Alexander Herzen
“Letter to Jules Michelet” [ID]

[SAC editor has inserted boldface and hypertext links]

The following letter has two parts.
(1) warning that proud Europe is not as sound as some seem to think
(2) a dreamy affirmation of the virtues of the village "commune" [obshchina]


We [...] consider it an obligation to raise our voice when a person who enjoys such enormous and deserved authority as you do affirms that "Russia does not exist, Russians are not people and they are devoid of moral sensibility." [...]

The Russian people, dear sir, are alive, healthy and even not very old, in fact, very young. People do die in youth, but this is not normal.

The past of the Russian people is dark and genuinely horrid. But they do have a right to a future. They do not believe in their current condition and they dare to expect more than the past has given to them.

The most difficult time for the Russian people is drawing to a close. A fearful struggle awaits them and their enemies are preparing for it.

The great question, "To be or not to be," soon will be decided for Russia. And we have no right to despair of success before the fight has begun.


Europe is approaching a terrible cataclysm. The medieval world is crumbling into ruins. The end of the feudal world is drawing near. Political and religious revolutions are flagging under the weight of their own impotence. They have accomplished great tings, but have not proved equal to their tasks. They have stripped the throne and the altar of their prestige, but have not realized the ideal of freedom. They have kindled in men's hearts desires which they are incapable of satisfying. Parliamentarism, Protestantism, are but stopgaps, temporary harbors, untenable bulwarks against death and resurrection. Their day is over. Since 1849 [ID] it has become evident that neither Roman law, nor subtle casuistry, nor threadbare philosophic deism, nor sterile religious rationalism, can retard the fulfillment of social destiny.


It is indeed a fearful question! Will old Europe have the strength to infuse new blood into its veins and fling itself headlong into the boundless future, to which it is being precipitously borne by an irresistible forced over the ruins of its ancestral home, the fragments of past civilizations, and the trampled treasures of modern culture?


In the midst of this chaos, of these death agonies and birth pains, in the midst of a world falling into dust at the foot of the cradle of the future, men's eyes involuntarily turn to the East.

Yonder ??

Some talk only about an almighty tsar, about governmental arbitrariness, about the slavish spirit on the part of those who are suppressed. Others affirm, to the contrary, that Petersburg imperialism is not indigenous, that the people, downtrodden by the dual despotism of government and landowners, bears its yoke but is not reconciled with it, that it is not destroyed, only unfortunate, but at the same time that this very people gives unity and force to the colossal tsarism which suppresses it. Others add that the Russian people is a contemptible rabble of drunks and swindlers; others affirm that Russia is populated by a capable and richly gifted native people.

Centralization is alien to the Slavic soul. Federalism is much more natural to its character. Only when it is combined into a union of free and autonomous nations will the Slavic world finally arrive at its true historical existence. Its past may be viewed only as birth, preparation, and cleansing. The historic state form in which the Slavs lived did not correspond to their inner national requirements, requirements that were unformed, instinctive, if you will, but nevertheless showing an extraordinary vitaliy and much promise for the future.

You continue: "The Russians lack the essential sign of humanity, a moral instinct, a sense of good and evil. Truth and justice have no meaning for them. When you speak about these things they are silent; they smile but they do not know what these words mean." And who are these Russians with whom you have spoken? What kinds of conceptions of truth and justice would seem incomprehensible to them? This is not a superfluous question.

Of what, finally, do you accuse the Russian people? What is the essence of your indictment? "Russians," you say, "lie and steal, they continually steal and continually lie and this in a completely naive way. This is their nature."

I will overlook the extreme character of your indictment, but I will raise just one simple question: whom do they deceive? whom do they defraud? Who else but the landowner, the bureaucrat, the administrator, the police -- in a word, the sworn enemies of the peasant, whom they consider to be infidels, apostates, and papists. When they have been robbed of all means of defense they mislead their tormentors and deceive them, and they are quite justified in doing this.

The naturally carefree and lazy Russian peasant, who has been alienated from personal ownership of land, as you correctly noted, has little by little been ensnared in the web of westernized bureaucracy and the power of the landowners. He has submitted to this dehumanizing evil obediently, but he does not trust the rules of the landowners nor the laws of the courts nor the legitimacy of the executive authority. He submits, he endures -- but this has nothing to do with anything that happens outside of the village commune.

The tsar’s name still arouses in the people a superstitious sympathy; the people do not do homage before Tsar Nicholas but before the abstract idea, the myth; in the national imagination the tsar represents an awesome protector, the quintessence of justice, and their earthly provider.

After the tsar only the clergy could have such influence upon Orthodox Russia. It alone represents old Rus in the spheres of government. The clergy does not shave and still remains on the side of the people. But monks and the higher clergy, who deal exclusively with the next life, care little about the people. And the lower clergy (parish priests) suffer the consequences of poverty, drunkenness and their close associations with the police. Here the people respect the idea, but not the person.

Except for the tsar and clergy, all elements of the state and higher society are completely alien and hostile to the people. The peasant finds himself, literally, outside the law. The court will not defend him and his entire participation in the existing order of things consists only in the taxes which weigh heavily upon him and which he pays by sweat and blood. Outcast by all, he understands instinctively that the entire administration is structured to his disadvantage, not to his benefit and that the task of the government and the landowners consists entirely of finding ways to wrest from him more labor, army recruits, and money. Since he understands this and he has a clever mind, he deceives them always and everywhere. It couldn’t be otherwise; if he spoke the truth he would be recognizing their authority over him; and if he did not defraud them then he would be recognizing the legitimacy of their demands, the rights of the landowners, and the justice of the courts.

It’s worth taking a look at the Russian peasant in court in order fully to understand his situation; it’s worth seeing his downcast face, his frightened appearance, in order to understand that he is a prisoner-of-war before a military council, a wayfarer confronted by a band of thieves.

The life of the Russian people hitherto has been confined to the commune. Only in relationship with the commune and its members does he recognize any rights and obligations. Outside the commune everything seems to him to be based upon compulsion. To lie to the judge seems more honest than to give hypocritical respect to his oath. The people respect only that in which they perceive their understanding of law and justice.

Anyone who is well acquainted with the Russian people knows for a certainty that the peasants rarely deceive each other. Among themselves almost unqualified trust reigns and they know nothing about written contracts or conditions. Questions concerning the drawing of land boundaries are necessarily very complex because of the infinite divisions of land on the basis of tax. But nevertheless business is handled without complaints and legal suits. Landowners and the state thirst for ways to interfere but they cannot find them. Petty disagreements are brought to the judgment of the elders or the commune and their decisions are accepted without question.

It is the same in the labor cooperatives. Cooperatives frequently comprise hundreds of workers, associated for a definite period, for example, a year. After a year the workers share the profits among themselves on the basis of the labor of each and by common agreement. The police never have the satisfaction of interfering in the accounting.

The bonds among the peasants are even closer when it comes not to Orthodox believers but to religious dissenters. From time to time the government carries out a wild assault upon some village of dissenters. Peasants are thrown into prison, exiled, without any reason, without any investigation, without any occasion or need except that the Orthodox clergy demands it and the police need something to do. During these attacks on the dissenters again the character of the Russian peasants is demonstrated, namely the solidarity that holds them together. It’s worth noting how they manage to deceive the police and save their brethren, hide their holy books and sacred vessels, and how they endure without complaint the worst torments.

Russian character traits make police investigations extremely difficult. It is impossible not to take heart from this. The Russian peasant has no morality except that which emerges instinctively, naturally from his communism. This morality is profoundly national.

The commune saved the Russian people from Mongol barbarism and from imperial civilization, from Europeanized landowners and from Germanized bureaucrats. The communal organization, even though it has been greatly shaken, has resisted the interference of authorities. It has happily survived until socialism has emerged in Europe. The people and the state have nothing in common; in the very least outburst from the people the government sees signs of the fearsome appearance of revolution. The only goal of tsarism remains tsarism. It rules in order to rule. Enormous energy is spent on suppression and on the preservation of an artificial order.

It is very fortunate for Russia that the peasant commune has not perished, that personal property has not replaced common property. It is very fortunate for the Russia people that it has remained outside all political movements and outside European civilization which, without doubt, would have destroyed the commune.