Illustrated Description Of Russia

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The steppes of southern Russia (or at least portions of them) have been casually noticed, in the descriptions which have been given in the immediately preceding chapters on the governments of this division of the empire. But they form so characteristic and so interesting a feature in the physical aspect of the country — as much so as the prairies of our western states, and which, in fact, they much resemble — that we will give place to a general description of them here, even though it may involve a slight repetition of what is incidentally presented in other chapters.

The steppes, as they are generally called, extend from the borders of Hungary to those of China. They constitute an almost uninterrupted plain, covered in spring and autumn by a luxuriant herbage ; in winter by drifting snows, heaped up in some places, and leaving the ground bare in others; and in summer by clouds of dust so excessively line, that even on the calmest day they hang suspended in the air, having the appearance rather of a vapor exhaled from the ground, than of earthy particles raised by the agitation of the atmosphere. The slight undulations that occur assume but rarely the character of hills, but artificial hillocks or tumuli are frequently met with, the origin of which it is impossible to trace through the darkness of bygone ages. The most singular characteristic, however, of the steppe, is the absence of trees, on a soil remarkable for its richness and the luxuriance of its herbage. For hundreds of miles, a traveller may proceed in a straight line without encountering even a bush, unless he happen to be acquainted with the few favored spots known to the Tartar sportsmen, to whom they answer the purpose of game-preserves. Countless herds of cattle roam over these noble pasture-grounds, on which a calf born at the foot of the Great Chinese Wall, might eat his way along, till he arrived a well-fattened ox on the banks of the Dniester, prepared to figure with advantage at the Odessa market! The poor animals suffer much during the hot and dry summers, when every blade of grass is parched up ; but the careful herdsman, who has provided himself with an abundant stock of hay, is able to keep his beasts alive till autumn returns to gladden them with fresh abundance.

Wherever a ridge of hills occurs, of sufficient height to afford protection against the northern blasts that come sweeping in an unbroken course from the shores of the Arctic ocean, the character of the country is changed. In the Crimea, for instance, though the northern portion partakes of all the rude characteristics of the steppe, the south coast, sheltered by the central mountains, enjoys a climate equal to that of Italy, and allows the vine and the olive to be cultivated with as much success as in Provence.

A country constituted by nature as are the Russian steppes, is evidently destined rather for a wandering and pastoral people, than for a settled and agricultural population; for in regions where but few prominent objects occur, there is but little to attach man to any particular spot. The Russian government, however, has undertaken the task of converting the nomadic tribes into settled agriculturists, and the steppe itself into one vast grain-field. German and Bulgarian colonists have been tempted, by the offer of peculiar privileges, to establish themselves in different parts of the country, in the hope that their example might gradually wean the native tribes from their roving habits. Where the colonists have been located in the vicinity of large towns, the plan has been attended with partial success ; but the foreigners soon discover the capabilities of the country, and in proportion as their means increase, rarely fail to invest their surplus capital in the purchase of flocks and herds, the numerical amount of which constitutes the customary standard by which wealth is estimated throughout the steppe.

The rivers which intersect the steppes, and which in spring are swollen by the rapid thaw of the accumulated snows of winter, cut deep furrows in the surface; and as they frequently change their courses, they occasionally leave dry ravines that break in some measure the uniformity of the country. Little importance would be attached, in other parts of the world, to the trifling elevations and depressions thus formed; but in the steppe, the slightest variation of surface becomes a landmark of importance, and separate denominations are given by the inhabitants to every peculiarity of shape which the ground is made to assume under the action of water.

Many of the rivers — indeed, all but the principal streams — are fed only by the rain and snow, and their beds, consequently, are dry in summer. Each of these ravines terminates in a waterfall, formed originally, no doubt, by the terrace that bounds the Black sea, and which in some places rises to the height of one hundred and eighty feet above the water level; but in proportion as the water wore away a channel for itself, the waterfall gradually receded, and, in the course of ages, made its way farther and farther into the interior of the country.

The elevation of the ground being so nearly alike throughout the whole of the steppe, the ravines formed by the action of the rain-water are of nearly equal depth in every part of the country. They are seldom less than a hundred feet deep, and seldom exceed a hundred and fifty. These ravines, or vuipolotsh, with their lateral branches on each side, as their edges are at all times exceedingly abrupt, offer to the traveller, as well as to the herdsman driving his lowing and bleating charge across the plain, an impassable barrier, to avoid which it is often necessary to go round for many miles. The consequence is, that several roads or tracks are always sure to meet at the head of a vuipolotsh, which thus becomes a spot of some importance throughout the surrounding country. In winter, the ravine is usually filled by the drifting snow, and is then extremely dangerous to any one not well acquainted with the country. Men and cattle are at that season often buried in the snow-drifts, and their fate is ascertained only when the melting of the snow leaves their bodies exposed at the foot of the precipice.

The foregoing description does not, of course, apply to the larger rivers that are supplied with water throughout the year. The banks of these are less abrupt, but their elevation, though more gradual, is about the same, being seldom less than a hundred nor more than a hundred and fifty feet over the level of the water. The beds of these large rivers are in general remarkably broad, and are almost always fringed with a belt of reeds, six or eight feet high, that forms an excellent cover for every description of water-fowl.

While the action of the rain is exercising so powerful an influence in the interior, the sea, as may easily be supposed, is not idle on the coast. A very remarkable characteristic of the Black sea is, that at the mouth of every river a large lake is gradually formed by the action of the sea, and some of them are unconnected with the sea. These lakes are known along the coast by the name of liman. These limans are supposed to have been formed by the action of the sea driven into the mouth of the river by the violence of the prevailing storms, and constantly undermining the terrace of the overhanging steppe. During tranquil weather, an opposite action is going on. The rivers are always turbid with the soil of the steppe, and their water, arrested in its course by the tideless sea, deposites its sediment in front of the liman, where a low strip of land is gradually formed. This natural mound, by which every liman is in course of time protected against the further encroachment of the sea, is called a peressip. Where the supply of water brought down by a river is tolerably large, the peressip is never complete, but is broken by an aperture called a gheerl, that forms a communication between the liman and the sea. Many limans, however, are fed by streams that bring down so feeble a volume of water, that the mere evaporation is sufficient to carry off the whole surplus, and the peressip in such cases becomes perfect, forming a barrier that completely cuts off all communication between the river and the sea. Limans so circumstanced exercise a baneful influence upon the country, in consequence of the offensive effluvia that arise from the stagnant water in summer.

Occasionally in passing over the steppe, the traveller perceives a slight depression of the surface, as if a mighty giant had laid his hand upon the plain and pressed it down. In such natural basins, called stavoks by the natives, the rain collects, and though the soil soon absorbs the water, the place generally retains some moisture long after the rest of the country has been parched up by the summer heats. The stavok, it may easily be supposed, is, at such a time, an object of no trifling importance to the herdsman, and is carefully guarded against the intrusion of strangers. A belief prevails upon the steppe that the stavoks are holes formed by the ancient Mongolians, who dug out the earth to form their tumuli; but there is no good reason to suppose that the depression has originated otherwise than by a slight sinking of the subjacent strata.

The climate of the steppes is one of extremes. In summer, the heat is as intense as the cold is severe in winter, the waters of the Black sea exercising apparently but little influence in tempering the atmosphere. This is accounted for by the abrupt rise of the coast, which arrests the strata of air immediately above the surface of the water, and leaves a free course only to those portions of the air that fly at a higher level. The steppe, therefore, has usually an arctic winter and a tropical summer, and enjoys, only during spring and autumn, short intervals of that moderate temperature to which its geographical position, in the temperate zone, would appear to entitle it.

The core or substance of the long winter of the steppe is formed by the three months of December, January, and February, during which all the energies of nature appear sunk in an unbroken sleep ; but though unbroken, it is by no means a quiet sleep that Dame Nature is allowed to enjoy during this period of the year, for the snow-storms are of frequent occurrence, and so excessively violent, that even the most seasoned veterans of the steppe stand in awe of them. Every road or track is frequently altogether effaced, the ravines are filled up, and cases even occur where men and cattle are suddenly caught by a drift of snow, and completely buried under its accumulating mass. The emperor Nicholas once, in travelling in a sledge across the steppes, was capsized in a steep ravine, and was taken up with a broken clavicle. To the more violent of these storms no traveller attempts to expose himself; and even the government couriers are excused if, during the three days — their usual duration — they remain closely housed at the station which they happen to have reached.

The winter of the steppe, in intensity of cold, frequently surpasses the severest seasons known on the shores of the Baltic; and the cutting blasts from the north, sweeping huge masses of snow into the Black sea, often cover it with a thick coating of ice for many leagues from the shore. The steppe, accordingly, participates in all the severity of a Russian winter, but enjoys few of the advantages which to the northern Russian go far to redeem the intensity of the cold. In northern Russia, and even in the Ukraine, the snow remains on the ground during the greater part of the winter, and the sledges quickly wear the surface of the road into a smooth mass of ice, over which the heaviest goods may be transported with a speed and facility surpassed only by a railroad. The Russian, therefore, usually prefers the winter months, not only for travelling, but also for the conveyance of heavy goods from one place to another. To the denizen of the steppe this natural railroad is unknown. The storms that prevail th roughout the greater part of the winter keep the snow in a constant state of agitation, and prevent it from "caking" on the ground. The snow, in consequence, never uniformly covers the steppe, but seems to lie unequally scattered over it in drifts, according as the wind may have wafted it about.

Winter-Travelling on the Steppes — Sledges

Winter-Travelling on the Steppes — Sledges
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When the snow melts on the steppe, the spring may be said to commence. This usually takes place in April, but May is sometimes far advanced before the mass of water has had time to find its way into the rivers. During this melting season, the whole surface of the steppe is converted into a sea of mud, through which neither man nor beast can wade without positive danger. Through every ravine rushes a torrent of the dirtiest water that can well be imagined, and about the dwellings of men the accumulated filth of the winter is at once exposed to view, by the disappearance of the snowy mantle that, for a season, had charitably covered a multitude of sins. This operation is frequently interrupted by the return of frost, and the descent of fresh masses of snow — for there is no country, perhaps, where Winter makes a harder fight for it, before he allows himself to be beaten out of the field. When at last boisterous old Hyems has really been forced to beat his retreat, a most delightful period of the year succeeds, and the steppe, covered with a beautiful and luxuriant herbage, smiles like a lovely oasis between the parched desolation of the summer and the dreary waste of the winter. The whole earth now seems clad in the color of Hope, while the sky assumes that of Truth ; and though it is certainly monotonous enough to behold nothing but blue above and green below, yet the recollection of past hardships, and the consciousness of present abundance, make the season one of rejoicing to the native, and even excite for a while the admiration of the stranger. The latter, however, is certain', before long, to grow weary of a spring unadorned by a single flowering shrub, unvaried by a single bubbling brook.

Thunder and lightning are frequent throughout May, but the thunderstorm on the steppe is, comparatively, but a poor kind of spectacle, there being neither trees nor rocks for the lightning to show his might upon, nor mountains, by their reverberating echoes, to give increased majesty to the pealing artillery of heaven; but these discharges of atmospheric electricity, though they want the grandeur of the Alpine tempest, are dear to the people of the steppe, where they are always accompanied by either showers or night-dews, so that as long as it thunders there is no lack of fodder for the cattle.

In June, the lightning ceases to play, and the periodical drought announces its approach, the whole month passing frequently away without depositing a particle of moisture on the ground. The consequences of this begin to manifest themselves in July, when the heated soil cracks in every direction, opening its parched lips in supplication for a few drops of water that are not vouchsafed. Heavy and tantalizing clouds, it is true, sweep over the steppe, but, instead of showering their blessings on the thirsty land, hurry away to the Carpathian mountains or to the sea. The sun at this season rises and sets like a globe of fire, but the evaporations raised from the earth by the mid-day heat seldom fail to give a misty appearance to the sky toward noon. The heat, meanwhile, is rendered intolerable by its duration, for anything like a cool interval never occurs, and shade is not to be thought of in a country where hills and trees are alike unknown.

This season is one of great suffering to all living beings on the steppe. Every trace of vegetation is singed away, except in a few favored spots; the surface of the ground becomes browner and browner, and at last completely black. Men and cattle assume a lean and haggard look, and the wild oxen and horses, so fierce and ungovernable in May, become as tame as lambs in July, and can scarcely crawl in August. Ponds dry up, wells cease to furnish water, and the beds of lakes are converted into sandy hollows. Water now rises in price, and becomes an article which it is worth a thief's while to steal. The few springs that continue to yield must have a guard set upon them night and day, or the legitimate owner will scarcely keep enough to slake his own thirst. At this season thousands of cattle perish on the steppe of thirst; while, as if to mock their sufferings, the horizon seems laden with humid clouds, and the parched soil assumes to the cheated eye in the distance the appearance of crystal lakes and running streams!

In many respects the summer on the steppe is more cruel even than in the Sahara of Africa, or in the Llanos of South America, for in neither of these does the moisture so completely disappear from the soil, and in the African desert, wherever there is water, a little terrestrial paradise of date-trees and flowering shrubs is certain to be grouped around; but in the steppe, even the rivers flow only between grass, and reeds are the only shrubs by which the banks are fringed, while from the parched and gaping earth not even a cactus or an aloe peeps forth, into which a thirsty animal might bite to moisten its lips with the juice.

In August, the dryness of the atmosphere reaches the extreme point; but, before the end of the month, the night-dews set in, and thunderstorms are occasionally followed by rain. The leaden, dusty sky becomes clear and blue again, and everything reminds you that the delights of autumn are approaching. The temperature of September is mild and refreshing, and the detestable black dust of the steppe, kept down by frequent showers, no longer gives to every creature the complexion of a negro. A fresh, green herbage quickly covers the whole plain, and man and beast in a short time recover their strength and spirits.

Delightful the autumn of the steppe unquestionably is, but short and fleeting are its charms, for October is already a gusty Scythian month, marked by cold rains and fogs, and usually closing amid violent storms; and as to November, that is set down as a winter month even by the most seasoned Russian.

Every plant or herb on the steppe, on which the cattle will feed, is known by the general name of trava; and every woody, wiry stem, from which they turn away, is ruthlessly classed in the condemned list of burian. The thistle deserves the first place among the burian of the steppe. We have but little notion in this country of the height to which the thistle will often grow in southern Russia, where it not unfrequently assumes the form and size of a tree, overshadowing with its branches the low-sunken dwellings of the troglodytes of the steppe. In places peculiarly favored by the thistle, this description of burian will sometimes grow in such abundance, as to form a little grove, in which a Cossack on his horse may completely hide himself!

Another description of weed that stands in very bad odor in the steppe, has been aptly denominated wind-witch by the German colonists. This is a worthless plant that expends all its vigor in the formation of innumerable threadlike fibres, that shoot out in every direction, till the whole forms a light globular mass. The little sap to be obtained from this plant is bitterer than the bitterest wormwood, and even in the driest summer no animal will touch the wind-witch. It grows to the height of three feet, and in autumn the root decays, and the upper part of the plant becomes completely dry. The huge shuttlecock is then torn from the ground by the first high wind that rises, and is sent dancing, rolling, and hopping over the plain, with a rapidity which the best-mounted rider would vainly attempt to emulate. The Germans could not have christened the plant more aptly; and, in bestowing on it the expressive name by which it is known among them, they no doubt thought of the national legends long associated with the far-famed, witch-haunted recesses of the Blocksberg. The wild dances with which fancy has enlivened that ill-reputed mountain are yearly imitated by the wind-witches on the steppe. Sometimes they may be seen skipping along like a herd of deer or wild horses; sometimes describing wide circles in the grass, sometimes rolling madly over one another, and sometimes rising by hundreds into the air, as though they were just starting to partake in the diabolical festivities of the Blocksberg itself! They adhere to each other sometimes like so many enormous burs, and it is not an uncommon sight to see some twelve or twenty rolled into one mass, and scouring over the plain like a giant in his seven-league boots. Thousands of them are yearly blown into the Black sea; but with this salto mortale ends the witch''s career, who loses in the water all the fantastic graces that distinguished her while ashore.

As next in importance among the burian of the steppe, the bitter wormwood must not be forgotten. It grows to the height of six feet, and sometimes, in a very dry summer, the cattle will not disdain to eat of it. All the milk and butter then become detestably bitter, and sometimes particles of the dry wormwood adhere to the wheat, in which case the bitter flavor of the plant is imparted to the bread.

Botanists reckon about five hundred species of plants as native to the steppe, and each species usually grows in large masses. For leagues together the traveller will see nothing but wormwood; and, on leaving so bitter a specimen of vegetation, he will come to a tulip-bed, covering many thousands of acres; and, at the end of that, to an equal extent of wild mignionette, to which cultivation has not, however, imparted the delicious perfume which recommends it to the horticulturist of more civilized lands.

Summer-Travelling on the Steppes —A Tarantasse

Summer-Travelling on the Steppes —A Tarantasse
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For days together the tarantasse will then roll past the same description of coarse grass, ungainly to look upon, but on which the sheep thrive admirably, and which is said to give to Tartar mutton a delicious flavor that the travelled epicure vainly looks for in the gorgeous restaurants of Paris, or in that joint-stock association of comfort and luxury, a London or New York club.

A singular phenomenon of the steppe manifests itself when man invades it with his plough. The disturbed soil immediately shoots forth every variety of burian, against which the farmer must exert unceasing vigilance, or else farewell to the hope of a productive harvest. If the same land is afterward left fallow, the burian takes possession of the field, and riots for a few years in undisturbed luxuriance. A struggle then goes on for some years longer between the weeds and the grass; but the latter, strange to say, in almost every instance, triumphs in the end, and a beautiful pasture-ground succeeds, which goes on improving from year to year, till it attains its highest degree of perfection. A reaction then ensues: a species of coarse grass, known by botanists under the name of stipa pinnata, takes possession of the ground, which it covers with its hard and woody stems, till the farmer, taking advantage of the first dry weather in spring, clears away the whole plantation by setting fire to it.

The burning of the steppe is the only kind of manuring to which it is ever subjected, and is generally executed in spring, in order that a fresh crop of grass may immediately rise, like a young phoenix, from the ashes. This department of Tartar husbandry is usually managed with much caution, and the conflagration rarely extends beyond the limits intended to be assigned to it; but sometimes a fire rises by accident, or in consequence of a malicious act of incendiarism, and then the conflagration rages far and wide, sweeping along for hundreds of leagues, destroying cattle and grain-fields, and consuming not only single houses, but whole villages in its way.

These fires are particularly dangerous in summer, owing to the inflammable condition, at that season, of almost every description of herbage. The flaming torrent advances with irresistible force, towering up among the lofty thistles, or advancing with a stealthy, snakelike step through the parched grass. Not even the wind can always arrest its destructive course, for a fire of this kind will go streaming in the very teeth of the wind, now slowly and then rapidly, according to the nature of the fuel that supplies its forces. At times the invader finds himself compressed between ravines, and appears to have spent his strength; but a few burning particles blown across by a gust of wind enable him to make good his position on new ground, and he loses no time in availing himself of the opportunity. A well-beaten road, a ravine, or a piece of sunk ground in which some remnant of moisture has kept the grass green, are the points of which advantage must be taken if the enemy's advance is to be stopped. At such places, accordingly, the shepherds and herdsmen post themselves: trenches are hastily dug, the flying particles are carefully extinguished as they fall, and sometimes the attempt to stop the course of such a conflagration is attended with success. Often, however, the attempt fails ; and the despairing husbandmen see one wheatfield after another in a blaze, their dwellings reduced to ashes, and the affrighted cattle scouring away over the plain before the advancing volumes of smoke!

The course of one of these steppe-fires is often most capricious. It will leave a tract of country uninjured, and travel for eight or ten days into the interior, and the farmer whose land has been left untouched will begin to flatter himself with the belief that his grain and his cattle are safe ; but all at once the foe returns with renewed vigor, and the scattered farmhouses, with the ricks of hay and grain grouped in disorder around, fall a prey to the remorseless destroyer. The farmer, however, is not without his consolation on these occasions. The ashes of the herbage form an excellent manure for the ground, and the next crops invariably repay him a portion of his loss. Indeed, so beneficial is the effect, that many of the large proprietors subject their land regularly every four or five years to the process of burning; but the operation is then performed with much caution, wide trenches being first dug around the space within which it is intended that the fire should remain confined.

To the same process likewise are subjected the forests of reeds by which all the rivers of the steppe are fringed; but this is deemed so dangerous, that the law imposes banishment to Siberia as the penalty of the offence. Nevertheless, there are few places where the reeds are not regularly burnt away each returning spring — at which season, during the night, the Dnieper and Dniester appear to be converted into rivers of fire. There are two motives for setting fire to the reeds, and these motives are powerful enough to completely neutralize the dread of Siberia: in the first place, the reeds serve as a cover to multitudes of wolves, which, when driven by fire either into the water or into the open plain, are easily destroyed by their remorseless enemies the shepherds and herdsmen. The second motive is, the hope of obtaining a better supply of young reeds by destroying the old ones. The reeds, it must be borne in mind, are of great value in the steppe, where, in the absence of timber and stones, they form the chief material for building.

The animal is not more varied than the vegetable kingdom; and both, to the naturalist, seem poor, though to the less scientific observer the steppe appears to be teeming with life. Uniformity, in fact, is more or less the distinguishing characteristic of the country, and the same want of variety that marks its outward features prevails throughout every class of its ani-imate and innaimate productions; but though few the species, the masses in which each presents itself are surprising. Eagles, vultures, hawks, and other birds, that are elsewhere rarely seen except singly, make their appearance on the steppe in large flights. The reed-grounds fairly teem with ducks, geese, and pelicans; the grass is alive with swarms of little earth-hares; larks, pigeons, thrushes, rooks, and plovers, are met with everywhere; and even butterflies, and other insects, appear in formidable masses. Among the latter, the locust (of which we shall have more to say by-and-by) plays a very important part. Pew of these animals can be said to be peculiar to the steppe; but, though found in other lands, they are not found there under similar circumstances, and the peculiar character of the country exercises a powerful influence in modifying the habits and instinct of animals.

The traveller has no sooner crossed the Dnieper, at Krementchneg, in the government of Poltava, than he sees a little animal gliding about everywhere through the grass, and even along the high-road. This little animal is called by the Russians, sooslik; by the German colonists, earth-hare; and, by the scientific, Cytillus vulgaris. It is a graceful little creature, and quite peculiar to the steppe, never found in woody regions, and rarely even in the vicinity of a bush. It is particularly fond of the bulbous plants that abound in the steppe, and multiplies astonishingly. In manner and appearance it is something between a marmot and a squirrel, smaller than the former, and differing from the latter in the color of the fur and the shortness of its tail. The soosliks burrow under the ground, and hoard up a stock of food for the winter. Their holes have always two entrances, and it is easy to drive them from their cover by pouring water in at one end, for to water they have so great an aversion, that they are always observed to decrease in numbers in wet seasons, and multiply astonishingly in dry ones. The lively and frolicsome character of the sooslik is a constant source of amusement to a stranger. The little creatures are seen in every direction; sometimes gamboling together in the grass, at others sitting timidly at the doors of their houses, to watch the approach of an enemy. If a man or other strange object draws near, they rise upon their hind legs, like miniature kangaroos, and stretch their little heads up so high, that one might almost fancy they had the power of drawing themselves out like a telescope. Their little furs are used by the women as edgings for their dresses, and entire cloaks and dressing-gowns are often made of them. Of all the quadrupeds of the steppe, the sooslik is by far the most abundant; it affords the chief article of food to the wild dogs, and is a constant object of chase to wolves, foxes, eagles, hawks, and other animals of prey.

The next in importance among the quadrupeds of the steppe is the mouse, which frequents the granaries in immense numbers; so much so, that the farmers will sometimes set fire to a whole rick of grain, for the mere purpose of destroying the mice.

The wolf of the steppe is a smaller animal than the forest-wolf, and distinguishes himself from the wolves of other countries by his subterranean propensities. Natural caverns become elsewhere the refuge of the wolf, but on the steppe he burrows like a rabbit, and it is there by no means an uncommon thing to find a nest of young wolves several fathoms deep in the ground. In the neighborhood of Odessa, and the other large towns, these four-footed sheep-stealers are but seldom met with; but in no part of the world do they abound more than in the woodland districts by which the steppe is skirted, and from these haunts they sally forth in countless numbers, to prowl around the flocks and herds of the open country. Every farmhouse in the steppe is surrounded by fences twelve or fourteen feet high to protect them against the inroads of the wolves, yet these banditti of the plain are incessant in their attacks, and cases are by no means uncommon of their carrying off even infants from the cradle.

The dogs of the steppe are the most vulgar and worthless of all the curs in the world. They are long-haired, long-legged, long-headed, and long-tailed, and have evidently more wolfish than doggish blood in their veins. Their prevailing color is a dirty grayish-brown, and, though little cared for by the southern Russian, their number is incredible, and fully equal to what it can be in any part of the Ottoman empire. Yet the southern Russian never tolerates a dog in his house, nor ever admits him to that familiarity which the race enjoys with us, and to which the cat and the cock are constantly courted by the tenants of the steppe. Still, whether as a protection against the wolf, or whether in consequence of that carelessness which allows the breed to multiply unchecked, every habitation on the steppe is sure to be surrounded by a herd of dogs, that receive neither food nor caresses from the hands of their owners, but must cater for themselves as well as they can. In spring, the season of abundance, when all the cattle and horses of the steppe run wild, the dog likewise wanders forth from the habitation of his master, and the puppies born at that period of the year are not a bit tamer than the wolves themselves, until the samjots of winter drive them back to the farmyards and villages. In summer, the dogs hunt the mice, rats, and soosliks, suck the eggs of birds, and learn even to catch a bird upon the wing, if it venture too near the ground; but in winter they are certain to congregate about the towns and villages, where swarms of shy, hungry, unowned dogs, are seen lurking about in search of any kind of garbage that may be thrown away. Dozens of them may often then be seen gathered about the body of a dead animal, and gnawing away eagerly at its frozen sinews.

In the country, the dogs are a subject of complaint with every one, and with none more than with those who devote some care to the cultivation of their gardens. The dog of the steppe is passionately fond of fruit, and will not only devour the grapes in the vineyards, but will even climb into the trees in search of pears and plums ! The better the dog is fed, the more eager he will be after fruit, which is supposed to cool his blood, after too free an indulgence in animal food.


Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855