Eleanor Marx 1883

“Underground Russia”

Source: “Underground Russia,” Progress, August 1883, p. 106-110 and September 1883, pp. 172-176;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The following two passages were published in a truncated form and added together in the biography of Eleanor Marx by Yvonne Kapp who notes that it was Stepniak himself who stabbed to death General Mesentzeff while the date mentioned of March 13th 1881 was that of the assassination of the Czar.

The State and form of their gouernment is plaine tyrannical as applying all to the behoofe of the Prince, and that after a most open and barbarous manner.” The Russe Commonwealth, or manner of gouernment by the Russe emperour (commonly called Emperour of Moskauia) with the manner and fashions of the people of that country. — By Giles Fletcher; 1591.

That a book on the Russian revolutionary movement, written by Stepniak, with a preface from the pen of Lawroff, would be of the utmost interest was to be expected. The little volume which Stepniak modestly calls a series of “Sketches and Profiles,” is in reality a work of the utmost historical value, for though written by an active Nihilist it is full of just appreciation and critical insight. It is to be hoped that all the romancing historians and would-be historical romancers; all the emotional and tender-hearted old statesmen, and tract-distributing prison-visiting divines will read it before again expressing their views on Russia and the condition of the Russian people.

In his excellent “Introduction” Stepniak has, in masterly fashion, traced the history of the Socialist — or, as it is improperly called — Nihilist movement from its beginning in 1861 to its latest phase, the “terrorist” phase of to-day. This Introduction, which we shall consider in detail, is followed by a series of “Profiles” — in fact, very finished pictures — of some, only a few alas! of the most remarkable martyrs and heroes of the Socialist movement in Russia. The book concludes with a very lucid and able exposition of the present position of the two enemies, the representative of despotism and of freedom, those terrible adversaries who “three times met face to face,” the Terrorist “after each defeat arising more threatening than ever,” until “the omnipotent emperor fell half-dead to the ground.” But if Stepniak has shown clearly enough what the condition of the people now is, he has not — it did not indeed come within the range of his subject — shown what the “great” and “noble” deed of Alexander, the emancipation of the serfs, really meant. And how — ask the emotional statesman and sensitive divines — how could people be so lost to all sense of gratitude as to basely assassinate the Liberator, the Emancipator, who gave freedom to thousands? Before proceeding to a closer examination of Stepniak’s work, let us see what was really Alexander’s position with regard to the serfs.

The so-called emancipation of the Russian peasants was begun by the Czar Nicolas. The Czar has always been, and still is, the greatest landed proprietor of Russia. In 1845 the surveyed State domains in the European part of the Empire amounted to 261,824,541 desjatines, that is rather more than 30,000 square miles — one desjatine being a little over a hectare — and the State peasants numbered more than half the rural population. The latter were actually serfs, though legally free men, and though the commune had been preserved more intact amongst them than the rest of the peasantry. The ruler was not the landlord but the gendarme, the tax-gatherer, and the privileged distiller. In this domain, where his sway was unchecked, Nicolas opened the campaign of autocracy against the landed nobility. He — never assuredly suspected of “reigning like a father,” nor of being” mild and just” — nevertheless began his reforms in 1837 with a flourish of humanitarian phraseology. But he was no mere pretender. At that time the State income from the vast domain was nugatory; no survey having taken place, the landed nobility, as they had continuously done in the past, steadily encroached upon the crown lands and forests. This was not all. The local chiefs of the police, the Isparniks, were chosen by a committee of the nobles, whose interests were as antagonistic to those of the crown, as to those of the crown peasants. They took care that in the repartition of charges in kind, such as recruiting, quartering soldiers, road-making, etc., the main burden should fall not on their own peasants, but on those of the State. By a series of Ukases, ranging from 1838 to near the time of the Crimean war, Nicolas changed the whole administration. He had the land surveyed; reclaimed part of the usurped estates; restored, in his way, the rural commune then in full decay; assigned to the peasants — that is, every member of the male sex registered in the census and officially called “revision-soul,” because liable to military service — fifteen desjatines in the less, ten in the more populated districts, besides forest and waste land, indispensable appurtenances in Russian rural economy. The Obrok (money-tribute) was based upon the value of the surveyed land, and, from such places where the share of the peasants fell below the official average, transmigration, when asked for, was facilitated by State aid. With all this it would be a delusion to suppose that since then the State peasants lived in a “pays de cocagne;” but still their situation contrasted so advantageously with that of the serfs that Nicolas found it necessary, shortly before the Crimean war, to issue a rescript, assuring the landed nobility that the reforms in the situation of the Crown peasants were not at all intended to infringe upon the immemorial and fundamental law of the Russian Empire, by dint of which the nobility alone had a right to landed property. This, by the way, proves the short memory of exalted persons, since, in fact, it was only under the rule of the Romanoff dynasty that the greater part of the nobility were made by Ukase private proprietors of the peasant land, the peasants themselves being converted from free men into serfs, with a strong admixture of real slavery, such as the sale of their persons apart from the land, etc. The great peasant insurrections under Stenka Rezina during the second half of the seventeenth century, and of Pougatcheff in the time of Catherine II., were the “terrorist” replies to the benevolent Romanoff innovations.

Alexander II. hesitated six years before he extended his Liberation Manifesto of 1861 to the State peasants. He improved the interval by raising their Obrok by one rouble per desjatine, not to speak of other in-creased taxes borne in common with the rest of the peasants. At the same time the funds of their savings-banks, accumulated during more than twenty years and kept under government trust, were simply pilfered. Besides this, the whole change was confined to handing over to the peasants title deeds to the lands they actually occupied, on the condition that they paid their Obrok during forty-nine years. Though they thus commenced their new career under much impaired conditions, one is struck, in surveying the general state of the Russian peasantry, by the difference between the former State peasants and the former serfs of the landlords; the first owning mach more land and paving far fewer taxes. Alexander’s admirers should look upon this picture and on this — the emancipated of the stern despot, and those of his “ mild and just “ son. Nicolas had also made some feeble efforts to interfere directly in the serf question. By Ukase of April 2nd, 1842, he “ allowed “ the landlords to change the existing state of things by free contract with their peasants. He recurred to the same theme in Ukases of 1841., 1847, and 1848, but all in vain. At last by enactment of the March 3rd, 1818, he permitted the serfs to buy land.

The emancipation of the serfs had become a moral necessity after the Crimean failure. Occidentals looked upon the battlefield only; but Russians saw with their own eyes the incomparably greater masses of troops dragged from all corners of the immense Empire, who, never reaching the theatre of war, perished miserably by the way, inglorious victims of administrative incompetency and corruption. The iron-fisted system of Nicolas had thus broken down before the first serious emergency it had to cope with. Commotions amongst the peasants, and intellectual revolt in the higher ranks of society, simultaneously signalised serfdom as the corner-stone of the old system, and the true reason of the collapse. The strange condition of the popular mind may be gathered from the rumor widely spread amongst the serfs that their emancipation was one of the clauses of the Treaty of Peace dictated at Paris by Napoleon III, whom they more or less confounded with Napoleon I. No Czar, however strongwilled, could have resisted this tide. He would have been only too glad to make his nobles the scapegoats for the accumulated sins of autocracy.

There was, however, one department where Alexander II might have given full scope to his own magnanimity. I allude to the appenage- peasants — that is, the peasants settled upon the private domains of the Imperial family; domains comprising 7,528,312 desjatines, and about a million heads of families. All he did was to insure the dynastic income from any loss, and place these people in a far inferior position to that of the crown peasants.

I have spoken of the moral necessity of the abolition of serfdom; but if Nicolas already felt that the interest of the crown lay that way, any further doubt on this subject was impossible after the Crimean War. The war left behind it an exhausted exchequer, depreciated paper-money, and rapidly increasing arrears of the direct taxes, falling only upon the peasants and workmen generally. What was wanted was the power of applying the tax-screw freely, and making the government the tax-gatherer. This was impossible with a state of serfdom, where the landowners were liable for the taxes of their serfs. The abolition of serfdom would, moreover, necessitate what the Russians call rural institutions — that is provincial and district councils (Zemstwo) elected by nobles and peasants. These bodies served, indeed, two purposes: on the one hand a large part of the expenses of the central government for its provincial and district administration was shifted from its shoulders on the pretext of decentralisation and self-government; and so far those bodies became merely the tax-gatherers of the provincial governors, without any reduction whatever of the general taxes. On the other hand, the central government granted them the certainly noble privilege of taxing their constituencies freely for the furtherance of the public weal, in order to found schools, hospitals, and other necessaries of civilised life, till then altogether unprovided for. Last, not least, to place the autocrat on a par with Continental rulers, the creation of a State Bank had become unavoidable — and this could, again, be only achieved by the peculiar scheme of emancipating the serfs. So much for the fiscal and financial interests.)

Still more heavily did military considerations weigh in the eyes of the autocrat. The Crimean war had given the finishing stroke to the clumsy old army organisation, which consisted of a standing army levied from the peasantry — the guards serving twenty-two, all other troops twenty-five years. With such a time of service it was quite out of question to increase its numbers. This was fully understood by the government, which therefore extended more and more, and as an irregular supplement of the standing army, independent of it, Cossack colonies over the whole of the empire. Let me remark, en passant, that though now merged into general conscription, these colonies, numbering altogether two and a quarter million persons, are endowed with 54,605,187 decsjatines, an area greater than that possessed by the twenty-two millions of former serfs, and not much less than that owned by the former crown peasants ! An army of such heterogeneous elements was quite out of date vis-à-vis of the other Continental armies, especially of the Prussian army, Alexander’s ideal.) But general compulsory service was not only impossible as long as the peasant remained the property of his landlord; it could not be extended to the other classes while military service — equivalent, in fact, to penal servitude for life — was the stigma of serfdom. The peasant had to become a nominally “free” man before the other nominally “free” Russians could be enrolled at his side. Thus, if Peter the Great, in order to create a standing army had to consolidate serfdom, Alexander II, under quite altered conditions, had to abolish it — in order to introduce general compulsory service.

Finally, it is self-evident that to transform about one half of the Russian people from mediate into direct subjects of the Czar, and at the same time annihilate the relative independence of the landed nobility, there was but one way — to abolish serfdom. Surely then, under these conditions, the Russian people owe no more gratitude to Alexander for his “emancipating” the serf than English people do to John for signing Magna Charta. Nay, less, for while John’s extorted signature conferred some boons upon the English people, Alexander only added to already terrible misery of the Russian people — only made their chains heavier, their burdens more unbearable.


La Russie sous Alexandre II , loin d'avoir été une époque de progrès et de reformes, les dernières années de l'émancipation ont été à tous égards une période de confusion, de réaction et de recul. Jamais peut-être une gouvernement ne s'est montré aussi irresolu, aussi en désaccord avec lui-meme, ne sachant ni achever ce qu'il avait commencé, ni detruire ce qu'il avait ebauché.” — Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu. Revue des Deux Mondes,” 1882.

In my last paper I endeavored to show that the immense debt of gratitude owed by Russia tothe Czar Alexander II exists only in the fervid imaginations of certain “West-Europeans.” This once admitted, we can not only more thoroughly sympathise with Russian revolutionists, but we can better understand their course of action, and the reason why the first manifestation of the Nihilist movement began in 1860 — i.e. immediately after that huge sham, the Emancipation.

The word “Nihilism” is the invention of the novelist Tourgenieff, “accepted,” Stepniak tells us, “from party pride by those against whom it was employed,” and now used to designate an entirely different movement from that first denoted by the word. The original Nihilist agitation had no political objects. It was “a philosophical and literary movement ... now absolutely extinct, and only a few traces left of it.” Still, it was the germ from which the other and greater movement sprang and therefore deserves our attention. “Nihilism was a struggle for the emancipation of intelligence from every kind of dependence;” its “fundamental principle was absolute individualism. It was the negation in the name of individual liberty of all the obligations imposed upon the individual... . Nihilism was a passionate and powerful reaction, not against political despotism, but against the moral despotism that weighs upon the private and inner life of the individual.'’

The first battle was for religious freedom, and it was easily won. Every cultivated Russian is an atheist, and “when once this band of young writers, armed with the natural sciences and positive philosophy, ... was impelled to the assault, Christianity fell like an old, decaying hovel which remains standing because no one touches it.” Of the passionate enthusiasm of this “band” it is difficult to give an idea to those unacquainted with Russians. When Zaizeff said that a Nihilist “would have laid down his life for Darwin,” this was no ridiculous exaggeration or mere figure of speech. It was the plain statement of a plain fact. But all this fanaticism was not needed. “There was no one to defend the altars of the gods,” and the “battle was gained almost without trouble, ... definitely, absolutely gained.” But if easily won, the battle was worth fighting, and Stepniak is right to point out what an unspeakable gain this absolute atheism has been to the modern revolutionary movement.

Religious freedom was not all, however, for which the Nihilists fought. Nihilism recognised the equal rights of women and men. Here the struggle was long and bitter, for the “barbarous and medieval family life” of Russia stood in the way. But again it achieved a victory. In no other country are the women of’ the “educated classes” so entirely on the same footing as the men.

These victories gained, the Nihilists began to ask themselves what, after all, they had achieved? Did the peasant, ground to the earth beneath the iron heel of the landlord and tax gatherer, suffer less? Were the workmen in shop and factory less the slaves of their masters? At best, had not Nihilism only given fresh privileges to an already privileged class? The movement had reached the stage when, to the despairing question, “What are we to do?” the International Working Men’s Association gave an answer, and the heroic Commune of’ Paris showed the way.

We are now at the year 1871. Through those marvellous inventions, by means of which the men of modern days may be called omnipotent, the picture is placed before him (the Nihilist) of an immense city which has risen for a grand idea, that of claiming the rights of the people. He follows with breathless interest all the vicissitudes of the terrible drama which is being enacted upon the banks of the Seine. He sees blood flow; he hears the agonising cries of women and children slaughtered upon the boulevards. But for what are they dying? For what are they weeping? For the emancipation of the working man; for the grand social idea!” The Nihilist now knew “what to do.” He would go among the people, be of the people, toil by their side, and preach to them the new gospel of Socialism as the disciples of Jesus had done. What matter to him if the cut-throats of’ the government lay hands upon him? What to him are exile,Siberia, death? Full of his sublime idea .... he defies suffering, and would meet death with a glance of enthusiasm and a smile of happiness.”) Thus arose the Socialist propagandist movement of ‘72-'74, a movement that presented an entire contrast to that of ‘60-'70; and yet, by a strange though not uncommon irony, the later movement came to be known by the name of the earlier one.

In the second part of his Introduction Stepniak traces the growth of this second movement. Among the causes that drove the youth of Russia to accept these revolutionary principles, none was more potent that the years of ferocious reaction that had followed the Polish insurrection in ‘66, a reaction which “swept away everything that till maintained a semblance of Liberalism,” and which prepared the way for the Socialist propaganda begun in ‘72. The young men and women who had been studying; at Zurich, and who were recalled by the ukase, equally stupid and brutal, of ‘73, came to swell the ranks of the revolutionary party. Of the immense, indescribable effect of this “propaganda” Stepniak says: “Nothing similar had been seen before nor since. It was a revelation rather than a propaganda. At first, the book, or the individual, could be traced out that had impelled such or such a person to join the movement ; but after some time this became impossible. It was a powerful cry, which arose no one knew where, and summoned the ardent to the great work of the redemption of the country and of humanity. And the ardent, bearing this cry, arose, overflowing with sorrow and indignation for their past life, and abandoning home, wealth, honors, family, threw themselves into the movement with a joy, an enthusiasm, a faith, such as are experienced only once in a life, and when lost are never found again.”

Yet even this was no political movement. The “propagandists” had not yet learnt that political emancipation is a necessary step towards social emancipation, and that a social revolution could no more come about by their preaching than it could have been established Imperial ukase. It was a noble and beautiful movement, but “in contact with harsh reality was shattered like a precious Sevres vase, struck by a heavy, dirty stone.” For two years it lasted. Thirty-seven provinces were, according to government circulars, “infected.” Instead of propaganda among the masses all over Russia, groups of socialists gathered together in certain given provinces or districts; but in so vast a country this plan was of necessity doomed to failure. The number of arrests is unknown. In one trial there were 193 prisoners. In 1875 the movement somewhat changed its aspect. . The years ‘77-'78 mark the end of the first revolutionary period. In ‘77 the trial of the Moscow “Fifty” was, by order of the government, a public trial for it hoped to strike terror into the heart of the bourgeoisie. But the ability of the prisoners who spoke, their noble heroism and simple, unaffected self-sacrifice, produced the very opposite effect to that expected by the government. “’they are saints,’ was the exclamation repeated in a broken voice by those who were present at this memorable trial; “and that of “the 193” in the following year only confirmed this impression. But these “saints” were of too ideal a type to be fit for the coming struggle, and there appeared in their place a type as noble, but more strong — that of the Terrorist.

In spite of all heroic self sacrifice and devotion, the Russian Socialists were bound to admit that they had failed, and they began to understand that to grapple with their barbarous enemy, deeds, not words, were needed. “We did not succeed because we were talkers,” they said. “Let us act,” became their new war-cry; and with this new idea efforts were made to organise insurrectionary movements.” “But a revolution, like a popular movement, is of spontaneous growth, and cannot be forced,” and the revolutionists soon abandoned the series of “demonstrations” that had been planned, and which, in a country where towns of 10,000 or 15,000 inhabitants form only four or five per cent of the population, were impossible. But if the “demonstrations” ceased the government persecutions increased. Not only were the prisoners subjected to every sort of torture — of the “193,” seventy-five “died” or went mad in prison during the investigations — but “that which is freely done in every country in Europe was punished among us like murder. Ten, twelve, or fifteen years of hard labor were inflicted for two or three speeches ... or for a single book read or lent. From time to time, by ways which only prisoners know how to find out, there came from these men buried alive some letters, written on a scrap of paper in which tobacco or a candle had been wrapped up, describing the vile and useless cruelty which their gaolers had inflicted upon them ... arousing in the most gentle and tender minds thoughts of blood, of hatred, and of vengeance.”

The Terrorist movement began on January 24th, 1878, when Vera Sassulitsch shot the governor Trépoff Vera herself was no Terrorist — she acted to avenge the man whom Trépoff had insulted and tortured, and “to call the attention of Russia and the world” to the condition of the political prisoners. The story of Vera Sassulitseh is so well known it need not be recapitulated here. Acquitted by the jury — a verdict endorsed by the public and the press — the government used every means to get Vera again into its power. With cynical disregard of public feeling, Alexander ostentatiously visited Trépoff, so that even the “Liberals” — or those among them who were sincere — threw in their lot with the revolutionists. Far from attempting to conciliate, the government, with reckless insolence, sought only to aggravate the people. It forced the Socialist party to transform into a system what had been only an accident; to make an end of what had been a means to an end. Five months after Vera’s acquittal and escape into Switzerland, “Terrorism, by putting to death General Mesentzeff, the head of the police, ... boldly threw down its glove in the face of autocracy.” Since then the avenging arm of the Terrorist has struck often — and its greatest blow on March 13th, 1881. What the end will be who can tell? But assuredly the coward despot, hiding amid his soldiers and his spies, and trembling every moment for his miserable life, is living a life more terrible than that of his unhappy peasants or of his tortured victims.

It is with a feeling of regret that I must pass over the fascinating “Profiles” Stepniak has drawn with a hand so loving, yet so faithful. One longs to tell and re-tell the stories of Stepanowitsch [1] of Lissogub, of Vera Sassulitsch and above all, that, of the noblest, purest, and greatest of them — of Sophie Peroffsky. But for these stories, and the “Sketches” dealing with certain revolutionary episodes, I must refer my readers to Stepniak.

This able and valuable book concludes with an interesting “Summary” of the whole movement, in which a most lucid account of the theories and doctrines of the Socialist Revolutionary Party is given. To this is added a translation of the admirable address to Czar Alexander III. by the Executive Committee after March 13th. All those who believe the Russian Terrorists to be either blood-thirsty monsters or mad dreamers and fanatics, would do well to study this document. It is at once a justification of their policy, and an exposition of their moderate demands. In it the Executive offered terms of peace to Alexander ... . Let the Czar but grant a small measure of reform, let him but give his people “freedom of the press, of public speech, of public meeting, and electoral addresses,” and the Terrorists are ready to lay down arms. “And now,” they said, “your Majesty, decide. The choice rests with you. We, on our side, can only express the hope that your judgment and your conscience will suggest to you the only decision which can accord with the welfare of Russia, with your own dignity, and with your duties towards the country.” The Czar did choose. He replied by hanging Sophie Peroffsky and her fellow prisoners, by exiling and imprisoning thousands. But the end is not yet.

Eleanor Marx

1. It is to be regretted that Stepniak’s English translator has allowed the names of the Socialists to appear in their mutilated Italian form. Some are changed almost beyond recognition, as for instance, Deutsch into Deuc.