Illustrated Description Of Russia

the List of Illustrations


table of contents


The northern winter imprisons the lovely nymph of the Neva in icy bands for five months in the year. It is seldom till after the beginning of April that the water acquires sufficient warmth to burst her prison. The moment is always anxiously expected, and no sooner have the dirty masses of ice advanced sufficiently to display as much of the bright mirror of the river as may suffice to bear a boat from one side to the other, than the glad tidings are announced to the inhabitants by the artillery of the fortress. At that moment, be it day or night, the commandant of the fortress, arrayed in all the insignia of his rank, and accompanied by the officers of his suite, embarks in an elegant gondola, and repairs to the emperor's palace which lies immediately opposite. He fills a large crystal goblet with the water of the Neva, and presents it to the emperor as the first and most precious tribute of returning spring. He informs his master that the force of winter has been broken, that the waters are free again, that an active navigation may now again be looked for, and points to his own gondola, as the first swan that has swum on the river that year. He then presents the goblet to the emperor, who drinks it off to the health of the dear citizens of his capital. There is not probably on the face of the globe another glass of water that brings a better price, for it is customary for the emperor to fill the goblet with ducats before he returns it to the commandant. Such, at least, was the custom ; but the goblet was found to have a sad tendency to enlarge its dimensions, so that the emperor began to perceive that he had every year a larger dose of water to drink, and a greater number of ducats to pay for it. At last he thought it high time to compromise matters with his commandant, who now receives on each occasion a fixed sum of two hundred.ducats. Even this, it must be admitted, is a truly imperial fee for a draught of water, but the compromise is said to have effectually arrested the alarming growth of the goblet!

It is generally between the 6th and the 14th of April (old style), or between the 18th and the 26th, according to the calendar in use in this country, that the Neva throws off her icy covering. The 6th is the most general day. It is usually about the middle of November, and more frequently on the 20th (2d of December new style) than on any other day that the ice is brought to a stand-still. The departure of the ice, on the breaking up of the river in the spring, always forms an exciting spectacle, and crowds are sure to be attracted to the quays by the first gun fired from the citadel. The golden gondola of the commandant is not long alone in its glory, for hundreds of boats are quickly in motion, to re-establish the communication between the different quarters of the city.

All the other harbors of the Baltic are usually free from ice before that of St. Petersburg ; and a number of vessels are almost always awaiting, in the sound, the news that the navigation of the Russian capital has been resumed. The first spring ship that arrives in the Neva is the occasion of great rejoicing, and seldom fails to bring its cargo to an excellent market. It is mostly laden with oranges, millinery, and such articles of taste and vanity as are likely to be most attractive to the frivolous and wealthy, who seldom fail to reward the first comer by purchasing his wares at enormous prices. The first ship is soon followed by multitudes, and the most active life succeeds to a stillness like that of death.

A stranger accustomed to the crowds and bustle of London, Paris, or New York, is struck on his arrival at St. Petersburg by the emptiness of the streets. He finds vast open spaces in which at times he beholds nothing but a solitary drosky, that wends its way along like a boat drifting on the open sea. He sees spacious streets bordered by rows of mute palaces with only here and there a human figure hovering about, like a lurking freebooter among a waste of rocks. The vastness of the plan on which the city has been laid out shows that its founders speculated on a distant future. Rapidly as the population has been increasing, it is still insufficient to fill the frame allotted to it, or to give to the streets that life and movement which we look for in the capital of a great empire. On the occasion, indeed, of great public festivals and rejoicings, and at all times in the Nevskoi Prospekt andabout the Admiralty, the movement is very considerable, but this only tends to leave the throng and bustle of the other quarters of the town far below the average.

The population of St. Petersburg is the most varied and motley that mind can imagine. To begin with the military. We have the Caucasian guards, the Tartar guards, the Finland guards, besides a fourth and fifth division of the guards for the various tribes of Cossacks. Of these nations the elite are thus always retained as hostages in the capital, and their several uniforms are alone sufficient to present an ever-changing; picture to the eye of an observer. Here may be seen a Cossack trotting over one of the Platz Farads with his lance in rest, as though in his imagination he were pursuing a flying enemy. Farther on, perchance a Circassian cavalier, in his shirt-of-mail, and harnessed from head to foot, is going through his warlike exercises. The moslem from the Taurus may be seen gravely moving through the throng; while the well-drilled Russian soldiers defile in long columns through the streets. Of all the endless variety of uniforms that belong to the great Russian army, a few specimens are always to be seen in the capital. There are guards, and hussars, and cuirassiers, and grenadiers, and pioneers, and engineers ; horse-artillery and foot-artillery ; to say nothing of dragoons, lancers, and those military plebeians the troops of the line. All these, in their various uniforms, marching to parade, returning to their barracks, mounting guard, and passing through the other multifarious duties of a garrison-life, are in themselves enough to give life and diversity to the streets.

If, then, we turn to the more pacific part of the population, devoted to the less brilliant but certainly not less useful pursuit of commerce, we find every nation of Europe, and almost every nation of Asia, represented in the streets of St. Petersburg. Spaniards and Italians, English and French, Greeks and Scandinavians, may be seen mingling together; nor will the silken garments of the Persian and the Bokharian be wanting to the picture, nor the dangling tail of the Chinese, nor the pearly teeth of the Arabian.

The inftma plebs bears an outside as motley as the more aristocratic portion of the community. The German bauer (peasant) may be seen lounging among the noisy, bearded Russians ; the slim Pole elbows the diminutive Finlander; and Esthonians, Lettes, and Jews, are running up against each other, while the mussulman studiously avoids all contact with the Jew. Yankee sailors 'and dwarfish Kamtschatdales, Caucasians, Moors, and Mongolians — all sects, races, and colors, contribute to make up the populace of the Russian capital.

Nowhere does the street life of St. Petersburg display itself to better effect than in the Nevskoi Prospekt. This magnificent street intersects all the rings of the city—the suburbs of the poor, the showy regions of commerce, and the sumptuous quarters of the aristocracy. A walk along the whole length of this street is one perhaps as interesting as any that can be made in St. Petersburg. Starting from the extreme end, where a monastery and a cemetery remind you of death and solitude, you first arrive at little low, wooden houses, which lead you to a cattle-market, where around the spirit-shops may be seen swarms of noisy, singing Russian peasants, presenting a picture not unlike what may daily be seen in the villages of the interior. A little farther on, the houses improve in appearance : some are even of stone, and boast of an additional floor; the houses of public entertainment are of a better description, and shops and warehouses are seen similar to those of the small provincial towns. Next follow some markets and magazines for the sale of invalided furniture and superannuated apparel, which, having spent their youth in the service of the central quarters, are consigned in old age to the mercy of the suburbs. The houses, in the old Russian fashion, are painted yellow and red, and every man you meet displays a beard of venerable length, and a yet longer caftan (jacket or roundabout). A little farther on, and you see a few ivoshtshiks (drosky-drivers) who have strayed by chance so far from their more central haunts ; a shaven chin and a swallow-tailed coat may be seen at intervals, and here and there a house assumes something like an air of state-liness and splendor. On arriving at a bend in the street, the huge gilt spire of the Admiralty is descried at a distance, floating apparently over the intervening mist. You cross a bridge, and begin to feel that you are in a mighty city. The mansions rise to three and four stories in height, the inscriptions on the houses become larger and more numerous, carriages-and-four become more frequent, and every now and then the waving plume of a staff-officer dashes by. At length you arrive at the Fontanka canal, cross the Anitshkof bridge, and enter the aristocratic quarter of the capital. From this bridge to the Admiralty is what may be called the fashionable part of the Prospekt; and as you advance, the bustle and the throng become greater and greater. There are carriages-and-four at every step ; generals and princes elbowing through the crowd; sumptuous shops, imperial palaces, and cathedrals and churches of all the various religions and sects of St. Petersburg.

The scene in this portion of the street, at about mid-day, may challenge comparison with any street in the world, and the splendor of the spectacle is enhanced by the magnificence of the decorations. This part of the thoroughfare, though about a mile in length, does not contain more than fifty houses, each of which, it may easily be inferred, must be of colossal magnitude. Most of these buildings are the property of the several churches that border the street—the Dutch, the catholic, the Armenian, and others —that received from Peter the Great large grants of land, of little value probably when first bestowed, but from which, as they are now in the heart of the city, splendid revenues are derived.

The street from the Anitshkof bridge to the Admiralty is the favorite promenade with the beau monde of St. Petersburg. The buildings are magnificent, the equipages roll noiselessly over the wooden pavement of the centre, and the trottoirs (foot-pavements) on each side are broad and commodious. The northern, being the sunny, is the favorite side of the street for the promenaders, and on that side accordingly are the most magnificent shops. The people are civil, and quarrels and disputes are seldom heard. The Slavonian is by nature ductile and tractable; and the lower classes, from their childhood, are taught to behave respectfully toward their more fortunate fellow-men.

The garrison of St. Petersburg seldom amounts to less than sixty thousand men, and constitutes, therefore, about one eighth of the entire population. Neither officer nor private must ever appear in public otherwise than in full uniform, and this may suffice to give some idea of the preponderance of the military over the civil costumes seen in the streets. The wild Circassian, with his silver harness and his coat-of-mail, gayly converses and jests with the more polished Russian officer, while their several kinsmen are busily engaged in cutting each other's throats in the Caucasus. Even in the streets of St. Petersburg, however, it is more safe to avoid collision with these fierce and chivalric mountaineers, who are sudden in quarrel, quick to avenge insult, wear sharp daggers, and always carry loaded firearms about their persons.

It would not be saying too much to affirm that half the inhabitants of St. Petersburg are clad in a uniform of one sort or another; for, in addition to the sixty thousand soldiers, there are civil uniforms for the public officers of every grade—for the police, for the professors of the university, and not only for the teachers, but likewise for the pupils, of the public schools. Nor must the private uniforms be forgotten that are worn by the numerous servants of the noble and wealthy families. Still there remain enough of plain coats to keep up the respectability of the fraternity. The whole body of merchants, the English factory, the German barons from the Baltic provinces, Russian princes and landowners from the interior, foreigners, private teachers, and many others, are well pleased to be exempt from the constraint of buttons and epaulettes. Indeed, so much that is really respectable walks about in simple black and blue, that a plain coat is felt by many to be rather a desirable distinction, although the wearer is obliged on all public occasions to yield the pas to the many-colored coats of the civil and military employes.

The seasons and the variations of the weather bring about many and often very sudden changes in the street-population of St. Petersburg, where the temperature is always capricious and unstable. In winter, every one is cased in furs; in summer, light robes of gauze and silk are seen fluttering in the 'breeze. In the morning the costumes are perhaps all light and airy, and in the evening of the same day none will venture to stir abroad otherwise than in cloaks and mantles. The sun shines, and swarms of dandies and petites mattresses come fluttering through the fashionable thoroughfares : it rains, and the streets are abandoned to the undisputed possession of the "black people.'' One day all snow and sledges, the next all mud and clattering wheels.

Nor is it merely the change of weather that alters the physiognomy of the streets. The various sects that make up the population of the town give often a peculiar character to the day. On Friday, the holyday of the moslems, the turbaned Turk, the black-bearded Persian, and the Tartar, with his shorn head, take their leisure in the streets. On Saturday, the black-silk caftans of the Jews come abroad in great numbers ; and on the Sunday, the Christians of all denominations come forth to their pious exercises or their various diversions. The different sects of the Christians, again, tend to vary the scene. To-day the Lutherans celebrate their yearly day of penance, and German burghers, with their wives and children, and with their neat, black, gilt-edged hymn-books under their arms, sally forth on their pilgrimage to the church; to-morrow the catholics are summoned td some feast or other of the immaculate Virgin, and Poles and Lithuanians, Frenchmen, and Austrians, hurry to their stately temples. The next day are heard the thousand bells of the Greek kolokolniks, and the wives and daughters of the Russian merchants come humming and fluttering about the streets in their gaudy plumages of green, blue, yellow, and red. But the great days are the public holydays, "the emperor's days," as they are called, when all the modes and fashions current, from Paris to Pekin, are certain to be paraded to the public gaze.

It has often been remarked that there are few cities where one sees so many handsome men as in St. Petersburg. This is partly owing to the prevalence of uniforms, which certainly set off the person to advantage, partly also to the fact that all the handsomest men in the provinces are constantly in demand as recruits for the various regiments of the guards. Something must also be attributed to the constant efforts of the Russians to give themselves the most agreeable forms. In no other town are there so few cripples and deformed people ; and this is not owing merely to their being less tolerated here than elsewhere, but also, it is said, to the fact that the Slavonian race is less apt than any other to produce deformed children. On the other hand, at every step you meet men whose exterior you can not but admire, and a moment's reflection must fill you with regret that there should be so few fair eyes to contemplate so many handsome specimens of manhood. St. Petersburg is unfortunately a city of men, the male sex being in a majority of at least a hundred thousand, and the women by no means equally distinguished for their charms. The climate seems to be unfavorable to the development of female beauty; the tender plants quickly fade in so rude an atmosphere, and as they are few in numbers, they are all the more in demand for the ballroom and the soiree, and the more quickly used up by the friction of dissipation. Whether this be the cause, or whether the Russian women are naturally less handsome, comparatively, than the men, certain it is that a fresh, handsome-looking girl is but rarely to be seen at St. Petersburg. The German ladies from the Baltic provinces form the exception; and it is from Finland, Livonia, Esthonia, and Courland, that the gay circles of the capital receive their chief supply of beauty. To this it may be owing that the Russians have so high an opinion of German beauty that they rarely withhold from a Nyemka (German woman) the epithet of krassivaya, or beautiful. The ladies of St. Petersburg, though in such great demand on account of their scarcity, are liable, from the same cause, to many inconveniences. For instance, it is impossible for them to walk in the streets, even in broad daylight, without a male escort.

The best hour for walking on the Prospekt is from twelve till two, when the ladies go shopping, and the men go to look at the fair purchasers. Toward two or three o'clock, the purchases have been made, the parade is over, the merchants are leaving the exchange, the world of promenaders wend their way to the English quay, and the real promenade for the day begins, the imperial family usually mingling with the rest of the loungers. This magnificent quay, constructed, like all the quays of St. Petersburg, of huge blocks of granite, runs along the Neva from the New to the Old Admiralty, and was built during the reign of the empress Catherine II., who caused the canals and rivers of her capital, to the length of not less than twenty-four miles, to be enclosed in granite. As in all water-constructions, the colossal part of the work is not that which meets the eye. The mighty scaffolding, on which the quay rests, stands deeply imbedded in the marshy soil below. Handsome steps, every here and there, lead down to the river; and for carriages large, broad descents have been constructed, and these in winter are usually decorated with all sorts of fanciful columns and other ornaments, cut out of the ice. The houses along the English quay are deservedly called palaces. They were originally, for the most part, built by Englishmen, but are now, nearly all of them, the property of wealthy Russians.

On the English quay may be seen daily the elite of the Russian empire wearing away the granite with their princely feet. The carriages usually stop at the New Admiralty, where their noble owners descend, and honor the quay by walking up and down it some two or three times. There are no shops; and as the English quay is not a convenient thoroughfare, the promenaders are seldom disturbed by the presence of any chance passengers. The emperor and the imperial family are a centre to the groups that come to salute them and to be saluted by them. This forms a kind of connection for the promenaders, and gives a oneness to the assembled company. The emperor walks up and down upon an apparent footing of equality with his subjects around him; though these, in point of fact, stand about in the same relation to him that a child's doll does to the colossus of Rhodes. The Englishman buttons up his hatred of despotism in his great-coat, and scarcely condescends to touch his hat when he meets the "giant of the North;" while to the Russian by his side, a submissive demeanor has by habit become a positive source of enjoyment, till he feels a real affection for those to whom the law gives the right of ordering him about! The master of some vast estate, in the Ural mountains or on the arid steppes, where thousands of souls must labor away for his exclusive profit, walks along the quay with as little pretension as the poor shopman, who can scarcely be said to have a property in his own soul, embodied as it is in the gay garments which he has such evident delight in displaying to an admiring world.

The Russian of the lower orders is anything but an inviting personage, at first sight. The name by which they have been designated, in their own language, time out of mind, describes them precisely. It is tschornoi narod, " the dirty people," or, as we might more freely render it, " the great unwashed." An individual of this class is called a mujik,which is also a general name for peasant or serf. He is usually of middle stature, with small, light eyes, level cheeks, and flat nose, of which the tip is turned up so as to display the somewhat-expanded nostril. His pride and glory is his beard, which he wears as long and shaggy as nature will allow. The back of the head is shaved closely; and, as he wears nothing about his neck, his head stands distinctly away from his body. His ideal of the beauty of the human head, as seen from behind, seems to be to make it resemble, as nearly as may be, a turnip. He is always noisy, and never clean; and when wrapped in his sheepskin mantle, or caftan of blue cloth reaching to his knees, might easily enough be taken for a bandit. As he seldom thinks of changing his inner garments more than once a week, and as his outer raiment lasts half his lifetime, and is never laid aside during the night, and never washed, he constantly affords evidence of his presence anything but agreeable to the organs of smell. But a closer acquaintance will bring to light many traits of character which belie his rude exterior, and will show him to be at bottom a good-natured, merry, friendly fellow. His most striking characteristic is pliability and dexterity. If he does not possess the power of originating, he has a wonderful faculty of copying the ideas of others, and of yielding himself up to carry out the conceptions of any one who wishes to use him for the accomplishment of his ends. There is an old German myth which says that the Teutonic race was framed, in the depths of time, out of the hard, unyielding granite. The original material of the Russian race must have been India rubber, so easily are they compressed into any form, and so readily do they resume their own when the pressure is removed. The raw, untrained mujik is drafted into the army, and in a few weeks attains a precision of movement more like an automaton than a human being. He becomes a trader, and the Jews themselves can not match him in cunning and artifice.

The mujik is a thoroughly good-tempered fellow. Address him kindly, and his face unbends at once, and you will find that he takes a sincere delight in doing you a kindness. In no capital of Europe are the temptations to crimes against the person so numerous as in St. Petersburg, with its broad, lonely streets, unlighted at night, and scantily patrolled; but in no capital are such crimes of so rare occurrence.

But the mujik has two faults : he is a thorough rogue, and a great drunkard! He will cheat and guzzle from sheer love for the practices ; and without the least apparent feeling that there is anything out of the way in so doing. But in his cups he is the same good-natured fellow. The Irishman, or Scotchman, when drunk, is quarrelsome and pugnacious ; the German or the Englishman, stupid and brutal; the Spaniard or the Italian, revengeful and treacherous. The first stages of drunkenness in the mujik are manifested by loquacity. The drunker he is, the more gay and genial does he grow; till at last he is ready to throw himself upon the neck of his worst enemy, and exchange embraces with him. When the last stage has been reached, and he starts for home, he does not reel, but inarches straight on, till some accidental obstruction trips him up into the mire, where he lies unnoticed and unmolested till a policeman takes charge of him. This misadventure is turned to public advantage, for by an old custom every person, male or female, of what grade soever, taken up drunk in the street by the police, is obliged the next day to sweep the streets for a certain number of hours. In early morning rambles through the city, the traveller may very frequently encounter a woful group, thus improving the ways of others, in punishment for having taken too little heed of their own.

Punishment for Drunkenness — Sweeping the Streets

Punishment for Drunkenness — Sweeping the Streets
click to enlarge

Jerrmann thus speaks of a party of females he saw atoning, broom in hand, for their improper nocturnal rambles : "Startling contrasts abound in. St. Petersburg. One morning, before four o'clock, I was driving to the Neva baths, when suddenly, to my astonished eyes, the strangest scene presented itself. I beheld before me an al-fresco ball. A number of elegantly-attired ladies — some with handsome shawls, and feathers in their hats—were performing the strangest sort of dance, which they accompanied with a sort of bowing motion, incessantly repeated. I could recognise no French or German dance in their singular evolutions. Could it be some Russian national dance, thought I. What kind of dance could it be that was thus danced in broad daylight on the public highway, and without male dancers? A few men were certainly there, but merely as lookers-on. I touched the arm of my ivoshtshik, called his attention to the group, and made an interrogative gesture. The explanation he gave me was doubtless very lucid and circumstantial, and would have been highly satisfactory, had it only been intelligible to me. Unable to understand a word he said, I ordered him, by the vigorous articulation of 'Parchol,'to drive up to the strange ball before the weary dancers could seek repose upon the stones at the street-corners. Drawing nearer and nearer, I yet heard no sound of music. At last we reached the Anitshkof palace, and found ourselves close to the scene of this untimely activity. A repulsive and horrible sight met my eyes. A number of young women, apparently still fresh and blooming, with ruddy cheeks—but whether of artificial or natural colors their incessant, monotonous bowing movement prevented my distinguishing—elegantly dressed in silks, jewels, and feathers, were sweeping the Nevskoi Prospekt under the superintendence of policemen. Some of them appeared overwhelmed with shame; others stared at me, at the ivoshtshik and horse, with perfect indifference, and seemed rejoiced at our passage, which suspended for a moment their painful and disgraceful occupation. They were a detachment of nocturnal wanderers, who, when returning too tardily to their homes from pursuing their wretched calling, had fallen into the hands of the patrol, had passed the remainder of the night in the watch-house, and were now atoning, broom in hand, their untimely rambles. I hurried off to the bath, glad to escape from this degrading and deplorable spectacle."

Drunkenness and night-walking, however (we may add, en passant), are not the only misdemeanors thus punished, nor do the lower classes alone expiate their offences by "doing the state some service" in wielding the broom in the streets of Russian cities. Oliphant instances the governor of Sevastapol, whose peculations in the way of bribes and other perquisites were brought to light by a sudden visit of the emperor. No dilatory trial procrastinated the day of his condemnation. The emperor had scarcely terminated his flying visit, and the smoke of the steamer by which he returned to Odessa still hung upon the horizon, when the general commanding became the convict sweeping. In a significant white costume, he was prominently displayed with the rest of the gang upon the streets he had a fortnight before rolled proudly through, with all the pomp and circumstance befitting his high station !

In vino Veritas may perhaps be true of the juice of the grape; but it is not so of the bad "brandy which is the favorite drink of the mujik. He is never too drunk to be a rogue, but yet you do not look upon his roguery as you do upon that of any other people. He never professes to be honest, and does not see any reason why he should be so. He seems so utterly unconscious of anything reprehensible in roguery, that you unconsciously give him the benefit of his ignorance. If he victimizes you, you look upon him as upon a clever professor of legerdemain, who has cheated you in spite of your senses ; but you hardly hold him morally responsible. Upon the whole, though you can not respect the mujik, you can hardly avoid having a sort of liking for him.

Notwithstanding the general characteristic of laxity of principle, instances are by no means wanting of the most scrupulous and even romantic fidelity on the part of the Russians of the lower orders. It would be an interesting subject of investigation how far this patent trait of national character is to be attributed to inherent constitutional defects in the race, and how far to the state of serfdom in which they have existed from generation' to generation; but the investigation does not fall within the scope of this volume.

Our friends in the greasy sheepskins or woollen caftans have strong religious tendencies, though they may smack a little too much of those of the light-fingered Smyrniote who was detected purchasing candles to light before his patron-saint, with the first-fruits of the purse of which he had not ten minutes before relieved a gentleman's pocket! In all places where men congregate there are pictures of saints before which the mujik crosses himself on every occasion. In an inn or restaurant each visiter turns to the picture and crosses himself before he sits down to eat. If a mujik enters your room, he crosses himself before saluting you. Every church is saluted with a sign of the cross. At frequent intervals in the streets little shrines are found, before which everybody stops and makes the sacred sign, with bared head. The merchant in the gostinoi dvor or bazar, every now and then walks up to his bog or saint, and with a devout inclination prays for success in trade.

Nevskoi Prospekt, St. Petersburg — (second view)

Nevskoi Prospekt, St. Petersburg — (second view)

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