« AnteriorContinuar »
ending masses down the Dûna on huge rafts' from the interior. Riga is the only town in the Baltic provinces which contains a considerable Russian population, mostly belonging to the poorest classes, and all being sectaries of the old faith, who, persecuted in the Empire by the Orthodox Church, took shelter under the protection of the Protestant authorities. The constitution of the city, moulded upon that of Hamburg, is to this day strictly aristocratic, all power being in the hands of the three estates. The town possesses an elegant theatre, a splendid exchange, guildhalls, mansion-house, a polytechnic school, a navigation school, and a particularly fine harbour, which by a huge mole is protected against the quicksands that threatened to choke up the Dûna. In recent times Riga has become the centre of the struggle against the measures taken by the Russian Government for the Russification of the provinces, the • Rigaer Zeitung' and the · Baltische Monatsschrift' being the principal organs of the provincial press, which defend the German civilisation of the inhabitants.
Travelling northward, we reach the University of Dorpat, the intellectual and scientific centre of the three Baltic provinces. Founded by Gustavus Adolphus, but soon afterwards destroyed, its re-establishment was stipulated in the capitulation of 1710; but the country had been so impoverished by constant wars that it was unable to collect the resources which such an institution required. During the whole of the eighteenth century those who sought an academical education were obliged to go to Germany. The greater number of the physicians, clergy, and lawyers in the provinces were immigrants, and it may be believed that those individuals did not always belong to the élite of their respective professions. The want of a native seat of learning was therefore sorely felt, and when in 1802, the liberality of Alexander I. at length filled up the gap, the young establishment speedily rose to prosperity; henceforth it became necessary to everybody who aimed at a position in political or judicial life, in the clerical or in the scientific world, to have studied at Dorpat. Scattered throughout the Russian Empire there are physicians, chemists, and clergymen who have received their scientific training in the Baltic university: a Dorpat diploma is the best recommendation for a physician who settles in a Russian town, be it on the Volga or on the Amoor. Most of the students, indeed, remain at home. The university has become a national bond for uniting all classes of the community; the sons of noble houses mingle freely there with those of the Riga citizens and semi-German peasants, and contract friendships which often last through life.
Passing from Dorpat over the frontier of Livland to Esthland, the character of the landscape becomes more and more northern. Swedish names betray the Scandinavian rule, to which the province was for a long time subjected. The unfavourable conditions of the climate, the poverty of the soil, and the rivalry of St. Petersburg have checked the progress of the principal towns - Reval possessing a fine port on the
rocky southern shore of the Gulf of Finland-and the last outpost of Baltic German civilisation, the ancient but decaying city of Narva, looking down on the Russian fort Ivangorod, which points the way to the capital of the Czars.
We have said that with the accession of Alexander I. a more happy period began for the Baltic provinces; the country enjoyed the long-desired peace, the Emperor respected the privileges of the provinces, and did what he could to promote their welfare. A decided change for the worse took place in the reign of Nicolas. Complete seclusion from western civilisation, the prohibitive system, stagnation of intellectual life, a brutal censorship, which laid its ban upon almost all the notable productions of foreign literature, and the arbitrary rule of a stupid bureaucracy gave to that period of Russian history a sullen despondent character, which was nowhere more sorely felt than in the Baltic provinces. The system became the more intolerable, as with advancing age the arrogance and self-will of the autocrat rose to an insufferable height. Praised by a servile Court and foreign admirers as the shield of legitimacy and the great bulwark against revolution, elated by his military and political success in the inglorious contests he was doomed to wage against the cause of liberty and progress, the Emperor considered himself as the nucleus of conservative interests. Nobody dared to oppose his most extravagant opinions, nobody ventured anything which looked like a criticism of the Government. Dr. Eckardt relates that the censor of the Northern Bee' received a reprimand because a paragraph had been suffered to appear in that journal complaining of the cast-iron garden-seats in the park of Tzarsko-Selo; they had been cast after a design approved by the Emperor.
The Crimean war freed Europe and Russia from the incubus of this system. The terrible power which blighted every progress was discovered to be hollow; the godlike authority which seemed to tower over all human frailties suffered a sudden downfall, and the sovereign who but one year before was considered all-powerful, died defeated and broken-hearted.
After peace had been restored, an altered tone made itself apparent in the public life of Russia. The Government indeed hesitated before entering upon larger reforms, but the abolition of a number of absurd restrictions which Nicolas had issued sufficed to rouse the long-slumbering energies of the people. It began to hope for a better future, and with the greater liberty of the press all the desires which had been suppressed for generations broke forth. When the Government, encouraged by the enthusiastic gratitude of its subjects, began to put its hand in earnest to the work of reform, more especially when the Emperor declared his intent of abolishing serfdom, the excitement became universal, and nothing appeared impossible.
A witty Russian remarked at the time, says Dr. Eckardt, that if Nicolas had forbidden his subjects to appear in the streets, and if Alexander had only revoked this prohibition, he would have been immediately regarded as one of the most free-minded monarchs of his day. But the first measures of the Government were regarded as the precursors of greater changes. The opening the universities, the abolition of high fees on passports, the pardon of the surviving conspirators of 1826, and, above all, the concessions made to the press, transported the nation to a pitch of ecstasy which carried all before it and has changed the aspect of Russian society. For Russia passed, as it were, at one bound from a servile obedience to despotic power to all the license of democratic agitation. Indeed the moment the pressure of the hand of Nicolas was removed, the essentially democratic land tenures of the Russian village system hurried along public opinion to extremes which it has not yet reached in any part of Western Europe.
Some of the boundary provinces also received their share of the blessings of the new era. The Emperor restored the old Swedish constitution to Finland, and Poland obtained a provincial government under a national Minister, the Marquis Wielopolski. The Baltic provinces alone seemed to remain untouched by this universal reform movement. If their constitution had been previously abolished and now re-established, the event would have roused them from their torpor; but according to the letter it had remained in force, although Nicolas had violated, it whenever it suited him. Those old institutions had alone seemed to afford any shelter against the chilling blast of autocracy. The word “reform ’had been proscribed; the Baltic gentry knew that if they tried to put their administration on a better footing, or to give political rights to their peasants, the Emperor would have at once made a clean sweep of their powers of self-government. So they clung to
the old ordinances and privileges, the loss of which they considered as tantamount to the calamities of revolution.
It was, however, a decided political mistake that the leading men of the country did not avail themselves of the appropriate moment for the salutary remodelling of their ancient institutions. If during the first years of Alexander's reign the diets of the duchies had asked the Government to sanction a reform of their constitution and of the provincial administration, in conformity with the principles of the age, the Emperor would not have been able to refuse this demand, and numerous abuses which unquestionably existed might have been redressed. But the country had lost the habit of political action, and it failed to seize upon this favourable conjuncture, which rapidly passed away. Ere long the Russian democratic press began to attack the aristocratic organisation of the Baltic communities, the ponderous corporations of the cities, and the knightly assemblies disintegrated into the several estates. Herzen, who at that time ruled supreme over public opinion in Russia, called upon the Government to clear out all this mediæval rubbish, and to restore to the original proprietors, the peasants, the soil, which the Germans had taken from them. Intimidated by these attacks and frightened by the difficulties of reform, the Conservatives remained passive; and it was not until the year 1862 that, at the Livonian diet, formal propositions were introduced for remodelling the constitution, for placing the administration of justice on a better footing, for abolishing antiquated privileges, and for establishing a closer union between the three provinces. But the propitious moment for effecting a reform, at once liberal and yet maintaining the autonomy of the provinces, had been allowed to slip away. The internal difficulties which had to be overcome were great; the boundaries between mere class privileges and national privileges were often exceedingly awkward to determine. Was it not to be feared that if the gentry gave up the right to elect the judges, the State would press in and send Russian judges unacquainted with the local circumstances ? The Lettish peasants, the special favourites of the Russian democracy, had made great progress; serfdom had been abolished among them more than a generation before the measure was thought of in Russia ; but were the lower classes sufficiently advanced to be entrusted indiscriminately with the suffrage ? Upon what footing was the reform of the borough corporations to be established ? were all the Russian heterodox handicraftsmen to be admitted to a share of municipal power in the provinces ? Was it not necessary to insist upon the repeal of the Russian laws which were introduced against the provincial charter, and entitled the Orthodox Church alone to convert to its creed those who did not belong to it? But would not such a demand be ill received at St. Petersburg ? These instances may suffice to give an idea of the internal and external difficulties with which the Baltic reformers had to struggle. But before they had come to a conclusion, an event took place which changed the whole aspect of things in the Empire. The Polish revolt, which broke out in January 1863, not only frustrated the only serious attempt towards reconciling Poland with the Russian rule which had been made since 1832, but completely annihilated the sympathies of the Russian opposition for Poland. In the first years of the new era the cause of the oppressed sistercountry was in decided favour among young Russia. Both had languished under the old system, they both had combated a common adversary. But when the insurrection broke out and rapidly spread into Lithuania; when the dangers of an intervention from the Western powers and a foreign war became threatening, Russian patriotism awoke, and with the instinct of self-preservation, claimed before all things to save the unity of the Empire. Hitherto the question had been, whether more or less liberal concessions ought not to be made to the Poles; the point now became, whether Russia would have to recede behind the Vistula and to give up not only the important frontierland which she had conquered seventy years ago, but also the neighbouring Lithuanian provinces ? Whilst Herzen, Bakunin, Ogareff, and other London exiles passionately took up
the cause of Polish independence, the national party, led by Michaël Katkoff, the editor of the • Moscow Gazette,' declared that the time was past when Russia could play at liberalism and cosmopolitanism. In the presence of a danger which menaced to reduce Russia to a Grandduchy of Moscow, every patriot had but one duty-namely, to save the State; freedom without a country was but an empty phantom.
'The Russian Empire,' wrote Katkoff, 'is a reality which has been built up laboriously during a century and a half, and has obtained a place among the great powers of Europe; the maintenance of this State is the basis and the hope of all liberal Russian plans for the future. It is foolish to speak of the future world-wide sway of a Panslavonic empire, and at the same time to break into ruins that State which is the sole personification of Slavonic ideas. The name of citizen will henceforth only belong to him who acknowledges this reality, who devotes all his strength to it, and who renounces all personal predilections and party schemes, until the boundaries of this Empire are secured.'
The national party was not satisfied with re-establishing the