Russia and Reform

Russia and Reform – Bernard Pares

Beginning with a rather impressionistic but distinctly readable sketch of the rise and advance of Russia from the earliest times, Mr. Pares, with the emancipation of the serfs, enters into a detailed study which is really worthy of comparison with Mackenzie Wallace’s great book. Like Wallace, Mr. Pares evidently knows his Russia thoroughly, and his Russian in every walk of life. The geographical and economic aspects of the country, the governmental system, the educational facilities, the home life of the noble and the peasant, the literature that has been produced and the men who have produced it — all this and much more is expounded by him in a way that is equally interesting and authoritative. He gives a brief sketch of the history of Russian institutions up to the late 19th century and of the social conditions in the country generally from 1904 down to the assembling of the second Duma. He brings out more clearly than most writers have done the contrast between the ideals of the educated class and the great mass of the people. He is hopeful for the steady progress of reform, though he thinks it may be slow, and notes that the Government is missing many opportunities that will not recur, and that day by day the intelligence of the individual is outstripping more and more the measure of responsibility allowed to him by the authorities, whose prestige, he says, is being recklessly squandered.

Russia and Reform

Russia and Reform.

Format: eBook.

Russia and Reform.

ISBN: 9783849662875.



Excerpt from the text:




IT is the map of Russia that gives us the first and the most informing suggestions as to the destinies of the Russian people. Herodotus, who visited the northern shores of the Black Sea, tells us that the inhabitants of these shores lead that kind of life which has been marked out for them by the character of their country, and his words stand in the forefront of the great ” History of Russia ” by Solovyeff.

Russia is a land of difficulties; she lies between Europe and Asia, and is not sharply divided from either; if anything, the line of marshes which once separated her from Europe was the more definite boundary. Asia and Europe are terms of which the historical significance is more important than the political. The word Europe implies a certain kind of civilisation, a mass of moral traditions, at one time covering only the Greek world and now extending far beyond the oceans. Europe has grown larger and larger; her growth was a victory of civilisation; but from time to time, when the vitality of the peoples entrusted with her mission was not equal to the task of conquest, the expansion of the civilised world proceeded on lines of far greater difficulty. The enervated peoples of this world were attacked in their turn by invaders from outside. The great nursery from which the invading peoples came was, by the nature of things, Asia. Discontent with a poor soil or with a hard life drove whole tribes and nations afield, and some vague instinct made them seek the road which would bring them into those happier lands which were the nests of civilisation. It was the same instinct that urged the great tribes of the interior towards the seas. At such a period all that we call Europe would seem for the time to be submerged; but the new invaders of the Pale, after their first work of destruction, gradually came more and more closely under the influence of the traditions which they had disturbed; and, bringing a new vitality into a worn-out world, they themselves became in turn the adherents and extenders of civilisation. In this great and often-repeated struggle between East and West, Russia was by her very position marked out for a field of battle. Here the conflict took the most vast and momentous dimensions. Yet Russia was far more than a simple stage in a line of march. If she had been only that, she would probably have disappeared from the map. But the Russian people had a strong character of their own. In no part of the world is the instinct of brotherhood and solidarity more developed; they clung by instinct to their national and moral independence. It was this that saved them from their dangers, and the very length of their sufferings and of their training qualified them for a great future.


” By lasting out the strokes of fate,

In trials long they learned to feel

Their inborn strength: as hammers weight

Will splinter glass but temper steel.”


In the north the soil is poor; the excellent black land of the south lay mostly outside the Russian Empire until the eighteenth century. In fact, this black land was a source of constant danger to Russia; it produced crops without much labour, and was therefore the favourite high road of invaders from Asia. Yet, if the fruitful south could be joined to the wooded north, the two would prove to be only complementary to each other. Till then Russia had to live in a state of flux; her triumph, to be effective, had to be complete.

The climate immobilises the labourer for a great part of the year. The violent spring and autumn break up the roads and cause regular interruptions in the sequence of work. Yet the very similarity of climate all over these vast plains suggested the political unity which was to come.

There were always the greatest potentialities in the rivers of Russia. The chief of them flow eastward and southward, and these were therefore the lines along which Russian history would naturally travel. In the Volga and the Kama, Russia possessed a direct road to Siberia, and the lower Volga connected her with Central Asia. The Dnyepr directed her towards Constantinople.

A poor soil and a hard climate meant a thin population — plenty of land, but few hands to work it. This helps to explain why estates came to be reckoned, not by the number of acres, but by the number of ” souls.” Later the peasants, the real property, came to be fastened to the soil.

The Slavs do not seem adapted by nature for these conditions. They are a people of feeling and fancy, reminding one of the Kelts, but more permanent in their moods, more serious and earnest in them, and therefore less quick of recovery. Feeling, by itself, seems a poor weapon to meet the tedious and recurring difficulties of Russia. No Slav race, except one, has made much out of its existence as a nation, and that one is a blend. Russia, at the beginning of its history, was largely peopled by tribes of more directly Asiatic origin, stolid and persevering Finns; these blended with Slavs to form the Great Russians, who are at once the most eastern of Slavs and the most successful. The Little Russians are more lively and less stable; the White Russians have less vigour and enterprise. It is the Great Russians who have made Russian history; they have been adapted, almost against nature and by long habit, to the character of the country in which they live, but the contrast between them and it is still visible enough. The happy instinctive character of clever children, so open, so kindly and so attractive, still remains; but the interludes of depression or idleness are longer than is normal. Yet often, at the very bottom of all, persists the steadiness of patient purpose: only without hurry — which seems to be useless under the prevailing conditions — and without any captious blaming of Providence, which is thought to be absurd. In Russia one has no right to expect that everything should run smoothly.

There are certain instincts which run all through Russian history; in every country where they exist together, they are sure to make a great people.

First, there is the instinct of order. The turbulent Slavs of Lake Ilmen knew what they needed. ” Our land is great and rich,” they said to the Varanger chiefs, ” but order there is none; come and rule over us.” So began the Russian Empire, a thousand years ago, and over and over again since then Russia has invited education from abroad — now from Constantinople, now from Italy and Germany, now from Holland and England, now from France, but always from what was for her the West. Her relations with the West were always curiously two-fold. The doors were either locked fast against attack or thrown wide open for instruction.

The new ” grand principality ” thus established wore from the first an air of empire, the empire of the rivers, that is, of the roads. Its ambition at once answered to the great oneness of the country: Kieff was soon added to Novgorod, and Constantinople was attacked for the first time. Yet in the presence of such great unconquered distances — of forest, plain and marsh — local government was the first need, and it seemed inevitable that the country should be divided into little kindred States. Not many years before we had had seven kingdoms in little England alone. But Russia had leaped at once to the great principle. By a curious plan she kept her hold on it. The reigning family was large, and Russia was ruled by a multitude of brothers and cousins. The eldest was the senior and was Grand Prince in Kieff. When he died, each prince ” went up one,” so that the ruler of Novgorod in the north might at any time become the prince of the frontier capital in the south. Thus the principle of family unity and allegiance preserved the unity of interests in the Empire. We see, at the same time, the beginnings of a governing caste.

Russia, as always militant against great dangers, has had many frontier capitals; the capital has had the post of honour closest to the enemy — Moscow as against the Tartars, St. Petersburg as against the Swedes. Someday, perhaps, Constantinople will be another such. The point is chosen or chooses itself, less as the centre of the nation than as the concentration of the national energy and purpose.

Each prince had round him an army of liege companions, the beginnings of the aristocracy. They gave him service and he gave them land; but they held it as his gift, and the coming of a new prince meant the gathering of a new band of Boyars. Thus the aristocracy could not easily become independent of State service.

The second great instinct is faith in Christianity and championship of it. Russia became Christian by the choice of her prince, Vladimir. He felt the insufficiency of his old gods, sent to inquire into other religions, and picked that which pleased — him best. He chose the Orthodoxy of Constantinople, possibly because of its sense of awe and for the reverence to imperial authority which it taught. He did not beg his baptism: he conquered it by defeating the Greeks; and it was the exercise of his will which converted his subjects.

Thus early began a direct connection with Constantinople, which has never ceased. Russia got from thence not only Greek Christianity, Greek sacred books and Greek saints, but also a tradition, which came to be her greatest honour and responsibility when the invasion of the Turks made her the chief champion of the faith against the East.

The Greek missionaries and their Russian followers were real educators of Russia. By their austerity and absolute abnegation of worldly interests, they shone as indeed lights in a dark place. Nothing is more simple reading and in the highest sense moral than their story. One feels at once what the Christian tradition of the West might have been without that intrusion of political ambitions which mars the Papacy. These monks were, for Russia, rather a constant standard of effort, a tradition of a better world worth trying for— a tradition which has never been wholly or even generally lost. The instinct of reverence for that real sanctity which illumined their lives passed as a permanent inheritance into princes and people. In reading Vladimir Monomach’s testament, we almost seem to recognise our own. King Alfred. There has hardly been one Russian Tsar who did not pay his tribute to religion, whether by pretence of observance or, as far more often, by real reverence and piety. Amongst the people there are and always have been men and women who, without seeking any kind of ordination and without ever thinking of separating themselves from the national Church, have set themselves to do some difficult exploit for their special salvation. Such persons ordinarily court no attention. One may go barefooted and wear heavy chains beneath his clothes. The Russian word for such exploits may be translated as ” moving onwards.” It is a gospel of effort. Many will walk extraordinary distances to collect money for the beautifying of a village church, and sums so collected are practically never known to go astray.

All the highest offices in the Church can only be held by monks. Thus the missionary character of the Church as a whole is preserved, and its leaders are less likely to compromise with what I have heard described from an English pulpit as “our legitimate comforts.” Yet the Church is by no means separated from the married morality of the country: the country priests, who must marry before their appointment, set the best example in this matter. The Church is in very close touch both with the Government and with the people; it is probably the best link between the two. On the other hand, a comparison with the clergy of the West has always shown up the backwardness of Russia in instruction and in culture.


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