A Voice for the Russian People
From Herzen, Alexander. "'"Alexander Herzen Defends the 'Hidden Russia.'" As reproduced in Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia, ed. James Cracraft (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1994), 329-335, 339-340.
Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) has been called the father of Russian socialism. Educated at Moscow University, and having subsequently traveled throughout Europe, Herzen was well acquainted with Western European intellectual, social, and political affairs. In this letter to the famous French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874), whose work he generally admired, Herzen responds to some derogatory remarks the Frenchman had made about the Russian people. Herzen not only sets out to correct what he considers to have been Michelet's superficial and misleading view of the Russian people, but suggests that the communist lifestyle and values of the uneducated peasants of his homeland provide a far superior model for society than does any other existing polity.
 
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 moral sense."

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 it possesses.

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 own negation.

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. . . .