Prince Mikhaylo Mikhaylovich Shcherbatov (1733-1790) On the Corruption of Manners in Russia

[excerpted from Anthology of Russian Literature From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Leo Wiener, ed. and Tr. Pt. 1 (New York, 1902), pp. 287-291]

Ancient families were no longer respected, but " chins " and deserts and long service. Everybody was anxious to get some " chin," and as it is not given to everybody to distinguish himself through some meritorious act, many tried through flattery and subserviency to the Emperor and the dignitaries to gain that which merit gave to others. By the regulations of the military service, which Peter the Great had newly introduced, the peasants began with their masters at the same stage as soldiers of the rank and file: it was not uncommon for the peasants, by the law of seniority, to reach the grade of officer long before their masters, whom, as their inferiors, they frequently beat with sticks. Noble families were so scattered in the service that often one did not come again in contact with his relatives during his whole lifetime.

How could there remain any manliness and firmness in those who in their youth trembled before the rod of their superiors; who could not obtain any honours except by servility; and who, being left without the active support of their relatives, without union and protection, were left alone, at any time liable to fall into the bands of the mighty ?

I must praise Peter the Great for his attempts to eradicate superstition in the observances of the divine Law, for indeed superstition is not a worship of God and the Law, but rather a desecration; to ascribe to God improper acts is nothing but blasphemy.

In Russia they regarded the beard as a physical attribute of God, for which reason they thought it a sin to shave it off, thus falling into the heresy of anthropomorphism. They proclaimed everywhere miracles, needlessly performed, and holy images, whose properties were rarely attested; they encouraged superstitious worship, and increased the revenues of corrupt servants of the Lord. All that Peter the Great endeavoured to abolish: he promulgated ukases for the shaving off of beards, and by means of the Spiritual Reglement put a stop to false miracles and visions, as well as improper gatherings near the holy images on the crossroads. Being convinced that the divine Law demands the preservation of the human race, and not its uncalled-for destruction, he by a decision of the Synod and all the Patriarchs granted a dispensation to eat meat during the fast, in case of necessity, particularly in the service on the seas, where people are subject to scurvy; he ordered that those who, by such abstinence, of their own free will sacrificed their lives and became subject to diseases resulting therefrom, should be cast into the water. All that is very good, only the latter thing is a little too severe.

But when did he enact that? When the people were not yet enlightened, and by thus abating the superstition of the unenlightened, he at the same time deprived them of their faith in the divine Law. This act of Peter the Great is to be likened to the act of the unskilled gardener who lops the watery branches of a weak tree, that absorb its sap. If the tree were well rooted, this lopping would cause it to bring forth good and fruitful branches; but, being weak and sickly, the cutting off of the branches that imbibed the external moisture through its leaves and fed the weak tree causes no healthy and abundant growth of new branches, nor does the wound heal up, but there are formed cavities that threaten the destruction of the tree. Similarly the lopping off of the superstitions has been injurious to the fundamental parts of faith itself: superstition has decreased, but so has also faith; there has disappeared the slavish terror of hell, but also the love of God and His divine Law; and the manners that were formerly corrected by faith have lost this corrective and, lacking any other enlightenment, soon be-an to be corrupted.

With all the reverence that I have in my heart for this great monarch and great man, with all my conviction that the weal of the Empire demanded that he should have other legitimate children than Alexis Petrovich as heirs of his throne,-- I cannot but censure his divorce from his first wife, née Lopukhin, and his second marriage to the captive Catherine Aleksyeevna, after his first wife had been sent to a monastery. This example of the debasement of the sacred mystery of marriage has shown that these bonds may be broken without fear of punishment. Granted that the monarch had sufficient cause for his action, though I do no see it, except her leaning for the Muses, and opposition to his new regulations; but what reasons of State led his imitators to do likewise ? Did Paul Ivanovich Eguzinski, who sent his first wife into a monastery and married another, née Galovkin, have any reasons of State for getting heirs by breaking the divine Laws? Not only many hi gh dignitaries, but those of lower ranks, like Prince Bori's Sontsev-Zasyekin, have also imitated him.

Although Russia, through the labours and care of this Emperor, has become known to Europe and has now weight in affairs, and her armies are properly organised, and her fleets have covered the White and Baltic seas, so that she has been able to conquer her old enemies and former victors, the Poles and Swedes, and has gained fine districts and good harbours; although the sciences, arts and industries began to flourish in Russia, and commerce to enrich her, and the Russians were transformed from bearded men into cleanshaven ones, and exchanged their long cloaks for short coats, and became more sociable and accustomed to refinement; yet at the same time the true attachment to the faith began to disappear, the mysteries fell into disrepute, firmness was weakened and gave way to impudent, insinuating flattery; luxury and voluptuousness laid the foundation for their domination, and with it selfishness began to penetrate the high judicial places, to the destruction of the laws and the detriment of the citizens. Such is the condition of morals in which Russia was left after the death of the great Emperor, in spite of all his attempts, in his own person and through his example, to ward off the encroachment of vice.

Now let us see what progress vice has made during the reign of Catherine I. and Peter II., and how it has established itself in Russia.

The feminine sex is generally more prone to luxury than the male, and so we see the Empress Catherine I. having her own court even during the life of her husband, Peter the Great. Her chamberlain was Mons, whose unbounded luxury was his first quality that brought him to a shameful death; her pages were Peter and Jacob Fedorovich Balkov, his nephews, who during his misfortune were driven from the Court. She was exceedingly fond of ornaments, and carried her vanity to such an excess that other women were not permitted to wear similar ornaments, as, for example, to wear diamonds on both sides of the head, but only on the

left side; no one was allowed to wear ermine furs with the tails, which she wore, and this custom, which was confirmed by no ukase or statute, became almost a law; this adornment was appropriated to the Imperial family, though in Germany it is also worn by the wives of burghers. Does not this vanity seem to indicate that when her acre began to impair her beauty, she was trying to enhance it by distinctive adornments? I do not know whether this opinion was just, and whether it was proper for the Emperor to appear every hour of the day before his subjects in a masquerade dress, as if he lacked other distinguishing adornments. masquerade dress, as if he lacked other distinguishing adornments.