(From The United Service Journal, Nov. 1835. Pages 363-367.)




THE day has now gone by when the Russian soldier was driven along by stripes, and marched in chains to his regiment. No change, however, has taken place in his political condition; and the improvement—for such it is—in the recruiting system is solely the effect of the moral progress of the people. At the present moment it will not, perhaps, be uninteresting to inquire very briefly what that system is, and what is the real nature of the raw material of the Russian army.

The early history of the country in question is so obscure, that it is impossible to trace with accuracy the commencement of slavery among the people. The long period of the Tartar domination—the consequent admixture of oriental forms and customs with those of Scandinavian origin—the confusion arising from the perpetual struggles of the various principalities which composed the empire—all conspire to render the subject more difficult. The student, however, will see his way more clearly if he will only consider that the very existence of such circumstances accounts for many of the anomalies which perplex him. Russian slavery in fact, presents no fixed character whatever. In every reign it received some new modification, and sometimes it wholly disappeared. Till the time of Peter the Great it cannot be said to have been definitely sanctioned by the laws of the country.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century the peasants enjoyed the right of removing at pleasure from the lands they occupied; for an ukase of that date prohibits their doing so, except at one period of the year—a week before, and a week after—St George's day. This was a grand experiment on the part of the nobility; and the intended victims having stood it without wincing, an ukase followed in less than half a century, rendering migration altogether unlawful, and chaining down the serf to the soil whereon he was born.

The Russian peasant however, was never, any more than now, so stupid and brute-like an animal as he is represented to be by liberal Europe; and from the period of the reign of the Tsar Theodor Ivanovitch, the utmost confusion prevailed up to the advent of Peter the Great. The capitation-tax of that monarch—liberal and enlightened as he was—destroyed the liberty of myriads of his countrymen. The nobles had now not merely a pretext, but were actually obliged, to keep fast hold of those tenants for whom they were to pay a stipulated sum, and among whom they were to raise a certain number of recruits; and as the imperial will of Peter was as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians, the spirit of tyranny enjoyed a triumph which was perhaps altogether undesired and unforeseen on the part of the emperor.

The peasants now became the property of the lords of the land, and were sold with the estate. If proper laws had prevailed, the indignity might have rested here; for in reality it would matter little to the serf what was the name of his owner. But by degrees a class of peasants was formed, or rather arose out of absolute necessity, which had no immediate connexion with the soil. The domestic servants received into the family of the chief had of course no farms to cultivate, —neither they nor their children; and yet, being his property, like the rest, they could be sold. Thus the hideous enormity came to be exhibited in Russia of men selling their fellow-men and fellow-subjects like cattle in the market, without even the pretext of considering them as tenants transferred with the land they cultivated! This abuse, however, it should be observed, grew out of the existing state of things, and was never sanctioned by any express law.

The traveler in Russia who has not the leisure or the power to insinuate himself behind the curtain, will never find out that this slave-market exists at the .present moment. The fact is carefully concealed; the advertisements of sales in the newspapers ingeniously worded; and even persons of honor and consideration are at all times ready to hide, by a direct untruth, an enormity so disgraceful to their country and to human nature. In America, where an equally brutish slavery prevails, the enlightened republicans defend themselves by the plea of a difference of colour between the two races, the sellers and the sold; but in Russia the slave is of the same blood and ancestry as his master. The former country is therefore, by a shade, the less barbarous of the two, though neither can be conceded a place within the pale of civilization.

The writer of these pages does not pledge himself to numerical accuracy; but he believes that the number of slaves in Russia who can be, and are sold, independently of the land, does not fall far short of a million and a half. The .price of a woman is arbitrary; but that of a man depends principally upon the amount which is given for a military substitute. At present, a stout young fellow will fetch about 2000 roubles, or 87l. 10s.

In civilized countries slavery is considered the most enormous evil which human nature can endure; but in Russia, where the lower classes are sunk in profound ignorance, the serf is comparatively satisfied and happy. This at least is the case with the majority; and the fact is proved by the horror with which they in general regard the military conscription—the signal of freedom. The emperor of Russia is no more served by slaves than the other potentates of Europe; for the instant a peasant enters the army he becomes a freeman.

The number of recruits drawn, is according to the wants or will of the emperor; but in general it is limited to two out of every five hundred male peasants, including infants. Among the serfs of the nobles, the choice is made by the lord of the land or his steward; and among the government serfs, by the peasant-magistrates of the village. In either case, it may be assumed, that the first anxiety is to get rid of all the mauvais sujets, and that thus the army becomes a receptacle for the scoundrelocracy of the country.

But in the villages of the nobles, the steward or his lord have an opportunity of serving themselves as well as the community. Sometimes, for instance, the wife, or sometimes the daughter, of a peasant is pretty, and it may be desirable to get the husband or father out of the way. But to search for motives of this kind would be to ransack all the bad part of the human heart; for vice as well as misery is the unfailing offspring of irresponsible power.

When the peasant is chosen, he is, generally speaking, in despair. Sometimes he flies to the woods, but this is rarely of any avail; for the whole of the village being made answerable for his forthcoming, he is speedily caught, pinioned, and so conducted by his brother peasants to the depot. Sometimes the wretches lame themselves, or manufacture artificial wounds. Sometimes they take the flattering unction to their souls that they are under the standard size; and in this case, with the light-heartedness of their nation, they march merrily to the place of trial.

Here they are stripped stark naked by the inspecting surgeon. This officer twists their limbs, kneads their ribs, wrenches open their mouth, and thrusts his hand into their throat. He drags them from attitude into attitude by main force, apparently unconscious that his patient is endowed even with animal life; and if satisfied at length of their worthiness to form food for powder,” the signal is given in these two syllables—“Shave him!” At this ominous sound the fated wretch utters a cry which makes the hearts of his comrades without die within them. He groans, weeps, and sobs, and gives himself up to despair; but in the midst of all, he is whirled into the next room, forced down upon a seat before the barber, and in an instant the fore part of his head is as bare as the palm of his hand. Escape is now impossible; for with this token, by which he is distinguished in common with convicted criminals, of belonging to the emperor, he would be seized even in the midst of a forest by any peasant in Russia. No one gives himself any trouble about him till it is necessary to march to the grand depot, where, according to size, appearance, &c., he is appointed to his regiment.

Till lately the Jews were permitted to buy themselves off from military service, and enormous sums were frequently given for that purpose. The Emperor Nicholas, however, has put a stop to this indulgence, and at present they are taken as conscripts like his other subjects. The scenes which this gives rise to are still more striking than the above. The Jews, especially those of Poland, are in general a handsome race, both male and female; but the persons of the lower classes, owing to abstinence, unwholesome food, and want of cleanliness, are sickening to the last degree. Many of them have such heads as an Italian painter would delight to study; but when stripped they prove to be mere scarecrows, covered with blotches and ulcers, the smell of which is horrible.

When one is at length pronounced to be in reasonable health, his cries are terrific. He dashes himself upon the ground, crawls upon his belly to the feet of the inspecting officer, humbles his spirit to the dust, and begs for mercy with all the praise and supplication which the poetical genius of his nation has thrown into their addresses to the Deity. His howls are heard in the court-yard below, where the females and old men of the tribe are collected awaiting the result, and the answering chorus of screams and yells forms the most appalling sounds that can be imagined. The women beat their breasts, tear their hair, and looking up to the windows, clench their hands, and pour out upon the heads of their oppressors all the bitterest maledictions of the Hebrew prophets. All, however, is unavailing,—the victim comes forth to them with his head shaved!

There is another class of Poles now brought under the military conscription—the poor nobles. This class had increased in numbers, and diminished in means so surprisingly, that you could hardly enter a peasant's yard without seeing a scion of nobility performing the menial offices. When noble died, his estate was divided among his children, while his title was multiplied according to their number, and descended to them all. Thus it was in like manner with the children's children; till in the course of two or three generations, a number of patches of land were seen, side by side, each about the size of a table-cloth, and each the patrimonial estate of a nobleman. Unable to be supported by their land, these proprietors, were forced to work for a maintenance, and were frequently hired by the peasants themselves; but still, even in this state of degradation, they preserved, till the ukase of his present Majesty, the, privileges of their hereditary rank, exemption from taxation, from arrest, and from the .military conscription.

An army composed, for the most part, of mauvais sujets, Jews, and nobles, must contain the elements of everything good and bad. The Russian army, however, by no means receives justice from the journals of France and England. By them the good is entirely overlooked, and the bad is made to preponderate to such an excess, that one would think the question was of an army of fiends. The Russian soldier, notwithstanding, is quite as civilized, in the practical sense of the word, as the soldier of any other country; and on more occasions than one he has gained by comparison with his neighbour, the enlightened Prussian.

The habit of blind submission to his superiors, in which the Russian peasant is brought up from his earliest infancy, is highly favourable to the formation of the military character, The doctrine of predestination which he inherits from his Tartar masters (for in reality this is not a more predominant dogma in the Greek than in the Anglican creed) tenders him insensible to danger; and the hardiness of his constitution and habits bears him up in the midst of every kind of fatigue and deprivation. He is not naturally strong; in a close grapple with an English soldier, the odds would be against him; but he would beat the enemy in a march through frost and snow, and he would thank his gods for a feast when John Bull would faint with hunger.

Jacky—for so the English residents call him—never enjoyed the luxury of a bed in his life. In his infancy he was swung in a towel, or a rag of any kind, hung up beside the bed of his mother; and when this tender parent went out to her work in the fields, (on the day after he was born,) a bladder filled with milk was left dangling over his mouth, with which he might amuse himself if he chose. All his brothers and. sisters, with the exception perhaps of one, died of this treatment; but he, gifted by nature with an iron constitution, grew up for the especial use of the Emperor. When, in a few months, he descended from the hammock, he was accustomed to sleep upon the floor. At ten or a dozen years, if permitted to act as his master’s postilion, he lay between the horse’s feet; if a domestic servant, he stretched himself upon the stairs, or behind the door; if enjoying the dignity of ostler in the village inn, he tucked himself up in his sheepskin pelisse, and passed a comfortable night on the pavement before the house.

This way of life not only renders his body in some measure insensible to pain, but preserves his mind unruffled by those petty rubs of the world which keep other people in a continual ferment. If you tear the flesh off his back with the knout, he walks home without assistance, as firmly and as quickly as you; and in like manner, when Fortune’s cat-o’-a-thousand-tails comes across his spirit, he bears the infliction without altering a muscle. He is patient, good-tempered, kind-hearted; and even in his moments of joviality—which are not more frequent than those of the English peasant—he does not exhibit one-half the brutishness which reigns on such occasions in an English alehouse. Jacky, however, is not a stone; he will yell when deeply hurt either in body or soul, and the boldest heart may tremble at the sound. He sometimes rises up in wrath, and buries his hatchet in the brains of his master; he must be managed in order to avoid such paroxysms. This is a fact which the Emperor knows and understands better than any man in Russia—a knowledge and understanding which are worth to him his life and crown.

Loyalty and patriotism are nowhere stronger than in the Russian army. How comes this loyalty to a despot who fills up the ranks by main force? Patriotism, embracing an area equal to a twenty-eighth part of the entire globe? To explain fully the contradiction would require a volume, and it might be made a very curious, amusing, and important volume. Let us see what can be done in a page. The peasants of Russia, that is to say, the great body of the people, compared to which the other classes are as a single drop in a glass of water, belong either to the crown or to the nobles. The peasants of the crown (like their Prussian neighbours) are free in fact, although not in theory; while the peasants of the nobles are partly serfs of the glebe, and partly slaves. This grand distinction is enough of itself to make the Emperor a beloved and absolute monarch; but independently of this, he never comes before the majority of his subjects except in the character of the good genius of the country. He is the refuge of the oppressed; he is the chastiser and avenger. All the odium falls to the share of the nobles; all the praise is paid to the Emperor. When the serfs are discontented, they think of murdering their masters; but the horrible atrocity of raising their fingers, or even their voices, against the Tsar never enters their imagination. In the affairs of the military conscription, they know that the state must have soldiers—this is no fault of Nicholas; but every individual on whom the choice falls thinks himself deeply injured by the agent. When actually in the army they are speedily reconciled to their lot, for the pay is sufficient to supply them with the necessaries of life. Who indulges them in the luxuries? Why, Nicholas. Now and then he gives them a loaf of bread; now and then a glass of rotki; now and then a silver rouble—out of his own pocket. I have sojourned in most of the countries of Europe, but I never witnessed anywhere so much enthusiastic loyalty to the person of the sovereign as in Russia.

The patriotism of the Russian peasant is part and parcel of his loyalty. Under any other form of government, the feeling, if it existed at all, would be merely provincial; for the ignorant and therefore contracted mind of the peasant would be lost in the moral and political variety of that immense region which he calls his country. As it is, however, these innumerable parts are bound together by one leading and intelligible idea—which is, the Emperor. The peasant understands the word Russia to mean the country of the Tsar and of himself; and for this country he is ready either to fight, or to starve, whenever the word of command is given.