MARK TWAIN ON CZARS, SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION By Barbara Schmidt
MARK TWAIN CHANGES HIS ATTITUDE
Alexander II’s reforms which began with the 1861 emancipation of the serfs were not satisfactorily fulfilled. Peasants thought that they would be freed together with the plot of land they worked. Such was not the case. Although they were free, peasants were often denied an opportunity to purchase fertile land on which they had lived a lifetime. Instead many were offered poorer quality land that could not be farmed. Demands for a more democratic form of government and basic freedoms continued to be denied. When Alexander II was assassinated by a bomber in 1881 his son Alexander III succeeded him as Czar of Russia. Alexander III proved to be a more repressive monarch than his father.
As Mark Twain cultivated his career as a successful writer and lecturer, he became more keenly aware of world politics. Twain’s attitude toward Russian monarchy shifted. Although Twain had devoted little attention to Russian politics between 1867 and 1881, a reading he delivered at the Hartford Monday Evening Club on March 22, 1886 indicates his opinion of the Russian aristocracy changed:
Power, when lodged in the hands of man, means oppression — insures oppression: it means oppression always: … give it to the high priest of the Christian Church in Russia, the Emperor, and with a wave of his hand he will brush a multitude of young men, nursing mothers, gray headed patriarchs, gently young girls, like so many unconsidered flies, into the unimaginable hells of his Siberia, and go blandly to his breakfast, unconscious that he has committed a barbarity …(2).
MARK TWAIN’S ATTITUDE SET IN INK
Anti-czarist comments in Twain’s writings appear more frequently in Twain’s work after George Kennan’s publicity tours. In Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, a manuscript Twain worked on for over thirty years he compared heaven to Russia:
Well, this is Russia — only more so. There’s not the shadow of a republic about it anywhere (4).
AN UNSENT LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF FREE RUSSIA, 1890
In the summer of 1890 Twain also composed a letter which he never mailed to the editor of the publication Free Russia which advocated Russian reforms. Twain’s support of violence to overthrow the Czar along with his impatience with the Russian people for tolerating abuses was evident.
To the Editor of Free Russia,
I thank you for the compliment of your invitation to say something, but when I ponder the bottom paragraph on your first page, and then study your statement on your third page, of the objects of the several Russian liberation-parties, I do not quite know how to proceed. Let me quote here the paragraph referred to:
"But men’s hearts are so made that the sight of one voluntary victim for a noble idea stirs them more deeply than the sight of a crowd submitting to a dire fate they cannot escape. Besides, foreigners could not see so clearly as the Russians how much the Government was responsible for the grinding poverty of the masses; nor could they very well realize the moral wretchedness imposed by that Government upon the whole of educated Russia. But the atrocities committed upon the defenceless prisoners are there in all their baseness, concrete and palpable, admitting of no excuse, no doubt or hesitation, crying out to the heart of humanity against Russian tyranny. And the Tzar’s Government, stupidly confident in its apparently unassailable position, instead of taking warning from the first rebukes, seems to mock this humanitarian age by the aggravation of brutalities. Not satisfied with slowly killing its prisoners, and with burying the flower of our young generation in the Siberian desserts, the Government of Alexander III resolved to break their spirit by deliberately submitting them to a regime of unheard-of brutality and degradation.”
Suppose you had this granite-hearted, bloody-jawed maniac of Russia loose in your house, chasing the helpless women and little children — your own. What would you do with him, supposing you had a shotgun? Well, he is loose in your house — Russia. And with your shotgun in your hand, you stand trying to think up ways to modify” him.
Of course I know that the properest way to demolish the Russian throne would be by revolution. But it is not possible to get up a revolution there; so the only thing left to do, apparently, is to keep the throne vacant by dynamite until a day when candidates shall decline with thanks. Then organize the Republic. And on the whole this method has some large advantages; for whereas a revolution destroys some lives which cannot well be spared, the dynamite way doesn’t.
Consider, that all over vast Russia, from boundary to boundary, a myriad of eyes filled with tears when that piteous news came, and through those tears that myriad of eyes saw, not that poor lady, but lost darlings of their own whose fate her fate brought back with new access of grief out of a black and bitter past never to be forgotten or forgiven.
If I am a Swinburnian — and clear to the marrow I am — I hold human nature in sufficient honor to believe there are eighty million mute Russians that are of the same stripe, and only one Russian family that isn’t.