The Happiest Race on Earth – “Our Russian Ally.” – Lecture at Denaby Main

April 1916

Mexborough and Swinton Times April 15, 1916

The Happiest Race on Earth
“Our Russian Ally.”
Lecture at Denaby Main.

On Friday evening there was a large attendance at the Denaby Main Institute when the first of a series of three war lectures, organised by the Institute Committee, delivered by Prof J. A. Green, M. A., Sheffield University. W H. Chambers presided, and expressed great pleasure in introducing the lecturer.

The lecturer first commenced by explaining the traditional prejudices entertained towards Russia; how we had continually foiled her intentions in the East, that she might covet India or any other of our Asiatic passions; how we had assisted Turky in the crimean War, and in numerous other ways during the past 60 years against Russia; and had not Lord Salisbury’s words come true, “that we were backing the wong horse”?

People had been apt to belittle Russia, and certainly not even by the wildest stretch of imagination had anyone dreamed of Britain being allied with Russia. He proceeded to explain how natural it was for Russia to endeavour to expand in the East, since most of her rivers including the Volga, flowed to the East, and the only port she that was accessible all year round so far as climatic conditions were concerned, was also in the East. She also belonged to the eastern branch of the Christian church and undoubtedly this had greatly influenced her Asiatic policy.

It was Peter the Great who opened the window towards the West. It was he who founded Petrograd, Russia’s present capital, with a view to encouraging association with our own country. Petrograd, although a cosmopolitan town, was distinctly different to the rest of Russia, inasmuch as she was purely Western. He himself visited Petrograd, and at the time of his sojourn no fewer than 30,000 Germans and 5000 English were residing there, to say nothing of the numerous other nationalities. Each spoke their own language, each had their own religion, and each their own social and political views, and no doubt it was mingling of the nations had been mainly responsible for the years of internal unrest that had characterised Russia during the past century. With so many dissimilar units, was there any wonder at such a chaos?

At the present time 5 million Jews were living in Russia. What impressed him most during his visit, however, was the enormous size of the country that was, providing one took Russia and Siberia as one, which they really were, being politically and your geographically fully united. Some idea of its magnitude may be gained when one learns that a whole fortnight is occupied in traversing Russia from end to end by train.

Another striking feature was the religious atmosphere, which seemed to pervade the whole country. Every street had its church, and every railway station or public place its holy pictures, whilst the graceful lines of a Mohammedan mosque may be seen towering above the surrounding edifices in any town. The average Russian was deeply religious and took his worship seriously, and under Spartan -like conditions. In his churches there were no wardens, no high places or privileged seats. Everyone either stood or knelt, and there was no sermon, since each individual went to worship and not to be preached; so that, as may readily be guessed, the devotional effect was very impressive. Not that his religion guided his life to any extent. No, the Russian peasant was too illiterate and ignorant for that. 80% could neither read nor write; and his religion was not derived from any inner feeling or divine inspiration, book, having been introduced by Peter the Great they had no alternative but to accept it.

As the priests receive no stipends put replied upon what they could persuade people to give them, ignorance of the present was almost universally taken advantage of. Of the population of Russia 1/5 resided in towns, and over 4/5 depended on agricultural work as a means of livelihood, rural Russia was a democratic body of the first water. In 1861 half the land was purchased for the peasants by the government, and 50 years allowed them in which to refund the purchase money. This land was not given to the individual, but each village had its area, which was divided amongst the inhabitants in a most impractical and original manner. Periodically, the tenant was changed, and the head of each household met to execute this change. If the head of a family was a woman, she enjoyed the franchise of the village. It was the paying of this debt which had kept the Russians poor, the cause of famines we had so often heard of in their country. It was merely the consequence of exporting more corn and she could rightly spare, with the inevitable result. Nevertheless the system had not tended to elevate agriculture. Now that the debt was paid, and there was the Imperial taxes to provide, individual ownership was beginning to assert itself, thus making social problems more complex.

The lecturer then dealt with politics, mentioning the conference of Berlin, and blaming our diplomacy at the same as being responsible for the Balkan wars. Probably the present position was also largely responsible throughout endeavours to prevent Russia persuading her policy at the same conference. Did it seem at all proper that a country with an irresponsible government like Turkey should hold the key to Odessa, the only Port that was serviceable all the year round, for a country with no fewer than 170 million inhabitants? Even, before the war Turkey often closed the Dardanelles in a capricious moment, and England new to its cost how impregnable they were on such occasions, but what an enormous amount of food was being held up at this, just because Russia had no open seaport. Until the Bosphorous and the Dardanelles were internationalised, there would be no opportunity for Russian commerce to extend itself.

At the conclusion, the lecturer received loud applause as, and Mr W. H. Chambers in proposing a vote of thanks, said he was desirous of thanking him, on behalf of all present, for his interesting and enlightening discourse. They had certainly gained some extraction from his lucid, yet necessarily condensed lecture, and his words had put a different complexion upon a country which had in a fairytale always stirred up visions of Nihilist societies in their minds, and where they had for the “Knout” reigned supreme. His own impression of Russia was that she was the happiest place on Earth, a very lack of knowledge proven a source of contentment that was difficult to find.

Mr H. Hully seconded the vote, and Mr J. Kelsall proposed one for the chairman, which was enthusiastically carried.