Recently, such a heretofore unheard-of dissonance and tangle of opinions, concepts and judgments has been going on in our society that one is obligated in spite of oneself, speaking metaphorically, to take a closer look at this skein of tangled silk and to attempt -- not to untangle it (that task, of course, is beyond anyone's strength), but just to take a look at how the knots took form, and why there are such a multitude of them. From these knots the skein of silk itself has lost its original form and appears to be a hideous, shaggy, snaggy tuft of tangled threads. At the present moment every honest person is drawn into solitude, to their own place, each public figure is urged towards the extreme; but there are different kinds of extremes, totally opposite to one another. And it seems impossible to stand in the middle. In the middle there's a crush, press, the bonfires of societal inquisition and the bonfires built by small circles of like minds, and God preserve anyone from falling into them. And amid this chaos, disorder, disturbance and anxiety there are people who are calling for a public opinion. Stubbornly, hard-workingly, and -- alas! -- fruitlessly they search for it, like a needle on the bottom of a stormy ocean. Each person who expresses an opinion sharply (although there are not too many like that, and they are persecuted by the majority, as if they had committed a crime in stating their case) is often taken by many as a harbinger of this public opinion, especially if they have even some slight authority. In this way personal opinion is not rarely taken for an echo of general opinion. But an echo can exist when there is a voice to echo, and we don't have one, or rather, instead of one there has arisen, and recently at that, a kind of incoherent babble. And about why there is no public opinion, which makes itself heard everywhere, in all the countries of the world, except maybe Turkey and China -- we would like to speak a bit. To do so, let us first take a look at what goes on in our society, and then in the family, and perhaps we shall find the true reason for this absence of public opinion, which is lamented by so many people among us, and about which we, let us admit it openly, cannot speak without bitterness and pain.
Public opinion … that's easy to say! But if one penetrates into the concept contained in this word, then we must admit at once that this is a force, and a great force, which directs whole nations. Only this force rules in societies that are mature, civilized, have worked out rights for themselves, conscious of the obligations of each in particular and the power of all together. This force can neither take shape completely nor act for the general good without another great force, with which it moves together in one direction, depending on one another like two wheels of the same vehicle. This other force is glasnost' [openness]. Public opinion is a marvelously well-trained chorus, performing at each moment a given tune in harmony. The voices of the choir are the voices of individual people, everyone, without respect to calling, sex and even age, for children too repeat what society says, and society develops and establishes their notions from a young age. But here with us? Take two people of one and the same circle: the two are apparently equally well- educated, similarly honorable, ir-reproachable in their private lives -- and? They differ in the most fundamental concepts, which in every other society have long ago received the patent of incontrovertible truth. We still have few definite concepts, founded on unshakeable bases, and the majority of individuals belonging to the less educated class do not have even the most elementary concepts. Was it long ago that we heard this sort of talk: One says with importance, as if he has made a discovery, "Theft is a great vice!" but another objects, "I beg your pardon! There are thefts and thefts. Some thefts are good deeds, or at least practical methods that are extremely useful in life." A third, hearing such extreme judgments, prudently keeps to the center and declares with self-confident self-satisfaction that theft should be understood variously, that of course calling theft a good deed is not quite right. Naturally, in the eyes of exalted people who do not discriminate among motives, circumstances, everyday necessity, often real need, theft is always a vice. But who is talking about that sort of people? After all, they don't walk on the earth, but have their heads in the clouds! Speaking simply, reasonably, theft is an inevitable evil, an inalienable appurtenance... "Of Russia?" you interrupted with horror. "Oh, no, why of Russia? Just of all Europe, of the whole educated and uneducated world," some Krutogor Confucius used to answer you, having grown accustomed in his own backwater to passing for an oracle and holding to the center everywhere and in everything, even in a place where the center could not be found. You would try in vain to object, to prove, to beg him to read books, the magazines and newspapers of the west. The very same Confucius would strike back that all the books, magazines and newspapers of the west are lies, lies and lies, that no one is about to write about their own flaws, and would express the thought that only someone who doesn't love his fatherland could speak about the abuses, disorders and messes that go on inside it. At that the majority of listeners would evidently sympathize with the Confucius and he, animated in his turn by this sympathy, would unfold for you many Truths, long accepted by all his neighbors. Here you would learn that in England they take bribes, that they will die from hunger if the Russians refuse to supply it with grain, that the Russian peasant is stronger than any force, and that the self-taught Russian is smarter than all the scientists; that in England and in France the great discoveries were made out of hunger, that in Europe everyone is dying a hungry death, that the people fall down and sleep on the streets from the crowding and stuffiness, and that Russia is the richest of all the countries on the globe and so on and so forth. Didn't every one of us hear all, this not more than six years ago, and who can guarantee that you won't hear something like that these days? You would observe lyricism, and poetry, and genuine comicality. Everything turned up: brave metaphors, and bright hyperbole. One such Confucius went so far that he laughingly told the story of how in the west cows graze on the roof! "What do you mean, on the roof?" "Yes indeed: there is no grass, so they pick moss on the roof." This was already a bon mot, a bold hyperbole! And everything was covered with a laugh of approval.
Another, raising a truly enormous and robust fist above his head with pathos, would exclaim with fervent temper, "What do they have? (the French) We have everything here!" and would shake his fist. The listeners would be ecstatic and moved to tenderness. This was at the beginning of the Eastern [Crimean] War. There were of course people who were less sure or bold, who would not bring themselves to say certain things: it was shameful somehow; but a word is flexible, you have to know how to handle it. Where you put in a laugh and a joke, where a smooth phrase, sentimentality, an unexpected turn, so that the most obvious lie would turn into a seductive form of verisimilitude, which was passed off as the Truth. And a person whose opinions were unformed (and they are of course legion) would yield, and now too will yield to these arguments, bite at this hook. And the herd trait, the trait most characteristic of us, beckons and before you know it many, and very many, have agreed with the phrase-monger. Why is that? It's very simple. No one had even the slightest respect for the truth, and no one loved it; sometimes they spoke about it but never felt any serious concern for it. One felt the need to say something witty, another to distort the truth for his own purposes, the third to strut with his dialectical and sophistic capabilities, and the last one, finally (and how many of them there were!) to show off some sort of dull and ignorant bias towards everything native, even if that be bribes or violence. This peculiar type of pseudo-patriotism, with which many were infected, was distinguished by an unbearable strutting and an intolerant self-praising. People would begin in vain to explain to them that this is not patriotism but savage ignorance, that the prototype of that kind of patriotism could be found only in China or Japan.
A horrible confusion of ideas, like the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babylon, overpowers us even now. But then the majority did not have even a common standard, that this, say, is good, and that is bad. What one considered the epitome of disgraceful violence, another would dignify with the fine-sounding name of right and even of duty, and without fail sacred. What one considered a dishonor, others considered an honor and at most everyday wisdom. Proof of such a confusion of ideas is the fact that someone would, with incomprehensible naîveté tell a story about how they had done this or that. If you, struck by the story, were surprised, the narrator would be surprised at your surprise and exclaim, "What's wrong with that?" If you kept silent, they did not even suspect the feeling that had seized you; if you spoke your mind hotly and impulsively, the narrator would not be embarrassed but would listen to you as if to a lunatic and would marvel, marvel for a long time, that there are such blockheads in the world, who lose their temper because of the most ordinary, commonplace thing. Should we cite a few examples and truly instructive conversations?
"I'm not rich now, but I will be rich," said a young man in a drawing-room, obviously intending to marry the hostess's daughter and evidently wishing to present himself in the most advantageous manner. "I'm the favorite son; father will give me the better part of the estate."
"But you have sisters, don't you," someone observed.
"Sisters are not heirs in the presence of a brother," the young man objected, flaunting his knowledge of the laws. "Mama, it's true, stands up for my sisters, but that's nonsense, just for show; she herself doesn't have anything."
"How is that?" one of the listeners objected, "when the whole fortune is hers? She was one of the richest brides in our city."
"She was, but it's all over!" said the young man, laughing. "Things went like this. Papa got into a lot of debts and confided in Mama: this and that, we have to pay the debts. She loves him like crazy. Pay, she says. He sold the best of her estates, took a lot of money, and with the leftover sum bought himself a magnificent estate, all fertile meadows on the Oka river. Now the fortune is his, and she has only the Vladimir estate left, a very poor one. He also cut down the forests there and sold them. He also has promissory notes from her."
"But how is that possible?" one of the company timidly said.
"An everyday thing! Their business, not ours! My father is a very smart man!"
"Extremely smart!" everyone exclaimed in chorus.
And here is another conversation.
"I am the boss at home," said a broad-shouldered, red-cheeked landowner in the pink of health. "Everyone toes the line with me. I don't let anyone off! And I know everything. I have an unusual procedure, I know what's going on in the barn, in the stable, in the yard and in the village, in the women's quarters, in my daughter's bedroom, in my wife's study. I know everything. It's settled and adjusted. And why? I have my own police. I get up, Fedot appears: whatever is in his department, he reports it; then the butler comes, and then Aksyutka, the wife's maid -- and I give my orders. Can you have order in a house without that? And what fine fellows my young men are, from the stables: they'll thrash anyone if I just move my little finger. Last year, believe me, they flogged a merchant. I had been meaning to settle accounts with him for a long time."
"He could take you to court! A lawsuit means ruin.
"No, my dear sir, it was all put together very skillfully. But I'm not responsible, I don't know anything about it, and there are no signs of bruises."
Then followed the repulsive details of the most savage violence, united with purely Asiatic craftiness.
And everyone listened, many laughed, the relatives called this sort of gentleman a fine fellow and a success, while the acquaintances perhaps did condemn silently, but continued both their acquaintance and their friendliness.
And here is the story of a lawsuit over a promissory note.
"They beat me at cards, I tell you, and got me to sign a promissory note for a hundred thousand while I was drunk," a thirty-year-old gentleman was once saying. "I was young and inexperienced. Like it or not -- you have to pay up. I went here and there, and one old man tells me, an old friend of my late father, a solid person, respectable: 'Go see Amalia Petrovna,' he says, 'give her a present.' And Amalia Petrovna is the friend of a very important person. I went, I gave her a present; she promised; only, she says, go see Semyon Ivanych. And Semyon Ivanych is this very important person's valet, and an important person himself. I went, drank tea twice, chatted with his daughter. And his daughter was brought up in a boarding school, a real young lady. Maybe I caught her fancy -- and everything worked out!"
"Well, like this! The important person called in my creditor, and he says, 'won this at cards, eh?' And he shows my IOU. The man tries to back off, but no, he's not facing a fool. He shouts, 'I know! I know it all! Burn the IOU over this candle, or things will be bad! I'll send you to where the raven doesn't even bring bones!" So he burned it and was even glad, said thank you."
"Oh, no! not to me. He cursed me like hell, and he's still cursing me now. He thanked that... very important person.""You managed your affairs masterfully, sir!" said an old man, sitting in the corner.
The story-teller rubbed his hands with self-satisfaction.
But, the reader will say, all that is very nasty -- but these are the exceptions. No, in that time, not so very long ago, this was very ordinary business, and you could still find a multitude of stories like these; but let's move on to less nasty and more simple ones, trivial ones, if you will, but every detail contributes to the picture of a society and is very much to the point in describing it.
A big gathering. A fancy drawing room, and the guests all from the best society, so-called high society, which would presuppose at least a certain level of education. The conversation got onto the topic of women's wiles and duplicity.
"Les femmes du monde sont bien perfides," said one thirty-year-old woman, extremely attractive, distinguished and splendidly dressed. "Once I was going to a distant city and I needed a letter of introduction to the wife of a very important person there. It was my girlfriend's cousin. I asked her for the letter. She showered me with compliments and sent the letter over the very next day. I set off, but on the road I got a message from my husband: he asked me not to go to N**, but to come to him. Of course I changed my plans. For a long time that letter of introduction lay forgotten at the bottom of my case. One day, going through my things, it caught my eye, and I got curious about what my friend had written about me. I opened the letter -- and what do you think? found a description of myself, and what a description! you can't imagine!"
"What, did she run you down?"
"And how! I was a flirt, and a malicious tongue, and ready to make every man quarrel with his wife and fall in love with me. But I didn't get angry: she added that I was smart as a demon, courteous, and fascinating as a siren. Thanks for that, at least."
"A fine friend!" someone exclaimed.
"They're all like that!" the story-teller said.
"But how could you bring yourself to read the letter?" said a twenty-three-year-old girl, sitting near the beautiful storyteller.
"I simply read it! what's wrong with that?"
"One doesn't read other people's letters!" the girl objected fairly firmly.
"One doesn't!" the beautiful woman exclaimed laughing. "So I'm supposed to believe that if you had someone else's letter in your hands you wouldn't read it!"
"I most certainly would not."
"Come come, please. You are saying all that for these gentlemen," said the beauty, pointing to the young men standing nearby. "Do you know the difference between me and you? I am sincere, while you are cunning and subtle. That is all lofty sentiments, a display of sentimentality, but life is something entirely different."
"Besides," an elderly gentleman of respectable appearance broke into the conversation, "there are letters and letters (as there are thefts and thefts, let us remind the reader). An intimate, so to speak entrusted letter is one thing; but a letter of introduction, that you requested, is another thing. It's within your rights, so to speak."
"Exactly, exactly, c'est bien trouvé. It was my right, and I took advantage of it."
"Of course it was your right," said a young woman, nice-looking, pale and in appearance very meek. "There are cases where you can't not take advantage of your right, in order to defend yourself. A small incident happened with me too, and it seems to me that I was within my rights. I don't know how you will judge it. I had a girlfriend; she lived with her malicious, venomous aunt and was in love with a certain young man, whom she was planning to marry. In order to spare herself interrogations, reproaches and gossip, she asked me to forward her letters to her sweetheart. I was silly and incautious enough to agree. In gratitude she quarreled with me, got me into a quarrel with my sister and her husband, did a thousand unpleasant things to me and declared that from now on she would receive her letters through other hands. Meanwhile, her fiancé was far away, and since she had not yet managed to inform him, the letters kept coming in my name. What was I to do with them? I took them, sealed them in an envelope and sent them to the aunt, with a request to pass them on to her niece. Well, I tell you, what a scandal there was! And me? I had nothing to do with it. I didn't read them; I admit that in this case that would have been bad. I returned them to the proper person for delivery. I was within my rights. Afterwards I found out that the aunt had read all the letters! And it serves her right! I was very glad."
Here's this simple right; would it be uncomfortable for you, reader, to turn your attention not to a simple, but to a sacred right?
A wife opens her husband's mail, a mother breaks into the case or bureau of her adult son or grown-up daughter, in search of letters, papers, diaries, and then says with puffed-up importance, with due self-reverence, "It is my duty, my sacred right!"
It should be pointed out that a husband can protect himself from his wife, and a wife, though to a lesser extent, can still protect herself from her husband, she can still struggle for her independence, but children, especially grown-up daughters, where can they go? They are dependent on their parents, they have nowhere to go, and besides they aren't allowed. They must by necessity to resign themselves and be silent. But what is the cost? It costs the happiness of their whole lives, the chance to breathe freely and often; the best of times, golden youth goes by in the stuffy atmosphere of family despotism. Hence marriage at any cost, marriage with whoever is available, and the disastrous consequences of this kind of marriage, forced by circumstances. We should perhaps object that one can't allow one's daughter to receive reprehensible letters. We will answer that this is the fault of bad upbringing and that an adult daughter cannot be stopped by these means. Seizure of one or many letters does not itself bring about cessation of the correspondence which displeases the parents, but only its painstaking continuation, but now in secret. If your daughter, thanks to you, is so badly brought-up that she receives reprehensible letters and you accidentally intercept one of them -- better burn it, but don't break the seal. The end does not justify the means. Besides, by what right do you want to intrude forcibly into someone else's soul, to read her sincere outpourings and to enter into her relations with this or that person? Is an adult daughter not a person, or is she guilty because she is not married? Or do you want to force her to regret that she has not yet gotten married? If a daughter loves her mother and father, has grown accustomed to sharing her thoughts, feelings, her whole life with them, she will have no secrets; if not, then let her, as an adult person, independent and free, share her thoughts and feelings with whomever she wishes. We have known many girls in our time who, wishing to escape oppressive supervision, wrote the most innocent letters to their girlfriends or the friends of their childhood, by means of their maids or nannies, and at eighteen they were growing accustomed to deceiving; falsehood entered into the whole structure of their lives and had a disastrous effect on their ideas, on their characters, which had only just developed. But we have inadvertently strayed from our sketch and hasten to return to it.
Have you or haven't you heard narrations, whole epics about the most disgraceful, heart-rending deeds, which were told from the comical point of view, and with genuine comic talent at that? If it were not so disgusting it really would be very funny. The storyteller enjoys himself: he swims like a fish in water, rejoices and sings like a lark on the spring sky; his listeners laugh till they drop, and when a lonely, timid voice protests, then the answer is constantly double.
"I beg your pardon! what is there to pity! It serves him (or her) right! I can't stand him (or her)!"
"And what if that happened to you?"
The storyteller would not be abashed but would object with self-confidence, "That could never happen to me!"
"Why couldn't it? After all, they’re the victim of the crudest violence -- of material strength!"
In answer everyone laughed, with the verdict, "Try to make sense of it!"
And then one would think of committing the great and heavy sin of asking fate to settle with the storyteller and punish him, if not in that way, then in some other.
The other answer is simpler. Even now one will hear it fairly often; it is without appeal, incontrovertible as fate, simple as truth itself. To all your objections they would answer you, laughing, "Come, come! that's all fine words!.."
A standard still has not been established: this is evident everywhere and in everything.
Now too, in Griboedov's words, just as before: "they scold them everywhere and receiv them everywhere!" We will not speak about the sort of people that our undeveloped, chaotic society looks upon ambiguously: some defend them, others condemn them. On the contrary, let us turn our attention to the sort of people who all of society (and this happens most rarely with us) judges unanimously, in complete agreement. There is no drawing-room, no family, where a certain gentleman is not discussed. As if the shameful truth were not enough -- slander comes to its aid. Many people say with bitterness that so-and-so is a monster and all but murders little children. It seems that each listener should have no doubt that if such a person were to appear, then exasperated society, which lacks the words to stigmatize him properly, would arise and throw him in disgrace out of its milieu, as someone who inspires loathing. But nothing of the kind actually takes place: it's just conversation, killing time, work for idle tongues that greedily seek nourishment, love for any kind of scandal, love (alas!) for dirt and trash. For whole days, whole evenings, in the course of whole weeks and months the drawing-rooms subsist on stories about so-and-so or so-and-so. He is a thief, and a profligate, and a spy; but the condemned appears -- and what happens? a change of scenery occurs, enchantment, white magic! The hostess's face shines; she greets her guest with a gracious smile; the host good-humoredly takes his hand and shakes it vigorously. The heroic guest sprawls in an armchair and begins to play the orator; people listen to him and marvel at him. "But still, say what you will, there is something special in this person," a subtle psychologist who arrives at the party notes, "after all, it wasn't easy for him to come in here: he knows how people look at him, what they say about him, but here he came in very boldly, he's talking like an orator! And everyone is listening! No, say what you will, an ordinary person would not be able to handle such a position!" And many people, hearing phrases like this, move from negation to surprise. But what are they surprised at? Thick skin, shamelessness, which move a person to despise honest people... and why? from the certainty that not a single person among us will bring themselves to tell a scoundrel that he is a scoundrel, will bring themselves, even without telling him this truth, to break off acquaintance and relations with him. It becomes understandable why, with such a societal structure, we have so many unexpected surprises and surprising transformations. Given such a state of things, not very long ago it was not strange and not surprising to see people angling for a favorable glance, fishing for a flattering word, madly chasing one another for the chance to do a favor for an important person. Passionate devotion, Asiatic adulation, a servile generation surrounded those who had power, and how often no one saw or wished to judge the person behind that power! Then grief came to the unfortunate, audacious one who dared to affirm that he was strong all right, but as a person no good and despite his riches quite a thief. Society would fling itself furiously upon the denouncer (especially in our provinces) and he would retain forever the indelible reputation of a dangerous, trouble-making per-son, an ill-intentioned person, in a word, a red. The voice of this red was worse than a voice crying in the wilderness: there at least there is no answer, while here instead of an answering they would start throwing stones, stones and stones! However, let's not feel too much pity and emotion. There were not all that many such Don Quixotes among us. The misfortune of meeting them often did not threaten us.
Society is something like a large family; a family is a little society, it's the prototype of a society. They are a collective. What was done in society was repeated in families, and vice versa. There was no evaluation, consequently there were also no rules of conduct. Let us take a wife and husband, brother and sister, father and mother. It is true, the respect which children are obligated to show their father and mother should fetter the tongue. Children cannot judge parents, and therefore we shall leave unfortunate relationships of that kind aside. They are inviolable. But a husband and wife are equal; a brother and sister are equal. Have you not had occasion to note that in domestic clashes and family rows, where there are never either conquered or conquerors, one would hear, and perhaps one can still hear such words, such accusations, that the battle ought to be the final and only one, for after it neither reconciliation nor bargaining are possible? One is accused, condemned, and there can be no more talk about him. It would seem that after all this a final, decisive rupture should be revealed. But nothing of the kind. The next day here they are coming together, kissing each other, just as if nothing had happened, and to all appearance peace has been concluded for ever. But this peace lasts for a day, two, a week; again the forces are prepared on one side and the other, the facts pile up -- and again a general battle is given, a mutual fight, where no one spares the other. The blows rain down, and again there is neither conquered nor conqueror. And the witnesses to all this are the whole family, the family friends, and, what is more frightening and horrible, small children! And the repetition of such scenes continues uninterrupted even until deep old age! Where here is the sense of one's own dignity, where is the moral feeling? There is not even a trace of them. It is notable too that here in Russia such horrible conflicts often conclude without pain, without true suffering, without breaking the whole being, but just as if people gathered and had a little fight, said plenty of horrible words to each other, one called the other "Thief! Scoundrel! Profligate!" but then look -- they are sitting together at the same table and drinking tea! Hence in the entr’acte presents, and attention, and kisses appear, just as in a family blessed by God -- and all that until the first skirmish, which quickly turns into the savage revelry of a terrible fight. A horrifying spectacle, disturbing to the soul, exhausting to the heart, blunting all the best sides of a person's nature.
No, in the majority of our families moral concepts and a moral sense have not yet been elaborated. Not to speak of the families where children witness the dirty scenes just mentioned, are there many families where moral concepts are inculcated in them? -- and who (we are always speaking of the majority) is going to do it? Of course we have many honest people, but they are honest by instinct, by scent, if one can express it like that, honest unconsciously. They have some kind of dark, murky concept of rule and right, constantly beaten down by everyday life as it flows by. Such people do not know themselves what to believe in, what not to believe in. In books they were taught one thing, life has taught them something else. Mother told them one thing in their childhood, but before their eyes she was constantly doing otherwise. And then they left their parents' house for school and service; their classmates, fellow workers, their acquaintances, everyone who stood higher and lower than they, perfectly calmly did things that were condemned only in books and in mother's dry maxims. In their soul, if they had a soul, was an inconsistent compromise in which there is a little bit of everything: both white and black, both light and mud, both good and evil. Are these in fact people? fathers of families? educators? And we are still taking the best of the majority of our society. Did everyone have a mother who was brought up decently? Did everyone have books? That's only the privileged individuals of our society. How many people are there who grew up like the grass in the fields and lived just as unconsciously as the grass vegetates! As far as our women are concerned, then the majority of them to this day do not have healthy, definite, established concepts. By this we do not mean to say that the majority is immoral. Heaven forbid! For a society as young as ours, it is still too early to be immoral. If it seems to be, then it is precisely because the masses have not yet grown up to consciousness, have not yet worked out principles for themselves.
In that time, not so distant from us, women were distinguished by a particular indifference to everything that did not bring material goods into the family. The rich ones thought exclusively of clothes, admirers and a prominent role in society. Vanity, arrogance, love of luxury held complete power over them and attaining the latter became the main goal of their existence. Who ruthlessly pushed husbands to make a career whatever the cost? Wives and mothers! Who consciously and unconsciously forced husbands to take bribes? Wives and even mothers! Who behaved with servile politeness to those in higher positions and put on airs in front of the lower to the point of forgetting any sort of propriety? Wives and mothers. Who taught men to bow and to cringe? Mothers always taught this, and wives finished the lesson! Poorer women in their circles were less to blame in these crimes, but then they held tight to the places their husbands occupied, and constantly crushed the slightest attempts at independence in their husbands. "What business is it of yours," they would say," to get mixed up in other people's affairs? Know your place. What, do you want to get us thrown into the street? Take a look at all these children of ours. They have to be fed and clothed." These same wives and mothers, complaining of poverty, wailing from morning to night and from night to morning, complaining of shortages in the house, finally forced their husbands to resort to secondary income, and then to struggle passionately to get lucrative positions. This became so much a part of custom that people would talk simply and openly about which profits came with such-and-such a position, from whom, how much, and how to take bribes. Could women like that bring up children? One would hear amazingly curious and edifying conversations. A peculiar ethics appeared, which a mother would preach to her son. You would often think: Lord forgive her, she knows not what she does.
A boy came home from school; his tender mother asked him, kissing and hugging him, what he had done, who he knew, and then the ethics would follow:
"You should get to know that general's son who studies with you."
"But he's so proud, mama; and he fights unfairly -- he's always trying to pinch and hit."
"Well, put up with it, do what he wants. He'll be useful to you later: his father is a highly-placed man; if you are received at his house, he'll get fond of you, God willing, and will get you a position later."
"Did you go to see the principal? and congratulate him on his rank?"
"But they make fun of me, mama. They say that I tell him everything, that I'm an informer and suck up to him."
"And why should you look at them? Don't listen to them; listen to your mother. Your mother wouldn't give you bad advice. Who is it that makes fun of you? Those rag-tags, your classmates? probably some sort of middle-class kids? They're really just what you need! You be obedient, and humble, and mind your manners. Respect the teacher, respect the overseer, show the principal that you're quiet and deferential."
"But mama, I don't know how."
"Then you're stupid! What do you mean, you don't know? Pick up his book, give him his handkerchief; bow a little lower when you meet him. Make sure he sees you more often, ingratiate yourself. He'll notice. And that's the important thing."
The boy comes home with a black eye.
"What is that!" his mother exclaims, throwing up her hands. "How did you get that?"
"Two of the boys at school started picking on Vanya. Mama, I like Vanya. He's so quiet and shy, and we're always together and we sit next to each other. I couldn't let them hurt him."
"Well what do you know, what a protector! What business is it of yours? They aren't bothering you, why do you butt in? You should keep out of it. And if you try to stand up for someone again -- they'll beat you up there, and I'll give it to you at home too. Imagine, he got the idea of standing up for someone!"
The boy doesn't arrive at the usual time, and when he gets home it is already evening.
"Where have you been?" his mother asks.
"I was punished," the poor kid says, hanging his head.
"What? for what?"
"Well, someone put some sparrows in the desks in the classroom and then set them free; the overseer got angry. He asks: "Who did it?" Nobody in class said anything. So they made us all kneel."
"Well, who brought in the sparrows? you must have seen who did it?"
"Of course I saw! Federov and Bezmenkin and Apenskoy brought them in a little basket and then let them out."
"Why didn't you tell them?"
"But no one told, everyone kept quiet."
"And what do you care about the others? You know your own place; if you're asked -- tell them."
After that comes a stern reprimand. The poor child is completely confused: his classmates demand one thing, his mother demands another.
"My children, especially the two little boys, are amazingly thrifty," a tender mama would say, stroking the head of a skinny, pale and gloomy little boy. "Their father gives them some money on their birthdays. Can you believe it, they never spend it, they save it; they'll wrap it up in paper and wait until something else comes their way. Sometimes I'll give them a penny, or someone will give them a present -- it goes right in there. Yes, yes! they're going to be little misers!"
"My son's even more economical," another answers. "He buys a lot of candies and then sells them to his sisters, at a profit of course, and what a profit!" And the kind mother bursts into good-natured laughter.
Many boys carried this passion for profits over into their schools and boarding schools, and, encouraged by their parents, at ten years of age they were already inveterate and skillful money-lenders among their classmates.
We also used to have occasion to hear reasoning not even of that kind, and opinions more striking in their ultimate immorality. It was impossible to get indignant at them, they only made a great pity rise up in the depths of one's soul: a total lack of acquaintance with the first, most important rules of honesty spoke out so unconsciously and naively.
"My son is unusually sensible and never gets carried away any more. Yes, I have to give him credit: where anyone else would perish, my boy just fattens very permissibly. Not long ago, an actress caught his fancy. And she liked him very much too. I have to admit it, I got scared. He's a young man: judge for yourself, he's only twenty-two years old. One evening I go into his room and say: "Listen, Kolya, you're young; don't get carried away. These actresses are dangerous. She'll just take an IOU from you, or she'll ruin you on presents." And he laughs. "What are you laughing for? You listen: I only want the best for you, I'm your mother; who'll tell you a good word, if I won't?" And he says: "Don't you worry!" -- goes to the table, opens the drawer and shows me a case. I opened it and gasped. A seal, and a really elegant one, carved from a single piece of coral and with his coat of arms. "Well?" he says to me, "no, mama! I don't give her presents, she gives them to me and ruins herself on me." I calmed right down, gave him a kiss, and now I don't worry about anything, not about that actress either. Il faut que juenesse se passe. After all, at his age he can't live as a recluse. Let him have his fun, so long as that doesn't harm his morality and his career. Yes, I can give thanks to God. So sensible and economical, and he doesn't get carried away! He doesn't get carried away!"
Our society hasn't yet worked out forms for itself, either. This is very noticeable, although we are all very concerned with forms and even discuss them a lot. Take a look at every one of our meetings, no matter what kind: what is it? Noise, uproar, screams; no one can hear anything, no one can understand anything. They applaud on faith, not knowing what for, just because the person next to them is applauding. Exactly the same absence of forms is in family life and private life. Take a look at this dandy in kid gloves, irreproachable clothing, with his hair fancily combed: a real European and that's all! Then take a look at this European at home. Here he's come home in a bad mood -- he was out visiting and paid compliments to all the ladies, spoke about progress and surprised everyone with his liberal way of thinking: he scattered flowers of eloquence and flashes of wit, but now he sets his home-bred habits free. Not so very long ago he would have pulled his servant Fedka by the hair; but now, alas! he must limit himself to just shouting; he calls him in such a voice that he frightens his elderly mother, seriously disturbs his wife or sisters. And better if the women don't get underfoot now: he won't think twice about shouting at his mother, calling his sister an idiot, insulting the governess, blowing up in front of his own children at their mother, his wife -- in a word, at home this European turns into a Tatar. And people like that are not exceptions to this day, although they are growing noticeably more rare and restrain themselves more. Yes, restrain themselves. And how recently (and in the provinces this sort of individual hasn't yet become extinct) all this was done without any sort of twinges of conscience, with some sort of flush of high spirits. "Well I'm the boss in my house, I won't have it!" Or, "I have a stern character, I don't like jokes, I have no intention of hiding it!" Then all this threw one into dispair: "When will our society come to consciousness?" the educated minority would exclaim. "When will there be an end to all this? Or is it only our grandchildren who will live to see the day when there will be people with definite concepts, unshakeable rules and indestructible strength of conviction!"
Given such a situation in society and in the family, it makes perfect sense that there couldn't be real respect for anything in them. If a person is unable to respect himself, who can he respect? He can only be afraid, and it goes without saying that he is afraid of many things and people. From here you get rag-people, cowardly people, people who are gossips and chatterers. Generous with words, pitifully timid in action. And everyone tries to look brave. Surely you have heard the way they would talk? Nothing less than heroes. And how witty! Their mockery spared nothing and knew no bounds. Not so long ago virtue and empathy were called sentimentalism, lofty deeds were called exaltation, deeds of charity were called philanthropy (for that word was used among us until very recently in an ironic sense). They'll still chuckle now too, but before, and not at all long ago, they laughed at absolutely everything. They laughed at the mother who nursed her own children: she's trying to get attention; at the one who educated them: she's trying to be clever and showing off; they laughed at the woman who set up schools, started up hospitals: "What an upstart! trying to surprise us! you can't surprise us!" the village sages would exclaim. And really, how could you surprise them, when they weren't amazed at themselves, weren't amazed at their own stagnation, their neglect of all human feelings! A woman writer was subjected to condemnation. "Scribblers! Scribblers are sitting there!" we heard a few years ago in the theater, at which they pointed to the box where two women writers were sitting. They also laughed at writers who expressed thoughts that didn't not suit the taste of the majority of landowners. "Those rag-tags!" they exclaimed, "paper-dirtiers, bootless beggars! easy for them, they have nothing to give away!" They also mocked nurses. We well remember that difficult period [of the Crimean War], a horrible period, which was not easy to live through, and not everyone was lucky enough to live through it! Then thinking people, who made up a striking minority, ones who loved their fatherland, suffered heavily. The rumor spread that the women of the Russian land were called upon to tend to the wounded -- and they were found. Some left their monastery cells, others their lifelong homes and peaceful family corners; many who had no refuge, sorely wounded by the battle of life, raced impetuously into another battle, and muffling their personal sufferings they dedicated themselves to the difficult feat of nursing. There in Sebastopol, under the buck-shot and the bullets, in mud and blood, amid all the horrors of death, without sleep, often without food, covered by filth, day and night, night and day they tend-ed to the wounded, they received the last gasp of the dying, passed on the last words of the dead to relatives and friends. Mother, wife, sister and fiancée owed it to them that they heard the last words and wishes of their dear ones. Officers, but especially soldiers, shared the last they had with them, surrounded them with respect and care. Ask them even now about the nursing sisters -- their testimonials are unanimous: they speak of them as if they are saints, they recall their feats with reverence. And what did the masses of our society say? When the rumor came through that these women were going to the Crimea, who among us did not hear scornful opinions, vulgar jokes and far-seeing suppositions? Many told stories about how the nurses quarreled at the very first station and even came to blows and all ran away; others asserted that they were going not to look after the wounded, but in search of amorous adventures. The first letters of one of the sisters, simple-hearted, touching, were met by one part of the public with mistrust, by the other part with indifference, and they went unnoticed. It is true, since then much has changed, but not so much as to disappear completely. They have stopped laughing at the nurses, but to this day they do not show them the respect that they deserve. Proof of that is in the fact that every word of sympathy and respect moves the nurses inordinately, and in their grateful words one can guess that they are not used to them. Society has not pampered them! Many of them died in Sebastopol, worn out by labor and illness. Who knows their graves? Where are the monuments? Where the epitaphs? Where are the names? They perished -- and that's the end of it: no one has mentioned them in public with a good word, no one has passed their names on to posterity. But everyone knows about Miss Nightingale. We respect strangers, we don't know our own!
But that is not all. Who among the Russians has heard of L'vov and of Doctor Gaz? Both were remarkable people. If they had lived in another country, there would already be several biographies and articles about them. Both gave away their fortunes to the poor, both devoted themselves to the service of humanity, both converted criminals to the true path, aided the unfortunate, propagated Christian virtues and were themselves their living incarnation. I once saw Doctor Gaz. His was a remarkable face and a remarkable appearance. Nobility, endless meekness and goodness breathed in every feature of his splendid, regular face. We happened to hear people speak about him. Having given away all his fortune, he no longer traveled in a carriage, but he would take the poorest of the Moscow coachmen to make his trips to the prison where his truly Christian activity was concentrated. People pointed fingers at him out the windows of noblemen's palaces: "Look," practical people would say, "there goes crazy Gaz. Gave away all his money, ran through his property; now he's a beggar himself and is always trying to help convicts. They just die laughing at him, and while he's sermonizing to them they steal the last handkerchiefs out of his pocket. Insane!" It seems that the struggle was too much for Gaz; among abuses of every kind that anger the soul, among the indifference of society and inimical instructions, in the struggle with untruth and lies, his strength was exhausted. What he must have borne, what he experienced, lived through, suffered through! When he died, there was no money left for his burial. He waits for a biographer to this day, and for now one can only say of him that he was a man of God in the full sense of the word!
So the best people perish! That society (and, really, that time has not yet moved away from us entirely) had neither enthusiasm, nor faith, nor fire; it was as imperturbable as an eastern Aga, as immovable as a Chinese, as ossified as a mammoth and as indifferent as a Turk intoxicated with opium. It was able only to mock, and to mock indifferently. True, it often mocked sharply, wickedly and accurately, it had a penchant for nicknames; but who is flattered by this trait! One should stigmatize the dishonorable, one may make fun of the vulgar and petty, but to laugh indifferently is an indication of deadness, an absence of all sorts of higher interests, a symptom of decay, of moral corruption. We do not, however, admit the complete corruption of our society, but rather indicate the corruption of that generation, which thank goodness is little by little leaving the scene and being replaced by a fresher, stronger, healthier, younger element. The chaotic condition of the majority of our society is so perceptible now because the young generation has not yet fully pushed the old into the background. But our young generation too, poorly brought up, having seen as children universal abuses and arbitrariness, has developed in itself only a hatred for that sort of societal structure. It could not and did not succeed in storing up principles, clear concepts and a definite manner of thought. In it feeling predominates, not rational consciousness; not understanding of causes and effects, but just indignation. Given such a situation, where can a firm, orderly, strong public opinion take root? Its beginnings are springing up in the form of an unclear, weak prattle. But we believe that our society can move out of this condition very quickly, with the help of new forces and juices, which no one can help but see; if decay and corruption were universal it would be difficult to free ourselves, and besides it could only be done through terrible shocks, diseases. One needn't go far to find examples. Three revolutions led French society each time to a new order which, however, could not hold out, and it kept returning to the previous state. Now too it suffers from deep ulcers.... Where is their medication? Can we foresee healing? We, thank goodness, seem not to be in that sort of position. Since some while ago the majority of our society has changed in many ways, and a minority of significant numbers has appeared which, strongly aware of the moral nonentity of the world surrounding them, cries out strongly against it and finds sympathy even in the majority that lags behind. A cheering sign! The only dangerous thing sin this embryo of life manifesting itself is self- satisfaction, self-adoration, arrogance and an overblown opinion of oneself. That time has passed (and without return, it seems) when we praised ourselves and sang hymns to ourselves: when we not only were not ashamed of our sores but even strutted them: this was rotting in a swamp, and the ray of consciousness did not yet glimmer before us, there was no hope for salvation. Now we have all become conscious of many of our flaws and of the whole disorder of our societal structure. Who could assume that it's not hard to throw a stone at one's own native milieu! Each person who throws a stone at it throws it at themselves, because each person is a member of that immense number of people of their country which is called society. Any person worthy of being called a person loves their own fatherland; you can't not love your mother, you can't not love your motherland. Our homeland is our mother, before the mother who gave birth to us. But love is the strongest feeling, and at the same time a most diverse feeling. It takes on all forms and types. Love is often stronger when it appears in the form of hate. That is a diseased love, love that has turned inward, tormenting and torturing. It is not easy to suffer it. One cannot blame those who with grief and pain accuse their fellow citizens and consequently to a certain extent themselves of weaknesses, deficiencies and flaws. But what can one say of people who place themselves above the milieu in which they live and act, scornfully accusing society of its flaws and deficiencies, speaking of it with contempt and coldness, stigmatizing it from the height of their own grandeur, not even wishing to see how many huge steps towards self-consciousness and therefore towards correction it has made in recent times? What was done in public and without any twinges of conscience is now done in secret and at that much more rarely; what was said openly and simply people no longer dare to hint at. Many things have disappeared altogether. But those who proclaim calmly and arrogantly that our society is incapable of anything and fit for nothing, who see its salvation outside it, not within itself, do not want to know about that. They have set an unconditional scorn for society loose on themselves, they want to remake and educate it by means of that very same antediluvian birch rod, and by their near-sighted theory they do not see that nothing can save a society if it itself does not want to look at itself, if it does not wish to work or cannot work on its own moral development. A public opinion, if it had taken shape and existed with us, would evaluate this sort of trick according to its merit. If it existed, many things would be impossible; it would give resistance and would take many people down a peg and show many people their proper place. Given the existence of a public opinion, many things that now plunge us into indignation or dejection would not be possible. The multitude of phrases, thought up in minutes of idleness and advanced as indubitable truths, put into circulation with incomprehensible boldness, would not confuse weak people who had no established opinions, would not darken the wakening feelings of justice and equity. A public opinion would indicate the proper place to those who, acting the genius, teach us theories that have been known for a long time, who pass them off to us as the epitome of all wisdom, which we should study with a befitting trepidation and with the amazement and reverence due to the great Columbus of this new America. If we had a public opinion, there is no doubt that its voice would in time stop those who, perhaps unconsciously, insult the injured, denounce the mute, throw stones at the fallen, wound the speechless, rise up against those who have been deprived of their rights. Public opinion would remind many people who consider themselves infallible that there is a limit thou shalt not transgress; that limit has a magical strength. Beyond that fateful limit things heretofore useful become harmful, talent becomes a lack of talent, strength becomes powerlessness... And as if only a few things are lost! Such is the awesome power of all Rubicons! Public opinion can indicate where precisely the Rubicon is. It can restrain, indicate the place, the significance, the path, it can lead and stop; it can say what is worthy of praise and honor, and what of reproof and indignation!
Vremia, vol. 10, no. 6, June 1862
Translation copyright Sibelan Forrester. Please cite properly.