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In the reign of Alexander the Second a certain reformer, scandalised by the tone and frequency of this filthy expression, set about to petition the Tsar to make the use of it a misdemeanour, punishable by law. He secured thousands of signatures to his petition, and being granted an audinece by the good-natured Alexander laid the document before him. The Tsar read it to the end sympathetically, declared that the reformer had done a noble work in devoting his energies to the suppression of bad language, and announced his intention of countersigning the petition, and making it a law that the use of that particular expression in Russia should henceforward be an indictable offence. The reformer was overjoyed at the success of his petition, and the Tsar took up his pen to sign the immortal document. But, alas ! the pen was a bad one, and Alexander the Second, losing his temper, dashed it to the floor, using the very expression which he had intended to make illegal. So the petition remained unsigned by the Tsar, and to this day there is no law in Russia against the use of the offending phrase. And the reformer, when he thinks of the pen of Alexander the Second, still uses the expression himself. I have failed to find any records of this story in history, nor has it been published, I believe, in the columns of any British newspaper. But I can vouch for the truth of it.
Apart from the brutal treatment to which the soldier is subjected by his officers in the ordinary relations of life the military code provides all sorts of pains and penalties for lapses from discipline, which are stringently enforced. The knout plays an important part in maintaining order in the Tsar's forces—a form of punishment which is as degrading as it is cruel—but it is very popular with the official Russian mind. But, with a protest against flogging and the discreditable condition of the prisons in which military offenders are confined, I shall pass by the operation of military law in Russia, as I recognise the fact that in the maintenance of discipline in an army a special code is necessary and a strict enforcement of its provisions.
Every country has its corps d'élite-Guards, chasseurs, bersaglieri, Jäger—but no country gives a more prominent position to its
than Russia concedes to the Cossacks. This is the more remarkable inasmuch as the Cossacks are not really Russians, but the frontier tribes which Russia has absorbed. The explanation is to be found in the fact that the Russians proper are not a warlike nation. They serve in the army under compulsion and without enthusiasm, and they would very much prefer that the Cossacks should do all their fighting for them. On the other hand the Cossacks revel in fighting and in the congenial task of keeping order amongst the students, Jews, and other disturbing elements of the Tsar's peace. So the Cossack is given pride of place in the Russian army because he is a genuine fighting man, and because no peaceable Russian would dream of disputing his claims
The Cossack is a privileged person ; he has a special education and laws of his own. He also has his own customs, which are not very pleasing. From his early days he is taught that blood is the one thing needful. As a youngster he will attend at the slaughtering of animals, and run to catch the blood in his little wooden cup—and he drinks it. When he grows up his thirst for blood is insatiable; it is a practical, working thirst, and not a mere figure of speech. It is the craving of a carnivorous beast. The smell of blood affects him as it does the tiger, and his instinct guides him to the ‘kill. He is not particular as to the fountain from which he drinks. An ox or a pig will serve him ; but sometimes he flies at higher game. In Omsk a Cossack was arrested by the police for murdering a Persian pedlar. The Persian was what is known as a 'box wallah’in Anglo-India. He used to go round the town with a bundle of printed cottons for sale. The Cossack coveted the Persian's goods and his money, so he waylaid and murdered him. He confessed, when arrested, that he had cut the Persian's throat and drunk of his blood. I was present when he made the confession, and I came across a very similar case in Malo-Cherkass. It is a common report that in the war with Turkey the Cossacks practically lived on the blood of the Turks whom they had captured, until Alexander the Second got word of it and ordered the Cossack general to put a stop to the practice.
The British traveller in Russia who takes photographs, shakes hands with the Tsar, hobnobs with the official classes, and then returns to England and writes a book on Russia has never told his readers how the Russian officer passes his leisure hours. The enterprising ' Special Correspondent' of the Press who writes home interesting articles on the social and political condition of the country is also silent on this subject. With the intention of providing a journalist, whom I met in Moscow, with some excellent 'copy' for an article in his
paper I asked him to accompany me one evening to an establishment where I knew that we should meet a large number of army officers.
I took him to a big, four-storied mansion in the heart of the city, which might well have been the residence of a prince. The windows were of coloured glass, and the lights shining through them from behind reminded me of the stained glass windows of a church. A gorodovoi stood near the entrance and hastened to open the door as we approached, with his hand held out expectantly for a tip. An old man in a gorgeous livery met us in the hall and relieved us of our coats and hats. He then ushered us into the reception room, a spacious apartment with a waxed floor, and Turkish divans and little inlaid tables ranged round the walls. On the divans were in reclining women in costumes diaphanous and décolletés, who smoked cigarettes and drank champagne whilst they chatted with the men
beside them. Several girls rose and came towards us as we entered, and my journalist friend hung back.
* You need not mind the ladies,' I said. "They will be very pleased to see you. Here is the lady of the house,' as a large, middleaged woman came up. “You can call her “Matushka” without further ceremony.'
A man at the grand piano struck up a waltz. The bevy of fair women closed round my friend and bore himn off, and I was left alone with ‘Matushka.' I asked if she would show me round her magnificent house, and, taking me by the arm, she led me through the reception room, where officers of all ranks in uniform were dancing with the women or sitting with them on their knees on the low divans. Before we had reached the door I felt a tap on my shoulder, and, looking round, found my journalist with a troubled expression on his face. A misfortune had befallen him, he explained. Being unable to speak Russian he had contented himself with answering ‘Yes, yes' to everything that his fair companions said, and as a result he had been called upon to pay for six bottles of champagne at ten roubles a bottle, and he had not enough money with him to meet the demand. Fortunately I was able to help him out of his difficulty; and the lady of the house seeing me disburse sixty roubles for champagne became very attentive. She introduced me to many of the officers present, explaining to them that I was a fabulously rich foreigner, who had honoured her house with his presence; but she took care not to leave me alone with them.
You must be very rich yourself, Matushka,' I ventured, looking at the heavy velvet curtains and the gilded cornices.
'No, bareen, no!' she answered. There was a time when I used to make a lot of money. That was when a Courlandish regiment was quartered in Moscow. The officers could get plenty of money out of their men, but now they are only beggarly regiments who come here. Their officers can make nothing out of the soldiers, and they owe me thousands of roubles.'
A polkovnik (colonel), half-drunk and truculent, began abusing a civilian against whom he had lurched in his passing through the room.
'Oi, Loubva !' Matushka called to a pale, thin girl, with hectic red spots on her cheek bones and large, luminous eyes, 'stop that coughing and come and look after your polkovnik. He is quarrelling, as usual.'
The girl crammed her handkerchief into her mouth, and going up to the polkovnik laid a hand on his sleeve and led him away.
Ah, the poor polkovnik !' Matushka exclaimed sympathetically. 'He has the devil of a wife at home. Loubva is the only one who can manage him. He is like a child with her.'
At the far end of the room there was a crash. Two younkers were confronting each other across an overturned table with blazing
eyes and furious words. Matushka left my side and hurried to restore order. A girl sitting close to the two angry men was crying hysterically, and a pack of cards was scattered on the floor at her feet.
' He wasn't cheating-I swear he wasn't cheating !' she sobbed. And then Matushka's voice rang out harshly above the din.
'You don't come to my house to gamble. Before you lose your money to other people I wish you would pay me what you owe me.'
My friend came up to me. “I have had enough of this,' he said disgustedly. Let us go.'
As we were leaving the room we passed Loubva sitting on the knees of the polkovnik; she was still coughing, and there was blood on her handkerchief.
As we walked home together I ventured to suggest to the journalist that he might write a couple of columns for his paper on the events of the evening, giving full particulars of the rank and number of Russian officers whom he had seen, the manner in which they pass their time, and the sources from which they obtain their money; but he was not enthusiastic about it.
' Do you suppose that if I were to write such an article as you suggest my paper would publish it ?' he asked.
Why not? Surely you are sent here to report on things they are. Why should not your readers be told the whole truth ?'
'I am afraid you do not understand newspaper work,' he answered coldly. “The British public don't like to be told these things ; and, besides, the proprietor of my paper has lately entertained the Tsar in England. It would never do to write down the Russian officers. The manuscript would go straight into his waste-paper basket.'
The result of this mawkishness on the part of the British public, and of the disinclination of the Press to disturb the public peace of mind, is that very erroneous ideas of foreign manners and customs are formed by that intelligent being the Man in the Street.'
Only the other day the same journal which announced that Russian regiments sing on the march, as a proof of the happy disposition of the men, also stated that the Russian officer is a kind and obliging gentleman, polite, and anxious to please. I do not say that in Russia there are no officers possessed of the virtues which the journal attributes to them, but I will again fall back on an American for my answer. A famous American statesman was speaking in the Carnegie Hall, New York, in support of a Republican President. This is how he finished his speech :
'Well, ladies and gentlemen, I do not mean to say that the Republican party has no bad men-yes, a very few—nor do I mean that the Democratic party has no good men-yes, a very few.' '
I do not say that Russia has no kind and obliging and gentlemanly officers-yes, a very few !
There are in Great Britain to-day people who speak of the desirability of this country drawing into closer relations with Russia. Ignoring our alliance with Japan and the solemn obligations which that alliance imposes upon us in certain eventualities, these people clamour for å treaty with Russia, on the lines of the agreements lately concluded with France and other civilised nations of Europe. Apart from the rank disloyalty to our allies of such a suggestion, are these people aware of the present state of the Russian Empire ? Do they realise that she is governed by an autocrat whose word is not his bond ? Do they know anything of the ministers who act as the Tsar's advisers ? Can they record one creditable action on the part of the Russian Government within the past thirty years ? Until Japan shattered the feet of clay of the image Russia was the bogey of the British Empire. Now that our allies have pulled the scarecrow down and shown us that, if its feet are of clay, its head is nothing more than a hollow turnip, where is the advantage to us of making an alliance with a discredited bogey? The mere fact that the official Russian press (and the whole Russian press is virtually official) is clamouring for a better understanding with Great Britain should make even the most ardent apostle of peace sceptical. We heard nothing of this desire on the part of Russia for the friendship of Great Britain until she was humiliated by the Japanese ; but now, in her hour of trial, she throws pride to the winds and craves the good offices of a country whom she has thwarted at every turn.
The meaning of this perverted desire for friendship with Russia amongst certain people in this country must be due to one of two
Either they have a stake in the country-shares in oil fields or gold mines—or else they have been misled as to the true state of Russian affairs, social, political, and moral, by the books and writings of sycophantic travellers who have shaken hands with the Tsar and taken their facts from Russian official sources.
We may reasonably talk of an alliance with Russia when Russia has shown herself to be a civilised nation ; but until we have indisputable proofs that she is civilised Great Britain would do well to avoid all alliances and treaties with Russia.