Chapter XII - The Towns And The Mercantile Classes
Those who wish to enjoy the illusions produced by scene painting and stage decorations should never go behind the scenes. In like manner he who wishes to preserve the delusion that Russian provincial towns are picturesque should never enter them, but content himself with viewing them from a distance.
However imposing they may look when seen from the outside, they will be found on closer inspection, with very few exceptions, to be little more than villages in disguise. If they have not a positively rustic, they have at least a suburban, appearance. The streets are straight and wide, and are either miserably paved or not paved at all. Trottoirs are not considered indispensable. The houses are built of wood or brick, generally one-storied, and separated from each other by spacious yards. Many of them do not condescend to turn their facades to the street. The general impression produced is that the majority of the burghers have come from the country, and have brought their country-houses with them. There are few or no shops with merchandise tastefully arranged in the window to tempt the passer-by. If you wish to make purchases you must go to the Gostinny Dvor,* or Bazaar, which consists of long, symmetrical rows of low-roofed, dimly-lighted stores, with a colonnade in front. This is the place where merchants most do congregate, but it presents nothing of that bustle and activity which we are accustomed to associate with commercial life. The shopkeepers stand at their doors or loiter about in the immediate vicinity waiting for customers. From the scarcity of these latter I should say that when sales are effected the profits must be enormous.
* These words mean literally the Guests' Court or Yard. The Ghosti--a word which is etymologically the same as our "host" and "guest"--were originally the merchants who traded with other towns or other countries.
In the other parts of the town the air of solitude and languor is still more conspicuous. In the great square, or by the side of the promenade--if the town is fortunate enough to have one--cows or horses may be seen grazing tranquilly, without being at all conscious of the incongruity of their position. And, indeed, it would be strange if they had any such consciousness, for it does not exist in the minds either of the police or of the inhabitants. At night the streets may be lighted merely with a few oil-lamps, which do little more than render the darkness visible, so that cautious citizens returning home late often provide themselves with lanterns. As late as the sixties the learned historian, Pogodin, then a town-councillor of Moscow, opposed the lighting of the city with gas on the ground that those who chose to go out at night should carry their lamps with them. The objection was overruled, and Moscow is now fairly well lit, but the provincial towns are still far from being on the same level. Some retain their old primitive arrangements, while others enjoy the luxury of electric lighting.
The scarcity of large towns in Russia is not less remarkable than their rustic appearance. According to the last census (1897) the number of towns, officially so-called, is 1,321, but about three- fifths of them have under 5,000 inhabitants; only 104 have over 25,000, and only 19 over 100,000. These figures indicate plainly that the urban element of the population is relatively small, and it is declared by the official statisticians to be only 14 per cent., as against 72 per cent. in Great Britain, but it is now increasing rapidly. When the first edition of this work was published, in 1877, European Russia in the narrower sense of the term--excluding Finland, the Baltic Provinces, Lithuania, Poland, and the Caucasus--had only 11 towns with a population of over 50,000, and now there are 34; that is to say, the number of such towns has more than trebled. In the other portions of the country a similar increase has taken place. The towns which have become important industrial and commercial centres have naturally grown most rapidly. For example, in a period of twelve years (1885-97) the populations of Lodz, of Ekaterinoslaf, of Baku, of Yaroslavl, and of Libau, have more than doubled. In the five largest towns of the Empire--St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Odessa and Lodz--the aggregate population rose during the same twelve years from 2,423,000 to 3,590,000, or nearly 50 per cent. In ten other towns, with populations varying from 50,000 to 282,000, the aggregate rose from 780,000 to 1,382,000, or about 77 per cent.
That Russia should have taken so long to assimilate herself in this respect to Western Europe is to be explained by the geographical and political conditions. Her population was not hemmed in by natural or artificial frontiers strong enough to restrain their expansive tendencies. To the north, the east, and the southeast there was a boundless expanse of fertile, uncultivated land, offering a tempting field for emigration; and the peasantry have ever shown themselves ready to take advantage of their opportunities. Instead of improving their primitive system of agriculture, which requires an enormous area and rapidly exhausts the soil, they have always found it easier and more profitable to emigrate and take possession of the virgin land beyond. Thus the territory--sometimes with the aid of, and sometimes in spite of, the Government--has constantly expanded, and has already reached the Polar Ocean, the Pacific, and the northern offshoots of the Himalayas. The little district around the sources of the Dnieper has grown into a mighty empire, comprising one-seventh of the land surface of the globe. Prolific as the Russian race is, its power of reproduction could not keep pace with its territorial expansion, and consequently the country is still very thinly peopled. According to the latest census (1897) in the whole empire there are under 130 millions of inhabitants, and the average density of population is only about fifteen to the English square mile. Even the most densely populated provinces, including Moscow with its 988,610 inhabitants, cannot show more than 189 to the English square mile, whereas England has about 400. A people that has such an abundance of land, and can support itself by agriculture, is not naturally disposed to devote itself to industry, or to congregate in large cities.
For many generations there were other powerful influences working in the same direction. Of these the most important was serfage, which was not abolished till 1861. That institution, and the administrative system of which it formed an essential part, tended to prevent the growth of the towns by hemming the natural movements of the population. Peasants, for example, who learned trades, and who ought to have drifted naturally into the burgher class, were mostly retained by the master on his estate, where artisans of all sorts were daily wanted, and the few who were sent to seek work in the towns were not allowed to settle there permanently.
Thus the insignificance of the Russian towns is to be attributed mainly to two causes. The abundance of land tended to prevent the development of industry, and the little industry which did exist was prevented by serfage from collecting in the towns. But this explanation is evidently incomplete. The same causes existed during the Middle Ages in Central Europe, and yet, in spite of them, flourishing cities grew up and played an important part in the social and political history of Germany. In these cities collected traders and artisans, forming a distinct social class, distinguished from the nobles on the one hand, and the surrounding peasantry on the other, by peculiar occupations, peculiar aims, peculiar intellectual physiognomy, and peculiar moral conceptions. Why did these important towns and this burgher class not likewise come into existence in Russia, in spite of the two preventive causes above mentioned?
To discuss this question fully it would be necessary to enter into certain debated points of mediaeval history. All I can do here is to indicate what seems to me the true explanation.
In Central Europe, all through the Middle Ages, a perpetual struggle went on between the various political factors of which society was composed, and the important towns were in a certain sense the products of this struggle. They were preserved and fostered by the mutual rivalry of the Sovereign, the Feudal Nobility, and the Church; and those who desired to live by trade or industry settled in them in order to enjoy the protection and immunities which they afforded. In Russia there was never any political struggle of this kind. As soon as the Grand Princes of Moscow, in the sixteenth century, threw off the yoke of the Tartars, and made themselves Tsars of all Russia, their power was irresistible and uncontested. Complete masters of the situation, they organised the country as they thought fit. At first their policy was favourable to the development of the towns. Perceiving that the mercantile and industrial classes might be made a rich source of revenue, they separated them from the peasantry, gave them the exclusive right of trading, prevented the other classes from competing with them, and freed them from the authority of the landed proprietors. Had they carried out this policy in a cautious, rational way, they might have created a rich burgher class; but they acted with true Oriental short-sightedness, and defeated their own purpose by imposing inordinately heavy taxes, and treating the urban population as their serfs. The richer merchants were forced to serve as custom-house officers--often at a great distance from their domiciles*--and artisans were yearly summoned to Moscow to do work for the Tsars without remuneration.
* Merchants from Yaroslavl, for instance, were sent to Astrakhan to collect the custom-dues.
Besides this, the system of taxation was radically defective, and the members of the local administration, who received no pay and were practically free from control, were merciless in their exactions. In a word, the Tsars used their power so stupidly and so recklessly that the industrial and trading population, instead of fleeing to the towns to secure protection, fled from them to escape oppression. At length this emigration from the towns assumed such dimensions that it was found necessary to prevent it by administrative and legislative measures; and the urban population was legally fixed in the towns as the rural population was fixed to the soil. Those who fled were brought back as runaways, and those who attempted flight a second time were ordered to be flogged and transported to Siberia.*
* See the "Ulozhenie" (i.e. the laws of Alexis, father of Peter the Great), chap. xix. 13.
With the eighteenth century began a new era in the history of the towns and of the urban population. Peter the Great observed, during his travels in Western Europe, that national wealth and prosperity reposed chiefly on the enterprising, educated middle classes, and he attributed the poverty of his own country to the absence of this burgher element. Might not such a class be created in Russia? Peter unhesitatingly assumed that it might, and set himself at once to create it in a simple, straightforward way. Foreign artisans were imported into his dominions and foreign merchants were invited to trade with his subjects; young Russians were sent abroad to learn the useful arts; efforts were made to disseminate practical knowledge by the translation of foreign books and the foundation of schools; all kinds of trade were encouraged, and various industrial enterprises were organised. At the same time the administration of the towns was thoroughly reorganised after the model of the ancient free-towns of Germany. In place of the old organisation, which was a slightly modified form of the rural Commune, they received German municipal institutions, with burgomasters, town councils, courts of justice, guilds for the merchants, trade corporations (tsekhi) for the artisans, and an endless list of instructions regarding the development of trade and industry, the building of hospitals, sanitary precautions, the founding of schools, the dispensation of justice, the organisation of the police, and similar matters.
Catherine II. followed in the same track. If she did less for trade and industry, she did more in the way of legislating and writing grandiloquent manifestoes. In the course of her historical studies she had learned, as she proclaims in one of her manifestoes, that "from remotest antiquity we everywhere find the memory of town-builders elevated to the same level as the memory of legislators, and we see that heroes, famous for their victories, hoped by town-building to give immortality to their names." As the securing of immortality for her own name was her chief aim in life, she acted in accordance with historical precedent, and created 216 towns in the short space of twenty-three years. This seems a great work, but it did not satisfy her ambition. She was not only a student of history, but was at the same time a warm admirer of the fashionable political philosophy of her time. That philosophy paid much attention to the tiers-etat, which was then acquiring in France great political importance, and Catherine thought that as she had created a Noblesse on the French model, she might also create a bourgeoisie. For this purpose she modified the municipal organisation created by her great predecessor, and granted to all the towns an Imperial Charter. This charter remained without essential modification until the publication of the new Municipality Law in 1870.
The efforts of the Government to create a rich, intelligent tiers- etat were not attended with much success. Their influence was always more apparent in official documents than in real life. The great mass of the population remained serfs, fixed to the soil, whilst the nobles--that is to say, all who possessed a little education--were required for the military and civil services. Those who were sent abroad to learn the useful arts learned little, and made little use of the knowledge which they acquired. On their return to their native country they very soon fell victims to the soporific influence of the surrounding social atmosphere. The "town-building" had as little practical result. It was an easy matter to create any number of towns in the official sense of the term. To transform a village into a town, it was necessary merely to prepare an izba, or log-house, for the district court, another for the police-office, a third for the prison, and so on. On an appointed day the Governor of the province arrived in the village, collected the officials appointed to serve in the newly-constructed or newly-arranged log-houses, ordered a simple religious ceremony to be performed by the priest, caused a formal act to be drawn up, and then declared the town to be "opened." All this required very little creative effort; to create a spirit of commercial and industrial enterprise among the population was a more difficult matter and could not be effected by Imperial ukaz.
To animate the newly-imported municipal institutions, which had no root in the traditions and habits of the people, was a task of equal difficulty. In the West these institutions had been slowly devised in the course of centuries to meet real, keenly-felt, practical wants. In Russia they were adopted for the purpose of creating those wants which were not yet felt. Let the reader imagine our Board of Trade supplying the masters of fishing-smacks with accurate charts, learned treatises on navigation, and detailed instructions for the proper ventilation of ships' cabins, and he will have some idea of the effect which Peter's legislation had upon the towns. The office-bearers, elected against their will, were hopelessly bewildered by the complicated procedure, and were incapable of understanding the numerous ukazes which prescribed to them their multifarious duties and threatened the most merciless punishments for sins of omission and commission. Soon, however, it was discovered that the threats were not nearly so dreadful as they seemed; and accordingly those municipal authorities who were to protect and enlighten the burghers, "forgot the fear of God and the Tsar," and extorted so unblushingly that it was found necessary to place them under the control of Government officials.
The chief practical result of the efforts made by Peter and Catherine to create a bourgeoisie was that the inhabitants of the towns were more systematically arranged in categories for the purpose of taxation, and that the taxes were increased. All those parts of the new administration which had no direct relation to the fiscal interests of the Government had very little vitality in them. The whole system had been arbitrarily imposed on the people, and had as motive only the Imperial will. Had that motive power been withdrawn and the burghers left to regulate their own municipal affairs, the system would immediately have collapsed. Rathhaus, burgomasters, guilds, aldermen, and all the other lifeless shadows which had been called into existence by Imperial ukaz would instantly have vanished into space. In this fact we have one of the characteristic traits of Russian historical development compared with that of Western Europe. In the West monarchy had to struggle with municipal institutions to prevent them from becoming too powerful; in Russia, it had to struggle with them to prevent them from committing suicide or dying of inanition.
According to Catherine's legislation, which remained in force until 1870, and still exists in some of its main features, the towns were divided into three categories: (1) Government towns (gubernskiye goroda)--that is to say, the chief towns of provinces, or governments (gubernii)--in which are concentrated the various organs of provincial administration; (2) district towns (uyezdniye goroda), in which resides the administration of the districts (uyezdi) into which the provinces are divided; and (3) supernumerary towns (zashtatniye goroda), which have no particular significance in the territorial administration.
In all these the municipal organisation is the same. Leaving out of consideration those persons who happen to reside in the towns, but in reality belong to the Noblesse, the clergy, or the lower ranks of officials, we may say that the town population is composed of three groups: the merchants (kuptsi), the burghers in the narrower sense of the term (meshtchanye), and the artisans (tsekhoviye). These categories are not hereditary castes, like the nobles, the clergy, and the peasantry. A noble may become a merchant, or a man may be one year a burgher, the next year an artisan, and the third year a merchant, if he changes his occupation and pays the necessary dues. But the categories form, for the time being, distinct corporations, each possessing a peculiar organisation and peculiar privileges and obligations.
Of these three groups the first in the scale of dignity is that of the merchants. It is chiefly recruited from the burghers and the peasantry. Any one who wishes to engage in commerce inscribes himself in one of the three guilds, according to the amount of his capital and the nature of the operations in which he wishes to embark, and as soon as he has paid the required dues he becomes officially a merchant. As soon as he ceases to pay these dues he ceases to be a merchant in the legal sense of the term, and returns to the class to which he formerly belonged. There are some families whose members have belonged to the merchant class for several generations, and the law speaks about a certain "velvet- book" (barkhatnaya kniga) in which their names should be inscribed, but in reality they do not form a distinct category, and they descend at once from their privileged position as soon as they cease to pay the annual guild dues.
The artisans form the connecting link between the town population and the peasantry, for peasants often enrol themselves in the trades-corporations, or tsekhi, without severing their connection with the rural Communes to which they belong. Each trade or handicraft constitutes a tsekh, at the head of which stands an elder and two assistants, elected by the members; and all the tsekhi together form a corporation under an elected head (remeslenny golova) assisted by a council composed of the elders of the various tsekhi. It is the duty of this council and its president to regulate all matters connected with the tsekhi, and to see that the multifarious regulations regarding masters, journeymen, and apprentices are duly observed.
The nondescript class, composed of those who are inscribed as permanent inhabitants of the towns, but who do not belong to any guild or tsekh, constitutes what is called the burghers in the narrower sense of the term. Like the other two categories, they form a separate corporation, with an elder and an administrative bureau.
Some idea of the relative numerical strength of these three categories may be obtained from the following figures. Thirty years ago in European Russia the merchant class (including wives and children) numbered about 466,000, the burghers about 4,033,000, and the artisans about 260,000. The numbers according to the last census are not yet available.
In 1870 the entire municipal administration was reorganised on modern West-European principles, and the Town Council (gorodskaya duma), which formed under the previous system the connecting link between the old-fashioned corporations, and was composed exclusively of members of these bodies, became a genuine representative body composed of householders, irrespective of the social class to which they might belong. A noble, provided he was a house-proprietor, could become Town Councillor or Mayor, and in this way a certain amount of vitality and a progressive spirit were infused into the municipal administration. As a consequence of this change the schools, hospitals, and other benevolent institutions were much improved, the streets were kept cleaner and somewhat better paved, and for a time it seemed as if the towns in Russia might gradually rise to the level of those of Western Europe. But the charm of novelty, which so often works wonders in Russia, soon wore off. After a few years of strenuous effort the best citizens no longer came forward as candidates, and the office- bearers selected no longer displayed zeal and intelligence in the discharge of their duties. In these circumstances the Government felt called upon again to intervene. By a decree dated June 11, 1892, it introduced a new series of reforms, by which the municipal self-government was placed more under the direction and control of the centralised bureaucracy, and the attendance of the Town Councillors at the periodical meetings was declared to be obligatory, recalcitrant members being threatened with reprimands and fines.
This last fact speaks volumes for the low vitality of the institutions and the prevalent popular apathy with regard to municipal affairs. Nor was the unsatisfactory state of things much improved by the new reforms; on the contrary, the increased interference of the regular officials tended rather to weaken the vitality of the urban self government, and the so-called reform was pretty generally condemned as a needlessly reactionary measure. We have here, in fact, a case of what has often occurred in the administrative history of the Russian Empire since the time of Peter the Great, and to which I shall again have occasion to refer. The central authority, finding itself incompetent to do all that is required of it, and wishing to make a display of liberalism, accords large concessions in the direction of local autonomy; and when it discovers that the new institutions do not accomplish all that was expected of them, and are not quite so subservient and obsequious as is considered desirable, it returns in a certain measure to the old principles of centralised bureaucracy.
The great development of trade and industry in recent years has of course enriched the mercantile classes, and has introduced into them a more highly educated element, drawn chiefly from the Noblesse, which formerly eschewed such occupations; but it has not yet affected very deeply the mode of life of those who have sprung from the old merchant families and the peasantry. When a merchant, contractor, or manufacturer of the old type becomes wealthy, he builds for himself a fine house, or buys and thoroughly repairs the house of some ruined noble, and spends money freely on parquetry floors, large mirrors, malachite tables, grand pianos by the best makers, and other articles of furniture made of the most costly materials. Occasionally--especially on the occasion of a marriage or a death in the family--he will give magnificent banquets, and expend enormous sums on gigantic sterlets, choice sturgeons, foreign fruits, champagne, and all manner of costly delicacies. But this lavish, ostentatious expenditure does not affect the ordinary current of his daily life. As you enter those gaudily furnished rooms you can perceive at a glance that they are not for ordinary use. You notice a rigid symmetry and an indescribable bareness which inevitably suggest that the original arrangements of the upholsterer have never been modified or supplemented. The truth is that by far the greater part of the house is used only on state occasions. The host and his family live down-stairs in small, dirty rooms, furnished in a very different, and for them more comfortable, style. At ordinary times the fine rooms are closed, and the fine furniture carefully covered.
If you make a visite de politesse after an entertainment, you will probably have some difficulty in gaining admission by the front door. When you have knocked or rung several times, some one will come round from the back regions and ask you what you want. Then follows another long pause, and at last footsteps are heard approaching from within. The bolts are drawn, the door is opened, and you are led up to a spacious drawing-room. At the wall opposite the windows there is sure to be a sofa, and before it an oval table. At each end of the table, and at right angles to the sofa, there will be a row of three arm-chairs. The other chairs will be symmetrically arranged round the room. In a few minutes the host will appear, in his long double-breasted black coat and well-polished long boots. His hair is parted in the middle, and his beard shows no trace of scissors or razor.
After the customary greetings have been exchanged, glasses of tea, with slices of lemon and preserves, or perhaps a bottle of champagne, are brought in by way of refreshments. The female members of the family you must not expect to see, unless you are an intimate friend; for the merchants still retain something of that female seclusion which was in vogue among the upper classes before the time of Peter the Great. The host himself will probably be an intelligent, but totally uneducated and decidedly taciturn, man.
About the weather and the crops he may talk fluently enough, but he will not show much inclination to go beyond these topics. You may, perhaps, desire to converse with him on the subject with which he is best acquainted--the trade in which he is himself engaged; but if you make the attempt, you will certainly not gain much information, and you may possibly meet with such an incident as once happened to my travelling companion, a Russian gentleman who had been commissioned by two learned societies to collect information regarding the grain trade. When he called on a merchant who had promised to assist him in his investigation, he was hospitably received; but when he began to speak about the grain trade of the district the merchant suddenly interrupted him, and proposed to tell him a story. The story was as follows:
Once on a time a rich landed proprietor had a son, who was a thoroughly spoilt child; and one day the boy said to his father that he wished all the young serfs to come and sing before the door of the house. After some attempts at dissuasion the request was granted, and the young people assembled; but as soon as they began to sing, the boy rushed out and drove them away.
When the merchant had told this apparently pointless story at great length, and with much circumstantial detail, he paused a little, poured some tea into his saucer, drank it off, and then inquired, "Now what do you think was the reason of this strange conduct?"
My friend replied that the riddle surpassed his powers of divination.
"Well," said the merchant, looking hard at him, with a knowing grin, "there was no reason; and all the boy could say was, 'Go away, go away! I've changed my mind; I've changed my mind'" (poshli von; otkhotyel).
There was no possibility of mistaking the point of the story. My friend took the hint and departed.
The Russian merchant's love of ostentation is of a peculiar kind-- something entirely different from English snobbery. He may delight in gaudy reception-rooms, magnificent dinners, fast trotters, costly furs; or he may display his riches by princely donations to churches, monasteries, or benevolent institutions: but in all this he never affects to be other than he really is. He habitually wears a costume which designates plainly his social position; he makes no attempt to adopt fine manners or elegant tastes; and he never seeks to gain admission to what is called in Russia la societe. Having no desire to seem what he is not, he has a plain, unaffected manner, and sometimes a quiet dignity which contrasts favourably with the affected manner of those nobles of the lower ranks who make pretensions to being highly educated and strive to adopt the outward forms of French culture. At his great dinners, it is true, the merchant likes to see among his guests as many "generals"--that is to say, official personages--as possible, and especially those who happen to have a grand cordon; but he never dreams of thereby establishing an intimacy with these personages, or of being invited by them in return. It is perfectly understood by both parties that nothing of the kind is meant. The invitation is given and accepted from quite different motives. The merchant has the satisfaction of seeing at his table men of high official rank, and feels that the consideration which he enjoys among people of his own class is thereby augmented. If he succeeds in obtaining the presence of three generals, he obtains a victory over a rival who cannot obtain more than two. The general, on his side, gets a first-rate dinner, a la russe, and acquires an undefined right to request subscriptions for public objects or benevolent institutions.
Of course this undefined right is commonly nothing more than a mere tacit understanding, but in certain cases the subject is expressly mentioned. I know of one case in which a regular bargain was made. A Moscow magnate was invited by a merchant to a dinner, and consented to go in full uniform, with all his decorations, on condition that the merchant should subscribe a certain sum to a benevolent institution in which he was particularly interested. It is whispered that such bargains are sometimes made, not on behalf of benevolent institutions, but simply in the interest of the gentleman who accepts the invitation. I cannot believe that there are many official personages who would consent to let themselves out as table decorations, but that it may happen is proved by the following incident, which accidentally came to my knowledge. A rich merchant of the town of T---- once requested the Governor of the Province to honour a family festivity with his presence, and added that he would consider it a special favour if the "Governoress" would enter an appearance. To this latter request his Excellency made many objections, and at last let the petitioner understand that her Excellency could not possibly be present, because she had no velvet dress that could bear comparison with those of several merchants' wives in the town. Two days after the interview a piece of the finest velvet that could be procured in Moscow was received by the Governor from an unknown donor, and his wife was thus enabled to be present at the festivity, to the complete satisfaction of all parties concerned.
It is worthy of remark that the merchants recognise no aristocracy but that of official rank. Many merchants would willingly give twenty pounds for the presence of an "actual State Councillor" who perhaps never heard of his grandfather, but who can show a grand cordon; whilst they would not give twenty pence for the presence of an undecorated Prince without official rank, though he might be able to trace his pedigree up to the half-mythical Rurik. Of the latter they would probably say, "Kto ikh znact?" (Who knows what sort of a fellow he is?) The former, on the contrary, whoever his father and grandfather may have been, possesses unmistakable marks of the Tsar's favour, which, in the merchant's opinion, is infinitely more important than any rights or pretensions founded on hereditary titles or long pedigrees.
Some marks of Imperial favour the old-fashioned merchants strive to obtain for themselves. They do not dream of grand cordons--that is far beyond their most sanguine expectations--but they do all in their power to obtain those lesser decorations which are granted to the mercantile class. For this purpose the most common expedient is a liberal subscription to some benevolent institution, and occasionally a regular bargain is made. I know of at least one instance where the kind of decoration was expressly stipulated. The affair illustrates so well the commercial character of these transactions that I venture to state the facts as related to me by the official chiefly concerned. A merchant subscribed to a society which enjoyed the patronage of a Grand Duchess a considerable sum of money, under the express condition that he should receive in return a St. Vladimir Cross. Instead of the desired decoration, which was considered too much for the sum subscribed, a cross of St. Stanislas was granted; but the donor was dissatisfied with the latter and demanded that his money should be returned to him. The demand had to be complied with, and, as an Imperial gift cannot be retracted, the merchant had his Stanislas Cross for nothing.
This traffic in decorations has had its natural result. Like paper money issued in too large quantities, the decorations have fallen in value. The gold medals which were formerly much coveted and worn with pride by the rich merchants--suspended by a ribbon round the neck--are now little sought after. In like manner the inordinate respect for official personages has considerably diminished. Fifty years ago the provincial merchants vied with each other in their desire to entertain any great dignitary who honoured their town with a visit, but now they seek rather to avoid this expensive and barren honour. When they do accept the honour, they fulfil the duties of hospitality in a most liberal spirit. I have sometimes, when living as an honoured guest in a rich merchant's house, found it difficult to obtain anything simpler than sterlet, sturgeon, and champagne.
The two great blemishes on the character of the Russian merchants as a class are, according to general opinion, their ignorance and their dishonesty. As to the former of these there cannot possibly be any difference of opinion. Many of them can neither read nor write, and are forced to keep their accounts in their memory, or by means of ingenious hieroglyphics, intelligible only to the inventor. Others can decipher the calendar and the lives of the saints, can sign their names with tolerable facility, and can make the simpler arithmetical calculations with the help of the stchety, a little calculating instrument, composed of wooden balls strung on brass wires, which resembles the "abaca" of the old Romans, and is universally used in Russia. It is only the minority who understand the mysteries of regular book-keeping, and of these very few can make any pretensions to being educated men.
All this, however, is rapidly undergoing a radical change. Children are now much better educated than their parents, and the next generation will doubtless make further progress, so that the old-fashioned type above described is destined to disappear. Already there are not a few of the younger generation--especially among the wealthy manufacturers of Moscow--who have been educated abroad, who may be described as tout a fait civilises, and whose mode of life differs little from that of the richer nobles; but they remain outside fashionable society, and constitute a "set" of their own.
As to the dishonesty which is said to be so common among the Russian commercial classes, it is difficult to form an accurate judgment. That an enormous amount of unfair dealing does exist there can be no possible doubt, but in this matter a foreigner is likely to be unduly severe. We are apt to apply unflinchingly our own standard of commercial morality, and to forget that trade in Russia is only emerging from that primitive condition in which fixed prices and moderate profits are entirely unknown. And when we happen to detect positive dishonesty, it seems to us especially heinous, because the trickery employed is more primitive and awkward than that to which we are accustomed. Trickery in weighing and measuring, for instance, which is by no means uncommon in Russia, is likely to make us more indignant than those ingenious methods of adulteration which are practised nearer home, and are regarded by many as almost legitimate. Besides this, foreigners who go to Russia and embark in speculations without possessing any adequate knowledge of the character, customs, and language of the people positively invite spoliation, and ought to blame themselves rather than the people who profit by their ignorance.
All this, and much more of the same kind, may be fairly urged in mitigation of the severe judgments which foreign merchants commonly pass on Russian commercial morality, but these judgments cannot be reversed by such argumentation. The dishonesty and rascality which exist among the merchants are fully recognised by the Russians themselves. In all moral affairs the lower classes in Russia are very lenient in their judgments, and are strongly disposed, like the Americans, to admire what is called in Transatlantic phraseology "a smart man," though the smartness is known to contain a large admixture of dishonesty; and yet the vox populi in Russia emphatically declares that the merchants as a class are unscrupulous and dishonest. There is a rude popular play in which the Devil, as principal dramatis persona, succeeds in cheating all manner and conditions of men, but is finally overreached by a genuine Russian merchant. When this play is acted in the Carnival Theatre in St. Petersburg the audience invariably agrees with the moral of the plot.
If this play were acted in the southern towns near the coast of the Black Sea it would be necessary to modify it considerably, for here, in company with Jews, Greeks, and Armenians, the Russian merchants seem honest by comparison. As to Greeks and Armenians, I know not which of the two nationalities deserves the palm, but it seems that both are surpassed by the Children of Israel. "How these Jews do business," I have heard a Russian merchant of this region exclaim, "I cannot understand. They buy up wheat in the villages at eleven roubles per tchetvert, transport it to the coast at their own expense, and sell it to the exporters at ten roubles! And yet they contrive to make a profit! It is said that the Russian trader is cunning, but here 'our brother' [i.e., the Russian] can do nothing." The truth of this statement I have had abundant opportunities of confirming by personal investigations on the spot.
If I might express a general opinion regarding Russian commercial morality, I should say that trade in Russia is carried on very much on the same principle as horse-dealing in England. A man who wishes to buy or sell must trust to his own knowledge and acuteness, and if he gets the worst of a bargain or lets himself be deceived, he has himself to blame. Commercial Englishmen on arriving in Russia rarely understand this, and when they know it theoretically they are too often unable, from their ignorance of the language, the laws, and the customs of the people, to turn their theoretical knowledge to account. They indulge, therefore, at first in endless invectives against the prevailing dishonesty; but gradually, when they have paid what Germans call Lehrgeld, they accommodate themselves to circumstances, take large profits to counterbalance bad debts, and generally succeed--if they have sufficient energy, mother-wit, and capital--in making a very handsome income.
The old race of British merchants, however, is rapidly dying out, and I greatly fear that the rising generation will not be equally successful. Times have changed. It is no longer possible to amass large fortunes in the old easy-going fashion. Every year the conditions alter, and the competition increases. In order to foresee, understand, and take advantage of the changes, one must have far more knowledge of the country than the men of the old school possessed, and it seems to me that the young generation have still less of that knowledge than their predecessors. Unless some change takes place in this respect, the German merchants, who have generally a much better commercial education and are much better acquainted with their adopted country, will ultimately, I believe, expel their British rivals. Already many branches of commerce formerly carried on by Englishmen have passed into their hands.
It must not be supposed that the unsatisfactory organisation of the Russian commercial world is the result of any radical peculiarity of the Russian character. All new countries have to pass through a similar state of things, and in Russia there are already premonitory symptoms of a change for the better. For the present, it is true, the extensive construction of railways and the rapid development of banks and limited liability companies have opened up a new and wide field for all kinds of commercial swindling; but, on the other hand, there are now in every large town a certain number of merchants who carry on business in the West-European manner, and have learnt by experience that honesty is the best policy. The success which many of these have obtained will doubtless cause their example to be followed. The old spirit of caste and routine which has long animated the merchant class is rapidly disappearing, and not a few nobles are now exchanging country life and the service of the State for industrial and commercial enterprises. In this way is being formed the nucleus of that wealthy, enlightened bourgeoisie which Catherine endeavoured to create by legislation; but many years must elapse before this class acquires sufficient social and political significance to deserve the title of a tiers- etat.