Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

The Realm of the Czar


When we think of our country, we feel proud of it for other and better reasons than its great size. We know how its extent compares with that of other nations; we know that the United States covers an area almost equal to that of Europe, and, more favored than that Grand Division, is situated on the two great highways of commerce, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Europe is as far from the latter, as Asia is from the former; and these highways, powerful means toward creating prosperity, remain at the same time barriers whereby nations that find greater delight in the arts of war than in those of peace, are restrained from disturbing our national progress.

At the beginning of this twentieth century the nations upon which depends the world's peace or war, happiness or misfortune, are the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, Japan, and in the near future China. Here we see that Europe, although little larger in area than the United States, is represented by seven nations, Asia by two, and the Western Hemisphere by one which by its institutions stands for peace and progress, for law and order. Hence we, its citizens, are known all over the world as Americans.

If we compare the area occupied by the several European powers with that covered by the main body of our republic, that is, not including Alaska and other outlying territories, we find that Austria-Hungary has four thousand square miles less than Texas, while Germany lacks forty thousand square miles in comparison with the Lone Star State. France is four thousand square miles less than Germany, and Italy is only a thousand square miles greater than Nevada. The British Kingdom in Europe is about twice the area of Illinois. Among the great nations of the world, aside from outlying possessions beyond the Grand Division, our country stands third, and should occupy the second place, because China, the next larger, owes its greater area to territories over which she has little or no control, and which she seems destined to lose.

The largest country is Russia, covering as it does one-sixth of all the land on the earth. This empire, although inhabited by people differing in race, religion, and customs, is one compact whole. It embraces in Europe 2,113,000 square miles, or more than all other European nations combined; its area in Asia is 6,672,000 square miles, making a total of 8,785,000 square miles, or 2.8 times as many as the main body of our country. All the people living in this immense empire, whatever their race, religion, or language, obey the will of one man. We, who dwell in our beloved country, yield obedience only to the Law; but the laws are made by ourselves, and they allow us to do as we please, so long as we do not interfere with others who have the same rights; and those laws are ever ready to protect us. In Russia laws are made or unmade at the will of one person who is himself above the laws. Every man, woman, or child, born and living in that country, is at his mercy. Mere suspicion is sufficient to drag a man from his family and home, perhaps to disappear without leaving a trace. Such a government is called an autocracy, and the man who may thus dispose of people's life and property, is known as an Autocrat. Hence the title of the Emperor of Russia is: Autocrat of All the Russias.

Why "All the Russias"? Look at the map of Eurasia, the continent embracing the two Grand Divisions Europe and Asia. You will see that the Russian Empire is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean; on the east by the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Japan Sea; on the south by China, Pamir, Afghanistan, Persia, Asiatic Turkey, and the Black Sea; and on the west by Roumania, Austria-Hungary, the German Empire, the Baltic Sea, Sweden, and Norway. This immense empire is the growth of many centuries, and even in Europe it has not yet been welded into one whole. When we read Russian books, we learn about Great and Little Russia, White and Red Russia, which shows that divisions of bygone years are still observed by the people. Much has been done towards effacing those boundary lines; but the fact that the czar, autocrat though he is, recognizes and admits the division in his title, shows that even he is, to some extent, subject to public opinion.

Russia in Europe, however, with the exception of Poland and Finland, is a country with one religion and one language; that is, the czar and his government recognize and admit no other. That is the cause of the persecution of the Jews, four fifths of whom dwell in the southwest of Russia in an area covering 356,681 square miles, which is sometimes mentioned as the Jewish territory. Every succeeding czar has tried to make all his subjects think and act in the manner prescribed by him. The process is known as "Russianizing," and goes on incessantly in its different stages. Immediately after the conquest of a country, its people are assured that their religion, institutions, and language, shall be respected; the only difference is that the native officials are displaced by Russians. This continues until Russian rule is firmly established, and no one dreams of resisting the czar. Then the Russian language displaces the native tongue, and if disturbances occur, the military is called in to inflict a terrible punishment. The loss of the native language carries with it that of old institutions, and when the people have submitted to their fate, it is the turn of their religion. The Russian is in no hurry; he has a conviction that time has no changes in store for his empire, hence he bides his time, and is likely to succeed in his purpose. This process is now carried on in Central Asia where Russian power has found its greatest expansion in modern times. It is but fair to admit that Russian absorption there has been highly beneficial because robber tribes were reduced to law and order.

Before telling the Story of Russia, that is, of how the huge empire was formed and grew to its present size, it is necessary to become better acquainted with the aspect and nature of the country. Looking at the map of the Eurasian continent, that is, the continent embracing Europe and Asia, we cannot fail to notice that Russia is a country of the plains. Its southern boundary seems to follow the mountain barriers which divide Asia into two parts. Does it not seem as if long billows of earth roll down toward the Arctic Ocean, where they rest benumbed by the eternal cold? These mountains branch off toward the south, east or west, but scorn to throw so much as a spur northward. It is true that a solitary chain, the Urals, runs north and south, but it stands by itself, and is nothing more than what the word Ural signifies, a belt or girdle separating the European from his Asiatic brother. These mountains do not form the backbone of a country, nor do they serve as a watershed, like our Rocky Mountains or the Andes of South America. Some of their peaks rise to a height of 6,000 feet above the level of the sea, but the chain, 1531 miles long, seems destined only to keep the two races apart.

Beyond the Ural mountains, the plain resumes its sway. This extensive flat could not fail to exert a noticeable influence upon the country and its inhabitants. The dense forests in the north, while acting as a screen, do not afford protection against the icy polar winds which sweep with scarcely diminished force over the broad expanse, so that the northern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas in January have about the same temperature as Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. The mountains of Western Europe shut off the aerial current of the Gulf Stream which tempers the summer heat as well as the winter cold. Russia's climate, therefore, is one of extremes. In summer the heat is very oppressive, owing to the absence of the sea breeze which elsewhere affords so much relief; and when a wind does blow, it only adds to the discomfort, because it has lost its moisture. That is the reason why Russia suffers so often from drought. This is especially the case in the south where no forests are found to attract rain.

Nature has provided a substitute in the splendid water-ways. In about the center of European Russia, rises the Valdai plateau to a height of 1,100 feet above the sea level. This is Russia's great watershed. Near it, in Lake Volgo, rises the largest river of Europe, "Mother Volga," as the Russian ballad singers love to call it. Its entire length is 2,336 miles, or nearly the length of the Missouri; it has a basin of 590,000 square miles. Owing to the slight slope of the land, the great river flows placidly in its bed, which is fortunate since its waters are swollen by several large rivers, so that there are points where it is seventeen miles wide. The Kama, one of the tributaries of the Volga, is 1,266 miles long; the Oka, another confluent, has a length of 633 miles. At Kazan, the Volga is 4,953 feet wide, at Jaroslaf 2,106 feet, and at Samara, 2,446 feet. It empties into the Caspian Sea, with a delta of more than seventy branches. The fish caught in this river often grow to gigantic proportions; its sturgeons, lampreys, and salmon, are highly prized. Since time immemorial, the Volga has been a great highway of trade. Kostroma, Nishni Novgorod, Kazan, Simbirsk, Saratof, and Astrakhan, are the most populous cities on its banks.

Other large rivers rise on the Valdai plateau. The Dnieper runs south, passing by Kief, and empties in the Black Sea, near Odessa. The Dwina runs northward, seeking the icy Arctic, which it enters by way of the White Sea near Archangel. The DŁna takes a westerly course towards the Gulf of Riga where it empties near the city of that name. Of greater importance are the small streams which feed Lakes Ladoga and Onega, because they connect Central Russia with the Baltic Sea by means of the Neva.

European Russia is usually divided into four zones or belts, from the character of the soil and the nature of its productions; their general direction is from south-west to northeast. In the north, as a screen against the Arctic blast, is the poliessca  or forest region, densely covered with lindens, birches, larches, and sycamores, with oaks on the southern fringe. These forests are invaluable to Russia where, in the absence of mountains, stone is scarce. The houses are built of wood, and fires are of common occurrence. Both lumber and fuel are supplied by these forests which originally extended to Novgorod, Moscow, and Jaroslaf. The increase in population together with the growing demand for lumber, have caused extensive clearings; but the area covered by the forests is so large, that the supply is well-nigh inexhaustible.

South of this zone are the black earth lands, extending down to the Caucasus and across the Urals, and covering in Europe an area of one hundred and fifty million acres,—equal to that of Texas. This zone derives its name from an apparently inexhaustible bed of black mold, so rich that no manure is required to produce abundant crops. Until late in the last century, and before the United States began to export its surplus harvests, this region was considered the granary of Europe. It was known in very old times since we read of it in the Heroic Age of Ancient Greece, when Jason sailed in the Argo to bring home the Golden Fleece.

Almost equal in extent is the zone of arable steppes, or prairies, once the home of the Cossack, the nomad who led here the life of a shepherd king, moving about as the condition of pasture and flock required. Most of this land is now under cultivation, and with careful farming produces good crops. These arable steppes cover an area equal to that of Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.

The fourth and last zone is that of the barren steppes. There is ample evidence that at some remote time these plains were covered with salt water. The Caspian Sea has a level eighty feet below that of the Black Sea, and it is therefore probable that here was a large inland sea of which the Caspian and Aral Seas are the remains. These steppes are unfit for farming. Here dwell the Kalmucks and Kirghizes, descendants of the Tartars whose yoke once pressed heavily upon Russia.