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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager



PUBLIC offices in Russia seem to me to be in sore need of reform. In a little country post office which in this country would be managed and well looked after by a postmistress, one finds three great men in charge. Of course they have a great deal more to do there than here and give themselves a lot of perfectly unnecessary trouble in reading the letters entrusted to the care of the government.

I write a very illegible hand and used to pity them trying to decipher my writing, hampered in addition with a foreign language. Last autumn a lady belonging to the Court wrote a letter to the Empress while she was in Poland. She sealed it and even wrote her name outside the envelope, which is supposed to ensure the letter going through without examination.

A couple of days afterwards the letter was returned to her from the post office with an intimation that it had opened of itself in the post office. The seal was intact but had been detached probably by means of a knife. I t was, of course, the merest curiosity which led them to open this letter. As a general rule the police open one letter in every fifteen passing through the post office. Should they injure the envelope they at once put the letter into the fire and it is done with. In times of national danger a much larger proportion of letters are opened and read. Again, judging by stories one hears, the postmen themselves cannot be depended upon. A friend of mine told me that on one occasion she saw a postman open the stove in an entrance hall and calmly burn a number of letters. I wanted to know why she did not report him and she said it could not have done any good. Till the people have a keener sense of right and wrong she seemed to think a mere report would do no good, but I think I should have tried it all the same.

This year an old friend of mine sent me through the post some Irish crotchet; she enclosed a note in her parcel. This note was delivered to me minus stamp or postmark. I sent down at once to enquire about the lace but was told that the letter had come as I received it, straight from County Cork without post-mark or stamp; but as I did not seem to be satisfied they would not make any charge for it! The envelope was not marked in any way. Somebody in the post office evidently admired the lace and kept it. Gloves or any small thing sent through post were never delivered to me unless the sender took the precaution of registering the letter.

On an average I lost about twenty letters in the year. I was told that all letters coming from the palace were opened, so I found it better if possible to get mine posted in a pillar box in the street. In the country, of course, I could not do this, but used sometimes to send my letters to St. Petersburg to be posted. On one occasion I registered a letter to an address in Cornwall; it took me at least a week to get that letter posted, as the officials in the country post office were absolutely certain that Cornwall was in America and would not take the letter because I had written England on it. At last I sent the letter to St. Petersburg and told the messenger simply to hand it in and say nothing about its destination unless asked, when he could ask the official to write London across it and register it as far as London and then let it take its chance.

The letter was refused; so then my messenger made my proposal to have it registered to London and said I was certain that Cornwall was in England; the official thereupon took the letter and registered it but he said if it went astray he would not be accountable for it. They had protested against it but the sender would not heed. Some ten or twelve days afterwards they sent me word that the letter had been received. The postal guide must have been wrong in locating Cornwall in America.

On one occasion a London firm sent a parcel by post to the Grand Duchesses; it was not received. I had all enquiries made but it was lost. I accordingly told the Empress and she made enquiries about it.

An official was sent up to the palace. He saw the Empress, who sent him to me. He began by assuring me that he was an Englishman and giving me his solemn word of honour which I might believe, as an Englishman never lies. He then proceeded to tell me that I had made an enemy in the Berlin post office and that this monster of iniquity stole my letters in Berlin. Now it so happens that I never stayed even a night in Berlin and have no acquaintance whatsoever with the town or people. I told him so, whereupon he offered to swear to me that the letters were not lost in Russia; as he was an Englishman I might believe him! I noticed that many English people used to bribe officials in the post office to deliver their letters without letting the police see them, or at least they said they did and would talk quite openly about its being impossible to get on in Russia without bribing. Somehow in Russia it is looked on in quite a different light from what it is in England, and I used to be laughed at because I always maintained that morality was the same for all countries, that if it was wrong to try to buy justice and right in one country it surely was equally wrong in another. But the fact of its being punishable in one country and not in another made no difference in such a matter as that.

I told this particular Englishman that he might read my letters, if he chose, so long as he gave them to me afterwards, there never was anything in them but family news of no interest to anyone but myself. He was horrified at this suggestion of mine and exclaimed, "God forbid and the Emperor has forbidden that we should touch your letters," so I said, "God may forbid and the Emperor has forbidden you to touch my letters, still they are lost all the same," and went on to playa game of bluff with him by telling him that most of my letters came from England and Ireland and were therefore under the International Postal Law, and that I very much doubted if he had any legal right to touch them at all. He told me I had opened a very interesting legal point which would have his consideration and took his leave; but the letters continued to be lost all the same. If I was really anxious about a letter I used to post it open or only just closed, which I found was a very good plan.

On one occasion I ordered a copy of Morfill's History of Russia, as I felt interested in it. Judge of my amazement at hearing that it was forbidden to circulate it in Russia. I however asked special permission for it and so got it after a little delay without further trouble. The censor's office keeps books sometimes for months. A friend of mine sent me a book he had written as a Christmas present; it was Easter before I got it and then it had evidently been given to a child to play with, for it was scribbled over in red and blue pencil.

State censorship of the press is a very good thing and in my opinion the English press would benefit greatly by it as would also the American, but one can have too much of a good thing. It is not the law to which one objects but the methods in which it is carried out. This is equally true of both the free press and the censored one.

Some time ago in St. Petersburg the censor discovered that post-cards were sold openly in the capital with such wicked devices as pictures of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the N evski Perspective, or the Winter Palace, but without the magic words" Censor's Permit" in the corner of each card; he immediately prohibited the sale of these awful cards and for about ten days none were permitted to be sold. Now it so happened that I wanted some of these cards and went into a shop to get them. The proprietor politely told me he could not sell them. Greatly amazed, I exclaimed, "But why! they are in your window." He was exceedingly angry and told me of the censor's prohibition. I thought, naturally enough, that there was some suspicion attaching to the man himself and left the shop. I went to another, only to meet with the same story, and to a third, where they offered to sell them to me sub rosa and begged me to send them under cover as the sale had been prohibited. I however refused to buy under these circumstances and never again entered the shop. The strange part of this censorship is that with it frightfully indecent pictures and cards are openly shown in the windows and shops, and one has to be careful as to what theatre one goes to, for some of the plays are absolutely repulsive, violating every canon of good taste, decency and modesty.

But with a little time these things will all right themselves; when education has spread more amongst the people and they are more elevated they will see for themselves that these things do not become a great Christian people, and they will be relegated to oblivion with many other things which all lovers of the country must deplore.

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