Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 63, No. 388, February 1848
BLACKWOOD’S EDINBURGH MAGAZINE.
|The Russian Empire||129|
|Autobiography of a German Headsman||148|
|Edinburgh after Flodden||165|
|Subjects for Pictures||176|
|My English Acquaintance||194|
|Our West Indian Colonies||219|
|Now and Then||239|
THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE.
(Secret History of the Court and Government of Russia, under the EmperorsAlexander and Nicholas. By H. SCHNITZLER. Two vols. Bentley: London.)
Russia is the most extraordinarycountry on the globe, in the four mostimportant particulars of empire,—itshistory, its extent, its population,and its power.
It has for Europe another interest,—theinterest of alarm, the evidence ofan ambition which has existed for ahundred and fifty years, and hasnever paused; an increase of territorywhich has never suffered theslightest casualty of fortune; themost complete security against theretaliation of European war; and agovernment at once despotic andpopular; exhibiting the most boundlessauthority in the sovereign, andthe most boundless submission in thepeople; a mixture of habitual obedience,and divine homage: the reverenceto a monarch, with almost theprostration to a divinity.
Its history has another superbanomaly: Russia gives the most memorableinstance in human annals, ofthe powers which lie within the mindof individual man. Peter the Greatwas not the restorer, or the reformerof Russia; he was its moral creator.He found it, not as Augustus foundRome, according to the famous adage,“brick, and left it marble:” he foundit a living swamp, and left it coveredwith the fertility of laws, energy, andknowledge: he found it Asiatic, andleft it European: he removed it asfar from Scythia, as if he had placedthe diameter of the globe between:he found it not brick, but mire, andhe transformed a region of huts intothe magnificence of empire.
Russia first appears in Europeanhistory in the middle of the ninthcentury. Its climate and its soilhad till then retained it in primitivebarbarism. The sullenness of itswinter had prevented invasion bycivilised nations, and the nature ofits soil, one immense plain, had givenfull scope to the roving habits of itshalf famished tribes. The great invasionswhich broke down the Romanempire, had drained away the populationfrom the north, and left nothingbut remnants of clans behind. Russiahad no Sea, by which she mightsend her bold savages to plunder orto trade with Southern and WesternEurope. And, while the man ofScandinavia was subduing kingdoms,or carrying back spoil to his northerncrags and lakes, the Russian remained,like the bears of his forest, in hiscavern during the long winter of hiscountry; and even when the summercame, was still but a melancholysavage, living like the bear upon theroots and fruits of his ungenial soil.
It was to one of those Normans,who, instead of steering his bark towardsthe opulence of the south,turned his dreary adventure to thenorth, that Russia owed her firstconnexion with intelligent mankind.130The people of Novgorod, a people oftraders, finding themselves overpoweredby their barbarian neighbours,solicited the aid of Ruric, aBaltic chieftain, and, of course, apirate and a robber. The name ofthe Norman had earned old renownin the north. Ruric came, rescuedthe city, but paid himself by theseizure of the surrounding territory,and founded a kingdom, which hetransmitted to his descendants, andwhich lasted until the middle of thesixteenth century.
In the subsequent reign we seethe effect of the northern pupillage;and an expedition, in the style of theBaltic exploits, was sent to plunderConstantinople. This expedition consistedof two thousand canoes, witheighty thousand men on board. Theexpedition was defeated, for theGreeks had not yet sunk into thedegeneracy of later times. Theyfought stoutly for their capital, androasted the pirates in their owncanoes, by showers of the famous“Greek fire.”
Those invasions, however, weretempting to the idleness and poverty,or to the avarice and ambition ofthe Russians; and Constantinoplecontinued to be the great object ofcupidity and assault, for three hundredyears. But the city of Constantinewas destined to fall to a mightierconqueror.
Still, the northern barbarian hadnow learned the road to Greece, andthe intercourse was mutually beneficial.Greece found daring allies inher old plunderers, and in the eleventhcentury she gave the Grand-dukeVladimir a wife, in the person of Anna,sister of the emperor Basil II; agift made more important by itsbeing accompanied by his conversionto Christianity.
A settled succession is the greatsecret of royal peace: but amongthose bold riders of the desert, nothingwas ever settled, save by thesword; and the first act of all the sons,on the decease of their father, was,to slaughter each other; until the contestwas settled in their graves, andthe last survivor quietly ascended thethrone.
But war, on a mightier scale thanthe Russian Steppes had ever witnessed,was now rolling over CentralAsia. The cavalry of Genghiz Khan,which came, not in squadrons, but innations, and charged, not like troops,but like thunderclouds, began topour down upon the valley of theWolga. Yet the conquest of Russiawas not to be added to the triumphsof the great Tartar chieftain; amightier conqueror stopped him onhis way, and the Tartar died.
His son Toushi, lit the beginningof the thirteenth century, burstover the frontier at the head of halfa million of horsemen. The Russianprinces, hastily making up their quarrels,advanced to meet the invader;but their army was instantly trampleddown, and, before the middle of thecentury, all the provinces, and all thecities of Russia, were the prey of themen of the wilderness. Novgorodalone escaped.
The history of this great city wouldbe highly interesting, if it were possiblenow to recover its details. Itwas the chief depot of the northernAsiatic commerce with Europe; ithad a government, laws, and privilegesof its own, with which it sufferednot even the Khan or the Tartarsto interfere. Its populationamounted to four hundred thousand—thennearly equal to the populationof a kingdom. In the thirteenthcentury it connected itself still moreeffectively with European commerce,by becoming a member of the HanseaticLeague; and the wonder andpride of the Russians were expressedin the well-known half-profane proverb,“Who can resist God, and thegreat Novgorod?”
There is always something almostapproaching to picturesque grandeurin the triumphs of barbarism. TheTurk, until he was fool enough tothrow away the turban, was the mostshowy personage in the world. TheArabs, under Mahomet, were themost stately of warriors, and theSpanish Moors threw all the pomp,and even all the romance, of Europeinto the shade. Even the chiefs ofthe “Golden Horde” seemed to havehad as picturesque a conception ofsupremacy as the Saracen. Their onlycity was a vast camp, in the plainsbetween the Caspian and the Wolga;and while they left the provinces in131the hands of the native princes, andenjoyed themselves in the manliersports of hunting through the plainsand mountains, they commandedthat every vassal prince should attendat the imperial tent to receive permissionto reign, or perhaps to live;and that, even when they sent theirTartar collectors to receive the tribute,the Russian princes should leadthe Tartar’s horse by the bridle, andgive him a feed of oats out of theircap of state!
But another of those sweepingdevastators, one of those giganticexecutioners, who seem to have beensent from time to time to punish thehorrible profligacies of Asia, nowrose upon the north. Timour Khan,the Tamerlane of European story, theInvincible, the Lord of the TartarWorld, rushed with his countlesstroops upon the sovereignties ofWestern Asia. This universal conquerorcrushed the Tartar dynasty ofRussia, and then burst away, like aninundation, to overwhelm other lands.But the native Russians again madehead against their Tartar masters,and a century and a half of sanguinarywarfare followed, with various fortunes,and without any other result thanblood.
Without touching on topics exclusivelyreligious, it becomes a matterof high interest to mark the vengeances,furies, and massacres, ofheathenism, in every age of theworld. Yet while we believe, and havesuch resistless reason to believe, inthe Providential government, whatgrounds can be discovered for thissufferance of perpetual horrors? Forthis we have one solution, and butone: stern as the inflictions are, maythey not be in mercy? may not thestruggles of barbarian life be permitted,simply to retard the headlongcourse of barbarian corruption? maythere not be excesses of wickedness,extremes of national vice, an accumulationof offences against the laws ofmoral nature, (which are the originallaws of Heaven,) actually incompatiblewith the Divine mercy? Nothingcan be clearer to the understanding,than that there are limitswhich the Divine Being has prescribedto his endurance of the guiltof man, and prescribed doubtless forthe highest objects of general mercy;as there are offences which, byhuman laws, are incompatible withthe existence of society.
The crimes of the world before theflood were evidently of an intenseiniquity, which precluded the possibilityof purification; and thus itbecame necessary to extinguish arace, whose continued existence couldonly have corrupted every futuregeneration of mankind.
War, savage feuds, famines, andpestilences, may have been onlyDivine expedients to save the worldfrom another accumulation of intolerableiniquity, by depriving nations ofthe power of utter self-destruction,by thinning their numbers, by compellingthem to feel the miseries ofmutual aggression, and even by reducingthem to that degree of povertywhich supplied the most effectiveantidote to their total corruption.
Still, those sufferings were punishments,but punishments fully earnedby their fierce passions, savage propensities,remorseless cruelties, andgeneral disobedience of that naturallaw of virtue, which, earlier even thanJudaism or Christianity, the Eternalhad implanted in the heart of hiscreatures.
In the fifteenth century Russiabegan to assume a form. Ivan III.broke off the vassalage of Russia tothe “Golden Horde.” He had marriedSophia, the niece of the Greekemperor, to which we may attributehis civilisation; and he received theembassies of Germany, Venice, andRome, at Moscow. His son, IvanIV., took Novgorod, which he ruined,and continued to fight the Poles andTartars until he died. His son Ivan,in the middle of the sixteenth century,was crowned by the title ofCzar, formed the first standing armyof Russia, named the Strelitzes, andestablished a code of laws. In 1598,by the death of the Czar Feodorwithout children, the male line ofRuric, which had held the throne forseven hundred and thirty-six years,and under fifty-six sovereigns, becameextinct.
Another dynasty of remarkabledistinction ascended the throne, inthe beginning of the seventeenth century.Michael Romanoff, descended132from the line of Ruric by the femaleside, was declared Czar. His sonAlexis was the father of Peter theGreat, who, with his brother Ivan,was placed on the throne at thedecease of their father, but bothunder the guardianship of the PrincessSophia. But the Princess, whowas the daughter of Alexis, exhibitingan intention to seize the crownfor herself, a revolution took place in1689, in which the Princess wassent to a convent. Ivan, who wasimbecile in mind and body, surrenderedthe throne, and Peter becamesole sovereign of Russia.
The accession of Peter began thelast and greatest period of Russianhistory. Though a man of fiercepassions and barbarian habits, he hadformed a high conception of the valueof European arts, chiefly through anintelligent Genevese, Lefort, who hadbeen his tutor.
The first object of the young emperorwas to form an army; his nextwas to construct a fleet. But bothoperations were too slow for his rapidityof conception; and, in 1697, hetravelled to Holland and England forthe purpose of learning the art of ship-building.He was forced to returnto Russia after an absence of twoyears, by the revolt of the Strelitzesin favour of the Princess Sophia. TheStrelitzes wore disbanded and slaughtered,and Peter felt himself amonarch for the first