|Dear Sir [Jules Michelet],
-- You hold so high a position in the general estimation,
and every word which comes from your noble pen is received
by European democracy with such complete and deserved
confidence, that I cannot keep silent in a matter that
touches upon my deepest convictions. I cannot leave
unanswered the description of the Russian people which you
have [recently published].
This answer is necessary for another reason also. The
time has come to show Europe that when they now speak about
Russia they are not speaking of something absent, far away,
deaf and dumb.
We who have left Russia only that free Russian speech may
at last be heard in Europe...deem it our duty to raise our
voice when a man wielding a great, well deserved authority
has said that he . . . "will prove that Russia does not
exist, that Russians are not men, that they are devoid of
Do you mean by this official Russia, the fašade-Tsardom,
the Byzantine-German Government? Then we agree beforehand
with everything you will tell us; it is not for us to play
the part of defender. The Russian government has so many
literary agents in the press of Paris that it will never
lack for eloquent apologies.
But it is not official society alone that is dealt with
in your work; you have stirred the question to its lowest
depths: you have spoken of the people.
Poor Russian people! There is no one to raise a voice in
its favor! . . .
The Russian people does exist, Monsieur. . . .
The past of the Russian people is obscure, its present is
frightening, but it has nevertheless some claims on the
future. It does not believe in its present situation;
it has the temerity to hope, and it hopes the more, the less
The most difficult period for the Russian people is
drawing to its close. A frightful conflict awaits it; its
enemy is making ready.
The great question, "to be or not to be," will soon be
decided for Russia, but one has no right to despair of the
result before the fight has begun.
The Russian question is assuming dimensions which are
grave and disturbing; it is the object of intense
preoccupation to all parties; but I think that too much
attention is paid to the Russia of the Tsar, to official
Russia, and too little to the Russia of the people, to
hidden Russia. . . .
Through his horror of private property in land . . .
through his listless, careless temperament, the Russian
peasant . . . has seen himself gradually and silently caught
in the toils of the German bureaucracy and of the
landowners' power. He has submitted to this humiliating yoke
with the resignation of despair . . . but he has never
believed in either the rights of landowner, the justice
of the law-courts, or the fair dealing of the
administration. For nearly two hundred years the peasant's
whole life has been nothing but a dumb, passive opposition
to the existing order of things. He submits to oppression,
he endures it, but he dips his hand in nothing that goes on
outside the village communes.
The idea of the Tsar still enjoys prestige among the
peasants; [but] it is not the Tsar Nicholas that the people
venerates; it is an abstract idea, a myth, a providence, an
avenger, a representative of justice in the people's
imagination. . . .
Apart from the Tsar and the clergy every element of
government and society is utterly alien, essentially
antagonistic to the people. The peasant finds himself in the
literal sense of the word an outlaw. . . .
To understand the Russian peasant's position fully you
must have seen him in the law-courts . . .[where] he is
[like] a civilian prisoner of war before a court-martial,
[or] a traveler facing a gang of brigands. From the first
glance it is clear that the victim has not the slightest
trust in the hostile, pitiless, implacable creatures who are
questioning, tormenting and fleecing him. He knows that if
he has money he will be acquitted; if not, he will be
condemned without respite. . . .
The life of the Russian peasantry has hitherto been
confined to the commune. It is only in relation to the
commune and its members that the peasant recognizes that he
has rights and duties. Outside the commune he recognizes no
duties and everything seems to him to be based upon
violence. The baneful side of his nature is his submitting
to that violence, and not his refusing in his own way to
recognize it and his trying to protect himself by guile. . .
. The people respect only those institutions which reflect
their innate conception of law and right.
This is a fact which no one who has been in close contact
with the Russian peasantry can doubt. The peasants rarely
cheat each other. An almost boundless good faith prevails
among them; they know nothing of contracts and written
agreements. . . .
The Russian peasant has no morality except what
naturally, instinctively flows from his communism; this
morality is deeply rooted in the people; the little they
know of the Gospel supports it; the flagrant injustice of
the government and the landowner binds the peasant still
more closely to his customs and to his commune.
The commune has saved the man of the people from Mongol
barbarism and civilizing Tsarism, from the landlords with a
veneer of Europe and from German bureaucracy. The communal
system, though it has suffered violent attacks, has stood
firm . . . it has successfully survived up to the
development of socialism in Europe.
This is a providential fact for Russia. . . .
[Tsarism now] governs [only] in order to govern: its
immense powers are employed to . . . win a factitious
repose. But autocracy for the sake of autocracy in the end
becomes impossible; it is too absurd, too barren. . . .
The party of progress demands the emancipation of the
peasants; it is ready to be the first to sacrifice its own
privileges. The Tsar hovers, undecided; he loses his head:
he desires emancipation and puts hindrances in its way. He
has grasped that freeing the peasants involves freeing the
land; that this in turn would be the beginning of a social
revolution, [which] would sanction rural communism. . . .
[H]ow fortunate it is for Russia that the village commune
has not been dissolved, that personal ownership has not
split up the property of the commune; how fortunate it is
for the Russian people that it has remained outside all
political movements, even outside European civilization,
which would necessarily have undermined the commune, and
which to-day is itself reaching by means of socialism its
Europe . . . has not solved the antimony between the
individual and the State, but has . . . [posed] the problem.
Russia has not found the solution either. It is in the face
of this problem that our equality begins.
At the first step towards the social revolution Europe is
confronted with this people which presents itself with a
solution . . . that of the continual sharing out of the land
among its cultivators. And . . . this great example is not
given by educated Russia, but actually by the people itself,
by its inner life. We Russians who have passed through
European civilization are no more than a means, a leaven,
interpreters between the Russian people and revolutionary
Europe. The man of the coming Russia is the muzhik
[peasant], just as in regenerated France it will be the
workman. . . .
Russia will not make a revolution with the sole aim of
getting rid of the Tsar Nicholas and gaining, as the prize
of victory, other Tsars: parliamentary representatives,
judges, police officials and laws. We are asking for too
much, perhaps, and shall achieve nothing. That may be so,
but yet we do not despair; before the year 1848 Russia could
not, and should not, have entered the phase of revolution;
she had only her education to get, and she is getting it at
this moment. The Tsar himself perceives it, so he bludgeons
the universities, ideas, the sciences; he is striving to
isolate Russia from Europe, to kill culture. He is
practicing his vocation. . . .
[W]e must not have blind faith in the future. . . . The
future of Russia does not depend upon her alone but is bound
up with the future of the whole of Europe. . . .