After a year of meteorological disasters the peasants of the Volga region found themselves facing starvation in the summer of 1891. As they surveyed their ruined crops, they might have been forgiven for believing that God had singled them out for particular punishment. The seeds they had planted the previous autumn barely had time to germinate before the frosts arrived. There had been precious little snow to protect the young plants in the winter, when the temperature averaged 30 degrees below zero. Spring brought with it dusty winds that blew away the topsoil and then, as early as April, the long dry summer began. In Tsaritsyn there had been no rain for 96 consecutive days, in Saratov none for 88, and in Orenburg none for more than 100. Wells and ponds dried up, the scorched earth cracked, forests went prematurely brown, and cattle died by the roadsides. The peasants pinned their last hopes on the harvest. But the crops that survived turned out to be small and burned by the sun. In Voronezh the harvest of rye was less than 0.1 pud (1.6 kg) per inhabitant, compared with a normal yield of 15 pud. 'Here we are getting ready to go hungry,' wrote Count Vorontsov-Dashkov to the Tsar from Tambov province on 3 July. 'The peasants' winter crops have failed completely and the situation demands immediate aid.'
By the autumn the area threatened by famine had spread to seventeen provinces, from the Ural mountains to the Black Sea, an area double the size of France with a population of thirty-six million people. Travellers in the region painted a picture of growing despair, as the peasants weakened and took to their huts. Those who had the strength packed up their meagre belongings and fled wherever they could, jamming the roads with their carts. Those who remained lived on 'famine bread' made from rye husks mixed with the weed goosefoot, moss and tree bark, which made the loaves turn yellow and bitter. The peasants stripped the thatch from the roofs of their huts and used it to feed their horses: people may go hungry for a long time but unfed horses simply die, and if this happened there would be no harvest the next year. And then, almost inevitably, cholera and typhus struck, killing half a million people by the end of 1892.
The government struggled to deal with the crisis as best as it could.
But its bureaucracy was far too slow and clumsy, and the transport system proved unable to cope. Politically, its handling of the crisis was disastrous, giving rise to the general impression of official carelessness and callousness. There were widespread rumours, for example, of the obstinate bureaucracy holding back food deliveries until it had received 'statistical proof that the population for which they were intended had no other means of feeding itself: by which time it was often too late. Then there were stories of the relief schemes set up by the government to employ the destitute peasantry in public works: all too often it turned out that the peasants to be employed had already taken to their deathbeds. There were reports of cholera victims being forced to leave their homes and being packed off to quarantine centres miles away from their villages, so that the peasants became hysterical wherever the medical authorities appeared and riots broke out which had to be put down by troops. But by far the greatest public outrage was caused by the government's postponement of a proposed ban on cereal exports until the middle of August, several weeks into the crisis. It had given a month's warning of the ban, so that cereal merchants rushed to fulfil their foreign contracts, and foodstuffs which could have been used for the starving peasants vanished abroad. The ban had been opposed by Vyshnegradsky, the Minister of Finance, whose economic policies (which essentially consisted of raising taxes on consumer goods so that the peasants would be forced to sell more grain) were seen by the public as the main cause of the famine. As the government slogan went: 'Even if we starve we will export grain.'1
Such cynicism did not seem unjustified. All along, the government had been refusing to admit the existence of a 'famine' (gohi), preferring instead to speak euphemistically of a 'poor harvest' (neurozhat). The reactionary daily Moscow News had even warned that it would be an act of disloyalty to use the more 'alarmist term', since it would give rise to a 'dangerous hubbub' from which only the revolutionaries could gain. Newspapers were forbidden to print reports on the 'famine', although many did in all but name. This was enough to convince the liberal public, shocked and concerned by the rumours of the crisis, that there was a government conspiracy to conceal the truth. Gossip now began to paint the situation in the blackest terms. Alexandra Bogdanovich, the St Petersburg salon hostess, noted in her diary on 3 December:
Now they are saying that Durnovo [the Minister of the Interior] already knew of the famine in May and should have forced Vyshnegradsky to ban exports then. Verkhovsky says that the export of wheat was only banned when Abaza [Chairman of the Department of State Economy] had been able to sell his own wheat for a good price. They say that in Simbirsk province all the children have died from starvation; they sent children's clothes there but all were returned — there is no one to wear them. Indignation is growing in all quarters.
Even General Kutaisov, a Senator and State Councillor, was heard to complain that 'there would not have been a famine, if the government had not got itself into such a terrible mess'.2
Unable to cope with the crisis, the government bowed to the inevitable and, on 17 November, issued an imperial order calling on the public to form voluntary organizations to help with famine relief. Politically, this was to prove a historic moment, for it opened the door to a powerful new wave of public activity and debate which the government could not control and which quickly turned from the philanthropic to the political. The 'dangerous hubbub' that Moscow News had feared was growing louder and louder.
The public response to the famine was tremendous. 'People of the most varied persuasions and temperaments threw themselves into the cause,' recalled Vasilii Maklakov. 'Many forsook their usual occupations and went about setting up canteens and, during the epidemics, helping the doctors. In this work not a few lost forever their positions and their health.' The zemstvos were the first off the mark, having already established their own provincial networks to distribute food and medicine. Prince Lvov, who was at that time chairman of the Tula provincial zemstvo, threw himself into the relief campaign as if it was a matter of his own life and death. It was a mark of his love for the peasants, with whom he had lived and worked for the previous ten years, that he should risk his own life to save theirs. And how romantic that at such a time, whilst working in a soup kitchen in Tambov province, he should meet and fall in love with his future wife. Such elevated feelings of compassion for the peasants were by no means unusual among progressive landowners of his sort. Hundreds of committees were formed by nobles and 'public men' to help raise money for the famine victims. Doctors volunteered for medical teams. Thousands of well-meaning citizens rushed to join the relief campaigns organized by the Free Economic Society and other voluntary bodies. Impassioned speeches were made at public meetings. Newspapers printed appeals in bold print on their front pages. And the students volunteered for relief work in a new 'Going to the People'.3
Among these volunteers was Anton Chekhov, who was a doctor as well as a playwright. He put aside his writing to work for his district zemstvo near Moscow. In August 1892 he wrote to a friend:
I have been appointed a cholera doctor, and my district encompasses twenty-five villages, four factories and a monastery. I am organizing things, setting up shelters and so on, and I'm lonely, because everything that has to do with cholera is alien to me, and the work, which requires constant trips, talks and fuss and bustle, tires me out. There is no time to write. I abandoned literature long ago, and I'm poor and broke because I thought it desirable for myself and my independence to refuse the renumeration cholera doctors receive .. . The peasants are crude, unsanitary and mistrustful, but the thought that our labours will not be in vain makes it all unnoticeable.4
Tolstoy also gave up his writing to join the relief campaign. With his two eldest daughters he organized hundreds of canteens in the famine region, while Sonya, his wife, raised money from abroad. 'I cannot describe in simple words the utter destitution and suffering of these people,' he wrote to her at the end of October 1891. According to the peasant Sergei Semenov, who was a follower of Tolstoy and who joined him in his relief campaign, the great writer was so overcome by his experience of the peasants' suffering that his beard went grey, his hair became thinner and he lost a great deal of weight. The guilt-ridden Count blamed the famine crisis on the social order, the Orthodox Church* and the government. 'Everything has happened because of our own sin,' he wrote to a friend in December. 'We have cut ourselves off from our own brothers, and there is only one remedy — by repentance, by changing our lives, and by destroying the walls between us and the people.' Tolstoy broadened his condemnation of social inequality in his essay 'The Kingdom of God' (1892) and in the press. His message struck a deep chord in the moral conscience of the liberal public, plagued as they were by feelings of guilt on account of their privilege and alienation from the peasantry. Semenov captured this sense of shame when he wrote of the relief campaign:
With every day the need and misery of the peasants grew. The scenes of starvation were deeply distressing, and it was all the more disturbing to see that amidst all this suffering and death there were sprawling huge estates, beautiful and well-furnished manors, and that the grand old life of the squires, with its jolly hunts and balls, its banquets and its concerts, carried on as usual.5
For the guilt-ridden liberal public, serving 'the people' through the relief campaign was a means of paying off their 'debt' to them. And they now turned to Tolstoy as their moral leader and their champion against the sins of the old regime. His condemnation of the government turned him into a public hero, a man of integrity whose word could be trusted as the truth on a subject which the regime had tried so hard to conceal.
* The Orthodox Church, which had recently excommunicated Tolstoy, forbade the starving peasants to accept food from his relief campaign.
Russian society had been activated and politicized by the famine crisis, its social conscience had been stung, and the old bureaucratic system had been discredited. Public mistrust of the government did not diminish once the crisis had passed, but strengthened as the representatives of civil society continued to press for a greater role in the administration of the nation's affairs. The famine, it was said, had proved the culpability and incompetence of the old regime, and there was now a growing expectation that wider circles of society would have to be drawn into its work if another catastrophe was to be avoided. The zemstvos, which had spent the past decade battling to expand their activities in the face of growing bureaucratic opposition, were now strengthened by widespread support from the liberal public for their work in agronomy, public health and education. The liberal Moscow merchants and industrialists, who had rallied behind the relief campaign, now began to question the government's policies of industrialization, which seemed so ruinous for the peasantry, the main buyers of their manufactures. From the middle of the 1890s they too supported the various projects of the zemstvos and municipal bodies to revive the rural economy. Physicians, teachers and engineers, who had all been forced to organize themselves as a result of their involvement in the relief campaign, now began to demand more professional autonomy and influence over public policy; and when they failed to make any advances they began to campaign for political reforms. In the press, in the 'thick journals', in the universities, and in learned and philanthropic societies, the debates on the causes of the famine — and on the reforms needed to prevent its recurrence — continued to rage throughout the 1890s, long after the immediate crisis had passed.6
The socialist opposition, which had been largely dormant in the 1880s, sprang back into life with a renewed vigour as a result of these debates. There was a revival of the Populist movement (later rechristened Neo-Populism), culminating in 1901 with the establishment of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Under the leadership of Viktor Chernov (1873—1952), a law graduate from Moscow University who had been imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress for his role in the student movement, it embraced the new Marxist sociology whilst still adhering to the Populist belief that all the workers and peasants alike — what it called the 'labouring people' — were united by their poverty and their opposition to the regime. Briefly, then, in the wake of the famine, there was growing unity between the Marxists and the Neo-Populists as they put aside their differences about the development of capitalism (which the SRs now accepted as a fact) and concentrated on the democratic struggle. Lydia Dan, from the Marxist side, recalled this as a 'new era . . . when it was not so much the struggle for socialism that was important for us as the political struggle ... [which] could and should become nationwide'.7
Marxism as a social science was fast becoming the national creed: it alone seemed to explain the causes of the famine. Universities and learned societies were swept along by the new intellectual fashion. Even such well-established institutions as the Free Economic Society fell under the influence of the Marxists, who produced libraries of social statistics, dressed up as studies of the causes of the great starvation, to prove the truth of Marx's economic laws. Socialists who had previously wavered in their Marxism were now completely converted in the wake of the famine crisis, when, it seemed to them, there was no more hope in the Populist faith in the peasantry. Petr Struve (1870—1944), who had previously thought of himself as a political liberal, found his Marxist passions stirred by the crisis: it 'made much more of a Marxist out of me than the reading of Marx's Capital'. Martov also recalled how the crisis had turned him into a Marxist: 'It suddenly became clear to me how superficial and groundless the whole of my revolutionism had been until then, and how my subjective political romanticism was dwarfed before the philosophical and sociological heights of Marxism.'8 Even the young Lenin only became converted to the Marxist mainstream in the wake of the famine crisis.
In short, the whole of society had been politicized and radicalized as a result of the famine crisis. The conflict between the population and the regime had been set in motion — and there was now no turning back. In the words of Lydia Dan, the famine had been a vital landmark in the history of the revolution because it had shown to the youth of her generation 'that the Russian system was completely bankrupt. It felt as though Russia was on the brink of something.'9
* * * This political awakening of the public was part of the broader social changes that lie at the root of the revolution. From the 1890s can be dated the emergence of a civil society, a public sphere and an ethic, all in opposition to the tsarist state. The time was passing when, in the words of Miliukov, the autocracy had been 'the only organized force' in Russia and had been able to dominate a weak and divided society. Now that relationship was being reversed. The institutions of society were becoming more independent and organized, while the tsarist state was steadily becoming weaker and less able to control them. The famine crisis was the crucial turning-point in this process, the moment when Russian society first became politically aware of itself and its powers, of its duties to 'the people', and of the potential it had to govern itself. It was the moment, in a sense, when Russia first became a 'nation'.
Profound social changes were pulling this public culture on to the political scene. The old hierarchy of social estates (soshviia), which the autocracy had created to organize society around its own needs, was breaking down as a new and much more mobile social system began to take shape. Men born as peasants, even as serfs, rose to establish themselves as merchants and landowners, teachers, doctors, engineers, writers, publishers and patrons of the arts. The sons and daughters of noblemen entered the liberal professions. Merchants became noblemen. Marriages between the estates became commonplace. Overall, people neither could nor wanted any longer to define themselves in the old and rigid terms.10
This new civil society was too complicated to be described in crude terms of 'class'. For one thing, it was defined much less by social position than by politics and culture. The world-view of the intelligentsia — based on the notion of public service and the liberal values of the West — defined its identity. The intelligentsia had always been made up of people from diverse social backgrounds, and had claimed to stand for 'the nation' as a whole. And this universalist tradition shaped the ethics and the language of this nascent public sphere. Educated liberals talked of serving the 'public good' (obsbchestvennost'), expressed as 'society' or 'the nation', as opposed to the old noble ethic of service to the tsarist state. They called their politicians 'public men' (obsbchestvennye deiateli). And indeed it was an important part of the whole rhetorical process of defining this 'political nation' — which meant setting it apart from the 'alien' tsarist state — that its leaders should be honoured with a generic name that made them patriots of the people's cause. A national political culture based on the ideals and institutions of the intelligentsia was coalescing in Russia. An active public was emerging in opposition to the old regime and demanding the rights of an independent citizenry. The spread of higher education, of public opinion and activity, shaped this emerging public culture. Between I860 and 1914 the number of university students in Russia grew from 5,000 to 69,000 (45 per cent of them women); the number of daily newspapers rose from 13 to 856; and the number of public bodies from 250 to over 16,000.11
These were the signs of a new middle stratum between the aristocracy and the peasants and the working class. But it was much too fragile in social terms to deserve the robust title of a 'middle class'. The industrial 'bourgeoisie', which in the West had led the way in the forging of a middle-class identity, was too weak and dependent on the state, too fragmented by regional and ethnic divisions, and too isolated from the educated elite, to play the same role in tsarist Russia, although this was the belated aim of the liberal Moscow businessmen of the Riabushinsky circle in the 1900s.12 Indeed an awareness of its own fragility and isolation was a crucial aspect of the self-identity of this fledgling 'census society' (tsenzovoe obshchestvo). As the liberal and educated public became more conscious of itself and of its leading role in politics, so it also grew more conscious of the huge and frightening gulf — a gulf revealed by the famine — separating it from the hungry masses. As in South Africa under apartheid, there was always a time-bomb of violent revolution ticking in the cupboard of liberal politics.
Two main groups stood in the forefront of this public campaign during the decade leading up to the Revolution of 1905: the liberal 'zemstvo men' and the students.
The 'zemstvo men' were unlikely pioneers of the revolution. Most of them were noble landowners, progressive and practical men like Prince Lvov, who simply wanted the monarchy to play a positive role in improving the life of its subjects. They sought to increase the influence of the zemstvos in the framing of government legislation, but the notion of leading a broad opposition movement was repugnant to them. Prince Lvov's mentor, D. N. Shipov, who organized the zemstvos at a national level, was himself a devoted monarchist and flatly opposed the liberal demand for a constitution. The whole purpose of his work was to strengthen the autocracy by bringing the Tsar closer to his people, organized through the zemstvos and a consultative parliament. In many ways he was trying to create from below the same popular autocracy which Nicholas was aiming to impose from above in the last years of his reign. Central to his liberal Slavophilism was the notion of Russia as 'a locally self-governing land with an autocratic Sovereign at its head'. He believed in the ancient communion between the Tsar and his people, a union which, in his view, had been broken only by the 'autocracy of the bureaucracy'.13
There was plenty of ground, then, for the autocracy to reach an accommodation with the 'zemstvo men'. But, as so often during its inexorable downfall, the old regime chose repression instead of compromise and thus created the political hostility of the zemstvos. The chief architect of this suicidal policy was the all-powerful Ministry of the Interior, which regarded the zemstvos as dangerous havens for revolutionaries and subjected them to a relentless campaign of persecution. Armed with the statute of 1890, the provincial governors capped the zemstvos' budgets, censored their publications and removed or arrested the elected members of their boards.
The famine crisis brought a temporary halt to this conflict, for the government relied on the zemstvos as agencies of food and medical relief. But, by expanding their activities, the crisis also encouraged the zemstvos to reassert their own demands for autonomy and reform. The lead was taken by the zemstvo professionals — the teachers, doctors, statisticians and agronomists commonly known as the Third Element — whose radical influence on the zemstvo assemblies was increased as a result of their direct participation in the relief campaigns. They were followed by many landowners, who blamed the famine on the government's failure to protect the nation's farmers and were worried that the destitute peasants would seize their estates. They now rallied behind the zemstvos to defend the agrarian interests of provincial society against the industrializing bureaucracy of St Petersburg. The more liberal nobles, like Prince Lvov, went on to demand the creation of an all-class zemstvo at the volost level (which they believed would help to integrate the peasants into local government) and the convocation of a national assembly. This was the inspiration behind the Tver Address, presented to Nicholas II on his accession to the throne by the country's most progressive zemstvo leaders. In a speech that infuriated public opinion the new Tsar denounced such 'senseless dreams' and emphasized his 'firm and unflinching' adherence to the 'principle of autocracy'. Within days, the Ministry of the Interior resumed its persecution of the zemstvos. Shipov's All-Zemstvo Organization was banned soon after its foundation in 1896, forcing the reluctant revolutionary into the arms of the more radical constitutionalists. Together they formed Beseda (Symposium) in 1899, a clandestine discussion circle of liberal 'zemstvo men', including some of the grandest names of the Russian aristocracy, as well as Prince Lvov, which met in the Moscow palace of the Dolgorukov princes. To begin with, Beseda confined its discussion to zemstvo affairs. But in 1900 the government once again stepped up its campaign of persecution, ordering the dismissal of hundreds of liberals from the zemstvos' elected boards, and this inevitably forced the genteel symposium to confront political questions. Over the next two years it would become the leading force in the constitutional movement, as a wide range of public men, from civic leaders to the captains of industry, rallied behind its call for reform.14
The universities had been the organizational centre of opposition to the tsarist regime since the 1860s. In the Russian language the words 'student' and 'revolutionary' were almost synonymous. Like everyone else, the students had been politicized by the sheer scale of human misery which the famine exposed. The lecture-rooms became hotbeds of socialist agitation and there was a new mood of rebelliousness against the university authorities, which since 1884 had been under police control. Alexander Kerensky (1881—1970) recalls the camaraderie of the dormitory at St Petersburg University: 'The students lived as a friendly, closely united community, with its own favourite men as leaders in matters of communal concern ... If something exceptional happened in the country that touched and hurt the moral feelings of youth, if some order of the educational authorities touched our corporate pride, then all the students rose as one man.'
Kerensky's early life had many similarities with that of Lentn, who would become his arch-rival in 1917. He was born in the same town of Simbirsk eleven years after Lenin. His father was the headmaster of Lenin's gymnasium and an acquaintance of Lenin's father, who was the Chief Inspector of Schools in Simbirsk. In 1889 Kerensky's father was promoted to the same post in Tashkent, where the young Kerensky went to school. As with the adolescent Lenin, there was 'nothing at this stage to suggest the future career of Kerensky as a minister of the revolution', one of his teachers recalled. 'He happily complied with the strict discipline of the school, went enthusiastically to church,* and even sang in the church choir.' At the age of fourteen, Kerensky's heart was set on an acting career. He even signed a letter to his parents: 'The future Artist of the Imperial Theatre. A. Kerensky'.16 His belief in his destiny — which would drive his actions in 1917 — had clearly taken root at an early age. Kerensky never made it into the theatre, although as an actor on the revolutionary stage he was to prove as self-dramatizing as any provincial thespian. In 1899 he went up to St Petersburg University to read history and philology, the subjects his father had studied there, although in the second year he switched to law. This too set the pattern for the future: changing from history to law is, obviously, the move of a careerist.
In the year Kerensky matriculated the students at St Petersburg became embroiled in a series of campus demonstrations. On 8 February it was customary for the students to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the university by holding celebrations in the city centre. But in 1899 the government was in no mood for a student street party and banned the event. When some students tried to defy the ban by marching into the city they found their way blocked by police, who beat them with whips. Greatly agitated, the students began a protest strike, which spread to other universities. Their grievances were still not political; they would have been satisfied by an official apology for the brutality of the police and the restoration of the academic and student freedoms removed from the universities in 1884. This, at least, was the finding of a commission appointed later to look into the troubles. Instead the government arrested the student leaders and threatened future demonstrators with military conscription. The students were outraged and, encouraged by socialist agitators, began to condemn the political system root and branch. Even Kerensky, who until this point had been more interested in the theatre than in politics, joined the campus protest. 'Last year's insult has not been forgotten, and cannot be,' he wrote to his parents in February 1900. 'The repressions were uncivilized, that is what disturbs us, and those who ordered them (i.e. the ministers) do not deserve respect!'17 Once again, the heavy-handed tactics of the government turned a minor protest into a full-blown opposition movement.
The following November there were fresh student demonstrations at Kiev and other universities. Bogolepov, the Minister of Education, responded in January 1901 by enlisting more than 200 student leaders into the army. One month later a student called Karpovich shot Bogolepov in the neck, fatally wounding him in the first of a new wave of terrorist actions. The public were generally unmoved by the murder (Kerensky and his student comrades even saw Karpovich as a saint); its outrage was provoked by Bogolepov's repressions. 'I feel, you see,' wrote Gorky to Bryusov, 'that to send students into the army is disgusting, it is a flagrant crime against individual freedom, an idiotic measure of power-sated scoundrels.' On 4 March, two days after Bogolepov's death, Gorky took part in a massive demonstration in St Petersburg. The capital came to a standstill as 3,000 students converged in front of the Kazan Cathedral. Red flags were unfurled, the Marseillaise was sung, and Gorky made a speech condemning the government s actions. In the crowd were a large number of bourgeois liberals sympathetic to the students and dozens of present and future luminaries of the revolutionary movement. Suddenly, a squadron of mounted Cossacks appeared from behind the cathedral and charged into the crowd, hitting out on all sides with their batons. Struve was one of those struck. As people scrambled for cover some of the crowd broke into the cathedral itself, where a service was in progress. Thirteen people were killed, hundreds came away with bloodied faces and, in all, some 1,500 students were imprisoned, many of them in the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was the first time that such a large number of respectable bourgeois citizens had found themselves within its famous penitentiary walls. The students' parents and friends visited them daily with lavish food hampers. A well-known tobacco manufacturer, whose son had been jailed, sent 10,000 de-luxe cigarettes and repeated the gift at regular intervals. Thousands of books arrived, allowing the students to catch up with their long-neglected studies, although, according to one of the students, they spent most of their time in chess tournaments and concerts. The whole adventure was described by him as 'a kind of student picnic'.18
* As he would throughout his life.
For many of the students this was their first shocking confrontation with the coercive power of the state. It was to prove a radicalizing experience. Thousands of students joined the SR Party, whose Combat Organization took the lead in a campaign of terror which soon claimed the life of D. S. Sipiagin, the Minister of the Interior. Others joined the Social Democrats. But the real home of the democratic students was the Union of Liberation, established in 1903. It was the brainchild of Struve, one of a small but influential group of liberal defectors from the Marxist movement at the turn of the century. He argued that a violent social revolution would be disastrous for Russia. What it needed was a period of social and political evolution on European lines, during which the workers campaigned for their rights within the capitalist system and the whole democracy was united in a constitutional movement. This was the message of Struve's journal Osvobozhdenie (Liberation), published in Germany, which had inspired the foundation of the Union. Antagonized by the campaign of police persecution organized by Plehve, Sipiagin's successor at the Ministry of the Interior, the Union gradually moved to the left and, in 1904, embraced the programme of a constitution based on universal suffrage, self-determination for the nationalities, and far-reaching social reforms.
* * * It was at this moment that Russia went to war with Japan. Plehve is often said to have planned this as 'a little victorious war to stem the revolution'. But its origins were more complex — and its consequences just the opposite. Russia's economic penetration of the Far East, made possible by the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway during the 1890s, was bound to bring her into conflict with Japan, which had ambitions in Korea and Manchuria. But a war could have been avoided if Russia's foreign policy had been in competent hands. Instead it was left to a narrow court cabal, led by Alexander Bezobrazov, a well-connected speculator with lumber interests in Korea, and this group of lobbyists persuaded the Tsar to reject the Japanese offer of a compromise, thus making war unavoidable. That Nicholas had decided to take a personal interest in the matter only made things worse; unfortunately foreign policy was the one area of government where the Tsar felt competent to lead from the front. Because he had toured the Far East in his youth, he even believed himself to be something of an expert on the region. General Kuropatkin, the Minister of War, believed that Nicholas wanted to extend his Empire across the whole of Asia, conquering not only Manchuria and Korea but also Tibet, Afghanistan and Persia. Most of his ministers encouraged such ambitions. It was a way of flattering the Tsar — who after all had very few talents. Nicholas's cousin, the Kaiser Wilhelm, also played along with his imperial fantasies, since he wished to divert Russia from the Balkans. On one occasion he had cabled the Tsar from his yacht: 'The Admiral of the Atlantic greets the Admiral of the Pacific.'19
When the war began, in January 1904, with the Japanese attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in Manchuria, the Tsar and his advisers took victory for granted. Kuropatkin claimed he would need only two Russian soldiers for every three Japanese, so superior were they to the Asians. Government posters portrayed the Japanese as puny little monkeys, slit-eyed and yellow-skinned, running in panic from the giant white fist of a robust Russian soldier. Another displayed a swarm of spider-like 'Japs', faces twisted in fear, struggling to escape from underneath a huge Cossack hat. The caption read 'Catch them by the hatful!' This patriotic mood, with its racist overtones, swept through liberal society. Prince S. N. Trubetskoi, the distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Moscow University and a founding member of Beseda, contended that Russia was defending the whole of European civilization against 'the yellow danger, the new hordes of Mongols armed by modern technology'. The academic leaders of Kiev University described the war as a Christian crusade against the 'insolent Mongols'. Even the Legal Marxist Struve felt obliged to bow to the patriotic mood, urging his followers to rally behind the nation and its armed forces whilst continuing to oppose the autocracy.* The provincial zemstvos went even further in their patriotic efforts. To help the Red Cross on the Manchurian Front thirteen of them formed a combined medical brigade of 360 doctors and nurses led by Prince Lvov. It was the first time the zemstvos had been allowed to organize themselves at a national level. The Prince pleaded with the Tsar to let the brigade go and so moved him by his own patriotic sentiments that Nicholas ended up hugging him and kissing him and wishing him well. The mission, which won high praise from the military leaders, turned Lvov into a national hero and enabled the zemstvos to wrap themselves in the national flag.20
Had the war been won, the regime might have been able to make political capital from this patriotic upsurge. The ancient bond between the tsarist state and Russian nationalism could be used to create powerful emotions when the enemy came from the heathen East. The Mongol invasion, which the Muscovite state had been formed to repel, had left a powerful mark on the Russian psyche. It was expressed in a deep anxiety about the mixed Eurasian roots of the people and its culture, which made it easy for an educated liberal such as Trubetskoi to convince himself that this war was nothing less than a defence of Russia's European identity against the Asian hordes. And it was only a short step from this to the view that the Christian tsarist state was the champion of that identity.
But winning the war was far harder than Russia's rulers imagined. The military turned out to be poorly equipped with modern weaponry, and there were terrible logistical problems in running a war from 6,000 miles away. The biggest problem was the sheer incompetence of the High Command, which stuck rigidly to the military doctrines of the nineteenth century and wasted thousands of Russian lives by ordering hopeless bayonet charges against well-entrenched artillery positions. The Commander-in-Chief himself, Admiral Alexeev, knew almost nothing about the art of war. Afraid of horses, he had to suffer the indignity of inspecting his cavalry on foot. Alexeev's promotion had been largely due to the patronage of the Grand Duke Alexis, whom he once rescued from the French police after the Grand Duke had been involved in a drunken brawl in a Marseille brothel. Alexeev had offered himself up for arrest, claiming that the maitresse of the brothel had confused his name with that of the Grand Duke.21
As the war went from bad to worse, the liberal opposition revived, accusing the government of incompetence in its handling of the campaign. There was plenty of evidence to support the charge, including the futile despatch of the Baltic Fleet on a seven-month trip around the world to relieve Port Arthur. The only shots the squadron fired hit some English fishing trawlers in the North Sea, which the commander had mistaken for Japanese torpedo boats. The case went to international arbitration (the Dogger Bank Inquiry) and Russia was forced to pay damages of £65,000. Even the country's leading entrepreneurs, who had in the past relied on the state for protection, now joined in the chorus of criticism as they suffered the economic dislocations of the war. A. I. Guchkov (1862—1936), a wealthy Moscow industrialist who fought for the Boers against the British and ran a field hospital in Manchuria, was particularly critical of the monarchy for its failure to equip the military with the tools of modern warfare. The future leader of the Octobrist Party was echoed by much of the press, which blamed the bureaucratic system for Russia's military decline. The gossip in the salons was cruel. On the news that the Tsar had sent the troops icons to boost their morale, General Dragomirov quipped: 'The Japanese are beating us with machine-guns, but never mind: we'll beat them with icons.' The autocracy had shown itself incapable of defending the national interest and joining the opposition now came to be seen, in the words of one official, as something 'noble and patriotic'.22
* For this Struve was treated by the government as a defeatist. He was even approached by a Japanese spy.
So unpopular had the government become that in July 1904, when Plehve, its Minister of the Interior, was blown to pieces by a bomb planted by the SR Combat Organization (which had already made several attempts on his life), there was hardly a word of public regret.* And such was the 'cult of the bomb and the gun' that the public looked upon these terrorists as champions of freedom. In Warsaw, Plehve's murder was celebrated by crowds in the street. 'The most striking aspect of the present situation', noted Count Aerenthal, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to St Petersburg:
is the total indifference of society to an event that constituted a heavy blow to the principles of the government. One could hardly have expected sympathy for a minister who because of his authoritarian bent must have made many enemies. But a certain degree of human compassion, or at least concern and anxiety with respect to the immediate future, would be natural. Not a trace of this is to be found ... I have found only totally indifferent people or people so cynical that they say that no other outcome was to be expected. People are prepared to say that further catastrophes similar to Plehve's murder will be necessary in order to bring about a change of mind on the part of the highest authority.23
" It was organized by Boris Savinkov (1879—1925), who was later to become a minister in the Provisional Government.
The citizens of Russia were after their rulers' blood.
The opposition now rallied behind the campaign for a national zemstvo assembly. The liberal 'zemstvo men' had been calling for this since 1902, but Plehve always stood in their way. Now there were hopeful signs. Plehve's murder had deeply shocked the Tsar and, although his natural inclination had been to replace him with another hardliner, the bad news from the Front and the strength of the opposition at home had convinced him of the need to appoint a man enjoying the 'confidence of society'. The new Minister of the Interior, Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky (or Mirsky for short) was made for the role. Liberal, good-natured and decent, he was a typical product of the enlightened bureaucracy that espoused the ideals of the Rechtsstaat. He spoke of the need to strengthen the rule of law, to end the despotism of the police, and to break down the barriers of mistrust between the government and society. He called himself a 'zemstvo man' — in the sense that as a bureaucrat he saw his primary duty as to serve the public rather than the Tsar — and sought to conciliate the zemstvo liberals. They took his appointment, on 25 August, as a cue to revive their campaign for a national assembly.
Such expectations placed Mirsky in an impossible situation. 'I am afraid', wrote his wife in her diary on 22 September, 'that so much is expected from Pepka [Mirsky] and yet so little will be possible; the only thing he can do is to act in accordance with his conscience, so God willing.' The Minister was trapped between the demands of the liberals and the stubborn determination of the Tsar to stand firm on the principle of autocracy. He was not the last to be caught in this way. If there is a single, repetitive theme in the history of Russia during the last twenty years of the old regime, it is that of the need for reform and the failure of successive governments to achieve it in the face of the Tsar's opposition. Not that sweeping reforms would have been necessary: most of the liberals would have been satisfied by such moderate changes as the convocation of a consultative assembly, the expansion of local self-government and greater civil rights, which need not have undermined the monarchy. But Nicholas was opposed to the idea of any limitation upon his autocratic prerogatives. Naively perhaps, Mirsky continued through gentle persuasion to try and bring the Tsar round to the idea of reform. But Nicholas was impervious to reason, and the Minister's frustration grew. On one occasion, when Mirsky explained that the whole of the country was clamouring for a national zemstvo assembly, the Tsar replied: 'Yes, it is needed, then they will be able to look into the veterinary problem.' When Mirsky explained that the issue was the right of elected representatives to participate in the work of government, and warned that, if nothing was conceded, there would soon be a revolution, the Tsar remained silent. 'He lets everything unpleasant run off him', the exasperated Minister complained later to his wife.24
Mirsky initially thought to give the zemstvo assembly his official approval on the understanding that it would confine itself to local affairs. But when it produced a revised agenda that included discussion of a legislative parliament, he tried to have it postponed, or moved to the provinces, where it would attract less attention. But the 'zemstvo men' stood firm and the mild-mannered Mirsky at last gave way, allowing the assembly to meet in private quarters in the capital — 'for a cup of tea', as he put it. On 6—9 November 1904, 103 zemstvo representatives assembled in various residences, including the apartment of Vladimir Nabokov, father of the future novelist. Shipov was elected chairman, Prince Lvov and Petrunkevich vice-chairmen. It was, in effect, the first national assembly in Russian history. People compared it with the French Etats Generaux of 1789, and, despite Mirsky's ban on publicity, more than 5,000 congratulatory telegrams arrived from all over the country. Civic bodies and associations held meetings to support its resolutions, which condemned the existing state of affairs and called, in all but name, for a constitution. Even the Provincial Marshals of the Nobility, normally the most conservative of gentry office-holders, held a congress to support the idea of a national assembly. Professional organizations held public banquets, modelled on the Paris banquet campaign that preceded the Revolution of 1848, where speakers called for political reforms and toasts were proposed to the future constitution. Gorky was at the biggest of these in St Petersburg on 20 November, and the following morning he wrote to his wife in Yalta:
I have just returned from the banquet in the Pavlova Hall. There were more than 600 diners — writers, lawyers, 'zemstvo men', in general, the intelligentsia .. . Outspoken speeches were made and people chanted in unison 'Down with the autocracy!', Long live the Constituent Assembly!', and 'Give us a constitution!' ... A resolution was passed unanimously calling for a Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage. It was all very heated and very democratic . . . For the first time a woman even stood up to speak. She said that universal suffrage would give the vote to policemen, but no one had yet mentioned women. All this time they have struggled alongside the men — yet now people have forgotten about them. Shame! Her speech was very good.25
Mirsky presented the Tsar with a carefully worded digest of the zemstvo assembly's resolutions, in the hope of winning him over to a programme of moderate reforms. The most controversial recommendation was the one for elected zemstvo representatives to sit on the State Council. But it also declared, in terms that must have offended the Supreme Autocrat, that the 'old patrimonial order' with its 'notions of personal rule' had been dead since the 1860s. Russia was no longer 'the personal property and fiefdom of its ruler', but an 'an impersonal state with its own body politic', its own 'public interest' and 'public opinion', which made it 'separate from the person of the ruler'. It was no doubt this challenge to his cherished ideals of patrimonialism that convinced the Tsar, under pressure from the Empress and his court advisers, to reject the most progressive parts of Mirsky's draft decree. 'I will never agree to the representative form of government', Nicholas proclaimed, 'because I consider it harmful to the people whom God thas entrusted to me.' The decree, which was finally passed on 12 December, promised to strengthen the rule of law, to ease restrictions on the press and to expand the rights of the zemstvos. But it said nothing on the all-important subject of a parliamentary body, on which concessions were essential if a revolution was to be averted. Hearing of its contents, Mirsky at once fell into despair. 'Everything has failed,' he said despondently to one of his colleagues. 'Let us build jails.'26