Russia eText - Chapter II - In The Northern Forests

Chapter II - In The Northern Forests

There are many ways of describing a country that one has visited. The simplest and most common method is to give a chronological account of the journey; and this is perhaps the best way when the journey does not extend over more than a few weeks. But it cannot be conveniently employed in the case of a residence of many years. Did I adopt it, I should very soon exhaust the reader's patience. I should have to take him with me to a secluded village, and make him wait for me till I had learned to speak the language. Thence he would have to accompany me to a provincial town, and spend months in a public office, whilst I endeavoured to master the mysteries of local self-government. After this he would have to spend two years with me in a big library, where I studied the history and literature of the country. And so on, and so on. Even my journeys would prove tedious to him, as they often were to myself, for he would have to drive with me many a score of weary miles, where even the most zealous diary-writer would find nothing to record beyond the names of the post-stations.

It will be well for me, then, to avoid the strictly chronological method, and confine myself to a description of the more striking objects and incidents that came under my notice. The knowledge which I derived from books will help me to supply a running commentary on what I happened to see and hear.

Instead of beginning in the usual way with St. Petersburg, I prefer for many reasons to leave the description of the capital till some future time, and plunge at once into the great northern forest region.

If it were possible to get a bird's-eye view of European Russia, the spectator would perceive that the country is composed of two halves widely differing from each other in character. The northern half is a land of forest and morass, plentifully supplied with water in the form of rivers, lakes, and marshes, and broken up by numerous patches of cultivation. The southern half is, as it were, the other side of the pattern--an immense expanse of rich, arable land, broken up by occasional patches of sand or forest. The imaginary undulating line separating those two regions starts from the western frontier about the 50th parallel of latitude, and runs in a northeasterly direction till it enters the Ural range at about 56 degrees N.L.

Well do I remember my first experience of travel in the northern region, and the weeks of voluntary exile which formed the goal of the journey. It was in the summer of 1870. My reason for undertaking the journey was this: a few months of life in St. Petersburg had fully convinced me that the Russian language is one of those things which can only be acquired by practice, and that even a person of antediluvian longevity might spend all his life in that city without learning to express himself fluently in the vernacular--especially if he has the misfortune of being able to speak English, French, and German. With his friends and associates he speaks French or English. German serves as a medium of communication with waiters, shop keepers, and other people of that class. It is only with isvoshtchiki--the drivers of the little open droshkis which fulfil the function of cabs--that he is obliged to use the native tongue, and with them a very limited vocabulary suffices. The ordinal numerals and four short, easily-acquired expressions--poshol (go on), na pravo (to the right), na lyevo (to the left), and stoi (stop)--are all that is required.

Whilst I was considering how I could get beyond the sphere of West- European languages, a friend came to my assistance, and suggested that I should go to his estate in the province of Novgorod, where I should find an intelligent, amiable parish priest, quite innocent of any linguistic acquirements. This proposal I at once adopted, and accordingly found myself one morning at a small station of the Moscow Railway, endeavouring to explain to a peasant in sheep's clothing that I wished to be conveyed to Ivanofka, the village where my future teacher lived. At that time I still spoke Russian in a very fragmentary and confused way--pretty much as Spanish cows are popularly supposed to speak French. My first remark therefore being literally interpreted, was--"Ivanofka. Horses. You can?" The point of interrogation was expressed by a simultaneous raising of the voice and the eyebrows.

"Ivanofka?" cried the peasant, in an interrogatory tone of voice. In Russia, as in other countries, the peasantry when speaking with strangers like to repeat questions, apparently for the purpose of gaining time.

"Ivanofka," I replied.



After some reflection the peasant nodded and said something which I did not understand, but which I assumed to mean that he was open to consider proposals for transporting me to my destination.

"Roubles. How many?"

To judge by the knitting of the brows and the scratching of the head, I should say that that question gave occasion to a very abstruse mathematical calculation. Gradually the look of concentrated attention gave place to an expression such as children assume when they endeavour to get a parental decision reversed by means of coaxing. Then came a stream of soft words which were to me utterly unintelligible.

I must not weary the reader with a detailed account of the succeeding negotiations, which were conducted with extreme diplomatic caution on both sides, as if a cession of territory or the payment of a war indemnity had been the subject of discussion. Three times he drove away and three times returned. Each time he abated his pretensions, and each time I slightly increased my offer. At last, when I began to fear that he had finally taken his departure and had left me to my own devices, he re-entered the room and took up my baggage, indicating thereby that he agreed to my last offer.

The sum agreed upon would have been, under ordinary circumstances, more than sufficient, but before proceeding far I discovered that the circumstances were by no means ordinary, and I began to understand the pantomimic gesticulation which had puzzled me during the negotiations. Heavy rain had fallen without interruption for several days, and now the track on which we were travelling could not, without poetical license, be described as a road. In some parts it resembled a water-course, in others a quagmire, and at least during the first half of the journey I was constantly reminded of that stage in the work of creation when the water was not yet separated from the dry land. During the few moments when the work of keeping my balance and preventing my baggage from being lost did not engross all my attention, I speculated on the possibility of inventing a boat-carriage, to be drawn by some amphibious quadruped. Fortunately our two lean, wiry little horses did not object to being used as aquatic animals. They took the water bravely, and plunged through the mud in gallant style. The telega in which we were seated--a four-wheeled skeleton cart--did not submit to the ill-treatment so silently. It creaked out its remonstrances and entreaties, and at the more difficult spots threatened to go to pieces; but its owner understood its character and capabilities, and paid no attention to its ominous threats. Once, indeed, a wheel came off, but it was soon fished out of the mud and replaced, and no further casualty occurred.

The horses did their work so well that when about midday we arrived at a village, I could not refuse to let them have some rest and refreshment--all the more as my own thoughts had begun to turn in that direction.

The village, like villages in that part of the country generally, consisted of two long parallel rows of wooden houses. The road--if a stratum of deep mud can be called by that name--formed the intervening space. All the houses turned their gables to the passerby, and some of them had pretensions to architectural decoration in the form of rude perforated woodwork. Between the houses, and in a line with them, were great wooden gates and high wooden fences, separating the courtyards from the road. Into one of these yards, near the farther end of the village, our horses turned of their own accord.

"An inn?" I said, in an interrogative tone.

The driver shook his head and said something, in which I detected the word "friend." Evidently there was no hostelry for man and beast in the village, and the driver was using a friend's house for the purpose.

The yard was flanked on the one side by an open shed, containing rude agricultural implements which might throw some light on the agriculture of the primitive Aryans, and on the other side by the dwelling-house and stable. Both the house and stable were built of logs, nearly cylindrical in form, and placed in horizontal tiers.

Two of the strongest of human motives, hunger and curiosity, impelled me to enter the house at once. Without waiting for an invitation, I went up to the door--half protected against the winter snows by a small open portico--and unceremoniously walked in. The first apartment was empty, but I noticed a low door in the wall to the left, and passing through this, entered the principal room. As the scene was new to me, I noted the principal objects. In the wall before me were two small square windows looking out upon the road, and in the corner to the right, nearer to the ceiling than to the floor, was a little triangular shelf, on which stood a religious picture. Before the picture hung a curious oil lamp. In the corner to the left of the door was a gigantic stove, built of brick, and whitewashed. From the top of the stove to the wall on the right stretched what might be called an enormous shelf, six or eight feet in breadth. This is the so-called palati, as I afterwards discovered, and serves as a bed for part of the family. The furniture consisted of a long wooden bench attached to the wall on the right, a big, heavy, deal table, and a few wooden stools.

Whilst I was leisurely surveying these objects, I heard a noise on the top of the stove, and, looking up, perceived a human face, with long hair parted in the middle, and a full yellow beard. I was considerably astonished by this apparition, for the air in the room was stifling, and I had some difficulty in believing that any created being--except perhaps a salamander or a negro--could exist in such a position. I looked hard to convince myself that I was not the victim of a delusion. As I stared, the head nodded slowly and pronounced the customary form of greeting.

I returned the greeting slowly, wondering what was to come next.

"Ill, very ill!" sighed the head.

"I'm not astonished at that," I remarked, in an "aside." "If I were lying on the stove as you are I should be very ill too."

"Hot, very hot?" I remarked, interrogatively.

"Nitchevo"--that is to say, "not particularly." This remark astonished me all the more as I noticed that the body to which the head belonged was enveloped in a sheep-skin!

After living some time in Russia I was no longer surprised by such incidents, for I soon discovered that the Russian peasant has a marvellous power of bearing extreme heat as well as extreme cold. When a coachman takes his master or mistress to the theatre or to a party, he never thinks of going home and returning at an appointed time. Hour after hour he sits placidly on the box, and though the cold be of an intensity such as is never experienced in our temperate climate, he can sleep as tranquilly as the lazzaroni at midday in Naples. In that respect the Russian peasant seems to be first-cousin to the polar bear, but, unlike the animals of the Arctic regions, he is not at all incommoded by excessive heat. On the contrary, he likes it when he can get it, and never omits an opportunity of laying in a reserve supply of caloric. He even delights in rapid transitions from one extreme to the other, as is amply proved by a curious custom which deserves to be recorded.

The reader must know that in the life of the Russian peasantry the weekly vapour-bath plays a most important part. It has even a certain religious signification, for no good orthodox peasant would dare to enter a church after being soiled by certain kinds of pollution without cleansing himself physically and morally by means of the bath. In the weekly arrangements it forms the occupation for Saturday afternoon, and care is taken to avoid thereafter all pollution until after the morning service on Sunday. Many villages possess a public or communal bath of the most primitive construction, but in some parts of the country--I am not sure how far the practice extends--the peasants take their vapour-bath in the household oven in which the bread is baked! In all cases the operation is pushed to the extreme limit of human endurance--far beyond the utmost limit that can be endured by those who have not been accustomed to it from childhood. For my own part, I only made the experiment once; and when I informed my attendant that my life was in danger from congestion of the brain, he laughed outright, and told me that the operation had only begun. Most astounding of all--and this brings me to the fact which led me into this digression--the peasants in winter often rush out of the bath and roll themselves in the snow! This aptly illustrates a common Russian proverb, which says that what is health to the Russian is death to the German.

Cold water, as well as hot vapour, is sometimes used as a means of purification. In the villages the old pagan habit of masquerading in absurd costumes at certain seasons--as is done during the carnival in Roman Catholic countries with the approval, or at least connivance, of the Church--still survives; but it is regarded as not altogether sinless. He who uses such disguises places himself to a certain extent under the influence of the Evil One, thereby putting his soul in jeopardy; and to free himself from this danger he has to purify himself in the following way: When the annual mid- winter ceremony of blessing the waters is performed, by breaking a hole in the ice and immersing a cross with certain religious rites, he should plunge into the hole as soon as possible after the ceremony. I remember once at Yaroslavl, on the Volga, two young peasants successfully accomplished this feat--though the police have orders to prevent it--and escaped, apparently without evil consequences, though the Fahrenheit thermometer was below zero. How far the custom has really a purifying influence, is a question which must be left to theologians; but even an ordinary mortal can understand that, if it be regarded as a penance, it must have a certain deterrent effect. The man who foresees the necessity of undergoing this severe penance will think twice before putting on a disguise. So at least it must have been in the good old times; but in these degenerate days--among the Russian peasantry as elsewhere-- the fear of the Devil, which was formerly, if not the beginning, at least one of the essential elements, of wisdom, has greatly decreased. Many a young peasant will now thoughtlessly disguise himself, and when the consecration of the water is performed, will stand and look on passively like an ordinary spectator! It would seem that the Devil, like his enemy the Pope, is destined to lose gradually his temporal power.

But all this time I am neglecting my new acquaintance on the top of the stove. In reality I did not neglect him, but listened most attentively to every word of the long tale that he recited. What it was all about I could only vaguely guess, for I did not understand more than ten per cent of the words used, but I assumed from the tone and gestures that he was relating to me all the incidents and symptoms of his illness. And a very severe illness it must have been, for it requires a very considerable amount of physical suffering to make the patient Russian peasant groan. Before he had finished his tale a woman entered, apparently his wife.

To her I explained that I had a strong desire to eat and drink, and that I wished to know what she would give me. By a good deal of laborious explanation I was made to understand that I could have eggs, black bread, and milk, and we agreed that there should be a division of labour: my hostess should prepare the samovar for boiling water, whilst I should fry the eggs to my own satisfaction.

In a few minutes the repast was ready, and, though not very delicate, was highly acceptable. The tea and sugar I had of course brought with me; the eggs were not very highly flavoured; and the black rye-bread, strongly intermixed with sand, could be eaten by a peculiar and easily-acquired method of mastication, in which the upper molars are never allowed to touch those of the lower jaw. In this way the grating of the sand between the teeth is avoided.

Eggs, black bread, milk, and tea--these formed my ordinary articles of food during all my wanderings in Northern Russia. Occasionally potatoes could be got, and afforded the possibility of varying the bill of fare. The favourite materials employed in the native cookery are sour cabbage, cucumbers, and kvass--a kind of very small beer made from black bread. None of these can be recommended to the traveller who is not already accustomed to them.

The remainder of the journey was accomplished at a rather more rapid pace than the preceding part, for the road was decidedly better, though it was traversed by numerous half-buried roots, which produced violent jolts. From the conversation of the driver I gathered that wolves, bears, and elks were found in the forest through which we were passing.

The sun had long since set when we reached our destination, and I found to my dismay that the priest's house was closed for the night. To rouse the reverend personage from his slumbers, and endeavour to explain to him with my limited vocabulary the object of my visit, was not to be thought of. On the other hand, there was no inn of any kind in the vicinity. When I consulted the driver as to what was to be done, he meditated for a little, and then pointed to a large house at some distance where there were still lights. It turned out to be the country-house of the gentleman who had advised me to undertake the journey, and here, after a short explanation, though the owner was not at home, I was hospitably received.

It had been my intention to live in the priest's house, but a short interview with him on the following day convinced me that that part of my plan could not be carried out. The preliminary objections that I should find but poor fare in his humble household, and much more of the same kind, were at once put aside by my assurance, made partly by pantomime, that, as an old traveller, I was well accustomed to simple fare, and could always accommodate myself to the habits of people among whom my lot happened to be cast. But there was a more serious difficulty. The priest's family had, as is generally the case with priests' families, been rapidly increasing during the last few years, and his house had not been growing with equal rapidity. The natural consequence of this was that he had not a room or a bed to spare. The little room which he had formerly kept for occasional visitors was now occupied by his eldest daughter, who had returned from a "school for the daughters of the clergy," where she had been for the last two years. Under these circumstances, I was constrained to accept the kind proposal made to me by the representative of my absent friend, that I should take up my quarters in one of the numerous unoccupied rooms in the manor-house. This arrangement, I was reminded, would not at all interfere with my proposed studies, for the priest lived close at hand, and I might spend with him as much time as I liked.

And now let me introduce the reader to my reverend teacher and one or two other personages whose acquaintance I made during my voluntary exile.