Leonie Ida Philipovna Souiny-Seydlitz.

Russia of yesterday and to-morrow online

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was absolutely barred if there was not some au-
thority to testify to his harmlessness and to his in-
nocent intention of traveling in Russia only for
pleasure. To add the words "for instruction"
was dangerous, because former Russia did not
want anybody to make a tour of discovery; and
if such a tour was announced officially, the curious
man naturally never learned what he wanted to
know. The Russian official concealed every-
thing that could be valuable to the stranger.

For the outsider the greatest barrier is nat-
urally the language, and if Russians are obstinate,
—and that is what they usually are toward a
stranger, — ^they will not speak a word except in
Russian. Therefore the traveler must collect
words from his pocket dictionary, and as he pro-



nounces them absurdly, the Russians shake their
heads as they dismiss him sneeringly.

If the passport was lost, and there was no one
of authority on the train to recognize the unfortu-
nate person, in mild cases, he was detained for
twenty-four hours in the frontier town, with
mixed people, mixed languages, and mixed habits.
It was only by good luck that he could leave the
restaurant, where waiters told sinister stories of
travelers without passports who were recognized
as terrible criminals, or mistaken for them, and
who were not only kept out of Russia, but were
put in jail and sometimes even chained. Such a
delay was hair-raising, and it is strange that tips
did not help at all. The chief trick of officials
was to be over-exacting concerning passports, as
this strictness could hide many laxities in other
directions, and the more the head of the gensdar-
mie at the frontier discovered irregularities, the
more efficient he was supposed to be. For each
irregularity he received a new decoration, and
after he had collected many little orders he was
ripe for the Alexander Nevsky, formerly much
coveted, which shone day and night on the happy
bearer's breast.


When finally a high official would speak in
favor of the poor victim of the Russian frontier,
the unfortunate traveler was released, only to be
convoyed to his destination by a gendarme. The
next difficulty arose at the entrance to his hotel.
It was a very European hotel which the stranger
entered despite the porter in purple blouse and
with peacock feather in his cap. Without delay
the passport was demanded, and before the key
was handed to the little bellboy in national cos-
tume the traveler had to dehver his papers. Be-
fore this trap all other impressions vanished.
The traveler, with cold perspiration on his fore-
head, told his story to the European-speaking
manager, who tried to make him understand that
the hotel could not protect guests without pass-

The manager advised that the ambassador
from the traveler's country be called up; but if
the ambassador was out, and his staff dining or
supping somewhere, the traveler would be asked
for his credentials. Among the letters of the
traveler might be one addressed to a general in
the suite of the czar. This general could do
everything ; he could achieve miracles. His visit-



ing card could make it possible to travel through
Russia without a passport. But the general was
on duty at Tsarskoje Sselo, and only after a tele-
phone message brought answer by an aide-de-
camp that the general expected the gentleman
from abroad, and would be glad to see him the
next morning, the hotel manager was satisfied,
and the little bell-boy led the weary traveler to his
very European suite.

The rooms in the luxurious hotels of the Capital
are not different from those of the hotel palaces
in other parts of the world. The bath-rooms con-
tain the same comforts, and it is only at the water
that travelers will look with a certain apprehen-
sion. The water in Petrograd is the color of
chocolate. Residents assure strangers that it is
the high percentage of iron that makes it of so
dark a tint ; but those who know will confess that
Petrograd is still lacking in sanitary regulations.
The water question is not solved. It is very dis-
agreeable to enter the water, still muddy after
being filtered by the hotel filters, which work day
and night. A servant provides a bottle of boiled
water, according to a strict rule of the hotels, to
prevent the everlasting danger of typhoid fever



or cholera. But even with this boiled water the
cautious attendant brings a bottle of excellent
mineral water, with which he advises the guest to
clean his teeth, because one can never know in
Russia what devil can sit in the drinking-water I
No one could be more attentive than the Russian
servant. Smiling and indefatigable, he guesses
the wishes of foreigners. The door of an apart-
ment is always protected, a servant waiting in
the ante-chamber for orders, and eager to please
the stranger confided to his care. Attention
bought with money is less obvious than elsewhere,
and tips are comparatively modest. The servant
smiles; he tries to di^aw attention to things not
known to the traveler, to what passes in the
streets. He tells who lives in neighboring rooms,
and even relates interesting scandals of well-
known personages or of distinguished society
ladies. He is never impertinent, but always
humble. Such a sei^vant is a keen observer, and
never loses his sense of social distances.

The Russian servant is absolutely different
from all others. He is servant heart and soul;
he would be nothing but that, and wants to give
satisfaction. He waits tenderly on his master



with fatherly affection, and even when taking
part in the most intimate conversation he never
presumes; that is something beyond his under-
standing. He is not a Sociahst. He is alwaj^s
contented until he is associated with others of
his own class who are not Russians. The dis-
contented Russian is very dangerous. The
slightest sign of freedom is usually misunder-
stood by a servant, and there is no difference be-
tween disobedience and mutiny, between word
and deed, between offense and murder. The ex-
pression on the face of the Russian servant is ex-
tremely patient and good-natured. He smiles,
and if the master is disturbed, he tries to smooth
him. He begs, he sheds tears, he wants to be
beaten; and if the master is Russian enough to
slap his servant he is adored, because after such
a storm comes the soft reaction of repentance and

The climate of Petrograd is trying. ^lost of
the year it is exceedingly damp. When cold, the
north winds are unbearable; and when hot, the
sun is nowhere more merciless than in the long,
unshaded avenues of Petrograd. To walk over
the Kasan or the Isaacs Plaza on a warm day is



torture. So really nobody walks, and when the
stranger leaves the hotel door the little istvots-
chiks overrun one another to be at his disposal.
They shed tears to get a few copecks, but they
finally yield their demands good-naturedly when
they see that their arguments are vain. Women
travelers are warned never to hire one of the good-
looking drivers who wait in front of the hotels.
In dark-green, wadded coats they sit solemnly on
the boxes of their comfortable-looking little
coaches; the harness of their long-tailed horses
is ornamented with silver, with little silver bells
on their collars. It is not considered resjDectable
for a woman to drive in these carriages, which are
used by the demi-world.

When the traveler left to the istvoschik what
to see first in former St. Petersburg, he was
driven over the Neva Bridge to the Narodni
Dom, the House of the People, which Czar Nich-
olas II gave to his beloved people and dedicated
to them. It was indeed an imperial gift, and
it would be ungrateful if the Russian people ever
should forget the memory of this czar. The czar
trusted to the progressive taste of Russians when
the house was consecrated to the best perform-



ances that the aristocracy saw in the Imperial
Opera and the Michelsk Theater. The house
has under its roof two wonderful theaters, one
vast and airy, with every seat at one price. The
operas and ballets were given with the artists
from the Marien Theater, and the settings were
of the same colorful beauty as in the Imperial
Opera. The second theater is an amphitheater
in light oak, and here were offered the best Rus-
sian plays, with excellent casts. The vast build-
ing has large restaurants where the people can
have everything to eat at a very low price and
where alcoholic drinks are not served. The res-
taurants are open during the day for students and
laborers. Surrounded by a garden where on
warm evenings all kinds of refreshments can be
had, the Narodi Dom gives the impression of an
establishment as elegant as any place of amuse-
ment in Paris or London. The theaters are al-
ways crowded, and the people follow the per-
formances with great intensity. Opera-tickets
sell for twenty-five cents, and those for the plays
for ten.

Then the coachman drives to the Alexander
Nevsky Monastery, where the great saint of St.



Petersburg has his cathedral. On the way he
points out the imperial buildings, the monument
of Peter the Great, of Catharine, the Little
Mother. He knows exactly what is worth while
looking at, and he makes himself understood by
intelligent signs ; one can see that he is sorry that
the foreigner can not speak his language. But
when understood, he can tell all sorts of stories
about the czar, the generals, the ministers, and
about the saints. He is wide-awake, and his re-
marks are very clever; sometimes he can even
read. He never fails to give his name and to
recommend himself for the next time.

But the serious question of the passport has to
be settled before the foreigner can breathe freely.
The general in the suite of the czar called
promptly in all his military pomp. With a sto-
icism to be admired, he wore his warm uniform,
his official uniform, with all his decorations for
the first call, and he looked really a war hero.
When the servants, with manv bows, announced
him, they looked on the stranger with a kindli-
ness mixed with a certain respect, and when the
foreigner was ready to receive the caller, the
servants, still bowing, ushered him to the door,



where they waited for him with crossed arms.
The double doors flew open, when the general
stood impressive and formal. But his face
changed quickly to a most charming amiability.
Immediately, without asking, the servant dis-
mantled the general of his heavy coat, for it was
ninety degrees in the shade, but the sword still
hung at his side, for, as he said, a Russian soldier
never parts with his sword. This sounds very
martial, but after the usual glass of tea and very
cold cognac, silently served by the tschelavik, the
general leaned back in the deep fauteuil, talk-
ing interestingly and amusingly in his wonderful
French or English, and then mechanically un-
buckled the leather belt to which the sword was
attached, the ever-present servant taking it and
placing it tenderly on the couch. Then the gen-
eral being quite comfortable, the hours ran like
sand under the animated conversation, and, as
understood the tschelavik brought the zakoustka,
the cigarettes and then served the luncheon,
knowing exactly what a general would like and
what a foreigner should be taught. The Rus-
sian cuisine is excellent. They have those won-
derful fish of the Volga, immense in size and with



only the one strong bone in the center. It is the
greatest dehcacy, this cold stor (assitrina) the
famous producer of caviare. Everything was
seasonable — the cold bortsch, the sour cream, the
iced caviar and the champagne cup. To his
amazement the foreigner found afterward, when
the weekly bill was presented, that he had been
the guest of his guest who had ordered the lunch-
eon before presenting himself. Then last of all
a mighty round loaf of bread was brought.
Baked in its center was a silver salt-cup, orna-
mented with unique tula work, with salt in it,
which means soyez le bienvenu.

When the luncheon was ended and conversa-
tion became a little less lively the general sud-
denly smiled and said, "Let us have a little nap ;
it is so refreshing on such a hot day." The
tschelavik was only waiting for the hint. In-
stantly, the general's high boots were off and
lying down peacefully beside his sword on the
couch he took a long doze. All was so natural
because among persons belonging to the same
social world formality absolutely ceases and that
makes life in Russia from the beginning v/onder-
fully human and joyful.



Still there was the question of the passport.
When awake the general was ready to attend to
the stupid invention of Russian laws, which are
sometimes absolutely necessary, as he added.
The general's own coach waited and the coach-
man, having turned up the tails of his quilted coat
to cool his body, slept patiently on the box. The
general's whistle woke him up and dropping his
coattails, stretching the lines tightly, he made a
startling vault before the hotel door. Presently,
the two black horses sped over the wooden pave-
ment like winged animals, and the general
explained that, despite the automobile, the Rus-
sian horse always would be preferred in the city.
Stopping before police headquarters, there was
a sudden, excited movement among the sleepy,
watching policemen. The expression on the
faces of the policemen, each one thinking himself
mighty, showed signs of fear. The general
asked for the official who handled passports.
Jumping up the stairs and opening doors, the
messenger shouted the name of the general so
often that when the proper official was finally
reached, the man was prepared for his visitor;
but not knowing for what crime he might be



arrested, he stood behind his desk humbly rub-
bing his hands.

The general explained the ease briefly in com-
manding tones, and the official was so confused
that he did not dare to chase away the flies which
adorned his beard. As he stammered his
answers, the flies entered his open mouth, and he
swallowed them resignedly. Whereupon the
general, turning to the traveler, remarked:
"Look at this animal! He is so afraid that he
even swallows flies!"

When it is summer in Russia, the families of
high officials live in their country places far away
from the capital, and the men pass the week-ends
at near-by sea shores on the Baltic, where life is
gay and devoid of complexities. There are
hotels, but people belonging to society do not
live in them; instead, they rent datches^ little
summer houses, very simple, but comfortable,
and always ready for the barins. For this
reason, when the general drove his guest to his
house, they found it deserted, dismantled,
wrapped in chintzes and papers, only the library
and a bedroom being left habitable for the gen-
eral, who explained that all were in the country,



a night's trip distant. He was not very busy,
but every week he had two trying days, — he
sighed, — as then he had to be on duty with his
Majesty. Sometimes it was pleasant when the
czar was in a good humor; but when he had one
of his fits of temper it was unbearable, and heavy
drinking was the only rescue. The czar never
knew what he wanted, and as every two days
there was a different officer on duty, every two
days he changed his ideas about governing Rus-
sia. One day Russia seemed to him the easiest
state to rule, and the next he thought that Russia
should be chained as a whole, from the highest to
the lowest, the people being lower than beasts.
And when the czar had one of his deaf -minded
days nothing could make him change an opinion.
Then brandy helped him to total forgetfulness
of decisions that he was about to make. The
general shook his head; it would end sadly some
day, and then those who were devoted to the czar
could not help him much.

With his powerful influence, the general made
it possible to have the Hermitage opened, which
was closed on account of repairs and for the
hanging of new pictures. Nothing could have











been more interesting to a stranger than to see
Russian artists at work, because all the officials
who superintended the Hermitage were artists,
and the arrangement of this gallery is an example
of the intense love of art in Russia. No other
gallery in the world has so lively a touch, so little
the atmosphere of a museum, although it is not a
gallery for modern art. The building itself is
flooded wuth light, the walls are not overcrowded,
and the rooms are warmed by the wonderful
colors of lapis lazuli and malachite.

The official who guarded the treasures of the
crown solemnly opened the door to this sanc-
tuary; but as it was nearly dinner-time, he left
the foreigner in the care of the general, who
promised to deliver the key at the office when
the visit was ended. In the quiet of this high-
ceiled room, which opens on the Neva, the setting
sun sent red and gold beams over all the jewels
and precious treasures. It was like the revival
of a childhood dream, in which the chairs were of
gold and the floors of diamonds. It is amazing
how little the Hermitage, with its priceless col-
lections, was watched when compared with an
empty imperial palace. But there was always a



certain unconcern regarding things; the watch-
ing was concentrated on the person of the czar.

Among the royal wonders of the Winter
Palace, suddenly they came upon a httle model
of a new military bridge, with all the minutest
details reproduced. The general swore at this
open display of military secrets, and severely
rebuked the officer on duty, who could not
explain why the model had been left there.
Only a few days before the commission had
shown it to the Grand Duke Nicholas, and prob-
ably it had been forgotten. The general put it
in a box and carried it to the war ministry, where
he left it with a responsible officer. He explained
that he did not believe that the model had been
forgotten. It was more likely that a rascally
official wanted to show the model, which was of
great military importance, to a spy, by whom
he would be highly rewarded. And the Winter
Palace, deserted in summer, was a favorable
place for such an undertaking.

When the summer sun sets, Petrograd is
wrapped for an hour in a dense veil of warmth
and humidity, which is very depressing, as not
a breath of wind blows. The general, after



having changed his uniform for a khaki blouse
and a hght cap, directed his patient coachman
to the islands in the Neva, where one of his
friends, a high aristocrat, was expecting him to
dinner. A telephone-call was sufficient to an-
nounce a foreign friend. The islands are in a
swampy stretch of the river that has been partly
drained. There are summer houses and palaces,
areas of land planted in the time of Peter the
Great, blossoming shrubs, green lawns, and white
castles, all very fascinating in the evening dusk.
Saluted by two sentinels, the coach drove through
the maple-lined alley to the high-columned house.
The family was assembled in the cool hall with
several invited guests, all informally smoking
cigarettes and drinking cold tea even before

The host, a minister, welcomed the foreigner
so heartily, and his wife had so many questions
to ask the traveler, that he had no chance to
satisfy his own curiosity. This vivacious hos-
pitality, which focuses all interest on the guest,
is naturally the method which prevents the for-
eigner from getting into the intimate life of the
Russian. Informality becomes stereotyped, and



the foreigner who dines, sups, and takes part in
many amusements for weeks or months suddenly
discovers that he is never taken into the con-
fidence of the family. It is very significant that
Russian women never gossip about one another.
Tragedies that may happen among them are
treated seriously and with delicacy and never as
a scandal; the sincerity of the Russians is too
great, and they do not call what is destiny
or temperament immorality. They are never
ashamed of their tragedies, their unhappiness,
and among themselves they speak of the last
consequences of a tragedy bravely and frankly.
The intensity of feeling in Russian family life
does not permit of little jealousies or suspicions.
Without any hesitation sins are confessed, and
it is rarely that parents abandon unhappy chil-
dren. In many cases in former Russia whole
families were brought to misery by the anarchis-
tic tendencies of one member. There is a won-
derful tie, without narrow-minded despotism,
between daughters and sons and their fathers and
mothers. A great freedom of spirit prevails
everywhere. Conversation flows unhampered by
hypocrisy over the widest range of subjects, and



the grown-up daughters have their share in it.
Russian women are never frivolous, and Russian
mothers have a beautiful, warm dignity; they are
always the best comrades of their husbands and
their sons. It is not what they say that makes
an impression on the foreigner; it is how they
say it.

Finally, it is true that the members of a Rus-
sian family know much more about their guest
than the guest knows about them. There are
so many differences in every-day habits that, fas-
cinated by the strange color, the traveler often
forgets the individual person in the impression
as a whole. In the absolute informality it seems
as if Russian servants are accustomed to guests,
and therefore the foreigner feels that there are
no embarrassing extras for him. There are, too,
always touching little attentions. "We noticed
that you preferred this dish," the host may say,
"or this entertainment." He sends a box of
candies or cigarettes which the guest has chosen
among others, or he bestows the favorite flowers.
In any case, there is always a surprise for the
guest, and, amazingly, it is just the thing he
likes best.



Russian ladies seldom take part at the zakoust-
has and vodka served at a sideboard, sometimes
in another room. They have excellent things
to eat, but they drink only in special cases, and
then the preference is for champagne. The
Russian lady rarely drinks, and it is not usual for
her to smoke. It is understood that the men
may smoke their cigarettes during the meal.
Russian conversation is a source of ever-flowing
interest. It may begin with every-day events
and end in the depths of abstract philosophy.
Russian poets voice the expression of the people
and absolutely without exaggeration. Their
deep knowledge of art and science, their never-
satisfied curiosity, expel from life all banality.
Life to them is the great mystery; nothing is
commonplace. Even their debauches are of an
extraordinary intensity.

After dinner a troika party is arranged. The
silence and fresh air afford relaxation and pre-
pare for the new and interesting pleasures to
come. The troikas speed noiselessly through
alleys on the banks of the Neva, through poor
quarters, over big stones to other islands, where
there is a stop before a summer variety show, a



huge garden with cabarets in the open air, hght-
opera, prize-fighters, and other attractions.
There are crowds inside, and the many outside
who are peeping in are laughingly accepted and
never chased away. It is very democratic, this
autocratic Russia. When ladies are in the party,
private boxes are preferred. Supper with
champagne is served, and a httle private dance
may be arranged. After all, the chief enter-
tainment is when the Gipsies are let in. It is not
a real party without them. This Russian fad
is not at first understandable to the foreigner.
To him Gipsies would mean a fantastic group of
strange, beauties and black-haired men in theat-
rical costumes. Instead, middle-aged, or per-
haps young women, in untidy clothing, sleepy
and apathetic, slouch in. One of the principal
singers has a bad toothache, and her face is
wrapped in a white handkerchief. The men are
common-looking and, on the whole, rather repul-

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Online LibraryLeonie Ida Philipovna Souiny-SeydlitzRussia of yesterday and to-morrow → online text (page 15 of 17)