THE news of Nicholas's death brought a general sense of relief. All thinking people felt that the event marked the end of an era, and that there were bound to be decisive changes. The long winter had come to an end and the tumult of spring was sweeping through the political air. Tongues were loosened, minds were aroused. 'Whoever was not alive in Russia in 1856,' wrote Tolstoy, 'does not know what life is.'
At first the new Czar, busy bringing the war to an end, could not give thought to the great reforms awaited by the country. He did, however, show a concessive spirit in various small ways. Restrictions on the number of university students were lifted and difficulties in the way of foreign travel removed. Some Decembrists and Petrashevists were amnestied. One or two notorious obscurantists were dismissed from high posts. Each liberal or humane measure, however trivial, was greeted with enthusiasm and served to sustain the great expectations that buoyed up all hearts. Hints at coming reforms, were read into official pronouncements. The time for patchwork measures seemed at an end.
The slogan of progress was on every tongue. It was the refrain of the books and periodicals that were appearing in greater numbers. The press was given licence to touch on questions of foreign and domestic policy, although certain topics, notably the abolition of serfdom -- the pivotal issue of the day -- could not be mentioned. Forbidden subjects were aired in manuscript pamphlets by both Slavophils and Westernists. In their eagerness to work for a regenerated Russia the two camps were ready to bury the hatchet. Not that the Westernists were all of one mind. They had a left wing with its own organ, the Petersburg monthly Sovremennik (The Contemporary). The magazine was controlled by Nikolay Nekrasov, a civic poet of great popularity, who was also a shrewd editor. He leaned heavily on a young man by the name of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.
The radicals had a somewhat uncertain ally in the handful of