While China was fighting against progress and Japan was hermetically sealed, the vast north of the Asiatic continent of Siberia was a little explored region, without communication with the outer world.
The growth of the Russian Empire is one of the most remarkable facts of modern history. We have already seen its first awakening under Peter the Great. In the dark cathedral at Petersburg, "amid surrendered keys and captured flags," sleeps that great king, whose monument is the Russian nation to-day.
"Peter was born and Russia was formed," Voltaire had once truly said. It would take too long to tell of the old hero Yermak, in the sixteenth century, who first crossed the Ural mountains, conquered the savage tribes in the desolate regions beyond, seized the capital Sibir, from which Siberia takes its name, and gave five million square miles to Russia in Asia. The wealth of fur, in this lonely region, drew on Russian explorers, at the same time that the Hudson's Bay Company were building forts in North America. The vast distances, the awful climate, the strange people, required heroism, of which these pioneers might justly be proud. Starvation and frost-bite took their yearly toll; more than once, it is recorded that men ate men in their extremity; but bravely they pushed on. Tobolsk was founded, the Lena river reached, the city of Yakutsk became a fur-trading centre, and at last the Russian flag was planted on the shores of the Pacific, at the Sea of Okhotsk. And "when the Russian flag has once been hoisted, it must never be lowered," said the Russians.
With the acquisition of Kamchatka, early in the eighteenth century, the Russian flag waved all over the northern territories of Asia, from the Ural Mountains to the sea. Only conflict with the Chinese Empire stopped further expansion for a time.
How Russia's efforts to obtain a "window towards Europe" were thwarted by England and France in the Crimea, has already been told. The story of the Afghan frontier is also told. Now we are concerned with Siberia, for, to-day, the story of Siberia is the story of Russia.
"Siberia is Russia," says a Russian traveller; "five million square miles, in which whole countries are a quivering carpet of wild-flowers in spring, a rolling grain-field in autumn, an ice-bound waste in winter, stored full of every mineral, crossed by the longest railway in the world, and largely inhabited by a population of convicts and exiles."
The exiles of Siberia conjure up a vision of all that is saddest in the world's history. The first exiles were Swedish prisoners of war sent to Kamchatka, after Pultowa, by Peter the Great, most of whom died before ever they reached their gloomy goal. Not only prisoners of war, but those accused of civil offences in Russia, were next banished, until masses of political offenders—for there is no freedom of thought in Russia—were exiled too.
Men, women, children, bound in chains, had to make their way on foot from Moscow to the Ural Mountains. At a famous boundary post, they bade farewell for ever to their native country, and stage by stage tramped wearily eastwards, begging their way from village to village. This was the refrain of their begging song:—
Hundreds died before they reached the gloomy prison-houses of Tomsk and Irkutsk, which they should never leave again. There were scenes of terrible cruelty, and death was a welcome relief to the heart-broken exiles.
To-day such scenes are impossible. Exiles there still are and exiles there will be, until Russia's manhood awakens and demands freedom of thought.
Across the vast roadless country once trodden by long lines of hopeless exiles, runs the great iron railroad from Moscow to Port Arthur. The story of its growth is well known. Suggested by an Englishman, the scheme was laid before the Russian Government by enterprising Americans. In face of the changes coming over the Far East, it was decided to embark on the vast project. The present Tsar Nicholas laid the first stone of the railway himself in 1891, at Vladivostok—the "Lord of the East." For nearly 5000 miles, the iron road of "commerce and strategy" stretches eastwards from Europe to the shores of the Pacific. Nine days' travelling takes the passenger to Irkutsk, where the train is bodily lifted on to a steamer, specially constructed to break through the masses of ice and snow, which block Lake Baikal from December to April. This great Trans-Siberian railway—one of the greatest engineering feats of the age—forms the link to-day between Europe and Asia, between West and East, and who can foresee the infinite possibilities of the near future?
Such has been the development of Russia. Centuries of growth have given her an extent of territory superior to any other nation in the world. She is a nation among nations, and being a first-class military power, there is no reason she should not enlarge her boundaries further. She has long cast longing eyes towards India. Manchuria has not satisfied her designs on China.
But, turning to her internal life, we find that this great, this important country is living some centuries behind the rest of western Europe and America. Her Tsar is an autocratic ruler, and not one of her hundred and fifty million population has the slightest voice in her government. "Autocracy, orthodoxy, and militarism—these are the three pillars of the Russian State," says Tolstoi, a Russian social reformer. "We should all live according to the law of love, as the condition of bringing real brotherhood into a world torn by strife."
Tolstoi lives as he teaches others to live. Instead of ease and luxury, this man has chosen rather to live among the Russian peasants. With them he has ploughed the land and tilled the soil, with them he has reaped and sown: through the long winter, he has made boots, while he still teaches the law of love, the brotherhood of man.
It was in the spirit of Tolstoi that the Tsar summoned his great Peace Conference at the Hague in 1899. For a moment, men wondered if the vision of the poet might at last be realised:
But the traditions of the past were too strong for Europe to accept such a condition then. It is this same tradition, that has prevented the Tsar of all the Russias from helping his country to throw off her old-world fetters. If the Poles have been forbidden their language, the Little Russians their literature, the Baltic Germans their religion, and the Finns their beloved constitution, it is because the government methods of the Tsar are not his own. They are the outcome of the soil and of the autocratic system of past generations, which he represents to-day—a system too strong for one man to fight, too old to be swept away at will, too deeply rooted for even a Tsar to cope with.