Story type: Essay
I ought to like Russia better than I do, if only for the sake of the many good friends I am proud to possess amongst the Russians. A large square photograph I keep always on my mantel-piece; it helps me to maintain my head at that degree of distention necessary for the performance of all literary work. It presents in the centre a neatly-written address in excellent English that I frankly confess I am never tired of reading, around which are ranged some hundreds of names I am quite unable to read, but which, in spite of their strange lettering, I know to be the names of good Russian men and women to whom, a year or two ago, occurred the kindly idea of sending me as a Christmas card this message of encouragement. The individual Russian is one of the most charming creatures living. If he like you he does not hesitate to let you know it; not only by every action possible, but, by what perhaps is just as useful in this grey old world, by generous, impulsive speech.
We Anglo-Saxons are apt to pride ourselves upon being undemonstrative. Max Adeler tells the tale of a boy who was sent out by his father to fetch wood. The boy took the opportunity of disappearing and did not show his face again beneath the paternal roof for over twenty years. Then one evening, a smiling, well- dressed stranger entered to the old couple, and announced himself as their long-lost child, returned at last.
“Well, you haven’t hurried yourself,” grumbled the old man, “and blarm me if now you haven’t forgotten the wood.”
I was lunching with an Englishman in a London restaurant one day. A man entered and took his seat at a table near by. Glancing round, and meeting my friend’s eyes, he smiled and nodded.
“Excuse me a minute,” said my friend, “I must just speak to my brother–haven’t seen him for over five years.”
He finished his soup and leisurely wiped his moustache before strolling across and shaking hands. They talked for a while. Then my friend returned to me.
“Never thought to see him again,” observed my friend, “he was one of the garrison of that place in Africa–what’s the name of it?–that the Mahdi attacked. Only three of them escaped. Always was a lucky beggar, Jim.”
“But wouldn’t you like to talk to him some more?” I suggested; “I can see you any time about this little business of ours.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he answered, “we have just fixed it up–shall be seeing him again to-morrow.”
I thought of this scene one evening while dining with some Russian friends in a St. Petersburg Hotel. One of the party had not seen his second cousin, a mining engineer, for nearly eighteen months. They sat opposite to one another, and a dozen times at least during the course of the dinner one of them would jump up from his chair, and run round to embrace the other. They would throw their arms about one another, kissing one another on both cheeks, and then sit down again, with moist eyes. Their behaviour among their fellow countrymen excited no astonishment whatever.
But the Russians’s anger is as quick and vehement as his love. On another occasion I was supping with friends in one of the chief restaurants on the Nevsky. Two gentlemen at an adjoining table, who up till the previous moment had been engaged in amicable conversation, suddenly sprang to their feet, and “went for” one another. One man secured the water-bottle, which he promptly broke over the other’s head. His opponent chose for his weapon a heavy mahogany chair, and leaping back for the purpose of securing a good swing, lurched against my hostess.
“Do please be careful,” said the lady.
“A thousand pardons, madame,” returned the stranger, from whom blood and water were streaming in equal copiousness; and taking the utmost care to avoid interfering with our comfort, he succeeded adroitly in flooring his antagonist by a well-directed blow.
A policeman appeared upon the scene. He did not attempt to interfere, but running out into the street communicated the glad tidings to another policeman.
“This is going to cost them a pretty penny,” observed my host, who was calmly continuing his supper; “why couldn’t they wait?”
It did cost them a pretty penny. Some half a dozen policemen were round about before as many minutes had elapsed, and each one claimed his bribe. Then they wished both combatants good-night, and trooped out evidently in great good humour and the two gentlemen, with wet napkins round their heads, sat down again, and laughter and amicable conversation flowed freely as before.
They strike the stranger as a childlike people, but you are possessed with a haunting sense of ugly traits beneath. The workers–slaves it would be almost more correct to call them–allow themselves to be exploited with the uncomplaining patience of intelligent animals. Yet every educated Russian you talk to on the subject knows that revolution is coming.
But he talks to you about it with the door shut, for no man in Russia can be sure that his own servants are not police spies. I was discussing politics with a Russian official one evening in his study when his old housekeeper entered the room–a soft-eyed grey-haired woman who had been in his service over eight years, and whose position in the household was almost that of a friend. He stopped abruptly and changed the conversation. So soon as the door was closed behind her again, he explained himself.
“It is better to chat upon such matters when one is quite alone,” he laughed.
“But surely you can trust her,” I said, “She appears to be devoted to you all.”
“It is safer to trust no one,” he answered. And then he continued from the point where we had been interrupted.
“It is gathering,” he said; “there are times when I almost smell blood in the air. I am an old man and may escape it, but my children will have to suffer–suffer as children must for the sins of their fathers. We have made brute beasts of the people, and as brute beasts they will come upon us, cruel, and undiscriminating; right and wrong indifferently going down before them. But it has to be. It is needed.”
It is a mistake to speak of the Russian classes opposing to all progress a dead wall of selfishness. The history of Russia will be the history of the French Revolution over again, but with this difference: that the educated classes, the thinkers, who are pushing forward the dumb masses are doing so with their eyes open. There will be no Maribeau, no Danton to be appalled at a people’s ingratitude. The men who are to-day working for revolution in Russia number among their ranks statesmen, soldiers, delicately-nurtured women, rich landowners, prosperous tradesmen, students familiar with the lessons of history. They have no misconceptions concerning the blind Monster into which they are breathing life. He will crush them, they know it; but with them he will crush the injustice and stupidity they have grown to hate more than they love themselves.
The Russian peasant, when he rises, will prove more terrible, more pitiless than were the men of 1790. He is less intelligent, more brutal. They sing a wild, sad song, these Russian cattle, the while they work. They sing it in chorus on the quays while hauling the cargo, they sing it in the factory, they chant on the weary, endless steppes, reaping the corn they may not eat. It is of the good time their masters are having, of the feastings and the merrymakings, of the laughter of the children, of the kisses of the lovers.
But the last line of every verse is the same. When you ask a Russian to translate it for you he shrugs his shoulders.
“Oh, it means,” he says, “that their time will also come–some day.”
It is a pathetic, haunting refrain. They sing it in the drawing- rooms of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and somehow the light talk and laughter die away, and a hush, like a chill breath, enters by the closed door and passes through. It is a curious song, like the wailing of a tired wind, and one day it will sweep over the land heralding terror.
A Scotsman I met in Russia told me that when he first came out to act as manager of a large factory in St. Petersburg, belonging to his Scottish employers, he unwittingly made a mistake the first week when paying his workpeople. By a miscalculation of the Russian money he paid the men, each one, nearly a rouble short. He discovered his error before the following Saturday, and then put the matter right. The men accepted his explanation with perfect composure and without any comment whatever. The thing astonished him.
“But you must have known I was paying you short,” he said to one of them. “Why didn’t you tell me of it?”
“Oh,” answered the man, “we thought you were putting it in your own pocket and then if we had complained it would have meant dismissal for us. No one would have taken our word against yours.”
Corruption appears to be so general throughout the whole of Russia that all classes have come to accept it as part of the established order of things. A friend gave me a little dog to bring away with me. It was a valuable animal, and I wished to keep it with me. It is strictly forbidden to take dogs into railway carriages. The list of the pains and penalties for doing so frightened me considerably.
“Oh, that will be all right,” my friend assured me; “have a few roubles loose in your pocket.”
I tipped the station master and I tipped the guard, and started pleased with myself. But I had not anticipated what was in store for me. The news that an Englishman with a dog in a basket and roubles in his pocket was coming must have been telegraphed all down the line. At almost every stopping-place some enormous official, wearing generally a sword and a helmet, boarded the train. At first these fellows terrified me. I took them for field-marshals at least.
Visions of Siberia crossed my mind. Anxious and trembling, I gave the first one a gold piece. He shook me warmly by the hand–I thought he was going to kiss me. If I had offered him my cheek I am sure he would have done so. With the next one I felt less apprehensive. For a couple of roubles he blessed me, so I gathered; and, commending me to the care of the Almighty, departed. Before I had reached the German frontier, I was giving away the equivalent of English sixpences to men with the dress and carriage of major- generals; and to see their faces brighten up and to receive their heartfelt benediction was well worth the money.
But to the man without roubles in his pocket, Russian officialdom is not so gracious. By the expenditure of a few more coins I got my dog through the Customs without trouble, and had leisure to look about me. A miserable object was being badgered by half a dozen men in uniform, and he–his lean face puckered up into a snarl–was returning them snappish answers; the whole scene suggested some half- starved mongrel being worried by school-boys. A slight informality had been discovered in his passport, so a fellow traveller with whom I had made friends informed me. He had no roubles in his pocket, and in consequence they were sending him back to St. Petersburg–some eighteen hours’ journey–in a wagon that in England would not be employed for the transport of oxen.
It seemed a good joke to Russian officialdom; they would drop in every now and then, look at him as he sat crouched in a corner of the waiting-room, and pass out again, laughing. The snarl had died from his face; a dull, listless indifference had taken its place–the look one sees on the face of a beaten dog, after the beating is over, when it is lying very still, its great eyes staring into nothingness, and one wonders whether it is thinking.
The Russian worker reads no newspaper, has no club, yet all things seem to be known to him. There is a prison on the banks of the Neva, in St. Petersburg. They say such things are done with now, but up till very recently there existed a small cell therein, below the level of the ice, and prisoners placed there would be found missing a day or two afterwards, nothing ever again known of them, except, perhaps, to the fishes of the Baltic. They talk of such like things among themselves: the sleigh-drivers round their charcoal fire, the field-workers going and coming in the grey dawn, the factory workers, their whispers deadened by the rattle of the looms.
I was searching for a house in Brussels some winters ago, and there was one I was sent to in a small street leading out of the Avenue Louise. It was poorly furnished, but rich in pictures, large and small. They covered the walls of every room.
“These pictures,” explained to me the landlady, an old, haggard- looking woman, “will not be left, I am taking them with me to London. They are all the work of my husband. He is arranging an exhibition.”
The friend who had sent me had told me the woman was a widow, who had been living in Brussels eking out a precarious existence as a lodging-house keeper for the last ten years.
“You have married again?” I questioned her.
The woman smiled.
“Not again. I was married eighteen years ago in Russia. My husband was transported to Siberia a few days after we were married, and I have never seen him since.”
“I should have followed him,” she added, “only every year we thought he was going to be set free.”
“He is really free now?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “They set him free last week. He will join me in London. We shall be able to finish our honeymoon.”
She smiled, revealing to me that once she had been a girl.
I read in the English papers of the exhibition in London. It was said the artist showed much promise. So possibly a career may at last be opening out for him.
Nature has made life hard to Russian rich and poor alike. To the banks of the Neva, with its ague and influenza-bestowing fogs and mists, one imagines that the Devil himself must have guided Peter the Great.
“Show me in all my dominions the most hopelessly unattractive site on which to build a city,” Peter must have prayed; and the Devil having discovered the site on which St. Petersburg now stands, must have returned to his master in high good feather.
“I think, my dear Peter, I have found you something really unique. It is a pestilent swamp to which a mighty river brings bitter blasts and marrow-chilling fogs, while during the brief summer time the wind will bring you sand. In this way you will combine the disadvantages of the North Pole with those of the desert of Sahara.”
In the winter time the Russians light their great stoves, and doubly barricade their doors and windows; and in this atmosphere, like to that of a greenhouse, many of their women will pass six months, never venturing out of doors. Even the men only go out at intervals. Every office, every shop is an oven. Men of forty have white hair and parchment faces; and the women are old at thirty. The farm labourers, during the few summer months, work almost entirely without sleep. They leave that for the winter, when they shut themselves up like dormice in their hovels, their store of food and vodka buried underneath the floor. For days together they sleep, then wake and dig, then sleep again.
The Russian party lasts all night. In an adjoining room are beds and couches; half a dozen guests are always sleeping. An hour contents them, then they rejoin the company, and other guests take their places. The Russian eats when he feels so disposed; the table is always spread, the guests come and go. Once a year there is a great feast in Moscow. The Russian merchant and his friends sit down early in the day, and a sort of thick, sweet pancake is served up hot. The feast continues for many hours, and the ambition of the Russian merchant is to eat more than his neighbour. Fifty or sixty of these hot cakes a man will consume at a sitting, and a dozen funerals in Moscow is often the result.
An uncivilised people, we call them in our lordly way, but they are young. Russian history is not yet three hundred years old. They will see us out, I am inclined to think. Their energy, their intelligence–when these show above the groundwork–are monstrous. I have known a Russian learn Chinese within six months. English! they learn it while you are talking to them. The children play at chess and study the violin for their own amusement.
The world will be glad of Russia–when she has put her house in order.