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A Few Russian Photographs
1870, 1 October
Good Words, Oct 1, 1870, p.672.
W.R.S. Ralston "A Few Russian Photographs" in Good Words, Oct 1, 1870, p.667-673.
Not far from the Cathedral of St. Isaac in St Petersburg, in the street called the Little Morskaya, there stands a house in which a foreign visitor to Russia may learn more in a few minutes respecting the common people of the country their physiognomy, their dress, and their whole outward bearing than he can acquire elsewhere in many long hours of wearisome research. That house contains the photographic establishment of Mr. Carrick, a member of the AngloRussian community, which musters two thousand strong in the capital, and has representatives scattered about in all parts of the empire. For some years past he and his partner, Mr. MacGregor, have been in the habit of photographing all the best specimens of peasant men and peasant women, as well as all the other dwellers in the city, who have come under their notice. Whenever a particularly Russian representative passed underneath their windows, they immediately rushed out and secured his portrait for their gallery. Some of their sitters were so unaccustomed to scientific manipulation, that they expressed great alarm at the operation which it was proposed to perform, fearing, like a certain old lady in Punch, that the camera would explode, or inflict upon them some permanent disfigurement. Sometimes also an old woman of excessive piety would be afraid of compromising herself by unlawful dealings with the Black Art; but the photographers generally succeeded in dispelling the fears and removing the scruples of their models, who usually ended by expressing great gratification at the result attained. From the numerous portraits which they have thus been enabled to take, our countrymen have made a collection which is highly esteemed in Russia itself, and which, as far as foreign visitors are concerned, is of the highest possible value, teaching them so much while they are in the country, and enabling them after their return home, to recall to mind so vividly the forms and faces of the people among whom they have been sojourning. It is to this collection, and to another which has been on view this year in the Exhibition at St. Petersburg, that we now propose to call the attention of our readers. Out of Mr. Carrick's album we have chosen twelve of the most characteristic photographs.
With the exception of two, which represent a priest and a nun, they are all portraits of men and women belonging to the working classes. The first who figures upon our plate is a seller of the large gloves worn in winter. No. 2 and No. 5 are girls who trade in eggs and herrings. No. 3 is a peasant travelling in search of work; his staff is in his hand, and an extra pair of shoes, made of bark, are hanging at his back. Thus provided for his journey, he will perhaps wander for hundreds of miles, only too happy if at length he reaches a district where labour is scarce, and where, by the constant and arduous toil of months, he may gain enough to allow of his taking back to the distant home in which his wife and children are anxiously awaiting him, a sufficient sum of money to pay his share in the cost of governing the country. No. 4 is one of the numerous church-beggars men who either stand at church doors, or who wander about the country, begging alms in the name of Heaven for some charitable purpose, generally for the building or for the restoration of a church. The man in question has formerly been in the army, as his cross and medals show. In his hand is a book bearing a cross on the cover. Inside the book is written the object of his request, and his permission to raise money for it. His head is bare, and even in the coldest weather he will go exposed to the icy winds without any cap or hat. Scandal declares that many of these collectors are not entirely to be depended upon. But they all have at least some amount of conscience, and coins which are laid upon the cross which sanctifies the book are sure to be applied to its holy purpose, though those which are placed elsewhere are devoted to the collector's personal expenses. No. 7 is a peasant in the act of crossing himself, just as he would stand in church. No. n is an excellent type of the Russian moujik. See how erect he stands. There is nothing of the slave about him, although no doubt when his portrait was taken he was a serf. But serfdom has not made the Russian peasant a cringing being. Except in the presence of his own lord, the serf always bore himself like a free man, standing proudly upright, or stalking behind his plough with the air of a Sarmatian Cincinnatus. His hat is worthy of observation. There are various types of hats in Russia, but his is what is called the Moscow hat a tall brimless cylinder, often resembling that which caricature bestows upon the Irishman, not unfrequently reminding the English tourist of the head-dress worn by the casual scarecrow in his native fields. No. 8 is what we may call a cab-driver, an izvoshchik, who is waiting for a fare. His neat little cap is cocked jauntily on one side of his head. In his hands he holds the knout, that nightmare of Russophobists, that terrible instrument of torture of which we have heard so much in books of Russian travel and romance. In No. 9 we see a good specimen of a servant girl in a Russian family of the middle class. No. 6 represents two peasants in sheepskin "touloupes" and their great winter boots, enjoying a cup of tea. On the table stands the samovar, on the top of which may faintly be discerned the white teapot One of the tea-drinkers holds in his hand the saucer from which he is about to drink ; the other, with manifest satisfaction, has just turned down the tea-cup which he has drained. As one wanders along the streets of any Russian town, it is very pleasant to see the bearded occupants of the lower classes of traklirs, or taverns, enjoying the innocuous beverage over which all business is discussed, by which every bargain is celebrated. His taste for tea offers a sufficient reason for hoping that at some future period the Russian peasant will be an eminently sober member of society. At the present moment, unfortunately, the samovar, or tea-urn, is either unknown, or is but poorly represented, in the majority of villages. At any social gathering spirits form the only means of entertainment which can be provided, and their effects are only too apparent when the meeting comes to an end. In No. 12 we see a good specimen of the Russian priest in his long violet gown, with his hair dangling about his shoulders, and his beard spreading majestically across his chest. Lastly, we come to No. 10, a nun wearing the strange head-dress which acts as so unsightly a frame around the somewhat harsh features of the sisters of the Russian Church. With respect to the priest and the nun we do not propose to say more at present than that the priests are, as a general rule, so poor, that it is almost impossible for them to devote much time to anything resembling study, and that therefore they do not occupy that position in society to which a clergyman seems to be justly entitled to aspire; and that the greater part of the nuns appear to lead lives which are almost absolutely useless. There are, it is true, a few Sisters of Charity in Russia, and the work which they do is of the most excellent kind; but the majority of the Russian nuns do not belong to any working order. Those of our readers who wish to study the questions relating to the Russian clergy, may be referred to the work of Madame Romanoff, on the GraecoRussian Church, a book which contains a great amount of information, although its pictures are pervaded by a far too rosy hue. But it is with the Russian peasants that we propose to deal, wishing to convey to our readers some slight idea of what they are really like, and of what sort of lives they actually lead.
Too many writers have spoken, and are still likely to speak, of the Russian peasant as if he were as wild and uncouth an animal as the bear which is popularly supposed to be always strolling about his house. We can scarcely wonder that a stranger who, when he first enters Russia, happens to see a group of wild-looking men, and wan, wrinkled women at a railway station, imagines that he has fallen amongst a race of savages, and gazes upon these new specimens of humanity with a mixture of fear and of aversion; but if he lives long enough in the country, and if he only studies aright the people among whom he is sojourning, he ought to be able to correct his first false impressions, and to arrive at a truer knowledge of what are the characteristics of the Slavonic race. The Russian villager is generally a kindly, soft-hearted being, with strong affections, with a genuine religious feeling, and with a natural taste both for sentiment and for humour. He is sincerely attached to his country, and for his birth-place he entertains a love which is almost a passion. Fond as he is of wandering, he always thinks of his native village as the spot to which he longs to return, and in which he hopes to end his days. Between the different members of each family a close attachment ordinarily prevails, the children looking up to their parents with warm affection and real reverence, and the parents entertaining for their children a love which lasts long after the time when in our country the young birds would have gone far away from their native nest. The condition of women in Russia has long been one of great discomfort, and there have been but too many cases in which wives have been terribly ill used by their lords and masters; but such cases were not sufficient to constitute a rule, and it is to be hoped that, in the better day which has lately dawned for Russia, the position of the Russian peasant woman will be far better than it used to be, and that, as she rises in the social scale, she will gradually gain the respect, as well as the love, which is due to her. In no country has so much been done as in Russia to improve, in a short space of time, the position of the rural classes. But a few years ago they were slaves bound to the soil, liable to all manner of ill-treatment at the will of a careless or hard-hearted proprietor. Now they are free, and if they will only be true to themselves they have no one to fear. In the evil days of old they had no chance of redress if a wrong were done them. The rich then too often ground the faces of the poor, and even if the poor cried aloud, there was none to help them, no ear was open to their complaint, no hand was stretched out to save them. But since the emancipation all this has been changed. Within the last six years open courts of law have been established, trial by jury has been introduced, and judges have been appointed at fair salaries to carry out the administration of justice. Under the old system a judge had to keep up appearances and maintain a family on a salary of, perhaps, fifty pounds a year. The consequence was that he lived on bribes, and in his court the richest suitor always carried the day. But now there are few countries in the world in which a poor man is more certain to gain redress for a wrong done him by a rich man, to obtain a speedy settlement of any righteous claim he may have to advance, than in that Russia over which, but a few years ago, brooded the darkness of corruption and injustice. Therefore it is that the study of Russian village life is not only interesting, but is pleasant, for it offers to the observer who looks for them aright manifest signs of a very welcome improvement in the condition of many millions of people, while it makes him rejoice at the abolition of a system which could not fail to be productive of immeasurable moral degradation and physical suffering.
Even under favourable circumstances it is always a hard struggle which the peasant in the North of Russia has to maintain. The soil there is thin and sterile. Wastes and sand often extend for leagues and leagues around on every side, broken only by dark and melancholy forests. There the peasant's house is a mere hut, within which the atmosphere is stifling, the smoke circulates everywhere, often scarcely able to find any chink through which to escape, and vermin swarm. As Mr. Michell says in the exceedingly valuable, though somewhat too desponding account he has given of the condition of the agricultural labourer in Russia* "These northern cottages contain scarcely any furniture except a deal table and a bench placed against each wall. There is no bedding beyond a few pillows; a few pots of burnt clay or cast-iron make up the sum of the peasants' domestic utensils." It is generally supposed that every cottage contains a samovar, but in reality it is only in the houses of the wealthier peasants that such a luxury can be found. You may travel through village alter village in the poorer parts of Russia and not be able to find a single tea-urn; only in every room one is certain to find a holy picture, before which hangs a little lamp, or below which bums a candle. Even the poorest peasant would think himself accursed if he could not manage to set aside some little sum for the purpose of showing his respect for the religion which is sometimes his only consolation amid the sorrows of a very hard life. In these miserable huts the peasants spend a great part of their lives, and the women scarcely ever go to any distance from them; but the men often wander far away, walking for hundreds of miles across Russia, for the sake of finding such work as will enable them, after very hard toil, to return home with their little treasure of a few shillings ; and whether at home, or in their wanderings in distant governments, the Russian peasants lead almost ascetic lives as far as eating and drinking are concerned. As Mr. Michell says "The Russian peasant's diet consists of a hunch of black rye bread, a bowl of milk or curds in the morning. In the evening he perhaps lias a similar meal, and his mid-day dinner consists generally of cabbage or mushroom soup, of which meat is but seldom the basis, of baked buckwheat eaten with milk, oil, or butter, according to the means of the family, and of an unlimited quantity of rye bread." His drink is mostly water, stronger drinks being only found on holy days in the houses of the richer peasants. On these occasions, unfortunately, it is but too true that the peasant makes amends for his forced abstinence by getting most unnecessarily drunk.
There used to be great excuse in former years for the Russian peasant if he drank in order to forget his troubles. One of the tales of the people describes misfortune as driving the peasant into the pot-house persuading him to pledge all that he had in order to obtain drink, and finally leaving him bare as a linden-tree that had been stripped of its bark. The peasant who was under a tyrannical lord, and who could scarcely call anything his own, was too often induced by bitter need to drink away his senses and his possessions; but now that he is a free man, and that all that he gains will be his own, it is to be hoped that he will set at defiance that temptation which has always proved so strong for men of the Slavonian race. The enemies of the Emancipation have described the peasant, since it took place, as a lazy and reckless vagabond, whose one idea was to become intoxicated; but in reality the Russian peasant is one of the most hard-working among men, and if he can but overcome his tendency to drown his sorrows in drink, he will probably prove a thrifty and prosperous agriculturist. In many parts of the country he is doing well and laying by money. Many and many an estate has already passed from the hands of a reckless landlord into those of his formerly despised tenants, and the free man proudly treads as possessor on soil to which his ancestors may have bent their brow in abject terror.
Everything seems to point to a better future for the peasant class in Russia than it has yet known, and it is especially to be hoped that the lot of woman will be improved throughout the country. "Ages have passed," says one of the chief of the Russian poets, " everything else in the world has changed many times, only God has forgotten to change the dreary lot of the peasant woman." Even the type has degenerated, he says; so much has she undergone, so much has she suffered, that her expression has become one "of constant fear or endless suffering." But after having described the wan and wasted forms and faces of the ordinary peasant women in Russia, the poet goes on to draw a picture of another type of the Slavonian woman. "In her you see," he says, "a quiet dignity of face, a strength, a beauty of movement, a queenly look, a regal gait When she passes it seems as if a sunbeam were moving beside you. When she looks at you you feel as if she had given you a rouble. Her life is like that of other women, but on her no mud sticks. She is tall, erect, rosy-cheeked. All that she wears looks well. In all that she undertakes she is successful. Patiently does she endure both hunger and cold. She loves to labour, and on a feast day she is as gay as any one. Firm lips cover her strong and handsome teeth. No one borrows from her; she has not too much pity for the beggar, for she says, ' Why does he go about idle instead of working?' She knows that the highest good results from work, and she labours herself because everything depends upon that for her and hers." Unfortunately such women as this are not often seen ma Russian village. As a general rule, there is very little beauty among the female villagers. The men are often handsome, and their good looks increase with their years, until in their old age they are models of patriarchal majesty. It is true, however, that the flowing beard is partly the cause of this, as may be seen by comparing the shorn plainness of a middle-aged soldier with the hirsute picturesqueness of his civilian brother. But the women are exposed to the sun and rain too much, and have to work too hard on but scanty fare, for them to retain long the prettiness which they often display in childhood. But if they are not strikingly handsome, they are, at least, strong and hardy, and full of good-humour. The amount of toil which they contentedly undergo is wonderful, and, except as far as their complexions are concerned, they do not seem to be much the worse for it. In some districts, as for instance in the government of Yaroslav, the greater part of the farming is done by women. They plough, and reap, and mow; scarcely a man is to be seen among them in the fields, unless it is one of advanced age. The reason of this preponderance of female labour is that the men of these districts are for the most part employed in the cities either as skilled workmen or as servants. The poverty of the soil has driven them to seek employment elsewhere; and as they rank among the most energetic and intelligent of Russians, they generally succeed in obtaining what they require, and the care of looking after their little farms mainly devolves upon the women and children of their families. In other cases all the members of the family circle work together in the fields at such busy periods of the year as harvest-time, as may be seen by any one who consults the admirable photographs which Mr. Carrick and Mr. MacGregor have taken in the country during the last twelve months a different series from that of which we have already spoken.
From these pictures it is quite possible even for persons who have never been in Russia to acquire a good idea of the life of a Russian peasant, for they represent most of his ordinary avocations, and of the scenes amid which he spends his life. In one of them, for instance, we see him ploughing or harrowing his little portion of land; in another he is sowing; in a third he and his family are reaping the longed-for harvest; in a fourth the com-ricks are being piled up behind his cottage. Here we see a village of the usual tumble-down pattern so universal in Russia, the walls of the cottages leaning this way and that, the roofs full of holes which give free entrance to all the winds of heaven. In the foreground the cattle are drinking at the pond, or a party of children are fishing in the stream, or playing at some game in one of the courtyards. Others of the photographs represent winter scenes, and most faithfully do they render the effects which are produced in the woods and upon the plains when the mantle of what the peasants call "Good Mother Winter" has been spread over the land. It is not too much to say that these photographs of which Messrs. Carrick and MacGregor exhibited about sixty in the Exhibition at St. Petersburg this year, are worth a whole library of ordinary tourist books to any one who wishes to get a really true idea of what Russian peasants are like. Tourists in Russia are very apt to err, but these photographs unmistakably tell the truth.
Not a bad means of judging of the character of the Russian peasant is afforded by the collections which have been made of the stories and songs which give him pleasure. From the folk-lore of Russia some idea may be derived of the general tone of thought and sentiment among the common people of Russia, and of the nature of the views they take of life. There is a softness and kindliness in these legends and songs, from which it is easy to see that the people who tell them are kindly and tender-hearted, and imaginative. Nowhere is this national softness more visible than in the popular stories about the other world and the beings who tenant it, many of which are evidently old heathenish traditions, more or less modified by Christian influences. In one of them, for instance, we are told that a certain peasant went out to plough, and while he was at his work a little demon stole the dinner which the peasant had put aside. The peasant came to look for his meal, found that it had vanished, and said, "Here is a wonder; I have seen no one, but my dinner is gone; surely the devil must have taken it. Well, God be with him; I can do without it." The little demon went down below, and told the ruler of the lower world what had happened. "What!" said the fallen angel, "is there some one living who wishes God to be with me ? Take him back his dinner at once, and see that all goes well with him." And from that day the peasant prospered and became rich. Another story tells how a certain miser lay suffering in the lower world, until an opportunity was given him of communicating with his heirs, and telling them to turn to good uses the money which he had hidden away in the earth. Among other charitable actions they built a bridge with it, for the benefit of the village. One day a little child passed by, and saw the bridge, and said, "What a beautiful bridge! God bless the man that built it." And that same moment the misers soul was taken out of torment. Very touching also is the story of the peasant woman who died leaving behind her a little new-born child. After its mother's death, the child at first cried without ceasing all day and all night; but after a while the crying used to stop when night came, and in the early morning it would be found sleeping quietly and contentedly, though it recommenced its wailing as soon as it awoke. The family could not understand why it became soothed at night; so it was agreed to set a watch. A light was concealed in a pitcher, and, provided with this sort of dark lantern,
the child's relatives waited in the room in which its cradle was placed till night fell. As long as the day lasted the child continued to cry, but the sound died away as darkness came on. The -watchers waited till all was still, and then they suddenly broke the pitcher which contained the light. Then they saw that the dead mother was bending over the cradle, and suckling her child, and when she saw the light she cried aloud and wrung her hands, and said, "Why did ye do this? For now my child must die." And so saying, she faded away; and from' that time forward the child refused to be comforted, and soon afterwards it died.
W. R. S. RALSTON.
* "Reports from H.M. Representatives respecting the Tenure of Land in the several Countries of Europe: 1869-70."