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The Progressive Movement in Russia

December 14, 1904 — Faneuil Hall, Boston MA


We are a long way from Russia, and it may seem strange to you to hear anyone speak with warmth of a country and of questions that are so far away, beyond the mountains and the sea. You who are sitting quietly in a beautiful, well-lighted hall in Boston, what have you to do with the gloomy prisons in Russia, and with the deadly struggle which has been going on for so many years between the vanguard of the Russian people and the autocratic Russian government? It is they over yonder who are waging the conflict, it is they who are suffering and dying to give posterity a better future. It is there that the martyrs are groaning, that the tears of their families are falling, and that the champions of freedom are being wounded and mutilated.

You will be asked what their fate is to you? Many years ago, as I sat in prison surrounded by a gloomy silence, the wicket in my cell door opened, and my eyes fell on an envelope which brought me a greeting from afar, a good wish from a group of sympathizers in Switzerland. Then I was happy. My strength was revived by the consciousness that outside the prison walls there were friendly hearts that understood and sympathized, and longed to help me The prison walls opened before me, and my mind soared fearlessly to meet new dangers and sufferings. Friends, all Russia is an immense prison to every Russian of progressive ideas. It is worth everything to the men and women who are working for freedom in Russia to know that free and civilized nations sympathize with them and wish them success.

The party of progress in Russia is the more interested in having friends in all other countries, because it sees that the time of deliverance for the Russian people is coming nearer and nearer. All classes of the population are alike discontented with autocracy, all are longing to be freed from the yoke of despotism, and perhaps the happy day of our country’s deliverance is not far away.

But every political party that is in earnest, as ours is, wishes to secure in advance a friendly atmosphere, and to win auxiliaries that may help in case of need. Everybody knows that the struggle carried on by the progressive elements against Russian autocracy is not only difficult, but dangerous, and not only dangerous, but also very expensive. The autocracy has at its disposal armies of gendarmes of police, and of spies; it spends millions to hunt down and annihilate all those in Russia who differ with its views. On the other side are only groups of people without money, and persecuted even to death. We have scarcely time to get together and organize when we are attacked, arrested, imprisoned, and exiled. In Russia the government every year deprives the nation of the services of 10,000 men and women, the best, most capable, and most energetic in Russia, by imprisoning some, exiling others, and putting still others under police surveillance, which makes it impossible for them to work for their country.

Nevertheless, what do we see? We see the progressive movement in Russia growing day by day, and all classes taking a widespread and intelligent part in it. The system of despotic monarchy has so disgusted all the people, and the miseries resulting from it have brought them so near the verge of ruin, that no one, except a few unprincipled men immediately around the throne, is willing to have the present régime continue. And that is why all the government’s efforts to crush out everything that tends to emancipation come to nothing and cannot check the victorious march of progressive ideas, which are permeating even the deep mass of the Russian peasantry. This is also why I appeal to you, friends, to help a cause which not only is worthy of every aid, but has a brilliant and not remote future.

It is not weakness or lack of success that leads us to come to you; it is the enlargement of our work, and its success, almost beyond our expectations, that obliges us to appeal to the sympathy of free peoples for their help in this hour of a decisive struggle, where the victory will bring happiness to the whole of our suffering country. We must take care not to leave ourselves without support, at a time when a decided gesture, a severe word addressed to our government by the free government of a free country, might turn the scale in the right direction — that of the freedom and happiness of our people. You know that every struggle is carried on by means of two kinds of forces, moral and material; and we ask you for help of both kinds.

But, you may ask, where are the signs of this renaissance of the Russian people? What assurance have you that these people, mainly millions of peasants, dull, ignorant and brutalized, can make a rational use of their freedom after they get it?

The Russian government itself has answered the first question. By its present conduct, at once timid and hypocritical it has proved both its own weakness and its fear of the progressive movement, which it hopes to turn aside by promises and postponements. By allowing the calling together of the zemstvos, the Russian government has frankly confessed that it has not strength or wit enough to deal with all the circumstances and events that in these days make up the life of the people. The shocks that absolutism is receiving on all sides have made it stagger so often that it has lost the habit of standing firm on its feet. This very war with Japan — this murder, this carnage, this suicide of the Russian people — was it not the act of a madman, who, seeing an abyss opening under his feet, tries to drag everything above down into it? Think of all the sorrows, atrocities, and losses resulting from this war — a war that nobody needed, and that is hated and despised by the people, and then say if a government worthy of respect, and convinced of its own righteousness and strength, could have rushed into it, and thus revealed to the world all its corruption, ignorance, and contempt for its people’s happiness?

We see Russia not only unhappy, rent by all possible evils, but also humiliated, disgraced, degraded, as she has never been since the terrible days of the Tartar domination. The best of her sons are being killed; the rest of her population is being completely ruined, and the country burdened with debt for centuries to come, the odious game of the present government thus enslaving future generations.

After this, can you ask whether the Russian people could manage their own affairs better than they are managed by the Czar and his ministers? More than once the Russian people, as a whole, have shown themselves capable of deciding their own destiny and of making their own history, thanks to their common sense and courage. By searching the past, you will find that it was these same despised peasants who, with their own hands and on their own initiative, enlarged their country by territories such as Siberia, as all the northern part of European Russia, and all the lands that surround the Black and Caspian Seas. It was the peasants who saved the interests of their fatherland in 1613, when our great country was rent between aspirants to the Muscovite throne. They showed themselves dignified and wise at the time of their emancipation, forty years ago, waiting patiently for the justice of the Czar to give them a share of the “holy soil”, which is the Russian peasant’s only wealth, his only means of subsistence. The people were much more intelligent than the Czar. It was impossible for him to understand, as they did, — they who work, and by their work feed the whole Russian empire, — that unless they were given land they would be left without their only means of getting a living, while those who did nothing would receive the land ,which they would not know what to do with.

Afterwards, when the different districts obtained the right to have their zemstvos, was it not the peasants who showed by their example how the money and other resources that come from the work of the people ought to be expended? To this day, the two peasant provinces of Viatka and Perm, where there are no nobles, have the best schools, the best roads, the largest number of doctors, of libraries and of technical schools of all kinds, and even a newspaper published by the zemstovs on purpose for the peasants, a thing found nowhere else in Europe.

It is not forty years since the emancipation of the serfs, thirty years since we workers among the people first began to teach them. And now what a difference! The peasants have improved and developed till they are hardly recognizable. Experience has opened the eyes of our suffering country. She no longer believes in her Czar; she knows what he is worth; and, conscious of her own strength and her ability to act for her own welfare, she is asking for freedom. She is no longer willing to submit blindly to the will of a government that is ignorant and hostile to the nation’s real interest. These same peasants, who formerly could not read, or understand the state of things, now read and understand perfectly the books and pamphlets that we distribute among them by hundreds of thousands, to show them the best way to get rid of the yoke which is crushing them, body and soul. And now that the happy time has come with the people read and listen to us, when they welcome our literature, our advice, and our presence, we find ourselves still confronted by Russia’s evil genius, the autocratic government which persecutes everything rue, which destroys everything great. But this time we are the stronger. The people are on our side, and we must serve them, at whatever cost. And therefore, feeling that the time of deliverance is near, we appeal to all the friends of freedom, saying, “Please understand us, and please help us!”

We say it with the more confidence because we know that the abolition of Russian despotism is a question which closely concerns other nations, both in Europe and in America. We know, as you also know, what the fate is of the Armenians, the Poles, the Finns, the Jews, under the rule of Russian absolutism, and you know whether their fate is a pleasant one. You know, too, that the Sultan, and all other monarchs inclined to despotism, derive their strength and safety from the power of the Czars, who always try to maintain the authority of crowned heads. In the name of justice and of the general good, I entreat you, friends, to help us as you can and as much as you can, so that we may see our immense and beautiful country, with its kind-hearted and gifted people, free and civilized as soon as possible.


Delivered in Russian, with Abraham Cahan interpreting.



Source: Woman’s Journal, December 7, 1904.


Also: The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution: Reminiscences and Letters of Catherine Breshkovsky, ed. Alice Stone Blackwell (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company) 1917, pp. 112-118.