Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/My adventures with a passport in Russia
MY ADVENTURES WITH A PASSPORT IN RUSSIA.
PART. I. SHOWING HOW I GOT IT.
It is one of the hardest things in the world to form a just estimate of a foreign country. We seldom see other nations fully, and still more rarely judge impartially of what we do see: such is the temptation to under-rate and over-rate, according to our own special tendency. When we remember the contradictory representations we daily hear and read of the countries in our own immediate neighbourhood, modesty may well restrain us from pronouncing any dogmatic opinion on those which are physically, intellectually, and morally, more remote. In the case of such a country as Russia, the difficulty amounts almost to an impossibility. Hence we have had two diametrically opposite representations of that empire; both false, because both one-sided and exaggerated. According to one set of writers, Russia is a paradise; according to another set, it is a sort of pandemonium. If you believe the one, the late Emperor Nicholas was an angel; if you believe the other, he was little better than a devil. He was neither: he certainly had not an angelic appearance; but, often as I have seen him, I never could detect any signs of the opposite physiognomy in his countenance.
I confess I am not surprised at these contradictory accounts. Russia is, in itself, a land of contradictions. The proverb, that extremes meet, might have originated there. The Russian empire is too large and diversified to be characterised by a single epithet. It includes a larger number of distinct races blended together than any other country in the world: it is the home of almost unnumbered tribes, bound together by the tie of a common government, but separated from each other in every other respect. There you may see, in one nation, all the grades of civilisation, from the most primitive barbarism to the highest refinement.
Even the climate ranges from the most oppressive heat to the most insufferable cold, because its territory extends from the Frozen Ocean almost to the Torrid Zone. Nay, on the same spot, I have seen the thermometer rising to a hundred degrees in the shade, in summer, and becoming useless—through the freezing of the quicksilver—in winter. But even this is not all: I have experienced the extremes of heat and cold on the same day. Travelling once in an open carriage from Siberia to St. Petersburgh, one evening in June, after a hot summer day, I was soaked through with the rain; during the succeeding night, my wet clothes froze on my body, and were gently thawed by the next morning’s sun; and, by the time 4 p.m. came round again, I was so boiled as to envy a duckling in a pond. The same contradictory elements exist in the manners, habits, and institutions of Russia. I once saw a clever Russian thief pick a pocket with one hand, and cross himself in prayer with the other.
In attempting to account for these incongruities, we must not lose sight of the fact that Russia is a hybrid: a cross-breed between the east and the west; related to both, yet distinguished from each. This has been its traditional character for ages; but, in modern times, influences have been brought to bear upon it, which have still further complicated its original contrariety. The old Slavonic stock was already the most oriental of all the European races, in habits and tendencies, as well as in geographical position. But the eruption of the Mongol and Tartar hordes, in the thirteenth century, tended to a further isolation of Russia from the rest of Europe: and, though the successors of Tchinggis Khan did not long retain their conquest, they left their footprints upon the nation; and, to this day, you may read upon every page of the national character of Russia, “Tchinggis Khan, his mark.”
To make the national discrepancies still more glaring, Peter the Great violently forced back the current of the national life into the westward channel; and his policy has been carried out by his successors, who have artificially imposed an occidental civilisation upon a people whose oriental tendencies are constantly at work. We have too much lost sight of this consideration in our estimate of Russia. We have judged a semi-Asiatic people by a European standard. We expected to see a horse: and, lo! we find it is but a mule; and we express our disappointment in looks of contempt and words of scorn. The fault is our own; we disqualify ourselves from admiring what is really good, by comparing it with what is good in a different order of things. We might have known that the animal was a mule; and, when we have once cheerfully recognised that fact, we may see that even the mule has beauties and good qualities of its own.
This oriental tendency may be detected in every department of Russian thought and life. One of its most striking developments is to be seen in the jealousy with which all foreigners are regarded. The Russians cannot get rid of the impression that you must have some sinister end in view in visiting their country.
An Englishman can scarcely form an idea of the petty annoyances to which a foreigner is subjected on his arrival at St. Petersburg. He is first required to give, in writing, a long and circumstantial declaration on a variety of subjects: he has then to undergo a personal examination at the bureau of the secret police; and woe be to him if he falter, or make a single false step, or say anything that seems inconsistent with his written, and perhaps forgotten, declaration. If his examination prove satisfactory to the police, he will receive a passport at the foreign-office. This precious passport system, now happily abolished by the other northern powers, is carried to absurd lengths in Russia; indeed, if you wished to invent a practical burlesque on the principle of passports, you could not do better than adopt the Russian plan of surveillance. You cannot legally enter a town, or sleep at an inn, or even spend a night at a friend’s house, without a passport. You cannot change your residence, even if you were going to live next door, without first sending your passport to the police-office.
To an Englishman, accustomed to move as freely as the air he breathes, without any one daring to ask his business, under fear of being sent about his own business, the passport system is one of the greatest nuisances in existence.
The Russian passport, in addition to the owner’s name, address, profession, and so forth, contains a minute description of his personal appearance. Sometimes, in this description, curious mistakes are made. A passport, which I had in St. Petersburg, some time ago, depicted me in terms which led to unpleasant consequences. It so happened, that seven years after I originally received it, I had occasion to return to Russia. I took my passage by the steamer which plies between London and Cronstadt; but we had not lost sight of the shores of England, before I remembered that I had not provided myself with a new passport, and I knew very well that, without it, I could gain no admission into Russia, except as a suspected personage. The next few days were anxious ones for me. At first, the weather being rough and stormy, a touch of sea-sickness made it a matter of supreme indifference to me whether I had a duly attested label or not; but as the weather cleared up, and my mind cleared up with it, I became thoroughly awake to the awkward scrape in which my forgetfulness had placed me. I spoke to no one about it; I kept the secret locked up in my own bosom. But, after much inward musing, I fixed upon a line of action. We were to stay some hours at Copenhagen on our way, and I resolved to spend those hours in an attempt to procure a posthumous passport there.
Unfortunately it was six o’clock in the morning when we landed at Copenhagen, and the captain of our steamer distinctly forewarned us all that he would start precisely at ten. I had only four hours to work in—and so early in the morning, too! I hired the first car I saw, and, promising the driver a double fare, ordered him to gallop off to the English embassy. I had become acquainted with the Secretary of Legation during a former visit to Copenhagen; but the Ambassador, the late Sir Henry Wynn, who had been in England at that time, unfortunately I had never seen. My great hope was, of course, in the secretary. What was my dismay when I found that he was not at home! I inquired for Sir Henry, and ascertained, for my consolation, that he was at that moment comfortably dreaming of diplomacy in all the luxury of eider-down quilts, and would not be visible till nine o’clock. Off to the Russian embassy, to see if early rising is a virtue universally abjured in the diplomatic world! Alas, I found that his Russian Excellency was as comfortably preserved from the toil of office as his brother of England. The only hope left to sustain my patience was, that the Russian Excellency would be visible an hour earlier than the English. Full of gratitude to the Russian diplomatic world for being a-head of the English in the virtue of early rising, but otherwise in no very pleasant frame of mind, I went to renew my acquaintance with Thorwaldsen’s celebrated group of statues, the Christ and the Twelve Apostles. The sublime composure, the serene majesty of the Christ (in which, by-the-bye, Thorwaldsen’s own magnificent head is reproduced), with the Divine promise inscribed above,—“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”;—did certainly calm my angry feelings, and made me heartily ashamed of giving way to petty annoyances. I left the church in a serener frame of mind than I had entered it, and better fitted patiently to bear whatever might be my lot.
As it turned out there was enough to endure: two of my precious four hours were gone; and I had not yet advanced a single step towards obtaining the indispensable passport, and only two short hours remained before the steamer would start positively for Cronstadt, and I should perhaps be left behind.
The clock was striking eight when I re-entered the Russian Embassy. As I was sitting in the reception-room, a shabby-looking man, robed in a dirty old dressing-gown, passed by me and entered a room.
“Why did you not speak to his Excellency?” asked an attendant.
“Is that the ambassador?”
“Of course it is; what did you expect?”
I could scarcely realise it. I knew that the baron was one of the most accomplished diplomatists of Russia, a thorough classical scholar, a master of most of the modern languages, and the idol of the drawing-room; and, accustomed though I was to the negligence of a Russian déshabillé, I could scarcely imagine that the shabby-looking old gentleman, whom I had seen, was really the elegant and polished representative of majesty. So much for judging by outward appearance. When the baron re-appeared, I scrutinised him more closely; a massive projecting brow, thick, bushy eyebrows, stern piercing grey eyes, and a most hard and resolute mouth and chin, gave no small indication of intellectual power, and, at the same time, proclaimed that that power was under the control of a stern and relentless will.
When I had explained my business, he severely and almost angrily asked me, why I troubled him about a passport.
“Go to the office,” he added, “and give it to one of the clerks; he will see that it is properly viséd.”
“Ah, but, your excellency, I have no passport,” said I, seeing that my only chance was to be perfectly frank with him.
“What do you mean?”
“The fact is, I forgot to procure one in England.”
“And you have the impudence to come here and expect me to give you one, without knowing anything about you!”
I frankly told him my history.
“And you expect to palm off that plausible tale on me!” he said. “It sounds very pretty; but I would recommend you to go on the stage—there is a sphere for your talents! A very likely story! An Englishman, coming to Russia, which the press of his country is every day crying down as the most despotic and restrictive country in the world, actually forgets his passport! A very likely story, indeed! I know why you have no passport!—you could not get one, sir,—you are too well known to our agents.”
“Yes, indeed. You Englishmen fancy that we know nothing about you. The fact is, we know more about you than you do yourselves: we have our agents in England, who know more of your affairs than you imagine. It is an important part of my duty to prevent improper persons from entering Russia; and how am I to know that you are not an improper person?—indeed, you look very much like one.”
Up to this time I had been perfectly cool; but at this point I was roused into uttering some strong expressions, which I had cause to repent afterwards. I had forgotten that (as will soon be seen) I was still in the ambassador’s power. Leaving him under a strong feeling of irritation, I proceeded to the English Embassy, and had an interview with Sir Henry Wynn. I was delighted to find a frank, bluff, fine old English gentleman, who heartily expressed his wish to help a fellow-countryman to the utmost of his power. Still, he was rather incredulous at first, and made the same objections to my story, though in politer terms, as the Russian minister had done.
“Of course I don’t mean to doubt your word, sir; but your story is strange—very strange;” was the substance of his comment. When I alluded to the Secretary of Legation, he said: “It is very strange and very unfortunate that the only gentleman you know at the Embassy should happen to be the very man that is away.”
However, I succeeded at last in convincing him that I was no impostor, and that my statement, however strange, was true. Forthwith I received a passport; nay, the dear old gentleman was so very kind as to fill up the form in his own handwriting. Perhaps you suppose that my difficulties were now over. Far from it: they had only commenced. I had to go back to the Russian Embassy to have my passport counter-signed; and this was the necessary process which I had forgotten in the warmth of my indignation. How to face his Russian Excellency again? that was the question. There was no help for it; so, putting a bold face on the matter, I went to the office. A clerk disappeared with my passport: and, in his absence, my solitary reflections were anything but pleasant. After the scene which had taken place that morning, it was but a forlorn hope to expect that I should be more favourably received now. I remember distinctly that there was a clock in the office, which, in the death-like stillness, worried me by so deliberately ticking off my precious moments. I looked up at the dial: it was close upon ten o’clock. In a few minutes the steamer would be gone. Presently, the clerk returned, and told me that the Baron wanted to see me himself. “Oho!” thought I, “in this case, even such a simple thing as the visé of a passport cannot be managed by a clerk.”
When I entered the room where the ambassador sat, I found him conversing in an undertone with a gentleman whom I supposed to be his secretary. I was the subject of their conversation; and they evidently did not intend that I should understand what they said, for they chose the Russ to talk in. Now, though an Englishman by race, I was born in the Russian empire, and the Russian tongue was familiar to me from my childhood; was, indeed, something like a second mother-tongue. So I understood every word they said.
“It is very curious,” said his excellency: “if the English Ambassador had not known him, he surely would not have given him such a passport as this; and yet, if the fellow had known the ambassador, he would not have been fool enough to come here first this morning.”
I could not gainsay the logic; it was evidently a deep mystery to the ambassadorial intellect. Unable to solve the mystery, he looked up, and, fixing his stern searching eyes on me, seemed as if he would read me through and through. I met his eye without quailing before it. Clever diplomatist as he was, I felt that I had checked him; and the consciousness gave me assurance and strength. For a few moments, the scrutinising looks that passed between us seemed likely to merge into a battle of eyes. Thanks to a singular power I have of keeping my eyes open without flinching, I gained the victory in this preliminary skirmish. Finding that he could not frown me down, the Baron proceeded to question me; and the diplomatic fencing commenced in right earnest.
“Are you acquainted with Sir Henry Wynn?” he asked.
Now I knew, from his conversation with the secretary, which way that question tended; and, feeling that it was dangerous, I resolved to parry it.
“Your Excellency has already informed me,” I said, “that you know more about us than we do ourselves: you surely need not apply to me for such a paltry piece of information; about a matter, too, relating not to England, about which you know so much from your agents, but to Copenhagen, which lies under your Excellency’s own eyes.”
“If you know Sir Henry Wynn, why did you apply to me for a passport this morning, instead of going to him at once?”
“Your Excellency must pardon me for presuming to correct you: I did not tell you that I knew Sir Henry; I merely left it to your Excellency’s universal knowledge.” Not that I could not satisfactorily answer his question; but I began to feel a sort of malicious pleasure in teasing him; and, moreover, by irritating him, I hoped to divert his attention from the original question which was so dangerous.
“Answer my question, sir! Why did you not go first to Sir Henry?”
“Aha!” thought I, “I have gained my object: his Excellency has forgotten the most dangerous and most important part of the question.” Aloud I said: “Simply because your Excellency happens to be an earlier riser than Sir Henry; and the steamer by which I came was to have sailed at ten o’clock.”
After some more passes between us, in which I twitted him again, and more than once, about his universal knowledge—and this time not merely because I was amused at his official sensitiveness, but because I thought that that was the way in which I could the soonest bring the interview to a close—the ambassador gave up the cross-examination—as if owning himself foiled for once by the simplicity of a true story.
“I can make nothing of the fellow,” he said in Russ, turning to the secretary: “what to do?”
“I don’t see what you can do but visé the passport; I scarcely think it advisable to dishonour the English ambassador’s pass except in extreme cases.”
“This is an extreme case.”
“Scarcely: your Excellency has no proof.”
“But there is strong suspicion.”
“Exactly; and therefore I would affix the private mark of suspicion to the passport.”
Accordingly, my passport was countersigned and returned to me; and I hurried back to the steamer. I found it still at the quay, puffing and snorting, and evidently waiting for me. It was with inexpressible satisfaction and relief that I stepped again on deck, and received the congratulations of the captain and my fellow-passengers, to whom I told my story by way of apology for detaining them beyond the proper time. So far I had triumphed; but I had overheard enough to make me dubious of the final result. “The private mark of suspicion!”—those terribly mysterious words kept haunting me all the way to Cronstadt. How much might they imply? I knew that they portended something unpleasant: I afterwards ascertained that they might involve Siberia and the knout. I examined the passport at leisure, and tried to detect the private mark of suspicion. I could see nothing. It might be in the form of one of the letters; or it might be in the flourish at the end of the Baron’s signature. I studied the document as I have never studied any similar document before or since. But at last I gave up the attempt in despair.
PART II. SHOWING WHAT BECAME OF IT.
When we arrived off Cronstadt, a number of Russian gentlemen came on board the steamer to examine our passports. I was summoned into the saloon, where I found the Board of Examiners sitting in solemn conclave, with an old naval officer at their head. Now it so happened, by one of those freaks of fortune, or, rather, one of those appointments of Providence, which seem so strange to us mortals, that I subsequently became well acquainted with the president of the Board; and he afterwards gave me a piece of information which it is necessary for my readers to possess at this stage, in order that they may understand the really perilous position in which I stood. It seems, that, just about that time, some attempts had been made to assassinate the late Emperor Nicholas; and, in consequence of those attempts, the secret police were more than usual on the alert. Moreover, they had just been informed by their agents in London that some desperate Poles, who had dodged Nicholas during his visit to England in 1844, but had been kept at bay by the admirable precautions of the English police, were about to proceed to St. Petersburg for the express purpose of murdering the Czar. These Poles, whether real or suppositious, had applied for passports in London; but (to make the case against me blacker) being well known to the Russian agents, and having thus been foiled in their attempts, they were expected to proceed to some intermediate foreign port—such as Hamburgh or Copenhagen—and try to procure some passports there. My case seemed to tally with this description so completely, that the reader will at once perceive my danger. Only a week before we arrived at Cronstadt, a man had come by steamer from Hamburgh, and had been taken up on suspicion; being unable to clear himself, he was thrown into prison; and, after describing his case to me, the old president subsequently added, very significantly and mysteriously, “and where he is now—God knows.”
When I entered the saloon for examination, I found the Board engaged in a learned discussion on my name. I have the misfortune to possess a very long and uncommon family designation, which, as far as I know, is shared by only two other families in England; and the unfamiliar sound at once increased the suspicions and provoked the criticisms of my scrutineers. Happily, the debate was in Russ; and I inwardly chuckled over the advantage which my knowledge of that language gave me.
“Who ever heard of such a name in England?” said one of the Board, who evidently prided himself on his supposed knowledge of the English. “If it had been ‘Shmeed,’ or ‘Veeliams,’—but ‘——!’” and he repeated my name, torturing it most abominably in the pronunciation.
“Have any of you, gentlemen, ever heard of an English name like that?” asked the old president.
“No!” was the universal response.
“Mr. Interpreter,” continued the president, addressing an Englishman, or pseudo-Englishman, beside him, “ask the captain of the steamer” (who was standing behind) “if he knows any other Englishman of that name; but mind you put the question in a whisper, that the man may not overhear you.”
The mysterious whisper took place, while I had considerable difficulty in maintaining due control over my risible faculties; and at length the interpreter said aloud, in Russ, that the captain knew no other Englishman of that name, and had never heard it before he saw me on board.
“It can’t be an English name,” said one.
“It must be an assumed name,” added another.
“You mean because he wished to conceal his real name,” said the English scholar.
“Now gentlemen,” resumed the president, “look at the man himself; does he look like an Englishman?”
“No!” shouted the commissioners in a chorus.
“Look at him well: what does he look like?”
“A Pole!” cried all, at once.
“Woe is me!” thought I: “this is becoming serious.”
“Mr. Interpreter, ask the captain aloud if he has any Poles on board; and, while he is asking the question, you, gentlemen, fix your eyes upon the man, and see if he blenches.”
Thus kindly forewarned, I screwed up my nerves, not to refrain from starting, but to keep my countenance. The question was asked; some half-a-dozen pairs of eyes were sternly fixed on me; I am not sure, but I believe, that I looked tolerably unconcerned.
“He does not blench,” said one.
“Mr. Interpreter,” continued the president, “ask the man if he has ever been in Poland.”
“Yes, I have,” was my answer.
“Does he speak Polish?”
“Does he speak Russ?” would, I thought, be the next question: but the wiseacres never thought of that question which might have perilled my position.
After several other questions had been asked and answered, the Board began to deliberate on my case; and, as they never dreamt that I knew Russ, they suffered me to remain and overhear a debate so interesting and important to myself. They were unanimous in thinking, that it was a very suspicious case indeed; but, when they came to consider what they should do to me, they fortunately differed in their opinions. The majority seemed inclined to adopt the severest measures, and send me off to prison, as they had sent the Pole the week before: and, in that case, my fate might have resembled his; and I might never have returned to this country to record my adventures. But there was a minority who thought that course too premature and harsh, and wished to transfer me to the Minister of the Secret Police at Saint Petersburg. Seeing that the violent party were likely to win the day, and not being ambitious to share the Pole’s fate, I thought it high time to make myself heard. I took advantage of a seasonable moment to ask Mr. Interpreter, if the Board wanted my presence any longer.
“I don’t know that they will let you off at all,” he replied, with all the pomp and importance he could assume.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Why, it seems that yours is a very suspicious case; and the majority of the examiners think of ordering you to prison,” he replied, seeming to take a petty delight in trying to frighten me.
“Indeed!” I said: “then will you be good enough to interpret what I say to the Board; word for word, mind you.”
The Interpreter at once saw the false position in which he had placed himself, and wished to shuffle out of it. But I held him to his duty, and persisted in my demand to address the Board. By this time, their attention was drawn toward us; and I proceeded:—
“Gentlemen, the Interpreter tells me, that you think of sending me to prison.”
My words were not faithfully rendered; they were modified so as to soften the guilt of the Interpreter’s presumption and imprudence. Still, as he gave the substance of what I had said, I took no notice of his gloss, and proceeded to draw their attention to the fact, that my passport was in the English ambassador’s own handwriting. Perceiving that this seemingly insignificant circumstance had (as, from my knowledge of Russian nature, I had anticipated) made a deep impression on them, I went on to clinch the nail by telling them, that it was useless to frighten me by threats of imprisonment; because I was well known to some of the leading English residents (in Saint Petersburg), who were expecting my arrival, and would be sure to make inquiries. This settled the matter; and they transferred me at once to the Chief of the Secret Police at Saint Petersburg.
I was out of danger, but by no means out of the way of annoyance. I was put under police surveillance; and my passport was withheld for many days. Day after day I had to dance attendance on the Foreign Office, and the Secret Police Office; I was driven backward and forward, like a shuttlecock, from the one to the other.
At the Foreign Office, I was examined by a gentleman who was an adept at the task. It would be useless to record all the questions and answers which passed between us; but the conclusion of my interview with him is worthy of detailed recital.
“Were you ever in Russia before?” he asked.
“How long ago?”
“It is seven years since I left Russia.’
At a sign from my examiner, an attendant left the room: and, while I was answering some other questions, he returned with a paper in his hand.
“Here is your old passport.”
I was perfectly amazed. Not more than a minute or two could have elapsed since I said that I had left Russia seven years before. During these seven years, hundreds of thousands of travellers must have come and gone, and hundreds of thousands of passports been deposited at the Foreign Office; and, yet, at a minute’s notice, the officials could lay their hand on the passport that was wanted. The whole thing seemed done by magic. Such is the perfection to which the passport system has been carried in Russia. With the exception of a few criminals, or reputed criminals, who have eluded justice, the Russian Government could say where every individual Russian is at this moment. It is the triumph of oriental despotism.
“How is this?” said my examiner, after turning over the leaves of my old passport. “You now call yourself ‘John Knox ——’ but, in your old passport, you are called ‘John Edward ——:’ an alias? Eh?”
For the moment, I was dumfounded; I could not imagine how such a mistake could have crept in: and, from a sinister smile, which played on my tormentor’s countenance, I concluded that he took my silence to be a confession of guilt. But, happily, a bright idea suddenly flashed across my mind. A Russian frequently signs his father’s baptismal name (after his own), with the affix “ov,” which means “son of;” thus, in applying for a passport seven years before, I might have subscribed myself “John Edwardov,” (John, son of Edward); and the Russian copyist might easily make a mistake, and set my name down as “John Edward” in the body of the passport. This I suggested to the examiner.
“Never fear,” said the imperturbable functionary. “The truth will come out: you must have signed your name yourself at the end of the passport. Here it is—‘John Edwardov.’”
“Thank God, it is all right,” thought I, breathing more freely; for, in the suspicious circumstances in which I stood, the most insignificant atom of evidence for or against me acquired a fictitious importance.
“Ah! but here is a more material discrepancy,” continued the relentless functionary: “the description given of you in your old passport does not at all correspond with your present appearance.”
“Seven years necessarily make a great change in a man’s appearance.”
“Yes, but not such a change as this: I cannot recognise your portrait in this description, Listen. ‘Face round’—I call your face decidedly long: ‘Hair, red’—your hair is nearly black. ‘Complexion, fair’—your complexion is what I should call dark. ‘Chin, smooth and round’—it is true your whiskers may have begun to flourish since, but your chin could scarcely have lengthened so much in so short a space of time.”
I was utterly dismayed. I do not know that I had ever read that striking description of my person before.
“I met with a severe accident a few years ago,” I gasped out. “It injured my health, and I dare say I do not look quite the same as I did before the accident.”
“And has that accident dyed your hair as well?”
“It must have been a mistake of the person who filled up the passport.”
“Ordinarily I do not notice such discrepancies,” said the stern and merciless official: “but, when there are other suspicious circumstances, they become important elements in the decision; and, as yours is too serious a case to be left to my discretion, I must transfer you to the Chief of the Secret Police.”
The Chief of the Secret Police was then no less a man than the celebrated Count Orlov; the favourite of the late Emperor Nicholas, and the Chief Plenipotentiary of Russia at the Paris Conferences which terminated the Crimean war. He was the man, to whom Nicholas is reported to have said, in one of his saddened moods, “There is only one honest man in Russia:” and, while the favourite was bowing his acknowledgment of the supposed compliment, never for a moment doubting, that he, the immaculate Orlov, was the “one honest man,” whose presence the clear-sighted autocrat recognised and rejoiced in, Nicholas dispelled the illusion by quietly adding—“and that is myself.” Yet I knew very well that no one had greater influence over Nicholas; and that, next to the Czar himself, no one had so much power in Russia. This was the formidable personage, with whom I was about to be brought into such close contact; and, under the awkward-looking circumstances which surrounded me, I confess that I shrank from the ordeal. I resolved to be perfectly frank with him; and I believe it was my frankness that saved me.
My interview with the Chief of the Secret Police was of the most exciting character. At first my worst suspicions seemed about to be realised. Count Orlov gazed at me, and sounded me in the most searching and inquisitive manner. He questioned and cross-questioned me severely: he turned me inside out, and outside in again; and, if I had faltered for a moment; if I had equivocated in the slightest degree; if I had made a single statement that was untrue; he would have detected me. But he could not discover a single flaw in my statement: and, when he had finally released me from my painful position, I left him with a higher opinion of his character than I had previously entertained, and a more intense detestation of the system which required a man of such superior attainments to inflict petty tortures, and, to make unworthy inquiries into the purposes and intentions of a stranger who conducted himself fairly and openly.
But, long before I had done with Count Orlov, and, therefore, long before I had obtained my passport, I had become thoroughly sick and tired of the spies, who, I felt, were upon my track wherever I went. I could not walk into the streets without some one dogging my steps; I could not sit down to a meal without some curious eyes watching my movements; I could not retire to my bed-room without some one standing as sentinel outside the door,—it was horrible! The very air seemed to be oppressive and stifling. In those few days of police surveillance, I learnt to sympathise with the feelings which drove poor Tasso to madness. At last, I could endure it no longer; I could not resist the desire to give them the slip for one day; just for one sweet day of liberty. I consulted a friend; and he told me that I could easily do it by spending the day at Cronstadt. It was true I could not legally go there without a passport; but it was customary for the English residents, instead of showing their passports to lay down a piece of money, at the ticket office. This practical mode of thwarting the obnoxious spies of the Secret Police by a bribe had become so universal and so successful that it was quite possible to escape detection, so I resolved to take my friend’s advice.
Early the following morning I went to the quay, put down the honorarium instead of the passport, together with the fare, at the ticket office, and took my place, undetected as I thought, on board the steamer which plies between St. Petersburg and Cronstadt. It was a glorious morning in June, and I was in the highest spirits. The sense of relief, the consciousness of liberty, was exquisitely sweet, clouded though it was by a fancy, for one moment, that a pair of eyes, belonging to a somewhat official-looking gentleman in plain clothes, were fixed upon me rather suspiciously; but I resolved to shake off this gloomy impression, and, in spite of all the police in Russia, to enjoy myself for the day. And I did. I spent the day in examining the famous fortifications of Cronstadt, which Sir Charles Napier was to have taken in a week, but which, I believe (though not a military man), the united forces of England and France could not have captured in a year. In the afternoon, I was at the pier in good time for the last steamer to St. Petersburg. I put down the small bribe again instead of the passport, but, to my dismay, the clerk would not receive it.
“You must show me your passport,” he growled.
“But is it not usual for gentlemen to lay down a coin instead of the passport?”
“I have nothing to do with that; I cannot let you pass without a passport.”
“I have not one with me.”
“Where is it?”
“At the Foreign Office at St. Petersburg.”
“Then you can’t pass.”
“What am I to do? Can I write for it?”
“Certainly not; you must apply for it personally; otherwise, you’ll never get it.”
“Then I will go and apply for it in person.”
“You will not be allowed to return to St. Petersburg without a passport.”
“What am I to do, then?”
“I don’t know.”
Now, as I saw other gentlemen admitted without passports, I came to the conclusion that I was a marked man. I was regularly caught in a trap. But how to get out of it? It was evident I could not get back to St. Petersburg, so I resolved to take it coolly, to sleep comfortably at an inn that night, and in the morning, perhaps, some mouse might be found that would kindly nibble through the cords of the net in which I was caught. I went to the English hotel and ordered a dinner and a bed. As I was sitting at dinner, sipping my wine with that feeling of independence which, as an Englishman, I naturally felt at “mine inn,” a waiter approached me with—
“Did you order a bed here, sir?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Would you be so good as to give me your passport, sir?”
“What do you want with my passport?”
“We must show it at the Police Office.”
“What! can I not sleep at an inn without showing my passport?”
“Certainly not, sir; it is against the law.”
“I have no passport with me.”
“Oh, then, you cannot sleep here, sir.”
After repeating the experiment at another inn, with precisely the same result, I was obliged, as a last resource, to walk out into the streets. It was so light and bright, under that northern sky, that it looked all night as if the sun had just set; and I felt jolly enough, and could scarcely regret that I had been obliged to turn out. But, about two o’clock, I met a policeman, who asked me what I was doing in the streets at that time of night, when honest folks were in bed. This courteous question I answered in the Quaker fashion, by asking him what was his opinion of his own honesty, as he was in the same predicament with myself.
“Show me your passport,” was the only reply he condescended to give.
“Confound the passport!” thought I. “These infernal spies will imprison me at last.”
“Well, where is your passport?”
“I have none with me.”
“Then you cannot walk the streets at this time of night without a passport.”
“What am I to do? I cannot go to an inn, because they won’t let me in without a passport; I cannot go home, because they won’t let me out without a passport; and now you say I must not walk the streets without a passport; where am I to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“May I go and throw myself into the sea, off yonder pier, without a passport?”
“Oh, yes; you may do that.”
That is about the only thing one can do without a passport in Russia. The result of it all was, that I surrendered myself to the worthy Minister of Justice (or injustice), and was actually conveyed to St. Petersburg under the care of that very pair of eyes which had looked so suspicious on board the steamer. I afterwards discovered that those prying eyes had never lost sight of me throughout the day; they had dogged me from fort to fort, from inn to inn, from street to street, and were never taken off from their guard over my innocent head till they had seen me safe and sound in St. Petersburg. Many thanks for their loving watchfulness and care.
When I look back on these adventures with a passport in Russia, I cannot but feel how they served, after all the annoyance, to enhance the blessings and value of a free country. The passport system in Russia is a relic of Oriental barbarism; a badge of slavery; a sign that the Russians can call neither body nor soul their own, but must have them ticketed and labelled with their owner’s name. “Alexander II., Autocrat of all the Russias, passport No. 5471.” It was all very well for our ancestor Gurth the swineherd and the slave to endure; but free-born men, living in a free country, will never bend their necks to wear a collar. The passport is another sort of ticket-of-leave, and the system is one equally associated with villany and corruption and much public inconvenience. To submit to the ignominy of carrying a label about you, certifying who you are, as if you word were not enough; to be obliged to show this ticket to every little pettifogging functionary, who may choose to demand it; to be liable to a cross-examination by said functionary on every little minutia every time he happens to have a grudge against you, or fancies that you have not bribed him liberally enough; this is a degradation to which none but a convicted criminal ought to be subjected. I have been in almost every country in Europe, but I have seen no country where the brand is burnt in so deeply as in Russia. When I last returned home from the North; when I trod once more upon the free English soil, and breathed once more the free English air, I felt a weight taken off my soul; I experienced a sense of returning strength and manhood; and I thanked God that my home is in glorious Old England!