In 1867, Mark Twain decided to go on a cruise, but he didn't head to the Caribbean. Instead, he sailed to Russia on a ship called Quaker City. But this wasn't your average trip: He wound up getting involved in Tsarist Russian politics! You know, as one does.
Ten years before Twain arrived, the Crimean War (fought between 1853-1856), a conflict over the Crimean Peninsula on which Ukraine was located (sound familiar?), had ravaged much of the western Russian Empire. When he visited the city of Sevastopol in the Crimea, Twain noted that "Sebastopol [sic] is probably the worst battered town in Russia or any where else." That made him sympathetic to the plight of poor Russians, in particular the serfs (hereditary laborers forced to work the same piece of land for generations). Technically, the Russian Tsar Alexander II had freed the serfs in 1864, but their condition was still pretty iffy.
When Twain and his rich shipmates went to go meet the Tsar, whom the vessel's owners wanted to buy the ship, he was bowled over by how much power the big guy had and how nice he was. Of course, Twain, among all his pals, was chosen to write an address to the Tsar, which still survived. Mark praised the Tsar for freeing tens of millions of serfs. He didn't seem to mind imperialist powers at this time, but he later did a complete 180.
It took about 20 years for Twain to realize that not everything was A-OK in Russia. Perhaps one guy, no matter how well-dressed, should hold that much power. Also, Twain believed that, no matter how many reforms the Tsar tried to implement, only a complete restructuring of an imperialist government would really make a difference. The culprit? The autocrat at the top. In his opinion, Russia didn't just have antiquated ideas; in fact, it was pretty far behind even medieval times. "The Middle Ages are a long way in front of her," Twain quipped in his autobiography, "and she is not likely to catch up with them so long as the the Czardom continues to exist."
In addition to expressing these pro-serf sentiments in his writing, Twain declared his friendship for the editor of Free Russia (a pretty self-explanatorily anti-Tsarist publication) and became BFFs with George Kennan, future ambassador to the USSR and crusader for Russian liberty. Once he heard Kennan's descriptions of life for convicted criminals in Siberia, Twain bellowed, “If such a government cannot be overthrown otherwise than by dynamite, then thank God for dynamite!" Fed up with Tsarist abuses, Twain advocated a complete overthrow of Russia's oppressive government. He only had to wait a few decades...
Feature image via The Guardian/Wikimedia Commons.