Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How the Nihilists Killed the Tsar Deliverer

Most of the great hopes raised by the new order of things were doomed to disappointment. This was especially true in Poland, where dreams of a constitution and a restoration of the fatherland excited the patriotic everywhere. Certain acts of arbitrary authority brought a crisis. The Poles broke out in open revolt and formed a national government, but there was no army, and the cruel General Muravief with Russian troops soon put an end to the trouble. He declared that it was "useless to make prisoners." The captured leaders were shot or hanged; the Polish towns and villages were treated with inhuman brutality. Poland was reduced to a worse state than ever: the Russian language replaced the Polish not only in schools but in all public acts. The public offices were filled with Russians. The serfs were ordered to take possession of the lands which they cultivated, and the nobles who took part in the revolt were forced to give up their estates.

About the same time the students in some of the Russian universities, feeling that their rights had been trampled upon, came into collision with the authorities. The universities were closed for several months, and many students were arrested and treated with pitiless severity. It was now that the doctrine of Nihilism began to be discussed. "The Nihilist," said Bakunin, "is a man devoted and resigned to torture and death. He has neither personal interests nor business nor sentiments nor property. He is missionary and apostle. The religion for which he is ready to die is revolt. For him there is one science in life,—destruction. He scorns and hates the present system of morality. For him all that favors revolution is moral, all that hinders it is immoral. Between him and society is a death-struggle, ceaseless, irreconcilable."

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


While Russia was being eaten up by internal disease its outward growth in all respects was wonderful. In Asia, Shamyl, "the Prince of Believers," was captured, and the long Circassian revolt came to an end. In Asia Turkestan and the ancient lands which once fell before Timur now fell before the Russians. On the east Russia faced China; the English possessions of India were threatened on the south. The Kan of Khiva was besieged in his oasis and compelled to yield. After the Franco-Prussian war Alexander broke loose from the treaty of Paris and began to prepare for the future by restoring the fort and harbor of Sevastopol. About the same time the whole system of the army was changed. It was declared that the defence of the throne and the country was the duty of every Russian subject. On this principle the army was to be recruited each year by all young men who reached the age of twenty. The time of active service would vary from six months to six years, according to the education of the conscript. The standing army would number five hundred and sixty thousand men in time of peace, with a reserve of upwards of a million liable to be called out in time of war. The new system was immediately put to the severest test by events in the East. Some of the Christian subjects of the Porte, driven to desperation by cruel tax-collectors, raised the standard of revolt. The insurgent leaders declared that they could not live under the Turkish yoke. "We are human beings," they said, "and not cattle. We want real and absolute freedom. We will never fall alive into the bands of the Turks." Austria and Russia, fearing that the revolt if continued might lead to trouble in their own lands, tried to force the Porte to carry out the reforms it had promised. The Porte offered amnesty to the insurgents, but they had no faith in any Turkish promises, and the following spring the revolt assumed more serious proportions.

The Bulgarians took advantage of the Sultan's perplexity and threw off his yoke. The insurrection spread through the villages like wildfire. The beys of Philippopolis and Adrianople met the insurgents with irregular troops called Bashi Bazuks. These cruel soldiers burned and pillaged more than sixty villages, destroyed eighteen hundred and forty houses, forty churches, and forty-three schools. It was estimated that they massacred fifteen thousand Christians, many of whom were women and children. The Turkish government, instead of condemning these atrocities, gave rewards and decorations to the leaders. Great was the indignation throughout Europe, especially in England, whose merchants had already suffered from the repudiation of the interest on the Turkish bonds.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Stirring events at Constantinople followed each other with great rapidity; students of the Koran, crying, "Turkey for the Turks," broke into revolt, deposed the Grand Vizier, and put a reform party into power. The Sultan, Abdul Aziz, was dethroned and murdered. His weak successor reigned only three months and was in his turn deposed. His brother, Abdul Hamid, a man of liberal ideas and kindly-minded to the Christians, took the throne. In the mean time Prince Milan of Serbia also threw off the Turkish yoke, and supported by many Russian volunteers entered the contest with a bold heart. The Turks, however, defeated him at every point, and occupied Deligrad; Serbia lay at the feet of the Sultan unless help should come.

Alexander of Russia was the deliverer. He commanded his envoy to leave Constantinople unless a truce were granted the Serbians within two days. The Sultan yielded, and Serbia was saved. At the suggestion of England a conference of the powers was held at Constantinople; but the Porte refused to submit to any interference from abroad, and the plenipotentiaries, despairing of peace, left Turkey to its fate.

Alexander, assured that the Powers would remain neutral, now came to the rescue of the oppressed Christians. He joined the army of the south and gave orders to cross the Danube. By the 27th of June two hundred thousand Russians occupied all the Turkish defences on the southern bank of the river, and the Turkish fleet of iron-clads was so closely blockaded that from this time forth they did no service. Then came the passage of the Balkans by General Gurko, the outflanking of Shipka Pass, and the capture of Nikopolis. It was a brilliant beginning of the summer campaign. But here reverses came. Osman Pasha, with an army of forty thousand Turks, coming too late to the aid of Nikopolis, turned aside into Plevna, an important town which, as the meeting point of many roads, was the key of the Balkans. The occupation of Plevna by this strong force of Turks was accomplished entirely without the knowledge of the Russians. The Kazaks, who were called the eye and ear of the army," discovered no sign that such a movement was taking place.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Osman Pasha threw up entrenchments and fortified himself in a masterly manner. For five months he resisted the most terrible assaults known in the history of war. The Russian advance was entirely checked; the Emperor was obliged to mobilize three hundred thousand men, and all this time to "direct the affairs of his empire from miserable huts in obscure villages of a foreign land." It was not until November that Plevna was invested. Osman Pasha tried to break through the lines, but was forced back and compelled to surrender. Winter was now at hand; nevertheless, the Grand Duke Nicholas resolved to make up for lost time and push forward the campaign. General Gurko again crossed the Balkans, hauling his guns over steeps slippery with ice and snow. The Turks were taken by surprise and deserted their defences. Gurko pressed on to Philippopolis, where he destroyed Suleiman Pasha's army of sixty thousand men. Meantime General Skobelef, in a brilliant action, captured thirty-six thousand Turks at Shipka and occupied Adrianople without a blow. The Turkish inhabitants of the whole region Red in panic before the victorious Russians. Thousands of helpless women and children perished of hunger, fatigue, and cold.

The Russian victories at Plevna and beyond the Balkans had been paralleled in Armenia. After many reverses caused by insufficient forces, reinforcements came. Mukhtar Pasha's army southeast of Kars was cut in two. Kars itself, situated in the midst of rocky hills and almost impregnable, was taken by storm, together with seventeen thousand prisoners and three hundred guns. Erzerum was invested.

The Porte was ready for peace. On the 29th of January the last shot was fired. On the 3rd of March the treaty of San Stefano was signed. Turkey seemed absolutely in Russia's hold. But the Great Powers, having let the war go on, now suddenly blocked Russia's plans and refused to allow the treaty of San Stefano to be carried out. A congress met at Berlin and restored Turkey to life again. All the gain that Russia made by the war was a part of Bessarabia and a small territory in Armenia, including Kars and Batum. The Russians were bitter in their complaints. It was said that "the Congress was a colossal absurdity, a blundering failure, an impudent outrage; that Russia had been mocked with a fool's cap and bells; that the honor of Russia had been trampled under foot and made a mockery."

The discontent which was felt in Russia began to express itself in revolutionary measures. Incendiary fires and assassinations became frequent throughout the land. Trouble again broke out in the universities. Anonymous pamphlets circulated everywhere; it was demanded that the people should be delivered from spies and secret police, that the press and speech should be free, that professors should be allowed to teach without vexatious restrictions, and that political prisoners should be pardoned. The Nihilist committees made proclamations to the army: "Depotism must fall sooner or later," they said, "but the crisis may not come for years, to the cost of many lives. It therefore depends on all honorable and thoughtful men in the army to hasten this result."

The excitement was increased by an order obliging every householder in St. Petersburg to keep a watchman at his door day and night to prevent the posting of seditious placards, and the spread of revolutionary pamphlets. The great cities of the Empire were declared in a state of siege. In one month seventeen thousand three hundred fires destroyed property valued at two million rubles. The life of the Emperor was attempted again and again. He was publicly declared to be the personification of a cursed despotism, of everything mean and bloodthirsty; his reign was denounced as a curse from beginning to end; the liberation of the serfs was called a delusion and a lie.

A slight relief was caused by the abolition of the hated "Third Section," or Secret Police, but still the Nihilists kept up their activity and threatened the Emperor with death unless he gave the country a constitution. At last their plots met with success. On the 13th of March, 1881, as the Emperor was on his way to the Winter Palace, he fell mortally wounded by an Orsini bomb thrown by a desperate man.

In the light of subsequent history it is quite possible that Alexander II., the emancipator of the serfs, and the victim of a political sect, "which does not represent the great voice of the nation, will be regarded by posterity as a martyr to the cause of the people."