The emperor of Russia assumes the title of samoderjetz, or autocrat, and all power centres in and emanates from him. The act of election of 1613, which conferred the crown on the house of Romanoff, recognises the absolute power of the sovereign. His will is unlimited, and his authority uncontrolled, except in the respect he may voluntarily yield to established customs, to the privileges of certain classes, and to the prejudices of the people. A reverence for the emperor, amounting almost to idolatrous worship, is instilled into the Russians from their earliest childhood. Next to the name of God, the name of the emperor always occurs in the religious vocabulary of the people, in whose eyes the two names are next thing to synonymous. In every individual reign, however, the personal character of the sovereign must, in a great measure, determine that of the administration. Hence, under such a monarch as Paul I., the most extravagant decrees, the dictates of a mind bordering on insanity, had all the force of law, and exposed every subject, who ventured to disregard them, to the penalties of rebellion; while, on the contrary, under the late Alexander, the whole administration assumed almost a constitutional form, and the emperor himself publicly disclaimed despotism, by declaring that he was bound to rule according to law, and that, in the event of his issuing any decree not in accordance with it, the senate was entitled to remonstrate.
To Peter the Great is due the credit of the formation of the government; though, subsequently to him, some changes and modifications have been introduced. Previously to the time of the reforms of Peter, the governmental machinery was not so complicated. In introducing the changes, Peter, in some instances, maintained, however, the old institutions, giving them a new (mostly Germanic) name. The emperor is the central point of administration: everything emanates from him in the first instance, and everything is referred to him in the last, and his decisions are law.
The public business is transacted under the emperor by different boards, councils, or colleges, which have each separate but sometimes not easily-distinguished functions. The principal body is the imperial council, for the most part presided over by the emperor in person, or a delegate of his sole appointment. It has no limit as to its numbers, but is divided into four departments—legislative, military, civil and ecclesiastical, and financial. All matters coming under deliberation are decided by a majority of votes, either by the departments separately, or by the whole acting as one body. To each department a secretary of state is attached. The imperial council was established on its present footing in 1810, and was probably modelled by Alexander after that of Napoleon.
The body next in importance to the council is the senate, which is also presided over by the emperor in person. It is the supreme judicial tribunal, and issues decrees which have the force of law, unless the emperor interpose to prevent their execution. It is divided into eight departments, each of which is an appeal-court of last resort for certain provinces and governments. The decision of each department must be supported by a majority of two thirds of the members present; and, when this majority can not be obtained, a general meeting of all the departments is called to decide. The procedure is not public, and the whole pleadings are in writing, each case being decided on a statement drawn up by the secretary, and certified by the party as correct. In a few cases, however, parties dissatisfied with its decisions may petition the emperor. The senators are mostly persons of high rank, or who fill high stations ; but a lawyer of eminence presides over each department, who represents the emperor, and without whose signature its decisions would have no force. In the plenum, or general meeting of the sections, the minister of justice takes the chair, as high procurator for his majesty. Besides its superintendence over the court of law, the senate examines into the state of the public revenue and expenditure, and has power to inquire into public abuses, to appoint to a great variety of offices, and to make remonstrances to the emperor. Monthly reports of its proceedings are published in the gazette.
The third college consists of the holy synod, composed of the principal dignitaries of the church, and to it is committed the superintendence of the religious affairs of the empire.
The fourth college consists of the committee of ministers, of whom there are eleven, viz., the ministers of the imperial household, of war, finance,, justice, interior, public instruction, imperial domains, postoffiee, roads and public buildings, and the vice-chancellor and comptroller-general. The ministers frequently have colleagues, who supply their place when they are either sick or absent. They communicate directly with the emperor, or with his chancellerie particuliere, in whose hands all the executive authority is centred.
The local administration differs in different provinces ; the imperial government having always allowed conquered or annexed countries to preserve their own laws and institutions, except in so far as they were hostile to the general constitution of the empire. Finland, for example, has a special form of government; and the provinces wrested from Sweden by Peter the Great, together with Courland, and those formerly belonging to Poland, have peculiar institutions and privileges, which, however, have latterly been much modified. But, despite these exceptions, the form of the provincial government is, notwithstanding, sufficiently uniform.
The empire is divided into general governments, or vice-royalties, governments, and districts. There are also, as already stated, extensive territories, which, from the thinness of their population, or otherwise, are not organized into regular governments, that are called oblasts, or provinces. The viceroys, or general-governors, are the representatives of the emperor; and, as such, command the forces, and have the supreme control and direction of all affairs, whether civil or military. All the functionaries within their jurisdiction are subordinate to, and make their reports to them. They sanction or suspend the judgments of the courts, &c. A civil governor, representing the general-governor, assisted by a council or regency, to which all measures must be submitted, is established in each government or province. In case of dissent, the opinion of the governor is provisionally adopted till the pleasure of the emperor with respect to the matter be ascertained. A vice-governor is appointed to fill the place of the civil governor when the latter is absent or ill. There are also, in every government, a council of finance under the presidency of the vice-governor, who manage the crown estates, and superintend the collection of the revenue; a college of general provision, which has the direction and inspection of all charitable foundations, prisons, workhouses, schools for the instruction of the poor, &c.; and a college of medicine, which attends to all matters connected with the public health, appoints district physicians, inspects pharmacopeias, &c. The districts have each their local functionaries. The towns have a municipal body, elected once every three years by the different classes into which the population is divided; and each town has, also, according to its importance, a commandant or bailiff, appointed by the crown, who has charge of the police, of the public buildings and magazines, and who executes sentences, pursues criminals, &c.
The Russian judicial system is complicated, and not easily understood, except by natives. There are civil and criminal courts in every circle; and a supreme court of justice, divided into civil and criminal sections, is established in every government. Cases decided in the inferior courts may be appealed to it. Its sentence is final in all criminal cases, and in all civil matters relating to sums under five hundred roubles. Those involving property to a greater amount may be carried before the senate.
It is a curious fact that, notwithstanding the despotical nature of the government, all the provincial tribunals consist partly of elective functionaries. Thus, the superior court for a circle consists of a judge and secretary, and of two assessors chosen annually by the nobles, and two by the peasants; and the superior court of justice for a government, which is divided into a civil and criminal chamber, consists of a president, secretary, and four assessors for each chamber, two of the assessors being chosen by the nobility, and two by the burghers. It is, in fact, a principle in Russia that a portion of the judges in every court should belong to the same class as the party whose interests are under discussion, and be elected for that purpose by his compeers. In the case of the nobles and burghers, this is a most valuable privilege; but in the case of the peasantry, who stand most in need of protection, this privilege is quite illusory—their serfdom and ignorance making them utterly incapable of profiting by it.
Previously to the reign of the empress Catherine II., the judges, particularly in the inferior courts, were wretchedly paid. That princess increased their salaries; but they are still far too low. And seeing that the judges are removeable at pleasure, and owe their situation to favor rather than to merit, we need not wonder that the greatest abuses continue to exist in the administration of justice. The proceedings are dilatory in the extreme. The prohibition against taking fees from suitors is rarely complied with; and in most tribunals it is affirmed that, if justice can not be altogether defeated, it may at least be indefinitely postponed, by dint of money.
These abuses have, however, been in part, at least, obviated by the publication, between 1826 and 1833, by the legislative commission, of an extensive digest (Swod Zakonow, "Body of Law") of all the laws then in force relative to the rights of citizens and the administration of public justice. This publication has greatly simplified the law; and it is of vast importance from its being, as it were, a charter of rights which may be appealed to on all future occasions,, and which it will be very difficult for any succeeding sovereign to abridge. But it would, notwithstanding, be idle to expect any very material improvement in the ordinary administration of justice, until the judges be better trained, selected, and paid; and till the influence of public opinion, and of a comparatively free press, neither of which has at present any existence in Russia, be brought to bear on the administration of justice, and of public affairs generally. The latter, in fact, is the only security against abuse on which any reliance can safely be placed. Wherever judges are exempted from the control of public opinion, and the animadversion of the press, they are most commonly the obsequious instruments of government, and seldom scruple to commit injustice when they believe it will be acceptable to their superiors.
The system of police in Russia is efficient, and yet in many respects comparatively worthless from the lack of honesty in its members. They are quick in discovering thefts, in ferreting out the offenders, and prompt in the application of punishment; but so great is their faculty of retention, that a person who has 'been robbed never considers his chance of recovering his property so small as when the police have detected the thief! From the thief's hands he deems it possible he may get back his own, but from the clutches of the authorities—never. So strong and universal is this feeling, that robberies would seldom be reported, did not the laws, in the interest of public security, render such report compulsory. Many instances are given by travellers in illustration of this feature in the operation of the Russian police system, one or two of which we will narrate: —
A Courland nobleman, Mr. Von H(...), lost some silver spoons, knives and forks, stolen out of his plate-chest. Some weeks afterward one of his servants came rejoicing to him: he had found the stolen goods; they were openly exposed for sale in a silversmith's shop-window. Mr. H(...) went to the window, recognised his property, took a police-officer with him, and made the silversmith show them the plate.: His arms and initials were upon it; the dealer admitted he had bought it of a stranger, and offered to restore it to its rightful owner. Mr. H(...) would have taken away his property, but the lieutenant of police forbade that, drew up a formal statement of the affair, and requested Mr. H(...), as a proof that the plate was his, to send to the police some other article out of the chest to which he affirmed it to belong. Mr. H(...) sent the whole case, with its contents, to the police-burean. He never saw either of them again! Mr. Von H(...) mentioned the circumstance to a physician, a friend of his, whom he thought very much to astonish. Astonished he certainly was —not, however, at the rascality of the police, but at the simplicity of Mr. H(...), who ought to have known them far too well to have trusted them with his plate-chest.
The St. Petersburg thieves are exceedingly skilful and daring. The doctor, above referred to, also had his tale to tell. He wanted a coachman ; one applied for the place just as his drosky happened to be at the door, and, by the doctor's desire, he drove up and down the street, to give a specimen of his skill, which was satisfactory. The doctor called to him to come up stairs, and sat down to dinner. The man did not appear: inquiry was made; he had driven away the horse and carriage, and was nowhere to be found. The doctor made his report to the police, as in duty bound, but at the same time made a formal declaration that he renounced all claim to the stolen property, and declined taking it back again. The precaution was most judicious. He could not do without a vehicle, so bought another the same day; and when the police, six weeks afterward, brought him back horse and drosky, they were in so wretched a state, and the charges so enormous, that he was heartily glad to have it in his power to decline receiving his property, or paying the costs.
The boldness of the St. Petersburg thieves is at least as striking as the rascality of those employed to detect them. Kakuschkin, a former chief of police, was not very popular in the Russian capital; but by the thieves he was especially detested, for his severity almost equalled their audacity. So there was a double temptation to despoil him—the gain to the spoilers, and the vexation of the spoiled. He possessed, among other things, a magnificent porphyry vase, which stood upon a no less costly pedestal. How the thieves managed to steal the vase is still a riddle; but stolen it was. For six months the police hunted after it: not a trace but was followed up and explored ; not a thieves' hiding-place but was examined; but all was in vain. At last hope was abandoned, and the authorities relaxed their vigilance. One day, however, a policeman went to Kakuschkin's wife, and took her the joyful intelligence that the thief was discovered, the vase already at the police-office, and that her husband had sent him for the pedestal, in order to identify the stolen object. Madame Kakusch-kin was overjoyed: and when her husband came home to dinner, she ran to meet him, in high glee. " Well," she cried, " and the vase ?"—" What vase?"—" The stolen vase, which has been found: the vase whose pedestal you sent for ?"—" Whose pedestal I sent for! Whom did I send ?" — " A policeman."—" Say, rather, a policeman's uniform. I sent no policeman, nor have I heard aught of the vase, or of its pedestal."
The following instance of the dexterity of a St. Petersburg pickpocket is related by Kohl: " The French embasssador was one day vaunting the dexterity of the Parisian thieves to one of the grand-dukes, and related many anecdotes of their address. The grand-duke was of opinion that the St. Petersburg thieves were quite their equals; and offered to lay a wager that, if the embassador would dine with him the next day, he would cause his excellency's watch, signet-ring, or any other articles of his dress which he thought most secure, to be stolen from him before the dessert was over. The embassador accepted the wager, and the grand-duke sent immediately to the chief of the police, desiring him to send the adroitest thief he might happen to have in custody at the time. The man was dressed in livery, instructed what to do, and promised a pardon if he accomplished his task well. The embassador had named his watch as the particular object of attention, both for himself and the thief; and when he had got the watch, the supposed servant was to give the grand-duke a sign.
" The dinner began: the preliminary whet, the soups and the roti, came and disappeared in their turns; the red, white, Greek, Spanish, and French wines, sparkled successively in the glasses of the guests. The embassador kept close guard on his watch, and the grand-duke, observing his earnest anxiety, smiled with good-humored archness. The pretended lackey was busily assisting in the removal of the dishes, the dinner was nearly over, and the prince awaited with impatience the expected signal. Suddenly his countenance brightened: he turned to the embassador, who was in deep conversation with his neighbor, and asked him what was the hour. His excellency triumphantly put his hand to his pocket—he had had it on his watch a few moments before—and to the amusement of all, but particularly of the grand-duke, drew out a very neatly-cut turnip! A general laugh followed. The embassador, somewhat embarrassed, would take a pinch of snuff, and felt in all his pockets for his gold snuff-box— it was gone! The laughter became louder: the embassador in his embarrassment and vexation had recourse to his seal-ring, to turn it as he was accustomed —it was gone! In short, he found that he had been regularly plundered of everything but what had been fastened on him by the tailor and the shoemaker—of ring, watch, snuff-box, handkerchief, toothpick, and gloves. The adroit rogue was brought before him, and commanded by the grand-duke to give back the stolen property; when, to the great surprise of the prince, the pickpocket took out two watches, and presented one to the embassador, and the other to his imperial highness; two rings, one for the embassador, and the other for the grand-duke ; two snuff-boxes, &c. In astonishment, his highness now felt in his pockets as the embassador had done, and found that he too had been stripped of his moveables in a like manner. The grand-duke solemnly assured the embassador that he had been quite unconscious of the theft, and was disposed at first to be angry with the too-dexterous artist. However, upon second thoughts, the fellow, who had enabled him to win his wager so triumphantly, was dismissed with a present, and a warning to employ his talents in future to more useful purposes."
Property generally, however, throughout the empire, is as well protected as it is in any other country. The houses being commonly built of wood, fires in great towns are often very destructive, and the most effectual precautions are taken to prevent their occurrence. All strangers arriving in Russia must produce their passports at the police-office, and notify their arrival in the public papers. The officers of police are empowered to discharge various functions besides those which come more peculiarly within their province, such as the decision of differences between masters and servants, &c.
Capital punishments are rare in Russia, high-treason being the only crime visited with death. In its place are the rod and the knout. Sentences to punishment by the former often condemn to such a vast number of blows, that the hide of an elephant could scarcely withstand them: human nature must sink and expire under them. What man can endure four thousand blows of a stick ? They would inevitably kill him, which is no part of the condemnation; and, as a proof that this is not desired, the sentence concludes by ordaining that, after the criminal has received his punishment, he shall be sent for life to Siberia.
The officer in command of the troops ordered for the execution of the sentence is responsible for its being literally and completely carried out. This responsibility he lays, in his turn, upon the shoulders of the regimental surgeon. The delinquent—civilian or soldier, it matters not which— marches down the fatal street of men, with a soldier in front and in rear, whose levelled bayonets prevent his hanging back or unduly hurrying on. Upon his left walks the surgeon, holding the unhappy wretch's hand in his, and anxiously watching the state of the pulse. When its diminished beat gives token of danger, the punishment, on a signal from the medical man, is immediately suspended, the exhausted sufferer is placed on a cart, and taken to the hospital. The horrible but yet humaner practice of the Aus-trians—to inflict the entire number of blows prescribed by the sentence, even though the latter portion of them fall upon a corpse—is in Russia strictly prohibited. The patient is taken care of in the hospital until recovery, and then again beaten. If this process be often repeated, he usually dies in consequence of his wounds; but in that case, " justice" has not actually killed him! Should he ultimately recover, he is sent to Siberia. It seems incredible, but is nevertheless true, that many criminals have thus taken, by instalments, four or five thousand blows, and lived to drag out many years of melancholy existence in Siberian deserts.
The second and still severer punishment is that of the knout; but before this punishment can be inflicted, it must be proved that such a crime has been committed as would entail, in every civilized country, the penalty of death. For the knout is the substitute for capital punishment. It can not be inflicted without the emperor's own signature. As for the rest, though the sentence proceeds from the judge, its effect depends entirely upon the executioner who wields the knout.
The criminal, surrounded by a guard of Cossacks, is conducted, half naked, to the place chosen for this kind of execution; all that he has on is simply a pair of linen drawers round his extremities ; his hands are bound together by cords, with the palms laid flat against one another. He is stretched prostrate upon his belly, on a frame inclined diagonally, and at the extremities of which are fixed iron rings; his hands are fastened to one end of the frame, and his feet to the other; he is then extended in such a manner that he can not make a single movement.
At a distance of five-and-twenty paces stands another man: it is the public executioner. He is dressed in black-velvet trousers, stuffed into his boots, and a colored cotton shirt, buttoning at the side. His sleeves are tucked up, so that nothing may thwart or embarrass him in his movements. "With both hands he grasps the instrument of punishment—the terrible knout! This knout consists of a thong of thick leather, cut in a triangular form, from four to five yards long, and an inch wide, tapering off at one end, and broad at the other: the small end is fastened to a little wooden handle, about two feet long.
The signal is given: no one ever takes the trouble to read the sentence. The executioner advances a few steps, with his body bent, holding the knout in both hands, while the long thong drags along the ground between his legs. On coming to about three or four paces from the prisoner, he raises, by a vigorous movement, the knout toward the top of his head, and then instantly draws it down toward his knees. The thong flies whistling through the air, and, descending on the body of the victim, twines round it like a hoop of iron. In spite of his state of tension, the poor wretch bounds as if he were submitted to the powerful shock of galvanism. The executioner retraces his steps, and repeats the same operation as many times as there are blows to be inflicted. When the thong envelops the body with its edges, the flesh and muscles are literally cut into stripes as if with a razor; but when it falls flat, then the bones crack: the flesh, in that case, is not cut, but crushed and ground, and the blood spurts out in all directions! The sufferer becomes green and blue, like a body in a state of decomposition.
The knout is fatal, if the judgment of the emperor, or the executioner, wills it to be so. Does the latter mean to be humane to his victim ?—he kills him with the first lash; for so great is the instrument's weight, that it enables him to break the spine at a single blow! This is not, however, usually done, and the unfortunate culprit receives the whole number prescribed, which rarely exceeds half a dozen. Here no surgeon attends, as on occasions of running the gauntlet, to regulate the punishment. If the criminal dies under the knout, no one is answerable—the motive for such exemption from responsibility doubtless being that the very first blow may be fatal. If he survives, he is sent to the hospital, and, when cured, to Siberia, where he disappears for ever in the bowels of the earth.
When a Russian subject is condemned to Siberia, his beard is shaved off, and his hair is cut short in the shape of a brush, like that of the soldiers, and quite close behind. He is dressed in a pair of linen trousers, a great-coat of very coarse cloth, a round cap, and enormous leather boots. In company with other exiles, he is then despatched, under an escort, to his destination beyond the Urals. Before starting, the convicts are inspected by a surgeon, and those who are unable to walk are placed in carriages ; of the others, every two men carry a chain. of about five pounds' weight, attached to the leg. They walk but fifteen miles a day; but they have to pursue their journey in all weathers, no matter how inclement, or how intense the cold may be. While en route, they generally experience much kindness from the Russian peasantry, who send them presents of their best food at every resting-place; and in large towns the excess of such contributions over what they consume is so great, that it is sold to buy them additional clothing. Wives are allowed, or rather expected, to accompany their husbands; but where any decline going, the marriage is dissolved—a consequence, no doubt, calling for serious deliberation. Leitch Ritchie, who witnessed the departure from Moscow of a party of exiles destined for Siberia, describes the scene as follows: —
" The departure of the exiles for Siberia is a scene which should not be missed by the traveller: but, in order to let him enjoy it at his ease, one thing is necessary to be understood. The mere fact of transportation is not looked upon as a severe punishment; for the great body of the criminals consists of persons who have been accustomed all their lives to a compulsory servitude as severe as that which awaits them beyond the Ural mountains. Condemnation to the mines in Siberia is what they dread— and with great justice; for this is a substitution for capital punishment, and answers the same purpose, only extending the time occupied by the act of dying from a few minutes to a few years.
" In a temporary depot, erected on the summit of the Sparrow hills, I found the destined wretches about to commence their march. A long chain secured both legs at the ankles, and, to prevent it from incommoding them in walking, was fastened to their belt, or sash. A great many were Jews, most of them mujiks; and all, with the exception of one man, were free from those physiognomical marks of atrocity which are commonly supposed to distinguish the guilty. Some carts were near, filled with their wives and children, and some of their male relations stood beside them unmanacled, who had likewise petitioned to be permitted to share their exile. In the middle stood a man who had a good deal of the air of an English dissenting clergyman; but the shape of his clothes and hat, and the large buckles in his shoes, seemed to belong to the fashion of an earlier day. His appearance inspired me with instinctive respect, and his face seemed absolutely to beam with the purest and noblest philanthropy. He was occupied in distributing moral and religious books to such of the prisoners as could read, and in hearing patiently, and often redressing instantly, their complaints. The exiles, on their part, seemed to look upon him as a friend—a father; but their affection was mingled with the deepest respect. Many prostrated themselves at his feet, as before a holy image, and touched the ground with their forehead. On taking leave, he embraced and kissed them all, one by one; and the rattle of their chains, as they began the march, was mingled with sobs and blessings. . . . . Dr. Haas, for this was the philanthropist's name, was in a kind of official situation, acting as the secretary of a charitable body; and he passed his life among the sick and the captives, in the double capacity of physician to the soul and body."
The journey lasts seven months. In the Asiatic portion of it, the comfort of the exiles is far less cared for; while, wearied out with their protracted travel, their powers of endurance are proportionately lessened, and there is often great mortality: between 1823 and 1832 it amounted to about one fifth, and the average number of exiles was ten thousand a year.
On their arrival, the worst subjects are sent to the mines; and, in former times, they hardly ever again saw daylight, but by the regulations of the emperor Nicholas they are not kept underground more than eight hours a day, and on Sunday all have undisturbed freedom. Others of this class are confined to northeastern Siberia, the climate of which is especially severe. Those of a less heinous stamp are employed on public works for some time, and then allowed to become colonists. The least serious offenders are at once settled as colonists in southern. Siberia, and thenceforth may be considered as quite free, except that they can not quit their location. In such a soil and climate, it is asserted by Haxthausen that, with industry, they may within two or three years find themselves established in good houses of their own, amid fields supplying every want of a rising family. It is also affirmed that the young people reared in these abodes turn out, on the whole, of most respectable character, and are associated with accordingly on the kindest terms by neighbors of other classes — especially by the peasants of native Siberian race, who, by-the-way, are all entirely free, and many of them very rich.
As above remarked, with the exception of what the nature of their crimes may impose, no restraint is laid upon their freedom, or precautions taken to prevent their leaving. They possess no passports, and it is extremely difficult to travel twelve hours anywhere in the Russian dominions without them. But in spite of the lack of the necessary papers, many exiles, after a longer or shorter stay in Siberia, manage to slip away to more congenial climes.
The whole number of exiles in Siberia amount to about one hundred thousand, of whom about one fourth are females; most of the latter are, however, as already shown, voluntary exiles, who have accompanied their husbands or other near relatives thither.
The military power of the Russian empire rests on an organized army and navy.* The first regularly-organized corps of infantry in the Russian service was the Strelitzes, who seem to have had their origin about the middle of the sixteenth century; and continued, till their suppression by Peter the Great, to constitute the principal strength of the army. They enjoyed various privileges ; were always about the person of the emperor; and by their licentiousness and insubordination, as well as bravery, bore a close resemblance to the pretorian bands of ancient Rome, and the Janizaries of the Ottoman Porte. The abolition of this formidable corps, and the reconstruction of the army on a plan similar to that followed in the more civilized countries of Europe, was undoubtedly one of the greatest services rendered by Peter the Great. At his death, in 1725, the regular army amounted to about one hundred and ten thousand, exclusive of the imperial guard; and the success which attended his prolonged contest with the Swedes showed that this army became in time a match for the best troops that could then be opposed to it.
Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855