General Dragomirov, now deceased, once wrote in a private letter about Sipyagin, then Minister of Internal Affairs: “What sort of internal policies can he possibly have? He’s only a cavalry N.C.O. and a blockhead at that.” This description is so correct that we can overlook its rather mannered rough-and-ready soldier’s tone. After Sipyagin we saw the same position occupied by Plehve, then by Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky, then Bulygin, then Witte-Durnovo. Some of these differed from Sipyagin only by the fact that they were not cavalry N.C.O.’s, while others were intelligent men, in their way. But all of them, one after the other, abandoned the scene, leaving behind them alarm and bewilderment above and hatred and contempt below. The cavalry N.C.O. of little brain, the professional detective, the benevolent but dim-witted gentleman, the stockbroker devoid of conscience and honor, all of them, one after the other, arrived with the firm intention of putting an end to sedition, restoring the lost prestige of authority, maintaining the foundations of the state – and every one of them, each in his own way, opened the floodgates of revolution and was himself swept away by its current.
Sedition grew as though according to a majestic plan, constantly expanding its territory, reinforcing its positions and demolishing obstacle after obstacle; while against the backdrop of this tremendous effort, with its inner rhythm and its unconscious genius, appeared a series of little mannikins of state power, issuing new laws, contracting new debts, firing at workers, ruining peasants – and, as a result, sinking the governmental authority which they sought to protect more and more deeply into a bog of frantic impotence.
Reared in an atmosphere of office conspiracies and departmental intrigues, where insolent ignorance vies with bare-faced perfidy; having not the smallest notion of the course or meaning of contemporary history, the movement of masses, or the laws of revolution; armed with two or three pathetic programmatic ideas for the information of Paris stockbrokers, such men try – harder and harder as time goes on – to combine the methods of eighteenth-century mercenaries with the manners of the “statesmen” of the parliamentary West. Abjectly hoping to ingratiate themselves, they chat with newspaper correspondents from the Europe of the stock exchanges, expound to them their “plans,” their “forecasts,” their “programs,” and each one presses the hope that he, at last, will succeed in solving the problem against which his predecessors’ efforts were in vain. If only, before anything else, they can stop the sedition! They all start differently, but they all end up by issuing the order to fire point blank on sedition. But, to their horror, sedition remains unkillable. It is they who end in shameful collapse. If a terrorist’s obliging bullet does not release them from their sorry existence, they survive to see sedition, with that elemental genius which is its own, turn everything they planned and forecast to its own triumphant advantage.
Sipyagin fell to a revolutionary’s bullet. Plehve was torn to pieces by a bomb. Svyatopolk-Mirsky was transformed into a political corpse on January 9. Bulygin was thrown out, like an old boot, by the October strikes. Count Witte, utterly exhausted by workers’ and soldiers’ risings, fell without glory, having stumbled on the threshold of the State Duma which he himself had created.
In certain circles of the opposition, especially in the milieu of the liberal landlords and the democratic intelligentsia, vague hopes, expectations and plans were invariably associated with the succession of one minister by another. And indeed it was by no means irrelevant to the propaganda of the liberal newspapers or the policies of the constitutionalist landowners whether it was Plehve, the old police wolf, or Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky, the “Minister of Confidence,” who held the reins of power.
Of course Plehve was as powerless against sedition as his successor, but he was a terrible scourge against the kingdom of liberal newspapermen and rural conspirators. He loathed the revolution with the fierce loathing of a police detective grown old in his profession, threatened by a bomb from around every street corner; he pursued sedition with bloodshot eyes – but in vain. And so he found a substitute target for his rancor in professors, rural constitutionalists, journalists, in whom he pretended to see the legal “instigators” of the revolution. He drove the liberal press to the utmost limits of humiliation. He treated the journalists en canaille : not only exiling them and locking them up, but also wagging his finger at them as though they were schoolboys. He treated the moderate members of the agricultural committees organized on Witte’s initiative as though they were mutinous students instead of “respectable” country gentlemen. And he got what he wanted: liberal society trembled before him and hated him with the inarticulate hatred of impotence. Many of the liberal pharisees who tirelessly condemn “violence from the left” as well as “violence from the right” welcomed the bomb of July 15 as though it were a message from the Messiah.
Plehve was terrifying and loathsome as far as the liberals were concerned, but against sedition he was no better and no worse than any of the others. Of necessity, the movement of the masses ignored the limits of what was allowed and what was forbidden: that being so, what did it matter if those limits were a little narrower or a little wider?
The official writers of reactionary panegyrics tried hard to represent Plehve’s regency, if not as a period of universal happiness, at least as one of universal calm. But in fact this favorite of the Tsar was unable to establish even a police-controlled calm. No sooner had he assumed power and had the idea – with all the Orthodox fervor of the double convert – of visiting the sacred relics of the Lavra Monastery, than he was compelled to rush southwards because a major agrarian movement had flared up in the Kharkov and Poltava provinces. Peasant disorders on a smaller scale never stopped occurring thereafter. The celebrated Rostov strike in November 1902 and the July days of 1903, which extended over the whole of the industrial south, prefigured all the future actions of the proletariat. Street demonstrations succeeded one another without cessation. The debates and decisions of committees concerned with the needs of agriculture served as a prologue to the agrarian campaign which was to follow. The universities, even before Plehve, had become centers of extreme political turbulence, and they continued to remain so under his rule. Two congresses held in Petersburg in January 1904 – the technical and the Pirogov congresses – played the role of a vanguard strike for the democratic intelligentsia.
Thus the prologue to the social “spring” occurred during Plehve’s rule. Fierce reprisals, imprisonments, interrogations, house searches, sentences of exile provoked terrorism but were unable to paralyze completely even the mobilization of liberal society.
The last six months of Plehve’s rule coincided with the beginning of the Russo-Japanese war. Popular discontent quieted down, or rather entered a latent phase. A book called Vor der Katastrophe (Before the Catastrophe) by the Viennese journalist Hugo Ganz gives an idea of the mood which reigned in bureaucratic circles and in the upper reaches of Petersburg liberal society during the first months of the war. The predominant mood was one of bewilderment approaching despair. “Things cannot continue as they are!” But where was the way out? No one knew the answer: neither the high officials in retirement, nor the famous liberal lawyers, nor the famous liberal journalists. “Society is utterly powerless. A revolutionary movement of the people cannot even be thought of; and even if the people did move, they would not move against authority, but against the gentry as a whole.” Where, then, lay hope of salvation? In financial bankruptcy and military defeat.
Hugo Ganz, who spent the first three months of the war in Petersburg, reports that the common prayer not only of the moderate liberals, but also of many conservatives was: “Gott, hilf uns damit wir geschlagen werden” (Please God, let us be beaten). This did not, of course, prevent liberal society from simulating a tone of official patriotism. In a whole series of addresses, the zemstvos and the dumas, one after the other, all without exception, swore their loyalty to the throne and undertook to lay down their lives and property – knowing well that they would not have to do it – for the honor and power of the Tsar and Russia.
The zemstvos and the dumas were followed by a shameful queue of professorial bodies. One after the other they responded to the declaration of war by addresses in which the floweriness of the style – a style acquired in priests’ seminaries – harmonized with the Byzantine imbecility of the content. This was not an oversight or a misunderstanding. It was a tactic based on a single principle: rapprochement at any price! Hence the efforts to make the emotional drama of reconciliation a little easier for absolutism. To organize, not in the cause of fighting the autocracy, but in the cause of serving it. Not to defeat the government, but to seduce it. To deserve its gratitude and confidence. To become indispensable to it. A tactic which is as old as Russian liberalism and which has not grown wiser nor more dignified with the years. From the very start of the war the liberal opposition did everything to ruin the situation. But there was no stopping the revolutionary logic of events. The Port Arthur fleet was destroyed, Admiral Makarov was killed, the war shifted to the mainland; Yalu, Kin-Chzhou, Dashichao, Wafangou, Liaoyan, Shakhe – all these were different names for one thing only, the humiliating defeat of the autocracy. The government’s position was becoming more difficult than ever before. Demoralization in the government ranks made consistency and firmness in domestic matters an impossibility. Hesitation, compromise, conciliation were becoming unavoidable. Plehve’s death offered a favorable pretext for a change of policy.
Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky, former chief of the gendarmerie corps, was called upon to establish the governmental “spring.”  Why? He would have been the last to be able to explain his own appointment.
This statesman’s political personality emerges most clearly from interviews he gave about his program to foreign newspaper correspondents.
“What is the opinion of the Prince,” asks the correspondent of Echo de Paris, “concerning the opinion held by the public to the effect that Russia needs ministers responsible to the public?”
The Prince smiles.
“Any such responsibility would be artificial and nominal.”
“What are your opinions, Prince, on questions of religious freedom?.”
“I am an enemy of religious persecutions, but with certain reservations.”
“Is it true that you would be inclined to give more freedom to the Jews?.”
“Happy results can be achieved by kindness.”
“Generally speaking, Mr. Minister, would you describe yourself as being on the side of progress?.”
Answer: the Minister intends “to concert his actions with the spirit of true and broad progress, at least to the extent that this is not incompatible with the existing order.” These are his exact words.
But even the Prince himself did not take his program seriously. It is true that the “most immediate” objective of the government was “the good of the population entrusted to our care,” but he confessed to Mr. Thomson, an American correspondent, that, in substance, he did not yet know what use he would make of his powers.
“I would be wrong,” said the Minister, “if I were to say that I already have a definite program. The agrarian question? Yes, yes, we have vast materials relating to this question, but so far, I am acquainted with it only through the newspapers.”
The Prince cajoled the Tsar at Peterhof, comforted the liberals, and gave assurances to foreign correspondents which bore witness to the kindness of his heart but hopelessly exposed his lack of statesmanlike gifts.
And this helpless, gentlemanly figure wearing a gendarme’s epaulettes was seen – not only in the eyes of Nicholas II, but also in the imagination of the liberals – as the man whose destiny was to remove the century-old bonds cutting into our great nation’s flesh!
Everyone, it seemed, received Svyatopolk-Mirsky with enthusiasm. Prince Meshchersky, editor of the reactionary Grazhdanin (Citizen), wrote that a day of rejoicing had come for the “vast family of decent people in Russia,” because, at last, “an ideally decent man” had been appointed to the post of minister. “An independent man is a man of noble mind,” wrote the aged Suvorin, “and we have great need of men of noble mind.” Prince Ukhtomsky in the Peterburgskie Vedomosti (Petersburg Gazette) drew attention to the fact that the new minister was a descendant of “an ancient princely family going back to Ryurik through Monomakh.” The Viennese Neue Freie Presse noted, with satisfaction, that the Prince’s outstanding characteristics were the following: “humaneness, justice, objectivity, a sympathetic attitude towards enlightenment.” The Birzhevye Vedomosti (Stock Exchange Gazette) pointed out that the Prince was only 47 years old and that, therefore, he had not yet had time to become steeped in bureaucratic routine.
Verse and prose offerings were published telling us how “we had been asleep” and how, by a liberal gesture, the former commandant of the special gendarmerie corps had awakened us from sleep and pointed the way for a “rapprochement between authority and the people.” When you read these outpourings you have the impression of breathing the gas of stupidity at a pressure of 20 atmospheres.
Only the extreme right managed not to lose its head in this “bacchanalia of liberal delight.” The Moskovskie Vedomosti (Moscow Gazette) ruthlessly reminded the Prince that, together with Plehve’s portfolio, he was also taking over his problems.
“If our internal enemies in the underground print shops, in various public organizations, in the schools, in the press, and in the streets with bombs in their hands, have raised their heads high to prepare for their assault of our internal Port Arthur, this is possible only because they are befuddling society, as well as certain ruling circles, with utterly false theories to the effect that it is necessary to remove the surest foundations of the Russian State – the autocracy of its Tsars, the Orthodoxy of its Church, and the national self-awareness of its people.”
Prince Svyatopolk tried to steer a middle course: autocracy, but made a little less rigid by legality; bureaucracy, but with public support. Novoye Vrernya, which supported the Prince because the Prince was in power, assumed the task of a semi-official political procuress. A favorable opportunity for this was evidently at hand.
The Minister, whose benevolence failed to meet with an appropriate response among the camarilla which ruled Tsar Nicholas, made a timid attempt to seek support among the zemtsy: this was the object of the proposed conference of representatives of rural councils. But the excitement rising within society and the heightened tone of the press made the outcome of the conference appear increasingly dangerous. By October 30 Novoye Vremya had definitely changed its tune. “However interesting and instructive the decisions reached by the members of the conference may be, it should not be forgotten that, by reason of its composition and the method of issuing invitations, it is quite rightly viewed in official circles as a private meeting, and its decisions have only academic significance and carry only moral obligations.
In the end the conference of the zemtsy, which was supposed to provide a basis of support for the “progressive” Minister, was forbidden by that self-same Minister and was held semi-legally in a private apartment.
On November 6-8, 1904, a hundred personalities prominent in the zemstvos formulated, by a majority of 70 to 30 votes, a demand for public freedom, personal immunity, and popular representation with participation in legislative power, without, however, pronouncing the sacramental word constitution.
The liberal European press noted this tactful omission with respect: the liberals had found a way of saying what they wanted while at the same time avoiding the word which might have rendered it impossible for Prince Svyatopolk to accept their declaration.
This is a perfectly correct explanation of the meaningful omission in the zemstvo declaration. In formulating their demands, the zemtsy had in mind only the government with which they had to seek agreement, but not the popular masses to whom they might have appealed.
They worked out various points for a political compromise bargain, but they had no slogans for political agitation. In this they did no more than remain faithful to themselves.
“The public has done its work, now it is the government’s turn!” the press exclaimed in a tone of challenge mingled with subservience. Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky’s government took up the “challenge,” and promptly issued a warning to the liberal journal Pravo (Right) – for making the subservient appeal quoted above. The newspapers were forbidden to print or discuss the resolutions of the zemstvo conference. A modest petition from the Chernigov zemstvo was declared “insolent and tactless.” The governmental spring was nearing its end; the spring of liberalism was only just beginning.
The zemstvo conference was a safety valve for the oppositional mood of the “educated public.” Admittedly the conference did not consist of official representatives of all the zemstvos, but it did include the chairmen of town councils and many “authoritative” personalities (whose crass ignorance alone gave weight and significance to their views). Admittedly, the conference was not legalized by the bureaucracy, but it did take place with the bureaucracy’s knowledge, and therefore the intelligentsia, reduced to extreme timidity, now believed that its innermost constitutional desires, the secret dreams of its sleepless nights, had been granted semi-official approval. And nothing so encouraged liberal society as the sense – even if it was an illusory one – that its demands were rooted in legal soil.
A season of banquets, resolutions, declarations, protests, memoranda, and petitions began. Corporations and associations of all kinds started out with professional and local events and jubilee celebrations and ended up with the same formulation of constitutional demands as appeared in the henceforth celebrated “11 points” of the zemstvo conference’s resolution. The democrats hastened to form a choir around the zemstvo choir leaders to emphasize the importance of the zemstvo’s decisions and increase their influence upon the bureaucracy. For liberal society, the entire political task of the moment was reduced to exerting pressure on the government from behind the zemtsy’s backs. At first it looked as though the resolutions themselves might, like Whitehead’s mine, blow up the bureaucracy. But this did not happen. The resolutions began to become over-familiar to those who wrote them as well as to those against whom they were written. The press, whose throat was being gripped more and more tightly by the Ministry of Internal Confidence, gradually became irritable without any definite object for its irritation.
At the same time the opposition began to become fragmented. More and more frequently, impatient, ill-mannered, intolerant persons came forward to take the floor at the banquets – an intellectual one day, a worker another – and harshly attacked the zemtsy and demanded that the intelligentsia’s slogans be more clearly worded and its tactics more definite. People tried to calm down these persons, to conciliate them, to flatter them, to scold them, to shut them up, to mollify them, to cajole them; finally, they threw them out; but the impatient persons continued to do their work, pushing the left-wing elements of the intelligentsia on to the path of revolution.
While the right wing of the public materially or ideologically connected with liberalism was trying to prove the moderation and loyalty of the zemtsy’s conference and appealed to Prince Svyatopolk’s statesmanlike reason, the radical intelligentsia, predominantly composed of young students, joined the November campaign with the purpose of steering it off its pitiful course, giving it a more militant character and linking it with the revolutionary movement of the urban workers. This gave rise to two street demonstrations: one in Petersburg on November 28 and one in Moscow on December 5 and 6. These demonstrations of the radical “sons” were a direct and inevitable consequence of the slogans advanced by the liberal “fathers”: once the decision to demand a constitutional order had been taken, it was necessary to plunge into the struggle. But the “fathers” showed no inclination whatever to accept such consistent political thinking. On the contrary, they immediately took fright lest excessive haste and impulsiveness break the delicate cobweb of confidence. The “fathers” did not support the “sons”; they handed them over, hand and foot, to the liberal Prince’s cossacks and mounted gendarmes.
Neither, however, did the students receive any support from the workers. This made it manifestly clear how limited, in reality, was the “banqueting campaign” of November and December 1904. Only the thinnest, uppermost layer of the proletariat’s aristocracy joined it, and “real workers,” whose appearance gave rise to mixed feelings of hostile fear and curiosity, could be counted at the banquets of this period in single or at most double figures. The deep inner process taking place in the consciousness of the actual masses was not, of course, in any way linked with the hastily conceived actions of the revolutionary students.
And so the students were, in the final analysis, left almost entirely to their own resources.
Nevertheless these demonstrations, after the long political truce caused by the war – demonstrations which, given the critical internal situation created by military defeat, bore a sharply political character and which the telegraph quickly reported to the world at large – made a much stronger impression on the government, purely as a symptom, than all the wise admonitions of the liberal press. The government pulled itself together and made haste to show its mettle.
The constitutional campaign which began with a meeting of several dozen zemtsy in Korsakov’s elegant apartment and ended with the incarceration of several dozen students in the police stations of Petersburg and Moscow met with a twofold response from the government: a reformist “ukase” and a police “announcement.” The case of December 12, 1904, which remains the finest fruit of the “confidence policy” of the so-called “spring,” made the safeguarding of the basic laws of the Empire an essential condition for any further reformist activity. Generally speaking, the ukase formulated what had already been contained in Prince Svyatopolk’s newspaper interviews, which were so filled with good intentions and cautious reservations.
This gives a sufficiently clear idea of its value. The government announcement issued two days later possessed an incomparably higher degree of political clarity. It described the November conference of the zemtsy as the prime source of a subsequent movement “alien to the Russian people,” and reminded the dumas and the zemstvos that in discussing the resolutions of the November conference they were acting against the law. The government pointed out further that its lawful duty consisted in defending state order and the public peace; for that reason, all gatherings of an anti-government character would be stopped by all legal means at the authorities’ disposal. If the Prince enjoyed little success in his efforts directed towards the peaceful reconstruction of the country, he was quite strikingly successful in fulfilling the more general task which was, in fact, the reason why history had placed him for a time at the head of the government: the task of destroying the political illusions and prejudices of the average citizen.
The era of Svyatopolk-Mirsky, which opened to the fanfare of the trumpets of conciliation and ended with cossacks’ whips whistling through the air, had the effect of raising to unparalleled heights the hatred of absolutism among all elements of the population possessing even a modicum of political consciousness. Political interests took a more sharply defined form; discontent became more profound and more a matter of principle. What had, only yesterday, been but primitive thought, today threw itself avidly into the work of political analysis. All manifestations of evil and arbitrary rule were rapidly reduced to their fundamentals. Revolutionary slogans now frightened no-one: on the contrary, they found a thousandfold echo and were transformed into popular sayings. As a sponge absorbs moisture, so the consciousness of society absorbed every word which rejected or condemned absolutism.
Now absolutism could do nothing more with impunity. Every awkward step was counted against it. Its attempts to ingratiate itself met with scorn. Its threats provoked hatred. True, Prince Svyatopolk’s ministry made considerable concessions to the press, but the range of interests of the press grew much more rapidly than the mild tolerance of the Central Directorate for Press Affairs. The same was true in all other domains: the half freedom granted as a form of charity proved no less irritating than total enslavement. That is generally the fate of concessions in a revolutionary epoch: they fail to satisfy, but only give rise to more stringent demands. More insistent demands were made in the press, at meetings and congresses, and these in their turn irritated the authorities, who were rapidly losing their confidence” and sought aid in repression. Meetings and congresses were closed down, a hail of blows rained down upon the press, demonstrations were dispersed with merciless brutality. Finally, as if to help the common citizen to appreciate the true meaning of the ukase of December 12, on December 31, Prince Svyatopolk issued a circular explaining that the examination of measures concerning the peasantry, which had been announced in the liberal ukase, would now be carried out on the basis of Plehve’s plan. That was the government’s last act in 1904. The year 1905 opened with events which drew a fatal boundary between the past and the present. With a line of blood they put an end to the “spring,” to the childhood of Russia’s political consciousness. Prince Svyatopolk, his kindness, his plans, his confidence, his circulars – all were rejected and forgotten.
1. In French in the original.
2. This name, which acquired great popularity, was given by Suvorin, the editor of New Times (Novoye Vrenzya), to the “epoch of rapprochement between the authorities and the people.”
Last updated on: 27.11.2006