Shortly before my departure from Vienna I chanced to meet an acquaintance, a Viennese writer.
"Are you really going to Russia?" said he. "I almost envy you, for it is to us a land of riddles. It has great artists and writers and undoubtedly a highly educated upper stratum of the nation; at the same time it displays political conditions really barbarous in their backwardness. How are these co-ordinated? How is the maintenance possible, in the close proximity of comparatively free governments, of a rgime which knows no personal liberty, no privacy of the mails, and in which there is but one masternamely, the absolute police?"
"You are raising the very questions which lead me there," I replied. "We do not know Russia.[Pg 2] We wonder at its great writers, but we cannot conceive how their greatness is possible under the existing conditions of public life, which remind one of a penitentiary rather than of a civilized state. And the question that persistently arises is whether our conception of these conditions corresponds to reality, or whether we are laboring under such a delusion as would befall one attempting to judge public life in Germany from the speeches of Bebel and other radicals. In truth, we know only the opposition or revolutionary literature of Russia; and, as far as appearances go, it is hardly credible that a system such as it describes and brands for its inhuman wickedness can long retain the ascendency."
"You are going, then, without prejudices?"
"I think I may say that I have none. We have long been cured of the notion that one and the same form of government may be prescribed as the only one leading to contentment in all times and in all countries. Deductive philosophy in political science has been replaced by inductive realistic philosophy, and a true understanding of existing conditions appears now to us of greater moment than the most beautiful ideals. Above all things, I feel myself free from the childish moral valuation of different political beliefs. One person may be at the same time a conservative and a gentleman or a radical and a knave. Should I come to the conclusion that Russian absolutism is or can be defended in good[Pg 3] faith by upright Russian patriots there will be nothing to prevent my freely admitting it. An unbiased observer should not be wedded to any doctrine."
"In that case I shall be doubly curious as to the results of your studies."