Mr. Hoffman to Mr. Blaine.
St. Petersburg , May 5, 1881. (Received May 27.)
Sir: Public opinion has been greatly excited here lately, and there has been much anxiety as to the course the imperial government meant hereafter to take in regard to the reforms initiated and projected by the late Emperor. It was understood that an influential party in the council, headed by the Grand Duke Vladimir, backed by nearly all the military element, was in favor of repression and coercion, and determined to rule by the right of force. On the other hand, General Melikoff, the minister of the interior, and undoubtedly the first statesman in Russia, supported by Mr. Abaza, the newly appointed minister of finance, was equally decided in favor of further concessions to the people and a gradual introduction of a partially representative government.
Last week it was rumored that the Grand Duke Vladimir had carried his point, and that Melikoff and Abaza had resigned. Fortunately these rumors were untrue, and General Melikoff’s extended plans of reform have been adopted in part, while other parts are still under discussion, with the probability that they too will be carried. The part already decided upon relates to the relief of the peasants, and is undoubtedly the most pressing, for the situation of a very large body of them is pitiable in the extreme. I am assured upon excellent authority that a ukase upon this subject will shortly be issued, an outline of which I am in a position to give you.
When the late Emperor freed the serfs in 1861, he provided a plan by which they might all become, as he hoped, peasant proprietors. To this end the dues heretofore paid to the owners of the soil were capitalized at 6 per cent., payable annually for forty-nine years. Four-fifths of the capital thus arrived at was paid at once by the state to those proprietors who applied for it, and the other fifth was to be paid by the peasant to the proprietor in installments.
Of the 6 per cent, paid to the state, 5½ per cent, was appropriated to reimburse the government and one-half per cent, was set aside as a fund to aid the peasants in emergencies. In the more fertile provinces of Russia this arrangement has worked very well. Of 8,500,000 peasant proprietors in all Russia, nearly four-sevenths have regularly paid their 6 per cent, during the last twenty years. But, and mostly in the poorer parts of the empire, at least three-sevenths of the peasants have failed to pay their dues. Arrears amounting to 16,500,000 roubles are due to the government, and there is no prospect of their ever being paid. This large sum is to be remitted in toto. So much for the past. For the future the peasants in the poorer districts, to whom these arrears have been remitted, will pay only 3 per cent., while the government will furnish 9,000,000 roubles per annum to prevent loss to the former proprietors on [Page 1016] account of unpaid moneys due them from the peasants. These nine millions will be taken in part from the profits (existing at least on paper) of the National Bank of Russia, and partly from the one-half per cent, above referred to, reserved by the government for the relief of the peasants in emergencies.
The sale of the lands by the proprietors to the peasants has been, as a rule, hitherto a matter of voluntary arrangement on the part of the proprietors, willingly carried out by them generally, as it furnished them with a large sum of ready money, never very abundant with this class. But there remains a body of at least 800,000 peasants who have not been able to come to terms with their landlords, The new law provides that after the 1st of January, 1883, the sale of land to these peasants shall be obligatory, with a view to carry out the plans of the late Emperor and to create the largest possible number of peasant proprietors.
A minor reform, but a very important one as calculated to prevent jobbing—the curse of Russia in the different departments—is this: Heretofore, a minister proposing an important concession, or measure of any kind within his competency, had simply to submit it to the Emperor, obtain his approval, and it became law. Hereafter, every measure must first be submitted to the council of ministers, and only after having obtained the assent of a majority of them can it be submitted to the Emperor for his approval and the necessary ukase.
It is to be hoped that these measures of wise reform, and, above all, of relief, projected by General Melikoff, will restore the waning popularity of the Russian Grown and check the spread of the dangerous doctrines of nihilism and socialism among the masses, heresies of an empty stomach only, which during the last three years have made such rapid strides in Russia.
I am, &c.,