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How strict was the ban on The Bell?

July 10, 2013

Sarah J. Young is rereading Leskov and makes an interesting point about a publication banned in Russia:

Nevertheless, the reference indicates the significance of [Gertsen’s Kolokol, or The Bell] from its earliest editions, while the source of the copy the Archpriest [Tuberozov in Leskov’s Cathedral Clergy] reads – the new chief of police Ignacy Czemernicki – is notable. The latter point is reinforced in the second reference […]:

December 20th [1857]. I am utterly perplexed. The sacristan’s widow unthinkingly sent her son a one-ruble banknote not by registered mail, as required by law but in a plain envelope; at the post office the envelope was unsealed and, after the widow’s crime was uncovered, her missive was confiscated and she was subjected to a fine. It is no news to anyone that letters are opened and read at the post office; but just how is it that they intercept the widow’s banknote but not the Bell, which I get from the police chief? What is this – simplemindedness or theft? (p. 62)

This is interesting for two reasons. The first relates to a question I was asked several times at the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the Free Russian Press: how did Herzen manage to smuggle so many copies of Kolokol into Russia?Given the context we see in Cathedral Clergy, where nihilists and local officials are apparently cut from the same cloth (both representing different facets of Europeanized, modern Russia), and the fact that in reality Kolokol was read in the highest echelons of government, the only possible answer appears to be: with a degree of official complicity that renders the notion of illegality, and even of government and opposition, weirdly compromised.

There really was some ambiguity about how serious the ban on Gertsen’s Kolokol was in the late 1850s. Here’s another retroactive look at that time, from Avdot’ia Panaeva’s memoirs:

I saw the historian Kostomarov for the first time when he came to see us shortly after his exile; I knew all about his arrest and banishment from St. Petersburg. […]

As he left our dacha for his steamship, he asked Panaev for the entire year of Kolokol, which he had not had the opportunity to read during his exile. The bundle of issues was rather bulky. A cab was summoned, and Kostomarov left, promising to come back to our dacha again soon.

Not half an hour had passed when I saw Kostomarov walking around the untended garden near our dacha […]

“Gentlemen, that’s Kostomarov, isn’t it? How did he end up in the garden?” I said to Panaev and Nekrasov.

At first they didn’t believe me […]

We set off to meet him halfway and noticed he was very upset about something.

“What happened?” we asked him.

“A great misfortune,” he said softly, “let’s go inside the dacha right away and I’ll tell you all about it, I can’t tell you out here!”

We were also upset, unsure what sort of misfortune could have befallen him.

Arriving at the dacha, Kostomarov, exhausted from walking, sank onto a bench, and we surrounded him, waiting impatiently for an explanation. Kostomarov looked around in all directions and said quietly,

“No one is listening to us…? I lost the issues of Kolokol.”

“Lord, and we thought that God knows what had happened!” said an irritated Nekrasov.

“Wherever did you drop them?” asked Panaev.

“I don’t know; I wanted to put my arms through the sleeves of my overcoat and set the bundle down next to me. I got lost in thought… went to pick it up and it was gone! I hurriedly paid the cabbie and walked back along the road hoping I would find it, but I didn’t. It means someone picked up the bundle.”

“Of course someone did if you didn’t find it,” replied Panaev, “and if it was someone educated, they’ll silently thank whoever gave them the opportunity to read a whole year’s worth of Kolokol.”

“And if they take it to the police? If an inquiry is begun, and the cabbie says where he picked up his fare?”

“What’s wrong with you, Kostomarov?” Panaev reproached him.

“And your servant can say I was the one who lost it!”

“But the servant wasn’t even in the yard when you left,” Nekrasov reassured him.

“Why did I ever bring Kolokol with me?” said Kostomarov in despair.

Everyone started reassuring him, even laughing at his fright, but he said,

“Oh, gentlemen, a frightened crow is afraid of a bush. If you had had to go through what I went through, you wouldn’t be laughing now. I have been convinced through experience that a trifle can evidently make a man suffer a great deal. Returning to St. Petersburg I swore to myself that I’d be careful, and then I go and do this like a boy!”

There’s more in this vein when Kostomarov leaves the next day but wants to get their stories straight for when the police come knocking, but Panaev continues to think the situation is trivial.

Here’s my theory: it really was helpful to Alexander II’s administration, pre-1861, to have both a ban on Gertsen’s publications and lax enforcement of that ban. The lax enforcement lets him move the Overton window, so the hard-core pro-serfdom landowners look at his proposed reform and see it as moderate compared to Gertsen’s (and the muffled in-country liberals’ and radicals’) ideas for emancipation on terms favorable to the serfs. The ban itself also lets him plausibly present himself as to the right of Gertsen, while official approval of Kolokol might make the slaveholders think the administration and abolitionist writers formed one large party. But I’d also be curious to hear more about what was going on.

[Update 7/30/13: there is a similar passage in Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864) where Petr Lukich Glovatskii uses reading The Bell as an example of something that seems daring to a timid progressive of the older generation like himself, but trivial to the reckless 1860s young people. See book 1, chapter 12.]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2013 9:40 am

    Very interesting! I love having my (inevitably simplified) image of the past complicated like this.

  2. July 17, 2013 4:20 am

    Interesting indeed – thanks for alerting me to this, which I don’t think I’d come across before.

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