Webster G. Tarpley, Ph.D.
September 23, 2013
This account, written by the American banker Wharton Barker and published in The Independent (LVI) of March 24, 1904, recounts Barker’s conversation with Russian Tsar Alexander II, the celebrated Liberator of the serfs, on August 17, 1879, a few years before his assassination at the hands of anarchists. Here the Tsar confirms that, at the height of the American Civil War in 1862-1863, the Imperial Russian government had issued an ultimatum to Britain and France specifying that, if these powers should intervene on the side of the Confederate States of America, they would immediately find themselves at war with the formidable Russian Empire. The Tsar explains that the Russian battle fleets which arrived to great éclat in New York and San Francisco in September-October of 1863 were the visible tokens of this policy. He also situates the Russian approach to the Civil War in the context of other cases in which Russia had acted to preserve a European and world balance of power designed to check the inordinate geopolitical and economic ambitions of Great Britain. Alexander II’s policy may be compared to the war-avoidance doctrine of Putin and Lavrov today. This extraordinary document will thus repay study by historians of the events of 150 years ago, as well as by statesmen of today.
Barker’s greatest hope, as he says at the conclusion, is that his countrymen will finally comprehend the motivation of their great friend in their hour of need. He writes that “if they will give due thought to the words of the Emperor Alexander II, [Americans] will do what is more vital in the shaping of the destinies of a nation. They will understand.”
And today, before they can understand, they will have to remember. Therefore we take this opportunity to cast belated light on these great events.
The Secret of Russia’s Friendship
By Wharton Barker
[Mr. Barker was the Presidential nominee in 1900 of the Anti-Fusion Populists, and for many years baa been one of Pennsylvania’s most famous sons. In connection with the following article it is only necessary to recall that he was the American representative of Baring Brothers, the London bankers, and in 1878 the financial agent in the United States of the Russian Government and entrusted with the building of four cruisers for its navy; that he was made Knight of St. Stanislaus by Alexander II, and later was called to Russia to advise in regard to the development of the coal mines north of Azov.- —EDITOR. ]
THE oldest, the most changeless, the most apparent, and yet the least comprehended policy, is the policy of Russia. Russian friendship for the United States, a marvel of history, has remained—still remains—the mystery of diplomacy. Accepted because it is the conspicuous fact, its solution has been abandoned, while its endurance has been most amazingly presumed upon. How long the rough awakening would have been delayed, were it the policy of any Government other than immutable Russia, Manchuria and the “open door.” of China would long since have disclosed. But Russia’s statecraft is not of the months or of the years; it is of the ages. It is not of monarchs, but of a dynasty; and it is less the policy of the dynasty than it is the need of a people and of a land.
To only one American, I believe, has the secret of Russian friendship for this country ever been explained. The explanation was made by the Emperor, Alexander II, fully, carefully, and with so much explicitness that its purpose was not to be misunderstood. I have refrained from the performance of the duty, which was imposed upon me by the conferring of the Emperor’s confidence, for nearly twenty-five years, until now; the time had not come when the events which he divined might be considered imminent, and the hour for the disclosure had not unmistakably arrived. The time, I believe, is at hand; and I make public, in complete detail, all the pregnant considerations of policy which were entrusted to my discretion, together with such intimate details of His Majesty’s reflections upon the condition of his Empire and upon the future domestic condition of the United States as will evidence the profound, the unerring premises of foreknowledge whereon the policy of Russia toward the United States has been based. I do so with a full appreciation of the grave consequences which may and, indeed, should attend a disclosure of such immediate and far reaching importance.
On Sunday morning, August 17th, 1879, I was breakfast guest of the Grand Duke Constantine at his Pavlovski Palace. The talk, enduring for two hours at the table and in the library, covered many small subjects of public and private interest; but nothing of real and permanent value was said. Had I not enjoyed intimate and confidential relations with many persons high in official and social rank at St. Petersburg, the invitation of the Grand Duke would have made a deep impression upon me; but, as I had been his guest several times before, and had been, as well, the guest of many others at the Court of Alexander II, I thought the morning’s entertainment was no more significant than any other social compliment.
I was in Russia that year upon invitation of the Grand Duke Constantine and Prince Sergius Dolgorouki, for conference with them and with the Ministers of Finance, Ways of Communication and Public Domain, as to large and important railroads, coal, iron and steel enterprises about to be undertaken in the South of Russia. During the preceding year I was financial agent in America of the Russian Government, and, with Captain Semetschkin, directed the building of the cruisers “Europe,” “Asia,” “Africa” and “Zabiaca,” for Captains Grippenburg, Avalon, Alexieff and Loman, at Cramp’s shipyard. These captains, and many of the subordinate officers, were superior men. Semetschkin and Loman are dead; Grippenburg is now a retired Rear-Admiral; Avalon is now Vice-Admiral and Chief of Staff of the Russian Navy, and Alexieff is Viceroy of the Asiatic provinces of the Far East.
I was about to take my leave of the Grand Duke, when my host said:
“Wait a few minutes and you will see I called you here this morning for a purpose.”
Soon the lodge bell was rung; and the Grand Duke, summoning me to a window opening on the courtyard, said:
“You will now understand why you are here. The Emperor is coming; he wishes to talk with you in a somewhat informal way—a way in which he could not talk if you were presented to him at formal audience by the United States Minister. I will present you to His Majesty in about half an hour.”
The Grand Duke left me at the window and went to meet his brother at the door step. With no escort of servants, no body guard of armed men, the Emperor, mounted on a brown horse, came into the yard. He had not come alone from Tzarskoe, Selo. He was followed by a one-horse phaeton, in which were two ladies—the Empress of Russia and the Queen of Greece, daughters of the Grand Duke Constantine. There was no pomp, no display—nothing to mark the distinction of the little party of great people who had driven through the park that summer morning. It was really a unique and most interesting beginning to an important interview.
A brief description of the room in which this portentous talk with the Emperor, Alexander II, took place, will increase the interest of the interview, for it marks the Oriental mind, to be found only in Russia and in China. The Oriental loves the beautiful, more, I believe, than does the Italian. He waits with patience the opportunity that brings about the accomplishment of his plans and hopes; and he knows, better than the men of the Western world, how to absorb and use individual men as well as nations.
The audience room in the Pavlovski Palace was in dimensions about sixty by forty feet; the ceiling was fully twenty feet high; large windows on each side overlooked the terrace and afforded a view of the park. The other side and both ends, decorated with large mirrors, were finished in white paint and gold. The furniture was gold, with rich tapestry covering. The floor was rather cold, for there were no rugs. Such were the normal conditions the architect and the artist had produced; but, for the interview, the Grand Duke added a beautiful bank of rose bushes, in full bloom—tea roses all. About one-quarter of the space was filled with roses in pots from the greenhouses, the blooms forming a crescent in one corner of the room.
In front of the bank of roses the Emperor received me, on his right hand the Grand Duke Constantine, on his left hand the Empress and the Grand Duchess. To one side and, of course, apart from the Imperial group, stood my friend Semetschkin.
On entering, I was presented, without any formality or delay, to the Emperor by the Grand Duke, as “Mr. Barker, your Majesty’s American banker.”
The Emperor’s first remark was incisively inquiring:
“Mr. Barker, is your American system of banking, in your judgment, adapted to the needs of Russia?”
There was then, for a few minutes, a general talk on economic and financial questions that satisfied me the Emperor had been a student of those questions, as, later, I was sure he had given much attention to the great questions that pressed upon his own country and upon other countries as well. He spoke at some length of the plans of his Minister of Finance—comprehensive plans, plans which later, in 1890, played a very important part in European affairs. He spoke of the liberation of his serfs; of his efforts to educate them: of how and why those efforts had largely failed. He referred with earnestness to the conditions he met in the course of discussions with the land owners; of how he went through the provinces, appealing to the conciliatory spirit and the devotion of his nobility, reprimanding those who hung back, reminding them that reforms come better from above than from below. He even disclosed frankly the manner in which he had packed the Imperial Commission with men devoted to the principles of emancipation. The Commission declared for the immediate abolition of serfdom and urged the most effectual measures to prevent the re-establishment of the seignorial authority under other forms; and it decided, also, that the peasant should become a proprietor on the payment of an indemnity. It is important to remember that the manifesto of March 3d, 1861, declared these fundamental principles. The peasants were to be invested with all the rights of free cultivators of the soil. In consideration of certain quit-rents, they were to obtain full enjoyment of their enclosures and also a quantity of arable land. More than nine acres of land were given to every male peasant. The Government made loans, so that the peasants could immediately liberate themselves from their lords, yet remain debtors to the state. More than one half the land was thus taken from the lord and given to the peasant. It should not be forgotten that the Russian peasants owe their liberty to the firm will of the Emperor, and to the generous efforts of his brother, the Grand Duke Constantine.
“I did more for the Russian serf,” observed the Emperor, “in giving him land as well as personal liberty, than America did for the Negro slave set free by the proclamation of President Lincoln.’ I am at a loss to understand how you Americans could have been so blind as to leave the Negro slave without tools to work out his salvation. In giving him personal liberty, you gave him an obligation to perform to the state which he must be unable to fulfill. Without property of any kind he cannot educate himself and his children. I believe the time must come when many will question the manner of American emancipation of the Negro slaves in 1863. The vote, in the hands of an ignorant man, without either property or self respect, will be used to the damage of the people at large; for the rich man, without honor or any kind of patriotism, will purchase it, and with it swamp the rights of a free people.”
All this makes clear the keen appreciation the Emperor Alexander had of what he had done for his serfs—and of what Americans had done for the Negro slaves. The hopes and dreams of the Emperor Alexander, and of the great men who helped him free the Russian serfs, and the hopes and expectations of Lincoln, Garrison and the thousands of Americans who gave their lives and fortunes to the cause of negro emancipation, have not been realized. But the fears of Alexander have been realized. The Emperor was right in thinking the solution of the Negro slave question would debauch our people and bring serious trouble to America. But, as I reflect upon what he said regarding the clash of classes in Russia and in other European countries, and upon the same conflict in America between the ” House of Have ” and the ” House of Have Not,” I am led to wonder at the grasp of the great man I talked with so long ago at St. Petersburg. Even more prescient was his forecast of the American industrial conditions of to-day.
“Your great industrial development,” he continued, “has built up very large fortunes in few hands; and the conditions such fortunes produce must bring on a class conflict that cannot fail to make a test of the stability of your institutions. The men who have those fortunes know only the law of greed; they have no respect for the rights of others; and they will surely make an effort to use the strong arm of government to enslave the people. They will use the public franchises you grant in so liberal, so dangerous a way, to tax the people. These men of large fortunes will organize into groups to increase their power, and their aggressions will as surely drive the body of your people to the enactment of laws which may be most hurtful to the general prosperity. I see a great conflict must soon come in America between the few who have vast fortunes and the many reduced to a kind of industrial slavery.”
If conditions in America in 1879 brought such reflections to a Russian Emperor, what must be the reflections of Europeans of to-day, who are as serious, as earnest and as capable as Alexander II? If the Emperor had dismissed me after these remarks, I could never forget the 1879 August Sunday at Pavlovski; but I was to hear a chapter of world history that should be put in permanent form by me; for I do not believe the chapter was ever spoken or written for another by Alexander. Without knowledge of this chapter, many very great events cannot be understood. Of those present at this remarkable interview, only the Emperor and I spoke. Of course, and I believe, fortunately, my part in the conversation was small. The circumstances under which the interview proceeded moved Alexander to speak in earnest, aggressive, but sad tones. It was apparent to me that he had lived for a long time in intellectual loneliness; that he scarcely knew what fair and open criticism of his acts was; that he believed those about him and near to him did not, and probably could not, appreciate the major purposes and acts of his life— that he believed he must always act for himself and for Russia; that the responsibility of the Russian Empire rested upon him alone, and not upon him and his Ministers and Council of State.
“In the autumn of 1862,” observed the Emperor, “the Governments of France and Great Britain proposed to Russia, in a formal, but not in an official way, the joint recognition by European Powers of the independence of the Confederate States of America. My immediate answer was: ‘I will not co-operate in such action; and I will not acquiesce. On the contrary, I shall accept the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by France and Great Britain as a casus belli for Russia. And, in order that the Governments of France and Great Britain may understand that this is no idle threat, I will send a Pacific fleet to San Francisco and an Atlantic fleet to New York.’ Sealed orders to both Admirals were given.”
After a pause, he proceeded: “My fleets arrived at the American ports; there was no recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by Great Britain and France. The American rebellion was put down, and the great American Republic continues.
“All this I did because of love for my own dear Russia, rather than for love of the American Republic. I acted thus because I understood that Russia would have a more serious task to perform if the American Republic, with advanced industrial development, were broken up and Great Britain should be left in control of most branches of modern industrial development.
“In 1864 I was silent as to what the course of Russia would be, should Great Britain and France support Denmark in the war waged upon her by Prussia and Austria over the Schleswig-Holstein question. The result was that France did nothing; and Great Britain, although anxious to preserve the territorial integrity of Denmark, confined her efforts, as in the case of Poland shortly before, to the limit of mere diplomatic intervention. The plans of Bismarck were advanced— Schleswig-Holstein became a German province.
“In 1866, when Bismarck sought, together with Prussia, Hanover, Hessen-Cassel, Nassau and Frankfurt, to establish the North German Confederation and to exclude Austria from the German Confederation, I was silent as to what the action of Russia would be should France support Austria in the pending war. Because of this silence, France hesitated to act until it was too late, and the dreams and ambitions of Bismarck were realized. My purpose was the establishment of a European balance of power that would be a menace to Great Britain.”
The Emperor again paused for a moment, to see, I think, what effect he was making upon me. I remained silent and expectant. He spoke once more, and said: “To complete German unity, and to enable German manufacturers to strike at British industrial and commercial supremacy, it was plain the plan of Bismarck, for despoiling France of Alsace and Lorraine, must not be hindered. Therefore when, in 1870, the French-German war opened, I let it be understood that assistance to France from Austria or Great Britain would be followed by Russian support of Germany. Therefore, the war was fought out between France and Germany; and the German Empire was established and proclaimed. My support of Germany in these three wars was because my Russia would profit.
“When the French people had paid the indemnity to Germany, and the Republic of France grew strong, there was alarm at Berlin; and Bismarck would have sought quarrel with France but for my attitude. The French-Russian understanding has preserved peace in Europe. The course of Russia is clear and her destiny can be fulfilled. Russia stands for peace.”
In conclusion, the Emperor said:
“I have believed these acts were great acts, because they were right. But they are not appreciated as righteous acts by those near me; and those far off and outside of Russia look upon me as selfish.”
The Emperor and the Imperial party left the room; the audience was over. I went back to St. Petersburg almost immediately after their departure.
The following day, August i8th, 1879, I was guest of honor on a steam yacht, one of three in line near the Nicholas Bridge. The Emperor and his staff were on the largest one; the Grand Duke Constantine and the Naval Staff on the second; and Captain and Madame Semetschkin and I on the third. In tow of the Imperial yacht was a small boat, the men holding oars at rest, ready to cut the tow line, drop oars into the water, and pull wherever directed, should any accident befall the Imperial yacht. The gunwales of the boat were covered with purple and gold cloth, to add to the magnificence of the pageant. The day was cloudy; there was no movement of pleasure boats on the Neva; there was no incident of special interest until we came to Kronstadt, seventeen miles distant from St. Petersburg.
The harbor of Kronstadt was an impressive picture. The Russian Baltic Squadron was drawn up in double line. The place of honor between those lines was occupied by the small United States cruiser ” Enterprise.” Immediately upon the arrival of the yacht fleet, the Emperor opened the review. As he went from one ship to another, the crews manned the yards, the bands played, and guns were fired, in his honor. But the day was still cloudy.
When the Emperor had gone on board all his own ships, the climax came. He went to the tiny “Enterprise.” As he was received on the quarter deck, at a signal gun from the Imperial yacht the American flag was run to the masthead of all the Russian war ships at Kronstadt, and a gun salute was fired from all the ships together, in honor of our country and our flag. As the smoke rolled away the clouds broke, and the bright sun shone upon the American flag with a new and splendid glory.
Russia had not forgotten properly to honor the flag Russian fleets had upheld at New York and San Francisco in 1863; and those American citizens who were at Kronstadt on that day appreciated what Russian friendship for America had been, and then was.
Americans cannot forget either the Russell-Palmerston-Louis Napoleon proposal, or the Alexander answer of 1862-1863. They remember that they owe almost as much to Russian action in 1863 as they do to French action in 1778. But if they will give due thought to the words of the Emperor Alexander II, they will do what is more vital in the shaping of the destinies of a nation. They will understand.