Copyright © 1998 Elaine Feinstein. All rights reserved.
The visible symbol of Imperial Russia was St Petersburg itself,built on marshy, frozen wastes at the edge of the Baltic in theearly eighteenth century. It was the location chosen by Peter theGreat as his window on to Europe, mainly because Peter hated Moscow,the ancient Russian capital, for its backwardness, crooked streets andmurderous rebellions. He intended his city to have architecture of classicalproportions, with broad streets, open, clean and eminently easy topolice. The lives of innumerable peasants, soldiers, convicts and prisonersof war were sacrificed to that ambition. In sunshine, St Petersburg is oneof the most glittering cities on the face of the earth, yet even at the timeof its creation Peter's first wife put a curse upon it, and it remains at themercy of floods to this day. As Nikolay Karamzin, the great historianwhose life was in part contemporary to Pushkin, remarked, `Petersburgis founded on tears and corpses.'
The Court in St Petersburg, however, with its brocade coats fromFrance, lace ruffles from the Netherlands and buckled shoes fromEngland, was as splendid as any in Europe. The splendour concealed theviolence that held the autocracy in place. Peter had declared his intentionto break with the Asiatic barbarism of Moscow, but he used torture toimpose his will, and sometimes even took part in person. Offenders wereburned with hot irons, broken on the rack and had their tongues tornout. Peter had his own son, Alexis, tortured to death for alleged treason.The man whose `will founded the city beneath the sea' unquestionablywanted to make Russia great. He founded an Academy of Sciences, aRussian public museum, a library and the first newspaper. He wasphysically inexhaustible and immensely gifted. However, the bulk of thepopulation of his empire lived in poverty and illiteracy. Most of hispeople were peasants, and throughout the eighteenth century almost allof these were either serfs of private landowners or in bondage to thestate. There was no bourgeoisie of a Western European kind. Very fewRussians lived in towns, and of those who did most were desperatelypoor. Merchants depended on the patronage of the nobility, and hadlittle opportunity for enterprise of their own. Bureaucrats were either ofnoble origin or ennobled on gaining high position, and there were veryfew intellectuals. All power lay in the Tsar, and the noblest officers ofthe land gained their power only from the confidence of the Emperor.
Tyranny was easy to justify by the danger of rebellion, which was realenough. Weak rulers, such as those who succeeded Peter the Great, weremurderously deposed in a series of palace coups, usually instigated byfavourites with the support of the Guards regiments. Even Catherine II(r. 1762-96) who had come to power with the intention of reformingthe condition of the peasants, gave up all idea of radical reform afterthe great peasant uprising (1773-5) under the Don Cossack EmelyanPugachev. In any case, Catherine was less liberal than Western admirers,who knew of her correspondence with Voltaire, liked to believe. Notonly did she extend Russia's Imperial rule over several neighbouringpeoples, she enacted a system of laws which put well over half thepopulation of Russia in bondage to their owners. In Western Europethere had been no serfdom since the Middle Ages, and by the lastquarter of the eighteenth century ideals of self-government and individualfreedom had led to the establishment of the United States, a revolutionin France and constitutional monarchy in Great Britain. Catherinewanted no such ideas to gain currency inside her own empire. In 1790Aleksander Radishchev, who denounced the moral evils of serfdom in`A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow' was sent to Siberia in chainsfor beliefs Catherine might once have praised for their compassion.Pushkin knew the skills she used and wrote of her: `If ruling meansknowing human weakness and using it, then Catherine deserves the aweof posterity.' Neither then nor in Pushkin's time were her sexual appetites,any more than those of later rulers, regarded other than indulgently byher Russian subjects.
The power of Imperial Russia was at its height when AlexanderSergeevich Pushkin was born in the last year of the eighteenth century,three years after Catherine's reign ended, during the short rule (1796-1801)of her son Paul I. As a Grand Duke, Paul had run his own estatewith a private army dressed in Prussian uniform. As a Tsar, Paul becamedangerously capricious. His closest advisors, even his wife and the mistresswho adored him, all fell under Paul's suspicion. Some idea of hisneed to impose formal respect can be gained from Pushkin's story thatwhen Paul met him as a year-old child in his pram, the Tsar reproachedhis nurse for not seeing that his cap was doffed in respect. It was saidPaul peered anxiously at sentinels to make certain the guards had notbeen changed without his instructions. It was in this mood that hefortified the Mikhaylovsky Palace in St Petersburg and took up residencethere on 13 February 1801, but his fears did not preserve him. CountPeter von Pahlen joined with several other officers to remove Paul forciblyfrom the throne and install his son, Alexander, who was thought tohave liberal sympathies. Alexander was forewarned of the conspirators'intentions and assured that no harm would come to his father, but inthe event Paul was strangled during the attempt to put him underarrest.
Born under Paul I, Pushkin lived more than the first half of his lifeunder the rule of Tsar Alexander I, an altogether more complex characterthan his father. Alexander's accession to the throne was greeted withtears of joy and people embracing in the streets of the capital. Nor wastheir enthusiasm altogether misplaced. The early years of Alexander'sreign were relatively liberal; he was a dreamer with blue eyes, whoseprincipal tutor as a child had been the Swiss Cesar Laharpe. Alexanderbegan his rule with a genuine hatred of despotism, and at first turned foradvice to Mikhail Speransky, a thinker dedicated to removing socialinjustices.
Internal affairs, however, were not Alexander's only problem. After aseries of military defeats he had to sue for peace with Napoleon on araft on the river Niemen at Tilsit in 1807. The French invasion of 1812aroused a great wave of patriotic indignation among the Russian people,though Westernisers among the aristocratic elite had been very sympatheticto French political aspirations. The invasion led to slaughterwithout parallel in the history of warfare. As seen by Tolstoy in War andPeace, the military commander Kutuzov encouraged the French army toadvance far into Russia, and even allowed Moscow to burn so thatwinter would destroy Napoleon's troops. Certainly Alexander made littlecontribution to such military decisions throughout the war he soughtcomfort in reading the Scriptures, praying the while to be forgiven forhis own complicity in the deposition of his father.
After the victory against Napoleon there was a brief upsurge of hopefor some improvement of Russian society, but Alexander had by thistime turned away from any concern with temporal change towards theChurch and reactionary clerical mystics. He brought Count AlekseyArakcheev, whom he had met while still a child on his father's estate atGatchina, back into power. Arakcheev was a man described by Pushkinas `without wit, without feelings, without honour'. Arakcheev hadsmall, cold eyes, a reputation for cruelty and a belief that Russia neededto be controlled with brutality. Another man of extremely conservativeviews, Admiral Shishkov, was made both Minister of Education and headof the Censorship Department. It was in response to this disappointingreversal of policy that secret societies began to be formed to work forsome measure of reform, and it was Alexander's unexpected deathat Taganrog that gave an opportunity for an uprising in favour ofconstitutional government on 14 December 1826. It was an uprisingwhich had been dreamed about for a decade, but in the event was bothspontaneous and ill organised. The rebels on Senate Square were putdown with great ruthlessness by Alexander's brother, Nicholas I, whoset up the notoriously oppressive Third Department under General AlexanderBenckendorf to control any other stirrings of revolt among theintelligentsia. The rising of those who came to be called Decembrists wasthe single most important political event in Pushkin's short life, thoughaccident prevented him taking any part in it.
In Pushkin's lifetime St Petersburg was pre-eminently a city of balls,display and pride in rank. It took little account of artists of any kind, oreven ancient lineage unless accompanied by wealth. When, some twentyyears after Pushkin's death, the composer Glinka left St Petersburg forever in 1856, he got out of his carriage and spat on the ground that hadnever given him his due. It was not a rejection Pushkin was ever privilegedto make.