When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

Setting the Slaves Free

I was thirteen years old when the Great Change was made in Russia. Perhaps the greatest single act ever ordered by any ruler in all the world's history was that of Tsar Alexander II in freeing the serfs in 1861. Over fifty million serfs, or more than one-half of his empire, he released from bondage. Thus, before Abraham Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was made, Russia had set her slaves free, of whom more than twelve times as many were liberated by one imperial ukase or order as were made free by the Civil War.

Serfdom had always existed vaguely in Russia, and definitely so since the seventeenth century. Father explained to me that the system was the result of the need of the nobility to keep laborers on their lands, instead of allowing them to wander from place to place. For the good of the country it was advisable that the land should have people steadily employed in cultivating it, so little by little different Imperial Ukases or edicts granted special privileges to the nobility. Father, for example, had rights of life and death over the serfs on our small estate of Luka-Barskaya.

Alexander II not only set the serfs free, but he also bought three hundred and fifty million acres of land from the landowners and turned it over to the villages, giving them fifty years to pay for it. The peasants found it hard to understand why they should pay for land on which they had always lived. The freedom manifesto created a storm of discontent, frequently ending in riots. Finally the question of settling the local difficulties of the liberation was given into the hands of committees of nobles, organized in every "government," called the Arbiters of Peace.

Well I remember the noisy meetings of the neighboring nobles in our house, and the endless discussions about the rights of the serfs.

The serfs themselves were so ignorant that it was very difficult to make them understand the extent of their freedom, and the fact that they had to pay for the land they were given. It was that which they never understood, for it seemed to them that since they had always lived on it, it was their own. I remember that Father spent a great deal of time explaining to them the different points of the edict, while they, gathered in our courtyard, asked him numerous questions.

It was this inability to understand the Imperial Ukase which led to trouble and riots, and in many localities the situation became very serious. On the estate of Count Kushelev-Bezborodko, who was our neighbor, these disorders among the peasants led to fearful reprisals on the part of the soldiers, who punished severely the leaders of the riots.

The liberation made little impression on me, because we had no trouble at all in Luka-Barskaya. We only heard of the riots that occurred in many places, often resulting in the burning of barns and other needless violence.

The Arbiters of Peace came to Luka-Barskaya and found but little to do, for the serfs trusted Father. Stern and silent though he was, the moujiks knew that he had always been a just master, and at this critical time not a single serf on our estate showed disloyalty.

In the household the liberation made little outward difference, for, by the ukase, the domoviye, or house serfs, were obliged to serve for two years longer. So, aside from the fact that during the whole summer the courtyard was full of groups of peasants talking noisily together, the freedom of the serfs affected me very slightly. Little did I know, then, that it was the beginning of a chain of events which would lead me into hourly peril and a hunted life.

Boys at Church


How serious the peasant riots had been we learned when Ivan and I returned to the gymnasium and donned again the familiar school uniform.

In Russian schools the wearing of uniforms was general. We had a dark-blue uniform, with scarlet collars and bright brass buttons, and a cap to match. In this we studied and played, and later, when I entered the University, I still had the uniform, although its cut was different. We were allowed to wear other clothing indoors, but we could not leave the house except in our uniforms.

In spite of the reforms in the gymnasium, the conditions were still hateful, and these were made worse by the marriage of Count Pototzky's daughter to Count Strogonov, a Russian, who was economical to stinginess. He abolished all the swings and nets, which had been our great joy, and also raised the rentals of the houses in Nemirov. Gradually people left the town, for its old charm was gone, and as time passed on, the treatment in the gymnasium again became coarse and humiliating. Ivan and Piotr prevailed upon Father to allow them to be transferred to the gymnasium at Kamanetz-Podolsk, where I followed them shortly afterwards.

There, at first, conditions were more bearable. As it unfortunately chanced, however, just before we had been transferred, a serious riot around the school had occurred, during which the boys had fought the police, and two men with a reputation for brutality were sent for the purpose of definitely establishing order in the gymnasium. Sixty of the culprits were expelled, which was a frequent method of punishment, and we were rigidly watched. Inspector Tulub, in his search for dangerous boys, picked out Ivan as an "undesirable," for so much did he talk about liberty and progress that Tulub felt he was likely to be a firebrand and resent authority.

One evening Ivan came in quite excited.

"Volodia," he said, closing my bedroom door tightly, and speaking in a whisper, "do you know what I saw? . . . Tulub sneaking around Dunavsky's house, listening at his window and trying to peep into the room. . . . What do you think of that?—It's worse than Nemirov. I'll let him know what I think of him some day!"

Another time Tulub raided the home of one of our comrades in the hope of finding some "revolutionary" literature. Often in class he came up to the boys, saying roughly: "Arms up," and then he went through their pockets. I could never even imagine what it was he hoped to find, for at that time I did not know about the movement toward democracy that became known as Nihilism, and which was already vaguely in the air in certain universities, but there was no restraining Ivan at all when this spying began.

"It's unjust," he said excitedly, after one of these searches. "What right has he to do as he pleases? I won't stand for it! It's an insult!"

Ivan was not only older than I, but he was old for his years, and life made a deeper impression on him than it did on me. He was more sensitive, also, so at every fresh outrage there was added another spark of indignation. He took still more to reading, and spent all his pocket money buying books. It was a year before his graduation that he showed me one evening his new treasures—two sets of Belinsky and Dobroliubov, both Russian classics.

"Vania, I'm glad," I said, looking at the handsome volumes; "you've wanted them for years."

"Yes," he agreed; "won't it be fun reading them out loud at home during vacations?"

"By the way, Vania," I continued, after examining the books, "didn't you have a row with Tulub this morning? One of the boys told me he heard something about it."

"It wasn't much," Ivan answered. "He's looking for trouble—I suppose he doesn't think me safe, so he made some remark about my uniform this morning. I told him he didn't know anything about it, so then he made some more remarks. Well, I can stand a good deal, but I won't tolerate public insult. . . . I told him exactly what I thought of him."

I wondered just what Ivan had said, for I knew that he was utterly reckless once his pride was roused. It made me uneasy. Another day Tulub made trouble for Ivan because he wore high boots, to which he took exception.

"Don't let me see you in them again," he bellowed at Ivan.

"I'll wear them as long as I please," was the calm reply.

All through that year and the next which was Ivan's final year at the gymnasium this system of persistent nagging and public insult continued. It did not surprise anyone, accordingly, that the final break was both sudden and stormy.

Unfortunately Ivan had also had trouble with the governor of the government, Goremykin. There was a rule that all the gymnasium boys must take off their hats upon meeting the governor. One day Ivan met him in the street outside the town, and did not take off his hat, whereupon the governor stopped him and demanded his name.

"I gave him my name," said Ivan in telling me about it, "although I don't see why he was so touchy."

Again I was troubled, for I had heard that Goremykin was petty about formalities, and that he never forgave an affront.

At last the time came for Ivan's final examinations, which would give him his diploma for entrance to the University. He was so clever, and had made so brilliant a record in his classes that I never doubted his success, and I awaited the details of the examination without anxiety.

But the unexpected happened. The oral examination was held before the Pedagogical Committee, and Inspector Tulub was in charge of the proceedings. As soon as Ivan entered he was spotted by Tulub, who felt that this was his last chance to make trouble.

"You haven't shaved this morning," he shouted angrily, referring to the slight down on Ivan's face, and regardless of the fact that the committee was present.

Ivan's outraged sense of propriety got the best of his temper.

"It is stupid," he answered loudly, "for you to spend your time examining the cut of our coats, and looking to see if we have shaved or not those are small things, and I think you would be more useful if you took a greater interest in our mental development."

This frank speech only roused Tulub, who began yelling and shouting abuse at Ivan in the old-time way, without any restraint on either his language or the pitch of his voice.

"You won't get your diploma!" he finished hoarsely.

"I don't care a rap for your diploma," said Ivan angrily, and marched out of the room.

Then the storm broke. The whole episode was taken as being a sign of Ivan's unstable revolutionary ideas. The governor remembered his own unpleasant meeting with Ivan, and also took a hand in the matter, with the result that for about four days Ivan was constantly and persistently dogged by spies, who watched his every movement.

"The funniest thing about this," said Ivan, laughing, after he had come in from a walk to the bookstore, "is the way everybody runs when they catch sight of me. Why, Nemorsky made a dive for a side street to-day, so as to avoid speaking to me." I knew that our friends could do nothing else. Not only did they fear to show him sympathy, but they were even afraid of admitting friendship with him, as it would have harmed them, and done him no good.

"I'm avoided as if I had the plague," he said bitterly one evening, in telling me of his experiences.

The school authorities and the governor went into the details of the whole incident, and it was several days before they arrived at a decision. Finally one day a carriage drove up to our door for the purpose of taking Ivan home to Luka-Barskaya. A gendarme fully armed was one of the party, and it was his duty to see that the recalcitrant schoolboy reach his home without any attempts at escape.

This incident had a definite influence on me. I loved Ivan as few brothers love a brother, and the fact that he had been unjustly expelled made me hate the authorities with a deep and bitter hatred that nothing could soften or eradicate. I became proud of the fact that I had a brother who had been sent home under the supervision of a gendarme, for I felt it was an honor to be at war with those who had no regard for our dignity, or any interest in our success. It was then that were laid the first seeds of that struggle against injustice and against unintelligent authority which was to change the entire course of my life. I really left careless boyhood behind on the day that Ivan was expelled.