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Russian Rambles

Russian Rambles
Title: Russian Rambles
Release Date: 2006-04-13
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
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RUSSIAN RAMBLES

BY

ISABEL F. HAPGOOD

AUTHOR OF "THE EPIC SONGS OF RUSSIA"

BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
1895


TO
RUSSIA AND MY RUSSIAN FRIENDS

I DEDICATE THESE NOTES OF MY SOJOURN WITH THEM.
THEY MAY REST ASSURED THAT, THOUGH MANY OF
MY MOST CHERISHED EXPERIENCES ARE NOT RECORDED
IN THESE PAGES, THEY REMAIN UNFORGOTTEN, DEEPLY
IMPRINTED ON MY HEART.


PREFACE.

The innumerable questions which have been put to me since my return to America have called to my attention the fact that, in spite of all that has been written about Russia, the common incidents of everyday life are not known, or are known so imperfectly that any statement of them is a travesty. I may cite, as an example, a book published within the past two years, and much praised in America by the indiscriminating as a truthful picture of life. The whole story hung upon the great musical talent of the youthful hero. The hero skated to church through the streets, gazed down the long aisle where the worshipers were assembled (presumably in pews), ascended to the organ gallery, sang an impromptu solo with trills and embellishments, was taken in hand by the enraptured organist who had played there for thirty years, and developed into a great composer. Omitting a mass of other absurdities scattered through the book, I will criticise this crucial point. There are no organs or organists in Russia; there are no pews, or aisles, or galleries for the choir, and there are never any trills or embellishments in the church music. A boy could skate to church in New York more readily than in Moscow, where such a thing was never seen, and where they are not educated up to roller skates. Lastly, as the church specified, St. Vasily, consists of a nest of small churches connected by narrow, labyrinthine corridors, and is approached from the street up two flights of low-ceiled stairs, it is an impossibility that the boy should have viewed the "aisle" and assembled congregation from his skates at the door. That is a fair specimen of the distortions of facts which I am constantly encountering.

It has seemed to me that there is room for a book which shall impart an idea of a few of the ordinary conditions of life and of the characters of the inhabitants, illustrated by apposite anecdotes from my personal experience. For this purpose, a collection of detached pictures is better than a continuous narrative of travel.

I am told that I must abuse Russia, if I wish to be popular in America. Why, is more than I or my Russian friends can understand. Perhaps it arises from the peculiar fact that people find it more interesting to hear bad things of their neighbors than good, and the person who furnishes startling tales is considered better company than the humdrum truth-teller or the charitably disposed.

The truth is, that people too frequently go to Russia with the deliberate expectation and intention of seeing queer things. That they do frequently contrive to see queer things, I admit. Countess X. Z., who in appearance and command of the language could not have been distinguished from an Englishwoman, related to me a pertinent anecdote when we were discussing this subject. She chanced to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow in a compartment of the railway carriage with two Americans. The latter told her that they had been much shocked to meet a peasant on the Nevsky Prospekt, holding in his hand a live chicken, from which he was taking occasional bites, feathers and all. That they saw nothing of the sort is positive; but what they did see which could have been so ingeniously distorted was more than the combined powers of the countess and myself were equal to guessing.

The general idea of foreign visitors seems to be that they shall find the Russia of the seventeenth century. I am sure that the Russia of Ivan the Terrible's time, a century earlier, would precisely meet their views. They find the reality decidedly tame in comparison, and feel bound to supply the missing spice. A trip to the heart of Africa would, I am convinced, approach much nearer to the ideal of "adventure" generally cherished. The traveler to Africa and to Russia is equally bound to narrate marvels of his "experiences" and of the customs of the natives.

But, in order to do justice to any foreign country, the traveler must see people and customs not with the eyes of his body only, but with the eyes of his heart, if he would really understand them. Above all things, he must not deliberately buckle on blinders. Of no country is this axiom more true than of Russia. A man who would see Russia clearly must strip himself of all preconceived prejudices of religion, race, and language, and study the people from their own point of view. If he goes about repeating Napoleon I.'s famous saying, "Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar," he will simply betray his own ignorance of history and facts.

In order to understand matters, a knowledge of the language is indispensable in any country. Naturally, very few possess this knowledge in Russia, where it is most indispensable of all. There are guides, but they are a lottery at best: Russians who know very little English, English who know very little Russian, or Germans who are impartially ignorant of both, and earn their fees by relating fables about the imperial family and things in general, when they are not candidly saying, "I don't know." I saw more or less of that in the case of other people's guides; I had none of my own, though they came to me and begged the privilege of taking me about gratuitously if I would recommend them. I heard of it from Russians. An ideal cicerone, one of the attendants in the Moscow Historical Museum, complained to me on this subject, and rewarded me for sparing him the infliction by getting permission to take us to rooms which were not open to the public, where the director himself did the honors for us. Sometimes travelers dispense with the guides, as well as with a knowledge of the language, but if they have a talent for pronouncing what are called, I believe, "snap judgments," that does not prevent their fulfilling, on their return home, their tacitly implied duty of uttering in print a final verdict on everything from soup to government.

If the traveler be unusually lucky, he may make acquaintance on a steamer with a Russian who can talk English, and who can and will give him authentic information. These three conditions are not always united in one person. Moreover, a stranger cannot judge whether his Russian is a representative man or not, what is his position in the social hierarchy, and what are his opportunities for knowing whereof he speaks. "Do you suppose that God, who knows all things, does not know our table of ranks?" asks an arrogant General in one of the old Russian comedies. I have no doubt that the Lord does know that remarkable Jacob's ladder which conducts to the heaven of high public place and the good things of life, and whose every rung is labeled with some appetizing title and privilege. But a newly arrived foreigner cannot know it, or the traditions of the three greater, distinct classes into which the people are divided.

Russians have become so used to hearing and reading remarkable statements about themselves that they only smile indulgently at each fresh specimen of ill-will or ignorance. They keep themselves posted on what is said of them, and frequently quote choice passages for the amusement of foreigners who know better, but never when they would be forced to condescend to explanation. Alexander Dumas, Senior, once wrote a book on Russia, which is a fruitful source of hilarity in that country yet, and a fair sample of such performances. To quote but one illustration,--he described halting to rest under the shade of a great kliukva tree. The kliukva is the tiny Russian cranberry, and grows accordingly. Another French author quite recently contributed an item of information which Russians have adopted as a characteristic bit of ignorance and erected into a standard jest. He asserted that every village in Russia has its own gallows, on which it hangs its own criminals off-hand. As the death penalty is practically abolished in Russia, except for high treason, which is not tried in villages, the Russians are at a loss to explain what the writer can have mistaken for a gallows. There are two "guesses" current as to his meaning: the two uprights and cross-beam of the village swing; or the upright, surmounted by a cross-board, on which is inscribed the number of inhabitants in the village. Most people favor the former theory, but consider it a pity that he has not distinctly pointed to the latter by stating that the figures there inscribed represent the number of persons hanged. That would have rendered the tale bloodthirsty, interesting, absolutely perfect,--from a foreign point of view.

I have not attempted to analyze the "complicated" national character. Indeed, I am not sure that it is complicated. Russians of all classes, from the peasant up, possess a naturally simple, sympathetic disposition and manner, as a rule, tinged with a friendly warmth whose influence is felt as soon as one crosses the frontier. Shall I be believed if I say that I found it in custom-house officers and gendarmes? For the rest, characters vary quite as much as they do elsewhere. It is a question of individuals, in character and morals, and it is dangerous to indulge in generalizations. My one generalization is that they are, as a nation, too long-suffering and lenient in certain directions, that they allow too much personal independence in certain things.

If I succeed in dispelling some of the absurd ideas which are now current about Russia, I shall be content. If I win a little comprehension and kindly sympathy for them, I shall be more than content.

ISABEL F. HAPGOOD.
New York, January 1, 1895.


CONTENTS

I. PASSPORTS, POLICE, AND POST-OFFICE IN RUSSIA.
II. THE NEVSKY PROSPEKT
III. MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE RUSSIAN CENSOR
IV. BARGAINING IN RUSSIA
V. EXPERIENCES
VI. A RUSSIAN SUMMER RESORT
VII. A STROLL IN MOSCOW WITH COUNT TOLSTOY
VIII. COUNT TOLSTOY AT HOME
IX. A RUSSIAN HOLY CITY
X. A JOURNEY ON THE VOLGA
XI. THE RUSSIAN KUMYS CURE
XII. MOSCOW MEMORIES
XIII. THE NIZHNI-NOVGOROD FAIR AND THE VOLGA


RUSSIAN RAMBLES.

I.

PASSPORTS, POLICE, AND POST-OFFICE IN RUSSIA.

We imported into Russia, untaxed, undiscovered by the custom-house officials, a goodly stock of misadvice, misinformation, apprehensions, and prejudices, like most foreigners, albeit we were unusually well informed, and confident that we were correctly posted on the grand outlines of Russian life, at least. We were forced to begin very promptly the involuntary process of getting rid of them. Our anxiety began in Berlin. We visited the Russian consul-general there to get our passports vised. He said, "You should have got the signature of the American consul. Do that, and return here."

At that moment, the door leading from his office to his drawing-room opened, and his wife made her appearance on the threshold, with the emphatic query, "When are you coming?"

"Immediately, my dear," he replied. "Just wait a moment, until I get rid of these Americans."

Then he decided to rid himself of us for good. "I will assume the responsibility for you," he said, affixed his signature on the spot, to spare himself a second visit, and, collecting his fees, bowed us out. I suppose he argued that we should have known the ropes and attended to all details accurately, in order to ward off suspicion, had we been suspicious characters. How could he know that the Americans understood Russian, and that this plain act of "getting rid" of us would weigh on our minds all the way to the Russian frontier?

At Wirballen the police evoked a throb of gratitude from our relieved hearts. No one seemed to suspect that the American government owned a consul in Berlin who could write his name on our huge parchments, which

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