Illustrated Description Of Russia

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The governments we have for convenience grouped in this chapter, under the general designation of Eastern Russia, are those covering principally the territory of the ancient Tartar kingdoms of Astrakhan and Kazan. They are generally known, and are classed in the table on page 42, under those more distinctive names. By a ukase of December 18, 1850, a new government was formed in Eastern Russia on the left bank of the Volga, and named Samara, consisting of three districts of the government of Orenburg, two districts of Saratov, and the districts of Samara and Stavropol in Simbirsk. As we have not the means of giving its boundaries, or of ascertaining the proportions of its area and population contributed by each of the above governments, its lines are of course not marked on the map, and its description is included in that of those governments.

The government of Astrakhan lies on the northwest coast of the Caspian sea, between the forty-fourth and fiftieth degrees of north latitude and the forty-third and fifty-first degrees of east longitude, having the Malaia Ouzen for its northeastern and the Manytch for its southwestern boundary. It is divided into two nearly equal parts by the Volga, which traverses it from northwest to southeast. Its coast-line, including minute sinuosities, is about five hundred and twenty miles in length, and is crowded through out its whole extent with small islands, rocks, and shifting sandbanks. The entire length of the province is three hundred and seventy miles, and its greatest breadth two hundred and fifty miles, containing an area of about forty-three thousand square miles.

City of Astrakhan

City of Astrakhan
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This government consists almost wholly of two vast steppes or plains, separated from each other by the Volga, the greater portions of which are an arid, sterile desert—forming, in fact, a portion of the steppes described in the last chapter. The largest tracts of this description are the deserts of Naryn and Sedok: the former, in which occur hills of moving sand, is situated on the northeast side of the Volga; the other on the southwest. The whole of Astrakhan was at one period submerged by the Caspian, as is evident from the saline nature of the soil, and the shells it contains; and as both are upward of eighty feet below the level of the sea of Azov, should any convulsion of nature cause a depression of the intervening land, Astrakhan would again be overwhelmed by the ocean!

The soil consists generally of mud, salt, and sand, intermixed, and in some parts of extensive salt marshes, rendering it almost wholly one wide and sterile waste, destitute of wood; the few trees it has to boast of being met with on the banks of its rivers only. These are oaks, poplarsj birches, and some mulberry-trees, the latter of which are found in greatest numbers along the Aktuba. Notwithstanding the general sterility of the country, a few fertile tracts are met with on the skirts and delta of the Volga, including some excellent pastures. Here grain is grown, but not in sufficient quantity to maintain the population, with some fruits, herbs, vines, tobacco, and cotton.

Salt lakes and ponds are numerous throughout the province; the largest of the former, Baskutchatsk, is situated to the east of the Volga, and is about twelve miles in length and five in breadth. When evaporated in summer, these lakes and pools leave thick crusts of culinary, and, in some cases, Epsom salt. In this district, low hills of gypsum and rock-salt also occur; the former vary in size and elevation, the highest rising about sixty feet above the level of the steppe: they are mostly of semicircular form, and many of them are crater-shaped at the top. The salt-hills rise to about the same height, and contain gem-salt, above which is sandstone, and over that the common yellow sand of the steppe. The salt is colorless, firm, and contains clear and perfectly transparent cubes.

The principal rivers of Astrakhan are the Volga (a description of which, with a map of its several mouths, is given on a previous page), the Aktuba, which runs parallel to it at the distance of two or three miles, and the Sarpa. The Kouma, which once formed a part of the southern boundary of the province, and represented on the maps as falling into the Caspian, does not now reach that sea, being absorbed by the sands some sixty miles inland. The climate is extremely hot in summer, and equally cold in winter ; and is unhealthy to all but natives, from the quantity of saline particles with which the atmosphere is impregnated.

Pasturage and fishing constitute the chief occupation of the inhabitants: the former of the rural and nomadic tribes ; the latter of the population on the coast and banks of the Volga. The live stock consists principally of sheep of the Calmuck or broad-tailed breed. Cattle and goats are also reared, the latter chiefly for their skins, from which Morocco-leather is made. The breeding of horses. likewise obtains some attention, but they are diminutive and ill-conditioned. Some of the nomadic tribes have also large herds of Bactrian camels.

The fisheries of the Volga are of great value, no stream in the world being more abundantly stocked with fish, particularly between the city of Astrakhan and the Caspian, a distance of about twenty-five or thirty miles. On this ground, an immense number of vessels and boats, and many thousand persons, are employed in spring, autumn, and winter, in taking fish, chiefly sturgeon, from the roes and bladders of which large quantities of isinglass and caviar are manufactured.

The population of Astrakhan is composed of a great variety of races, including Russians, Cossacks, Tartars, Calmucks, Armenians, Persians, Hindus, &c. The most numerous are the Calmucks, who occupy large tracts of country to the east of the Volga. Of all the inhabitants of the Russian empire, the Calmucks are the most distinguished by peculiarity of features and manners. They are, in general, raw-boned and stout. Their faces are so flat, that the skull of a Calmuck may be easily known from others. They have thick lips, a small nose, and a short chin, with a complexion of a sallow brown. Their clothing is oriental, and their heads are almost exactly like those of the Chinese. Some of the women wear a large golden ring in their nostrils. Their principal food consists of animals, tame and wild; and even their chiefs will feed upon cattle that have died of distemper or age, though the flesh may be putrid: so that in every horde the flesh-market has the appearance of a lay-stall of carrion! They eat likewise the roots and plants of their deserts. They eat freely, but can abstain from food for a long time. Both sexes smoke continually. During the summer they remain in the northern and in the winter in the southern deserts. They sleep upon felt, or carpeting, and cover themselves with the same.

The Calmucks are a branch of the Mogul or Mongol nation, which originally inhabited the country to the north of China. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, the Torgot and Derbet divisions of this tribe descended to the banks of the Volga, extending their wanderings over the country of the Don Cossacks to the shores of the sea of Azov. About this time Ayuka Khan ruled over the whole nation. Shortly after his death, and while weakened by internal dissensions, the Calmucks fell an easy prey to the designs of the Russian government, and remained subject to the imperial sceptre, until, in the winter of 1770-1771, offended by the despotic measures of the empress Catherine II., half a million of the tribe wandered rather farther than usual, and ended by pitching their tents in the dominions of " his celestial majesty" the emperor of China—a warning to despotic governments not to trouble their nomadic subjects with the arrangements of the " home department."


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It was, indeed, as remarkable an emigration as the revenge that prompted it was signal; and we are irresistibly reminded by it of the only parallel instance which history records, of those wanderings in the desert of Sinai, undertaken under somewhat similar circumstances; and if the sojourning, in the wilderness was of much longer duration in the one case, the distance travelled in the other was immeasurably greater. Unfortunately, a large portion of the Calmucks were left behind, having been prevented by an unusually late winter from crossing the Volga. Those who reached China, after a journey of eight months, were most cordially welcomed by the emperor, who allotted for their, occupation the Ily country in the province of Soongaria, and granted them many privileges, in consideration of their voluntary submission to his rule.

To judge from the condition of the Calmucks who remained behind, their brethren in China probably made an exchange for the better; and doubtless those who were left suffered for the independent conduct of this portion of the tribe. They are in a great measure confined to the province of Astrakhan, and those who are immediately subject to the crown pay a tax amounting to seventy-five roubles a family. There is a committee for the administration of Calmuck affairs at Astrakhan, the president and some of the members of which are Russians.

Besides those who are under the dominion of the crown, there are several divisions of the tribe, each governed by separate princes. One of the most celebrated of these has built a palace on the banks of the Volga, not far from Astrakhan. This appears to be the nearest approach to a settled habitation that any of these restless beings have attained to; and so great is their dread of a more composed life and industrious habits, that, when they are angry with a person, they wish " he may live in one place, and work like a Russian!" Their principal animal food is horseflesh, together with koumiss, or churned mare's milk, from which a kind of spirit is distilled. Camels are the indispensable attendants of their wanderings. They pay the greatest respect and veneration to their llamas, or priests, who, like their Russiun neighbors, take every advantage of the supposed character for sanctity with which they are invested, to impose upon a barbarous and superstitious people; and there are now engrafted on their original Buddhistic faith a number of mystic rites and ceremonies, which are by no means orthodox additions. Their priesthood is in a measure subordinate to the Grand Llama of Thibet.

The Calmucks and Nogai's are the only nomade tribes which inhabit the country to the west of the Volga. They share, to some extent, the steppes to the eastward of that river with the Kirghiz, who profess Mohammedanism, and, though a smaller tribe, occupy the territory allotted to them upon more independent conditions than do the Calmucks.

The city of Astrakhan, the capital of the government of that name, is situated on an elevated island in the Volga, about thirty miles from its embouchure in the Caspian sea. It is irregularly built, having crooked streets, which are mostly unpaved and dirty, being covered with mud in winter and with sand in summer. Some of the houses are of brick or sandstone, but by far the greater number are of wood. There are in all about one hundred and fifty streets, fifty squares or public areas, eight market-places, eleven wooden and nine earthen bridges.

In the upper part of the town stands the cathedral, from the towers of which, says Dr. Gebel, " a fine view of the city is obtained, with its broad streets and canals bordered by trees, the haven covered with ships, and of the broad, majestic Volga, with its beautiful green islands.'' The cathedral is in the form of a parallelogram, with four small''gilt, and painted cupolas on the roof, and a large one in the centre for the admission of light. Its walls inside are hung with coarsely-painted pictures, set in costly frames, mostly of silver filagrane-work. There are, besides, some thirty stone and three wooden churches, and fifteen mosques ; many of the former are richly ornamented and gaudily furnished. The other public buildings of note are the archiepiscopal palace, the government-offices, and the three factory-halls for the Russian, Asiatic, and Hindu dealers, or merchants. An interesting architectural antiquity is a small disused Moresco church, in the fort of Peter the Great, said to have been built by order of Ivan IV.

Astrakhan is the seat of a Greek and Armenian eparchy, and also of Greek and Armenian archbishoprics. It contains a high court of civil and criminal jurisdiction; likewise a Greek theological seminary, a botanic garden, a gymnasium, and upward of twenty superior and ordinary schools, with about one thousand scholars of all ranks. The manufactures are inconsiderable, not giving employment to more than two or three hundred work-people; they comprise silks, cottons, woollens, shagreen-skins, Morocco-leather, and soap. The fisheries form the staple trade of the city, immense quantities of fish, caviar, and isinglass, being exported to foreign countries. In the fishing-seasons, from twenty to thirty thousand persons connected with the fisheries resort to the city.

The haven of Astrakhan is now so sanded up as to leave only about six feet depth of water; so that large vessels have to land their cargoes on an island nearer the Caspian. A few steam tug-boats are employed in taking vessels up and down the river. In 1846, three iron steamers were started, to ply between Astrakhan and the other ports of the Caspian. Previous to that period, there was but one steamer on the Volga, and it was of only forty-horse power.

Astrakhan from the Sea

Astrakhan from the Sea
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Fresh water being scarce in the city, some attempts were lately made to obtain an increased supply by means of Artesian wells, but none was found at a depth of four hundred feet. From some of the borings, however, there issued streams of carbonic hydrogen gas, which readily burnt with a clear flame. The population, as in the case of the province generally, consists of various races ; but most of the trade of the place is in the hands of the Tartars and Armenians, the latter of whom are also the chief cultivators of the land in the vicinity. The city was once fortified in the oriental manner; and many vestiges of Tartar residence are met with in the neighborhood, including numerous graves, the stones of which have been taken by the inhabitants to form ovens. Several of the old embattled towers, and portions of dilapidated walls, still remain. In summer, when the thermometer seldom falls below ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime, the air is filled with gnats and other small insects, which are a source of much annoyance. The resident population of Astrakhan is about fifty thousand.

Saratov is an extensive government lying between the forty-eighth and fifty-third degrees of north latitude, and the forty-second and fifty-first degrees of east longitude; having the governments of Penza and Simbirsk on the north, that of Orenburg on the east, of Astrakhan on the south and southeast, and Tambov, Yoronej, and the country of the Don Cossacks, on the west. Its length and greatest breadth are about three hundred and fifty miles each, and it comprises an area of about seventy-three thousand square miles.

The Volga intersects this province from north to south, dividing it into two portions of nearly equal size, but differing considerably in general character. The eastern division is a wide steppe, destitute of wood, and covered in many parts with salt-lakes, from one of which about two hundred thousand tons of salt are said to be annually obtained. The western division is in part hilly, and, though stony toward the south, has some tolerably fertile tracts in the north, where agriculture is the chief occupation of the inhabitants. Rye, wheat, oats, millet, and peas, are raised, and in ordinary years the produce, after supplying the demand for home consumption, leaves a considerable quantity for exportation. Potatoes, flax, and hemp, are also produced; and the cultivation of tobacco, hops, and wood, has been introduced by German and other colonists. The climate, in some situations, is sufficiently mild for the culture of the melon, grape, and mulberry. The principal forest-trees are oaks, poplars, Siberian acacias, and firs. The woods are mostly in the northwest, and those belonging to the crown are estimated at about eighteen hundred square miles; but the supply of timber is not adequate to the home demand.

The rearing of live stock is conducted on a large scale in Saratov; and the more wealthy proprietors are endeavoring to improve the breed of sheep by the introduction of merino flocks. In addition to the common breeds, Oliphant mentions having seen, near the city of Volsk,in this province, " an immense herd of sheep, which seemed, from their conformation in certain quarters, to have been created expressly for the purpose of being melted into tallow, as their wool—of a very inferior description—was of little value. What added to the grotesqueness of their appearance, was their perfect innocence of anything like tails ! Nature seemed to have compromised this absence with a fleecy 'bustle,' which sat upon them in the most ridiculous and undignified manner. However, to these bustles does Volsk owe its prosperity ; large herds of sheep, graced by this peculiarity, being driven up annually from the steppes of the Caspian to the towns on the Volga. The consignee of the flock we were then contemplating was said to be the richest merchant on the river—the countless millions of roubles which he was reputed to possess throwing Rothschild far into the shade!"

The rearing of bees and of silkworms is on the increase in this government. The fisheries in the Volga furnish large supplies of fish, especially sturgeon, for both home consumption and exportation. Next to salt, millstones and a little iron are the chief mineral products.

Sheep from the Steppes of the Caspian

Sheep from the Steppes of the Caspian
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The population of Saratov is very mixed, including Tartars and Kirghiz, and on the Volga are numerous colonies, founded principally by German and other immigrants from western Europe — originally attracted thither by grants of land and privileges conferred by the empress Catherine II., in 1763. The colonists are free, and in most respects subject only to their own jurisdiction. They conduct the most important manufactures of the government, which consist of linen, cotton, and woollen fabrics, hosiery, iron-ware, leather, and earthenware. There are numerous flour-mills and distilleries.

This government is favorably situated for commerce: it communicates, by the Volga, with Nijnei-Novgorod and the Caspian sea; and, by the Meavieditsa and Don, with the sea of Azov. The Tartars have a large trade in sheepskins, and the Calmucks in horses of a very fleet though weak breed. About five thousand merchants, trading in grain, salt, fish, caviar, cattle, tallow, tobacco, and fruits, had a few years since an aggregate capital of about twelve millions of roubles. The imperial government derives a greater revenue from this province, in proportion to its population, than from any other in the empire. It is divided into ten districts. The population are mostly of the Greek, protestant, and Mohammedan religions. Education, except in the schools of the colonists, and of the capital town, is at a very low ebb. A recent traveller states that drunkenness is very common among all ranks of the inhabitants, and that the lower classes in the towns on the Volga are more generally degraded and immoral than the people of any other quarter of the globe which he has visited.

Saratov, the capital of this government, and called by the Russians the " Queen of the Volga," is situated on the right bank of that river, three hundred and thirty-five miles south-southeast of Nijnei-Novgorod, and three hundred and sixty north-northwest of Astrakhan. The population (including military), according to the official accounts, exceeds forty thousand. It consists of an upper and lower town; but, though founded so late as 1665, it is neither regularly laid out nor well built. It has some good and even handsome stone residences; but most of its houses are of wood, and it has frequently been in great part destroyed by fire. There are about a dozen Greco-Russian churches, some convents, a protestant and a Roman catholic church, a mosque, and a gostinoi dvor,or bazar, a large stone building for the warehousing, exhibition, and sale of merchandise. Since 1833, a new and handsome archbishop's palace has been constructed; and there are several hospitals, a gymnasium, and an ecclesiastical seminary, established in 1828, and having about five hundred students. The inhabitants manufacture cotton fabrics, cotton and silk stockings, clocks and watches, leather, wax-candles, tallow, vinegar, beer, &c.

Owing to its intermediate situation between Astrakhan on one hand, andMoscow and Nijnei-Novgorod on others, Saratov has an extensive trade, its exports being principally grain, salt fish, hides, cattle, and native manufactured goods; and its imports, tea, coffee, sugar, iron, glass and earth-enware, woollen, silk, and cotton stuffs, peltry, &c. It has three large annual fairs. The other important towns of the province are Tzaritzin, Volsk, Alexandrov, Kamychin, Petrovsk, Atkarsk, &c.

The government of Orenburg lies mostly in Europe, but partly in Asia. It is situated chiefly between the forty-seventh and fifty-seventh degrees of north latitude, and the forty-eighth and sixtieth degrees of east longitude. It is bounded on the north by the government of Perm; on the northwest by Viatka; on the west by Kazan, Simbirsk, and Saratov; on the southwest by Astrakhan; on the south by the Caspian sea; on the southeast and east by the steppes of the Kirghiz ; and on the northeast by Tobolsk. Its greatest length from northwest to southeast is eight hundred miles, and its breadth about four hundred and fifty, containing an area of about one hundred and twenty-eight thousand square miles.

The surface of this province is greatly diversified, consisting partly of lofty mountain-ranges, partly of elevated plateaux or table-lands, and partly of low and marshy plains. The principal mountain-chain is that of the Ural, which, entering the government in the north, traverses it in a southern but somewhat circuitous direction, and divides it into two unequal portions. The eastern portion, by far the smaller of the two, belongs wholly to the basin of the Arctic ocean. Its principal rivers are the Tobol, Abuga, Oufa, and Mijas. It contains numerous lakes — all, however, of small dimensions; and is extensively occupied by swamps and morasses. The western portion belongs to the basin of the Caspian, which receives its waters partly through the Biela, Samara, and other tributaries of the Volga, but to a much larger extent directly by the Ural, and its tributaries Or, Sakmara, Ilek, &c.

A considerably part of the government is densely wooded, but a still larger part is occupied by immense steppes, on which trees are rare; and natural pastures are roamed over by vast herds of cattle and sheep. The best agricultural districts are on the northwest, where the surface is composed of hill and valley; and the soil consists generally of a black, fertile loam, capable of raising all kinds of grain, and actually raising it in such abundance, notwithstanding the very imperfect culture it receives, that a considerable export into the neighboring governments takes place.

The minerals are extremely valuable, and furnish a large source of revenue to the state. They include the precious metals, particularly gold, which abounds along the chain of the Urals; and in the plains on either side of it, but especially on the east, copper, iron, and salt. The working of these, and the different operations connected with them, employ a great number of hands; but manufactures, properly so called, have made little progress, though many home-made articles are very beautiful, especially light worsted shawls, and other fabrics made by the females, similar to those wrought in the Orkney and Shetland islands of Scotland. The trade, however, particularly with the nomadic and other tribes, is very extensive.

The principal articles are grain, horses, cattle, sheep, hides, furs, honey, wax, metals, salt, tallow, and fish.

Orenburg, the principal town of this government, is situated on a slope above the right bank of the Ural. It is fortified, and has spacious and regular though miserably-paved streets. The houses, though only a few are of stone, and the far greater number are of wood, are of a lively, pleasing appearance. It has a protestant, a Roman catholic, and eight Greek churches, all built of stone; two mosques, governor's house, and public offices ; an exchange, a merchant-house, and a customhouse ; a Bashkir caravansary, a handsome building, with two turrets, where the business connected with the Bashkirs is managed, but no trade is carried on; an agricultural school, and the district and military schools, &c.

The manufactures of Orenburg consist chiefly of woollen cloth (part of it army-clothing), leather, and soap; and there are very extensive establishments for smelting tallow. The trade with the Kirghiz, and other inhabitants of the interior, is very extensive. It is not, however, carried on within the town, but about two miles from it, to the east of the left bank of the Ural, where the caravans from Bokhara and Khiva stop; and a caravansary, usually called the tauschhof (exchange court), or menovoi-dvor, has been erected, the whole being protected by a camp of Cossacks. In the vicinity of the tauschhof are the immense s'melting-houses referred to above, in which, in the course of a summer, the tallow of more than fifty thousand sheep is melted down. The population of Orenburg is about fourteen thousand.

Perm (with the governments yet to be described in this chapter, comprising the Kazan provinces) lies between the fifty-sixth and sixty-second degrees of north latitude, and the fifty-third and sixty-third degrees of east longitude; and is bounded on the northwest and north by Vologda and Tobolsk, on the east by Tobolsk, on the south by Orenburg, and on the west by Viatka. Its greatest length from northwest to southeast is five hundred and twenty miles, and its breadth about four hundred, containing an area of one hundred and twenty-seven thousand square miles.

This government, being traversed from north to south by the Ural chain, is divided into two unequal portions, a western and an eastern—the former, of course, in Europe, and the latter in Asia. The Asiatic portion, the lesser of the two, belongs to the basin of the Arctic ocean, which receives its waters through tributaries of the Obi. Of these, the most important are the Sosna, Lobva, Tura, Neiva, Irbit, Pishma, and Iset. In the south it contains several lakes, of which the largest is the Majan.

The European portion belongs to the basin of the Caspian, with the exception of a small portion in the northwest, drained by the Petchora, and of course belonging, like the eastern portion, to the basin of the Arctic ocean. By far the most important river in the European portion is the Kama, which, entering the government on the northwest, proceeds through it in a very circuitous direction, receiving numerous tributaries on either bank: of these, the largest are the Vishera, Kosa, Kosva, Obva, and Tchysovaia, with its affluent the Silva.

Prom the principal Ural chain, the surface descends in a succession of parallel terraces. On the loftiest summits snow and ice continue for nine months in the year, and hence the climate, naturally rigorous, from its high latitude and inland position, has its rigor greatly increased. Beyond the sixtieth degree, regular culture becomes impossible, and the far greater part of the surface is occupied with forests and marshes. Extensive forests also stretch far into the south, and the soil being generally not very fertile, large tracts remain uncleared.

The government is rich in minerals, and possesses extensive auriferous tracts, on which vast numbers of the inhabitants are employed in collecting gold, and there are also apparently inexhaustible beds of both iron and salt. The immense quantities of fuel required in order to work these extensively, and to advantage, give a great adventitious value to the timber of the forest, and make the surface covered by it of far greater value than it could be in any other form. Game, both large and small, is common in the forests, and many of the inhabitants gain a livelihood by hunting; fish, including both sturgeon and salmon, abound in the rivers.

With the exception of several branches of industry immediately connected with the mines, there are few manufactures. The chief are soap, leather, tallow-candles, potash, and glass. The trade derives great facilities from the Kama and other navigable streams, and has acquired some importance. The principal articles are metals, marble, wood, salt, fur, tallow, and tar.

Nearly three fourths of the inhabitants are Russians, and belong to the Greek church; the rest consist of Tartars, Tcheremisses, Bashkirs, &c.; and though many of them have nominally embraced Christianity, not a few are Mohammedans, and among others different forms of paganism are said to prevail. The governments of Perm and Kazan are under one military governor. Some exertions have been made to extend education, but the number of scholars to the population is only one in nearly three hundred. For administrative purposes, Perm is divided into twelve circles.

The city of Perm, and the capital of this government, is situated on the right bank of the Kama, below the confluence of the Tchysovaia,nine hundred and fifty miles east by south of St. Petersburg. It is built with considerable regularity, in straight and spacious streets, and is the seat of an archbishopric. It has two churches; several other public edifices, surmounted by spires ; a gymnasium, theological seminary, a civil and a military hospital ; extensive copper and iron smelting and refining works, which give employment to the greater part of the population; and a considerable trade with the inland districts. The inhabitants number about ten thousand.


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