Great Russia/Chapter VI

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I. The Fallacy of the Russian Peril

WHEN we assert that in this war of the nations the Allies stand as the champions of Democracy and Liberty and Civilization versus Militarism, Despotism and Reaction, we are almost invariably met with the ironical question: "What about Russia?" And when we assert that it is Prussia which is primarily and solely responsible for the appalling tragedy, the pro-German champions invariably retort with the counter-proposition that Germany is only waging a defensive war, that she is protecting herself, that she is protecting Europe against the "Slav peril," against "Russian barbarism," against the "Asiatic hordes," against the persecutors of the Jews, against a greedy and reactionary Government.

I have had to face this commonplace of the Russian peril in almost every meeting which I have recently addressed in the United States on behalf of the cause of the Allies. The "Russian Peril" was the great argument adduced by my pro-German opponents. But not only does the prejudice do considerable harm in the United States, it still wields considerable influence in England. Times have no doubt changed since the "Russian Peril" was denounced in this country and since the capture of Merv produced a frantic attack of "Mervousness." But the old "Mervousness" still seems to possess the faithful Radical guard and the old-fashioned commonplaces continue to be voiced even by such "advanced" people as Mr. Bernard Shaw, who does not generally deal in commonplaces. Mr. Bernard Shaw, in his "Common Sense About the War," where so much common sense is mixed up with so much nonsense, seems to have written on the assumption that genius and wit can take the place of a knowledge of the elementary facts of Russian history of which he is unfortunately totally devoid.

II. A Conspiracy of Slander Against Russia

There never was a race more continuously and more systematically maligned than the Slav race. Truly, it is significant that the word "Slav," which in the native speech means "glorious and illustrious," has become synonymous with "Slave." It is a tragic paradox that the very people who have been the one bulwark against Asiatic hordes and a protection against the Tartar invasion should still be denounced as a people of Asiatics and Tartars. It is a paradox that we should revile as barbarians the very nation whose sublime mission in history has been to win over the barbarians of Asia to Christianity and to European civilization.

III. Why the Russian People Are Misrepresented

The plain truth is that for practical purposes Russia still remains a "terra incognita" to the vast majority of Britishers and Americans. Even to-day there are probably not half a dozen writers of standing who have a first-hand knowledge of that great nation, with her population of 175,000,000. And the reasons for that ignorance are not far to seek. There are first the difficulties of the language. The Russian language is very beautiful, but it is also very difficult. It seems to be almost inaccessible to a people who in the past have been so refractory to the study of foreign languages as the British people. There are, further, the difficulties of distance and size. Russia is not a country which can easily be overrun by hurried holiday trippers. Even as you cannot learn the Russian language in two months, so you cannot "do" the Russian Empire in two weeks.

In the presence of those formidable obstacles, it is scarcely to be wondered at that the field of Russian controversy should have been left free to the enemies of Russia. And, unfortunately, Russia has many irreconcilable enemies. There are the Russian Nihilists and Revolutionists who have legitimate grievances against an autocratic Government, and who for generations have made London a hot-bed of political plots. There are the Polish refugees who for a hundred years have pleaded the cause of Polish freedom in every capital of Europe. And, above all, there are the Russian Jews who in every country have constituted themselves the passionate apostles of an anti-Russian propaganda.

The Jewish problem is a difficult problem in every country. It is becoming a difficult problem even in the United States. But it is especially acute in Russia. Russia has a larger Jewish population than all the other countries of the world together. Russian Poland alone has a Jewish population of five millions. Nor has she ever been able to assimilate or to conciliate her Jewish population. As Mr. Stephen Graham points out in his recent book, "Russia and the World," there has been in the past an irreconcilable conflict between the Russian and Jewish racial elements. At various times Russia has made desperate efforts to reject the alien element from her body politic. The deliberate and often cruel and always futile policy of the Government towards the Hebrew race, and the instinctive hatred of the people, have frequently resulted in pogroms and in organized massacres. And the victims of Russian persecution have naturally avenged themselves by maligning their oppressors. Surely no member of the Hebrew race can be blamed if he is not enamoured of the Russian Government.

All these hostile elements: Revolutionists, Polish refugees, and Polish-Russian Jews have conducted and are still conducting in Great Britain a systematic campaign of calumny such as the Irish irreconcilables have conducted, and are still conducting, in America, against Great Britain.

IV. Geographical Surroundings in Russia

If we wish to be just to the Russian Government and to the Russian people the first condition is that we should try to discriminate between what is owing to the fatality of Nature and what is owing to the intervention of Man. No one will ever understand Russia's political history who does not constantly keep in mind the close interdependence which exists in Russia between physics and politics, between the economic and the moral factors. This truth is so essential that I may be permitted to emphasize a paragraph in a previous chapter because that paragraph gives the key to the Russian problem.

"In no other country have geographical conditions left a more indelible imprint. Nowhere else have men felt more deeply the all-pervading influence of physical surroundings, of climate and of race. There are some countries, like England, where man has conquered Nature, where Nature has become the benevolent and ministering servant of man. There are other countries, like Russia, where it is Nature that always threatens to enslave man. In few other countries have men been compelled to submit to that physical despotism with a more passive resignation, the resignation of a Tolstoi, which is so representative of the race. And in no other country has Nature given more cruelly and more emphatically the lie to the noble dreams of idealists. Idealists may dream their dreams, proclaim their systems, and claim their reforms. But the great natural, economic, climatic forces in Russia continue to follow their immovable course, heedless of systems and reforms. The political destiny of Russia seems to have been written not in the book of philosophy, but in the stern and sibylline book of Nature; it has followed the bend of rivers and the curves of isothermic lines; and one guesses its mystery, and one catches its meaning more surely and more easily by listening to the murmur of forests and steppes than by listening to the most plausible theories of revolutionists."


V. The Essential and the Accidental in Russian History

And the second condition which any fair and judicious student of Russian history will have to take into account is a judicious discrimination between what is essential and what is merely accidental. The insensate murder of Alexander II, the emancipator of 40,000,000 serfs, the liberator of Bulgaria and Serbia, a crime which took place on the very eve of the proclamation of a new Russian Constitution, and which deflected the whole course of contemporary Russian history, was an accident and a catastrophe. On the contrary, the near Eastern and Far Eastern policy of Russia has been throughout the ages one of the dominating forces of Russian history. To the philosophical historian it is the general law, it is the normal development, it is the dominating forces and not the accidents and catastrophies which matter. It is the traditional policy, it is the popular aspirations and ideals which alone provide a firm and safe foundation for historical judgment.

Unfortunately it is the sensational accidents and not the unsensational developments of Russian history which have arrested the attention of historians and publicists. Popular Russian history continues to be written, as if Nihilism and regicide, as if persecutions and pogroms were the one normal and characteristic development of the Russian people. We are told little of the nobler traditions of the Government, of the deeper instincts of the people. We are told little of all that Russia has done for Christian civilization, through her victory over the Tartars, for European political freedom, through her victory over Napoleon, for the emancipation of small nationalities through her victories over the Turks. It is just as if Great Britain were to be judged solely by her pitiful failure in Ireland, or as if the evictions of small crofters in the Highlands were described as the characteristic event of Scottish history.

VI. Necessity of Distinguishing Between the Government and the People

We have already cautioned the student of Russian history against the axiom that every nation has the Government it deserves, and deserves the Government it has. That axiom is only true, and even then only partially true, when the people, as is the case in Prussia, have no profound sense of political liberty and of personal dignity, where they abjectly and willingly submit to that Government. It is only true where the subjects accept the full responsibility for the policy of their rulers, where they glorify, as the Prussians do glorify, every evil deed of the civil and military authorities.

On the other hand, it may happen that the people are much better than their Government, when it would be odiously unfair to hold them responsible for its excesses and abuses, where both Government and people are the victims of circumstances and accident, where the nation have made heroic efforts to reform their abuses.

And every student of Russian history knows that the Russian people are infinitely better than their bureaucracy, and that the bureaucracy is not representative of the people, who in cases innumerable have fought the battles of civic liberty. Russian history is an inspiring history, where even the ignorant moujik, where even feeble women have laid down their lives in defence of popular rights and human freedom.