HC Deb 27 June 1862 vol 167 cc1171-80

* In rising, Mr. Speaker, pursuant to the notice which I have given, I think I ought in the first place to say in a few words why I seek to bring under the notice of the House a matter respecting which it can exercise no direct authority. That there are precedents enough for such a course it is hardly necessary to remark. To go no further back than the present Session, our attention has, and so far as I can judge with general approval, been directed to the Government of Italy, to the wrongs of Poland, to the threat of foul outrages which was uttered against the women of New Orleans. At the same time, no hon. Member can feel more strongly than I do that this practice of travelling beyond our own jurisdiction ought to be confined within strict bounds. And, perhaps, it may be thought that the right limit between those cases where it may, and those where it may not be properly followed is this:—When there is no reasonable probability that any remarks made here will produce a useful result in the country to which they apply, then such remarks are a mere idle exercitation. When, on the contrary, there is a fair chance that what is said here will work good in the country referred to, then the House will probably he inclined to give to these matters a small portion of its time. That there are cases falling within the latter description will not be disputed. In a late memorable instance we were reminded, in language of which I should try in vain to imitate the force and eloquence, but of which, I think, I can state the effect, that as between country and country moral support or influence is no mere shadow, but is a real power in Europe; and that it is an important sign of advancing civilization, that even as to things with respect to which there is no possibility that sword will clash against sword, the minds of men in one country act upon, and procure the recognition of great principles by the minds of men in another. I can assure the House that I am now addressing it from no vain wish to make my voice heard, but because it has been confidently stated to me by persons having an intimate knowledge of the condition of Russia, that so great is the respect felt by the governing classes there for the opinion of our country, that there is a real chance that an expression of sympathy in this assembly may exert a beneficial influence on the fate of the surviving victims of the persecution to which I desire to direct attention. I have to make one prefatory remark more, in order to remind hon. Members that the party which I hope no longer is, but which has been, predominant in the Russian Government, appears to have entertained the opinion that it could add to the strength of that empire by forcing the persons belonging to the various races and creeds that are to be found among its subjects into one homogeneous mass. For that purpose disfavour, often amounting to persecution, has been shown to all religious bodies not belonging to the established Greek Church, whether those bodies consisted of Protestants, or Catholics, or Jews. It is necessary to bear this in mind, in order to understand what would otherwise be unintelligible, the determination shown in part of the proceedings to which I have to refer, to condemn the Jews under accusation, without evidence or against evidence. I proceed shortly to state the facts of the case, of which it is one remarkable feature that the Council of the Empire, more than seven years after the alleged offence, condemned the remaining prisoners, in opposition to the opinion of each of the tribunals by which the matter had previously been considered, and to that of the Ministry of Justice.

Saratow, as hon. Members may recollect, is a town on the western bank of the Wolga, and is the principal place of one of the remotest and most easterly provinces of European Russia. At Saratow, in December, 1852, and January, 1853, two Christian boys of the age of about ten years, named Sherstobitow and Maslow, whom, to avoid repeating Russian names, I will refer to as the first and second boy, were missed. Nothing could be ascertained respecting them, except that a lad named Kanin stated that he had been with the second boy, when he was enticed away by a person looking like a workman on the barges. In March, 1853, the body of the second boy, and in April that of the first, were found on the ice of the Wolga, almost without covering. From this circumstance it might have been inferred that they had been murdered by some person in want, for the sake of their clothing. But from certain appearances supposed to be connected with Jewish religious ceremonies, suspicion was directed against about forty Jewish soldiers, who seem to have been almost the only Jews at Saratow. These soldiers were paraded before Kan In, who fixed upon one named Schliffermann, not as being the man, but as being like the man, who had enticed away Maslow. And as this was treated as proof of identity, it may be worth while to read to the House what has been furnished to me as an exact translation of Kanin's statement— He is like the man who enticed away Maslow, only the other had a rough voice, as if he had a cold; and, besides, this one has not such a fiat nose as he. Otherwise, he is like the other in stature and hair, but the other spoke good Russion, and this one has a lisp. Now, this statement appears to me to be distinct evidence, not of identity, but of similarity coupled with non-identity. Yet, as I have said, it was treated as proof of identity; and this may be looked upon as sample of the spirit in which the evidence generally was interpreted. Nothing, however, that could be regarded as sufficient proof against the suspected persons could be discovered by the local authorities, and in the latter part of April, 1854, a Commission was sent from St. Petersburg to inquire into the affair. At this time Mr. Lanskoi was Minister of the Interior, and Mr. Skripitzine (who was known as having directed measures of persecution against some of the Christian sects of Poland) was at the head of the department of that Ministry known as the board of dissenting, or, as they are called in Russia, foreign religious bodies. Mr. Lanskoi, at the suggestion it is believed of Skripitizne, placed Mr. Durnowo at the head of the commission of inquiry. Durnowo, very soon after his arrival at Saratow, let it be understood that he believed the Jews to be guilty, and invited evidence against them. He threw into prison several persons, and among them a distiller named Jushkevitcher, who appears to have been almost the only Jew at Saratow above the rank of a common soldier. Durnowo's investigation lasted several months, during which he collected hundreds of sheets of extravagant and contradictory evidence, and displayed such a leaning against the Jews as to excite the disapprobation of Kovshernikow (then vice governor of the district of Saratow) and of the local authorities generally, both civil and military. The witnesses on whom Durnowo seems to have chiefly relied, were three persons who stated themselves to have been accomplices with the Jews in the mutilation, murder, and disposal of the bodies of the two boys—Bogdanow a soldier, Lokotkow a young imperial serf, and Krüger a subordinate civil functionary. In the course of the investigation each of these witnesses travelled through a whole series of self-contradictory statements which I cannot detain the House by particularizing but of which I will trouble it with a specimen or two. The principle witness, Bogdanow, began by charging as his accomplices two persons only, Jushkevitcher and another. Then he included in the charge a third and fourth, afterwards a fifth, and at last a sixth and seventh, one of whom was Schliffermann, the soldier who had been detained on the extraordinary evidence of identity to which I have already referred. As to the mode in which the death of the first boy had been caused, Bogdanow first stated that it was by loss of blood from a wound in the shoulder. A medical examination having afterwards shown that there was no important wound, certainly none that could have occasioned death, he said that although he had been present at the time of the death, he did not know how it had been caused, as he had lost consciousness at the time, from horror, if I understand rightly, at the previous mutilation.

So many indeed are the tales of each of these witnesses, that the report of the Senate of Moscow, to which I shall in a few moments refer, speaks of them as having at last, as it is translated to me, "fixed" or "settled down" upon one statement. It must, not however, be understood from this, that all the witnesses at last "settled down" upon one statement; but only that one statement was at last "settled down" upon by each witness, the final statement of each being, however, in important particulars both inconsistent with the final statements of others, and full of the wildest absurdities. These I must not detain the House by enumerating; but some few I may, perhaps, be permitted to mention. Bogdanow's statement, as relied on in the final sentence of the Council of the Empire, declared that he had caried the bodies of both boys from Jushkevitcher's dwelling to the Wolga. Lokotkow's statement, as cited in the same sentence, was that he had killed the second boy, and carried his body from the corn-warehouse to the Wolga, thus differing from Bogdanow, both as to the person by whom, and the place from which, the body of the murdered child had been carried to the river. Krüger accounted for his having been present at the murder of the second boy by saying that he (Krüger) had intended at the time to become a Jew himself, having been told by the soldier Schliffermann, that if he did, he should be made a rabbi. A woman, Gorochow (whose evidence is also relied on by the Council of State as corroborative of the guilt of the accused), stated that she had been told by Jushkevitcher's wife that both boys had been killed by being pierced in various parts of their bodies with a knife of a peculiar shape (the medical evidence, it will be remembered, showing that there was no wound of any importance); and, further, that Juskevitcher and Schliffermann had received for the murders six millions of roubles (or nine hundred thousand pounds sterling). This mass of extravagant and contradictory evidence having been brought at the beginning of 1854 before the military authorities at Saratow, and before a local board called the Department of Highways (which had jurisdiction in the matter), that board, in accordance with a report of two officers of rank, dated 30th January, 1854, acquitted the accused, and declared the informers to be liars; and the military authorities seem to have sentenced Bogdanow to corporal punishment for perjury. This decision was not satisfactory to the Ministry of the Interior. On the 6th of June, 1854, Mr. Lanskoi issued a second commission of inquiry, at the head of which he placed Mr. Guirs. To what result it was intended that this second commission should lead was soon made manifest. Almost simultaneously with its appointment, Kovshernikow, the vice governor of Saratow, who had disapproved of Durnowo's proceedings, was dismissed, and Durnowo was appointed to succeed him. Several other officers, civil and military, who had ventured to doubt the guilt of the accused, were also dismissed or removed to other stations; and thus the field was left free for the operations of the new commissioner and of the ex-commissioner, now appointed vice governor. And vigorous enough these operations were. The stick, and it would seem other and worse instruments, were used as auxiliaries in interrogating many of the numerous victims who had by this time been thrown into confinement; and indications of the result are to be found in several entries in the appendix to the Senate's report, of persons having "disappeared" and "suddenly died" in prison, which I understand to be Russian euphemisms for being tortured to death, or driven by suffering to suicide. After a long delay, of which no explanation has been furnished to me, the mass of evidence collected by Durnowo and Guirs was brought in 1858 before the Senate of Moscow; and notwithstanding the stringency of the means employed in obtaining it, was not thought to furnish sufficient grounds for condemning the accused. The Senate, on the 8th of June, 1858, decided that the prisoners were liable to suspicion of murder, but that their guilt was not clearly proved. The Senate accordingly recommended that they should be set at liberty. Against this decision Count Panin, then Minister of Justice, protested, not because he was of opinion that the evidence warranted a conviction, but because he thought that it did not even warrant suspicion, and that the accused ought to have been fully acquitted. In consequence of the difference between the views of the Senate and of the Minister, the question was again, after an unexplained delay, brought before the Council of the Empire. In March 1860, that council, not agreeing with the local tribunal which had acquitted the accused— nor with the Minister of Justice who thought that they ought to be acquitted— nor even with the Senate of Moscow, which had held that there was ground for suspicion, but not for conviction—proposed on the same evidence to decide that there was clear ground for their absolute condemnation. The draft of this proposed decision was communicated to Mr. Samiatnin, deputy of the Minister of Justice (an office which is, I believe, analogous to that of an Under Secretary of State). Mr. Samiatnin made a report, containing an elaborate examination of the evidence, in which he pointed out several of the contradictions and absurdities that I have mentioned, and a number of others with which I have not troubled the House, and he concluded that such evidence could properly lead to no other result than an acquital. The Council of the Empire, however, persisted in its first intention, condemned the accused, and sentenced Jush-kevitcher and Schlifferman, and a soldier named Jurlow (whom it treated as the three principal criminals) to loss of civil rights and hard labour in the mines of Siberia, in two cases for twenty, and in the third for eighteen years. It also sentenced others to minor penalties, whilst it suffered the perjured informers, who stated themselves to have been accomplices in the murders, to escape with almost nominal punishments.

I will not detain the House with any minute examination of the attempts at reasoning by which the Council of the Empire sought to refute the clear and convincing arguments of Mr. Samiatnin; but I can give two examples, which may be very briefly stated. The council treated, not indeed as one of the most convincing proofs, but as corroborative evidence against Jushkevitcher, a note which, after his arrest, he had written to his daughter, and in which he simply requested her to inform the Jewish congregation of his misfortune, in order that they might pray for deliverance from false accusations, adding —"Be firm, my dearest daughter, I beg this of you and your brother." To many persons this note may seem to have some touch of pathos; but I cannot perceive how any one could suppose that it was more likely to have been written by a guilty than by an innocent man. Yet, as corroborative evidence of guilt was it treated by the Russian council. But, perhaps, the council's idea as to what might serve to corroborate the veracity of the accuser Bogdanow, is more singular still. Besides his various tales which I have already mentioned, this man at one time included in the charge of being one of his accomplices in the murders an army surgeon named Gubitski; but when last examined he admitted his accusation against the surgeon to be wholly unfounded. After referring to this, the decision of the council actually contends that "this circumstance very strongly brings to light the sincerity of the last statement." That is to say, in other words, that if a witness first makes, and then withdraws, a false charge against A., this circumstance does not weaken, but strengthens, the credibility of a charge which the same witness makes and persists in against B. Such is the logic of the Russian council. Whether the council was itself not quite satisfied with the arguments of which these are specimens, or for what other reason the execution of its sentence was delayed I do not know; but, in fact, it was not until May 1861, that the unhappy prisoners were despatched to the Siberian mines, where they are believed still to linger.

Since the decision of the Council of the Empire was pronounced, and in part since it was executed, changes have taken place in the Russian Government. Mr. Lanskoi is no longer Minister of the Interior. Count Bludow (who as Chancellor is considered to have been peculiarly responsible for the decision of the council, and one of whose last ministerial acts was, I lament to say, to appoint that very Mr. Guirs who presided over the second Saratow commission, to an important office peculiarly connected with the affairs of the Jews) is now travelling for the benefit of his health, and is not, I understand, likely to resume active employment. He has long served his country according to his own conscientious views; and as I certainly wish him no harm, I can only desire that his travels may be productive of as much benefit to himself, as I believe they will be to all, not being members of the Greek Church, who, if he had remained at home, would have been subject to his influence. But changes more important than those of a personal character have also taken place in the Russian Government. They have, as I believe that the Jews of Russia are quite ready to acknowledge with gratitude, modified and somewhat humanized the laws that had till lately pressed upon and almost crushed that numerous class of the Emperor's subjects. But they have done nothing towards revising the unjust sentence of the Council of the Empire in the Saratow affair, or towards the relief of the sufferers.

Now, we are ready to make all due allowances for the difficulties besetting the Government of a country where society is half dissolved, and is seeking to reconstitute itself. Hon. Members may call to mind those two lines of the old Roman poet, where he refers to the pleasure which a man, looking from the shore on a tempestuous sea, derives from contrasting his own ease and security with the toils and perils of the storm-tossed mariner. It is with no such cold or selfish feeling that, from the harbour of long-established constitutional freedom and well-administered laws, we look upon the struggles of those nations that are still painfully striving to attain the same haven of safety. On the contrary, we warmly spmpathize with their efforts, and we desire that they may as easily and speedily as possible secure to themselves the blessings which we enjoy. It is in accordance with this sympathy and with our consciousness of those difficulties, to bear in mind that the Russian Government cannot be expected at once to remedy all the evils resulting from past misrule. But I think that hon. Members who have favoured me with their attention will be of opinion, that no more important steps can he taken towards bestowing on the Russian people the inestimable advantage of confidence in the administration of justice, than by getting rid of three of the greatest abuses revealed to us in this Saratow affair. Difficult as it may be to free from the influence of religious prejudice the proceedings arising out of the criminal law, the public prosecutor at least should not set the example of yielding to such prejudice. The use of the stick and similar instruments as auxiliaries in the interrogation of prisoners should be at once and for ever abolished. And the practice should also be abolished of following accused persons from a court which acquits them, to a court which declares them liable to suspicion, and so on from tribunal to tribunal, till a condemnation (in the justice of which, under such circumstances, no reliance can be placed) is at length obtained. I think we shall also be of opinion, that many as the claims must at this moment be upon the time and attention of the Imperial Government, it is still desirable that they should find leisure to reconsider the decision of the Council of the Empire, and to relieve the persons who are suffering under a sentence obtained by means of such procedure, and founded upon such evidence, as those which I have described.

It now only remains for me to thank the House for having listened to my statement, and to put to the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) a short and simple quesiton. I am aware, that as the persons concerned are not British subjects, the British Government can have no right to make any official representation respecting them. But I wish to inquire, whether Her Majesty's Government is inclined to offer, with regard to the transactions I have referred to, any unofficial and friendly suggestions to the Government of his Imperial Majesty.


said, he trusted that the concluding request of the hon. Baronet would be complied with by Her Majesty's Government. They had interfered on behalf of Spaniards who, as was alleged, had been persecuted on religious grounds, though, in fact, political questions were mixed up in the matter; while, no doubt in the case of the Jews, the persons who had been ill-used had been persecuted from the senseless aversion of the Russians to the Hebrew people. He visited the Russian empire about ten years ago, and could testify to the existence of the persecuting spirit which had been referred to by the hon. Baronet. Upon the slightest pretence prosecutions were instituted against Jews, and he had seen many of them sent to Siberia on suspicion of having committed offences, some of which were of a very trifling character. On one occasion he saw fifty Jewish youths sent in chains to the Russian navy, because some people in the village in which they resided were suspected of having been engaged in some smuggling transactions. Great hopes had been entertained that on the accession of the present Emperor changes favourable to the Jews would be made, and he much regretted that those hopes had not been realized. He hoped that a remonstrance from Her Majesty's Government would produce some effect, or at any rate that the strong expression of the feeling of that House might have some effect.