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The Contemporary Review, Volume 36, September 1879

The Songs of the Crimean Soldiers


So

far as public opinion existed then, or could make itself heard in the Czar's Empire, the impression of this manifesto was a highly unfavourable one. Its allusions to the maintenance of the political principles of Nicholas and to the maxims of the Holy Alliance were little relished--all the less so, because there was not a word about coming reforms. Military preparations were continued. The whole country seemed to be destined to become a military camp. No prospects were held out either of the emancipation of the serfs, or of the admission of any section of the nation to a share in the Government.

Soon, however, Alexander II. had to alter his tone. The wave of public discontent rising ever higher, whilst the Russian arms suffered defeat after defeat, peace had to be concluded, and the full stringency of the despotic rule could no longer be maintained. Gortschakoff was substituted for Nesselrode in the Chancellorship. At that time this was almost considered progress--so unspeakably degrading was the slavery of the nation, and so apt are men in their despair to catch at a straw.

Gortschakoff, nevertheless, pronounced the famous saying, "_La Russie ne boude pas; elle se recueille!_" The old war policy had been scotched, not killed. Scarcely had the army returned from the campaign, before Government busied itself with a well-studied plan for a network of railways, not in the commercial, but in the strategical interest.

With the same object of an ulterior return to the aggressive war policy, Alexander II. sought an interview with Napoleon III. soon after the conclusion of the Crimean War. Piedmont, also, was diplomatically approached in a remarkably friendly manner. England was to be isolated. Revenge was to be ultimately taken against her. Between all these significant, though somewhat weak attempts, the new Czar addressed to the Marshals of the Polish nobility at Warsaw his threatening words:--"Before all, no dreams, gentlemen!... If need be, I shall know how to punish with the utmost severity; and with the utmost severity I mean to punish!" ("_Avant tout, point de reveries, messieurs!... Au besoin, je saurai sevir, et je sevirai!_")

Thus the autocratic vein strongly stood out even in this more sickly type of a barbarous autocracy. It is the fashion at present, at least among some who take the name of "philosophical Radicals" in vain when they curtsy before a Machiavellian tyrant, to dwell with admiring pride upon the philanthropic character of Alexander the Benevolent. All the cardinal virtues are his. He is the Liberator of the Serfs, the Deliverer of Downtrodden Nationalities, the Educator and Friend of the People--a monstrous paragon of princely perfection. The truth is that this Czar, albeit lacking the nerve of his sire, has from early youth shown the full absolutistic bent. Dire necessity only brought him to the accomplishment of some reforms. But the evidence before us clearly shows that in this he acted on the well-known lines of despotic calculation, and that he never did good without the intention of thereby preventing what to him appeared to be the greater evil for his position as an irresponsible autocrat, by the so-called "Grace of God."

III.

So deeply shaken was the Empire by the events of 1853-56, that Alexander did not dare for several years--in fact, not until 1863--to ordain any fresh recruitment for the army. This necessity greatly diminished the oppressive power of the Crown. At the same time, public opinion showed signs of a threatening unrest. An "Underground Literature," as it was called, began once more to express the ideas of the better-educated, progressive classes. Among the troops, the "Songs of the Crimean Soldiers," by Tolstoy, an artillery officer, made a great stir. Count Orloff, then Minister of the Police, wrote to the Commanding-General in the South, that he should silence these rebel songs. The General somewhat bluntly replied, "Please come yourself, and try to silence them!"


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