National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 3/Russia's Democrats

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Russia's Democrats[edit]

By Montgomery Schuyler


There is nothing new under the sun. Recent events in Russia have not introduced an entirely new system of government into that great empire, but the revolution of the past few weeks, as we hastily but inaccurately call it, is in truth a reversal to an earlier form of democratic government in which the Russian people centuries ago had made progress and in which they stood in the forefront of the European nations.

The leaders of thought in Russia today have not evolved a novelty, nor are they experimenting with a novelty; they have simply brought back to life the centuries old popular saying of the people in Russia: “If the prince is bad, into the mud with him.”

We must admit, of course, that it has not been exactly the custom in the past few hundred years to act upon this saying in the case of rulers who had made themselves disliked by their subjects, but the underlying spirit was always there, waiting with infinite Russian patience for the men and the hour.

The whole social fabric of the early Slav was of a communal kind, but of a communism very different from that which afterward grew up embracing common property. Collectively the Slavs tilled the soil and carried on other occupations and collectively they lived in large timber houses.

It was an excellent system for the development of certain features of self-government; but in the troublous times in which it started, it was not sufficient to give any one collection of people a preponderance over other groups, and it was not suited to any great advance in civilization.

In time it was realized that some stronger and more centralized form of control was needed for the protection of the Slavs from their more warlike neighbors, the Asiatic tribes, by whom they were surrounded.

They took, then, voluntarily one of the most remarkable steps recorded by history, or at least vouched for by legend: they themselves called in to govern them two Scandinavian princes and a princess—Rurik, Igor, and Olga—and said to them, according to the story: “Our country is wide and fertile, but there is no order. Come and govern us.”

Eventually these princes and their followers became the new aristocracy of the time, very much as happened in England with the Normans, who were, if we believe tradition, the same race of people.

The union of the two elements gave the people what they lacked and formed the beginnings of the Russian Empire of today, with their mixture of democratic ideas with perfunctory obedience to established rulers.

In the early days princes could not exact obedience against the wish of the people. Unpopular rulers were dismissed with scant ceremony in medieval Russia and, especially in the palmy days of Novgorod “the Great,” there was a real self-governing republic in the heart of Russia.

The Tatar curse[edit]

In spite of the new blood thus acquired and the traditions of democracy which were rapidly and widely developing from these factors, the geography of the country once more showed its power in influencing history. The Russian communities were spreading and scattering all over the plain, and while they were laying the foundations for future greatness of empire there was not sufficient cohesion among them to develop the broad unity of purpose which was to be found so necessary if these little States were to resist invasion.

For along with the growth of the principalities came the great vital fact which stands out and dominates everything else in the history of medieval Russia, namely, the later Tatar invasions and the gradual subjugation by them of the Russian princes. In another country the inhabitants could have retreated to mountain and desert regions and held off the newcomers for centuries.

But the peaceful and peace-loving Russians were in no condition to resist these formidable barbarians, who, under the celebrated Genghiz Khan and other leaders, rapidly overran Russia and in a comparatively short space of time had brought the whole country under their rule. The very nature of the loose and highly localized government of the princes was their undoing and they suffered by it for centuries, and in fact until they took a leaf from the conquerors' book and themselves built up the central power they needed.

We must therefore, I think, regard the Mongol invasions as the underlying cause of the development of the autocratic principle in Russia. They built up a superstructure of Oriental despotism and autocracy, which, in one form or another, has lasted in Russia until the present time.

Even in far-away times the Russian peasant was impatient of too much control over his personal liberty and his property, and when he was not strong enough to resist or powerful enough to drive out the offending prince he did the next best thing—disappeared himself, with all his belongings, and founded a new settlement elsewhere. This fact must be kept constantly in mind in any study of the reasons why the Tatars obtained and kept for so long such a hold upon the Russian principalities; the people and their rulers were not united by bonds sufficiently strong to make them fight against the invaders.

The peasants were originally holders of land and members of rural communes; they were constantly trying to maintain their rights of freedom of domicile and movement, but the princes and nobles were as constantly attempting to limit and nullify these rights, so that they might not be deprived of the services of the peasants on their lands.

In the reigns succeeding that of the terrible Ivan, the principles of autocracy replaced whatever forms of popular government there had been. The state of the small farmers and peasants slowly became worse and they degenerated into the position of appanages of the land on which they lived.

The first Romanoff was elected Tsar by an assembly[edit]

It is a curious fact, and one little appreciated now, that after some years of trouble and rebellion, Michael Romanoff, first Tsar of that name, was elected by an assembly. He did not succeed to the throne, nor had he any particular right to be chosen.

Once more for a time the Tatar teachings were forgotten in Russia to some extent and there was a partial return to the older methods.

The fact that Michael had been elected limited to some extent his autocratic powers, the more so as his election was the result of several compromises between the different factions of the nobles and courtiers, and he did not feel strong enough in the support of any one group to oppose the will of other cliques.

He, therefore, returned to the system of obtaining counsel and support from the people by means of “zemskii sobory,” which were not exactly parliaments, but assemblies representing different districts and classes of society. In these conventions the greatest part was taken by the representatives of the middle classes. One result of these assemblies was the production of a new code of laws.

But Michael's successor, Alexis, suppressed them and put autocracy firmly on its feet, there to remain until the present day.

Absolutism was then needed[edit]

However much we may regret the disappearance of popular government from Russia under the early Romanoff emperors, we must admit that it was necessary for the growth and expansion of the Empire. The Tatars probably never would have been driven out when they were under the old system of petty multitudes of principalities, each jealous of the other and intriguing against it at the court of the khans.

Absolutism at that stage of the world's development was needed for the firm control of an enormous territory such as was the Russian plain, which of itself formed no obstacle to foreign invasion and which tended to produce a uniformity of race and government.

Peter the Great could not have done what he did in bringing his country into the ranks of modern States if he had not had an autocratic form of government. He realized fully the influence of the army in establishing him firmly in the new absolutism, and in 1716, in his military statutes, he declared: “His Majesty is sovereign and autocrat. He is accountable to no one in the world.”

From the time of Ivan the Terrible it was autocracy which, more than anything else, contributed to the long history of territorial extensions of Russia and her prestige, such as it was, abroad. In an endless cycle, territorial expansion led to political extension of this doctrine, and this to new territorial growth.

By the end of the reign of Peter an autocratic emperor was head of the nation, the church, and the army, and held absolutely in his own hands all spiritual and temporal power.

The restoration of self-government begun[edit]

The famous Emancipation Act of the Emperor Alexander II in 1861 suddenly altered the status of the peasants and from a condition of practical slavery made them freemen once more.

It was soon found necessary to give them a certain share in local self-government and a somewhat complicated adjustment of this matter was arranged. There was a village council called the volost; this was composed solely of peasants and was a sort of development historically of the ancient mir, or commune, a survival of the old family rule. The volost, however, was soon seen to be inadequate and a larger unit, the zemstvo, was created by an imperial decree in 1864.

The best English translation of this word, perhaps, is “county council.” It is an assembly of deputies from the volosts, to which are added a certain number of nobles, so that peasants and proprietors are seated together. Above the district zemstvo again are the provincial councils, consisting of chosen representatives of the lower councils.

This system worked fairly satisfactorily for a number of years and had made the beginning of self-government in parliamentary fashion once more in current use in Russia. In 1889, however, the government decided to have its own direct officers in each rural district, and for that purpose appointed zemski natchalniki, or rural overseers, to live in each district.

As these petty officials were appointed not by the people, but by the central administration, their presence was not welcome, and their interference with local affairs and their constant surveillance of the people brought about many conflicts with the local authorities. They were designed to be a sort of guardian for the peasants, on the theory that the latter were unfit to govern themselves, but in reality, of course, they were spies.

The legal economic status of the peasantry, it must be remembered, is that of a minor not fully competent as yet to manage his own business or private affairs.

The decision, however, that the peasants of Russia were not capable of self-government, even in the ordinary affairs of the community, while convenient for the bureaucracy, was not very successful as a way out of the practical difficulties arising from the making of freemen out of serfs in such enormous numbers.

But the people's greatest need—education—was denied[edit]

What the great mass of the Russian people needed and what should have been put into execution as soon as the emancipation of the serfs was effected was a system of popular education embracing the whole people, in the course of which they should have received the instruction necessary for their first attempts to resume any self-government on the new scale.

Had this course been at once followed and continued until the present time, it is very doubtful if Russia would have had on her hands the terrible tragedies which followed the emancipation.

The government seemed to be afraid to give the common people any education, even to the extent of allowing them to read and write. It thought, apparently, that with education would come dissatisfaction with the existing form of government, and that with dissatisfaction would come some attempt to bring about reforms.

So the bureaucracy adopted the old expedient of burying its head in the sand and in refusing knowledge to the people. This was naturally only partially successful. Education in schools might be lacking, but it was impossible to keep a hundred and fifty million human beings permanently in the dark and without knowledge as to how the rest of the world was living and progressing.

The Russian peasants may be illiterate, as, indeed, according to statistics, about 70 per cent of them are, but they have the shrewd intelligence of the peasant all over the world, and their sturdy common sense makes up for lack of schooling to a great extent.

Thus, in spite of all opposition, the rural and urban assemblies retained the germ of local government, and in spite of the dual control, as the result of which much of their influence was nullified, they did have a certain value in airing abuses and suggesting improvements. Their existence was often threatened, but never entirely stopped.

Note, however, that there was no national congress or assembly of any kind from the eighteenth century down to the foundation of the new Imperial Duma, in 1906.

The first national congress in 280 years[edit]

The members of this body were to be chosen by electors from all over the country. The new law gave the suffrage to every man over 25 years of age who had a fixed domicile and a certain property qualification. In rural districts those peasants had votes who were fathers of families, together with the rural landowners, nobles, merchants, and members of the clergy; in the cities, State officials, members of the public services, and proprietors with certain qualifications. Industrial workers who could prove six months' continuous labor in establishments having at least fifty employees could also vote.

The Duma could express views, but was nearly helpless in carrying into effect any reforms. But it had a certain influence for good in its very existence, and after a succession of abortive sessions, the later assemblies developed a courage which was truly remarkable when the forces opposed to it are considered.

It is not too much to say, in the light of recent events, that the Duma and what it stands for is responsible directly and primarily for the overthrow of the Romanoff dynasty and the establishment of a new form of government in Russia.

The reason for the failure of the revolutionary movement which convulsed Russia in the years immediately succeeding the Russo-Japanese War is that the methods were too radical and too reminiscent of the old nihilism to be popular, even with the milder groups of revolutionists.

The arguments of that time consisted in bombs thrown at unpopular ministers or officials who, although not disliked personally, were supposed to embody the principles of the autocratic régime too closely. It is doubtful if these enthusiasts ever had the support of any large element of the Russian population outside of the acknowledged “advanced” visionaries.

The leaders of the movements of 1905 and the succeeding years were men whose abilities and whose methods in no way held the confidence either of the middle classes or the peasants.

In fact, what with the devotion of the peasant to the “Little Father” as typifying the supreme head of Church and State, and his innate distrust of all strangers, it had never been possible for the revolutionists to get any wide support among the lower classes. In many cases the transplanted peasants who made up the industrial classes in the cities had quite openly taken that side, but industrialism as opposed to agriculture had never enough votaries to make their support effective.

The riots and general disturbances of 1905 were largely confined to the cities and to workers on the various railways who had been in sufficiently close touch with urban life to make them quicker to feel the need of change and progress.

The present leaders are far-sighted[edit]

The leaders of the new movement, however, have learned their lesson. Instead of sporadic instances of terrorism, followed by violence, they have entered upon a campaign of education, carried out systematically and with restraint, for the purpose of having all the people with them when the opportune time to strike should come.

They eagerly seized the opportunity of the war and its consequent needs to illustrate in a practical way how much better they could manage things if given the power, and the Russian, who may be slow, but who is not dull, has learned the lesson so graphically put before him.

It is, of course, too soon after the stirring events of the last few weeks to estimate with any degree of accuracy just what result the overthrowing of absolutism will have on the future of the Russian people. The peasants—that is, of course, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Empire—have, since the emancipation, been singularly indifferent to their government except in the way of interest in the whole agrarian question.

If the dynasty and the bureaucracy had seen fit to give the peasants a satisfactory solution of the problems arising from land ownership, as they so easily could have done, I doubt greatly if there would have been any revolution at the present time.

Even a fairly good rule would have satisfied these simple people. The limited amount of self-government they enjoyed in the rural assemblies, hampered though it was, was enough for the most pressing questions of local interest.

These assemblies, however, naturally had no authority to dig down to the root of the peasants' grievances—the unequal distribution of land and the lack of any just system for adjusting complaints thereon—and could not on that account be considered satisfactory.

What undoubtedly had more effect than anything else in influencing the peasant favorably toward the new government and against the old was the fact that shortly after the beginning of the present war it was seen that the regular commissariat department of the War Office was quite unequal to carrying out the tasks imposed by the mobilization of the millions of men called to the colors in Russia, namely, of provisioning, clothing, and transporting the men according to requirements.

Associations of the people[edit]

The first mobilization was carried out in 1914, in the summer-time, and did not entail any great amount of physical hardship on the recruits. When the winter of that year had arrived, however, and the cold had made transportation difficult, the suffering was great.

In many cases troops had to be sent several weeks' journey by rail in unheated freight cars, without any conveniences, and if it had not been for the splendid work of the zemstvo committees thousands would have frozen and starved.

Each local assembly, both in city and country, formed special committees, as they had done in the Japanese war, and, working with that perfect spirit of cooperation which distinguishes Russians of every walk in life when interested in any common object, they rapidly and energetically took over practically the whole task of providing food and other needed supplies for the soldiers.

Booths were established at railway stations where the men could get bread and hot tea on the arrival of the troop trains; nurses and doctors were on hand to look after any who might need their services, and a whole system of first aid was soon in effect.

Soon it was found necessary for these committees to take up the question of buying supplies in quantity and in transporting these supplies to where they were needed. This was followed by the organization of boot and clothing factories, help in munition works, and gradually, but steadily, the zemstva took over practically every function of the quartermaster's department of the army and navy.

The disappearance of the drunkard[edit]

Another phase, and one perhaps as important, if not more so, than the development of popular aid to the military forces of the country, is the immense expansion of the already existing coöperative societies since the beginning of the war. This growth is very closely connected with the abolition of vodka and the consequent entire sobriety of the whole nation for a period which is already of nearly three years' duration.

Strong drink had always been the one absolutely essential thing for the peasant. Whatever else he lacked, he must have his drunken spree once in so often, and no obligation, no duty, and no work ever interfered with the far more important task of periodically getting drunk.

As each spree took at least three days' time—one day to get drunk, one to lie drunk, and one to recover his senses—the working time of the average peasant was greatly diminished. To this was added the due observance of all State and Church holidays and anniversaries, and also bad weather, so that in all probability 150 days would be a large labor average for a year.

When the Emperor “by a stroke of the pen,” as is so often said, wiped out the great curse of drink from the people, he not only added greatly to their economic forces, but to their military fitness. It is now widely felt that one of the most potent reasons for the ill-success of the Russian arms in the Japanese war was the constant state of intoxication of so many of the officers and men.

With the ending of vodka, however, a great deal of spare time was thrown on the people. Drinking was one of the chief amusements of millions of men who could neither read nor write, and if disorders, if the mischief which Satan always finds for idle hands, was to be avoided, something must be substituted in the way of clean and healthful recreation.

It must be remembered that, as a result of the dislike of the authorities for all assemblies of people, no matter of how innocent a character, there had been practically no lectures, concerts, theaters, or other forms of pastime, if we except the excellent military band concerts in the public parks on summer evenings.

One of the first cares of the coöperative societies, with their millions of members, after the abolition of drink was to get up diversions for the neighborhood, which were usually held in the lofts over the coöperative stores or warehouses in the villages. Cinematographs, amateur theatricals, concerts, and other community activities were started and had great success.

The money once spent for drink now stays in the peasants' pockets or is put in the rural branches of the government savings bank, and the total deposits of that institution have swelled incredibly in the past two years.

Growth of the people's associations is phenomenal[edit]

The growth of these coöperative societies has been phenomenal. For instance, in one district alone the number has been increased from 50 to 302. The societies for wholesale purchase have increased from 40 to 400.

There are now 60 credit unions working, with some 10,000 separate coöperative credit societies. In Moscow there has been organized a Central Coöperative Credit Bank, which in 1915 did a business of $140,000,000.

It is impossible to imagine how widespread have become the ramifications of these unions and societies. There are now building or in operation flour mills, oil works, starch works, paper and sugar plants, and machine shops. In one town we have an electric-light plant, giving people light for a dollar a year.

There is no doubt that in thus helping their members to the number of millions these societies have in no small degree contributed to the military successes of Russia, for in every instance they can be found working in close harmony with the committees of the zemstvos engaged in the buying and furnishing of the enormous quantities of supplies needed by the armies.

Under the leadership of devoted and able administrators, the numberless committees appointed by the various zemstvos have been untiring in reaching out for new fields of activity, and only the suspicion and jealousy of the official classes has prevented them from turning Russia into one great communistic settlement.

The catalogue of the work undertaken and carried to success by these committees would be long and meaningless. Some of the more interesting of these phases, however, may properly be touched upon.

Let us take, for example, almost any point on any railroad leading from the interior to the fighting front of Russia at the present time. As you emerge from your railroad car at the station, you probably see on a switch in the yard a long train of cars painted gray, with big, red crosses on the sides, and, on looking closer, you can read, “Hospital train for active army service of the … Zemstvo.” Into this train stretcher-bearers are carrying wounded men from motor ambulances outside the station, similarly marked, which have just come in from the temporary hospitals established by the same committee just behind the lines of trenches.

In coöperative effort Russia can teach us much[edit]

Nurses, orderlies, doctors, medicines, and dressings—all are provided by these same units and without expense to the government. In each city, town, and village women are organized into groups—sewing, making bandages, knitting warm sleeping things, or doing something else useful—much as they are in all the other belligerent countries, but with a far greater degree of coördination and less of confusion and duplication of effort than is to be found anywhere else.

In a country so singularly inefficient as Russia is in many ways, there is yet much for us to learn in the way of coöperative effort and aid.

One of the most interesting private institutions, which works along the same lines as do the committees just described, is what is known as “Purushkevitch Points.” Mr. Purushkevitch has been a member of several of the Dumas, and at the beginning of the war organized at his own expense a number of “points.”

I visited and made a thorough inspection of a “point,” situated not far from the city of Dvinsk, on the northern front of Russia. We started out in a fast American automobile and, after going as far as was thought safe for the car toward the front-line trenches, we left it and proceeded on foot to the point. This was a settlement some couple of miles behind the front trenches.

A Sister of Mercy was in general charge of the whole work. Under her were three doctors—men too old for the active work at the front, but quite ready to perform any minor operations or give any necessary dressings or other aid. They had a well-equipped hospital in a tent surmounted by a large Red Cross flag.

Other tents were dining, dressing, and sleeping rooms, and still others contained supplies and quarters for the large staff of orderlies and attendants.

The sister in charge told me that there had formerly been three sisters there, but that the cold and dampness had been too much for the others, who had been forced to go home to recover their health. She showed me a new hut which was being built for her under the shelter of a near-by hill, which it was hoped would be drier and more comfortable than the tent she had.

There are about 25 of these “points” scattered at various places along the front, and the intention at each one of them is that anybody who comes along shall be taken in, whether prisoner, officer, visitor, general, or private, and given whatever be may be in need of.

Facilities are provided for hot baths and clean suits of underwear for tired soldiers; good and bountiful meals are supplied smoking hot for any one who is hungry; beds are there for as long a stay as may be found necessary, and in no case are questions asked.

I enjoyed a very good dinner during my visit. The fittings were of the simplest, but everything was clean and good. I peeked into the bath-house and found there some half dozen soldiers thoroughly enjoying a steaming vapor bath. They had just been allowed to come from the trenches and were shortly going back. Other groups of soldiers were lying about at rest, enjoying a smoke and perhaps a game of some kind.

This work is the nearest approach to what would be called Young Men's Christian Association effort in this country which I found anywhere on the Russian front. In general the men simply lie around their barracks when they are not working, unless they are attending church or playing some game in the open.

The gratitude of the soldiers[edit]

All of this work was at first greatly resented by the officials who should have done it themselves, but before long even they realized what was being done in this quiet, inconspicuous way, and today the whole army realizes that without this splendid service the war, so far as Russia is concerned, would have been over long ago.

Under these circumstances the defects of bureaucracy and the good work of the unofficial organizations became more of a reality to the peasant soldier than they could otherwise have been, and his gratitude, while silent, was none the less sincere.

The zemstvo assemblies, which have long been the most liberal influences at work in Russia, have now become the most popular. They have unbounded influence on the people, and under the able and devoted leadership of such men as Prince Lvoff, President of the Association of Zemstvo Committees, and other patriots, they have, more than anything else, contributed toward the present changes in Russia.

The Liberal element, under the leadership of men like Paul Milyukoff, now Minister for Foreign Affairs; Alexander Guchkoff, President of the Third Duma, and a small group of far-seeing men, has had to contend, on the one hand, with the old regime, the dynasty, and the bureaucracy, and on the other with that far larger number of men and women who in their desire for a new and free government have not stopped at any means to attain their ends, and whose preaching and carrying out of the doctrines of anarchy and terrorism have retarded by so many years the establishment of free and representative government throughout the length and breadth of the great Russian Empire.

Russia's strength[edit]

What will be the result of the revolution on the present war? That is the question now uppermost in the minds not only of Allied statesmen, but of every one in the United States as well. Certainly, in a general way, this is not difficult of answer.

If the new leaders can succeed in bringing actively to their side, without foolish opposition from the more radical elements, the vast majority of the people and the rank and file of the army, they will have no trouble in bringing, or rather keeping, Russia in the war, in a position of greatly increased strength and vigor.

The mere fact that in the course of a long and bloody war Russia has been able at the same time to fight her foes at home and abroad proves most strongly her innate strength and steadfastness.

I have often been asked why Russia has not done better in this war; why, with her millions of man-power, she has seemed to have had victory time and time again in her grasp only to lose it by some mistake.

It has been impossible to make people realize what Russia was fighting—two foes at once, more than any of the other nations engaged in the war has had to contend against. We shall probably not know for long, if ever, what a struggle has been carried on within Russia against the forces which sought to deliver her helpless and bound to her enemies abroad.

Up to now the news has all seemed to favor the probability that the new Russia will succeed in forming a stable and powerful government on the ruins of the old, and in doing so she will have the earnest good wishes of all her allies and all her friends, and in the latter category may now be placed for the first time the whole of the United States.

For it must be admitted that in this country one of the strongest reasons for not entering the war, either actively or passively, on the side of the Allies has been the thought that in so doing we were backing Russian absolutism, the antithesis of everything for which our own form of government stands, the symbol of absolutism and terrorism, of autocracy against democracy, of darkness against light.

Source: Montgomery Schuyler (March 1917), “Russia's Democrats”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(3): 210–240.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).