Palace baroque, others likened it toa northern edition of the Arabian Nights. All sensed in the autocracy of which it was the symbol a refinement of coercion, the most opulent and at the same time most naked form of power. In the world struggle between freedom and oppression, Russia figured as the beau ideal of government by force.
The Tsar and Tsaritsa opened the ball with a polonaise. When the dance ended, the imperial couple mingled with their guests. Those who had never before attended an imperial ball were startled by the courtesy with which they were received by Their Majesties. A "certain democratic air prevailed," one diplomat thought. The Tsar was determined to put his guests at ease. His manner was amiable, even gentle. Nevertheless, an invisible veil hung about the person of the autocrat. An English visitor, watching the Tsar converse with an ordinary mortal, was reminded of "the Great Mogul addressing an earthworm."
Alexander II was forty-two years old at the beginning of 1861. He had for six years been the supreme ruler of Russia. His upbringing had in many ways fitted him for the exalted station he occupied. His father, Tsar Nicholas I, though of a strong and despotic nature, with acts of blood and cruelty to his name, had nevertheless been a serious and in some directions a large-minded man. The prospect of surpassing other monarchs in the education of an heir had been agreeable to his vanity, and he had taken pains to prepare little Alexander for the throne. The Tsarevitch's tutor, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, had labored to open the boy's mind. In a letter to Alexander's mother, the Empress Alexandra, Zhukovsky described the young Prince as "the beautiful poem on which we are working." To less sympathetic eyes, Alexander appeared in a different light. There "are times," one of his teachers said, "when he can spend an hour or more during which not a single thought will enter his head."
When, at the age of thirty-six, Alexander ascended the throne of his ancestors, many predicted that he would not prosper. "He does not give the idea of having much strength either of intellect or of character," Earl Granville wrote to Queen Victoria shortly after the Tsar's coronation in Moscow. The more superstitious noted how, when Alexander was crowned in the Kremlin, the heavy chain of the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from a pillow and fell to the floor -- an evil omen surely.*
* Did Saint Andrew foretell the sovereign's violent death? During the coronation, in 1896, of Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars, the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from Nicholas's shoulder and fell to the floor. Two decades later he was murdered.
No one knew better than Alexander himself the difficulty of his task. He had inherited from his father power and riches almost fabulous in extent; he was Tsar of all the Russias. But his Empire was troubled. Russia lay at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Over the centuries she had been oppressed by a succession of invaders. Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries a form of authoritarian government took hold in the land. The government of the nation that in time became Russia was modeled partly on the autocratic rule of the Byzantine despots, and partly on the tyrannical forms of the Mongolian Khans. Russia never knew the mixed constitutions which, in the Middle Ages, restrained the authority of the kings of Europe. The subjects of the tsars regarded themselves as "kholops, that is slaves of their Prince," and the tsars, in turn, looked upon the state as their personal patrimony.
Sensible that a nation of slaves will never realize the highest forms of greatness, Peter the Great, who acceded to the throne in 1682, reformed the patrimonial constitution of Russia. But he chose, as his models of civil polity, the régimes which, in France, in Spain, and in Germany, superseded the limited monarchies of the Middle Ages, and erected in their place absolute governments supported by large military establishments. In doing so Peter exchanged one form of despotism for another. Nor was his effort to break with his own patrimonial habits altogether successful. His preferred method was coercion; and in order to break the spirit of those who opposed his reforms, he made liberal use of the ancient implements of despotism, the ax, the wheel, and the stake.
Catherine the Great, who ascended the throne in 1762, relaxed somewhat the servile régime of Peter. Russia ceased, in the waning years of the eighteenth century, to be a slave state. But she did not become a free state. The country suffered from the contradiction. The decaying autocracy, strong enough to overwhelm men's energies, was too weak to suppress their hopes. The people were discontented, but they were no longer abjectly afraid. A crisis, it was evident, could not be far off.
Alexander ascended the throne determined to forestall the catastrophe. But how? Two courses of action presented themselves. One lay in a continuation of the policy of coercion, the other beckoned towards freedom. Free states like England and the United States had, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberated their peoples' energies, and were rapidly outstripping their rivals in trade, in industry, and in the accumulation of capital. Their entrepreneurial creativity produced a series of technological revolutions that were reshaping the world. For a time the institutions of freedom seemed poised to carry all before them. But a countervailing reaction set in. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives. In Russia, in Germany, in America itself, grandees with their backs against the wall met the challenge of liberty with a philosophy of coercion designed to protect their power.
The new philosophy of coercion was founded on two ideas. The first was paternalism, an idea which, in different forms and under various guises, proved to be a potent weapon in the reaction against the free state. Landowners in Russia and in the American South argued that their domestic institutions embodied the paternal principle; the bondsman had, in his master, a compassionate father to look after him, and he was therefore better off than the worker in the cruel world of free labor. In Germany, the most ingenious of the Prussian aristocrats sought to implement a paternal code designed to regulate the masses and make them more subservient to the state. In the new paternal theory of government, the state was to love its subjects as a father loves a child. So Lord Macaulay, the great historian of freedom, wrote. The new paternal régime would "regulate the school, overlook the playground, fix the hours of labour and recreation, prescribe what ballads shall be sung, what tunes shall be played, what books shall be read, what physic shall be swallowed...."
The second idea the grandees lighted on was militant nationalism. Shorn of the romantic rhetoric in which its apologists couched it, this form of nationalism meant the right of certain (superior) peoples to impose their will on other (inferior) peoples. Planters in the American South dreamt of enslaving Central America and the Caribbean. Germany's nationalists aspired to incorporate Danish, French, and Polish provinces in a new German Reich. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, romantic nationalists with Pan-Slav sympathies yearned to rout the Ottoman Turks and impose Russia's will on Byzantium. By creating an enticing jingo-spectacle, the nationalists hoped to divert the imaginations of oppressed populations at home. At the same time, they sought to open new fields of exploitation -- what in Germany came to be called Lebensraum (living space). Not least, the nationalists worked to reinforce racial chauvinism, that convenient prop of the oppressor; they argued that certain races (white, German, Slav) were superior to other races. Militant nationalism, like authoritarian paternalism, rested on the premise that all men are not created equal; some men are more equal than others.
The easiest course for Tsar Alexander would have been to follow the path of coercion. He had only to place himself at the head of the great Slav nation and burnish the messianic eagles Russia had inherited from Byzantium. He could then hope to rout the Turk and seat himself on a golden throne in Sancta Sophia, the jewel of Constantinople...
Very good book if you need to write a paper on any of these three men. Writen in a clear and easy to understand language by a leading historian of the day. Read morePublished on March 10, 2011 by bookworm12
Once on a Star Trek documentary I heard Leonard Nimoy discuss an old Chinese curse, `may you live in interesting times.' In that documentary, Nimoy is referring to the 1960s. Read morePublished on December 14, 2010 by Jeremy A. Perron
Despite many interesting anecdotes, this book is a failure. The trouble starts with the use of the words "revolution" and "revolutionary". Nowhere are these defined. Read morePublished on May 4, 2008 by Peter Damaris