H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XVI
Russian Revolutionists

OF all the revolutionists I have ever met, and I have been brought into close contact with many, I consider the Russians as a whole are the most determined, self-sacrificing, and desperate; as certainly they are those who are treated with the most ruthless severity, and have to reckon with the most unscrupulous counterplots. It is wonderful what sufferings all sections of them, from the extreme terrorists to the mildest moderates, have undergone in their patriotic endeavours to obtain something like a reasonable government in their great country. No matter how heavily and cruelly reaction may weigh upon them, the majority of those whom I have met are never discouraged, and they run risks again and again for their cause, regardless of the horrible fate of their predecessors, with a coolness and courage never surpassed, certainly, in any country in modern times. This applies to the full as much to their women as to their men. In fact, had it not been for the marvellous pluck and unfailing comradeship of the women it is doubtful whether the men could ever have performed the splendid feats of heroism they have achieved; while the deeds of the men inspired the women in their turn. It has been a magnificent emulation in well-doing, such as the world has rarely if ever seen.

When the record of the uprising of humanity against its oppressors is written in the better days to come, and the story of the emancipation of mankind is fully told and yearly celebrated, one of the foremost places in the pageant of this long and glorious struggle will be given to the unfaltering champions, known and unknown, of the freedom of the Russian peoples. For myself, I consider it a privilege to have known well so many of these standard-bearers of revolution throughout their period of depression and conspiracy, revolt and defeat, and I hope that some of them at any rate will live to see the final victory of the cause to which they have given up more than life.

The following story of a lower type of subversionist merely serves as a contrast to the many Russian heroes of both sexes I have met.

I first heard of Lavrenius from my old friend and fellow-worker in Socialism, Adolphe Smith, and he it was, I think, who introduced me to this extraordinary Russian. At that time Lavrenius was a well-to-do Anarchist, who was dabbling in bombs, picric acid, and other pleasing appurtenances of the propaganda of deed. His laboratory was in the same block of buildings as his flat, but easily to be reached from his domestic quarters by a short walk round a very obvious balcony. Whether Lavrenius and his friends thought that such a very transparent deception was sufficient to hoodwink the astute Paris police, and their even more wide-awake Russian compeers, I know not; but to me it seems clear that Lavrenius, the Anarchist conspirator, might just as well have carried on his chemical experiments in the open street for all the good such advertised secrecy as this did him. Of course, the supervisors of “dangerous” suspects were quite well aware of what he was doing all the time, knew who were his associates, were advised as to the destination of his carefully-prepared and concealed packets for use in the chemical parcel post; and, in fact, knew quite as much about Lavrenius’s own business, if business it can be called, as he did himself. They were ready to “nab” him and the whole lot of his fellow-conspirators whenever it suited their purpose to make a timely and dramatic seizure.

At this period there was also in Paris a well-known Count, who was one of the most infamous agents for the Russian Government against Russian refugees and conspirators that was ever employed by the Third Section of the Muscovite police. This man was not content with the ordinary forms of Muscovite moucharderie. He was infinitely ingenious as well as wholly unscrupulous in his methods. I have before commented upon the extraordinary carelessness of most Russian conspirators I have met as compared with similar men of other nations with the like vocation whom I have known at various periods of my life. It is scarcely too much to say that they almost court detection by the offhand and indifferent way in which they carry on their dangerous schemes.

Of course, it is only natural their deadly enemies should take advantage of this slackness on their part to deal them blows which might otherwise have been fended off. Still more natural that they should deliberately lay themselves out to trade upon the pleasures or vices to which the refugees may be addicted. Of all these underhand tricks and treacheries this particular Russian agent spoken of was a past-master. Seliverstoff himself was indeed a person of the most detestable private character, and used the lavish funds with which he was provided to indulge himself in horrible debauchery. In this way he became acquainted with the worst forms of Paris life, and had at his command in consequence men and women who, provided they got enough money by it, would stick at no conceivable villainy in order to gratify their chief and paymaster. These male and female ghouls were constantly on the look-out to administer to the lusts and help in the political business of this monster.

The one department faded naturally and imperceptibly into the other. No Russian of either sex could feel safe from his machinations, or be sure that some elaborate plot for kidnapping, got up by these human wolves and winked at by the French police, would not succeed in gripping them in such wise that succour was hopeless. They themselves alone knew the full extent of the evil which had befallen them, when, having been hustled secretly out of France and across half Europe, they found themselves, on awakening perhaps from a drugged sleep, at the mercy of the Czar’s sworn torturers.

This might easily happen to the least-known and most circumspect at any moment, and does, as a matter of fact, not unfrequently happen even today. But the system was never brought to such a pitch of perfection as by Seliverstoff at this time, and some of the methods resorted to in order to trap the more dangerous and less rigidly moral of the anti-Government Russians in Paris were of such a nature as to shock the not very delicate susceptibility of the Parisian police des mœurs themselves. So abominable at last had certain of these underlife schemes become, alike in their original infamy in Paris and in their results to the unfortunate victims when they arrived in Russia, that a sensation of horror and hatred, with an unappeasable thirst for vengeance, had seized upon the whole Russian colony.

Seliverstoff, as the chief Imperial agent, was therefore warned by the French authorities that his life was in danger. But he was a man of unshakable courage: he had run such remarkable risks before, and had escaped unscathed so often, that he paid no attention to these more pressing signals. In the end he was suddenly removed from the scene of his sinister activity by a capable assassin; and such a wretch was he known to be that, useful as he was to them, not even his own Government much regretted his final withdrawal from his post of dishonour. But something had to be done to show zeal, and, as a consequence of the Count’s compulsory resignation, there was an organised raid by the French police upon the whole body of Russian Anarchists and speedy-removal men. Of these Lavrenius was one. He did not show, I recall, any marked courage on his arrest and trial; rather the contrary. But his evident desire to minimise his complicity in the department of explosive reform did not save him from imprisonment; nor would his alleged contrition have procured his release but for the fact that he had the great good fortune to be wedded to a singularly pretty, agreeable, and devoted wife.

This lady left no stone unturned to get her husband out of the awkward incarceration to which he had been condemned. Not a newspaper office in Paris at which her face and figure were not known, scarce an editor whom she did not interview, no Minister or Secretary of influence whom she did not contrive in some way to approach. Charming women, I am told, have certain behind-the-scenes influence even here in this prudish and puritan London, though of course in our case nobody admits it. In Paris people are more frank or less hypocritical. Mme. Lavrenius’s eloquence and persuasiveness, her voice, her face, her charm, her figure produced a cumulative and collective effect. First one, then another personage of importance discovered that the husband of so delightful a being of the opposite sex ought not to be detained in durance longer than was necessary. So in due course Lavrenius returned to the lady’s embraces, and she took up afresh her domestic duties in connection with the revolutionary projects which they had perforce temporarily abandoned. They then went to Switzerland or Italy, or some country less police-ridden than France.

But here I return to an earlier stage in this revolutionist’s career. That the man, though of good birth, excellent education, and good means, was, in all honesty, as is not uncommon in Russia, a thoroughgoing Anarchist I am persuaded. Unfortunately, he appears to have carried his subversive theories of the individualist type into the more sordid personal matters of meum and tuum, and even into the ethics of removal as applied to a member of his own family. A well-known Polish lady of rank, who was chief organiser of the Anarchist groups in one of the cities of Russia, received a secret visit from Lavrenius very late one night, when he made to her the following extraordinary proposal. Lavrenius, it appeared, had a very rich uncle whose acknowledged heir Lavrenius himself was. It was exceedingly desirable, as well for Lavrenius as for the cause, or so he thought it, that the Anarchist nephew should inherit this misapplied wealth somewhat earlier than, according to the ordinary dispensations of nature, for the uncle was a very healthy man, the next of kin would come by his own.

How morally to expedite the departure of the present reactionary encumbrancer who stood in the way of the speedy realisation of funds for the young apostle of the true faith? That was the question. Lavrenius put it point-blank to the lady who controlled, as he thought, for the common good, the means of taking off rich relations to the advantage of impecunious heirs-at-law. Would this estimable lady head-centre of the fanatics of overthrow kindly provide him with the poison necessary to deal with the uncle, in return for a legal undertaking to contribute a solemn percentage of his inherited substance to the Anarchist coffers? The lady, not unnaturally, was horrified, and declared that her opinions did not in any way countenance private murder, however advantageous, either as principal or as accessory before the fact. The transaction was indignantly refused. It may be that thereafter Dives the uncle died a natural death: it may be that Lavrenius the nephew found a less strait-laced purveyor of lethal condiments. What is certain is that shortly thereafter the obstacular uncle was gathered to his fathers, and the progressive nephew reigned in his stead. To do him justice, the acquisition of wealth no more affected his principles than the suggested method of its acquisition perturbed his conscience. Anarchist he was and Anarchist he remained. An Anarchist of deed most certainly.

And so it came about that before Lavrenius left Paris, after he had been forced to quit Russia by reason of his public virtues, he met there, at a great reception, the lady to whom he had made his engaging proposal for joint association in crime. It was a dramatic moment for her. She recognised him at once; but, owing to the circumstances under which they had first met, Lavrenius had no idea that he was meeting her. However, though a person of scrupulous integrity and by no means addicted to the removal of obnoxious or wealthy humans, except in the way of justifiable political execution, she thought she would hold her peace and take the charitable view that the uncle whose means Lavrenius had so suddenly and conveniently inherited went the way of all flesh without any well-meant domestic assistance.

I am bound to say that Lavrenius, being in possession of large funds, acquired with them a very enlarged confidence in the rectitude of others. I really did not know him exceptionally well, and though, apart from his views on the limits of personal ethics, he was quite a nice fellow, I was amazed beyond power of description when one fine day I received from him a draft for a very large amount of money, requesting me to open an account at the Western Branch of the Bank of England with a portion of it and to invest the balance in Consols. I carried out his instructions, and for some years thereafter cash and securities – which I bought, I remember, at 98½ – stood in my name in Burlington Gardens. Then, equally with no warning, I got a request from him to sell out his Consols (which I did, in the halcyon days before the war, at 112½), and to remit principal and accumulated interest to him. If I had pocketed the whole of the proceeds, which, the actual ownership being quite untraceable, I could easily have done, I firmly believe he would only have said, “I didn’t know they did those things in the Occident.”

As matters turned out, it is almost a pity I did not take a leaf out of his Anarchistic moral code and appropriate the entire sum. However, he got the money from me all right and turned up in London with his charming wife and nice little boy, who stayed with us for some time while he finished up his transfer from the Continent, then settled down with them at Anerley and read for the Bar. Later he found himself in serious case from tuberculosis, was told Colorado Springs was the only place on the planet where he had any chance of saving his life for a few years from the effects of the disease that he was suffering under. Off to that sanatorium they all three therefore went, leaving me as a legacy a fine French office desk and chair, at which I am now writing.

Then came the tragical ending. After a year or so of painful struggling against his incurable malady at Colorado Springs and Denver, Lavrenius himself died, and his widow, so she wrote me, and so her man of business, a well-known advocate-solicitor of the latter city, confirmed, was at first inconsolable. The child, now grown up to be a fine little chap, was her sole care and she lived only for him.

But this did not last very long. Mme. Lavrenius was young and pretty; Western Americans are as susceptible as other misguided males. Unfortunately her choice of a lover fell upon a dashing fellow who was euphemistically called a “sport.” Their courtship was short-lived and ended abruptly. A “difficulty” arose at the gaming-table in reference to the methods of play adopted by Mme. Lavrenius’s admirer, which resulted in his being carried to the hospital with at least one dangerous perforation of the body. Mme. Lavrenius tended him for days with the most unwearying solicitude, and when at last he died, for his wounds were mortal from the first, she took the blow so much to heart that she went straight to her rooms, shot her boy through the head with a revolver and then shot herself. The affair made some stir at the moment and was then quickly forgotten. It made a very sad impression upon me.

Lavrenius was, I need scarcely say, quite an exception among the Russian revolutionists I have met. They are particularly careful not to confuse their Anarchist theories in reference to society with any personal desire they may have for their own immediate gain. In regard, however, to their general carelessness, at any rate in Western Europe, I can only repeat what I have said before. I have never known any other set of conspirators in any country who ran such risks and who held their lives so cheap. When, for instance, the Russian Revolutionary Peasant Party, not the Social-Democrats, held their meeting of delegates in London, they at first displayed a very natural and laudable anxiety to secure the safety of these head-centres of upheaval. Our friend Volkovsky asked me what should be done to keep off the enemy. I made several suggestions: the best I consider was that a big barge should be hired and the whole party should go for a trip on the Norfolk Broads for a few days, having taken the precaution beforehand of curtailing the exuberant growth of hair on head and cheek and chin, which, in this period of cropping and shaving, might attract to these denizens of the plains of the Ukraine and other wilder parts of Russia undesirable attention. This was regarded as too complete if not too magnificent a project. Others were debated and discarded.

Eventually, these most estimable enemies of the Czar took refuge for the full collective elaboration of their schemes in an Ethical Society Club-room or chapel in a bye-lane up Notting Hill way. At first secrecy was preserved, and on the whole the display of hair was kept within limits. Only two Englishmen were in the secret – J.F. Green and myself – and attended the gatherings. For six solid days no word of their whereabouts reached the outside world. The ubiquitous British press was carefully put off the scent, though, may be, the Russian mouchards were not so easily depisted. But the evening and the morning was the seventh day and silence could be maintained no more.

All the world then learnt that the Russian Peasant Party had held its convention in our metropolis, and all the previous precautions had been vain. What the upshot of this premature publication was I have never known; but whenever I read of the hideous tortures which our ally the Czar inflicts upon those whom he believes are striving to obtain some modicum of freedom, and think of the devoted men and women I met in that little hall in Notting Hill, I shudder. Carelessness in such matters may lead to such horrible results.

I am inclined to believe that that meeting I attended in that little hall was one of the most noteworthy at which I ever assisted, and Green, my sole English companion, is, I know, of the same opinion. The President of the occasion was our friend Roubanovitch. Tall, powerful, and dark, this Russian revolutionary is a remarkable figure. He is not only a very capable conspirator – he has more than once visited St. Petersburg of late years at the hourly risk of his life – but he is an admirable writer and most impressive orator in French. When I first heard him speak in that tongue at an openair meeting during the International Congress of Amsterdam I thought I had never heard any one, not even Andreas Scheu or Bepin Chandra Pal, who was so complete a master of a tongue not his own. There is nobody in Europe, not Plechanoff, or Stepniak, or Kropotkin, or Volskovsky, who has done so much to keep public opinion well informed as to the real condition of the mass of the voiceless peasant peoples of Russia as Roubanovitch.

Though a Social-Democrat myself, I had always argued in the International Socialist Bureau and elsewhere in favour of the fair representation of this Peasants Revolutionary Party at the Congress and on the Bureau; not unfrequently, I fear, to the annoyance of the straiter sect of my own party. But it has always seemed to me impossible to deal with a country like Russia, which is obviously in a very different stage of social development from that which exists in Western Europe, upon any cut-and-dried plan. The first duty in Russia is to encourage the spirit of revolt, and the organisation of that spirit among the lowest grade of the population, into an effective protest against the existing system.

Therefore, I always stood by Roubanovitch in the discussions and votings at the International gatherings, and I had found that he had a very much clearer and more capable view of what economic revolution really meant, alike in theory and in practice, than German, French, Austrian, and Belgian leaders, who are eager to accept obvious non-Socialists or even an tiSocialists as fitting representatives of the most advanced school of revolutionary thought, if they happen to be deputies or members of Parliament in their respective countries. To that miserable kotowing to the success of compromise and treachery Roubanovitch has never condescended, and I much prefer, I confess, the irreconcilable revolutionist to the truckling philosopher or dexterous politician of affairs.

Roubanovitch married an old friend of ours long since dead, the charming Madame Polonsky, widow of the man who blew up the Winter Palace. Now that was a fine piece of terrorism, if you like. It was thought necessary to strike a blow of a serious character at the Czar and his court. Polonsky enlisted as a cook in the service of the household, became, of course, in that capacity, familiar with the goings in and comings out, the meals and the manners of the household, and, at the critical moment, blew a fine hole from the cellarage right straight through to the roof. The sensation produced, though now forgotten, was very great at the time.

Mme. Polonsky was got out of Russia and settled in Paris. At her flat there, at the top of the Rue St. Jacques, the Russians of that day used to foregather in numbers which crowded the none too spacious apartment she occupied to repletion. There they stayed until all hours of the night and morning, some indeed taking up their bed afterwards for the time being on the drawing-room floor. How Mme. Polonsky contrived to keep herself ever fresh, and bright, and charming, and tactful for all those long hours, in spite of the cloud of cigarette smoke and the din of rapid conversation, we never could understand; but her powers of hospitable entertainment were inexhaustible and she was a most delightful specimen of her race and sex.

But I return to that memorable collection of Russian patriots in London. Both the meeting of the Revolutionists and that of the Russian Social Democrats at an earlier date, some of whom were members of the First Douma, can now only be recalled with the deepest sorrow. These last, who had acted in strict accordance with the rules and the edicts promulgated by the Czar, who were cheered by us as the hope of the new period in the new Russia emancipated from the horrors of Czardom and Cossackdom and Moucharderie – what has become of them? The blackest of reaction has settled down upon their country. The ablest of those who believed in all good faith that they might help in peacefully transferring their belated autocratic despotism into some form of civilised constitutionalism, have been either tortured to death in prison or are miserably awaiting a similar fate.

It brings home to me and other Englishmen what Russian tyranny really means when we have associated in close friendship with the very same men and women who have been thus ruthlessly done to death, for no worse crime than asking for, and co-operating to secure, liberties which our forefathers conquered for us generations and even centuries ago. And the monstrous injustice of it all is felt even more keenly in the case of women than in that of men. At the meeting at Notting Hill Vera Figner was present: a quiet, self-restrained, dignified woman. She had been seized quite young, and for twenty-two years had been imprisoned in the terrible fortress of Schusselburg for no offence whatsoever, according to the view of any government in Europe outside of Russia herself. When I meet and talk with such a noble woman as this, who, after all these long years of incarceration and suffering, still maintains her intellectual and moral power unshaken, and is as much devoted to her cause as ever, then I cannot but recognise how trifling are our efforts for the emancipation of the people in comparison with what she has undertaken and endured. And Vera Figner, imposing figure as she is, is but one of a great and glorious company of martyrs who have deliberately risked life, and even more than life, to obtain only those political liberties of which our own people, who have got them already by no effort of their own, make such surprisingly little use.

Talking over the condition of Russia with such men as Stepniak, Kropotkin, and Tchaykovsky, and then with Plechanoff and Roubanovitch, Volskovsky, Issaieff, and even Meliukoff, it is impossible not to be struck with the apparently relentless destiny which pursues the Russian people and renders even her connection with the rest of Europe another agency to increase and perpetuate the terrible economic and social oppression which crushes down her vast population. When the Russian upheaval began after the war with Japan I hoped and even believed that it might lead to some permanent advantage for all Russia.

I admit that I misread the situation. There was no real backing among the masses for such an overthrow of despotism as we hoped for. The Social-Democratic members of the Douma, whom we gladly met and entertained cordially, if not as handsomely as we could have wished, were the representatives of but a small minority of the Russian workers. The industrial proletariat of the great cities, though a native, was not, so to say, an indigenous proletariat. It was a Fourth Estate born out of due time, owing to the importation of foreign capital, the superficial absorption of foreign ideas, the adoption of foreign methods of mine and factory organisation. Hundreds of millions of pounds from the West had been devoted to a furious effort to force fully developed capitalism and its attendant railway transport upon the whole country. Yet, from one end of Russia to the other, the industrial element of the population in the modern sense bore no sort of proportion to the agricultural. Not 15 per cent of the entire community could either read or write.

Witte’s policy of feverish and subsidised development of State manufactures, of the construction of State railways, and of the wholesale encouragement of State drunkenness was mistaken by some Socialists, particularly in the United States, for a step towards that organised and educated Socialism which can only come when economic forms as well as general intelligence are ripe for the transformation. This was certainly not the case in Russia. Moreover, State demand and State supply both fell off as the importation of capital slackened; while the mischief done to agriculture and the agriculturists by the depletion of the peasants’ resources it may take two or three generations to repair. My friend Professor Issaieff, the famous ex-Professor of Political Economy at the University of St. Petersburg, from whom Professor Meliukoff obtained the statistics for which he has received so much credit, told me at the very time when the wealth of Russia was being lauded to the skies by interested financiers and a suborned press, that it must inevitably take, even then, many hundreds of millions of roubles to put back Russian agriculture, the mainstay of the whole Empire, where it had been twenty years before.

Enormous loss of cattle, almost universal deterioration of the soil, exhaustion of such petty savings as the peasants had accumulated in better times, spread of money-lending and forestalling in the most ruthless shape, alcoholism fostered from existing as a fitful malady into being a permanent disease – such was the real condition of rural Russia as depicted to me at the time of the commencement of the disgraceful war in the Far East.

But Western Europe welcomed anything which should help to remove the standing scandals and menace of Russian despotism, regardless of the still more dangerous development of aggressive militarism nearer to hand. So atrocious was the Russian régime admitted to be at this time that even the Times in a prominent leading article formulated an elaborate apology for the assassination of Archduke Sergius and Bobrikoff and Plehvé. The defeat of a great European power by the rising militarism of an ambitious and aggressive Asiatic nation was therefore welcomed in London regardless of consequences, and led to the Anglo-Japanese treaties, the end of which is not yet.

And all the time matters in Russia were going from bad to worse. The crushing defeat in Manchuria, which quite possibly but for interference might later have ended in a Muscovite victory, and the uprising in Russia itself, which it was hoped would help forward progress, only strengthened for the time being the most frightful reaction seen since the days of Ivan the Terrible. Men who had taken the lead in strikes, and had returned peacefully to their work thinking that the whole matter was at an end, were arrested months and even years afterwards, and nobody knew or knows what became of them. We only guess. The political champions of the people shared the same fate, and all that remains to recall the stupendous efforts and sacrifices of those years of desperate conflict is the mockery of the Douma, which at present is powerless, and the fortifying of a bureaucracy and a police against which it seems almost hopeless to strive.

Our upper classes support what they believe to be the winning side, and, contemptuous of the glorious fight which the unconquerable few are still waging against a more frightful tyranny than ever, leading members of our aristocracy and of our political factions hasten in batches to St. Petersburg in order to prostrate themselves before the worst despot of modern times and to offer their humble services, for heavy pecuniary considerations, in “developing” the Russian Empire against the interests of its people. There was some excuse for French statesmen when, abandoned by Great Britain and threatened by Germany, they encouraged the thrifty French peasantry and bourgeoisie to put their savings at the disposal of a virtually bankrupt Empire, in order that at the critical moment they might rely upon Russian assistance against the dominant German power in Europe. There was and is no such excuse for Englishmen in thus upholding before the world such infamies as Nicholas II’s Government stands for.

But more is going on than will suit the financiers of any nation, and the day of the Revolutionist may not be so far off as it seems. The famines afflicting Russia have assumed Indian proportions, and the causes of this calamity are very similar to those which make Hindostan a byword for pauperisation. Russia is undoubtedly a country rich in potentialities, but this is mostly where there are no people. Where the population is comparatively dense there, as we see, poverty reigns supreme, and death by starvation is knocking at the door of millions of huts. Russia owes Western Europe at the present time certainly not less than one thousand millions sterling, the interest upon which cannot be put at less than £40,000,000 a year.

Here is an economic drain of the most formidable character, which, deducting the export of gold, and the amount reborrowed in Western capitals to pay this interest, can only be met by the export of produce on a sufficient scale to cover the balance due. If this is not done, national bankruptcy lies immediately ahead, and such a shock would this give to all the Bourses of Europe, and particularly to the Bourse of Paris, that it is difficult to overestimate what the effect would be on Western Europe. In fact, at this moment Russia is being depleted and her population starved and driven into a revolt of despair in order to keep faith with the lenders of the West – mostly the small French bourgeoisie and peasantry!

I cannot understand how it is that under such circumstances so many Russian friends of mine have become Liberals in England. Nobody could deny Stepniak’s ability and sound knowledge. When I first made his acquaintance at a great demonstration in Hyde Park on his arrival here from Italy, where he had written La Russia Sotteranea, after his escape from the hunt for him when he had “removed” the governor of the great prison, there could not have been a more determined revolutionary. The way in which his assassination of General Mezentzoff for flogging political prisoners, men and women, in gaol was prepared for by himself and organised by his friends, was a masterpiece of daring and successful conspiracy. I have greatly admired it as bearing out the view I have always taken, and upheld in my article on The Art of Assassination, that the cord or the knife, though requiring closer proximity and more elaborate preparation, is a much more certain weapon for getting rid of a high-placed criminal or treacherous comrade than the revolver, the bomb, or even poison.

That was Stepniak’s opinion. He practised with a sharp dagger for months upon trunks of trees at every possible angle so that he might “mak’ sicker” when he once got within striking distance of the doomed man. Then, though Stepniak himself might also lose his life, there could be no chance whatever that the Governor would escape. Having thus carefully awaited and made ready for his opportunity, the fateful day at last came, and Stepniak’s mission had been so arranged that he and the Governor met as this functionary came out of the prison. It was all over at one blow struck with all Stepniak’s herculean strength. Within a minute the conspirator was in a drosky driven by a friend, and drawn by a fine black horse, actually taken out of the Imperial stables. They went off at full speed. So admirably had all precautions been taken, that not another drosky of any kind could be found within a mile and a half of the scene of the execution, and Stepniak happily made his escape to the West without interference. All St. Petersburg, it was said at the time, sympathised with the successful assassin. The secret of Stepniak’s real name was well kept until he died. Then, to my great surprise, his Russian friends proclaimed it to the world, regardless, as it seemed to me, of the clues it might thus give even years later.

Stepniak was about five feet nine inches in height, but immensely powerful, with a broad, imposing forehead arid face of the Kalmuck type. He seemed to me a splendid type of the Muscovite revolutionary, and, in regard to Russia itself, he remained, as far as I knew, revolutionary to the end. But I could not but be struck with his change of opinion in regard to England, where he unquestionably mistook political rights and freedom of speech and writing and combination for economic emancipation or the power to obtain it. This, of course, is not true of Rothstein and other thorough Marxists on the one side, nor of the Russian Revolutionary Peasant Party, whatever may be their drawbacks in other respects, on the other.

The story of Azeff is perhaps the most remarkable in all the gloomy annals of secret societies and spy treachery. The successful career of the Government agent Le Caron was perhaps the nearest approach, and that still at a very long distance, to the record of Azeff’s almost inconceivable story of criminal espionage and organised assassination. Even now that we know all about it, the tale seems to pass the bounds of the credible. That the same man should be the deliberate plotter who contrived the desperate and successful conspiracies for the taking off of the Archduke Sergius, Plehvé, and Bobrikoff, yet at one and the same time be the tool of the Russian Third Section, receiving pay to incite and betray his comrades in conspiracy to the scaffold is the most astounding case of, in every sense, double-dyed treachery that ever was heard of. I have met many who knew Azeff well. Not one of them mistrusted him in the least.

Madame Mahlberg, the revolutionary Finnish leader, used to receive Azeff into her family, and treated him as an intimate friend of the house. She told me that he never gave her the slightest ground for suspicion, and that she trusted him implicitly; so much so that, when his treachery was exposed, she felt a shock of horror at the dangerous secrets, and still more dangerous letters to sympathisers, with which he had been entrusted. It seems impossible to fit the two parts which Azeff played in with one another. For that he did have control over the assassination plans which ended in the death of the eminent personages named above is beyond all question, and the full explanation of his object in the desperate double game he played has certainly never been given to the satisfaction of plain Western mind. I asked whether he was fond of money. I was told “no”: he lived in quite a simple way, and appeared to have no greed for gain.

Why then should he play false to both sides? Azeff, I believe, still asserted he did not. But the evidence against him was too strong. I asked Mme. Mahlberg what she thought. “I believe it was his love of unseen power,” she replied, “and a sort of lust for blood.” That Bourtseff’s account of him is correct there is no reason now to doubt; but from what I hear full disclosure of all the underground workings has not yet been, and possibly may never be, made. Quite enough is known, however, in my opinion, to put the Russian police agent and Nihilist conspirator Azeff ahead of any of his tribe in either the ancient or the modern world. I have known, and have studied the careers of, some terrible scoundrels at one time or another, but not one was within hail of this extraordinary Muscovite.

It seems that Bourtseff, whose remarkable exposures of the deeds of the miscreant Azeff and other spies have created such a sensation, not so much in Great Britain, strange to say, as on the continent of Europe and in America, has been greatly discouraged at the slight effect produced on the Russian Government by his publication of the facts. He says now he intends to go back to Russia, in order that he may be arrested and the whole horrible story of treachery and delation may be brought out in open Court. Probably the Russian Government will take good care that this opportunity is never given to the ardent patriot who is ready to take any risk in order to advance the cause of freedom in his country. When once the Czar has a man of Bourtseff’s character, with Bourtseff’s records of official crime, safely under lock and key, he is careful not to let him out again except for burial.

The very ugly Malecka affair has shown clearly the sort of justice which even British subjects have meted out to them in Russia with the consent of our Foreign Office. For there is no doubt whatever on the part of Miss Malecka and her friends that had it not been for the vehement public agitation got up in Great Britain she would have been sent off to Siberia without any hope of return. Sir Edward Grey’s full despatches on this matter I venture to predict will never be published. It would be interesting to print them, if they were, side by side with Lord Palmerston’s despatches and letters on a similar occasion. The fact that Miss Malecka, being wholly innocent, was “pardoned” by the Czar for purely political reasons does not excuse the action of the Russian authorities in the least.

It seems almost inconceivable that such a reign of reactionist terror should be possible even in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. But the difficulty of combining in one great movement for emancipation such a population as that of the Russian Empire is very great. We are apt to forget how many furious risings of the peasants and the jacquerie in England and France were ruthlessly suppressed before the mass of the people in either country could shake off the feudal domination. And modern inventions and discoveries, though they have placed some of the resources of civilisation at the disposal of revolutionaries, and have rendered the success of partial revolt perhaps more probable for a time, have put still greater resources at the command of the Governments, which are ready to use them to the full extent against the people.

Last updated on 1.11.2007