The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 8

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The Echo of the Dim Past

IN Russia everywhere and always meet: the West and the East, civilisation and primitive nomad, Church and "old gods," romanticism and crime.

For instance, in a village a branch of the "People's 'Varsity" is established, and the local authorities overreach themselves in eloquence in front of an almost empty classroom of the local school. In the meantime the peasants, for whom the gates of education are thus being thrown open, are all assembled on the ice of the frozen river engaged in the traditional "combat of the fists," an indigenous kind of boxing.

Two villages are competing with each other in vigour of fists, in endurance of skulls, jaws, and teeth. This is a kind of tradition, knightly tournament, mediæval romanticism.

I witnessed such a combat at Omsk, in Siberia.

The competitors are divided into two parties equal in number. The combat begins with the fight of little boys, who break each other's noses. When hosts of striplings advance to battle, the little boys scatter aside like sparrows. The striplings scatter similarly at the decisive moment of the combat, which is fought out by grown-ups.

The combat lasts long; it is contested with great stubbornness, and often ends with maiming and killing, as some peasant with a piece of lead or iron hidden in his gigantic fist dashes the skull of his opponent to pieces.

Such battles on the ice give some of the fighters the opportunity to reveal their natural abilities, uncommon strength of fists, courage, endurance, and even strategical talents, as victory must be won upon the entire front.

Let us remember the history of Russia. During the times of the independent existence of Free Cities like Novgorod or Pskov, before the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the inhabitants of towns resolved all political disputes by a combat of fists, fought out between the adherents of one or the other of the political parties.

On a lesser scale this habit has existed until our times.

Such combats, however, are not always the romantic echo of ages gone by. Sometimes they become a struggle for existence.

The Tartars and the Russians, the older inhabitants or the recent orthodox and sectarian colonists settled by the Government in Siberia, often settle their personal, tribal, or religious quarrels with the collective force of fists.

Another relic of olden times, to be exact of nomadic times, is the so-called "yamshchina." This is a huge organisation of peasants of Siberian descent, thirsting for freedom, who during the winter form gigantic caravans of sledges drawn by a pair or three horses for the purpose of transporting goods on long, thousands of miles long, distances.

Twenty years ago such caravans travelled from Kyakhta, on the frontier of Mongolia, to Kazan or Moscow; nowadays they make shorter routes from the Mongolian border or from the Altay to various points on the Siberian railway.

The "Yamshchina" is gradually disappearing, but some few years ago it was still a vigorous organisation possessing its own unwritten law. Only the strongest, healthiest, and most persevering peasants engaged in this work, which was by no means easy. It was something of an effort to carry a heavy load of valuable goods, tea, furs, porcelain or silk from China to Moscow during the long Siberian winter, exposed to frost, hunger, blizzards, and to attacks of numerous bands of criminals who had escaped from Siberian prisons and lay in wait for the caravans. Many brave and rich traders started like those Siberian peasant drivers: for instance, the Kuchtierins or Korolevovs and others, who after the construction of the Siberian railway founded the largest transport companies, owning fleets of steamers, barges, and motor cars.

The Yamshchina produced strong and powerful men, but also taught the half-savage peasants to be indifferent to destruction of human life.

At Tomsk, in Siberia, there still lives one of the last great "Yamshchiks" who remembers those old days of freedom, that heroic epos, that struggle for existence and money in the dusk of the icy and snowclad Siberian desert

His name is Innocent Kuchtierin.

Once he told the following story in a narrow circle of friends:

"I had at that time three hundred of my own sledges, each drawn by a team of three horses. The 'Yamshchiks' were all wonderful fellows. I never engaged one who could not walk a mile with a sack weighing 400 pounds on his back. This was my test. I had Yamshchiks who could carry as much as 1,000 pounds. They are no more nowadays, We drove a load of tea from Kyakhta to Kazan. The winter was severe. A frost of 40° R. set in and kept up for a month. The horses, and the men wrapped in their furs turned inside out, marched like white ghosts. I had to deliver the goods at the appointed time. We marched day and night, and only rarely halted in a village for a longer rest.

"Near Kansk we had to pass the high-road cut through a virgin jungle. The trees, white with snow, sparkled in the light of the moon. The road was strewn with crystals burning with multi-coloured fires. Volumes of vapour soared over the caravan as the horses and men were fatigued. Suddenly, through this slowly descending mist, I noticed in the snow aside something suspicious. To be exact, I noticed nothing—I felt it. All round It was silent, and only the horses were panting and neighing. The Yamshchiks marched beside the sledges, running from time to time to get warmer.

"Everything seemed to be in order and just as usual, and still I could not lift my eyes from the snow upon which I noticed a great many large spots. They were white, a little darker or a little brighter than the snow perhaps, but they captured and held my eyes.

"At last I called two of the nearest drivers and went to see. No sooner did we leave the road than the spots moved violently.

"I knew we were attacked by bandits.

"The bandits and deserters from prisons and Saghalien, a 'shpana,' as we called them in Siberia, lie hidden by the road, dressed in white cloaks over their fur coats. If we had been asleep on the sledges the bandits would have stolen near us unnoticed and cut the ropes holding the loads on the sledges. One by one the boxes of tea would have dropped noiselessly into the deep snow. We shouldn't have found it out till possibly the next halting-place, and of course much too late to get them back, as the 'shpana' would then have gathered our goods and decamped in safety.

"But seeing themselves discovered they attacked. We were fired at Two of my men fell dead, five were wounded. All the others followed me against the attackers. Yamshchiks always carry their weapons with them. A long knife stuck into the leg of the 'fima,' a felt boot, or a heavy iron ball attached to a strong leather strap."

Kuchtierin took a deep breath and concluded his story.

"That frosty night we killed twenty-three of the 'shpana,' and the two leaders of the band, Wanka Chromy and Kurzina Bezrodny, we caught and hanged on the pine-trees by the road. On the trails of the fleeing 'shpana,' we reached the village Kudjeyarova. We had a real good time. The peasants of that thievish village paid dearly for the shelter they gave to the 'shpana,' who dared to attack the Yamshchiks. We spent three days there in mortal revelry in our fashion. Sure, the children's children of those peasants will remember us!"

Such a man was the old Yamshchik Kuchtierin. His spartan life developed in him a kind of a savage, overwhelming romanticism. He was in love with nature, and knew her as one knows a book read a hundred times. He knew the habits and voice of every beast and every bird. He knew how to imitate indistinguishably the strains of the nightingale and the bullfinch, the belling of the deer, the roar of the enraged bear, and the howl of a pack of wolves.

During one of his wanderings, being still an ordinary Yamshchik, only with a single pair of horses and a sledge, he met somewhere in the inn of a little town the innkeeper's wife, and fell madly in love with her. Saving little by little, and accumulating money with simply incredible thrift, working like a slave, he collected enough to buy that woman from her husband. She was a truly Russian beauty. When Kuchtierin rose to the dignity, first of an Alderman and then Mayor of Tomsk, he dressed his wife in gowns imported from Paris, surrounded her with fabulous luxury and pomp, and loved her as only the savage nomads of old used to love.

When drunk, he would thrash her with mad and pitiless jealousy, and then roll at her feet imploring forgiveness, love, and happiness. …

The life story of famous Yamshchiks is as romantic as it is gloomy and savage. The Siberians love to tell such stories, often with rapture, sometimes with horror.

These men often robbed rich travellers whom they encountered on the road, attacked the mails, wiped out official convoys transporting money, plundered villages and towns, leaving behind them carrion and trails of blood. Many of them waxed exceedingly rich, earned honours and general esteem, silencing the courts with heaps of gold, with brilliant feasts and receptions. Nobody shuddered at the sight of these men, and no one shunned them. Had they not risked their own lives to earn riches and honours?

The heroes of the endless Siberian great road knew how to disarm the world.