TSARIST RUSSIA

Petr Yakovlevich Chaadaev

The repression was particularly tough in Russia, the second of Europe’s pre-eminent absolutist regimes. If Metternich cast Austria in the role of Central Europe’s policeman, then Tsar Nicholas I saw himself as gendarme for the entire continent. The Russian empire had been in his iron, autocratic grip since the death of Alexander I in 1825. He had founded the notorious Third Section, the secret police, an organisation which had a tiny number of officials, but which worked through the gendarmerie and a larger number of informants, who made as many as five thousand denunciations a year. The very existence of police spies created an atmosphere in which it took a brave soul to express dissent openly. One widely believed myth held that in one office of the Third Section headquarters in Saint Petersburg there was a trap door: during a seemingly innocuous conversation, a perfectly innocent individual summoned before the police officials could be lured into saying a minor indiscretion, whereupon a lever would be pulled and the victim would fall into a dungeon below to be subjected to all sorts of unspeakable horrors.

The real oppression was bad enough for those who dared to voice their thoughts too loudly. In 1836, when the liberal intellectual Petr Chaadaev lambasted Russia for its backwardness, he met the fate that would be shared by some twentieth-century Soviet dissidents: the government declared him insane and confined him to an asylum. Even (or perhaps, given his quick temper, especially) the great poet Pushkin had to tread carefully: he was tolerated because the Tsar liked his work, but even he was subjected to the occasional rap on the knuckles. Intellectuals and writers cautiously circulated their writings in manuscript among friends first, and only later approached publishers – if they approached them at all. The Tsarist regime did not only fear dissent from among Russia’s intellectuals, it was anxious – perhaps more justifiably – of the possibility of a mass uprising by the peasantry, twenty million of whom were serfs and who had risen up with startling vengeance in the past, most recently under the renegade Cossack Emilian Pugachev in the early 1770s. It also worried about opposition from the downtrodden subject nationalities of the Empire, especially the Poles, who bore their subjugation only between fits of rebelliousness.

Since 1795 the old Polish kingdom (except for the Napoleonic interlude of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, established in 1807), had been wiped off the map, partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria – and this was confirmed at the peace congress. The three ‘eastern monarchies’ therefore tried (in vain) to asphyxiate Polish nationalism under their combined weight.

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