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The Russian Press by D. K.

1878

In its present form Russian journalism is a kind of geological diagram, the primary strata being typified by the ministerial organs (the Russian Invalid and the Northern Bee) and their shadow the Journal de St. Pétersbourg; the transition period by the Voice (Golos) and the Moscow Gazette; and the more advanced ages by the Russian World (Russki Mir). The last, although dating back only to the Franco-German war, has already made itself conspicuous for the exceptional accuracy of its information, the wide range of its topics and the frank and manly tone of its criticism. Thanks to it and to its two great forerunners above mentioned, the utterances of Russian journalism carry with them more weight than they would otherwise do—a result materially aided by the decay of the censorship, the worst and meanest legacy of Russia's dark ages, which has lately had a chance of showing itself as absurd as it is hateful under the congenial guidance of General Schidlovski. The rulers of the empire have begun to perceive that it is hardly worth while to hire men at exorbitant prices to deface articles which they cannot read and condemn books which they cannot understand; and the common sense of Russia has long since revolted against a system which is still as uselessly and childishly vexatious as when pilloried in imperishable language a century ago by Beaumarchais.

This is a great deal, but it is not enough. Like many other native institutions, Russian journalism is merely a fine fragment. Russia has a multitude of ships, but no navy; a number of ministers, but no government; a host of journals, but no press. The Russian daily papers (with the exception of an occasional "double edition" on the part of the Bourse Gazette) consist of a single broadsheet, the large type of which reduces its contents to a minimum. Fully one-half of this limited space is usually occupied with advertisements and official announcements, while even the few remaining columns are often deplorably misused. One detestable custom, originally borrowed from France, is that of "padding" a journal with tenth-rate novels, pointless anecdotes and would-be humorous feuilletons, such as the weakest "comic annual" would decline without thanks. Another failing of Russian journalism is its fondness for the tu-quoque style of argument, retorting every mention of Poland by an allusion to Ireland. But, despite all this, there is much hope for the future of Russian journalism. It is no slight gain that, in a country which has long been regarded as the very incarnation of truth-stifling despotism, any journal should be found to speak as the Golos recently spoke on the question of Russia's naval forces: "The Crimean war, which tried so severely the qualities of our army, cannot be said to have tested those of our fleet, inasmuch as it never gave itself a chance of being tested. At the first approach of the enemy it hastened to shelter itself behind the forts of Cronstadt, whence it never emerged till the close of the war. Now, if the sole use of the navy upon which we yearly expend millions of roubles be to shrink out of harm's way at the first sign of danger, we might just as well have no navy at all."

Besides the journals above named, the Moscow Son of the Fatherland and two others published in the capital (the Birjeviya Vedomosti, or Bourse Gazette, and the Peterburgskiya Vedomosti, or St. Petersburg Gazette), though now eclipsed by their younger rivals, formerly held a high place among Russian dailies. The Russian magazines cannot be dealt with in the limited space of the present article: it must suffice to mention the two most important—namely: the Russki Vestnik (Russian Courier) and the Vestnik Yevropi (Courier of Europe). Several of M. Tourgueneff's later stories have made their first appearance in the pages of the latter, which, numbering among its contributors some of the foremost writers in Russia, and combining, like the Revue des Deux Mondes, the functions of a review with those of a magazine, is in every way the worthy successor of its now defunct forerunner, the Sovremennik (Contemporary), formerly owned and edited by the poet Nekrassoff.

The comic element of Russian journalism is represented by the Iskra (Spark) and Budilnik (Alarm-Bell), the latter having the superiority in pictorial illustrations, though the savage and personal cast of its satire, together with its imprudent fondness for political allusions, has more than once all but occasioned its suppression. Both journals are published weekly, and both have a considerable circulation, though it must be owned that their title of "comic" is for the most part a sad misnomer. That the Russians are naturally devoid of humor no reader of Gogol or Griboiedoff, Pushkin, Kriloff or Tourgueneff, can believe; but the comic journals themselves have fallen far too much into the hands of the Imperial University, whose literary style is a combination of the humor of the cider-cellars with the verbal fluency of Billingsgate. Under such auspices the ill-starred periodicals naturally oscillate between insipid propriety and labored coarseness. For a month or two the talented contributors go smoothly on in their career of untranslatable pleasantry, till some special atrocity calls forth the fatherly admonition of the police. Immediately a reaction ensues, filling the objectionable columns with harmless sneers at the weather and other safe objects of attack, until the effect of the warning has died away, and all goes on as before.

Those of our readers who were in Russia a few years ago must remember the famous caricature of "National Music," representing the various journals as a band of musicians. In the foreground stands the minister of police as bandmaster, regulating the time with the flourish of his baton: on his right is the Russian Invalid (the government organ) with a trombone, on his left the Military Gazette with a kettledrum. Immediately below, the Moscow Gazette, in the person of its celebrated chief, M. Katkoff, is playing in a reckless, haphazard fashion upon an enormous bass fiddle. Close by are the two leading comic journals, the one tinkling a triangle, the other blowing the pandean pipes. Farther on the Voice (Golos) is bawling through a speaking-trumpet, and the Bourse Gazette flourishing a tambourine, a host of minor performers being loosely sketched in the background; while far in the distance a hand outstretched from a cloud of mist is tolling a cracked church-bell, symbolical of M. Kerzen's famous Kolokol (Bell), at that time in the zenith of its sinister renown; and Russia, as a young lady in a ball-dress, is vainly attempting, with a look of dismay, to close her ears against the uproar.

Equally clever and equally audacious is a more recent travesty of the well-known scene in Dante's Inferno where Bertrand de Born, a noted sower of sedition, comes forth with his severed head in his hands. In the Russian version the renowned editor of the Moscow Gazette is seen hobbling along with a cannon-ball labelled "Police Surveillance" at his ankle, and carrying by the hair his own head, which is so drawn as to bear a grotesque likeness to an inkstand with a pen in each ear. The text of Dante is thus travestied:

And by the hair he with despairing look
Upheld his head, which cried to me, "Oh woe!
Himself is his own inkstand! Thus are two
In one tormented."

The backwardness of the Russian press, attributed to so many different causes, is really due to one very simple one—the want of readers. Among a population of whom only nine per cent. can read, and who neither know nor care what passes in the world of politics, the existence of free public opinion, or indeed of any opinion at all, can hardly be expected; and thus, while no country contains such frantic republicans as Russia, no government is more absolutely secure. Upon that tremendous passivity the utmost efforts of such men as Netchaieff and Bakounin fall like a pellet on the hide of an elephant. The popular cries which madden other races are utterly meaningless to the docile, unemotional "mujik," loyal and conservative to the very marrow of his bones.

But the vivifying of these petrified millions may safely be left to the influence of time. The provincial schools recently established may be trusted to do their work, however slowly; and the "educated Russia" dreamed of by Alexander I. may yet crown the age of Alexander II. Those who, like the writer, have lived in the villages of the interior, and have seen the Russian peasant as he really is, cannot but have hopes of his future, in the teeth of the hasty and one-sided observers who love to depict him as a brute with the single human attribute of dishonesty. The ignorance, sluggishness and intemperance of the mujik belong to the system under which he has been reared: his frank hospitality, cheery good-humor and simple child-like piety are all his own. To raise these brave, simple natures out of the unwholesome darkness which has so long imprisoned them is a noble and Christian work; as far above the mere material emancipation of 1861 as the soul is above the body.

D. K.