On the Present Condition of Russia

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On the Present Condition of Russia

By P. Kropotkin

Prince Kropotkin, or Peter Kropotkin, as he now calls himself, is a descendant of the royal house of the Ruriks, and it used to be said of him by his partisans of St. Petersburg that he had a better right to the Russian throne than the reigning Czar. He was born at Moscow fifty-five years ago, was first a page at court, then an officer in the army, and next Chamberlain to the Czarina. Of such stock and in such environment grew up the man whose name is familiar throughout the civilized world as the great scientific exponent of Anarchism. His reputation as a scientific writer, it need hardly be said, was not achieved by his often impassioned pleas for the overthrow of all government resting on force and the establishment of purely voluntary co-operation in its stead. In his youth he traveled extensively, and ever since he has been an active and distinguished writer of geographical and geological works. Not until he was thirty years old, and journeying in Switzerland, did he come in contact with men who were developing the Anarchist movement. Their obvious disinterestedness and the greatness of their aims appealed strongly to him, and he shortly devoted himself with feverish activity to carrying forward the agitation in his native land. A year later he was arrested for participation in Nihilist plots, and spent the next three years in prison. In 1876 he escaped and came to Switzerland, where he founded the paper "Revolt? and assisted in extending the Anarchist agitation in the south of France. In l883, after an Anarchist uprising at Lyons, he was again imprisoned, but was set free after three years' imprisonment. Since 1886 he has been living in England, devoting himself to scientific writing and to agitation for his Anarchist proposals. Those who differ most widely from his philosophy cannot but recognize the nobility of the spirit which led him to abandon the position to which he was born and to labor for the equal opportunities of all.

RUSSIA is now passing through an extremely important and critical moment of her history—a moment almost as meaningful as the years which she lived through immediately before the abolition of serfdom Once more it is pretty generally felt in the country that the time has come when a thorough change in the fundamental institutions of the nation must be accomplished: that the economic conditions of the great mass of the population, i. e., the peasants, have reached a critical state; that the old forms of absolute rule, irresponsible government, ultra-centralization, and omnipotent functionarism can last no longer.

When Nicholas II. ascended the throne in 1894, it was hoped by optimists that he would inaugurate an era of reforms True, nothing, either in his education or in his previous achievements, gave the slightest foundation for such a belief; but his youth, the conditions of peace which prevailed at that time in Russia and in all Europe, and the very sympathies which the young autocrat was met with abroad, maintained such hopes. And if Nicholas II. and his advisers had taken at that time any steps, or simply shown the desire on behalf of the central

government to listen to the voice of the nation and to give it the possibility of expressing its needs, these steps would have been received with general satisfaction, no matter how timid or how insignificant they might have been.

Nothing of the sort was done. The country seemed not to exist for the young ruler, whose chief attention was concentrated upon his own person, upon his marriage, and upon the festivities of the coming coronation. It is sometimes maintained that Nicholas II. has left things as they were, that he has changed nothing in his father's policy. This is, however, absolutely incorrect. No formal declarations were made, no ministers were changed, and yet every one in Russia feels that the Imperial policy has been changed.

Alexander III. was parsimonious. On his death-bed he advised his son to be strictly economical. His own coronation, he said, had only cost 13,000,000 roubles ($6,500,000), but the coronation expenses ought to be and could be further reduced to 7,000,000 roubles. Nicholas II. has preferred, on the contrary, to squander on that unfortunate display more than 60,000,000 roubles ($30,000,000), taken from the already overburdened State budget.

Strict economy in State expenditure was the rule during the previous reign, and this much must be said of Alexander III., that he succeeded in putting an end to the wholesale plundering of Russia which was going on during the second half of Alexander II.'s rule; he undoubtedly created a certain atmosphere of honesty in the management of the State's moneys. Under the present Czar the watchward is, on the contrary: "Do just as you like! Steal and plunder, but don't worry me!"

Again, Alexander III. had a certain policy of his own. His ideal was to keep the country under a strong hierarchy of functionaries, whom he would choose himself; but he tried to do his best to prevent the utter ruin of the poorest part of the population—i. e., the peasants. His ideal was that of a benevolent landlord: paternal imperialism, paternal church, and paternal flogging of the naughty children. Among the measures taken during his reign one notes, however, the factory legislation (shorter hours of labor for children, factory inspectors, sanitary rules for the factories), and the land legislation favorable to the peasants (inalienability of the village-community lands, peasants' loan banks, etc.), but the two went hand in hand with an attempt to reintroduce manorial justice, with the persecution of other nationalities than the Russian and of other creeds than the Orthodox creed, with the abolition of the higher education for women, and so on. "No Liberal nonsense, please! Autocracy and the Church will take better care of the folk than your Liberal plutocracy "—that was his idea, expressed lately in a book by his chief adviser, the Procurator of the Synod, Pobiedonostseff. With Nicholas II. the main features of that sort of old-fashioned Czarism have been retained; autocracy, bureaucracy, no education, national and religious persecutions, exile without judgment, law of suspects, etc.—all these continue to flourish, but the benevolence is gone. No one expects, indeed, from Nicholas II. that he ever should take interest in the peasants or the workers, or, in fact, in public affairs at all. The long reports of his ministers fatigue him, and he has neither the desire to take the Government into his own hands nor the courage to surrender it to a Representative Assembly. He simply gave carte blanche to those whom he found in official positions; and although he freely throws out money to gratify his courtiers, neither he nor the Empress Alexandra has become even popular. It hardly need be added that all the distinctive features of autocracy—that is, the omnipotence of the police, the searchings, the exile to Sakhalin and Siberia without judgment, and the cruel treatment of the political prisoners in the fortresses—remain in full force as of old.

In proportion, however, as all hope of the autocrat himself taking the initiative of reforms is dwindling away, a movement within Russian society is asserting itself more and more definitely; and this movement takes three separate directions.

One of them is the Labor movement. The Government continues to suppress the Socialist literature; the Press Censorship continues to issue periodically its circulars to the editors of the newspapers and reviews, prohibiting the discussion of labor questions; and when a strike breaks out in Russia, the press is severely warned from mentioning it in its columns. But all these restrictions are of no effect. A cheap daily press has lately grown up in Russia, and that press finds access to the manual laborer. Strikes and labor contests are now so frequent in Europe and America that even in the reactionary papers, and even in the official press, the workers continually read something about some great strike at Pittsburg or at London, or about what the Socialists or the Anarchists are doing in Germany or in France; and gradually they come to the conclusion that Russian workers, too, must combine and organize. Besides, the workers themselves are now different from what they were five-and-twenty years ago, when we began the Socialist propaganda among them. At that time they were only just issuing from serfdom; many of them had been serfs a few years before, while the others had lived under the most deadening conditions which serfdom habits and customs had created in Russia. The present generation knows nothing of the servitude under which their fathers had been living. "You would not recognize the Russian workers if you returned to them after a twenty-five years' absence" is what I hear from all sides, and what I read myself in the facts of Russian life which come to my knowledge.

Consequently, a labor movement steadily grows in the industrial centers; a movement which need not be originated or led by students and gentlemen in disguise, as was the case with ours. It hardly needs more help from the educated classes than labor needs in Europe or in America. This movement must certainly become a factor of growing importance in the advance of Russia towards political freedom. The workers who combine or strike for an increase of their wages, or to protest against fantastic fines or against the truck system, do not admit that the police or the Governor of the province should come to the defense of the employer or the factory manager. And, in fact, it often happens that the police and the Governor show no special willingness to interfere in that way: while if special influences at court or with the Governor of the province are resorted to, and an interference of the military follows, an outcry is raised against the omnipotence, the lawlessness, and the rottenness of the bureaucracy.

The other, still more powerful factor which acts in the same direction requires a few words of explanation. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the introduction of a local self-government in 1864 (when Provincial and District Assemblies, very similar to the English County Councils, were introduced) were entirely due to the pressure of the best part of the educated classes upon the Government. This action of the educated classes for wiping out from Russian life the blot of serfdom did not end with the Emancipation Act of 1861. On the contrary, it only called new forces to life. To educate the peasants, to help them to more light in their awful misery, to aid them in the further development of their economic life, became a widely spread mission among a certain portion of the educated classes. A whole tendency—the populist tendency, narodnichestvo—was created in this way; and it never died out, notwithstanding all the difficulties which the Government put in the way of these well-meaning people.

It is known that in the seventies a great movement took place among the educated youth of Russia, and that the watchword of this movement was "Vnarod!"—that is, "Be among the People," or rather "Be the People." Thousands of young men and women went to live amidst the peasants and the factory workers, taking the positions of village schoolmasters, village scribes, doctors, vaccinators, midwives, and soon, while some went as mere workers in the factories, or settled upon the land as mere peasants. Every position which only permitted a man or a woman to stand near to the downtrodden mass of the peasants and to be of some use to it was eagerly sought for and immediately accepted.

The Government and various writers, more boastful than intelligent, may say that they have crushed that movement out of existence. The reality is, however, that it has never ceased to exist, and that within the last five-and-twenty years new contingents of men never ceased to be contributed to it.

Hundreds of these "populists" were arrested, condemned as revolutionists, and transported to Siberia; thousands were treated as suspects and were compelled to abandon their positions, although they never took any part in a revolutionary agitation. But thousands of them have remained in the provinces, rendering themselves useful in all sorts of local provincial activities, such as doctors, doctors' aids, statisticians, schoolmasters, workers on experimental farms, agricultural inspectors, explorers of domestic trades (large inquiries have been made all over Russia in that direction), organizers of cooperative creameries and trade associations, and so on. Most of them are young people no more, and all have won general esteem in their respective localities; so that they row represent a considerable contingent of educated men and women, knowing their own region, well known to the local population, and enjoying the confidence of the peasants and the workers—men and women who, at the same time, hate only the more the rule of the St. Petersburg absolutism and bureaucracy because they can appreciate on the spot the hindrances which autocratism and bureaucracy create to the normal development of the country.

In short, here also the conditions have entirely changed during the last five-and-twenty years. It is no more the young revolutionist standing alone to defy the formidable powers of autocracy, and surrounded by an inert mass of peasants. A new class of men occupies an intermediate position between the two, and this class cannot be brushed aside by the autocratic government.

And, finally, there is a third element of no little importance which also is bound to carry on the struggle against autocracy. The so-called Greek-Orthodox population of Russia is permeated with sects of Dissenters of all possible denominations. It is estimated that one-third part of that population belong in reality to some branch of Nonconformists. Lutherans, Rationalists, Sabbatarians, Baptists, and Anabaptists are represented in various ways among these Dissenters, many of whom strive to return to the principles of primitive Christianity, or even to still more ancient forms of society represented in the Old Testament. The right of free interpretation of the Bible is thus carried on all over Russia, and there is no force which could limit it. Every village has its own teachers—men and women—who interpret the Bible in their own ways, almost always hostile to the present State and to the official Church. A powerful religious movement is thus growing in Russia, and it is also bound to work in a not remote time as a powerful force against autocracy.

The three just-sketched currents and many others of less importance render a thorough revision of the fundamental institutions of the country more and more unavoidable. The problems, however, involved in that revision are more complicated in Russia than elsewhere.

Ninety per cent, of the total population of European Russia belong to the agricultural class—they are peasants. They are the chief wealth-producers of the country, and upon their prosperity the prosperity of the whole country rests. The great industries—cotton, wool, silk, iron, machinery, and chemicals— have certainly taken of late a considerable development. But Russia has no foreign markets of importance, and the chief market for her manufactures is the home market—that is, chiefly the peasants. Consequently, a good crop means an increased consumption of all manufactured goods, while a bad crop means bad affairs for the manufacturers and bad conditions for the factory workers. In fact, it is during the fair of Nijni Novgorod, when the conditions of the crop become known, that the production of the chief cotton-mills, iron-works, and so on, is settled for the next twelve months. The effects of a good or a bad crop are such that by simply looking at the crop returns one may foretell the increase or the decrease which will take place next year in the returns of the factories, in the excise duties upon spirits, sugar, tobacco, matches, and naphtha oil, in the revenue of the railways, in the customs revenue, and in the internal traffic and commerce.

Another characteristic feature of Russia is that the crop, which is the measure of the well-being of the country, is grown, not by the landlords, but by the peasants. Although the landlords own a considerable portion of the arable land of the country, it is not they who grow the main crop. Only in the Baltic provinces and in West and Southwest Russia

are the estates of the landlords well cultivated, while in Middle, East, and South Russia the landlords merely rent the land to the peasants. The large sums of redemption-money which the landlords have got from their ex-serfs, as well as the immense sums obtained through the mortgage of their estates, have been squandered in the most unprofitable way in the capitals and the watering-places of Europe. Through the Nobihty Mortgage Bank (which is supported by the State and freely lends money to the nobility landowners) the nobles become irretrievably, debtors to the State; so that it may be said that by means of these mortgages the State' gradually becomes the chief owner of the nobility's lands. To nationalize those lands would thus be a mere banking operation—so rapidly the indebtedness of the nobility increases, and so rapidly their chances of ever repaying their debts are vanishing.

At the same time, the absentee landlords base their revenue from the land chiefly upon rack-renting, exactly as in Ireland; so that special committees had to be appointed by the Government in order to inquire into the conditions of land-renting; and some sort of legislation, similar to the Gladstonian Irish land laws, aiming to fix the rents by judicial authority, has already been discussed by the Government. It is very probable, however, that nothing short of a wide scheme of land nationalization will be capable of substantially improving the present conditions; and it must be said that such a measure would offer nothing extraordinary in Russia, because already now the State is the chief landowner in European Russia, while in Siberia all the land belongs to the State, and private property in land does not exist in that immense territory.

I ought also to mention another important economic problem that absorbs much of the attention of the thinking portion of the nation; namely, the maintenance and the further development of the small industries, as also the development of popular co-operation; but I must pass them, for the sake of brevity.

Economic problems of the highest importance thus are standing before the present generation, and upon their solution the economic future of the country will depend. At the same time, the political problem is beset with difficulties which have not been known in other countries of Europe. The Russian Empire has a population of 135,000,000 inhabitants, out of whom more than one hundred millions live on the territory of European Russia proper. This immense population is a difficulty in itself. In many parts of the Empire it is so thin that electoral districts of 100,000 inhabitants, or even of 50,000, would be too big for all practical purposes. Consequently, a Russian Parliament, elected by universal suffrage (and a limited franchise could not be accepted, as it would exclude the whole mass of the peasants, i. e., nearly ninety per cent, of the population), would have to consist of at least 2,700, or, at any rate, of nearly 2,000, members. Such a Parliament evidently would not work—-experience showing that even with five or six hundred members a parliament is an awfully huge and unmanageable machinery. Besides, the conditions of the country are so widely different in its separate parts that unless these different regions have legislative institutions of their own an Imperial Parliament would be little better than an Imperial autocracy.

This is why the Grand Duke Constantine advocated, in 1881 (when several schemes of a Constitution for Russia were circulated), live separate Parliaments for the Empire. Finland has already its own Parliament, which manages the finances, the customs, the post and telegraphs, the railways, the judiciary, the army, and all civil institutions of the country; and the Home Rule which Finland now possesses would certainly not be abolished without committing a great injustice and without provoking an insurrection. Constantino's idea was accordingly to endow Poland, Caucasia, and Siberia with independent Parliaments, and to create one or two Parliaments for Russia proper.

This scheme has passed unnoticed even among the Russian Radicals, and yet its leading idea is undoubtedly much more reasonable than it appeared at the first sight. It would not only give satisfaction to Finland, Caucasia, and Siberia—-Poland ought to be a quite separate State—but I am firmly persuaded that the only possible solution for Russia would be to frankly acknowledge the Federalist principle, and to adopt a system of several autonomous Parliaments, as we see it in Canada, instead of trying to imitate the centralized system of Great Britain, France, and Germany.

In reality, however, it is only too well known that the political liberties of a country are lest based upon its national representation than upon a large development of local self-government. France remains a monarchy with a republican name, simply because she has no free municipal and provincial life; while the United States, notwithstanding the extensive powers of its President, are a Republic in consequence of the large autonomy of each State, city, and township. For Russia, with its extremely great variety of local, physical, and ethnological conditions, and with the varied character of the local economic problems, centralization—whether Imperial, Constitutional, or Republican— would be equally fatal.

The only possible outcome for Russia is a development on the lines of extensive local self-government—in the region, the province the canton, and the village; in other words, Federalism in all degrees. Such a development would be, at the same time, in accordance with the historical traditions of the nation, and it would correspond to the geographical and ethnological nature of that immense agglomeration of nations and physical regions.

If this principle is not recognized, if Imperialist and Romanist ideas prevail, they will surely become a source of infinite trouble, both exterior and interior. But if this principle prevails, as I hope it will, then Russia will be able to join the family of civilized nations as a new member which will bring with it some precious elements of national life; namely, a nationalized soil, the village community, popular co-operation for all possible purposes, and local industries closely connected with agriculture.



  • Peter Kropotkin, “On the Present Condition of Russia,” The Outlook 58, no. 2 (January 8, 1898): 113-117.