Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky available in Paperback
- Pub. Date:
- Anthem Press
In his combination of considerable biographical material with the presentation of the main ideas of the era's chief writers and thinkers, Walter Moss has written a history that is of interest not only to scholars and students of the period, but also to more general readers.
|Series:||Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Series|
|Edition description:||First Edition, 1|
|Product dimensions:||9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Walter G. Moss is Professor at the Department of History and Philosophy at East Michigan University.
Read an Excerpt
An emperor's funeral
It was finally time to move the body. The funeral bells were tolling in the churches of St Petersburg. For nine days the corpse of the dead Emperor, Nicholas I of Russia, had remained within the red walls of the Winter Palace. On some of these days the odor of his decomposing body had been almost unbearable. But it was now Sunday, February 27th 1855, and the winter sun was shining brilliantly.
As the procession began to move, the new Tsar and "Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias," Alexander II, walked behind the coffin of his father. In his Cossack overcoat he was tall and regal, and his blue-gray eyes stared straight ahead. He was thirty-six years old, and the heavy responsibility of ruling a country at war was now his.
His father had also come to power under difficult circumstances: a group of conspirators opposed to autocracy and serfdom – they were later called Decembrists – had tried to prevent him from coming to the throne. And so his reign had begun with bloodshed and the arrest of these revolutionaries, among whom were a number of aristocratic young army officers.
But the difficulties now facing Alexander II were, if not as dramatic, more complex. Despite inferior equipment, shortages of supplies and diplomatic isolation, he somehow had to successfully conclude the present war in the Crimea. That, however, was just the first of his problems. For Nicholas I had bequeathed to him what one critic called, no doubt with some exaggeration, "a thirty-year tyranny of madness, brutality and misfortunes of all sorts, the likes of which history has never seen."
The ruling ideology of the deceased Emperor was contained in three words: Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. But Russian Orthodoxy, whatever its inherent value, was tainted by state control and itself in need of reform. Furthermore, it was the religion, if one subtracts the schismatic Old Believers as well as those of other faiths, of only about two-thirds of the empire's peoples. As for autocracy, it seemed more and more outdated in an increasingly complex age which demanded the co-operation of an educated citizenry. The principle of nationality was even more unrealistic. For how in an age of nationalism could an emphasis on the Russian nationality unite an empire where only about half of its people were Russian?
Besides a spent ideology, Alexander inherited a backward country. At least it seemed so to believers in one of the West's most cherished concepts: Progress. Compared to one of her chief enemies, Great Britain, the most industrialized nation in Europe, this backwardness was especially evident. Despite Russia's much greater size – easily over sixty times the size of the British Isles – it only had about one-tenth the railway track and produced an even smaller ratio of pig iron. While half of the English people were already living in urban areas and more than half the population could read and write, nine-tenths of Russia's population still lived in the countryside and four-fifths of the country's subjects were illiterate peasants, almost half of them enserfed to noble masters. Living in poverty in their small huts, their babies were almost twice as likely to die in infancy as an English child. And the backward nature of Russian agriculture, as well as its poor climate and growing conditions, necessitated the work of about three Russian peasants to produce as much as one Englishman could.
Dispirited by the thirty-year reign of the man whose body was now moving slowly towards its final destination, Russia's small educated class was conscious of the beginning of a new era. And they were anxious and unsure about what it would bring. Many yearned for an enlightened leader, for a Tsar whose ideas they could support. But was Alexander II such a man? And did he possess any such ideas, any banner, which they could rally around?
Although some in the streets of St Petersburg on this sunny February day hoped that Alexander II could soon end the war, even if it meant compromise or defeat, others were encouraged by his assurances that Russia would not retreat before its enemies. The day Alexander came to the throne a large bell from the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in Moscow's white-walled Kremlin came crashing down and killed several people. An evil omen, some thought. But others recalled that a bell had fallen from the same tower on the day when the French had left Moscow in 1812 and begun their retreat. Was the present event then not a sign that Russia's foes in the Crimean War would also soon be on the defensive?
The funeral procession continued for two hours. Soldiers lined the route as the crowds looked on. The clanging of carriage wheels, the pealing of church bells and the funeral music of the military bands filled the air. The procession wound its way toward the Nicholas Bridge, over the frozen Neva River to Vasily Island and then finally over the Tuchkov Bridge to the Sts Peter and Paul Fortress, where many of Nicholas's enemies had been imprisoned. There a needle-like golden spire, extending high in the air from the island fortress cathedral and glittering in the sun, acted like an enticing magnet slowly pulling the mourners to itself from miles away.
After entering the fortress cathedral the coffin was placed on top of a catafalque covered in red velvet and sitting under a large silver brocade and ermine canopy. The rays of the sun and the lights of thousands of candles combined to illuminate the cathedral.
For another week the body lay in state as dignitaries and commoners filed past; lay there with a crown on its head, painted up and perfumed, but still smelling of decay. Finally, on another beautiful winter day there was one last service. During it the dead Emperor's widow stood by his coffin. Then she kissed him one last time and her children followed, making their last farewells. After the imperial mantle was taken from the coffin and carried to the altar, the new Emperor and his brothers carried the coffin on their shoulders to the tomb. As salvos of guns thundered, it was lowered into the ground. Handfuls of dirt were thrown upon the coffin and the tomb was closed. The body of Nicholas I joined those of other Russian Emperors and Empresses in the fortress cathedral.
Lieutenant Tolstoy in the Crimea
During the week that the dead Emperor's body lay in state in the cathedral, Sub-lieutenant Leo Tolstoy was stationed more than a thousand miles to the south. He was in the Crimea, near the besieged city of Sevastopol. Here nature was already beginning to display its crocuses, snowdrops and hyacinths; and larks, linnets and brilliant goldfinches were twittering and singing their songs. On March 1st, the lieutenant wrote in his diary: "The Emperor died on February 18th, and now we are to take the oath to the new Emperor. Great changes await Russia. It is necessary to work and be manly to take part in these important moments of Russia's life."
No doubt he was exhorting himself as he often did. His mother had died when he was almost two and his father, Count Nicholas Tolstoy, when he was almost nine. Kindly relatives completed the upbringing of the five Tolstoy children, but from an early age Leo exhorted and chastised himself as if he were his own parent. He was always setting goals for himself. When he was nineteen, for example, and about to leave Kazan University before obtaining a degree, he set out a two-year educational plan for himself. He would study the following: "the entire course of judicial science needed for the final exam at the university ... practical medicine and part of its theory ... French, Russian, German, English, Italian and Latin ... agriculture ... history, geography and statistics ... mathematics ... music and painting ... the natural sciences." In addition, he intended to write a dissertation, as well as compositions on all the subjects which he studied. Whenever he failed to live up to his self-imposed high standards, he berated himself in his diary, especially for his frequent lapses into lust and gambling. He had been in the south four years now, most of it in the Caucasus as part of a Russian military force trying to subjugate Islamic mountain tribes. In these years he also became a writer. His short novels Childhood and Boyhood appeared in the journal The Contemporary. In these works the orphaned Tolstoy displayed for the first time his nostalgia for a mother he had hardly known and for the world of which she had been a part. The feeling of having been orphaned and the often accompanying feeling of not being loved enough were ones that often visited the young man. He did not make friends easily, and despite his noble birth, he generally felt uncomfortable in high society. Yet he longed for love and oneness with others.
Despite his promising start as a writer, he still was unsure about his future plans. In early March he wrote that he felt capable of devoting his life to a new religion, based on Christ, but purged of mysticism and dogmas, one that would not promise heavenly bliss, but happiness on earth. By the following month, however, he had more pressing thoughts on his mind.
He and his artillery battery had been moved back to Sevastopol. This time they were sent to the most forward bastion of the defense, only about a hundred yards from the French lines, and under constant and heavy bombardment. For the next month and a half, he alternated days at the bastion with off days back in the center of the city. In both places he found time to continue working on a sketch about Sevastopol at the end of the previous year. At the front he wrote in a bomb-proof dugout with the sounds of cannons booming in his ears. By the end of April, he sent the sketch off to The Contemporary.
Within a few months the educated public, including the new Emperor and his wife, were applauding this work of L.N., even though many did not yet know whose initials these were. In it they read of a cart with creaking wheels and heavy with corpses approaching a cemetery and of a government building converted to a hospital, where blood-splashed surgeons pitched amputated limbs into a corner. They also read about the earth shelter where the cannoneers lived and from which they shelled the enemy while incoming cannon and mortar shells whizzed and hissed near them and over dead and wounded bodies covered with mud and blood.
More than this unprecedented realistic description of the war, the Emperor probably appreciated Tolstoy's praise of the patriotism and courage of the soldiers and sailors who defended these fortifications. Even though Tolstoy privately believed that the common soldiers were treated like slaves, that many officers were involved in graft, and that supply and hygienic conditions were far from desirable, he did not mention these dissatisfactions in his sketch. Earlier that year he had planned to address some of these problems by writing a Plan for the Reform of the Army, but like many of his grandiose projects he soon forgot it.
By early summer he completed another sketch about Sevastopol. By this time he was commanding a mountain battery, fourteen miles from the fighting in Sevastopol. The new sketch reflected some of his doubts about the war, and when the censors in the capital received it from the editors of The Contemporary there was trouble. Toward the end of it he had described a scene in which the Russians and French declared a short truce in order to gather their dead. While collecting the bodies, soldiers from both sides chatted with each other. Spontaneously, a Frenchman and a Russian exchanged cigarette holders, and a French officer asked a young Russian cavalry lieutenant to say hello to a Russian officer whom he knew. Tolstoy then wrote:
Yes, on the bastion and entrenchments white flags have been placed, the lowering valley is full of dead bodies, and the beautiful sun descends from the transparent sky to the undulating blue sea, which sparkles under the golden rays of the sun. Thousands of people crowd together, look at, speak to, and smile at each other. And these people, who are Christians, confessing one great law of love and self-sacrifice, looking at what they have done, do not suddenly fall with repentance on their knees before Him who has given them life, who has placed in the soul of each, together with the fear of death, the love of the good and beautiful. They do not embrace like brothers with tears of joy and happiness. No! The white flags are lowered, and again whistle the instruments of death and suffering, again flows innocent blood, and groans and curses are heard.
When the piece appeared in the September issue of The Contemporary this passage and others had been changed by the censors. Some deletions had been made and words inserted justifying the war for the Russians on the grounds of defense of their native land.
No doubt in his desire to build a society based upon secularized Christian principles and to live in one where men would not kill each other but live in harmony, Tolstoy manifested utopian aspirations. But such hopes were common for intellectuals who grew up in the stifling atmosphere of Nicholas I's reign. Many of them, blocked by a reactionary government from participating in any practical, meaningful service, retreated into a mental world where anything seemed possible.
This utopian tendency was further encouraged by the intellectuals' isolation from their less fortunate and less educated contemporaries. The great majority of intellectuals were still from the gentry class, which made up less than two per cent of the population. And even within their own class, they stood out by virtue of their education and intellectual interests. Only about half of the men of gentry status had received more than a primary education. In all of the empire's six universities, there were not quite four thousand students, all male of course. Except for some institutes that educated young ladies to be "empty-headed dolls," the government largely ignored female education.
Higher and even some secondary education usually implied an increased exposure to Western ideas. This only increased the gulf between those who were educated and the vast masses who were illiterate or who had had little education. Between the rural, illiterate, Orthodox peasant and the city-educated noble, who had often become hostile or indifferent to Orthodoxy, there could be little in common. At times they even spoke a different language. Although Pushkin, the greatest of the Russian poets, picked up Russian from family serfs, he was formally taught as a young child to speak only French. The father of the radical Alexander Herzen hated to read a Russian book; and as with Pushkin's father, his personal library was filled with French works. In the fashionable salons of the capital, even during the reign of the nationalistic Nicholas I, one heard French more commonly than Russian. For nobles serving at court it was more important to know the court language of French than it was to be fluent in Russian. At the Smolny Institute, a sort of "finishing school" for young noble women, they spoke French except in Russian classes. In no other major European country were the educated so isolated from so many of their countrymen. At times an educated, westernized noble seemed as "foreign" in his own country as an Englishman in India or a Frenchman in Algeria.
Excerpted from "Russia In The Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky"
Copyright © 2002 Walter G Moss.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
An Emperor's Funeral, 1855; Lieutenant Tolstoy in the Crimea; The Tsar Visits Moscow; A Professor and a Banquet; Tolstoy in the Capital; The Tsar, the Serfs and the Coronation; Dostoevsky in Exile; Michael Bakunin; The Muravievs and Perovskys, Siberia and China; Two Noblemen: Tolstoy and Turgenev; Herzen and 'The Bell' in London; Tolstoy and Bakunin visit Herzen; Turgenev and Dostoevsky visit Herzen; A Fateful Year, 1866; Nekrasov and Muraviev the Hangman; The Perovskys and Herzen in Geneva; Dostoevsy and Anna Snitkina; Professor Soloviev and his Family; Tolstoy: A Marriage and a Masterpiece; A Shot in Paris; Turgenev and Dostoevsky in Baden-Baden; The Dostoevskys in Geneva; Nechaev, Bakunin and the Last Days of Herzen; The Tsar Visits london, 1874; Dostoevsky in Bad Ems; Sophia Perovskaya, Radicalism and the Russian People; A Mystic in the Desert;The Tsar at the Front; The Death of Nekrasov; A Visit to a Monastery; Tolstoy Apologizes; 'Prophet, Prophet': Dostoevsky's Pushkin Speech; A Death and a Marriage; Two Conspirators; Bombs and Blood; The Trial; Two Appeals; A Spectacle on Semenovsky Square; Epilogue; Who's Who?; Chronology; Endnotes; A Note on Principal Sources; Bibliography of Printed Materials; Index