Eleanor Marx 1883
Source: Progress, March 1883, pp.309-304;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford;
Copy Left: this work is free of copyright.
In the February number of the Contemporary Review the Rev. Lansdell, D.D., is at great pains to prove that the best possible place in this best possible of worlds is a Russian prison. Indeed so pleasing are the pictures he draws that one is lost in wonder at the foolish prejudice that exists in Russian minds against these cheery retreats, that so many political prisoners die and go mad in them, and that so many should prefer suicide to continued enjoyment of the luxuries Dr. Lansdell so vividly describes. But if very emotional and eloquent, Dr. Lansdell is singularly illogical, and he can hardly hope that his optimist views of Russian prisons will convince the rest of the world. With Dr. Lansdell’s strictures on Krapotkine’s article I shall not concern myself, No doubt Krapotkine will answer these himself; but there are certain other statements of Dr. Lansdell which call for reply. There is no proof, says the cheerful D.D., that prisoners are tortured in Russia, because the testimony of “vindictive writers,” of “released or escaped prisoners” is “not unbiassed.” But while rejecting this “not unbiassed” testimony, Dr. Lansdell expects us to believe him, because he is on such good terms with the Russian police that the permission “ very rarely accorded “ (the italics are Dr. Lansdell’s) to visit certain prisons and fortresses was accorded him! True, even to him the permission was not very freely given. Of his application for it to Count Tolstoi, the Minister of the Interior in 1878, he tells us: “When I made bold to ask whether I might visit the State prison in the fortress his Excellency most kindly assured me that he would do anything for me that he could; but on receiving this request I fancied he winced a little as if I had asked the half of his kingdom, and at first said “Ni” I urged, however, that the enemies of Russia had said that in my inspection of Siberian prisons the worst had not been shown me; also that in the fortress-prison abominations were commonly affirmed to exist, and that I could not contradict these affirmations so long as I had not personally inspected the building. This seemed to fetch the Count” (the above italics are. not Mr. Lansdell’s), and Mr. Lansdell was allowed to visit the fortress some days later on, and “see everything.” As he went with the distinctly avowed intention of “contradicting the affirmations” concerning the “abominations” alleged to exist in this fortress it is not remarkable that he “fetched the Count,” and was permitted to “inspect.” But if such inspection is satisfactory to the Russian officials, Dr. Lansdell must not expect any one else to look on it as “unbiassed.” As to the torture, exclaims Dr. Lansdell, if it exists, “can no one be found to tell us with some closeness of detail, when, where and how he was made to suffer?” No doubt it is not easy to produce witnesses in Russia who are neither “vindictive writers” nor “released prisoners;” still, if Dr. Lansdell had not been so busy distributing tracts he might have found an answer to his question in the report of the trial at the Court-Martial held at Kharkoff in 1880 — that is, under the so-called “liberal,” “mild,” and “humane” regime of Loris-Melikoff, and fully reported even in such papers as the Golos and Novoe Vremia. Here is an extract from their report:
“On the bench of the accused at the Court-Martial of Kharkoff among many prisoners the sympathetic figure of young Sitzenko is especially remarkable. By his side sits his father — also one of the accused.
“THE PRESIDENT OF THE TRIBUNAL: Accused Sitzenko, what you now say contradicts all you admitted a year ago when you were examined in prison.”
“SITZENKO: Oh! M. le President, I am ashamed of the denunciations I then made in spite of myself. But what had I not been made to suffer! I was shut up in a cell, a very sack of stones, where I could neither move nor sit down. I am a man — yet in this atrocious hole I had to satisfy all my wants. For nourishment I got a glass of water at night. For two weeks, sir, I held out against hunger, but the polluted air vanquished me. Think of it — I had around me only my excrements — the stench choked me. I was going mad. One day I had a fit — the door of my cave opened — a so-called procès verbal of an examination — to which I had never been subjected, and to which I had never answered — was brought me; they let me for a while breathe the fresh air. I could not leave the open window. I had never thought pure air could be so much to a man. To enjoy it a little longer, and not return to my cell, I signed the infamous paper which you now show me.
“During this terrible story, spoken in the soft voice of a lad of twenty, his father fainted at his side ..... The public was moved. Loud cries of indignation arose on all sides. By order of the president the hall was cleared, and the tribunal having deliberated, sentenced young Sitzenko to three years’ hard labor.”
Here then is the witness Dr. Lansdell asks for — a witness who spoke before a tribunal, in the presence of hundreds of people! Nor is young Sitzenko the only witness. I will not quote the testimony of the ten or twelve prisoners who shared with Bogoliuboff his “preventive imprisonment” (i.e., before trial), and who recount horrors even greater than those recorded above. I will only remind Mr. Lansdell of the trial of Vera Sassulitch. He may remember that she shot Trépoff “in order that the attention of Russia and of the world might be called to the brutal treatment inflicted on political prisoners, and more especially to the un-heard-of cruelties to which the unfortunate prisoner Bogoliuboff had been subjected.” Vera Sassulitch told the Tribunal what the cruelties were, and though she did not deny having shot Trépoff the jury unanimously acquitted her! I would further remind Dr. Lansdell that Begolinbolf was one of the nine prisoners who in the two months of August and September, 1880, went mad in the State prison in which they were confined. Has Dr. Lansdell forgotten the cases of Brantner and Antonoff, of Ossinsky and his little sister? Has he forgotten that this child of thirteen, for no other reason than that she had come to say farewell to her brother before his execution — (Ossinsky was condemned to be shot, but the governor of Kieff “mercifully commuted the sentence to — hanging"!) — was sent in chains to Bostoff; has he forgotten the case of Marie Soubotina, who, though dying, was sent off to Siberia on foot and in heavy chains, chains that bound her to ten or twelve criminals of the vilest type, and who died on the dreadful journey? Has Dr. Lansdell forgotten the treatment of the Rastolniks (sectarians) at Mezen in Archangel?
What does such a paper as the Isowremennija Iswestija (Contemporary News), published at St. Petersburg, say of the prisons Dr. Lansdell finds so pleasant? ...
“In 1877 the number of actions brought before the revising Procureurs exceeded 88,000, most of which had not been brought by them, but by the Juge d'Instruction. Of these the Procureur dismissed 35,508. Meanwhile this immense number of innocent persons had not only undergone the inconvenience of criminal investigation, but the agonies of our gaol regime, and all this at the arbitrary bidding of a Juge d'Instruction.”
Evidence such as this — though perhaps not sufficiently “unbiassed” to suit Dr. Lansdell — could be multiplied; but enough has been said to show that Russian political prisoners do not lead quite so delightful a life as Dr. Lansdell would have us believe, and that, in spite of his careful inspecting of “everything,” there are certain things he either did not or would not see.
[Since writing the above I find that the “ next Nihilist trial is to be strictly secret — not even the nearest relations of the accused are to be admitted.” And yet Mr. Lansdell wonders why no one comes forward with any proof that prisoners are tortured!]