13. THE FACE OF RUSSIA
Whoever has not travelled on the broad-gauge Russian railways does not know the delights of great cars half as wide again as American cars, berths too long and too ample, ceilings so high that you can stand in the upper berth. The train takes its smooth-rolling, leisurely way, drawn by wood-burning locomotives belching sweet-smelling birch smoke and showers of sparks, stopping long at little stations where there are always good restaurants. At every halt boys bring trays of tea glasses through the train, sandwiches, sweet cakes, and cigarettes. There are no specified hours for arriving anywhere, no fixed times for eating or sleeping. Often on a journey I have seen the dining-car come on at midnight, and everybody go in and have dinner with interminable conversation, lasting until time for breakfast. One man rents bedclothes from the porter, and disrobes in full view of the rest of the company in his compartment; others turn in on the bare mattresses; and the rest sit up drinking eternal chai and endlessly arguing. Windows are shut and doors. One stifles in thick cigarette smoke, and there are snores from the upper berth, and continual movement of persons getting up, going to bed, drifting in and out.
In Russia every one talks about his soul. Almost any conversation might have been taken from the pages of a Dostoievsky novel. The Russians get drunk on their talk; voices ring, eyes flash, they are exalted with a passion of self-revelation. In Petrograd I have seen a crowded café at two o'clock in the morning - of course no liquor was to be had - shouting and singing and pounding on the tables, quite intoxicated with ideas.
Outside the windows of the train the amazing country flows by, flat as a table; for hours the ancient forest marches, alongside, leagues and leagues of it, untouched by the axe, mysterious and sombre. At the edge of the trees runs a dusty track along which an occasional heavy cart lumbers, its rough-coated horse surmounted by a great wooden yoke from which dangles a brass bell, the driver a great-shouldered mujik with a brutish face overhung with hair. Hours apart are little thatched towns, mere slashings in the primeval woods, built of untrimmed boards around the wooden church, with its bright-painted cupolas, and the government vodka shop - closed now - easily the most pretentious building in the village. Wooden sidewalks on stilts, unpaved alley-like streets that are sloughs of mud, immense piles of cord-wood to burn in the engine - for all the world like a railroad town in the timber of the great Northwest. Immense women with gay-coloured kerchiefs around their hair and dazzling teeth, booted giants of men in peaked caps and whiskers, and priests in long, black coats and stovepipe hats with brims. Along the platform, tall policemen much in evidence, with their yellow blouses, scarlet revolver cords, and swords. Soldiers, of course, everywhere - by the tens of thousands....Then great fields breaking suddenly from the woods and stretching to the far horizon, golden-heavy with wheat with black stumps sticking up in it.
Russians are not patriotic like other races, I think. The Tsar to them is not the head of the government; he is a divinity. The government itself - the bureaucracy - commands no loyalty from the masses; it is like a separate nation imposed upon the Russian people. As a rule, they do not know what their flag looks like, and if they do it is not the symbol of Russia. And the Russian national hymn is a hymn, a half-mystical great song; but no one feels it necessary to rise and remove his hat when it is played. As a people, they have no sympathy with imperialism - they do not wish to make Russia a great country by conquest - in fact, they do not seem to realize that there is any world outside of Russia; that is why they fight so badly on an invasion of the enemy's country. But once let the enemy set foot on Russian soil, and the mujiks turn into savage beasts, as they did in 1812 and in 1915. Their farms, their houses, the woods and plains and holy cities are under the heel of the foreigner; that is why they fight so well on defence.
Russians seem to have a Greek feeling for the land, for the wide flat plains, the deep forests, the mighty rivers, the tremendous arch of sky that is over Russia, the churches incrusted with gold and jewels, where countless generations of their fathers have touched the ikons, for the tremendous impulses that set whole villages wandering in search of a sacred river, for the cruel hardness of the northern winter, for the fierce love and the wild gaiety, and the dreadful gloom, and the myths and legends which are Russia. Once a young officer travelled with us in our compartment, and all day long he gazed out of the window at the dark woods, the vast fields, the little towns, and tears rolled down his cheeks. 'Russia is a mighty mother; Russia is a mighty mother,' he said over and over again....
Another time it was a middle-aged civilian with a bullet head shaved close, and wide, staring, light-blue eyes that gave him the expression of a mystic.
'We Russians do not know how great we are,' he said. 'We cannot grasp the idea of so many millions of people to communicate with. We do not realize how much land, how much riches we have. Why, I can tell you of one, Mr Yousoupov of Moscow, who owns more land than he knows, whose estates are greater than the territory of any German King. And no Russian realizes how many races are embraced in this nation; I myself know only thirty-nine....'
Yet this vast chaotic agglomeration of barbarian races, brutalized and tyrannized over for centuries, with only the barest means of intercommunication, without consciousness of any one ideal, has developed a profound national unity of feeling and thought and an original civilization that spreads by its own power. Loose and easy and strong, it invades the life of the far-flung savage tribes of Asia; it crosses the frontiers into Rumania, Galicia, East Prussia - in spite of organized efforts to stop it. Even the English, who usually cling stubbornly to their way of living in all countries and under all conditions, are overpowered by Russia; the English colonies in Moscow and Petrograd are half Russian. And it takes holds of the minds of men because it is the most comfortable, the most liberal way of life. Russian ideas are the most exhilarating, Russian thought the freest, Russian art the most exuberant; Russian food and drink are to me the best, and Russians themselves are, perhaps, the most interesting human beings that exist.
They have a sense of space and time which fits them. In America we are the possessors of a great empire - but we live as if this were a crowded island like England, where our civilization came from. Our streets are narrow and our cities congested. We live in houses crushed up against one another, or in apartments, layer on layer; each family a little shut-in-cell, self-centred and narrowly private. Russia is also a great empire; but there the people live as if they knew it were one. In Petrograd some streets are a quarter-mile broad and there are squares three-quarters of a mile across, and buildings whose facades run on uninterrupted for half a mile. Houses are always open; people are always visiting each other at all hours of the day and night. Food and tea and conversation flow interminably; every one acts just as he feels like acting, and says just what he wants to. There are no particular times for getting up or going to bed or eating dinner, and there is no conventional way of murdering a man, or of making love. To most people a Dostoievsky novel reads like the chronicle of an insane asylum; but that, I think, is because the Russians are not restrained by the traditions and conventions that rule the social conduct of the rest of the world.
This is not only true of the great cities but of the small towns, and even the villages as well. The Russian peasant cannot be taught to tell time by the clock. He is so close to the earth, so much a part of it, that machine-made time means nothing to him. But he must be regular, or his crops will not grow; so he ploughs and plants and reaps by rain, wind, snow, and the march of the seasons - and he lives according to the sun, moon, and stars. Once the peasant is driven into the cities to work in the factories he loses the driving compulsion of nature, and when he has risen above the necessity of factory hours, there is no further reason for him to live a regular life.
We saw something of life in a Russian household; samovars perpetually steaming, servants shuffling in and out with fresh water and fresh tea-leaves, laughing and joining in the perpetual clatter of conversation. In and out flowed an unbroken stream of relatives, friends, comparative strangers. There was always tea, always a long sideboard heaped with zakouska, always a hundred little groups telling stories, loudly arguing, laughing uproariously, always little parties of card-players. Meals occurred whenever anybody got hungry - or rather there was a perpetual meal going on. Some went to bed, others rose after a long sleep and had breakfast. Day and night it never seemed to stop.
And in Petrograd we knew some people who received callers between eleven o'clock at night and dawn. Then they went to bed, and did not get up again until evening. For three years they hadn't seen daylight - except in the white nights of summer. Many interesting characters went there; among them an old Jew who had bought immunity from the police for years, and who confided to us that he had written a history of Russian political thought in five volumes; four volumes had appeared, and had been regularly confiscated upon publication - he was now engaged upon the fifth. He was always discussing politics in a loud voice, breaking off every now and then to look out of the window to see if there were any police listening. For he had been in jail once for speaking the word 'socialism.' Before he began to talk he would take us into a corner and in a whisper explain that when he said 'daisy,' that meant 'socialism'; and when he said 'poppy,' that meant 'revolution.' And then he would go ahead, striding up and down the room, and shouting all sorts of destructive doctrines.
For the Russia of melodrama and of the English popular magazines still exists. I remember seeing some prisoners on the platform of a station where our train stopped. They were huddled between the tracks: two or three young stupid-looking mujiks with cropped heads, a bent old man half-blind, a Jew or so, and some women, one a mere girl with a baby. Around them was a ring of police with bared swords.
'Where are they going?' I asked the conductor.
'Siberia,' he whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
'What have they done?'
'Don't ask questions,' he snapped nervously. 'If you ask questions in Russia that is what happens to you!'
There were some preposterous war regulations in Petrograd. If you spoke German over the telephone you were subject to a fine of three thousand roubles, and if you were heard talking German on the street the penalty was Siberia. I have it on very good authority that two professors of Oriental languages were walking down the Morskaia, speaking ancient Armenian to each other, they were arrested, and the police swore that it was German. And from that day to this they have never again been heard of.
In spite of this, however, the fact remains that any German with money could go on living in Petrograd or Moscow, and manifest his patriotism in any way he pleased. For instance, the large German colony of Moscow gave a dinner in the city's most fashionable hotel during November, 1914, at which German songs were chanted, addresses in German delivered which consigned the Tsar and his allies to purgatory, and shouts of 'Hoch der Kaiser!' rent the air. Nothing whatever was done about this; but six months later the police determined to teach them a lesson without appearing at all prominent - which would have cut off their German revenues. Quantities of vodka were dug up from somewhere, the ikons taken from the churches, and, encouraged by the police, the mob started out to wreck German houses, shops, and hotels. After the first few of these had been demolished the people turned their attention to the French, English, and Russian establishments, shouting: 'Down with the rich! You have speculated too long with our money!' Before the riot ended almost every great store in Moscow had been smashed and pillaged, and many wealthy Russians, men and women, torn from their automobiles and carriages and thrown into the canal. The Russian people of the upper classes did not disdain to take advantage of the situation. They sent their footmen and valets down to plunge into the riot, and take whatever silks and laces and furs they could lay their hands on....As a consequence of this patriotic demonstration, the governor of the city, the governor of the province, and the chief of police were discharged from office.
How the Germans were finally removed from Moscow, is another characteristic tale of Russian methods. Did they banish them? Did they put them in detention camps? No. The police let it privately be known that if the Moscow Germans wished to leave Russia, there was a means. In Moscow, they said, it was impossible for a German to get a passport to return to his own country; but if he would go to the government of Perm, on the edge of Siberia at the base of the Ural Mountains, he could there apply for a passport and be allowed to leave. Hundreds of Germans took the hint and crowded the trains that went in the direction of Perm. They are still there.
There are four distinct sets of Russian secret police and their main
job is to supervise the regular police and to spy upon each other, besides
the dvorniks, who act as concierges at your front door, and
are all members of the government detective force. In times like the present,
particularly, a mere suspicion is enough to send you to a military court
martial unless you have influence, or to spirit you away to Siberia.
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