Dora B. Montefiore, New Age 2 March 1905
Source: New Age, p. 133, 2 March 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Charge, once more, then and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body near the wall!
These lines of Matthew Arnold’s read like the soul-inspiration of most of the Russian litterateurs of recent times. They seem, with few exceptions, to have recognised a two-fold duty – self-expression through their art, and the delivery of a message of freedom, that freedom the lack of which caused their art to be enslaved to an ignorant and tyrannical Press censorship. Dostoyevski, Chernuishevski, Herzen, Lermontof, Bielenski, Korolenko, and now Gorki, have one after the other passed through the hateful torture of a Russian prison, many have borne physical scourgings, all have suffered moral and mental agonies, some have had their nervous system destroyed, and one Chernuishevski the translator and commentator of John Stuart Mill, after twenty years of martyrdom in the mines and prisons of Siberia, was found sufficiently sound in intellect and physique to be transferred to a milder place of banishment, and allowed to receive books and see friends. The record of the nameless tortures inflicted on these men of genius, whom any other country would have honoured and cherished, is such a sickening one that nothing but a feeling that a detailed indictment of a system, which every lover of freedom must do his small share in helping to sweep off the face of the earth, would tempt one to turn over, and expose the blood-stained pages. Dostoyevski, who published his first novel in 1846, at the age of twenty-four, was arrested the following year, with thirty-three other young men, all of whom were kept eight months in solitary confinement, being constantly during that time examined by the magistrate. Dostoyevski’s indictment was “Participation in the meetings of a circle of students, who were adherents of Fourier, observations about the strictness of the censorship, reading, or listening to the reading of prohibited pamphlets, and, finally, promises of possible aid in the establishment of a printing office.” At the end of the eight months, in mid-winter, twenty-one of the accused were led to a scaffold in one of the public places in the town, and were compelled to strip to their shirts to listen to the reading of the sentence. The reading occupied half an hour, and the thermometer stood at 3-5 Fahr! The sentence ended with the words .... “are condemned to be shot.” Three were fastened to the stake; an officer directed his company to load, and wait for the word of command. At this moment a white flag was waved, and it was announced to the condemned that the Czar, in his mercy, had commuted their punishment, and that sledges were waiting at the foot of the scaffold to carry them to Siberia. Dostoyevski, a man with a tendency to epilepsy, was sentenced to ten years hard labour, but this sentence was changed later to four years in the house of correction, and four years as a soldier in the ranks, with loss of his rank as a noble, and his rights as a citizen. Those who wish to learn in detail the tortures endured by this gifted literary man, must read his Recollections of a Dead-House, where, not daring, because of the censorship, to relate his own miserable story, he describes the horrible corporal punishments which he himself bore, and which wrecked his nervous system, as being inflicted on a common criminal. The accusation against Chernuishevski, who was arrested in 1864, filled over six hundred lines, and took more than an hour to read. He had been working since 1853 as a journalist writing on economic, critical, and historical questions; and all that he wrote had been passed by the censor. It was therefore to the astonishment of all that he was arrested in 1862, and kept in custody in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, till May 1864. On that date he was taken to a scaffold erected in St. Petersburg, and a black plate, on which his sentence was written in white letters, was hung round his neck. Amongst the accusations in his indictment was that a letter addressed to him from the exile Herzen had been intercepted, in which the sentence occurred, “We intend to publish Sovremennik here or in London with Chernuishevski.” His sentence was, that, as “being found guilty of participation in a conspiracy for the destruction of the present political arrangement, NG. Chernuishevski, 35 years old, is sentenced to fourteen years’ hard labour in the mines, and then to exile to Siberia for life” “He vanished,” writes Brandes, “never more to be seen among those who admired him, and who were indebted to him for the best part of their intellectual culture. He passed his seven years among the criminals in the mines underground, then fifteen years more in solitary exile in one of the most distant parts of Siberia, without books, without men with whom he could exchange ideas, cut off from all communion with Europe.” Can such ferocious crimes, we ask, be allowed for ever to pass unpunished? Herzen, who is in some ways more known to us in England, because he made London his home from 1857 to 1865, and established here his liberal Russian Press, was exiled in his youth to the Siberian frontier, where he gathered material from the heartrending sights and sounds, which met him at every turn, for the writing of one of the most realistic indictments of the Czar Nicholas and of his Government that has ever been published. Let Brandes speak once more: “With withering scorn, with an indignant, harrowing contempt for the throne, with a heart which moans and breeds, he spreads before the eye of the reader the heartrending cruelty, which proceeded from the throne of the Czar, and all that spirit of thraldom, corruption, and stupidity, which made such a rule possible.” One touch from Herzen’s account of his journey to his place of exile aptly illustrates that “spirit of thraldom, corruption, and stupidity,” which unfortunately is still continuing the detested autocratic rule. The convoy in which Herzen travelled, fell in with a convoy of eight wagon, loads of small Jewish boys, the most of them between eight and ten years of age, who were being sent to Military Colonies: a third of them had already died on the way.
Korolenko, in his Remand Ward, and in other stories connected with his exile and imprisonment, continues the long weary tale, of brutality and of stupidity; Lermontof, the revolutionary romanticist, was exiled at the age of twenty-three to the Caucasus, and was afterwards “surrounded by spies, suspected when he was silent, accused when he spoke, denounced, slandered, hated, and abandoned.” But his revolt and contempt burst forth in a volume bearing the seemingly innocent title, Little Conceits and Fancies. “They tortured him,” he wrote, “because he dared to think, stoned him because he dared to speak..... They robbed him of everything except his pride and his courage.... When liberty was taken from him, long, solitary contemplation changed his hate to boundless contempt.” Glyeb Uspeyenski, familiarly known as “Glyeb,” writes for and of the working woman, endeavouring to wake her to conscious motherhood – a consciousness that shall choose or reject the responsibility, under existing social conditions, of adding to the sum of Russian misery. All and each voice the same accusation against the Russian powers that be; and all and each suffer for their admirable temerity, stripes, imprisonment, and degradation. As for those who escaping, or being sent out of the country by other paths than those that lead to Siberia, can we not all of us recall the names of famous men and women who have sojourned among us, or who we have met in our travels abroad: men and women, who, because of their liberal aspirations, and of their intellectual force, are doomed to live, and often to die exiles from the country they love so well – but whose government they hold in abhorrence? Such official malignity often pursues these gifted men and women, that even after death memory and influence are feared by those who have spied on them, dogged their footsteps, and stultified their genius during life. When Herzen died, his friends were forbidden to place an epitaph on his grave; the newspapers were forbidden to mention his name, and this prohibition remained in force for over eighteen years. The great Turgenieff was buried at night, silently and furtively, like a convict, and his friends were forbidden to be present. Quite lately, the remains of Tchekoff, who died away from Russia, were, by the arrangement of Russian Officialdom, conveyed back to St. Petersburg in a fish train, and buried without public honour or ceremonial.
And so the ghastly, pitiful tale goes on, and the pile of mangled, outraged bodies is heaped ever higher “near the wall”; while the quivering, sobbing souls peep in agony from the pages of their Press-censured records, and their message moans appealingly throughout civilised Europe. Now Gorki, the last on the roll of martyrs, has vanished behind those silent walls, – vanished, as the others have vanished and neither friends nor relations can pierce the sickening silence; or bring hope and comfort to the prisoner. Can Europe, can France, the ally of this Power who persecutes and destroys her own most gifted children, allow these horrors to continue without a protest? Nezhdanof, the propagandist poet in Turgenieff’s masterpiece, Virgin Soil, wrote: “With a glass of spirit in thy hand, with head against the North Pole, and feet against the Caucasus, thou sleepest, Oh, my fatherland! Thus sleepest thou, Holy Russia, soundly, steadily, profoundly!” That was a vivid picture of Holy Russia when Turgenieff wrote, and even in recent years; but Merejowski, a more modern voice, has dared to whisper: “Among the common people, far down out of hearing, there are those who are awakening as we ... Action is first needed, and only when we have first acted can we speak. Meanwhile, here is an end of our open course, our words, our contemplation; and a beginning of our secrecy, our silence and our action.”
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.
1. Since this was written Gorki has been removed to Riga.