Leo Tolstoy on How Information Travels in a Hierarchy

[Emperor Nicholas I of Russia] heard the report of the embezzlement silently with compressed lips, his large white hand — with one ring on the fourth finger — stroking some sheets of paper, and his eyes steadily fixed on Chernyshov’s forehead and on the tuft of hair above it.

Nicholas was convinced that everybody stole. He knew he would have to punish the commissariat officials now, and decided to send them all to serve in the ranks, but he also knew that this would not prevent those who succeeded them from acting in the same way. It was a characteristic of officials to steal, but it was his duty to punish them for doing so, and tired as he was of that duty he conscientiously performed it.

“It seems there is only one honest man in Russia!” said he.

Chernyshov at once understood that this one honest man was Nicholas himself, and smiled approvingly.

“It looks like it, your Imperial Majesty,” said he.

“Leave it — I will give a decision,” said Nicholas, taking the document and putting it on the left side of the table.

Then Chernyshov reported the rewards to be given and about moving the army on the Prussian frontier.

Nicholas looked over the list and struck out some names, and then briefly and firmly gave orders to move two divisions to the Prussian frontier. He could not forgive the King of Prussia for granting a Constitution to his people after the events of 1848, and therefore while expressing most friendly feelings to his brother-in-law in letters and conversation, he considered it necessary to keep an army near the frontier in case of need. He might want to use these troops to defend his brother-in-law’s throne if the people of Prussia rebelled (Nicholas saw a readiness for rebellion everywhere) as he had used troops to suppress the rising in Hungary a few years previously. they were also of use to give more weight and influence to such advice as he gave to the King of Prussia.

“Yes — what would Russia be like now if it were not for me?” he again thought.

“Well, what else is there?” said he.

“A courier from the Caucasus,” said Chernyshov, and he reported what Vorontsov had written about Hadji Murad’s surrender.

“Well, well!” said Nicholas. “It’s a good beginning!”

“Evidently the plan devised by your Majesty begins to bear fruit,” said Chernyshov.

This approval of his strategic talents was particularly pleasant to Nicholas because, though he prided himself upon them, at the bottom of his heart he knew that they did not really exist, and he now desired to hear more detailed praise of himself.

“How do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean that if your Majesty’s plans had been adopted before, and we had moved forward slowly and steadily, cutting down forests and destroying the supplies of food, the Caucasus would have been subjugated long ago. I attribute Hadji Murad’s surrender entirely to his having come to the conclusion that they can hold out no longer.”

“True,” said Nicholas.

Although the plan of a gradual advance into the enemy’s territory by means of felling forests and destroying the food supplies was Ermolov’s and Velyaminov’s plan, and was quite contrary to Nicholas’s own plan of seizing Shamil’s place of residence and destroying that nest of robbers — which was the plan on which the dargo expedition in 1845 (that cost so many lives) had been undertaken — Nicholas nevertheless attributed to himself also the plan of a slow advance and a systematic felling of forests and devastation of the country. It would seem that to believe the plan of a slow movement by felling forests and destroying food supplies to have been his own would have necessitated hiding the fact that he had insisted on quite contrary operations in 1845. But he did not hide it and was proud of the plan of the 1845 expedition as well as of the plan of a slow advance — though the two were obviously contrary to one another. Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him in the teeth of obvious facts had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them. His decision in the case next reported to him — that of the student of the Academy of Medicine — was of the that senseless kind.

The case was as follows: A young man who had twice failed in his examinations was being examined a third time, and when the examiner again would not pass him, the young man whose nerves were deranged, considering this to be an injustice, seized a pen- knife from the table in a paroxysm of fury, and rushing at the professor inflicted on him several trifling wounds.

“What’s his name?” asked Nicholas.


“A Pole?”

“Of Polish descent and a roman Catholic,” answered Chernyshov.

Nicholas frowned. He had done much evil to the Poles. To justify that evil he had to feel certain that all Poles were rascals, and he considered them to be such and hated them in proportion to the evil he had done them.

“Wait a little,” he said, closing his eyes and bowing his head.

Chernyshov, having more than once heard Nicholas say so, knew that when the Emperor had to take a decision it was only necessary for him to concentrate his attention for a few moments and the spirit moved him, and the best possible decision presented itself as though an inner voice had told him what to do. He was now thinking how most fully to satisfy the feeling of hatred against the Poles which this incident had stirred up within him, and the inner voice suggested the following decision. He took the report and in his large handwriting wrote on its margin with three orthographical mistakes:

“Deserves deth, but, thank God, we have no capitle punishment, and it is not for me to introduce it. Make him fun the gauntlet of a thousand men twelve times. — Nicholas.”

He signed, adding his unnaturally huge flourish.

Nicholas knew that twelve thousand strokes with the regulation rods were not only certain death with torture, but were a superfluous cruelty, for five thousand strokes were sufficient to kill the strongest man. But it pleased him to be ruthlessly cruel and it also pleased him to think that we have abolished capital punishment in Russia.

Having written his decision about the student, he pushed it across to Chernyshov.

“There,” he said, “read it.”

Chernyshov read it, and bowed his head as a sign of respectful amazement at the wisdom of the decision.

“Yes, and let all the students be present on the drill- ground at the punishment,” added Nicholas.

“It will do them good! I will abolish this revolutionary spirit and will tear it up by the roots!” he thought.

“It shall be done,” replied Chernyshov; and after a short pause he straightened the tuft on his forehead and returned to the Caucasian report.

“What do you command me to write in reply to Prince Vorontsov’s dispatch?”

“To keep firmly to my system of destroying the dwellings and food supplies in Chechnya and to harass them by raids.” answered Nicholas.

“And what are your Majesty’s commands with reference to Hadji Murad?” asked Chernyshov.

“Well, Vorontsov writes that he wants to make use of him in the Caucasus.”

“Is it not dangerous?” said Chernyshov, avoiding Nicholas’s gaze. “Prince Vorontsov is too confiding, I am afraid.”

“And you — what do you think?” asked Nicholas sharply, detecting Chernyshov’s intention of presenting Vorontsov’s decision in an unfavorable light.

“Well, I should have thought it would be safer to deport him to Central Russia.”

“You would have thought!” said Nicholas ironically. “But I don’t think so, and agree with Vorontsov. Write to him accordingly.”

“It shall be done,” said Chernyshov, rising and bowing himself out.

Dolgoruky also bowed himself out, having during the whole audience only uttered a few words (in reply to a question from Nicholas) about the movement of the army.

After Chernyshov, Nicholas received Bibikov, General- Governor of the Western Provinces. Having expressed his approval of the measures taken by Bibikov against the mutinous peasants who did not wish to accept the orthodox Faith, he ordered him to have all those who did not submit tried by court-martial. That was equivalent to sentencing them to run the gauntlet. He also ordered the editor of a newspaper to be sent to serve in the ranks of the army for publishing information about the transfer of several thousand State peasants to the imperial estates.

“I do this because I consider it necessary,” said Nicholas, “and I will not allow it to be discussed.”

Bibikov saw the cruelty of the order concerning the Uniate peasants and the injustice of transferring State peasants (the only free peasants in Russia in those days) to the Crown, which meant making them serfs of the Imperial family. But it was impossible to express dissent. Not to agree with Nicholas’s decisions would have meant the loss of that brilliant position which it had cost Bibikov forty years to attain and which he now enjoyed; and he therefore submissively bowed his dark head (already touched with grey) to indicate his submission and his readiness to fulfil the cruel, insensate, and dishonest supreme will.

Having dismissed Bibikov, Nicholas stretched himself, with a sense of duty well fulfilled, glanced at the clock, and went to get ready to go out. Having put on a uniform with epaulets, orders, and a ribbon, he went out into the reception hall where more than a hundred persons — men in uniforms and women in elegant low-necked dresses, all standing in the places assigned to them — awaited his arrival with agitation.

He came out to them with a lifeless look in his eyes, his chest expanded, his stomach bulging out above and below its bandages, and feeling everybody’s gaze tremulously and obsequiously fixed upon him he assumed an even more triumphant air. When his eyes met those of people he knew, remembering who was who, he stopped and addressed a few words to them sometimes in Russian and sometimes in French, and transfixing them with his cold glassy eye listened to what they said.

Having received all the New Year congratulations he passed on to church, where God, through His servants the priests, greeted and praised Nicholas just as worldly people did; and weary as he was of these greetings and praises Nicholas duly accepted them. All this was as it should be, because the welfare and happiness of the whole world depended on him, and wearied though he was he would still not refuse the universe his assistance.

When at the end of the service the magnificently arrayed deacon, his long hair crimped and carefully combed, began the chant “Many Years,” which was heartily caught up by the splendid choir, Nicholas looked round and noticed Nelidova, with her fine shoulders, standing by a window, and he decided the comparison with yesterday’s girl in her favor.

After Mass he went to the empress and spent a few minutes in the bosom of his family, joking with the children and his wife. Then passing through the Hermitage, he visited the Minister of the Court, Volkonski, and among other things ordered him to pay out of a special fund a yearly pension to the mother of yesterday’s girl. From there he went for his customary drive.

Dinner that day was served in the Pompeian Hall. Besides the younger sons of Nicholas and Michael there were also invited Baron Lieven, Count Rzhevski, Dolgoruky, the Prussian Ambassador, and the King of Prussia’s aide-de-camp.

While waiting for the appearance of the Emperor and Empress an interesting conversation took place between Baron Lieven and the Prussian Ambassador concerning the disquieting news from Poland.

“La Pologne et le Caucases, ce sont les deux cauteres de la Russie,” said Lieven. “Il nous faut dent mille hommes a peu pres, dans chcun de ces deux pays.”

The Ambassador expressed a fictitious surprise that it should be so.

“Vous dites, la Pologne —”  began the Ambassador.

“Oh, oui, c’etait un coup de maitre de Metternich de nous en avoir laisse l’embarras…”

At this point the Empress, with her trembling head and fixed smile, entered followed by Nicholas.

At dinner Nicholas spoke of Hadji Murad’s surrender and said that the war in the Caucasus must now soon come to an end in consequence of the measures he was taking to limit the scope of the mountaineers by felling their forests and by his system of erecting a series of small forts.

The Ambassador, having exchanged a rapid glance with the aide-de-camp — to whom he had only that morning spoken about Nicholas’s unfortunate weakness for considering himself a great strategist — warmly praised this plan which once more demonstrated Nicholas’s great strategic ability.

After dinner Nicholas drove to the ballet where hundreds of women marched round in tights and scanty clothing. One of the specially attracted him, and he had the German ballet-master sent for and gave orders that a diamond ring should be presented to her.

The next day when Chernyshov came with his report, Nicholas again confirmed his order to Vorontsov — that now that Hadji Murad had surrendered, the Chechens should be more actively harassed than ever and the cordon round them tightened.

Chernyshov wrote in that sense to Vorontsov; and another courier, overdriving more horses and bruising the faces of more drivers, galloped to Tiflis.

– Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 15 of Hadji Murad, 1917.

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