Russia is not only the largest but is also one of the flattest countries in Europe. An impression of its flatness is obtained from the statement that the projected canal to connect the Baltic and Black Seas would require only two locks, and yet be deep enough for the greatest vessels afloat. In this vast and monotonous land, where even a small hill seems imposing, the surface features are all on a big scale. There are great stretches of forest; the northern port of Archangel, for instance, draws supplies of timber from a forest as large as Ireland. There are immense marshes, wide barren areas, great stretches of fine pasture land, and of most fertile soil well cultivated.
Mighty rivers intersect the vast Russian plain. Europe's longest river is the Volga, which has a course of about 2400 miles, and pours its waters into the Caspian Sea through some seventy mouths. It is connected by canals with the Black, Baltic,
and Polar Seas. Steamers ply up and down it for hundreds of miles, and it can be navigated by barges to its source, a small lake situated to the east of the low Valdai hills. The construction of canals in connection with the rivers has done much to promote the agricultural and other industries. Russia has within its borders over 100,000 miles of navigable water-ways.
There are sharp changes of climate in the various areas and during the different seasons. Over the greater part of the country the winter is severe, and, of course, lasts longest in the north. When the snow melts in the Valdai hills, which form the chief watershed in Russia, the rivers are flooded and overflow their banks, just as the Nile overflows in Egypt, and large tracts of country lie under water for several weeks. The summer is hot and dry. At the northern port of Archangel, for instance, where the sea is frozen over for six months, the summer heat is much greater than in Great Britain, and the fish-curers of Archangel have to use refrigerators to store the fish. In the southern agricultural districts the crops often suffer from summer drought. This drawback, however, is being gradually overcome by the construction of irrigating canals, and it is calculated that, eventually, when the Russian rivers are con-trolled like the Nile, the annual yield of wheat will be doubled, if not trebled.
Southern Russia is rich in agricultural land. Northern Russia, a land of great forests, has poor
thin soil, except along the rivers. A line drawn across the country from the city of Kiev, on the river Dnieper, to that of Kazan on the Volga, will form roughly the border between the forest area and the agricultural area. To the south-east lie the sandy deserts and steppes round the Caspian Sea, where the climate is too dry for agriculture.
The Russians belong for the most part to that branch of the human race which is known as Slavonic. There are three main groups of Russian Slavs, the people of Great Russia, the people of White Russia, and the people of Little Russia. These differ from one another in dialect, and to a certain degree in appearance, just as the areas they occupy have different characteristics.
Little Russia, about twice the size of France, embraces chiefly the agricultural district of the south. Kiev is its principal town. Its climate is, on the whole, less extreme than in most other parts of Russia, the winter being more genial than in the central area. The inhabitants, sometimes called the "Black Russians", are taller and darker than those in the northern areas. They include the Cossacks.
White Russia extends from the boundaries of Poland in a north-eastern direction. It is a thinly-populated land of marshes and forests.
Great Russia, which embraces the larger part of central and eastern Russia, is entirely in the forest zone. About two-thirds of the Slav population
inhabit it. The people are, fairer than those of Little Russia, and they speak a distinct dialect of the Russian language, which resembles that of White Russia, but differs greatly from the speech of Little Russia. The chief city of Great Russia is Moscow, which was the capital of the empire before Petrograd was built. The people are the descendants of the old Muscovites, who laid the foundation of Russia's greatness.
In addition to the Slavs, the population of Russia also includes people of several other races. The most important are: (1) the Lithuanians, along the Baltic coast; (2) the Finns, in the north; and (3) the Mongol Tartars, on the east. There are also large communities of Jews, and within the Arctic circle there are tribes of Lapps owing allegiance to the Tsar.
The history of Russia is practically the story of how the Slavs have adapted themselves to the local conditions of life, and have resisted and overcome the invasions of aliens who have from time to time attempted to conquer their country.
There are old legends which tell that the ancestors of the Slavs were three brothers, named Rus, Lech, and Cech. Each became a king and founded the nations of the Russians, the Lechites (the Poles), and the Czechs (the Slavs of Bohemia). Scholars are not agreed as to the meaning of these names. Some consider, for instance, that "Rus" means "Red", and is, in origin, the same name as Rufus. The northern Russians are of a reddish
fairness. Another theory is that "Rus" is a Scandinavian tribal name, identical with the Swedish "Hros". However this may be, from the earliest times of which we have knowledge the Slavs on the north of the Black Sea--that is, in Little Russia--were known as the "Rus", and, as has been stated, the inhabitants of this area are darker than those of the north.
Russia was divided in ancient times into various kingdoms. The first historic invaders came from the north. These were the Norsemen, who were called the Varagians or Varangians. Among these conquerors was the famous Rurik (Roderick), who was, according to later tradition, the founder of the first Russian dynasty. The capital of the northern kingdom was Novgorod, which means New-burgh, a name that suggests the previous existence of an old borough as an even more ancient centre of government and trade.
The Varangians invaded the southern lands of Little Russia, and overcame the petty kings of Kiev in the ninth century. Thereafter Kiev became the capital of all the states. United under one ruler, the Russians then became very powerful, and began to develop their commerce and extend their boundaries.
The great trading centre in the south at the time was Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Against this city Oleg, the successor of Rurik, led a strong force. His army was transported down the river Dnieper to the
[paragraph continues] Black Sea in 2000 boats, in each of which were 40 men. The narrow strait of the Bosphorus had been closed by floating booms and could not be entered. Oleg, however; hit upon a plan to reach the Sea of Marmora so as to strike direct at Constantinople. He is said to have had his ships mounted on wheels and drawn over the narrow neck of land separating the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmora. Constantinople was unable to resist the attack which followed, and the Byzantine Greeks paid a large indemnity to the invaders to induce them to withdraw. They also signed a treaty which gave the Russians liberty to conduct trade with Constantinople. Before leaving this city, Oleg fixed his shield on the outer wall to signify that he had conquered it.
One of the results of Russia's subsequent relations with Byzantium, which the Turks ultimately conquered, was the spread of Christianity towards the north. The old Slavs were pagans, and the chief god they worshipped was called Perun, the god of lightning. His statue was of wood, with a silver face and a golden moustache.
In the reign of Vladimir the idols were destroyed and the Russian people embraced Christianity. This was the dawn of a new era of prosperity, and a beginning was made in building great Christian churches, like the church of St. Sophia at Kiev, which was erected in 1037 and is still an imposing edifice.
The Northerners, or Varangians, were ultimately driven out of Russia and the power of the Slavs became supreme. But the empire was again broken up into petty kingdoms which waged war against one another. Weakened by these feuds, the capacity of the Russians to resist invaders grew less and less.
Early in the thirteenth century great hordes of Mongol Tartars began to pour out of Asia, resolved to conquer not only Russia but the whole of Europe. Russia then became the protector of Western civilization, for so great was the resistance it set up that the Mongolian Tartars found it impossible to establish permanent sway in the centre of Europe.
For between two and three centuries (1238-1462) Russia herself remained under the Tartar yoke. Her princes had to pay tribute to their over-lords, who had imposed their will upon the various states. During this period Moscow grew in extent and importance. In this city the aspirations of the oppressed people were fostered and strengthened, and it became in song and story a veritable Slav Fairyland. Many legends arose regarding its origin. Among these one of the most beautiful is the story of Princess Peerless, the fair maiden who was imprisoned in her own castle by the terrible demon who sought her for his bride. It is related in "The Lady of Moscow". This demon seems to symbolize the Tartar overlord whose dragon, or army, kept watch so as to prevent the
[paragraph continues] Golden Knight from coming to the rescue of the sorrowing princess. But ultimately the dragon was overcome by the knight who wielded the invisible club, which one is tempted to regard as the symbol of the invisible bond of patriotism that unites and strengthens a people, and the demon's spell was then broken. After the chivalrous and fearless knight married the princess, Moscow became the seat of government.
It was in Moscow that there arose a new dynasty of native rulers, which included the famous Tsars named Ivan (John). The Muscovites strove to achieve complete independence, and it was by them that the Tartar power was gradually shattered. Ivan III, known as Ivan the Great, ultimately found himself strong enough openly to defy the Tartars, and he refused to pay further tribute. Thereafter the Mongols might occasionally raid Russia, and even attack and burn the capital, but they never succeeded in conquering it again.
Among the folk legends surviving from this period is the one related in "How Little Ivan became a Tsar". The first Ivan was reputed to have been a poor lad, who set out on his travels like Dick Whittington. On reaching Moscow he was welcomed by the people, who were waiting to hail the first corner as their Tsar.
The next story deals with Ivan IV, known as, "Ivan the Terrible", who was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth. This monarch, who did
much to consolidate the strength of Russia, governed with great severity. He curbed the power of those nobles, the Boyarin, who under the Tartar regime had been invested with special privileges. As they continually plotted against Tsar Ivan, he lived in constant dread of revolution, and many were charged with treason and put to death, not infrequently after enduring great torture.
Ivan the Terrible was the first Tsar who established friendly relations with England. He corresponded with Queen Elizabeth, and, it is even said, made her an offer of marriage. During his reign English merchants settled in Russia, and prospered greatly. Sir Jerome Horsey, the great English traveller, relates in his writings that Ivan employed as soldiers a number of Scottish adventurers, who had been taken prisoners in the wars with Poland and Sweden. He rewarded them generously for their services in the campaigns against the Tartars of the Crimea, as is indicated in the story, "Tsar Ivan and the Scots Soldiers", in which use is made of Sir Jerome's interesting narrative. It is due to this Englishman's intervention that the Tsar availed himself of the assistance of the fighting Scots.
When Ivan IV ascended the throne, the northern province of Novgorod was an independent state. Its inhabitants were governed by a prince, and the leading citizens, who held an open-air Parliament which was summoned by ringing a bell. If
the prince displeased the people, they promptly deposed him and elected a successor. Often free fights took place at meetings of the citizens. Ivan went north with an army, and, taking possession of Novgorod, included it in his empire.
The period which followed Ivan's death was a disturbed one. Weak rulers sat on the throne, and then the King of Poland endeavoured to have himself declared Tsar. But the Russian people rose in revolt, and the throne passed to a grandson of the wife of Ivan the Terrible, a boy prince named Michael. Thus, in 1610, began the new dynasty of Romanoff. When Michael grew up, he promoted learning and commerce, and he attracted to Russia traders and scholars and artisans from the other countries.
The most outstanding maker of modern Russia, however, was Peter the Great, who flourished in the eighteenth century. In the story related under the title, "The Man who Fought the Wolves ", glimpses are afforded of the life and manners of his time. Tsar Peter perceived that the future prosperity of his kingdom depended on the development of sea trade and the founding of a navy. Russia was until his time entirely an inland power, and its commerce was ever at the mercy of other states. Tsar Peter resolved to raise his country to first rank among the nations of Europe by developing its resources and organizing its trade on land and sea.
To obtain knowledge of shipbuilding and naval
subjects he not only travelled a great deal, but also secured employment as an artisan in certain shipbuilding yards in Holland and England. On his return home he began to carry out the plans he had made for the good of his country.
At the time Russia's chief rival on the Baltic coast was Sweden, and its king resolved to do his utmost to frustrate the designs of Tsar Peter. A great war ensued, from which Peter, after en-during severe reverses, emerged ultimately in triumph, securing possession of part of Finland, Livonia, and other lands on the Baltic. The way was now clear for the development of Russia's new policy. The Tsar caused the great city of St. Petersburg (now called Petrograd) to be built, and established shipbuilding yards and many other industries. Everything he touched he changed. He even reformed the Russian alphabet, when he set up printing presses to produce newspapers and books, including translations of foreign works of learning. Under his wise and energetic rule Russia made great and rapid progress; ere he died, it had taken its place among the foremost Powers of Europe. Probably no other country in the world owes so much to the efforts of a single man.
Among the notable successors of Tsar Peter was Queen Catherine the Great, a lady of great intellectual gifts, who did much to promote learning and art, and carried out many reforms in the interests of progress. She founded a number of
new towns, constructed roads and canals, and helped to develop trade and industries. During her reign large tracts of the country were cleared of trees and divided into farming colonies.
It is of interest to note at the present time that during Queen Catherine's reign a third of Poland was divided up between Austria, Germany, and Russia. This kingdom had fallen into a helpless condition, chiefly on account of internal dissensions. Other divisions subsequently took place, until in the end Poland ceased to exist as an independent state.
Since the days of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, Russia has steadily increased in extent and in prosperity. At the middle of the eighteenth century its population was about 14,000,000, but before the nineteenth century came to a close the empire included about 130,000,000 subjects. Its chief extension has been to the east. The present Tsar reigns over an empire which is about eight times larger than that of Ivan the Terrible.
When we compare Russia with other countries in Europe, we find many points of difference. It must be recognized in the first place that it is very large, and that large countries are more difficult to organize than small countries. Progress in certain directions has consequently been slower. Besides, the country as a whole is less capable of intensive development than our own. Towns and cities are not so numerous as in England, for instance, and they are separated by wide distances.
[paragraph continues] Withal, the people have a different outlook upon life from ours. Russians prefer their own manners and customs to those of other peoples; they love their own country with the same fervour as we do ours; and as the great war has shown, they are as brave as they are loyal.
In private life the Russian Slavs are a people of simple habits and unaffected manners. They are very religious, and among the greatest buildings in their country are the churches and cathedrals. From the earliest times their outstanding characteristics have been their piety, their hospitality, and their respect for the authority of parents and rulers.
The Russian Slavs have always struggled for liberty to live their own lives according to their own ideals. An ancient writer has said of them: "They are a dogged, laborious race, inured to the scantiest food, and they regard as a pleasure what is often a heavy burden to men of our time. They face any privations for their beloved liberty, and in spite of many reverses they are always ready to fight again."
The organization of Russian national life has grown from the family life. In the domestic circle the father in ancient times was the supreme authority, the judge and lawgiver. When families lived together and formed a grad or gorod (borough), a leader was chosen who was the "father" of the social group. Similarly the Tsar is recognized, as was his predecessors, as "the father" of all the
[paragraph continues] Russians, and is loved and honoured and obeyed by his subjects, not only as head of the State, but also as head of the Church. When a new law is proclaimed in Russia, the people may be heard repeating the old saying, "It is the will of God and the Tsar's decree".
This great nation has always had its supreme dictator, and it owes its growth and prosperity largely to those Tsars who, like Peter the Great, devoted their lives to furthering its welfare. In no other country in Europe, for instance, has a large and important city been created by the order of an individual ruler as was Petrograd by the order of Tsar Peter. At the outbreak of the great war the present Tsar gave a further example of the supreme power that is wielded by the head of the Russian state when he forbade the sale of vodka throughout the empire. The people submitted at once to "the will of God and the Tsar's decree".
In attempting to understand the social problems of Russia, one must always bear in mind the character of the country, and the mode of life of the great masses of the people. Land being abundant, the Slavs in ancient times spread gradually over wide areas with their herds and flocks. They tilled their fields in a primitive manner, and when these became exhausted, they migrated into new territory to break in further virgin soil. The general direction of such migrations has been towards the east, and in the process of time the
[paragraph continues] Russians have spread themselves in colonies into and over the plains of Siberia in Asia.
The expansion of the vigorous Russian race across Siberia began in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, when the western portion was conquered by Yermak the Cossack. A constant drift of settlers across the Ural mountains followed, but the greater part of this region, which is four times larger than European Russia, has been peopled by refugees and political exiles. In the old days when the proprietors held the power of life and death over the serfs, they were wont to banish offenders to a Siberian province. There the serfs were allowed to possess themselves of land, but had to remain in the district to which they were assigned. The Government similarly banished political prisoners, with their wives and families, to the Siberian prairies, and many of the inhabitants of to-day are descendants of these. Hardened convicts, however, have ever been kept under control in the great prisons of this vast penal colony.
The conditions of life in Siberia vary greatly. In many parts there is a rich soil which yields excellent crops, and large tracts are suitable for grazing, but towards the north the country is cold and desolate, able to sustain only a meagre population who live as hunters, fur traders, and fishermen. Over the greater part of Siberia the summer is warm and genial, but the winter is long and severe. Since the opening of the great
railway which terminates at Vladivostock, a port on the Sea of Japan, the development of Siberian trade has made great progress. Large quantities of agricultural produce are exported annually. Of late years Siberian dairy produce has reached even these islands.
During the period of Tartar supremacy, the country had been divided up into principalities, and the peasants moved from one principality to another as they desired when opportunity offered. After the Tsars had freed Russia from the foreigners, and all the principalities were united, the nomadic habits of the people had to be held in check. It was decreed that each estate should maintain a certain proportion of peasants, so that their owners might supply soldiers for the army. The peasants were then prevented from moving from place to place at their own free will, though they still retained all their other ancient rights and liberties.
In time, however, the proprietors increased their hold over the peasants, who gradually became serfs. The wealth of a proprietor came to be reckoned by the number of these serfs on his estate, and the custom arose of proprietors selling serfs to one another.
The system of serfage was not confined to Russia. It was, in fact, general throughout Western Europe, but it lingered longer in Russia than elsewhere.
Under good proprietors the rural serfs could
lead happy and useful lives. A family had a house and a portion of land, a horse and cow and some sheep. Instead of paying rent, the serf performed a certain amount of work for the proprietor. When his sons grew up, they took his place, and he could then devote his whole time to his own affairs. If he required timber he received it from the proprietor, and if he met with misfortune by losing a cow or horse on account of illness or accident, he usually received assistance from the "father" of the estate, who, as judge, also settled all disputes between serfs, and made laws to suit local conditions. The old and frail and the weakly were supported by the estate if their relatives were unable to assist them. When, as it sometimes happened, proprietors were cruel and greedy, and became oppressors of the people, the government of the Tsar stepped in and caused reforms to be introduced. Occasionally proprietors were deposed altogether for abusing their powers.
The development of commerce and the industries which resulted from the reforms introduced by Peter the Great exercised a great influence on the serf condition. As the demand for free labour increased, it became necessary to draw more and more from the masses of the population in rural areas. The emancipation of the serfs consequently became a pressing necessity. Tsar Alexander I, who reigned from 1801 till 1825, and Tsar Nicholas I, who succeeded him and reigned till 1855, introduced reforms which improved their condition
and extended their privileges. Then Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom entirely in 1861. The masses were thus set free at the command of the "Little Father" of all the Russians, and there was great rejoicing in consequence throughout the length and breadth of the land. With personal liberty, however, came new responsibilities, and these were not welcomed everywhere. The land-holding serfs were established as tenants of small farms, who paid rent for the land they occupied, instead of, as formerly, paying for it with labour; or, they purchased their holdings with the assistance of the State, which lent the money required on easy terms. In bringing about these changes, the great bulk of the proprietors did their utmost to smooth over difficulties, and the freed serfs, when they came to realize their new responsibilities, displayed a spirit of patience and resolution which is characteristically Russian. Over the country as a whole a widespread desire was evinced by all classes to solve the problems raised by the changed conditions of life which were brought about by the Tsar's great reform.
The story entitled "The Old Order and the New" deals with the liberation of the serfs on a typical Russian estate. Some of the workers dreaded the change brought about by the Tsar's edict as much as did the old-fashioned proprietor, while others had an exaggerated notion of what freedom signified.
It will be seen from the examples given that
great and sweeping social and political changes in Russia have been brought about chiefly by its rulers. The nation is, as has been said, like a great family; and the Tsar, who is the "Little Father", calls the people "his children". All classes reverence and obey the supreme ruler, who is the law-giver and the judge. If they have grievances, they expect the "Little Father" to remove them; if social reforms become necessary owing to the changed conditions of life, they expect him to bring them about.
In Russia reforms have never been introduced as a result of what is known in the west as "class warfare". The classes who owe allegiance to the Tsar have never struggled against each other for political rights or privileges. Class enmities are almost entirely unknown, and the relations between the various classes are more intimate than in any other nation in Europe, except Great Britain. The aristocratic exclusiveness of the German and Austrian nobility does not prevail in the Tsar's domains, which enjoy a marked degree of social freedom. The proprietor does not hold himself aloof from the peasant; in fact, some rural proprietors live quite as simple lives as their tenants. Many peasants who have shown marked ability have risen to high official rank, and grown richer and more influential than the representatives of old families. In no country in Europe are the grievances of the past more readily forgotten. The feeling that union is strength prevails everywhere.
[paragraph continues] That great level country could never withstand the attacks of its enemies if the people were not united by their love for their country, and their allegiance to the "Little Father ", who loves and leads them all.