Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1718/Children of the Czar

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From The Pictorial World.


It is naturally to be expected that in a land so backward in modern civilization as Russia the social life of the people should present to the stranger points of novelty and quaintness even beyond what is usually met with in an unfamiliar land. In the primitive there is always something of the picturesque, and there is much of the charm of antiquity in the manners and customs of a nation whose habits have practically undergone but little change for centuries. Although serfdom is abolished in Russia, traces of the old feudal system which so long prevailed there are still strongly marked, and the gulf between the upper and the lower classes is almost as wide as ever. Even now the peasant has virtually no remedy at law against the noble who wrongs him; for a small grievance it is hopeless to proceed against his superior in rank, while, if the great man seriously injures a poor one, the matter can easily be settled by the former paying a few roubles to the local magistrate. The result is that the peasantry often take the law into their own hands against their oppressors, by acts of petty and secret malice, such as rick-burning, which of late years has become terribly prevalent in Russia. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the lower classes of Russia are an unhappy people. The peasantry are industrious and ingenious, and though their services can no longer be commanded gratuitously by the landowners, they are always ready to work for the rich for a small consideration. And the Russian peasant can turn his hand to many things. One day he will be at the plough, the next he is weaving cloth or cotton, on the morrow he will help to build a house, and the following day he will be ready to mount the box and drive four horses with admirable dexterity, if some great man should need an extra coachman. He is generally well fed and well dressed, his costume consisting of a red shirt, fastened round the waist with a leather belt, a pair of loose trousers tucked into boots reaching halfway up the legs, the whole being covered in winter with a warm overcoat of sheepskin, worn with the wool inside. His hair he wears parted at the top and down the middle, and cut evenly all around the neck, to which it descends, though he generally ties a band round it, to prevent its falling into his eyes when he is at work. Such is the appearance also presented by the ivostchik or yemstick, the driver or postilion, with whom every traveller in Russia soon makes acquaintance. The ivoscthik is, for the most part, a good-humored, light-hearted fellow — very civil, as a rule, but much given to overcharging, like all his race. When, however, you make your bargain with him, he will be well enough satisfied if he only gets his vosseim grievnik, or eightpenny-piece, as novodka — that is, "dram-money," called by the more genteel class of drivers, nachai, i.e., "tea-money," though it comes to the same thing in the end. Yet the crafty fellow will get more money out of you if he can. He addresses you affectionately as batushka or "little father," and will sometimes insinuate that he is an old friend of your family, the names of whom he will probably have got from your servant, and therefore you might give him a trifle extra for the sake of old times. Another class of hard bargainers are the wandering Tartars one meets with in most parts of eastern and southern Russia. These usually malodorous gentlemen are great dealers in dressing-gowns, which they are constantly pressing the traveller to buy, asking eight or ten times as much as the articles are worth to begin with. They are generally seen going about with one of their dressing-gowns on as a specimen, and with these and their round skull-caps, ribbed with red and yellow, they look not unpicturesque. But by far the most sightly class of people to be met with in Russia are the famous singing gipsies of Moscow. These people, who are generally well-to-do, and are not accustomed to wander about like others of their race, dress with great finery, but yet with a natural eye to artistic effect. Their songs, which nearly always consist of an air with a chorus, and are usually accompanied on the balalaika, a sort of guitar, are greatly admired by travellers. In fact, it has been said of them, that if they are not the best singers in the world there are no other singers in the world at all like them; and there is a story current that the famous Catalani was once so delighted with a certain female gipsy vocalist, that she threw round the shoulders of the singer a costly shawl which she herself had lately been presented with by the empress. Another peculiar and exclusive order of people to be met with in Russia, though of a widely different sort, are those strange patriots known as the Old Religionists. The Russians are not much given to change, but these people are as conservative as the Chinese themselves. They detest all modern manners, insist upon wearing the old Russian caftan, and never cut their beards, allowing them to grow to prodigious length, from purely pious motives, because "man is made in the image of God." But still more singular is their religious objection to tobacco, for they look upon smoking — so common in Russia — as a sin denounced by Scripture in the text, "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." One would think they might get over the difficulty by consuming their own smoke; but, as a matter of fact, the Old Religionists are so particular in this respect that there are special traktirs, or tea-houses, exclusively kept for them, and where the "fragrant weed" and the "pipe of peace" are rigidly tabooed. Yet these queer folks are only a few degrees more behind the age than most other children of the czar, and probably several generations will have to elapse before Russia better deserves to be called a civilized nation than that Turkey, whose barbarism she denounces, and is endeavoring to make the pretext of a war of ambition.