Russia Chapter III - Voluntary Exile eText

Chapter III - Voluntary Exile

This village, Ivanofka by name, in which I proposed to spend some months, was rather more picturesque than villages in these northern forests commonly are. The peasants' huts, built on both sides of a straight road, were colourless enough, and the big church, with its five pear-shaped cupolas rising out of the bright green roof and its ugly belfry in the Renaissance style, was not by any means beautiful in itself; but when seen from a little distance, especially in the soft evening twilight, the whole might have been made the subject of a very pleasing picture. From the point that a landscape-painter would naturally have chosen, the foreground was formed by a meadow, through which flowed sluggishly a meandering stream. On a bit of rising ground to the right, and half concealed by an intervening cluster of old rich-coloured pines, stood the manor-house--a big, box-shaped, whitewashed building, with a verandah in front, overlooking a small plot that might some day become a flower-garden. To the left of this stood the village, the houses grouping prettily with the big church, and a little farther in this direction was an avenue of graceful birches. On the extreme left were fields, bounded by a dark border of fir-trees. Could the spectator have raised himself a few hundred feet from the ground, he would have seen that there were fields beyond the village, and that the whole of this agricultural oasis was imbedded in a forest stretching in all directions as far as the eye could reach.

The history of the place may be told in a few words. In former times the estate, including the village and all its inhabitants, had belonged to a monastery, but when, in 1764, the Church lands were secularised by Catherine, it became the property of the State. Some years afterwards the Empress granted it, with the serfs and everything else which it contained, to an old general who had distinguished himself in the Turkish wars. From that time it had remained in the K---- family. Some time between the years 1820 and 1840 the big church and the mansion-house had been built by the actual possessor's father, who loved country life, and devoted a large part of his time and energies to the management of his estate. His son, on the contrary, preferred St. Petersburg to the country, served in one of the public offices, loved passionately French plays and other products of urban civilisation, and left the entire management of the property to a German steward, popularly known as Karl Karl'itch, whom I shall introduce to the reader presently.

The village annals contained no important events, except bad harvests, cattle-plagues, and destructive fires, with which the inhabitants seem to have been periodically visited from time immemorial. If good harvests were ever experienced, they must have faded from the popular recollection. Then there were certain ancient traditions which might have been lessened in bulk and improved in quality by being subjected to searching historical criticism. More than once, for instance, a leshie, or wood-sprite, had been seen in the neighbourhood; and in several households the domovoi, or brownie, had been known to play strange pranks until he was properly propitiated. And as a set-off against these manifestations of evil powers, there were well-authenticated stories about a miracle-working image that had mysteriously appeared on the branch of a tree, and about numerous miraculous cures that had been effected by means of pilgrimages to holy shrines.

But it is time to introduce the principal personages of this little community. Of these, by far the most important was Karl Karl'itch, the steward.

First of all I ought, perhaps, to explain how Karl Schmidt, the son of a well-to-do Bauer in the Prussian village of Schonhausen, became Karl Karl'itch, the principal personage in the Russian village of Ivanofka.

About the time of the Crimean War many of the Russian landed proprietors had become alive to the necessity of improving the primitive, traditional methods of agriculture, and sought for this purpose German stewards for their estates. Among these proprietors was the owner of Ivanofka. Through the medium of a friend in Berlin he succeeded in engaging for a moderate salary a young man who had just finished his studies in one of the German schools of agriculture--the institution at Hohenheim, if my memory does not deceive me. This young man had arrived in Russia as plain Karl Schmidt, but his name was soon transformed into Karl Karl'itch, not from any desire of his own, but in accordance with a curious Russian custom. In Russia one usually calls a man not by his family name, but by his Christian name and patronymic--the latter being formed from the name of his father. Thus, if a man's name is Nicholas, and his father's Christian name is--or was--Ivan, you address him as Nikolai Ivanovitch (pronounced Ivan'itch); and if this man should happen to have a sister called Mary, you will address her--even though she should be married--as Marya Ivanovna (pronounced Ivanna).

Immediately on his arrival young Schmidt had set himself vigorously to reorganise the estate and improve the method of agriculture. Some ploughs, harrows, and other implements which had been imported at a former period were dragged out of the obscurity in which they had lain for several years, and an attempt was made to farm on scientific principles. The attempt was far from being completely successful, for the serfs--this was before the Emancipation--could not be made to work like regularly trained German labourers. In spite of all admonitions, threats, and punishments, they persisted in working slowly, listlessly, inaccurately, and occasionally they broke the new instruments from carelessness or some more culpable motive. Karl Karl'itch was not naturally a hard-hearted man, but he was very rigid in his notions of duty, and could be cruelly severe when his orders were not executed with an accuracy and punctuality that seemed to the Russian rustic mind mere useless pedantry. The serfs did not offer him any open opposition, and were always obsequiously respectful in their demeanour towards him, but they invariably frustrated his plans by their carelessness and stolid, passive resistance.

Thus arose that silent conflict and that smouldering mutual enmity which almost always result from the contact of the Teuton with the Slav. The serfs instinctively regretted the good old times, when they lived under the rough-and-ready patriarchal rule of their masters, assisted by a native "burmister," or overseer, who was one of themselves. The burmister had not always been honest in his dealings with them, and the master had often, when in anger, ordered severe punishments to be inflicted; but the burmister had not attempted to make them change their old habits, and had shut his eves to many little sins of emission and commission, whilst the master was always ready to assist them in difficulties, and commonly treated them in a kindly, familiar way. As the old Russian proverb has it, "Where danger is, there too is kindly forgiveness." Karl Karl'itch, on the contrary, was the personification of uncompassionate, inflexible law. Blind rage and compassionate kindliness were alike foreign to his system of government. If he had any feeling towards the serfs, it was one of chronic contempt. The word durak (blockhead) was constantly on his lips, and when any bit of work was well done, he took it as a matter of course, and never thought of giving a word of approval or encouragement.

When it became evident, in 1859, that the emancipation of the serfs was at hand, Karl Karl'itch confidently predicted that the country would inevitably go to ruin. He knew by experience that the peasants were lazy and improvident, even when they lived under the tutelage of a master, and with the fear of the rod before their eyes. What would they become when this guidance and salutary restraint should be removed? The prospect raised terrible forebodings in the mind of the worthy steward, who had his employer's interests really at heart; and these forebodings were considerably increased and intensified when he learned that the peasants were to receive by law the land which they occupied on sufferance, and which comprised about a half of the whole arable land of the estate. This arrangement he declared to be a dangerous and unjustifiable infraction of the sacred rights of property, which savoured strongly of communism, and could have but one practical result: the emancipated peasants would live by the cultivation of their own land, and would not consent on any terms to work for their former master.

In the few months which immediately followed the publication of the Emancipation Edict in 1861, Karl Karl'itch found much to confirm his most gloomy apprehensions. The peasants showed themselves dissatisfied with the privileges conferred upon them, and sought to evade the corresponding duties imposed on them by the new law. In vain he endeavoured, by exhortations, promises, and threats, to get the most necessary part of the field-work done, and showed the peasants the provision of the law enjoining them to obey and work as of old until some new arrangement should be made. To all his appeals they replied that, having been freed by the Tsar, they were no longer obliged to work for their former master; and he was at last forced to appeal to the authorities. This step had a certain effect, but the field-work was executed that year even worse than usual, and the harvest suffered in consequence.

Since that time things had gradually improved. The peasants had discovered that they could not support themselves and pay their taxes from the land ceded to them, and had accordingly consented to till the proprietor's fields for a moderate recompense. "These last two years," said Karl Karl'itch to me, with an air of honest self-satisfaction, "I have been able, after paying all expenses, to transmit little sums to the young master in St. Petersburg. It was certainly not much, but it shows that things are better than they were. Still, it is hard, uphill work. The peasants have not been improved by liberty. They now work less and drink more than they did in the times of serfage, and if you say a word to them they'll go away, and not work for you at all." Here Karl Karl'itch indemnified himself for his recent self-control in the presence of his workers by using a series of the strongest epithets which the combined languages of his native and of his adopted country could supply. "But laziness and drunkenness are not their only faults. They let their cattle wander into our fields, and never lose an opportunity of stealing firewood from the forest."

"But you have now for such matters the rural justices of the peace," I ventured to suggest.

"The justices of the peace!" . . . Here Karl Karl'itch used an inelegant expression, which showed plainly that he was no unqualified admirer of the new judicial institutions. "What is the use of applying to the justices? The nearest one lives six miles off, and when I go to him he evidently tries to make me lose as much time as possible. I am sure to lose nearly a whole day, and at the end of it I may find that I have got nothing for my pains. These justices always try to find some excuse for the peasant, and when they do condemn, by way of exception, the affair does not end there. There is pretty sure to be a pettifogging practitioner prowling about--some rascally scribe who has been dismissed from the public offices for pilfering and extorting too openly--and he is always ready to whisper to the peasant that he should appeal. The peasant knows that the decision is just, but he is easily persuaded that by appealing to the Monthly Sessions he gets another chance in the lottery, and may perhaps draw a prize. He lets the rascally scribe, therefore, prepare an appeal for him, and I receive an invitation to attend the Session of Justices in the district town on a certain day.

"It is a good five-and-thirty miles to the district town, as you know, but I get up early, and arrive at eleven o'clock, the hour stated in the official notice. A crowd of peasants are hanging about the door of the court, but the only official present is the porter. I enquire of him when my case is likely to come on, and receive the laconic answer, 'How should I know?' After half an hour the secretary arrives. I repeat my question, and receive the same answer. Another half hour passes, and one of the justices drives up in his tarantass. Perhaps he is a glib-tongued gentleman, and assures me that the proceedings will commence at once: 'Sei tchas! sei tchas!' Don't believe what the priest or the dictionary tells you about the meaning of that expression. The dictionary will tell you that it means 'immediately,' but that's all nonsense. In the mouth of a Russian it means 'in an hour,' 'next week,' 'in a year or two,' 'never'--most commonly 'never.' Like many other words in Russian, 'sei tchas' can be understood only after long experience. A second justice drives up, and then a third. No more are required by law, but these gentlemen must first smoke several cigarettes and discuss all the local news before they begin work.

"At last they take their seats on the bench--a slightly elevated platform at one end of the room, behind a table covered with green baize--and the proceedings commence. My case is sure to be pretty far down on the list--the secretary takes, I believe, a malicious pleasure in watching my impatience--and before it is called the justices have to retire at least once for refreshments and cigarettes. I have to amuse myself by listening to the other cases, and some of them, I can assure you, are amusing enough. The walls of that room must be by this time pretty well saturated with perjury, and many of the witnesses catch at once the infection. Perhaps I may tell you some other time a few of the amusing incidents that I have seen there. At last my case is called. It is as clear as daylight, but the rascally pettifogger is there with a long-prepared speech, he holds in his hand a small volume of the codified law, and quotes paragraphs which no amount of human ingenuity can make to bear upon the subject. Perhaps the previous decision is confirmed; perhaps it is reversed; in either case, I have lost a second day and exhausted more patience than I can conveniently spare. And something even worse may happen, as I know by experience. Once during a case of mine there was some little informality--someone inadvertently opened the door of the consulting-room when the decision was being written, or some other little incident of the sort occurred, and the rascally pettifogger complained to the Supreme Court of Revision, which is a part of the Senate. The case was all about a few roubles, but it was discussed in St. Petersburg, and afterwards tried over again by another court of justices. Now I have paid my Lehrgeld, and go no more to law."

"Then you must expose yourself to all kinds of extortion?"

"Not so much as you might imagine. I have my own way of dispensing justice. When I catch a peasant's horse or cow in our fields, I lock it up and make the owner pay a ransom."

"Is it not rather dangerous," I inquired, "to take the law thus into your own hands? I have heard that the Russian justices are extremely severe against any one who has recourse to what our German jurists call Selbsthulfe."

"That they are! So long as you are in Russia, you had much better let yourself be quietly robbed than use any violence against the robber. It is less trouble, and it is cheaper in the long run. If you do not, you may unexpectedly find yourself some fine morning in prison! You must know that many of the young justices belong to the new school of morals."

"What is that? I have not heard of any new discoveries lately in the sphere of speculative ethics."

"Well, to tell you the truth, I am not one of the initiated, and I can only tell you what I hear. So far as I have noticed, the representatives of the new doctrine talk chiefly about Gumannost' and Tchelovetcheskoe dostoinstvo. You know what these words mean?"

"Humanity, or rather humanitarianism and human dignity," I replied, not sorry to give a proof that I was advancing in my studies.

"There, again, you allow your dictionary and your priest to mislead you. These terms, when used by a Russian, cover much more than we understand by them, and those who use them most frequently have generally a special tenderness for all kinds of malefactors. In the old times, malefactors were popularly believed to be bad, dangerous people; but it has been lately discovered that this is a delusion. A young proprietor who lives not far off assures me that they are the true Protestants, and the most powerful social reformers! They protest practically against those imperfections of social organisation of which they are the involuntary victims. The feeble, characterless man quietly submits to his chains; the bold, generous, strong man breaks his fetters, and helps others to do the same. A very ingenious defence of all kinds of rascality, isn't it?"

"Well, it is a theory that might certainly be carried too far, and might easily lead to very inconvenient conclusions; but I am not sure that, theoretically speaking, it does not contain a certain element of truth. It ought at least to foster that charity which we are enjoined to practise towards all men. But perhaps 'all men' does not include publicans and sinners?"

On hearing these words Karl Karl'itch turned to me, and every feature of his honest German face expressed the most undisguised astonishment. "Are you, too, a Nihilist?" he inquired, as soon as he had partially recovered his breath.

"I really don't know what a Nihilist is, but I may assure you that I am not an 'ist' of any kind. What is a Nihilist?"

"If you live long in Russia you'll learn that without my telling you. As I was saying, I am not at all afraid of the peasants citing me before the justice. They know better now. If they gave me too much trouble I could starve their cattle."

"Yes, when you catch them in your fields," I remarked, taking no notice of the abrupt turn which he had given to the conversation.

"I can do it without that. You must know that, by the Emancipation Law, the peasants received arable land, but they received little or no pasturage. I have the whip hand of them there!"

The remarks of Karl Karl'itch on men and things were to me always interesting, for he was a shrewd observer, and displayed occasionally a pleasant, dry humour. But I very soon discovered that his opinions were not to be accepted without reserve. His strong, inflexible Teutonic nature often prevented him from judging impartially. He had no sympathy with the men and the institutions around him, and consequently he was unable to see things from the inside. The specks and blemishes on the surface he perceived clearly enough, but he had no knowledge of the secret, deep-rooted causes by which these specks and blemishes were produced. The simple fact that a man was a Russian satisfactorily accounted, in his opinion, for any kind of moral deformity; and his knowledge turned out to be by no means so extensive as I had at first supposed. Though he had been many years in the country, he knew very little about the life of the peasants beyond that small part of it which concerned directly his own interests and those of his employer. Of the communal organisation, domestic life, religious beliefs, ceremonial practices, and nomadic habits of his humble neighbours, he knew little, and the little he happened to know was far from accurate. In order to gain a knowledge of these matters it would be better, I perceived, to consult the priest, or, better still, the peasants themselves. But to do this it would be necessary to understand easily and speak fluently the colloquial language, and I was still very far from having, acquired the requisite proficiency.

Even for one who possesses a natural facility for acquiring foreign tongues, the learning of Russian is by no means an easy task. Though it is essentially an Aryan language like our own, and contains only a slight intermixture of Tartar words,--such as bashlyk (a hood), kalpak (a night-cap), arbuz (a water-melon), etc.--it has certain sounds unknown to West-European ears, and difficult for West-European tongues, and its roots, though in great part derived from the same original stock as those of the Graeco- Latin and Teutonic languages, are generally not at all easily recognised. As an illustration of this, take the Russian word otets. Strange as it may at first sight appear, this word is merely another form of our word father, of the German vater, and of the French pere. The syllable ets is the ordinary Russian termination denoting the agent, corresponding to the English and German ending er, as we see in such words as--kup-ets (a buyer), plov-ets (a swimmer), and many others. The root ot is a mutilated form of vot, as we see in the word otchina (a paternal inheritance), which is frequently written votchina. Now vot is evidently the same root as the German vat in Vater, and the English fath in father. Quod erat demonstrandum.

All this is simple enough, and goes to prove the fundamental identity, or rather the community of origin, of the Slav and Teutonic languages; but it will be readily understood that etymological analogies so carefully disguised are of little practical use in helping us to acquire a foreign tongue. Besides this, the grammatical forms and constructions in Russian are very peculiar, and present a great many strange irregularities. As an illustration of this we may take the future tense. The Russian verb has commonly a simple and a frequentative future. The latter is always regularly formed by means of an auxiliary with the infinitive, as in English, but the former is constructed in a variety of ways, for which no rule can be given, so that the simple future of each individual verb must be learned by a pure effort of memory. In many verbs it is formed by prefixing a preposition, but it is impossible to determine by rule which preposition should be used. Thus idu (I go) becomes poidu; pishu (I write) becomes napishu; pyu (I drink) becomes vuipyu, and so on.

Closely akin to the difficulties of pronunciation is the difficulty of accentuating the proper syllable. In this respect Russian is like Greek; you can rarely tell a priori on what syllable the accent falls. But it is more puzzling than Greek, for two reasons: firstly, it is not customary to print Russian with accents; and secondly, no one has yet been able to lay down precise rules for the transposition of the accent in the various inflections of the same word, Of this latter peculiarity, let one illustration suffice. The word ruka (hand) has the accent on the last syllable, but in the accusative (ruku) the accent goes back to the first syllable. It must not, however, be assumed that in all words of this type a similar transposition takes place. The word beda (misfortune), for instance, as well as very many others, always retains the accent on the last syllable.

These and many similar difficulties, which need not be here enumerated, can be mastered only by long practice. Serious as they are, they need not frighten any one who is in the habit of learning foreign tongues. The ear and the tongue gradually become familiar with the peculiarities of inflection and accentuation, and practice fulfils the same function as abstract rules.

It is commonly supposed that Russians have been endowed by Nature with a peculiar linguistic talent. Their own language, it is said, is so difficult that they have no difficulty in acquiring others. This common belief requires, as it seems to me, some explanation. That highly educated Russians are better linguists than the educated classes of Western Europe there can be no possible doubt, for they almost always speak French, and often English and German also. The question, however, is whether this is the result of a psychological peculiarity, or of other causes. Now, without venturing to deny the existence of a natural faculty, I should say that the other causes have at least exercised a powerful influence. Any Russian who wishes to be regarded as civilise must possess at least one foreign language; and, as a consequence of this, the children of the upper classes are always taught at least French in their infancy. Many households comprise a German nurse, a French tutor, and an English governess; and the children thus become accustomed from their earliest years to the use of these three languages. Besides this, Russian is phonetically very rich and contains nearly all the sounds which are to be found in West- European tongues. Perhaps on the whole it would be well to apply here the Darwinian theory, and suppose that the Russian Noblesse, having been obliged for several generations to acquire foreign languages, have gradually developed a hereditary polyglot talent.

Several circumstances concurred to assist me in my efforts, during my voluntary exile, to acquire at least such a knowledge of the language as would enable me to converse freely with the peasantry. In the first place, my reverend teacher was an agreeable, kindly, talkative man, who took a great delight in telling interminable stories, quite independently of any satisfaction which he might derive from the consciousness of their being understood and appreciated. Even when walking alone he was always muttering something to an imaginary listener. A stranger meeting him on such occasions might have supposed that he was holding converse with unseen spirits, though his broad muscular form and rubicund face militated strongly against such a supposition; but no man, woman, or child living within a radius of ten miles would ever have fallen into this mistake. Every one in the neighbourhood knew that "Batushka" (papa), as he was familiarly called, was too prosaical, practical a man to see things ethereal, that he was an irrepressible talker, and that when he could not conveniently find an audience he created one by his own imagination. This peculiarity of his rendered me good service. Though for some time I understood very little of what he said, and very often misplaced the positive and negative monosyllables which I hazarded occasionally by way of encouragement, he talked vigorously all the same. Like all garrulous people, he was constantly repeating himself; but to this I did not object, for the custom--however disagreeable in ordinary society--was for me highly beneficial, and when I had already heard a story once or twice before, it was much easier for me to assume at the proper moment the requisite expression of countenance.

Another fortunate circumstance was that at Ivanofka there were no distractions, so that the whole of the day and a great part of the night could be devoted to study. My chief amusement was an occasional walk in the fields with Karl Karl'itch; and even this mild form of dissipation could not always be obtained, for as soon as rain had fallen it was difficult to go beyond the verandah--the mud precluding the possibility of a constitutional. The nearest approach to excitement was mushroom-gathering; and in this occupation my inability to distinguish the edible from the poisonous species made my efforts unacceptable. We lived so "far from the madding crowd" that its din scarcely reached our ears. A week or ten days might pass without our receiving any intelligence from the outer world. The nearest post-office was in the district town, and with that distant point we had no regular system of communication. Letters and newspapers remained there till called for, and were brought to us intermittently when some one of our neighbours happened to pass that way. Current history was thus administered to us in big doses.

One very big dose I remember well. For a much longer time than usual no volunteer letter-carrier had appeared, and the delay was more than usually tantalising, because it was known that war had broken out between France and Germany. At last a big bundle of a daily paper called the Golos was brought to me. Impatient to learn whether any great battle had been fought, I began by examining the latest number, and stumbled at once on an article headed, "Latest Intelligence: the Emperor at Wilhelmshohe!!!" The large type in which the heading was printed and the three marks of exclamation showed plainly that the article was very important. I began to read with avidity, but was utterly mystified. What emperor was this? Probably the Tsar or the Emperor of Austria, for there was no German Emperor in those days. But no! It was evidently the Emperor of the French. And how did Napoleon get to Wilhelmshohe? The French must have broken through the Rhine defences, and pushed far into Germany. But no! As I read further, I found this theory equally untenable. It turned out that the Emperor was surrounded by Germans, and--a prisoner! In order to solve the mystery, I had to go back to the preceding numbers of the paper, and learned, at a sitting, all about the successive German victories, the defeat and capitulation of Macmahon's army at Sedan, and the other great events of that momentous time. The impression produced can scarcely be realised by those who have always imbibed current history in the homeopathic doses administered by the morning and evening daily papers.

By the useful loquacity of my teacher and the possibility of devoting all my time to my linguistic studies, I made such rapid progress in the acquisition of the language that I was able after a few weeks to understand much of what was said to me, and to express myself in a vague, roundabout way. In the latter operation I was much assisted by a peculiar faculty of divination which the Russians possess in a high degree. If a foreigner succeeds in expressing about one-fourth of an idea, the Russian peasant can generally fill up the remaining three-fourths from his own intuition.

As my powers of comprehension increased, my long conversations with the priest became more and more instructive. At first his remarks and stories had for me simply a philological interest, but gradually I perceived that his talk contained a great deal of solid, curious information regarding himself and the class to which he belonged--information of a kind not commonly found in grammatical exercises. Some of this I now propose to communicate to the reader.