EXCERPT FROM ALEKSANDR RADISHCHEV, A JOURNEY FROM ST. PETERSBURG TO MOSCOW (1790)
[Catherine II ordered that this author, a member of the Russian gentry, be executed for “sedition” for writing this book. The sentence was later commuted to ten years’ exile in Siberia.]
... But, to return to our more immediate concern with the condition of the agriculturists, we find it most harmful to society. It is harmful because it prevents the increase of products and population, harmful by its example, and dangerous in the unrest it creates. Man, motivated by self-interest, undertakes that which may be to his immediate or later advantage, and avoids that from which he expects no present or future gain. Following this natural instinct, everything we do for our own sake, everything we do without compulsion, we do carefully, industriously, and well. On the other hand, all that we do not do freely, all that we do not do for our own advantage, we do carelessly, lazily, and all awry.
Thus we find the agriculturists in our country. The field is not their own, the fruit thereof does not belong to them. Hence they cultivate the land lazily and do not care whether it goes to waste because of their poor work. Compare this field with the one the haughty proprietor gives the worker for his own meager sustenance. The worker is unsparing in the labors which he spends on it. Nothing distracts him from his work. The savagery of the weather he overcomes bravely; the hours intended for rest he spends at work; he shuns pleasure even on the days set aside for it. For he looks after his own interest, works for himself, is his own master. Thus his field will give him an abundant harvest; while all the fruits of the work done on the proprietor's demesne will die or bear no future harvest; whereas they would grow and be ample for the sustenance of the citizens if the cultivation of the fields were done with loving care, if it were free.
But if forced labor brings smaller harvests, crops which fail to reach the goal of adequate production also stop the increase of the population. Where there is nothing to eat, there will soon be no eaters, for all will die from exhaustion. Thus the enslaved field, by giving an insufficient return, starves to death the citizens for whom nature had intended her superabundance. But this is not the only thing in slavery that interferes with abundant life. To insufficiency of food and clothing they have added work to the point of exhaustion. Add to this the spurns of arrogance and the abuse of power, even over man's tenderest sentiments, and you see with horror the pernicious effects of slavery, which differs from victory and conquest only by not allowing what victory cuts down to be born anew. But it causes even greater harm. It is easy to see that the one devastates accidentally and momentarily, the other destroys continuously over a long period of time; the one, when its onrush is over, puts an end to its ravages, the other only begins where the first ends, and cannot change except by upheavals which are always dangerous to its whole internal structure.
But nothing is more harmful than to see forever before one the partners in slavery, master and slave. On the one side there is born conceit, on the other, servile fear. There can be no bond between them other than force. And this, concentrated in a small range, extends its oppressive autocratic power everywhere. But the champions of slavery, who, though they hold the sharp edge of power in their hands, are themselves cast into fetters, become its most fanatical preachers. It appears that the spirit of freedom is so dried up in the slaves that they not only have no desire to end their sufferings, but cannot bear to see others free. They love their fetters, if it is possible for man to love his own ruination. I think I can see in them the serpent that wrought the fall of the first man. The examples of arbitrary power are infectious. We must confess that we ourselves, armed with the mace of courage and the law of nature for the crushing of the hundred-headed monster that gulps down the food prepared for the people's general sustenance-we ourselves, perhaps, have been misled into autocratic acts, and, although our intentions have always been good and have aimed at the general happiness, yet our arbitrary behavior cannot be justified by its usefulness. Therefore we now implore your forgiveness for our unintentional presumption.
Do you not know, dear fellow citizens, what destruction threatens us and in what peril we stand? All the hardened feelings of the slaves, not given vent by a kindly gesture of freedom, strengthen and intensify their inner longings. A stream that is barred in its course becomes more powerful in proportion to the opposition it meets. Once it has burst the dam, nothing can stem its flood. Such are our brothers whom we keep enchained. They are waiting for a favorable chance and time. The alarum bell rings. And the destructive force of bestiality breaks loose with terrifying speed. Round about us we shall see sword and poison. Death and fiery desolation will be the meed [reward] for our harshness and inhumanity. And the more procrastinating and stubborn we have been about the loosening of their fetters, the more violent they will be in their vengefulness. Bring back to your memory the events of former times. Recall how deception roused the slaves to destroy their masters. Enticed by a crude pretender, they hastened to follow him, and wished only to free themselves from the yoke of their masters; and in their ignorance they could think of no other means to do this than to kill their masters. They spared neither sex nor age. They sought more the joy of vengeance than the benefit of broken shackles.
This is what awaits us, this is what we must expect. Danger is steadily mounting, peril is already hovering over our heads. Time has already raised its scythe and is only awaiting an opportunity. The first demagogue or humanitarian who rises up to awaken the unfortunates will hasten the scythe's fierce sweep. Beware!
But if the terror of destruction and the danger of the loss of property can move those among you who are weak, shall we not be brave enough to overcome our prejudices, to suppress our selfishness, to free our brothers from the bonds of slavery, and to re-establish the natural equality of all? Knowing the disposition of your hearts, I am sure that you will be convinced more readily by arguments drawn from the human heart than by the calculations of selfish reason, and still less by fears of danger. Go, my dear ones, go to the dwellings of your brothers and proclaim to them the change in their lot. Proclaim with deep feeling: "Moved to pity by your fate, sympathizing with our fellow men, having come to recognize your equality, and convinced that our interests are mutual, we have come to embrace our brothers. We have abandoned the haughty discrimination which for so long a time has separated us from you, we have forgotten the inequality that has existed between us, we rejoice now in our mutual victory, and this day on which the shackles of our fellow citizens are broken shall become the most famous day in our annals. Forget our former injustice to you, and let us sincerely love one another."
Such will be your utterance; deep down in your hearts you already hear it. Do not delay, my dear ones. Time flies; our days go by and we do nothing. Let us not end our lives merely fostering good intentions which we have not been able to carry out. Let not our posterity take advantage of this, win our rightful crown of glory, and say contemptuously of us: "They had their day."
That is what I read in the mud-stained paper which I picked up in front of the post hut as I left my carriage.
Upon entering the hut I asked who were the travelers who had stopped there immediately before me. "The last traveler," the postilion told me, "was a man about fifty years old; according to his traveling permit he was going to Petersburg. He forgot and left a bundle of papers here, and I'm forwarding them to him right now." I asked the postilion to let me look through the papers, and, unfolding them, I discovered that the piece I had found belonged with them. By means of a good tip I persuaded him to let me have the papers. Upon examining them I found that they belonged to a dear friend of mine; hence I did not consider their acquisition a theft. Up to the present, he has never asked me to return them, but has left me free to do with them what I pleased.
While they were changing my horses, I examined with great interest the papers I had acquired. I found a large number of articles in the same vein as the one I had read. Everywhere I recognized the spirit of a charitable man; everywhere I saw a citizen of the future. It was clear above all else that my friend was deeply disturbed by the inequality of the estates. A whole bundle of papers and drafts of laws referred to the abolition of serfdom in Russia. But my friend, realizing that the supreme power was not strong enough to cope with a sudden change of opinions, had outlined a program of temporary legislation leading to a gradual emancipation of the agriculturists in Russia. I will sketch here the main lines of his scheme. The first law provides for the distinction between rural and domestic serfdom. The latter is abolished first of all, and the landlords are forbidden to take into their houses any peasant or anybody registered in the last census as a village dweller. If a landlord takes a peasant into his house as a servant or artisan, he at once becomes free. Peasants are to be allowed to marry without asking their masters' permission. Marriage license fees are prohibited. The second law has to do with the property and protection of the peasants. They shall own individually the plot that they cultivate, for they shall pay the head tax themselves. Property acquired by a peasant shall belong to him, and no one shall arbitrarily deprive him of it. The peasant is to be reinstated as a citizen. He shall be judged by his peers, that is, in courts in which manorial peasants, among others, are to be chosen to serve. The peasant shall be permitted to ac-quire real estate, that is, to buy land. He may without hindrance obtain his freedom by paying his master a fixed sum to release him. Arbitrary punishment without due process of law is prohibited. "Avaunt, barbarous custom; perish, power of the tigers!" says our legislator. -Thereupon follows the complete abolition of serfdom.