Illustrated Description Of Russia

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The festival particularly distinguished in the Russian Greek church — so much so, indeed, both in reference to the time it lasts, and the pomp of its celebration, that all other holy days sink to nothing before it— is that of Easter. As spring commonly sends many fine days as forerunners to announce its approach, so the Easter festival—"the festival," as the Russians term it—is preceded by a whole series of smaller festivities, and succeeded again by a kind of epilogue ; and these holy days, taken all together, stretch over no inconsiderable portion of the year—over two months. If we reflect that a Russian spends a sixth part of his life in keeping Easter, and that all the joys, sorrows, privations, business, work, and play, of the whole Russian people, during so considerable a portion of time, are determined by the festive occasion, it must be worth while to take a nearer view of a festival of so important a character, and so wide an influence; and in doing so the range of our lorgnette will be confined mostly to St. Petersburg.

The Easter festival itself begins in the middle of the night of the Saturday in Passion-week, and its joys are loud and incessant through the eight following days. This centre of festivity is preceded by a seven weeks' fast as a preparation for the feast, and before the seven weeks' fast comes an eight days' feast as a preparation for the fast. All these spring merrymakings may be thus divided into three consecutive celebrations.

Firstly, eight days drinking and carousing, called by the Russians Masslanitza (butter-week). Secondly, seven weeks' fast, called, to distinguish it from the other fasts, Velikoi posd (the great fast). And, thirdly, Easter itself, and its attendant train.

In the great world of St. Petersburg, the approach of the great fast is announced by the balls and other carnival revels coming fast and furious, even as early as the beginning of February. For the mass of the people, the sports and pastimes with which they take leave of roast meat and other pleasures are all pressed into one week—the " butter-week," as it is called —which falls generally in the middle, or toward the end of February.

The butter-week contains the quintessence of all Russian festivity, and, except the Easter-week, there is no week in the whole year which offers to a St. Petersburger such an abundance of earthly enjoyments as this.

Firstly, as its name implies, the week is one of butter; butter is eaten instead of oil, which must be substituted during the fast-days. The Masslanitza may be literally said to be redolent of butter. The favorite dish of this season is composed of blinni—a kind of pancake baked in butter— served up with a sauce of melted butter, and eaten with caviare. The blinni belong peculiarly to the butter-week, and are baked at no other time of the year; but at this season they are served up punctually at every breakfast.

After a butter-week breakfast of blinni, nothing is more agreeable than a walk to the " katsheli" or swings, the usual amusement enjoyed between breakfast and dinner during the butter-week. It is the only one in which all classes of society partake in common, from the head of all, the enthroned summit of their Babylonian tower, down to the lowest and dirtiest of its base.

The Russians delight as much in all motion where the limbs are at rest, and the body changes place by means of a machine, as they eschew all corporeal exercise, which keeps the muscles in play. Hence their pleasure in the Russian mountains, as they are called; in swings, sledge-driving, see-sawing on elastic planks, whirling through the air on roundabouts, &c. These are amusements in which a Russian's delight is part of his very nature, and they are enjoyed alike by prince and peasant. The fibres of the muscular system of the Russian are sluggish and unelastic; gymnastic exercises are nowhere more neglected. Their blood is voluptuous, their nervous system excitable; hence this swinging and gliding, this flying and floating without any effort on their own part, is peculiarly to their taste.

Their inventions of this kind are innumerable; but the chief and crown of all Russian pleasures for the people is that expressed by the favorite word katsheli (swing), which includes all similar pastimes.

For the erection of the katsheli of the butter-week they choose a large and particularly long piece of ground, which is never wanting in the extensive Russian towns. In St. Petersburg, the icy floor of the Neva was formerly in use; but since the accident of some years ago, when the ice gave way under the pressure and swallowed up a multitude of the swingers, the Admiralty-square has been the chosen spot.

Long trains of sledges, laden with beams and planks, are seen moving for days before in that direction, and soon, under the strokes of the ready Russian hatchet, theatres and other wooden buildings, which recall the palaces of St. Petersburg a hundred and forty years ago, are reared amid the splendid edifices of the Admiralty, the war-office, the senate and synod houses, &c. These booths are erected in long rows: among them are theatres capable of holding some thousands; and these ephemeral buildings, aping the magnificence of stone buildings, are decorated with galleries, pillars, balconies, &c. At these theatres may be seen hundreds busily at work, and swarming like so many ants, with their hammers, saws, and hatchets—affording no uninteresting spectacle in themselves, even before the stage has been prepared for the show.

The most striking of these preparations are the ice-mountains, which form the subject of the frontispiece to this volume, and the method of their construction. A narrow scaffold is raised to the height of thirty or more feet, on the top of which is a gallery, ascended on one side by wooden steps; on the other is the great descent, very steep "at first, and gradually declining till it becomes level with the ground. It is formed of huge square blocks of ice laid upon planks. Under a few strokes of the hatchet the beautiful crystal masses assume a regular form, and over the whole water is thrown, from time to time, which cements, or rather ices the blocks together. Where it is level with the ground, dams of snow are formed on. either side, and the gulley between filled with water, which, freezing smooth as glass, lengthens the slide. Two such ice-mountains stand always opposite one another, so that their paths, only separated by the snow-dams, run parallel to each other.

Ice-Mountains at St. Petersburg during Easter

Ice-Mountains at St. Petersburg during Easter
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The invention of these ice-mountains has been credited to the English. They may have improved the mechanical part, but the amusement itself is an ancient and a national one, and is practised all over Russia. In the courtyards of most of the great houses in St. Petersburg there are such ice-mountains erected for the amusement of the children; and even in the halls of some of the wealthier Russians, elegant "rutschbergs" are to be found, with this difference, that the slide is made, not of ice, but of polished mahogany, or of some other smooth wood, down which the little sledges glide with great rapidity. These are peculiarly adapted to summer use when ice-hills can not be formed. There is a mahogany rutschberg even in the imperial palace. In every town and village these slippery declivities are crowded with youths and maidens rushing down with the swiftness of arrows. The sledges are made of ice, dexterously shaped into ships. In the hollow they lay straw to sit upon, and in front a hole is bored for a rope. In the climate of Russia these sledges are lasting enough. Kohl remarks: " I saw one morning, in St. Petersburg, a striking instance of how much these ice-mountains form a national amusement. I was by chance very early in a distant quarter of the city, and observed, mounted on the roof of a small building, a number of people, servants, women, and children, whose slippers and floating hair betrayed that they had not long left their beds. They seemed busy about something, and I concluded there must be a chimney on fire, or something of that kind. No such thing; they had formed a snow-mountain from the roof to the ground, and in a few minutes down went the whole company, shouting for joy, on a straw mat, which did duty pro tempore for a sledge."

When all the booths, mountains, and swings, in the Admiralty-square are firmly fixed (that is, for the temperature of St. Petersburg, the greater part of the pillars having no other foundation than a hole in the earth filled with snow and water, which holds them as firm as a rock, unless the St. Petersburg February belies its nature), the fun begins on the first Sunday of the butter-week, and then the gliding and sliding, swinging and singing, whirling and twirling, tea-drinking and nut-cracking, that make up the Masslanitza go merrily on for the eight stated days. In a few days the snowy floor of the Admiralty-square is regularly paved with nut-shells, and looks as if a whole army of nut-crackers had encamped there. Nuts, sweetmeats, and honey-cakes, are the only eatables to be had. Eating-houses, wine and brandy-shops, are not allowed on the elegant square of the Admiralty, as they, might give rise to indecorous scenes. A honey-cake may be eaten with grace, and so may a bonbon presented bya lover to his mistress: even a nut may be tolerated if nibbled at squirrel-fashion, and not demolished by an uncivil crash and a grimace. Cakes and tea may be nipped and sipped in public, but hunger and thirst let every animal satisfy in his own lair.

The Russian street-merchants offer everything to everybody. Either very elegant people must buy very inelegant wares, or the sellers must be so persuaded of their excellence, or so bewitched by the vision of a few possible copecks, that they do not perceive how little chance they have of finding customers in such a class.

In the front of the booths and theatres, swarming with the tea-drinking, nut-cracking pedestrians, there is always a broad space reserved for the equipages of the grandees, who make their appearance about noon, to see the fair. A universal driving in carriages takes place regularly in the butter-week at the katsheli, the Easter-week, and on the first of May, throughout Russia. On their estates, the wealthy Russians and their guests enjoy these gulanies in the evening; everything that can be called horse or vehicle is put in requisition ; droskies, kaleshes, chaises, landaus, hunting and provision-carts, are mounted by the whole domestic population, and away they go coaching it through the country. The enormous number of equipages in a Russian city, where, from a tailor of any eminence upward, everybody keeps one, renders these gulanies very amusing. The luxury in this respect is greater, in fact, in some provincial cities than in the two capitals; as in the former there is no prohibition of four or six horses for certain ranks, and every one is at liberty to make his team as long as he likes, or as he can.

The merchants are known by their brightly-furbished kaleshes, drawn by two black horses, with their manes plaited into a multitude of little tails. The foreign ambassadors generally adopt the Russian style in the number and caparison of their horses. The carriages go so slowly that their contents may be contemplated at leisure; fair young maidens, with their pretty French governesses; countesses and princesses, enveloped in their sables and silver fox-furs, reclining at their ease, and surveying the crowd through their eye-glasses; boys in the national costume, with their tutors; here a corpulent merchant with his long beard, and his equally jolly spouse; there a bishop or metropolitan, meditating on the vanities of the world; then a foreign embassador ; then a nuncio from the pope, reflecting on the increasing power of the northern heresy. Further on, twenty court-kaleshes, each with six horses, and filled with young girls — these are the damsels from the Smolnoi convent. English merchants, German artists, French doctors, Swedish professors, Turks, Persians, Tartars, even Chinese, and last of all an emperor and his whole court.

We must do the St. Petersburg police the justice to say that the streets are rarely disturbed by any scenes of brutal intemperance. The very quiet nature of Russia intoxication may perhaps partly account for this. A Russian coachman is often as full as a bottle in a bin, and yet shows no signs of any deficiency, till he fairly tumbles off his box.

Amusing as it is said to be to occupy a convenient place at this spectacle of the katsheli—where the Admiralty-square is the stage, buildings like the winter-palace, the senate-house, and the war-office, serve as side-scenes, and where the whole population of St. Petersburg appear as actors—still it is difficult to forget that the festive scene has witnessed two most tragical occurrences ;' the one was the giving way of the ice on the Neva, when so many found a watery grave in the midst of their thoughtless merriment; the other, and more recent, was the burning of the wooden theatre. Few narratives excite more horror than those connected with the fire just alluded to. Thousands may die battling for freedom ; we honor them, but their death fills us not with dread ; they win a glorious name, and die with honor. Thousands meet their end upon the sick-bed; we weep for them, but it is the course of nature that they should die. But that thousands, by mere accident, in the midst of sports, in the most thoughtless revelry, should bid adieu to this fair world, to all their plans and hopes, stifled in a miserable wooden booth like so many rats and mice — this is fearful, and reminds us too awfully of the feeble tenure by which we hold existence.

The wooden theatres at the katsheli are some of them very large. One in particular generally surpasses all the others in this respect, and is capable of holding five thousand persons. In this it was that the fire took place, when the scene was to represent some firework or illumination. At first those behind the scenes, hoping to extinguish the flames, said nothing about it; as they increased, the audience applauded loudly, supposing it to be the promised spectacle. Suddenly the bajozzo rushed forward, with a look of horror, shouting aloud, " We are on fire! — save yourselves, you who can !" The audience answered by loud laughter, at the- admirably-feigned fear, as they supposed it to be. Thereupon, as it was impossible for him to nlake himself heard, the director ordered the curtain to be raised, and a mass of flame and smoke became visible. Screams of horror burst from the thousands of throats whence loud laughter had issued just before. Each grasped convulsively those dearest to them, and rushed to the doors. These were but few, the size of the place considered, and a fearful length of time elapsed before the foremost gave way to those behind. The flames in the meantime gained rapidly upon the pine planks around them, leaping from slip to slip, and already showing their fiery tongues among the dense mass of spectators. Most unfortunately it happened that one of the large folding-doors opened inward. By the pressure of the throng it was flung to, and could not be moved one way or the other. On the outside, the attempts to rescue the poor victims were at first feeble, for who in the midst of gayety dreams of such a fearful chastisement ? Those within, in the meantime, compressed the anguish of years into a few minutes as they stood breast to breast shrieking in vain their frantic " Forward!" to those in advance. The whole mass were stifling, the flames leaping threateningly over their heads ; yet they were only separated by a few thin boards from the free bright air, and in a few minutes more they might have rent asunder their fragile tomb with their hands and teeth. Fancy sickens at the contemplation of the suffering of those minutes; only one risen from the ashes could truly paint occurrences that rent asunder the chords of life when suddenly awakened from the slumber of thoughtless enjoyment to the wildest pitch of terror and despair.

The police would not at first allow of any individual effort for the rescue of the sufferers; a merchant who had seized a spade succeeded, however, in defiance of them, in dashing through a plank, and bringing nearly sixty half-suffocated creatures from this harlequin's hell. The worthy man was afterward rewarded for his act of courage and humanity by an order, and, as he was poor, by a pension of two thousand roubles.

The terrible news soon spread through the town that Lepmann's theatre was on fire, and thousands struggling with the most horrible of deaths. The anguish became universal. The consternation of the city, the scenes of agony and transport that followed, must have been seen to be understood. The emperor, who had left the winter-palace opposite at the first news of the fire, was met by shrieking and despairing women calling on him to save their husbands, sons, and brothers; he could only answer, " My children, I will save all I can."

When the fire was got under, and life and flame within were extinguished together, the dreadful task began of digging out the bodies. The sight was beyond all conception terrible when the fallen beams were removed, disclosing the heaps of charred and stifled bodies, which were dragged out with hooks, like loaves out of an oven. Some were burnt to a cinder, others only roasted; of many the hair of their heads was only singed, while on others it was burnt off; their eyes were destroyed, their faces black and calcined, yet some still were decked with the gayly-colored handkerchiefs and holy day-clothes, which the thickness of the pressure had saved from injury! These were far more terrible to look on than those entirely burnt. In one part of the building that remained standing, a crowd of dead were discovered in an erect posture, like an army of shadows from the lower world. One woman was found with her head leaning over the front of the gallery, her face hidden in her handkerchief.

The number of those who perished was officially announced at three hundred, but that is probably far below the mark. " I was told by one person," says Kohl, " that he himself had counted fifty wagons, each laden with ten or fifteen corpses ; and others, who had every means of obtaining correct information, made an estimate, whose amount I am unwilling to repeat here, lest it should be thought improbable." Some were brought to life again; many died afterward in the hospitals from the injuries received. One little boy was found sitting, quite unhurt, under a bench*, where he had crept when the falling fragments began to shower down fire and flame upon the heads of the doomed multitude. The beams and dead bodies had so fallen over him as to form a protecting roof against the flame and smoke, and there the child remained till he was dragged out. On the following day public prayers were offered up for the souls of the sufferers, on the place that had witnessed the scene of their last agony.

The upper classes take part, as we have seen, in the common amusements of the katsheliy but it is only for a few hours at noon ; they resort then to other diversions, and revel after their own fashion. To speak first of the theatres. Many as there are in St. Petersburg, they are all in full play during the butter-week; while it lasts there is no rest for the poor actors. Toward the close of the week they play twice a day, morning and evening, French, German, Russian, and Italian. In the great theatre (the Bolshoi theatre, a view of which is given on page 579) the great masked ball takes place in the butter-week, and this may also be reckoned among the popular diversions, since every well-dressed person is at liberty to go, whatever be his rank, the emperor himself holding it his duty to appear there.

When a Russian noble wishes to give eclat to his fete, his first step is to secure the presence of the emperor and empress as his guests. Every noble is at liberty to invite the emperor, who makes much less difficulty of visiting his subjects than would be exacted by the etiquette of most other courts. The fete-giver puts on his dress of ceremony and drives to court, where he signifies to the grand-master of the ceremonies that he wishes to give a ball, if it be the pleasure of the emperor and empress to honor it by their presence; and at the same time presents the list of the company invited, which is generally returned unaltered. Now and then a name is struck out, or the desire intimated that no foreigners be present, the emperor desiring for that night to be alone with his subjects.

A chief article of luxury on such an occasion is the display of a numerous retinue. At one given by Count B(...), a hundred servants in livery were stationed on the stairs alone. The servants of the house of course are not enough, and ten roubles an evening are paid on such occasions for a good-looking figure for the part. The liveries, of course, must be all new for the occasion; and at the count's fete fifty wore violet-colored velvet trimmed with silver, and fifty purple velvet with gold, the colors of the lord and lady of the house. On every stair stood alternately an orange or lemon-tree, and a velvet-clad domestic, from the house-door to that of the saloon. The present empress is a great lover of flowers, consequently every ball in St. Petersburg presents a profusion of them. One room is generally arranged as a winter-garden, and rose-bushes and arbors of roses of every shade form inviting nooks for refreshment.

Abundant as the diversions are during the Russian carnival, they double and triple during the last days of the butter-week. Fast and furious waxes the revelry during the three or four days preceding the great fast The schools break up, the public offices are closed, the great theatres give representations morning and evening, and the twelve bajazzos on the katsheli announce some novelty every five minutes; the rich give dejeuners dansants, which last till five or six in the evening, take a few hours' rest, and then make a new and brilliant toilette for a second ball at night.

A Russian Carousal during Easter

A Russian Carousal during Easter
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Among the common people, in the meantime, the drunkenness of the evening concludes the intoxication of the morning; the public, wherever it is to be seen, seems in the best possible humor, and applauds everything and everybody. The emperor and all his court drive about in their brilliant equipages; down rush the sledges from the ice-mountains till the ice glows again; the swings are at full flight; the bells of the wooden houses in the roundabouts tingle without ceasing; the bajazzos announce from hour to hour how long the Masslanitza has to last: nimbly rolls his lesson off the tongue of him who shows the lions and the boa-constrictor, that he may despatch one set of customers to get as many more as possible. All the pulses of life beat prestissimo ; all seem eager to drain the last drop in the cup of joy, until the hour of midnight strikes and proclaims the beginning of the fast. Every dancing couple is brought to a sudden halt, and every one departs homeward to sweeten the tediousness of the fast with the remembrance of the enchanting joys of the last days of the carnival.

The butter-week, as before remarked, is followed by the great fast, the severity of which banishes not only flesh and fowl, but milk, eggs, butter, and even sugar, on account of the small mixture of animal substance used in the refining. Soups made of kwas and mushrooms, fish, and cakes flavored with oil, tea and coffee with almond-milk, mushrooms again, with cucumbers in vinegar—those are the dainties that succeed the fat blinnis, rich pasties, cakes, and rotis of the butter-week. Neither is wine or any spirituous liquors permitted, whereby a cook might give some spirit to his mushroomed, fishy, oily, fasting-sauces, or the tea-drinker to his watery beverage. The people of the lower classes exclude even fish in the first and last weeks of the fast, as they do on the Wednesdays and Fridays in the remaining five. These two days, which must always take precedence of the others, are distinguished in the last week by total abstinence. The very strictly pious extend this additional severity of observance to the whole seven weeks, with a three days' total abstinence in the week before Easter. Even the upper classes observe the fasts much more strictly than they do in catholic countries. The first and last weeks, with the Wednesdays and Fridays of the remainder, are generally religiously observed. The greatest number of infractions of the fast bear reference to the brandy-bottle, the very point in which abstinence would be most beneficial; some maintain that the Russians drink as much of it during the fasts as at any other time. It is not, however, called brandy, but it is enjoyed under the disguise of all manner of euphemisms.

It is remarkable enough how carefully a Russian watches that nothing of an animal substance pass his lips when he has really made up his mind to fast in earnest. A young girl will throw away a whole cup of tea directly, if she smell that her French governess has put cream into it instead of almond-milk. Occasionally mothers take it on themselves to give their little ones a dispensation on the ground of indisposition.

After a fast-day breakfast, a walk on the Admiralty-place, to which people instinctively resort, is a most dismal affair. It is all scattered over with ruins of temporary houses and booths, the ground paved with nutshells and orange-peel. The wooden horses of the roundabout stand idle, the gayly-decorated ships and swings lie shattered and heaped together like wood for burning, the smooth mirrors of the ice-mountains are broken up with iron bars; and the poor merry-andrew, the bajazzo, what has become of him?—he that, for days together, seemed inexhaustible in fun and jest ? It is melancholy to see how rational he looks as he pants and perspires under the burden of planks, the sad remains of his fool's-palace. The thousand voices that stunned us but the day before are silent, or only employed in reckoning their gains or settling with their merchants. All are stretching, yawning, and shuddering at the joylessness of the long seven weeks before them.

The greater part of the public amusements, especially balls and plays, are strictly prohibited. Assemblies and soirees, without dancing or masking, take the place of the tumultuous ball; and as cow's-milk is changed into almond-milk, butter into oil, and flesh into fish, so plays become public declamations and improvisations, operas change into concerts ; and the theatre, which must not act plays, is open for tableaux vivants. The seven fasting weeks to the gay world are one long night, in which only the modest stars and moon faintly gleam, till all at once, like Apollo with his steeds of light, the bright sun of Easter breaks forth in full splendor. In the butter-week the dresses of the belles at a St. Petersburg party are glittering with a profusion of jewels. For the fasts, the brilliant diamond is too glaring; the single row of pearls in the hair, here and there the modest turquoise peeping forth like a violet or forget-me-not, and coral ornaments for the arms and throat, are aloneseen at the reunions, where conversation and song have displaced the waltz and polonaise.*

* In no country are so many diamonds and other precious stones displayed as in Russia. Not only every Russian lady of rank has her jewel-casket, in which, beside those ready set, she has a quantity of loose diamonds and pearls, to be arranged according to fancy at different times and places, but even the little girls have their caskets, containing dozens of rings, ear-rings, bracelets, &c, with which they are constantly decorated. How necessary they esteem them may be learned from the fact that a newly-married couple, whose whole capital was six thousand roubles, expended three thousand for jewels and ornaments, and the other three for beds, tables, and other furniture.


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