Chapter VII - The Peasantry Of The North
Ivanofka may be taken as a fair specimen of the villages in the northern half of the country, and a brief description of its inhabitants will convey a tolerably correct notion of the northern peasantry in general.
Nearly the whole of the female population, and about one-half of the male inhabitants, are habitually engaged in cultivating the Communal land, which comprises about two thousand acres of a light sandy soil. The arable part of this land is divided into three large fields, each of which is cut up into long narrow strips. The first field is reserved for the winter grain--that is to say, rye, which forms, in the shape of black bread, the principal food of the rural population. In the second are raised oats for the horses, and buckwheat, which is largely used for food. The third lies fallow, and is used in the summer as pasturage for the cattle.
All the villagers in this part of the country divide the arable land in this way, in order to suit the triennial rotation of crops. This triennial system is extremely simple. The field which is used this year for raising winter grain will be used next year for raising summer grain, and in the following year will lie fallow. Before being sown with winter grain it ought to receive a certain amount of manure. Every family possesses in each of the two fields under cultivation one or more of the long narrow strips or belts into which they are divided.
The annual life of the peasantry is that of simple husbandman, inhabiting a country where the winter is long and severe. The agricultural year begins in April with the melting of the snow. Nature has been lying dormant for some months. Awaking now from her long sleep, and throwing off her white mantle, she strives to make up for lost time. No sooner has the snow disappeared than the fresh young grass begins to shoot up, and very soon afterwards the shrubs and trees begin to bud. The rapidity of this transition from winter to spring astonishes the inhabitants of more temperate climes.
On St. George's Day (April 23rd*) the cattle are brought out for the first time, and sprinkled with holy water by the priest. They are never very fat, but at this period of the year their appearance is truly lamentable. During the winter they have been cooped up in small unventilated cow-houses, and fed almost exclusively on straw; now, when they are released from their imprisonment, they look like the ghosts of their former emaciated selves. All are lean and weak, many are lame, and some cannot rise to their feet without assistance.
* With regard to saints' days, I always give the date according to the old style. To find the date according to our calendar, thirteen days must be added.
Meanwhile the peasants are impatient to begin the field labour. An old proverb which they all know says: "Sow in mud and you will be a prince"; and they always act in accordance with this dictate of traditional wisdom. As soon as it is possible to plough they begin to prepare the land for the summer grain, and this labour occupies them probably till the end of May. Then comes the work of carting out manure and preparing the fallow field for the winter grain, which will last probably till about St. Peter's Day (June 29th), when the hay-making generally begins. After the hay-making comes the harvest, by far the busiest time of the year. From the middle of July--especially from St. Elijah's Day (July 20th), when the saint is usually heard rumbling along the heavens in his chariot of fire*--until the end of August, the peasant may work day and night, and yet he will find that he has barely time to get all his work done. In little more than a month he has to reap and stack his grain--rye, oats, and whatever else he may have sown either in spring or in the preceding autumn--and to sow the winter grain for next year. To add to his troubles, it sometimes happens that the rye and the oats ripen almost simultaneously, and his position is then still more difficult.
* It is thus that the peasants explain the thunder, which is often heard at that season.
Whether the seasons favour him or not, the peasant has at this time a hard task, for he can rarely afford to hire the requisite number of labourers, and has generally the assistance merely of his wife and family; but he can at this season work for a short time at high pressure, for he has the prospect of soon obtaining a good rest and an abundance of food. About the end of September the field labour is finished, and on the first day of October the harvest festival begins--a joyous season, during which the parish fetes are commonly celebrated.
To celebrate a parish fete in true orthodox fashion it is necessary to prepare beforehand a large quantity of braga--a kind of home- brewed small beer--and to bake a plentiful supply of piroghi or meat pies. Oil, too, has to be procured, and vodka (rye spirit) in goodly quantity. At the same time the big room of the izba, as the peasant's house is called, has to be cleared, the floor washed, and the table and benches scrubbed. The evening before the fete, while the piroghi are being baked, a little lamp burns before the Icon in the corner of the room, and perhaps one or two guests from a distance arrive in order that they may have on the morrow a full day's enjoyment.
On the morning of the fete the proceedings begin by a long service in the church, at which all the inhabitants are present in their best holiday costumes, except those matrons and young women who remain at home to prepare the dinner. About mid-day dinner is served in each izba for the family and their friends. In general the Russian peasant's fare is of the simplest kind, and rarely comprises animal food of any sort--not from any vegetarian proclivities, but merely because beef, mutton, and pork are too expensive; but on a holiday, such as a parish fete, there is always on the dinner table a considerable variety of dishes. In the house of a well-to-do family there will be not only greasy cabbage-soup and kasha--a dish made from buckwheat--but also pork, mutton, and perhaps even beef. Braga will be supplied in unlimited quantities, and more than once vodka will be handed round. When the repast is finished, all rise together, and, turning towards the Icon in the corner, bow and cross themselves repeatedly. The guests then say to their host, "Spasibo za khelb za sol"--that is to say, "Thanks for your hospitality," or more literally, "Thanks for bread and salt"; and the host replies, "Do not be displeased, sit down once more for good luck"--or perhaps he puts the last part of his request into the form of a rhyming couplet to the following effect: "Sit down, that the hens may brood, and that the chickens and bees may multiply!" All obey this request, and there is another round of vodka.
After dinner some stroll about, chatting with their friends, or go to sleep in some shady nook, whilst those who wish to make merry go to the spot where the young people are singing, playing, and amusing themselves in various ways. As the sun sinks towards the horizon, the more grave, staid guests wend their way homewards, but many remain for supper; and as evening advances the effects of the vodka become more and more apparent. Sounds of revelry are heard more frequently from the houses, and a large proportion of the inhabitants and guests appear on the road in various degrees of intoxication. Some of these vow eternal affection to their friends, or with flaccid gestures and in incoherent tones harangue invisible audiences; others stagger about aimlessly in besotted self-contentment, till they drop down in a state of complete unconsciousness. There they will lie tranquilly till they are picked up by their less intoxicated friends, or more probably till they awake of their own accord next morning.
As a whole, a village fete in Russia is a saddening spectacle. It affords a new proof--where, alas! no new proof was required--that we northern nations, who know so well how to work, have not yet learned the art of amusing ourselves.
If the Russian peasant's food were always as good and plentiful as at this season of the year, he would have little reason to complain; but this is by no means the case. Gradually, as the harvest-time recedes, it deteriorates in quality, and sometimes diminishes in quantity. Besides this, during a great part of the year the peasant is prevented, by the rules of the Church, from using much that he possesses.
In southern climes, where these rules were elaborated and first practised, the prescribed fasts are perhaps useful not only in a religious, but also in a sanitary sense. Having abundance of fruit and vegetables, the inhabitants do well to abstain occasionally from animal food. But in countries like Northern and Central Russia the influence of these rules is very different. The Russian peasant cannot get as much animal food as he requires, whilst sour cabbage and cucumbers are probably the only vegetables he can procure, and fruit of any kind is for him an unattainable luxury. Under these circumstances, abstinence from eggs and milk in all their forms during several months of the year seems to the secular mind a superfluous bit of asceticism. If the Church would direct her maternal solicitude to the peasant's drinking, and leave him to eat what he pleases, she might exercise a beneficial influence on his material and moral welfare. Unfortunately she has a great deal too much inherent immobility to attempt anything of the kind, so the muzhik, while free to drink copiously whenever he gets the chance, must fast during the seven weeks of Lent, during two or three weeks in June, from the beginning of November till Christmas, and on all Wednesdays and Fridays during the remainder of the year.
From the festival time till the following spring there is no possibility of doing any agricultural work, for the ground is hard as iron, and covered with a deep layer of snow. The male peasants, therefore, who remain in the villages, have very little to do, and may spend the greater part of their time in lying idly on the stove, unless they happen to have learned some handicraft that can be practised at home. Formerly, many of them were employed in transporting the grain to the market town, which might be several hundred miles distant; but now this species of occupation has been greatly diminished by the extension of railways.
Another winter occupation which was formerly practised, and has now almost fallen into disuse, was that of stealing wood in the forest. This was, according to peasant morality, no sin, or at most a very venial offence, for God plants and waters the trees, and therefore forests belong properly to no one. So thought the peasantry, but the landed proprietors and the Administration of the Domains held a different theory of property, and consequently precautions had to be taken to avoid detection. In order to ensure success it was necessary to choose a night when there was a violent snowstorm, which would immediately obliterate all traces of the expedition; and when such a night was found, the operation was commonly performed with success. During the hours of darkness a tree would be felled, stripped of its branches, dragged into the village, and cut up into firewood, and at sunrise the actors would be tranquilly sleeping on the stove as if they had spent the night at home. In recent years the judicial authorities have done much towards putting down this practice and eradicating the loose conceptions of property with which it was connected.
For the female part of the population the winter used to be a busy time, for it was during these four or five months that the spinning and weaving had to be done, but now the big factories, with their cheap methods of production, are rapidly killing the home industries, and the young girls are not learning to work at the jenny and the loom as their mothers and grandmothers did.
In many of the northern villages, where ancient usages happen to be preserved, the tedium of the long winter evenings is relieved by so-called Besedy, a word which signifies literally conversazioni. A Beseda, however, is not exactly a conversazione as we understand the term, but resembles rather what is by some ladies called a Dorcas meeting, with this essential difference, that those present work for themselves and not for any benevolent purposes. In some villages as many as three Besedy regularly assemble about sunset; one for the children, the second for the young people, and the third for the matrons. Each of the three has its peculiar character. In the first, the children work and amuse themselves under the superintendence of an old woman, who trims the torch* and endeavours to keep order. The little girls spin flax in a primitive way without the aid of a jenny, and the boys, who are, on the whole, much less industrious, make simple bits of wicker-work. Formerly--I mean within my own recollection--many of them used to make rude shoes of plaited bark, called lapty, but these are being rapidly supplanted by leather boots. These occupations do not prevent an almost incessant hum of talk, frequent discordant attempts to sing in chorus, and occasional quarrels requiring the energetic interference of the old woman who controls the proceedings. To amuse her noisy flock she sometimes relates to them, for the hundredth time, one of those wonderful old stories that lose nothing by repetition, and all listen to her attentively, as if they had never heard the story before.
* The torch (lutchina) has now almost entirely disappeared and been replaced by the petroleum lamp.
The second Beseda is held in another house by the young people of a riper age. Here the workers are naturally more staid, less given to quarrelling, sing more in harmony, and require no one to look after them. Some people, however, might think that a chaperon or inspector of some kind would be by no means out of place, for a good deal of flirtation goes on, and if village scandal is to be trusted, strict propriety in thought, word, and deed is not always observed. How far these reports are true I cannot pretend to say, for the presence of a stranger always acts on the company like the presence of a severe inspector. In the third Beseda there is always at least strict decorum. Here the married women work together and talk about their domestic concerns, enlivening the conversation occasionally by the introduction of little bits of village scandal.
Such is the ordinary life of the peasants who live by agriculture; but many of the villagers live occasionally or permanently in the towns. Probably the majority of the peasants in this region have at some period of their lives gained a living elsewhere. Many of the absentees spend yearly a few months at home, whilst others visit their families only occasionally, and, it may be, at long intervals. In no case, however, do they sever their connection with their native village. Even the peasant who becomes a rich merchant and settles permanently with his family in Moscow or St. Petersburg remains probably a member of the Village Commune, and pays his share of the taxes, though he does not enjoy any of the corresponding privileges. Once I remember asking a rich man of this kind, the proprietor of several large houses in St. Petersburg, why he did not free himself from all connection with his native Commune, with which he had no longer any interests in common. His answer was, "It is all very well to be free, and I don't want anything from the Commune now; but my old father lives there, my mother is buried there, and I like to go back to the old place sometimes. Besides, I have children, and our affairs are commercial (nashe dyelo torgovoe). Who knows but my children may he very glad some day to have a share of the Commune land?"
In respect to these non-agricultural occupations, each district has its specialty. The province of Yaroslavl, for instance, supplies the large towns with waiters for the traktirs, or lower class of restaurants, whilst the best hotels in Petersburg are supplied by the Tartars of Kasimof, celebrated for their sobriety and honesty. One part of the province of Kostroma has a special reputation for producing carpenters and stove-builders, whilst another part, as I once discovered to my surprise, sends yearly to Siberia--not as convicts, but as free laborours--a large contingent of tailors and workers in felt! On questioning some youngsters who were accompanying as apprentices one of these bands, I was informed by a bright-eyed youth of about sixteen that he had already made the journey twice, and intended to go every winter. "And you always bring home a big pile of money with you?" I inquired. "Nitchevo!" replied the little fellow, gaily, with an air of pride and self- confidence; "last year I brought home three roubles!" This answer was, at the moment, not altogether welcome, for I had just been discussing with a Russian fellow-traveller as to whether the peasantry can fairly be called industrious, and the boy's reply enabled my antagonist to score a point against me. "You hear that!" he said, triumphantly. "A Russian peasant goes all the way to Siberia and back for three roubles! Could you get an Englishman to work at that rate?" "Perhaps not," I replied, evasively, thinking at the same time that if a youth were sent several times from Land's End to John o' Groat's House, and obliged to make the greater part of the journey in carts or on foot, he would probably expect, by way of remuneration for the time and labour expended, rather more than seven and sixpence!
Very often the peasants find industrial occupations without leaving home, for various industries which do not require complicated machinery are practised in the villages by the peasants and their families. Wooden vessels, wrought iron, pottery, leather, rush- matting, and numerous other articles are thus produced in enormous quantities. Occasionally we find not only a whole village, but even a whole district occupied almost exclusively with some one kind of manual industry. In the province of Vladimir, for example, a large group of villages live by Icon-painting; in one locality near Nizhni-Novgorod nineteen villages are occupied with the manufacture of axes; round about Pavlovo, in the same province, eighty villages produce almost nothing but cutlery; and in a locality called Ouloma, on the borders of Novgorod and Tver, no less than two hundred villages live by nail-making.
These domestic industries have long existed, and were formerly an abundant source of revenue--providing a certain compensation for the poverty of the soil. But at present they are in a very critical position. They belong to the primitive period of economic development, and that period in Russia, as I shall explain in a future chapter, is now rapidly drawing to a close. Formerly the Head of a Household bought the raw material, had it worked up at home, and sold with a reasonable profit the manufactured articles at the bazaars, as the local fairs are called, or perhaps at the great annual yarmarkt* of Nizhni-Novgorod. This primitive system is now rapidly becoming obsolete. Capital and wholesale enterprise have come into the field and are revolutionising the old methods of production and trade. Already whole groups of industrial villages have fallen under the power of middle-men, who advance money to the working households and fix the price of the products. Attempts are frequently made to break their power by voluntary co-operative associations, organised by the local authorities or benevolent landed proprietors of the neighbourhood--like the benevolent people in England who try to preserve the traditional cottage industries-- and some of the associations work very well; but the ultimate success of such "efforts to stem the current of capitalism" is extremely doubtful. At the same time, the periodical bazaars and yarmarki, at which producers and consumers transacted their affairs without mediation, are being replaced by permanent stores and by various classes of tradesmen--wholesale and retail.
* This term is a corruption of the German word Jahrmarkt.
To the political economist of the rigidly orthodox school this important change may afford great satisfaction. According to his theories it is a gigantic step in the right direction, and must necessarily redound to the advantage of all parties concerned. The producer now receives a regular supply of raw material, and regularly disposes of the articles manufactured; and the time and trouble which he formerly devoted to wandering about in search of customers he can now employ more profitably in productive work. The creation of a class between the producers and the consumers is an important step towards that division and specialisation of labour which is a necessary condition of industrial and commercial prosperity. The consumer no longer requires to go on a fixed day to some distant point, on the chance of finding there what he requires, but can always buy what he pleases in the permanent stores. Above all, the production is greatly increased in amount, and the price of manufactured goods is proportionally lessened.
All this seems clear enough in theory, and any one who values intellectual tranquillity will feel disposed to accept this view of the case without questioning its accuracy; but the unfortunate traveller who is obliged to use his eyes as well as his logical faculties may find some little difficulty in making the facts fit into the a priori formula. Far be it from me to question the wisdom of political economists, but I cannot refrain from remarking that of the three classes concerned--small producers, middle-men, and consumers--two fail to perceive and appreciate the benefits which have been conferred upon them. The small producers complain that on the new system they work more and gain less; and the consumers complain that the manufactured articles, if cheaper and more showy in appearance, are far inferior in quality. The middlemen, who are accused, rightly or wrongly, of taking for themselves the lion's share of the profits, alone seem satisfied with the new arrangement.
Interesting as this question undoubtedly is, it is not of permanent importance, because the present state of things is merely transitory. Though the peasants may continue for a time to work at home for the wholesale dealers, they cannot in the long run compete with the big factories and workshops, organised on the European model with steam-power and complicated machinery, which already exist in many provinces. Once a country has begun to move forward on the great highway of economic progress, there is no possibility of stopping halfway.
Here again the orthodox economists find reason for congratulation, because big factories and workshops are the cheapest and most productive form of manufacturing industry; and again, the observant traveller cannot shut his eyes to ugly facts which force themselves on his attention. He notices that this cheapest and most productive form of manufacturing industry does not seem to advance the material and moral welfare of the population. Nowhere is there more disease, drunkenness, demoralisation and misery than in the manufacturing districts.
The reader must not imagine that in making these statements I wish to calumniate the spirit of modern enterprise, or to advocate a return to primitive barbarism. All great changes produce a mixture of good and evil, and at first the evil is pretty sure to come prominently forward. Russia is at this moment in a state of transition, and the new condition of things is not yet properly organised. With improved organisation many of the existing evils will disappear. Already in recent years I have noticed sporadic signs of improvement. When factories were first established no proper arrangements were made for housing and feeding the workmen, and the consequent hardships were specially felt when the factories were founded, as is often the case, in rural districts. Now, the richer and more enterprising manufacturers build large barracks for the workmen and their families, and provide them with common kitchens, wash-houses, steam-baths, schools, and similar requisites of civilised life. At the same time the Government appoints inspectors to superintend the sanitary arrangements and see that the health and comfort of the workers are properly attended to.
On the whole we must assume that the activity of these inspectors tends to improve the condition of the working-classes. Certainly in some instances it has that effect. I remember, for example, some thirty years ago, visiting a lucifer-match factory in which the hands employed worked habitually in an atmosphere impregnated with the fumes of phosphorus, which produce insidious and very painful diseases. Such a thing is hardly possible nowadays. On the other hand, official inspection, like Factory Acts, everywhere gives rise to a good deal of dissatisfaction and does not always improve the relations between employers and employed. Some of the Russian inspectors, if I may credit the testimony of employers, are young gentlemen imbued with socialist notions, who intentionally stir up discontent or who make mischief from inexperience. An amusing illustration of the current complaints came under my notice when, in 1903, I was visiting a landed proprietor of the southern provinces, who has a large sugar factory on his estate. The inspector objected to the traditional custom of the men sleeping in large dormitories and insisted on sleeping-cots being constructed for them individually. As soon as the change was made the workmen came to the proprietor to complain, and put their grievance in an interrogative form: "Are we cattle that we should be thus couped up in stalls?"
To return to the northern agricultural region, the rural population have a peculiar type, which is to be accounted for by the fact that they never experienced to its full extent the demoralising influence of serfage. A large proportion of them were settled on State domains and were governed by a special branch of the Imperial administration, whilst others lived on the estates of rich absentee landlords, who were in the habit of leaving the management of their properties to a steward acting under a code of instructions. In either case, though serfs in the eye of the law, they enjoyed practically a very large amount of liberty. By paying a small sum for a passport they could leave their villages for an indefinite period, and as long as they sent home regularly the money required for taxes and dues, they were in little danger of being molested. Many of them, though officially inscribed as domiciled in their native communes, lived permanently in the towns, and not a few succeeded in amassing large fortunes. The effect of this comparative freedom is apparent even at the present day. These peasants of the north are more energetic, more intelligent, more independent, and consequently less docile and pliable than those of the fertile central provinces. They have, too, more education. A large proportion of them can read and write, and occasionally one meets among them men who have a keen desire for knowledge. Several times I encountered peasants in this region who had a small collection of books, and twice I found in such collections, much to my astonishment, a Russian translation of Buckle's "History of Civilisation."
How, it may be asked, did a work of this sort find its way to such a place? If the reader will pardon a short digression, I shall explain the fact.
Immediately after the Crimean War there was a curious intellectual movement--of which I shall have more to say hereafter--among the Russian educated classes. The movement assumed various forms, of which two of the most prominent were a desire for encyclopaedic knowledge, and an attempt to reduce all knowledge to a scientific form. For men in this state of mind Buckle's great work had naturally a powerful fascination. It seemed at first sight to reduce the multifarious conflicting facts of human history to a few simple principles, and to evolve order out of chaos. Its success, therefore, was great. In the course of a few years no less than four independent translations were published and sold. Every one read, or at least professed to have read, the wonderful book, and many believed that its author was the greatest genius of his time. During the first year of my residence in Russia (1870), I rarely had a serious conversation without hearing Buckle's name mentioned; and my friends almost always assumed that he had succeeded in creating a genuine science of history on the inductive method. In vain I pointed out that Buckle had merely thrown out some hints in his introductory chapter as to how such a science ought to be constructed, and that he had himself made no serious attempt to use the method which he commended. My objections had little or no effect: the belief was too deep-rooted to be so easily eradicated. In books, periodicals, newspapers, and professional lectures the name of Buckle was constantly cited--often violently dragged in without the slightest reason--and the cheap translations of his work were sold in enormous quantities. It is not, then, so very wonderful after all that the book should have found its way to two villages in the province of Yaroslavl.
The enterprising, self-reliant, independent spirit which is often to be found among those peasants manifests itself occasionally in amusing forms among the young generation. Often in this part of the country I have encountered boys who recalled young America rather than young Russia. One of these young hopefuls I remember well. I was waiting at a post-station for the horses to be changed, when he appeared before me in a sheep-skin, fur cap, and gigantic double-soled boots--all of which articles had been made on a scale adapted to future rather than actual requirements. He must have stood in his boots about three feet eight inches, and he could not have been more than twelve years of age; but he had already learned to look upon life as a serious business, wore a commanding air, and knitted his innocent little brows as if the cares of an empire weighed on his diminutive shoulders. Though he was to act as yamstchik he had to leave the putting in of the horses to larger specimens of the human species, but he took care that all was done properly. Putting one of his big boots a little in advance, and drawing himself up to his full shortness, he watched the operation attentively, as if the smallness of his stature had nothing to do with his inactivity. When all was ready, he climbed up to his seat, and at a signal from the station-keeper, who watched with paternal pride all the movements of the little prodigy, we dashed off at a pace rarely attained by post-horses. He had the faculty of emitting a peculiar sound--something between a whirr and a whistle--that appeared to have a magical effect on the team and every few minutes he employed this incentive. The road was rough, and at every jolt he was shot upwards into the air, but he always fell back into his proper position, and never lost for a moment his self-possession or his balance. At the end of the journey I found we had made nearly fourteen miles within the hour.
Unfortunately this energetic, enterprising spirit sometimes takes an illegitimate direction. Not only whole villages, but even whole districts, have in this way acquired a bad reputation for robbery, the manufacture of paper-money, and similar offences against the criminal law. In popular parlance, these localities are said to contain "people who play pranks" (narod shalit). I must, however, remark that, if I may judge by my own experience, these so-called "playful" tendencies are greatly exaggerated. Though I have travelled hundreds of miles at night on lonely roads, I was never robbed or in any way molested. Once, indeed, when travelling at night in a tarantass, I discovered on awaking that my driver was bending over me, and had introduced his hand into one of my pockets; but the incident ended without serious consequences. When I caught the delinquent hand, and demanded an explanation from the owner, he replied, in an apologetic, caressing tone, that the night was cold, and he wished to warm his fingers; and when I advised him to use for that purpose his own pockets rather than mine, he promised to act in future according to my advice. More than once, it is true, I believed that I was in danger of being attacked, but on every occasion my fears turned out to be unfounded, and sometimes the catastrophe was ludicrous rather than tragical. Let the following serve as an illustration.
I had occasion to traverse, in company with a Russian friend, the country lying to the east of the river Vetluga--a land of forest and morass, with here and there a patch of cultivation. The majority of the population are Tcheremiss, a Finnish tribe; but near the banks of the river there are villages of Russian peasants, and these latter have the reputation of "playing pranks." When we were on the point of starting from Kozmodemiansk a town on the bank of the Volga, we received a visit from an officer of rural police, who painted in very sombre colours the habits and moral character-- or, more properly, immoral character--of the people whose acquaintance we were about to make. He related with melodramatic gesticulation his encounters with malefactors belonging to the villages through which we had to pass, and ended the interview with a strong recommendation to us not to travel at night, and to keep at all times our eyes open and our revolver ready. The effect of his narrative was considerably diminished by the prominence of the moral, which was to the effect that there never had been a police- officer who had shown so much zeal, energy, and courage in the discharge of his duty as the worthy man before us. We considered it, however, advisable to remember his hint about keeping our eyes open.
In spite of our intention of being very cautious, it was already dark when we arrived at the village which was to be our halting- place for the night, and it seemed at first as if we should be obliged to spend the night in the open air. The inhabitants had already retired to rest, and refused to open their doors to unknown travellers. At length an old woman, more hospitable than her neighbours, or more anxious to earn an honest penny, consented to let us pass the night in an outer apartment (seni), and this permission we gladly accepted. Mindful of the warnings of the police officer, we barricaded the two doors and the window, and the precaution was evidently not superfluous, for almost as soon as the light was extinguished we could hear that an attempt was being made stealthily to effect an entrance. Notwithstanding my efforts to remain awake, and on the watch, I at last fell asleep, and was suddenly aroused by some one grasping me tightly by the arm. Instantly I sprang to my feet and endeavoured to close with my invisible assailant. In vain! He dexterously eluded my grasp, and I stumbled over my portmanteau, which was lying on the floor; but my prompt action revealed who the intruder was, by producing a wild flutter and a frantic cackling! Before my companion could strike a light the mysterious attack was fully explained. The supposed midnight robber and possible assassin was simply a peaceable hen that had gone to roost on my arm, and, on finding her position unsteady, had dug her claws into what she mistook for a roosting- pole!
When speaking of the peasantry of the north I have hitherto had in view the inhabitants of the provinces of Old-Novgorod, Tver, Yaroslavl, Nizhni-Novgorod, Kostroma, Kazan, and Viatka, and I have founded my remarks chiefly on information collected on the spot. Beyond this lies what may be called the Far North. Though I cannot profess to have the same personal acquaintance with the peasantry of that region, I may perhaps be allowed to insert here some information regarding them which I collected from various trustworthy sources.
If we draw a wavy line eastward from a point a little to the north of St. Petersburg, as is shown in the map facing page 1 of this volume, we shall have between that line and the Polar Ocean what may be regarded as a distinct, peculiar region, differing in many respects from the rest of Russia. Throughout the whole of it the climate is very severe. For about half of the year the ground is covered by deep snow, and the rivers are frozen. By far the greater part of the land is occupied by forests of pine, fir, larch, and birch, or by vast, unfathomable morasses. The arable land and pasturage taken together form only about one and a half per cent, of the area. The population is scarce--little more than one to the English square mile--and settled chiefly along the banks of the rivers. The peasantry support themselves by fishing, hunting, felling and floating timber, preparing tar and charcoal, cattle-breeding, and, in the extreme north, breeding reindeer.
These are their chief occupations, but the people do not entirely neglect agriculture. They make the most of their short summer by means of a peculiar and ingenious mode of farming, well adapted to the peculiar local conditions. The peasant knows of course nothing about agronomical chemistry, but he, as well as his forefathers, have observed that if wood be burnt on a field, and the ashes be mixed with the soil, a good harvest may be confidently expected. On this simple principle his system of farming is based. When spring comes round and the leaves begin to appear on the trees, a band of peasants, armed with their hatchets, proceed to some spot in the woods previously fixed upon. Here they begin to make a clearing. This is no easy matter, for tree-felling is hard and tedious work; but the process does not take so much time as might be expected, for the workmen have been brought up to the trade, and wield their axes with marvellous dexterity. When they have felled all the trees, great and small, they return to their homes, and think no more about their clearing till the autumn, when they return, in order to strip the fallen trees of the branches, to pick out what they require for building purposes or firewood, and to pile up the remainder in heaps. The logs for building or firewood are dragged away by horses as soon as the first fall of snow has made a good slippery road, but the piles are allowed to remain till the following spring, when they are stirred up with long poles and ignited. The flames rapidly spread in all directions till they join together and form a gigantic bonfire, such as is never seen in more densely-populated countries. If the fire does its work properly, the whole of the space is covered with a layer of ashes; and when these have been slightly mixed with soil by means of a light plough, the seed is sown.
On the field prepared in this original fashion is sown barley, rye, or flax, and the harvests, nearly always good, sometimes border on the miraculous. Barley or rye may be expected to produce about sixfold in ordinary years, and they may produce as much as thirty- fold under peculiarly favourable circumstances. The fertility is, however, short-lived. If the soil is poor and stony, not more than two crops can be raised; if it is of a better quality, it may give tolerable harvests for six or seven successive years. In most countries this would be an absurdly expensive way of manuring, for wood is much too valuable a commodity to be used for such a purpose; but in this northern region the forests are boundless, and in the districts where there is no river or stream by which timber may be floated, the trees not used in this way rot from old age. Under these circumstances the system is reasonable, but it must be admitted that it does not give a very large return for the amount of labour expended, and in bad seasons it gives almost no return at all.
The other sources of revenue are scarcely less precarious. With his gun and a little parcel of provisions the peasant wanders about in the trackless forests, and too often returns after many days with a very light bag; or he starts in autumn for some distant lake, and comes back after five or six weeks with nothing better than perch and pike. Sometimes he tries his luck at deep-sea fishing. In this case he starts in February--probably on foot--for Kem, on the shore of the White Sea, or perhaps for the more distant Kola, situated on a small river which falls into the Arctic Ocean. There, in company with three or four comrades, he starts on a fishing cruise along the Murman coast, or, it may be, off the coast of Spitzbergen. His gains will depend on the amount caught, for it is a joint-venture; but in no case can they be very great, for three-fourths of the fish brought into port belongs to the owner of the craft and tackle. Of the sum realised, he brings home perhaps only a small part, for he has a strong temptation to buy rum, tea, and other luxuries, which are very dear in those northern latitudes. If the fishing is good and he resists temptation, he may save as much as 100 roubles--about 10 pounds--and thereby live comfortably all winter; but if the fishing season is bad, he may find himself at the end of it not only with empty pockets, but in debt to the owner of the boat. This debt he may pay off, if he has a horse, by transporting the dried fish to Kargopol, St. Petersburg, or some other market.
It is here in the Far North that the ancient folk-lore--popular songs, stories, and fragments of epic poetry--has been best preserved; but this is a field on which I need not enter, for the reader can easily find all that he may desire to know on the subject in the brilliant writings of M. Rambaud and the very interesting, conscientious works of the late Mr. Ralston,* which enjoy a high reputation in Russia.
* Rambaud, "La Russie Epique," Paris, 1876; Ralston, "The Songs of the Russian People," London, 1872; and "Russian Folk-tales," London, 1873.