Russia And The Duma

There is at least one man in Russia who has reason to feel that his political judgment has been vindicated and his predictions verified by the assembling of the duma. It is Count Ignatieff, who, at the age of twenty-eight, framed the Pekin treaty and who, as minister of the interior (the highest cabinet position at that time), in 1881 formulated a plan for a national assembly. His scheme was to have three thousand representatives elected by the people, these representatives, gathered from all parts of the empire, to meet at Moscow and confer with the emperor in person in regard to legislative measures. In order to avoid the objections raised to so large an assembly, he proposed to divide the body into groups of one hundred, each, these groups to meet separately. He secured the approval of the emperor, but the other members of the cabinet were so strenuous in their opposition that the emperor decided not to attempt the reform and Count Ignatieff resigned from the ministry. He warned his associates that a failure to recognize the demands of the people for representation in the government would simply delay the change and that it was better to yield before the demands became more radical; but the members of the bureaucracy, deaf to the appeals of the people and blind to their own interests, resisted, and as a result a duma is now in session at St. Petersburg, the bureaucracy finds itself an object of contempt and loathing, and the present emperor, like his predecessor, has to bear the sins of his advisers.

I called upon Count Ignatieff and found him still vigorous in spite of his grey hairs and advancing years. I was interested in him not only because he is friendly toward our country and speaks our language fluently, but more especially because he was a pioneer in a great movement and foresaw what many of the nobility even now fail to recognize, viz., that there is no place where arbitrary power can justify its existence. The tide of progress has swept past the Count, and he is now classed among the conservatives, but he deserves to be remembered because ‘he had the courage to speak out when it required bravery to propose the taking of a step in the direction of popular government.

The duma is the result of the labors of hundreds, yes, thousands of Russian reformers, a few conspicuous, but the most of them ‘ unknown to fame, who for more than seventy-five years have been insisting upon constitutional government. It is one of the most remarkable bodies of men ever convened in a national capital, and I have been abundantly repaid for coming here. The duma must be seen to be appreciated; even more, to understand it one must not only see the members, but must know something of the struggle through which they have passed. I am satisfied that the czar himself is more liberal than his advisers and that, left to himself, he would long ago have made concessions w h i c h would have brought the throne and the subjects nearer together, but he has yielded so slowly and given so grudgingly that the people have become very much estranged. To illustrate this I need only cite the facts, first – as to the election. St. Petersburg and Moscow are the political centers where the officials and. the nobility have the strongest representation, and yet in the elections the constitutional democrats won an overwhelming victory in both these cities. In St. Petersburg the ticket which represented the emperor received only two thousand votes out of a total vote of sixty thousand, and in his home precinct, where three hundred voters were sent to the polls in court carriages, his ticket received only eighty votes ! Could anything more clearly prove the frail hold of the government upon the people? And it must be remembered that they do not have universal suffrage in the cities, but a property qualification which excludes the poorest of the people, the very ones who have most reason to desire popular government.

The second proof of the feeling against the government is to be found in the unanimity with which the duma opposes the position taken by the government’s minister. While the members of the duma are divided among themselves on many questions, they act as one man in their opposition to the government’s policy, insofar as that policy has been outlined. In fact, the tension has been so great that I was afraid the body might be dissolved by imperial order before we could reach St. Petersburg.

The sessions of the duma are held in a palace built by Catherine the Great for one of her favorites, General Potemkin. It is a commodious building and has been remodeled to meet present needs. The largest room, extending the entire width of the building, was once the ballroom and some notable entertainments have been given in. it —entertainments calling for a lavish expenditure and attended only by the nobility; now the room serves as a lobby, and peasant representatives, wearing the usual blouse and top boots, stride through it as they go to and from the sessions. In another part of the building there are ample dining rooms where the members of the duma and the press may secure meals at very moderate rates. The assembly hall is large enough to accommodate the four hundred and fifty members, but is badly lighted. The windows are all back of the speaker’s platform, so that the members sit with their faces towards the light. It would be much better if the light came from above, but it is really surprising that the accommodations are as satisfactory as they are, considering the short time the workmen had to make the necessary changes.

Back of the president is a life-sized painting of the czar in uniform; on the left is a box occupied by the ministers when present, and beyond the ministers is a still larger enclosure occupied by the representatives of the foreign press. To the right of the president are seats for members of the council of empire who may be in attendance, and beyond them the enclosure occupied by representatives of the Russian press. Just in front and a little below the president’s desk is the rostrum from which the members of the duma address the assembly, and just below this rostrum is the reporters’ table where the stenographers take down the proceedings. Besides the rooms already mentioned there are committee rooms, cloak rooms, rooms for the home press and for the foreign press, etc., etc. In a word, the duma building looks very much like an American legislative hall or a European parliament building—a likeness still further emphasized by the presence of men and women clerks, doorkeepers, pages and spectators. One thing only was out of harmony with a legislative body, and that was a company of soldiers stationed in a wing of the building as if in anticipation of possible trouble. We were present at two sessions of the duma and found them intensely interesting. The morning session is at present given up to speeches on the land question, more than a third of the members having expressed a desire to be heard on this subject. The speeches are usually short and often read from manuscript. Hand-clapping is allowed, and there was always applause at the close of the speeches. Occasionally the president announced that some speaker on the list surrendered his time and this statement also brought forth applause, the discussion of the subject having by this time become tiresome.

By the courtesy of our ambassador, Mr. Meyer, we were admitted to the diplomatic gallery, from which we could survey the entire body. There is probably no assembly like it on either hemisphere. It is made up of all classes and represents every shade of opinion. There are members of the nobility who have cast in their lot with the people, lawyers who have temporarily left their practice to devote themselves to the larger interests of the public, professors fresh from the universities, business men from the cities, laboring men from the factories, and there are, most numerous still, peasants from the farms. Some of the members are near the end of life and command attention by their years as well as by their words, and there is a sprinkling of young men who have become the spokesmen of their communities, but the majority are middle-aged men who have years of experience behind them, and are yet strong for the battle. In garb there is also great variety, the black frock coat, the business suit, the belted blouse, and the clerical robe are all to be seen. The smooth face seems to be at a discount in Russia; one would suppose, so plentiful are whiskers, that the barbers were on a strike. There are many heavy heads of hair, too, sometimes the locks falling to the shoulders, sometimes cut square about the ears.

The lobby is a better place than the gallery to study features; sitting on, one of the visitors’ seats in this commodious hall we watched the members passing to and fro and were introduced to a number of them by the American newspaper men who are reporting the proceedings for the press of our country. There are also a number of Americans here studying the Russian situation as a preparation for university work at home, a son of the late Dr. Harper of Chicago being one of these. I shall send with this article a number of photographs of the more prominent members, but I regret that I cannot bring before my readers some of the faces that we observed in the lobby, faces which seemed to present an epitome of Russian history—strong, firm, unyielding faces which plainly tell of the stern resolve that lies behind the peasant movement. They may protest, like Mark Antony, that they have neither “wit nor words nor worth, action, nor utterance nor the power of speech to stir men’s blood,” but they can “put a tongue in every wound” of their countrymen that will almost “move the stones to rise and mutiny.”

This is the first duma, and it has not proceeded far enough to fully develop the permanent leaders, but, if I may use the simile, as the basket of pebbles is shaken by debate, the large ones are gradually rising to the top. The president of the duma is Prof. Serge Murmetseff, of Moscow, whose learning and judicial temperament combined to make him the choice of the several parties; no one of which can claim a majority. The constitutional democrats have the largest membership and are the best organized. They also have the advantage of occupying the middle ground between the radicals and the conservatives. Having about one hundred and fifty members on their rolls and some thirty more acting with them, they can count upon enough votes from the more conservative elements to defeat the extreme radicals, and they can rely upon enough radical votes to carry out their program. The floor leader of this party is Vladimir D. Nabokoff, of St. Petersburg, a member of a prominent family and himself until recently an instructor in the national law school. He is about thirty-eight years of age, intelligent and alert, and has the confidence of his party. The orator of the constitutional democrats is Theodore I. Rodicheff, a scholarly looking man of fifty. He is polished in manner and persuasive in speech. One of the most influential of the constitutional democrats is Mr. Maxim Winawer, a Jewish lawyer of the capital. He is sometimes described as the “brains” of the party and is credited with drafting the duma’s reply to the address from the throne. He is one of the ablest civil lawyers in the empire and his election from St. Petersburg, where there are but three thousand Jewish voters, out of a total vote of sixty thousand, and his elevation to the vice-presidency of the national organization of his party, would seem to answer the charge that there is widespread hostility to the Jews among the people.

Nabokoff, Rodicheff and Winawer are members of the duma and are, therefore, prominently before the public at this time, but in popularity they have a rival in the person of Paul I. Miliukoff, editor of the “Retch.” (The government would probably put a. “W” before the “R” and give the word its English meaning, but in Russian the word Retch means speech.) Mr. Miliukoff, it will be remembered, was one of the candidates of his party in St. Petersburg, but the government compelled the substitution of another name because he was awaiting trial for an alleged violation of the press laws. He was acquitted soon afterward and is one of the moving spirits in the present parliamentary struggle. He speaks excellent English and has lectured in the United States. No one need despair of reform in Russia while such a man as Miliukoff devotes his great ability to journalism.

Next to the, constitutional democrats, the members of the “group of toil” form the largest party. There are about a hundred of these, and Alexis G. Aladin is their leader. He is even younger than Nabokoff, but has already shown himself to be a man of force and originality.

Count Heyden is the leader of the conservative element, if there is a conservative element in the duma. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe him as the spokesman for the least radical group, for all the members of the duma are reformers, differing only as to the extent of the changes and the speed with which they shall be made. He was once considered radical, but he has wit moved as rapidly as public sentiment. Count Heyden bears quite a resemblance to Uncle Sam as he is pictured in the newspapers. I have spoken somewhat at length of the leaders in order to show that while the grievances of the peasants and laborers are at the bottom of the movement, all classes are enlisted in the effort to establish constitutional government.

The afternoon sessions are generally lively, for it is at this time that the ministers make their reports, offer their measures and answer the questions propounded by the members. The session which we attended was no exception to the rule. The house was full, the galleries crowded and the newspapers fully represented. There were more than forty Russian writers in their corner and not less than fifty of the foreign press in theirs. When the representative of the war department, replying to a question concerning some recent military executions, declared that the minister of war was powerless to overrule the generals, there were shouts of “Murderer!” “Assassin!” “Dog!” and other equally uncomplimentary epithets.

One of the demands made by the duma is for the abolition of the death penalty. This might seem a very radical measure to us, but the conditions are quite different in Russia. Here there is no assurance of an impartial trial, and torture is resorted to to force an admission of guilt. Only recently three persons were found to be innocent after they had been tortured and. put to death. The members of the duma feel that the only security to the people is in the entire abolition of the death penalty, for while those who are falsely accused still live, there is a chance to rescue them. In this respect exile, hateful as it is, has its advantages ; I met a member of the duma who was returned from exile by the government upon the demand of the duma. In the torturing of prisoners for the purpose of extorting a confession Russia is even behind China, bad as China is, for in the latter nation it has been abolished, except where one is charged with murder, and is only permitted then after the guilt of the accused has been established by other evidence.

There are a number of important measures which are very little discussed in the duma because they are certain to receive the approval of the government; one of these provides for universal education. The program of the duma also includes legislation guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, protection for the Jews and local self-government for the Polish portion of Russia. As the women have taken an active part in the agitation for constitutional reform, all of the parties are committed to woman’s suffrage.

Just now the land question is paramount. About one-third of the entire acreage of land in the empire is in the hands of the czar, the government and the nobility, and the peasants demand that it shall be turned over to them. At this time they are willing to have compensation made to the owners, but the more they think about it and the more vehement their demand becomes, the less they are likely to consider compensation. There is no doubt that there are enough cases of injustice and contemptuous indifference to their needs to arouse resentment among the peasants, if we take human nature as we find it. They tell of instances where whole villages have been compelled to pay toll, generation after generation, for the privilege of crossing some nobleman’s land to reach the land farmed in common by the people of the village. Powerless to condemn land for roads, as it can be done in other countries, they have grown more embittered year by year until some of them feel that patience has ceased to be a virtue. It is now intimated that the government will offer a partial distribution of land as a compromise.

The opponents of expropriation seek shelter behind the excuse that the peasants -attack the principle of private ownership. While it is true that there are socialists in the duma who prefer communal holdings to private ownership, the object of the peasants is not to dispossess small holders, but simply to give the peasants access to the large estates. The situation resembles, in some respects, the situation in Ireland, except that in Russia the land is to be turned over to the communities. I made some inquiry regarding the question of joint ownership and learned from one of the best informed men in Russia that there is a growing sentiment in favor of individual ownership. Ownership in common does not give to each individual that stimulus to improve his land, which is the important element in individual ownership. In riding through a country one can distinguish with considerable accuracy between the farms cultivated by their owners and those cultivated by tenants, because the tenants, as a rule, are unwilling to make permanent improvements. One Russian economist estimates the income from the owned lands of Russia at thirty per cent above the income of the same area of communal lands. He attributes it to the ability of the land owners to supply themselves with proper tools and to furnish or borrow at low rates the money needed for cultivation, but it is possible that this difference may be in part due to the fact that ownership makes the incentive to labor greater, and offers a richer reward to superior effort.

There is an upper house, or council of empire as it is called, which shares the legislative power with the duma, but it does not receive much attention because its composition is such that it cannot reflect public sentiment, and cannot oppose the will of the people except at the risk of its existence. Half of the members of this council are appointed by the emperor and the other half elected by different interests. The nobility elect some, the universities some and the zemstows some.

The duma does not recognize the council of empire as a co-ordinate branch of the government and will not be slow to express itself in favor of a radical change in the method of selecting the members of this upper house, or even its abolition, if it stands in the way of measures which have a large majority in the duma.

What will be the outcome in Russia? A Russian would hardly venture a prediction, and for an outsider, prophecy is even more hazardous. The situation could scarcely be more complicated. Generations of misrule have brought an accumulation of questions, all pressing for solution. The duma. wants a great many things done and wants them done at once, while the government, if it remains under the influences of the bureaucracy, will give as little as possible. So far, the government has been unfortunate in that it has delayed making concessions until still greater concessions were demanded. The program of the present ministry has been so completely repudiated that the emperor may find it easier to appoint a new ministry than to humiliate the present one by compelling it to propose what it has heretofore refused. If a new ministry is formed and the duma is consulted about its personnel, Ivan Petrunkevich will probably be the premier. He is a member of the duma and the head of the parliamentary organization of the constitutional democrats. He has already proposed a constitution to Nicholas II. If the duma is disregarded and a ministry formed from the emperor’s present advisers, it will at least be more liberal than the one now in office.

The duma is a permanent institution; it could not be’ abolished by imperial decree without endangering the crown itself, and it cannot be dissolved or prorogued with safety. The government must, therefore, treat with the duma and agree with such compromises as may be necessary to maintain peace between the executive and the people. The officials, too, are learning from the duma something about the science of government. When there was no one to speak for the people, the czar could claim to voice their sentiments. He can claim this no longer. When the people were denied a hearing, the officials could deny that the people desired reforms, but the officials cannot put their unsupported opinions against a unanimous duma. The elections have shown how insignificant a support the government has among its subjects, and these figures contain a warning, which even the bureaucracy cannot entirely disregard. Does the government rely upon the army? The soldiers are drawn from the people and serve for three years, a half million raw recruits being enlisted each year.

Is it possible that they can be different in sentiment from their fathers and brothers? In three years the Russian army will be made up of men in hearty accord with those who speak through ‘the duma. With-out an army to rely upon, what answer can the bureaucracy make to the legislature?

The czar has already suffered much at the hands of his advisers ; he is no longer the idol he was, and reverence for the Church has abated somewhat, as reverence for him, its temporal head, has decreased. What can he do? There is but one course open to him. He asked the people what they wanted and they have told him. As he cannot doubt that they have told him the truth, he must either accept their answer or confess that he does not intend to consider their wishes. If he would appoint a new ministry, propose a measure guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, recommend an agricultural bank to protect the peasants from the small money lenders, recall the exiles, release political prisoners and invite the leaders of the duma to confer with the ministry in regard to the land question, he would be restored to the affection of his subjects and have no reason to fear bomb-throwers or hostile criticism. He would find a hundred and thirty millions of loyal subjects a much stronger bodyguard than a few hired soldiers. His position is a difficult one because his environ-ment is unfriendly to the masses, but having burned the bridges behind him, he must go forward.

Russia is not decaying. She has extent of territory, abundant natural resources and an immense population. To be sure, ‘a majority of her people were serfs until a generation ago, but there is no race distinction between the nobility and the peasant, and with education the extremes of society are being drawn closer together. That Russia has a great future is not open to doubt. What experiences she may pass ‘through before she emerges a free, self-governing and prosperous nation no one is wise enough to foresee, but the people who have sacrificed as much for liberty as have the Russian patriots have in them the material of which mighty nations are made. The duma is ready to do its part ; will the government rise to the occasion? Time alone can tell.