Page images


CIVILIZATION IN RUSSIA. It may be a little startling to set out with the general proposition that Russia is not only very far from being a civilized country, but that it never can be one in the highest sense of the term. The remark of Peter the Great, that distance was the only serious obstacle to be overcome in the civilization of Russia, was such as might well be made by a monarch of iron will and unparalleled energy, at whose bidding a great city arose out of the swamps of Courland, where Nature never intended a city to stand. But the remark is not true in point of fact. Distance can be annihilated, or nearly so; and although Peter the Great was probably aware of that fact, he might well have reasoned that facility of intercommunication is not so much the cause as the result of civilization. The wilderness may be made to blossom as the rose through human agency, but it can only be done by divine permission. I think that permission has been withheld in the case of a very considerable portion of Russia. No human power can successfully contend against the depressing influences of a climate scarcely paralleled for its rigor. Where there are four months of a summer, to which the scorching heats of Africa can scarcely bear a comparison, and from six to eight months of a polar winter, it is utterly impossible that the moral and intellectual faculties of man can be brought to the highest degree of perfection. There must, of course, always be exceptions to every general rule; but even in the dark and bloody history of Russia we find that the exceptions of superior intelligence and enlightenment have been chiefly confined to those who availed themselves of the advantages afforded by more temperate climes. Peter himself, the greatest of the Czars, and certainly the most gifted of his race in point of intellect, perfected his education in other countries, and in all his grand enterprises of improvement availed himself of the intellect and experience of other races. Every important improvement introduced into Russia during his reign was the product of some other country, executed under foreign supervision. This, perhaps, more than any thing else, may be said to afford the most striking evidence of the enlarged and progressive character of his mind. Yet the very same practice has been followed to a greater or less extent by all his successors, and still, with the exception of a railroad built by Americans, a telegraph system, a few French fashions, and a movement professing to have for its object the emancipation of the serfs, the country, beyond the limits of the seaport districts and those parts bordering on the States: of Germany, has advanced but little toward civilization since the reign of Peter.

With such a vast extent of territory, and such a variety of climates as it must necessarily embrace, it may seem rather a broad assertion to say that climate can be any obstacle to Russian civilization ; but let us glance for a moment at the general character of the country. Between the sixtieth and seventy-eighth degrees of north latitude, embracing a considerable portion of European and Asiatic Russia, the winters are exceedingly long and severe, the summers so short that but little dependence can be placed upon crops. The greater part of this region consists of lakes, swamps, forests of pine, and extensive and barren plains. The mines of Siberia may be regarded as the most valuable feature in this desolate region. The production of flax and hemp in the province of Petersburg, and the lumber products of the forests which are accessible to the capital, give some importance to such portions as border on the southern and European limit of this great belt; but its general features are opposed to agricultural progress. Whatever

of civilization can exist within it must be of forced growth, and be maintained under the most adverse circumstances. South of this, between the fifty-fifth and sixtieth degrees of latitude, comes a still wider and more extensive region, comprising St. Petersburg, Riga, Moscow, Smolensk, and a portion of Irkutsk and Nijni Novgorod. Here the summers are longer and the winters not quite so severe; but a large portion of the country consists of forests, sterile plains, and extensive marshes, and much of it is entirely unfit for cultivation. The European portions are well settled, and corn, flax, and hemp are produced wherever the land is available, and large bands of cattle roam over many parts of the country. In its general aspect, however, considering the duration and severity of the winters, and the large proportion of unavailable lands, I do not think it can ever become very productive in an agricultural point of view. Between fifty and fifty-five degrees latitude, embracing the valley of the Volga, is a more favored region, abounding in fertile lands, and the summers are longer, but the winters are still severe, especially in the eastern portions. From latitude forty-three to fifty, embracing portions of Kief, the Caucasus, and other southern possessions of the empire, the winters are comparatively temperate, and the summers warm and long; but here, again, a great portion of this country consists of mountains, arid plains, and deserts, and it is subject to extreme and terrible droughts. Here is a vast extent of territory, comprising about one hundred and sixty-five degrees of longitude and thirty-five of latitude, which contains within its limits a greater variety of bad climates, and a greater amount of land unavailable for any purposes of human life, than any equal compass of territory upon the globe, if we except Africa, which is at least doubtful. Within the limits of this vast, and, for the most part, inhospitable region, we find nearly all the races who, as far back as the history of mankind dates, have been the most addicted to predatory wars, and the indulgence of

every savage propensity growing out of an untamable nature — Tartars, Cossacks, gipsies, Turks, Circassians, Georgians, etc., and the Russians proper, whose wild Sclavonic blood contains very nearly all the vices and virtues that circulate through the veins of all these races, besides many enterprising and unscrupulous traits of character to which the inferior tribes could never aspire. Here we have a mixed population, estimated in 1856 at seventy-one millions, including North American possessions and tributary tribes, a great part of it composed of totally incongruous elements, and with a variety of religions, embracing about nine millions of Roman, Armenian, and irregular Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Mohammedans, Israelites, and Buddhists — the national creed being the Greco-Russe, which, it is estimated, is professed by about fifty millions of the inhabitants, including, of course, infants and young children, and many others who know nothing about it. To keep all these incongruous elements in order, and provide against foreign invasion, requires a standing army of 577,859 troops “for grand operations,” as the last almanac expresses it, besides various corps de reserve, and a navy of 186 fron steamers, 41 large sailing vessels, and numerous gun-boats and smaller vessels, in the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the White Sea, and the Sea of Azof. More than seven eighths of these are frozen up and totally unavailable for six months every year. It is estimated that, after allowing for the forces necessary to protect the home possessions of the empire, of which Russian Poland is the most troublesome, the number of troops that can be brought into active offensive operation does not, under ordinary circumstances, exceed two hundred thousand men, and it must be obvious, considering that Russia has but little external seaboard, and must submit to the rigors of a climate which locks up the best part of her navy at least half of every year, that she can never attain any great strength as a naval power. I am inclined to believe, therefore, that

most impreg formidable power at ions connected

while this great nation, or combination of nations, is, from the very nature of its climate and topography, almost impregnable to foreign invasion, it can never become a very formidable power at any great distance from home; and there are considerations connected with its form of government, and the difficulty or impracticability of changing it, which, in my opinion, forms an insuperable obstacle to the education of the people, and such general dissemination of intelligence among the masses as will entitle them to take the highest rank among civilized nations. Nor does the history of Russia during past ages afford much encouragement for a different view of the future. Democracy existed for several centuries before the country became subject to despotic rule, and from the ninth to the fifteenth century the aristocracy possessed no hereditary privileges ; the offices of state were accessible to all, and the peasantry enjoyed personal liberty. It was not until the reign of Peter the Great—the high-priest of civilization—that the serfs became absolute slaves subject to sale, with or without the lands upon which they lived. In respect to political liberty, there has been little, if any advance since the reign of the Empress Catharine, who accorded some elective privileges to certain classes of her subjects in the provinces, and reduced the administration of the laws to something like a system. The absurd pretense of Alexander I. in according to the Senate the right of remonstrating against imperial decrees is perfectly in keeping with all grants of power made by the sovereigns of Russia to their subjects. There is not, and can not be in the nature of things, a limited despotism. As soon as the subjects possess constitutional rights at all binding upon the supreme authority, it becomes another form of government. The great difficulty in Russia is, that the sovereign can not divest himself of any substantial part of his power without adding to that of the nobles and the aristocracy, who are already, by birth, position, and instinct, the class most to be feared, and most

« PreviousContinue »