Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Great Events During Alexander's Reign. Nihilism

Prussia's behavior during the Polish insurrection brought her into a close friendship with Russia. The result was seen when Austria and Prussia, in 1864, invaded the German provinces of Denmark, when Russia prevented intervention, and Denmark lost the two provinces by the Treaty of Vienna, October 30, 1864. Soon after Prussia and Austria quarreled about the spoils. The countries of South Germany supported Austria. War began on June 18, 1866, and little over two months later, on August 23, 1866, it ended by the Peace of Prague, which gave to Prussia Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, Hesse, Nassau, and the city of Frankfort. Prussia did not annex Wurtemburg in compliment to the czar, who was related to its king by marriage.

If Russia looked carelessly upon Prussia's growth, not so Napoleon III of France. He saw in it a threat, and to offset Prussia's increase of power, tried to secure other territory. It was evident that nothing but a pretext was needed to bring on war. It was found, and Napoleon declared war on July 15, 1870. Once again it was Alexander who protected Prussia on the east, by threatening Austria which would gladly have seized the opportunity to avenge 1866. As a consequence France had to fight the whole of Germany; and Russia seized the opportunity for repudiating the treaty of Paris of 1856, which forbade the construction of arsenals on the coast of the Black Sea and did not permit any war vessels in it. None of the powers felt any inclination to fight Russia single-handed, but Prussia proposed a conference, which was held at London. The result was that Russia was left free in the Black Sea, but the sultan has the right to close the Dardanelles to warships.

On January 18, 1871, the King of Prussia became German Emperor, and in the following year the Emperor of Russia, the Emperor of Austria, and the German Emperor met at Vienna, with the result that an alliance was concluded among the three powers.

In 1867 Russia resolved to dispose of its possessions on the western hemisphere by selling Alaska, a territory covering 590,884 square miles, to the United States. In the same year a Slavophil Congress was held at Moscow with the czar's approval. The object was said to be to unite all the nations of Slav origin by a bond of friendship; but the real purpose was to bring them under the rule of the czar. This was apparent when it was resolved to send emissaries among the Slavs under Turkish rule. They met with encouragement in Montenegro, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. General Ignatieff, the Russian ambassador at Constantinople, thought that this might be the means to bring about the longed-for annexation of the old Czargrad. He worked upon the Turkish subjects belonging to the Greek Church, but showed his hand when, under his decision, the Bulgarians were released from the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1875, the Bulgarian Christians rose against the Turkish tax-farmers. The revolt was fanned by the Russian emissaries, and it spread to Servia and Montenegro. Ignatieff did not think that the time was ripe and interfered; but he threatened the Sultan with European intervention and Abdul Aziz granted the insurgents the privileges enjoyed by the Christians in Turkey.

Austria looked with apprehension upon the increasing influence of Russia in Turkey, and suggested drastic reforms in a note addressed to the powers on December 30, 1875. It was approved and presented to the sultan by the five great European powers. Abdul Aziz quietly accepted it. This was not what the Russian Slavophils expected, and they incited the Servians to revolt. A religious insurrection followed which was put down by the Turks with such cruelty that it aroused universal indignation in Europe, especially in Russia. In Constantinople the Turks were indignant at the sultan's evident fear of Ignatieff. The situation became so alarming that Great Britain assembled a fleet in Besika Bay. The triple alliance, Russia, Austria and Prussia, demanded of the sultan an armistice and the execution of reforms under foreign supervision. The situation changed by a revolution in Turkey on May 29, 1876, when Abdul Aziz was assassinated and succeeded by his nephew Murad V.

Russia felt that war was inevitable and approached Austria with proposals to take joint action. The reply was that Austria could not permit the creation of a Slav state on the frontier and that, if any changes were made in the Balkans, Austria must receive compensation. This was admitted by Russia. A number of Russian officers took service in Servia, among them General Chernaiev, who had gained distinction in Central Asia. Montenegro declared war against Turkey on July 2, 1876.

On the 31st of August, of the same year, Sultan Murad V was deposed, and his half-brother became sultan as Abdul Hamid II. Meanwhile the Turks were victorious, and on September, 17, the Servians asked for an armistice.

The reports of Turkish atrocities aroused great indignation in Great Britain; its government was forced to join the other great powers in a note to the sultan demanding reforms. Abdul Hamid made vague promises but when the Servians, trusting to intervention, again took up arms, they were badly defeated and a great number of Russian officers were killed. The czar was forced to interfere. On October 31, he demanded an armistice of six weeks, to which Abdul Hamid replied that he would make it six months. This was declined because it would keep the Servians too long in suspense, and the war continued. In the beginning of November Chernaiev admitted that the Slav cause was lost unless foreign help came.

Alexander was really concerned in seeking a peaceable solution, but his high officers were equally earnest in preventing it. Ignatieff, at Constantinople, was especially active with every means at his disposal. Alexander suggested a European conference but before it assembled he declared publicly at Moscow (Nov. 10), that, anxious as he was to avoid the shedding of Russian blood, he would act alone to support his brethren in race and religion unless the conference brought relief.

The representatives of the powers met at Constantinople on the 5th of December, 1876. The sultan, a man of rare ability and cunning, knew that Turkey's disintegration was discussed in its own capital. He did not object, but made one of the reform party his Grand Vizier, and astonished the world by proclaiming a constitution on December 25.

The conference concluded its deliberations, and presented its conclusions to the sultan who agreed to submit them to the National Assembly, which was to meet in March, 1877. Abdul Hamid was wise. He made the first legislature Turkey ever had,—and he had firmly resolved that it should also be the last,—responsible for whatever might happen. The session was brief, but long enough to refuse the conditions imposed by the powers.

Alexander demanded that the sultan make peace with Montenegro which was declined. On the 24th of April the czar declared war. England protested against Russia's independent action, but 250,000 men crossed the Turkish frontier. The principal incident was the siege and fall of Plevna ( July 20—Dec. 10, 1877), under Osman Pasha. The surrender of this brave Turk alarmed England, which, however, did not grant Turkey's appeal for intervention. It was at the battle of Senova, Jan. 9, 1878, when he captured 27,000 prisoners and 43 Krupp guns, that Skobelef won fame. On January 23, Constantinople was at the czar's mercy.

But this awoke England. On February 13, the British fleet passed through the Dardanelles without obtaining the sultan's consent, and thereby ruined Russia's schemes. In vain did its government complain of the violation of the Treaty of Paris; before the czar could make good his threat that he would occupy Constantinople,—the object of the Russian's most fervid hope,—a fleet of British ironclads prevented its consummation.

Peace negotiations were opened at San Stefano, when Russia imposed exaggerated demands which the cunning sultan hastened to grant, convinced that the other powers would prevent their execution. He was right. Great Britain, Austria, and Turkey entered into an alliance. England sent for Indian troops to occupy Malta, and called out the reserves. The war had cost Russia $600,000,000 and 90,000 men, and she was not in a condition to fight the three powers. Thus, for the second time, Czargrad slipped out of Russia's clutches, and each time she owed the disappointment to Great Britain.

The Balkan question was settled at the Congress at Berlin which opened on June 13, 1878, and finished its sessions a month later. Turkey ceded to Russia a part of Bessarabia, and in Asia, Kars, Ardahan, and Batoum. This ending of the war, so different from what was expected by the Slavophils, caused great dissatisfaction in Russia, and the czar dissolved all Slavophil committees. This gained him the dislike of the high officers and of the tchinovnik.

The absurd and dangerous doctrine of nihilism, that is, the destruction of everything that constitutes society, penetrated into Russia by way of Germany. At first it was nothing but a theory, fascinating for young and inexperienced people such as students of the universities who, unless properly guided, are apt to adopt any idea that appeals to the generous sentiments of youth. In 1864, an exile named Bakunin escaped from Siberia, and made his way to London where he secured employment on the Kolokol  or "Bell," a revolutionary paper published in Russia which was smuggled over the frontier and scattered broadcast in the czar's domains. Under Bakunin's influence this paper became hostile to society, and preached nihilism. In 1869, a Congress of Nihilists was held at Basel, Switzerland; Bakunin proposed to create an International Committee of active workers.

Soon unmistakable signs of trouble appeared in Russia, but the government was on the alert and took strong means of suppression. Nicholas I, the man with the iron will, had sent an average number of 9,000 persons annually to Siberia; this number under Alexander the Liberator increased to from 16,000 to 20,000. Bakunin urged his followers to "go among the people," and a host of young persons, male and female, many of them belonging to the wealthy classes, adopted the life of the moujik in the villages. But the Russian peasant possesses a degree of cunning which shows his dormant intelligence, and suspected the motives of those who said they wanted to benefit him, and this, added to his real affection for the czar, rendered the attempt of the nihilists a failure. The Russian peasant dreads a change in his condition, because experience has taught him that it will end to his disadvantage. In 1876 there were still 2,000,000 peasants who preferred serfdom.

The Turkish war, when the government was occupied elsewhere, afforded an opportunity which was not neglected by the nihilists. On a July night of the year 1877, fifteen young amen met in the forest near Litepsk, and formed a conspiracy against all existing institutions. Two papers, The Popular Will  and The Black Partition  advised assassination as the means to gain their object. We may judge of conditions in Russia from knowing that many good and wealthy people made contributions, well aware that arrest and punishment would follow if the secret police should hear of it. In October, 1877, 253 nihilists were arrested, and 160 were convicted at the trial. In February, 1878, General Trepof, Governor of St. Petersburg was openly accused in the papers of gross cruelty toward a prisoner, and Vera Zazulich, a young woman; sought to kill him. She was arrested, tried,—and acquitted, much to the disgust of the authorities who made every effort to re-arrest her. Then began a reign of terror. Officials were condemned to death by an "Executive Committee," composed of members whose names were unknown. The police did not know whom to suspect, and therefore suspected everybody, and no one was safe. Often the condemned officer was warned of his doom by letter or paper, but the messenger could not be found. In April, the president of the Kief University was dangerously wounded, and a police officer was stabbed in public. In August, General Mezensof, Chief of the dreaded Secret Police, was killed, and when the government abolished trial by jury in favor of a military court, it seemed as if the public took the part of the terrorists. These men grew bolder. On the 22nd of February, 1878, Prince Krapotkine, the Governor of Kharkof, was shot, and his death sentence was found posted in many cities. On the following 7th of March, Colonel Knoop of the Odessa police, was killed, and as a climax, on the 14th of April a school-teacher named Solovief fired a pistol at the czar. Not satisfied with assassination, the terrorists resorted to incendiarism at Moscow, Nishni Novgorod, and other cities, and there were riots at Rostof. In April, 1878, the government proclaimed martial law, and the most renowned generals, Melikof, Gourko, Todleben, and others were appointed governors with unlimited authority. At St. Petersburg the dvorniks  or house janitors were directed to spy upon the residents and to report their movements to the secret police. Executions, imprisonment, and exile multiplied until it seemed as if the government wished to terrify the terrorists.

Still the situation went from had to worse. On December 1, 1879, as the imperial train was entering Moscow, it was wrecked by a mine. Alexander escaped because he had traveled in an earlier section. Three days later the "Executive Committee" issued a proclamation excusing the attempt and announcing that the czar had been condemned to death. On February 17, 1880, an explosion of dynamite in the guard room of the Winter Palace, just beneath the imperial dining-room, killed and maimed a large number of soldiers, but the imperial family escaped by a hair's breadth, as the czar had not entered the room. On the 24th of the same month Louis Melikof was placed in charge of the city of St. Petersburg, and eight days later there was an attempt upon his life. There was a panic in the capital, when a nihilist proclamation announced that these attempts would cease, provided the czar would renounce his autocracy and "leave the task of establishing social reforms to an assembly representing the entire Russian people."

Whatever may have been his motive, Melikof urged the czar to try what conciliation would effect. Upon his advice, a large number of exiles in Siberia were pardoned, and persons imprisoned for political offenses were released. About 2,000 students expelled from the universities were readmitted, and in several cases the death sentence pronounced against nihilists was commuted. Only two men out of the sixteen convicted of the attempt to blow up the Winter Palace, were executed. The effect of this new policy was so satisfactory, that on the 18th of August, 1880, the czar revoked the ukase of February 24, and Melikof was appointed as Minister of the Interior. He advised the czar to grant a constitution, and in February 1881, placed before Alexander a plan to effect this important change gradually. It was discussed in the Council of State. The majority approved, but a bitter opposition was manifested by the other members. The czar himself was in favor of it, but the persons with whom he came into daily contact caused him to hesitate. He told Melikof that he would give his final decision on March 12.

On that day he had not made up his mind, but on the 13th, he ordered that Melikof's scheme should become a law, and that it be published in the Official Gazette. That afternoon, as he was returning from his usual drive, and his carriage was passing between the Catherine Canal and Michael's Garden, a bomb was thrown under his carriage and exploded, killing or wounding a number of the guard, but Alexander was unhurt. He was hurrying to assist the wounded, when another bomb exploded near him and he was dreadfully mangled. He regained consciousness for a moment while his attendants were bearing him to the palace, but died at 3:30 P.M. without having spoken a word.

A man named Rissakof, said to be a nihilist, was arrested for throwing the bomb; but there were ugly rumors that the assassination was committed under the direction of parties interested in maintaining an autocratic government at all risks. Owing to the secret proceedings in Russian courts, the murder of Alexander the Liberator still remains a mystery.