Mr. Schuyler to Mr. Fish.
St. Petersburg , November 16, 1874. (Received December 5.)
Sir: I have the honor to inform you that a law has recently been signed by the Emperor for the registration of marriages and births among the dissenters from the orthodox church. By this law an end is put to the period of persecution of the dissenters, which has now lasted for more than a century.
Although of late years the laws against the milder forms of dissent have not been put into execution, still they were under a ban because [Page 1022] their marriages were not legal unless celebrated by priests of the orthodox church. For that reason many persons have had recourse to the church to celebrate their marriages, although they have still been in heart dissenters, and often more bitter opponents than they were before. Many, on the contrary, have denied the necessity of any form of marriage, and have thus given rise to new sects, which are looked upon as extremely dangerous to the well-being of the country.
The present law is exceedingly liberal, in that it not only allows marriages to be concluded among the dissenters by simple registration, without the necessity of any religious form, but it gives the possibility of legalizing marriages previously contracted by dissenters, as well as of legalizing the births of the children, even though one of the parties to the marriage be dead. One slight exception remains: The persons to be married must have belonged to the dissenting community from their birth. This is perhaps intended as a threat against proselytism, but experience has shown that the impossibility of contracting legal marriage is no obstacle to the spread of dissenting belief. In some respects, indeed, the new law gives dissenters greater privileges than it does to othodox Christians. Their marriages are legalized on their simple declaration, subject, indeed, to the general laws of the empire, but not subject to any special regulations with regard to days, times, or religious observances to which the orthodox are compelled to submit. The divorces, too, among the dissenters, and all questions regarding marriage, are to be settled by a civil court; whereas orthodox Russians can only be divorced by a long process to be carried on before the ecclesiastical authorities. The causes for divorce are, however, the same as for the orthodox population, i. e., adultery, or physical incapacity. The Protestant sects are allowed greater liberties of divorce in accordance, with the dogmas of their church.
This legalization, if I may so call it, of dissent, will, no doubt, have considerable influence, and this law must be regarded as one of the most important reforms of which the reign of the present Emperor has been so fertile.
The number of known dissenters who will profit by the new law is estimated to be at least a million, while the number of secret dissenters rises to fully eight or ten millions.
I have, &c.,