Chapter XIII - The Pastoral Tribes Of The Steppe
When I had spent a couple of years or more in the Northern and North-Central provinces--the land of forests and of agriculture conducted on the three-field system, with here and there a town of respectable antiquity--I determined to visit for purposes of comparison and contrast the Southeastern region, which possesses no forests nor ancient towns, and corresponds to the Far West of the United States of America. My point of departure was Yaroslavl, a town on the right bank of the Volga to the northeast of Moscow--and thence I sailed down the river during three days on a large comfortable steamer to Samara, the chief town of the province or "government" of the name. Here I left the steamer and prepared to make a journey into the eastern hinterland.
Samara is a new town, a child of the last century. At the time of my first visit, now thirty years ago, it recalled by its unfinished appearance the new towns of America. Many of the houses were of wood. The streets were still in such a primitive condition that after rain they were almost impassable from mud, and in dry, gusty weather they generated thick clouds of blinding, suffocating dust. Before I had been many days in the place I witnessed a dust- hurricane, during which it was impossible at certain moments to see from my window the houses on the other side of the street. Amidst such primitive surroundings the colossal new church seemed a little out of keeping, and it occurred to my practical British mind that some of the money expended on its construction might have been more profitably employed. But the Russians have their own ideas of the fitness of things. Religious after their own fashion, they subscribe money liberally for ecclesiastical purposes--especially for the building and decoration of their churches. Besides this, the Government considers that every chief town of a province should possess a cathedral.
In its early days Samara was one of the outposts of Russian colonisation, and had often to take precautions against the raids of the nomadic tribes living in the vicinity; but the agricultural frontier has since been pushed far forward to the east and south, and the province was until lately, despite occasional droughts, one of the most productive in the Empire. The town is the chief market of this region, and therein lies its importance. The grain is brought by the peasants from great distances, and stored in large granaries by the merchants, who send it to Moscow or St. Petersburg. In former days this was a very tedious operation. The boats containing the grain were towed by horses or stout peasants up the rivers and through the canals for hundreds of miles. Then came the period of "cabestans"--unwieldly machines propelled by means of anchors and windlasses. Now these primitive methods of transport have disappeared. The grain is either despatched by rail or put into gigantic barges, which are towed up the river by powerful tug-steamers to some point connected with the great network of railways.
When the traveller has visited the Cathedral and the granaries he has seen all the lions--not very formidable lions, truly--of the place. He may then inspect the kumyss establishments, pleasantly situated near the town. He will find there a considerable number of patients--mostly consumptive--who drink enormous quantities of fermented mare's-milk, and who declare that they receive great benefit from this modern health-restorer.
What interested me more than the lions of the town or the suburban kumyss establishments were the offices of the local administration, where I found in the archives much statistical and other information of the kind I was in search of, regarding the economic condition of the province generally, and of the emancipated peasantry in particular. Having filled my note-book with material of this sort, I proceeded to verify and complete it by visiting some characteristic villages and questioning the inhabitants. For the student of Russian affairs who wishes to arrive at real, as distinguished from official, truth, this is not an altogether superfluous operation.
When I had thus made the acquaintance of the sedentary agricultural population in several districts I journeyed eastwards with the intention of visiting the Bashkirs, a Tartar tribe which still preserved--so at least I was assured--its old nomadic habits. My reasons for undertaking this journey were twofold. In the first place I was desirous of seeing with my own eyes some remnants of those terrible nomadic tribes which had at one time conquered Russia and long threatened to overrun Europe--those Tartar hordes which gained, by their irresistible force and relentless cruelty, the reputation of being "the scourge of God." Besides this, I had long wished to study the conditions of pastoral life, and congratulated myself on having found a convenient opportunity of doing so.
As I proceeded eastwards I noticed a change in the appearance of the villages. The ordinary wooden houses, with their high sloping roofs, gradually gave place to flat-roofed huts, built of a peculiar kind of unburnt bricks, composed of mud and straw. I noticed, too, that the population became less and less dense, and the amount of fallow land proportionately greater. The peasants were evidently richer than those near the Volga, but they complained--as the Russian peasant always does--that they had not land enough. In answer to my inquiries why they did not use the thousands of acres that were lying fallow around them, they explained that they had already raised crops on that land for several successive years, and that consequently they must now allow it to "rest."
In one of the villages through which I passed I met with a very characteristic little incident. The village was called Samovolnaya Ivanofka--that is to say, "Ivanofka the Self-willed" or "the Non- authorised." Whilst our horses were being changed my travelling companion, in the course of conversation with a group of peasants, inquired about the origin of this extraordinary name, and discovered a curious bit of local history. The founders of the village had settled on the land without the permission of the absentee owner, and obstinately resisted all attempts at eviction. Again and again troops had been sent to drive them away, but as soon as the troops retired these "self-willed" people returned and resumed possession, till at last the proprietor, who lived in St. Petersburg or some other distant place, became weary of the contest and allowed them to remain. The various incidents were related with much circumstantial detail, so that the narration lasted perhaps half an hour. All this time I listened attentively, and when the story was finished I took out my note-book in order to jot down the facts, and asked in what year the affair had happened. No answer was given to my question. The peasants merely looked at each other in a significant way and kept silence. Thinking that my question had not been understood, I asked it a second time, repeating a part of what had been related. To my astonishment and utter discomfiture they all declared that they had never related anything of the sort! In despair I appealed to my friend, and asked him whether my ears had deceived me--whether I was labouring under some strange hallucination. Without giving me any reply he simply smiled and turned away.
When we had left the village and were driving along in our tarantass the mystery was satisfactorily cleared up. My friend explained to me that I had not at all misunderstood what had been related, but that my abrupt question and the sight of my note-book had suddenly aroused the peasants' suspicions. "They evidently suspected," he continued, "that you were a tchinovnik, and that you wished to use to their detriment the knowledge you had acquired. They thought it safer, therefore, at once to deny it all. You don't yet understand the Russian muzhik!"
In this last remark I was obliged to concur, but since that time I have come to know the muzhik better, and an incident of the kind would now no longer surprise me. From a long series of observations I have come to the conclusion that the great majority of the Russian peasants, when dealing with the authorities, consider the most patent and barefaced falsehoods as a fair means of self-defence. Thus, for example, when a muzhik is implicated in a criminal affair, and a preliminary investigation is being made, he probably begins by constructing an elaborate story to explain the facts and exculpate himself. The story may be a tissue of self-evident falsehoods from beginning to end, but he defends it valiantly as long as possible. When he perceives that the position which he has taken up is utterly untenable, he declares openly that all he has said is false, and that he wishes to make a new declaration. This second declaration may have the same fate as the former one, and then he proposes a third. Thus groping his way, he tries various stories till he finds one that seems proof against all objections. In the fact of his thus telling lies there is of course nothing remarkable, for criminals in all parts of the world have a tendency to deviate from the truth when they fall into the hands of justice. The peculiarity is that he retracts his statements with the composed air of a chess-player who requests his opponent to let him take back an inadvertent move. Under the old system of procedure, which was abolished in the sixties, clever criminals often contrived by means of this simple device to have their trial postponed for many years.
Such incidents naturally astonish a foreigner, and he is apt, in consequence, to pass a very severe judgment on the Russian peasantry in general. The reader may remember Karl Karl'itch's remarks on the subject. These remarks I have heard repeated in various forms by Germans in all parts of the country, and there must be a certain amount of truth in them, for even an eminent Slavophil once publicly admitted that the peasant is prone to perjury.* It is necessary, however, as it seems to me, to draw a distinction. In the ordinary intercourse of peasants among themselves, or with people in whom they have confidence, I do not believe that the habit of lying is abnormally developed. It is only when the muzhik comes in contact with authorities that he shows himself an expert fabricator of falsehoods. In this there is nothing that need surprise us. For ages the peasantry were exposed to the arbitrary power and ruthless exactions of those who were placed over them; and as the law gave them no means of legally protecting themselves, their only means of self-defence lay in cunning and deceit.
* Kireyefski, in the Russakaya Beseda.
We have here, I believe, the true explanation of that "Oriental mendacity" about which Eastern travellers have written so much. It is simply the result of a lawless state of society. Suppose a truth-loving Englishman falls into the hands of brigands or savages. Will he not, if he have merely an ordinary moral character, consider himself justified in inventing a few falsehoods in order to effect his escape? If so, we have no right to condemn very severely the hereditary mendacity of those races which have lived for many generations in a position analogous to that of the supposed Englishman among brigands. When legitimate interests cannot be protected by truthfulness and honesty, prudent people always learn to employ means which experience has proved to be more effectual. In a country where the law does not afford protection, the strong man defends himself by his strength, the weak by cunning and duplicity. This fully explains the fact that in Turkey the Christians are less truthful than the Mahometans.
But we have wandered a long way from the road to Bashkiria. Let us therefore return at once.
Of all the journeys which I made in Russia this was one of the most agreeable. The weather was bright and warm, without being unpleasantly hot; the roads were tolerably smooth; the tarantass, which had been hired for the whole journey, was nearly as comfortable as a tarantass can be; good milk, eggs, and white bread could be obtained in abundance; there was not much difficulty in procuring horses in the villages through which we passed, and the owners of them were not very extortionate in their demands. But what most contributed to my comfort was that I was accompanied by an agreeable, intelligent young Russian, who kindly undertook to make all the necessary arrangements, and I was thereby freed from those annoyances and worries which are always encountered in primitive countries where travelling is not yet a recognised institution. To him I left the entire control of our movements, passively acquiescing in everything, and asking no questions as to what was coming. Taking advantage of my passivity, he prepared for me one evening a pleasant little surprise.
About sunset we had left a village called Morsha, and shortly afterwards, feeling drowsy, and being warned by my companion that we should have a long, uninteresting drive, I had lain down in the tarantass and gone to sleep. On awaking I found that the tarantass had stopped, and that the stars were shining brightly overhead. A big dog was barking furiously close at hand, and I heard the voice of the yamstchik informing us that we had arrived. I at once sat up and looked about me, expecting to see a village of some kind, but instead of that I perceived a wide open space, and at a short distance a group of haystacks. Close to the tarantass stood two figures in long cloaks, armed with big sticks, and speaking to each other in an unknown tongue. My first idea was that we had been somehow led into a trap, so I drew my revolver in order to be ready for all emergencies. My companion was still snoring loudly by my side, and stoutly resisted all my efforts to awaken him.
"What's this?" I said, in a gruff, angry voice, to the yamstchik. "Where have you taken us to?"
"To where I was ordered, master!"
For the purpose of getting a more satisfactory explanation I took to shaking my sleepy companion, but before he had returned to consciousness the moon shone out brightly from behind a thick bank of clouds, and cleared up the mystery. The supposed haystacks turned out to be tents. The two figures with long sticks, whom I had suspected of being brigands, were peaceable shepherds, dressed in the ordinary Oriental khalat, and tending their sheep, which were grazing close by. Instead of being in an empty hay-field, as I had imagined, we had before us a regular Tartar aoul, such as I had often read about. For a moment I felt astonished and bewildered. It seemed to me that I had fallen asleep in Europe and woke up in Asia!
In a few minutes we were comfortably installed in one of the tents, a circular, cupola-shaped erection, of about twelve feet in diameter, composed of a frame-work of light wooden rods covered with thick felt. It contained no furniture, except a goodly quantity of carpets and pillows, which had been formed into a bed for our accommodation. Our amiable host, who was evidently somewhat astonished at our unexpected visit, but refrained from asking questions, soon bade us good-night and retired. We were not, however, left alone. A large number of black beetles remained and gave us a welcome in their own peculiar fashion. Whether they were provided with wings, or made up for the want of flying appliances by crawling up the sides of the tent and dropping down on any object they wished to reach, I did not discover, but certain it is that they somehow reached our heads--even when we were standing upright--and clung to our hair with wonderful tenacity. Why they should show such a marked preference for human hair we could not conjecture, till it occurred to us that the natives habitually shaved their heads, and that these beetles must naturally consider a hair-covered cranium a curious novelty deserving of careful examination. Like all children of nature they were decidedly indiscreet and troublesome in their curiosity, but when the light was extinguished they took the hint and departed.
When we awoke next morning it was broad daylight, and we found a crowd of natives in front of the tent. Our arrival was evidently regarded as an important event, and all the inhabitants of the aoul were anxious to make our acquaintance. First our host came forward. He was a short, slimly-built man, of middle age, with a grave, severe expression, indicating an unsociable disposition. We afterwards learned that he was an akhun*--that is to say, a minor officer of the Mahometan ecclesiastical administration, and at the same time a small trader in silken and woollen stuffs. With him came the mullah, or priest, a portly old gentleman with an open, honest face of the European type, and a fine grey beard. The other important members of the little community followed. They were all swarthy in colour, and had the small eyes and prominent cheek-bones which are characteristic of the Tartar races, but they had little of that flatness of countenance and peculiar ugliness which distinguish the pure Mongol. All of them, with the exception of the mullah, spoke a little Russian, and used it to assure us that we were welcome. The children remained respectfully in the background, and the women, with laces veiled, eyed us furtively from the doors of the tents.
* I presume this is the same word as akhund, well known on the Northwest frontier of India, where it was applied specially to the late ruler of Svat.
The aoul consisted of about twenty tents, all constructed on the same model, and scattered about in sporadic fashion, without the least regard to symmetry. Close by was a watercourse, which appears on some maps as a river, under the name of Karalyk, but which was at that time merely a succession of pools containing a dark-coloured liquid. As we more than suspected that these pools supplied the inhabitants with water for culinary purposes, the sight was not calculated to whet our appetites. We turned away therefore hurriedly, and for want of something better to do we watched the preparations for dinner. These were decidedly primitive. A sheep was brought near the door of our tent, and there killed, skinned, cut up into pieces, and put into an immense pot, under which a fire had been kindled.
The dinner itself was not less primitive than the manner of preparing it. The table consisted of a large napkin spread in the middle of the tent, and the chairs were represented by cushions, on which we sat cross-legged. There were no plates, knives, forks, spoons, or chopsticks. Guests were expected all to eat out of a common wooden bowl, and to use the instruments with which Nature had provided them. The service was performed by the host and his son. The fare was copious, but not varied--consisting entirely of boiled mutton, without bread or other substitute, and a little salted horse-flesh thrown in as an entree.
To eat out of the same dish with half-a-dozen Mahometans who accept their Prophet's injunction about ablutions in a highly figurative sense, and who are totally unacquainted with the use of forks and spoons, is not an agreeable operation, even if one is not much troubled with religious prejudices; but with these Bashkirs something worse than this has to be encountered, for their favourite method of expressing their esteem and affection for one with whom they are eating consists in putting bits of mutton, and sometimes even handfuls of hashed meat, into his month! When I discovered this unexpected peculiarity in Bashkir manners and customs, I almost regretted that I had made a favourable impression upon my new acquaintances.
When the sheep had been devoured, partly by the company in the tent and partly by a nondescript company outside--for the whole aoul took part in the festivities--kumyss was served in unlimited quantities. This beverage, as I have already explained, is mare's milk fermented; but what here passed under the name was very different from the kumyss I had tasted in the establissements of Samara. There it was a pleasant effervescing drink, with only the slightest tinge of acidity; here it was a "still" liquid, strongly resembling very thin and very sour butter-milk. My Russian friend made a wry face on first tasting it, and I felt inclined at first to do likewise, but noticing that his grimaces made an unfavourable impression on the audience, I restrained my facial muscles, and looked as if I liked it. Very soon I really came to like it, and learned to "drink fair" with those who had been accustomed to it from their childhood. By this feat I rose considerably in the estimation of the natives; for if one does not drink kumyss one cannot be sociable in the Bashkir sense of the term, and by acquiring the habit one adopts an essential principle of Bashkir nationality. I should certainly have preferred having a cup of it to myself, but I thought it well to conform to the habits of the country, and to accept the big wooden bowl when it was passed round. In return my friends made an important concession in my favour: they allowed me to smoke as I pleased, though they considered that, as the Prophet had refrained from tobacco, ordinary mortals should do the same.
Whilst the "loving-cup" was going round I distributed some small presents which I had brought for the purpose, and then proceeded to explain the object of my visit. In the distant country from which I came--far away to the westward--I had heard of the Bashkirs as a people possessing many strange customs, but very kind and hospitable to strangers. Of their kindness and hospitality I had already learned something by experience, and I hoped they would allow me to learn something of their mode of life, their customs, their songs, their history, and their religion, in all of which I assured them my distant countrymen took a lively interest.
This little after-dinner speech was perhaps not quite in accordance with Bashkir etiquette, but it made a favourable impression. There was a decided murmur of approbation, and those who understood Russian translated my words to their less accomplished brethren. A short consultation ensued, and then there was a general shout of "Abdullah! Abdullah!" which was taken up and repeated by those standing outside.
In a few minutes Abdullah appeared, with a big, half-picked bone in his hand, and the lower part of his face besmeared with grease. He was a short, thin man, with a dark, sallow complexion, and a look of premature old age; but the suppressed smile that played about his mouth and a tremulous movement of his right eye-lid showed plainly that he had not yet forgotten the fun and frolic of youth. His dress was of richer and more gaudy material, but at the same time more tawdry and tattered, than that of the others. Altogether he looked like an artiste in distressed circumstances, and such he really was. At a word and a sign from the host he laid aside his bone and drew from under his green silk khalat a small wind- instrument resembling a flute or flageolet. On this he played a number of native airs. The first melodies which he played reminded me of a Highland pibroch--at one moment low, solemn, and plaintive, then gradually rising into a soul-stirring, martial strain, and again descending to a plaintive wail. The amount of expression which he put into his simple instrument was truly marvellous. Then, passing suddenly from grave to gay, he played a series of light, merry airs, and some of the younger onlookers got up and performed a dance as boisterous and ungraceful as an Irish jig.
This Abdullah turned out to be for me a most valuable acquaintance. He was a kind of Bashkir troubadour, well acquainted not only with the music, but also with the traditions, the history, the superstitions, and the folk-lore of his people. By the akhun and the mullah he was regarded as a frivolous, worthless fellow, who had no regular, respectable means of gaining a livelihood, but among the men of less rigid principles he was a general favourite. As he spoke Russian fluently I could converse with him freely without the aid of an interpreter, and he willingly placed his store of knowledge at my disposal. When in the company of the akhun he was always solemn and taciturn, but as soon as he was relieved of that dignitary's presence he became lively and communicative.
Another of my new acquaintances was equally useful to me in another way. This was Mehemet Zian, who was not so intelligent as Abdullah, but much more sympathetic. In his open, honest face, and kindly, unaffected manner there was something so irresistibly attractive that before I had known him twenty-four hours a sort of friendship had sprung up between us. He was a tall, muscular, broad-shouldered man, with features that suggested a mixture of European blood. Though already past middle age, he was still wiry and active--so active that he could, when on horseback, pick a stone off the ground without dismounting. He could, however, no longer perform this feat at full gallop, as he had been wont to do in his youth. His geographical knowledge was extremely limited and inaccurate--his mind being in this respect like those old Russian maps in which the nations of the earth and a good many peoples who had never more than a mythical existence are jumbled together in hopeless confusion--but his geographical curiosity was insatiable. My travelling-map--the first thing of the kind he had ever seen-- interested him deeply. When he found that by simply examining it and glancing at my compass I could tell him the direction and distance of places he knew, his face was like that of a child who sees for the first time a conjuror's performance; and when I explained the trick to him, and taught him to calculate the distance to Bokhara--the sacred city of the Mussulmans of that region--his delight was unbounded. Gradually I perceived that to possess such a map had become the great object of his ambition. Unfortunately I could not at once gratify him as I should have wished, because I had a long journey before me and I had no other map of the region, but I promised to find ways and means of sending him one, and I kept my word by means of a native of the Karalyk district whom I discovered in Samara. I did not add a compass because I could not find one in the town, and it would have been of little use to him: like a true child of nature he always knew the cardinal points by the sun or the stars. Some years later I had the satisfaction of learning that the map had reached its destination safely, through no less a personage than Count Tolstoy. One evening at the home of a friend in Moscow I was presented to the great novelist, and as soon as he heard my name he said: "Oh! I know you already, and I know your friend Mehemet Zian. When I passed a night this summer in his aoul he showed me a map with your signature on the margin, and taught me how to calculate the distance to Bokhara!"
If Mehemet knew little of foreign countries he was thoroughly well acquainted with his own, and repaid me most liberally for my elementary lessons in geography. With him I visited the neighbouring aouls. In all of them he had numerous acquaintances, and everywhere we were received with the greatest hospitality, except on one occasion when we paid a visit of ceremony to a famous robber who was the terror of the whole neighbourhood. Certainly he was one of the most brutalised specimens of humanity I have ever encountered. He made no attempt to be amiable, and I felt inclined to leave his tent at once; but I saw that my friend wanted to conciliate him, so I restrained my feelings and eventually established tolerably good relations with him. As a rule I avoided festivities, partly because I knew that my hosts were mostly poor and would not accept payment for the slaughtered sheep, and partly because I had reason to apprehend that they would express to me their esteem and affection more Bashkirico; but in kumyss-drinking, the ordinary occupation of these people when they have nothing to do, I had to indulge to a most inordinate extent. On these expeditions Abdullah generally accompanied us, and rendered valuable service as interpreter and troubadour. Mehemet could express himself in Russian, but his vocabulary failed him as soon as the conversation ran above very ordinary topics; Abdullah, on the contrary, was a first-rate interpreter, and under the influence of his musical pipe and lively talkativeness new acquaintances became sociable and communicative. Poor Abdullah! He was a kind of universal genius; but his faded, tattered khalat showed only too plainly that in Bashkiria, as in more civilised countries, universal genius and the artistic temperament lead to poverty rather than to wealth.
I have no intention of troubling the reader with the miscellaneous facts which, with the assistance of these two friends, I succeeded in collecting--indeed, I could not if I would, for the notes I then made were afterwards lost--but I wish to say a few words about the actual economic condition of the Bashkirs. They are at present passing from pastoral to agricultural life; and it is not a little interesting to note the causes which induce them to make this change, and the way in which it is made.
Philosophers have long held a theory of social development according to which men were at first hunters, then shepherds, and lastly agriculturists. How far this theory is in accordance with reality we need not for the present inquire, but we may examine an important part of it and ask ourselves the question, Why did pastoral tribes adopt agriculture? The common explanation is that they changed their mode of life in consequence of some ill-defined, fortuitous circumstances. A great legislator arose amongst them and taught them to till the soil, or they came in contact with an agricultural race and adopted the customs of their neighbours. Such explanations must appear unsatisfactory to any one who has lived with a pastoral people. Pastoral life is so incomparably more agreeable than the hard lot of the agriculturist, and so much more in accordance with the natural indolence of human nature, that no great legislator, though he had the wisdom of a Solon and the eloquence of a Demosthenes, could possibly induce his fellow- countrymen to pass voluntarily from the one to the other. Of all the ordinary means of gaining a livelihood--with the exception perhaps of mining--agriculture is the most laborious, and is never voluntarily adopted by men who have not been accustomed to it from their childhood. The life of a pastoral race, on the contrary, is a perennial holiday, and I can imagine nothing except the prospect of starvation which could induce men who live by their flocks and herds to make the transition to agricultural life.
The prospect of starvation is, in fact, the cause of the transition--probably in all cases, and certainly in the case of the Bashkirs. So long as they had abundance of pasturage they never thought of tilling the soil. Their flocks and herds supplied them with all that they required, and enabled them to lead a tranquil, indolent existence. No great legislator arose among them to teach them the use of the plough and the sickle, and when they saw the Russian peasants on their borders laboriously ploughing and reaping, they looked on them with compassion, and never thought of following their example. But an impersonal legislator came to them--a very severe and tyrannical legislator, who would not brook disobedience--I mean Economic Necessity. By the encroachments of the Ural Cossacks on the east, and by the ever-advancing wave of Russian colonisation from the north and west, their territory had been greatly diminished. With diminution of the pasturage came diminution of the live stock, their sole means of subsistence. In spite of their passively conservative spirit they had to look about for some new means of obtaining food and clothing--some new mode of life requiring less extensive territorial possessions. It was only then that they began to think of imitating their neighbours. They saw that the neighbouring Russian peasant lived comfortably on thirty or forty acres of land, whilst they possessed a hundred and fifty acres per male, and were in danger of starvation.
The conclusion to be drawn from this was self-evident--they ought at once to begin ploughing and sowing. But there was a very serious obstacle to the putting of this principle in practice. Agriculture certainly requires less land than sheep-farming, but it requires very much more labour, and to hard work the Bashkirs were not accustomed. They could bear hardships and fatigues in the shape of long journeys on horseback, but the severe, monotonous labour of the plough and the sickle was not to their taste. At first, therefore, they adopted a compromise. They had a portion of their land tilled by Russian peasants, and ceded to these a part of the produce in return for the labour expended; in other words, they assumed the position of landed proprietors, and farmed part of their land on the metayage system.
The process of transition had reached this point in several aouls which I visited. My friend Mehemet Zian showed me at some distance from the tents his plot of arable land, and introduced me to the peasant who tilled it--a Little-Russian, who assured me that the arrangement satisfied all parties. The process of transition cannot, however, stop here. The compromise is merely a temporary expedient. Virgin soil gives very abundant harvests, sufficient to support both the labourer and the indolent proprietor, but after a few years the soil becomes exhausted and gives only a very moderate revenue. A proprietor, therefore, must sooner or later dispense with the labourers who take half of the produce as their recompense, and must himself put his hand to the plough.
Thus we see the Bashkirs are, properly speaking, no longer a purely pastoral, nomadic people. The discovery of this fact caused me some little disappointment, and in the hope of finding a tribe in a more primitive condition I visited the Kirghiz of the Inner Horde, who occupy the country to the southward, in the direction of the Caspian. Here for the first time I saw the genuine Steppe in the full sense of the term--a country level as the sea, with not a hillock or even a gentle undulation to break the straight line of the horizon, and not a patch of cultivation, a tree, a bush, or even a stone, to diversify the monotonous expanse.
Traversing such a region is, I need scarcely say, very weary work-- all the more as there are no milestones or other landmarks to show the progress you are making. Still, it is not so overwhelmingly wearisome as might be supposed. In the morning you may watch the vast lakes, with their rugged promontories and well-wooded banks, which the mirage creates for your amusement. Then during the course of the day there are always one or two trifling incidents which arouse you for a little from your somnolence. Now you descry a couple of horsemen on the distant horizon, and watch them as they approach; and when they come alongside you may have a talk with them if you know the language or have an interpreter; or you may amuse yourself with a little pantomime, if articulate speech is impossible. Now you encounter a long train of camels marching along with solemn, stately step, and speculate as to the contents of the big packages with which they are laden. Now you encounter the carcass of a horse that has fallen by the wayside, and watch the dogs and the steppe eagles fighting over their prey; and if you are murderously inclined you may take a shot with your revolver at these great birds, for they are ignorantly brave, and will sometimes allow you to approach within twenty or thirty yards. At last you perceive--most pleasant sight of all--a group of haystack- shaped tents in the distance; and you hurry on to enjoy the grateful shade, and quench your thirst with "deep, deep draughts" of refreshing kumyss.
During my journey through the Kirghiz country I was accompanied by a Russian gentleman, who had provided himself with a circular letter from the hereditary chieftain of the Horde, a personage who rejoiced in the imposing name of Genghis Khan,* and claimed to be a descendant of the great Mongol conqueror. This document assured us a good reception in the aouls through which we passed. Every Kirghis who saw it treated it with profound respect, and professed to put all his goods and chattels at our service. But in spite of this powerful recommendation we met with none of the friendly cordiality and communicativeness which I had found among the Bashkirs. A tent with an unlimited quantity of cushions was always set apart for our accommodation; the sheep were killed and boiled for our dinner, and the pails of kumyss were regularly brought for our refreshment; but all this was evidently done as a matter of duty and not as a spontaneous expression of hospitality. When we determined once or twice to prolong our visit beyond the term originally announced, I could perceive that our host was not at all delighted by the change of our plans. The only consolation we had was that those who entertained us made no scruples about accepting payment for the food and shelter supplied.
* I have adopted the ordinary English spelling of this name. The Kirghiz and the Russians pronounce it "Tchinghiz."
From all this I have no intention of drawing the conclusion that the Kirghiz are, as a people, inhospitable or unfriendly to strangers. My experience of them is too limited to warrant any such inference. The letter of Genghis Khan insured us all the accommodation we required, but it at the same time gave us a certain official character not at all favourable to the establishment of friendly relations. Those with whom we came in contact regarded us as Russian officials, and suspected us of having some secret designs. As I endeavoured to discover the number of their cattle, and to form an approximate estimate of their annual revenue, they naturally feared--having no conception of disinterested scientific curiosity--that these data were being collected for the purpose of increasing the taxes, or with some similar intention of a sinister kind. Very soon I perceived clearly that any information we might here collect regarding the economic conditions of pastoral life would not be of much value, and I postponed my proposed studies to a more convenient season.
The Kirghiz are, ethnographically speaking, closely allied to the Bashkirs, but differ from them both in physiognomy and language. Their features approach much nearer the pure Mongol type, and their language is a distinct dialect, which a Bashkir or a Tartar of Kazan has some difficulty in understanding. They are professedly Mahometans, but their Mahometanism is not of a rigid kind, as may be seen by the fact that their women do not veil their faces even in the presence of Ghiaours--a laxness of which the Ghiaour will certainly not approve if he happen to be sensitive to female beauty and ugliness. Their mode of life differs from that of the Bashkirs, but they have proportionately more land and are consequently still able to lead a purely pastoral life. Near their western frontier, it is true, they annually let patches of land to the Russian peasants for the purpose of raising crops; but these encroachments can never advance very far, for the greater part of their territory is unsuited to agriculture, on account of a large admixture of salt in the soil. This fact will have an important influence on their future. Unlike the Bashkirs, who possess good arable land, and are consequently on the road to become agriculturists, they will in all probability continue to live exclusively by their flocks and herds.
To the southwest of the Lower Volga, in the flat region lying to the north of the Caucasus, we find another pastoral tribe, the Kalmyks, differing widely from the two former in language, in physiognomy, and in religion. Their language, a dialect of the Mongolian, has no close affinity with any other language in this part of the world. In respect of religion they are likewise isolated, for they are Buddhists, and have consequently no co- religionists nearer than Mongolia or Thibet. But it is their physiognomy that most strikingly distinguishes them from the surrounding peoples, and stamps them as Mongols of the purest water. There is something almost infra-human in their ugliness. They show in an exaggerated degree all those repulsive traits which we see toned down and refined in the face of an average Chinaman; and it is difficult, when we meet them for the first time, to believe that a human soul lurks behind their expressionless, flattened faces and small, dull, obliquely set eyes. If the Tartar and Turkish races are really descended from ancestors of that type, then we must assume that they have received in the course of time a large admixture of Aryan or Semitic blood.
But we must not be too hard on the poor Kalmyks, or judge of their character by their unprepossessing appearance. They are by no means so unhuman as they look. Men who have lived among them have assured me that they are decidedly intelligent, especially in all matters relating to cattle, and that they are--though somewhat addicted to cattle-lifting and other primitive customs not tolerated in the more advanced stages of civilisation--by no means wanting in some of the better qualities of human nature.
Formerly there was a fourth pastoral tribe in this region--the Nogai Tartars. They occupied the plains to the north of the Sea of Azof, but they are no longer to be found there. Shortly after the Crimean war they emigrated to Turkey, and their lands are now occupied by Russian, German, Bulgarian, and Montenegrin colonists.
Among the pastoral tribes of this region the Kalmyks are recent intruders. They first appeared in the seventeenth century, and were long formidable on account of their great numbers and compact organisation; but in 1771 the majority of them suddenly struck their tents and retreated to their old home in the north of the Celestial Empire. Those who remained were easily pacified, and have long since lost, under the influence of unbroken peace and a strong Russian administration, their old warlike spirit. Their latest military exploits were performed during the last years of the Napoleonic wars, and were not of a very serious kind; a troop of them accompanied the Russian army, and astonished Western Europe by their uncouth features, their strange costume, and their primitive accoutrements, among which their curious bows and arrows figured conspicuously.
The other pastoral tribes which I have mentioned--Bashkirs, Kirghiz, and Nogai Tartars--are the last remnants of the famous marauders who from time immemorial down to a comparatively recent period held the vast plains of Southern Russia. The long struggle between them and the agricultural colonists from the northwest, closely resembling the long struggle between the Red-skins and the white settlers on the prairies of North America, forms an important page of Russian history.
For centuries the warlike nomads stoutly resisted all encroachments on their pasture-grounds, and considered cattle-lifting, kidnapping, and pillage as a legitimate and honorable occupation. "Their raids," says an old Byzantine writer, "are as flashes of lightning, and their retreat is at once heavy and light--heavy from booty and light from the swiftness of their movements. For them a peaceful life is a misfortune, and a convenient opportunity for war is the height of felicity. Worst of all, they are more numerous than bees in spring, their numbers are uncountable." "Having no fixed place of abode," says another Byzantine authority, "they seek to conquer all lands and colonise none. They are flying people, and therefore cannot be caught. As they have neither towns nor villages, they must be hunted like wild beasts, and can be fitly compared only to griffins, which beneficent Nature has banished to uninhabited regions." As a Persian distich, quoted by Vambery, has it--
"They came, conquered, burned, pillaged, murdered, and went."
Their raids are thus described by an old Russian chronicler: "They burn the villages, the farmyards, and the churches. The land is turned by them into a desert, and the overgrown fields become the lair of wild beasts. Many people are led away into slavery; others are tortured and killed, or die from hunger and thirst. Sad, weary, stiff from cold, with faces wan from woe, barefoot or naked, and torn by the thistles, the Russian prisoners trudge along through an unknown country, and, weeping, say to one another, 'I am from such a town, and I from such a village.'" And in harmony with the monastic chroniclers we hear the nameless Slavonic Ossian wailing for the fallen sons of Rus: "In the Russian land is rarely heard the voice of the husbandman, but often the cry of the vultures, fighting with each other over the bodies of the slain; and the ravens scream as they fly to the spoil."
In spite of the stubborn resistance of the nomads the wave of colonisation moved steadily onwards until the first years of the thirteenth century, when it was suddenly checked and thrown back. A great Mongolian horde from Eastern Asia, far more numerous and better organized than the local nomadic tribes, overran the whole country, and for more than two centuries Russia was in a certain sense ruled by Mongol Khans. As I wish to speak at some length of this Mongol domination, I shall devote to it a separate chapter.