Russia remembers Lincoln as it marks the freeing of the serfs

February 25, 2011

Here’s Abraham Lincoln on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street, larger than life, shaking hands with Czar Alexander II. They are the Emancipator and the Liberator, joined together in a new work by sculptor Alexander Burganov. They’re looking jolly, these men who, half a world apart, presided over the freeing of serfs and slaves.

Behind them, in the building of the Russian federal archives, an exhibit opened Tuesday that looks at Lincoln’s life, and Alexander’s. In this season of sesquicentennials, Russia is marking the liberation of 20 million serfs on March 3, 1861. That was one day before Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th president, assuming powers that he would eventually use to bring American slavery to an end.

“We are here to celebrate two remarkable men and their time,” said James Symington, the 83-year-old former congressman from Missouri — but not before he had sung, in Russian, the line from an Alexander Pushkin poem that goes, “I remember a wonderful moment . . . ”

Symington, whose great-grandfather was John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary (and later secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt), said he first came to Moscow in 1958 and picked up songs while strumming his guitar in the park. He called the president from Illinois and the emperor of all the Russians “two friends who never personally met but were together in spirit.”

And of the fanciful statue by Burganov (who also did the statue of Pushkin that’s on the campus of George Washington University), he said, “We can’t wait to put them up in Washington somewhere.” Sticklers for accuracy will notice, beyond the handshake, that although the Czar-Liberator was tall, he was still about three inches shorter than Lincoln, a discrepancy in height that’s not immediately apparent in Burganov’s work.

A military band played Russian and American marches at the opening of the exhibit, while an honor guard in old-timey uniforms stood at attention by large oil portraits of the two national leaders. A Russian-American venture, the exhibit includes busts, maps, letters, lithographs, a Smith & Wesson revolver, a bugle, some swords, the pens that each leader used to sign his respective proclamation and the tunic Alexander was wearing when he was blown up by a bomb in 1881. Letters from Alexander to Lincoln were signed, in French, “your very affectionate friend.”

Another letter to Lincoln, from Nathaniel Hawthorne, endorses the appointment of Bayard Taylor, “one of the brotherhood of literature,” as an envoy to Russia. When he returned to the United States from Alexander’s court, Taylor lectured widely on the liberation of the serfs. Lincoln, said historian Ivan Kurilla, head of the Center for American Studies at Volgograd State University, once went to hear him.

Alexander was intent on reforming the creaky Russian state, and the conservative owners of Russia’s vast land holdings passionately resisted him. Liberals couldn’t help but notice the parallels with the slave-holding plantation owners in the American South, said Andrei Yanovsky, a co-curator of the archive exhibit. In the 1850s, in fact, when censorship made it impossible to criticize conditions in Russia, newspapers and magazines devoted large amounts of space to denunciations of American slavery — and, Kurilla said, readers understood that this was a stand-in for the actual target, Russian serfdom.

His foreign minister said Alexander considered the outbreak of the Civil War to be “deplorable,” threatening the progress and prosperity that America had achieved in its 80 years of independence. The czar sent naval squadrons to New York and San Francisco as a show of support for the Union. Russia at the time was wary of British designs and feared that a Confederate victory would play into British hands. On this point he got no argument from Lincoln.

The president was under no illusions about Russian despotism — he once remarked, before going to the White House, that at least it was honest about its cruelty, compared with the hypocrisy that swirled around the American debate over slavery. For his part, Alexander seems to have been confident enough in the lasting power of the Russian royal family that he needn’t worry about befriending a republic that had cast off a king.

The United States and Russia had better relations in the mid-19th century than they did even during World War II, Kurilla said. “This exhibit is another reminder that Russia and the U.S. can cooperate most efficiently when they have common agendas.”

Now it’s just a question of finding one.

englundw@washpost.com

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