FELCHERS, PRIESTS AND ICONS
FELCHERS, PRIESTS AND ICONS
Felcher Is Student Of Medicine--Or Pill Passer Of Army Experience --Sanitation And Ventilation--Priests Strange Looking To Soldiers --Duties And Responsibilities--Effect Of Bolshevism On Peasant's Religious Devotions--The Icons--Interesting Stories--Doughboys Buried By Russian Priests--Respect For Russian Religion.
During the fall of 1918 when the influenza epidemic was wreaking such great havoc among the soldiers and natives in the Archangel Province, our medical corps as heretofore explained were put to almost superhuman efforts in combating the spread of this terrible disease. There were very few native doctors in the region, and it was, therefore, well nigh impossible to enlist outside aid. In some of the villages we received word that there were men called felchers who could possibly be of some assistance. We were at once curious to ascertain just what kind of persons these individuals were and upon investigation found that the Russian Company located in our sector had a young officer who was also a felcher and who was giving certain medical attention to his troops. We immediately sent for him and in answer to our inquiries he explained as nearly as possible just what a felcher was.
It seems that in Russia, outside the large cities and communities, there is a great scarcity of regularly licensed medical practitioners, many of these latter upon graduation enter the army where the pay is fairly good and the work comparatively easy, the rest of them enter the cities where, of course, practice is larger and the remuneration much better than would be possible in a small community. These facts developed in the smaller communities the use of certain second-rate students of medicine or anyone having a smattering of medical knowledge, called felchers.
In many cases the felcher is an old soldier who has traveled around the world a bit; and from his association in the army hospitals with doctors and students has picked up the technique of dressing wounds, setting broken bones and administering physic. Very often they are, of course, unable to properly diagnose the ailments or conditions of their patients. They, however, are shrewd enough to follow out the customary army method of treating patients and regardless of the disease promptly administer vile doses of medicine, usually a physic, knowing full well that to the average patient, the stronger the medicine and the more of it he gets, the better the treatment is, and a large percentage of the recoveries effected by these felchers is more or less a matter of faith rather than physic or medicine.
The regularly licensed practitioners as a rule have great contempt for these felchers, but the fact remains that in the small communities where they practice the felcher accomplishes a great amount of good, for having traveled considerably and devoted some time to the study of medicine he is at least superior in intelligence to the average peasant, and, therefore, better qualified to meet such emergencies as may arise.
This lack of medical practitioners, coupled with the apathy of the peasants regarding sanitary precautions and their unsanitary methods of living accounts to some extent for the violence and spread of plagues, so common throughout Russia.
Regarding the spread of disease and plagues through Russia caused as above stated by lack of sanitary conditions, a word or two further would not be amiss. In the province of Archangel, for example, a great majority of houses are entirely of log construction, built and modelled throughout by the owner, and perhaps some of his good neighbors. They are really a remarkable example of what may be done in the way of construction without the use of nails and of the modern improved methods of house construction. It is an actual fact that these simple peasants, equipped only with their short hand axes, with the use of which they are adepts, can cut down trees, hew the logs and build their homes practically without the use of any nails whatever. The logs, of course, are first well seasoned before they are put into the house itself and when they are joined together they are practically air tight, but to make sure of this fact the cracks are sealed tight with moss hammered into the chinks. Next the windows of these houses are always double, that is, there is one window on the outside of the frame and another window on the inside. Needless to say, during the winter these windows are practically never opened.
During the winter months the entire family--and families in this country are always large--eat, sleep, and live in one room of the house in which the huge brick home-made stove is located. In addition to the human beings living in the room there are often a half dozen or more chickens concealed beneath the stove, sometimes several sheep, and outside the door may be located the stable for the cattle. Nevertheless, the peasants are remarkably healthy, and in this region of the world epidemics are rather uncommon which may perhaps be explained by the fact that the peasants are out of doors a large part of the time and in addition thereto the air is very pure and healthful. Sewerage systems and such means of drainage are entirely unknown, even in the city of Archangel, which at the time we were there, contained some hundred thousand inhabitants. The only sewerage there was an open sewer that ran through the streets of the city. Small wonder it is under such conditions that when an epidemic does break out that it spreads so far and so rapidly.
One of the most familiar characters seen in every town, large or small, was the Batushka. This character is usually attired in a long, black or gray smock and his hair reaches in long curls to his shoulders. At first sight to the Yankee soldiers he resembled very much the members of the House of David or so-called "Holy Roller" sect in this country. This mysterious individual, commonly called Batushka, as we later discovered, was the village priest. The priest of course belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church and whose head in the old days was the Czar. The priests differ very greatly from the ministers of the gospel and priests in the English-speaking world. They have certain religious functions to perform in certain set ways, outside of which they never venture to stray. The Russian priest is merely expected to conform to certain observances and to perform the rites and ceremonies prescribed by the Church. He rarely preaches or exhorts, and neither has nor seeks to have a moral control over his flock. Marriage among the priests is not prohibited but is limited, that is to say, the priest is allowed to marry but once, and consequently, in choosing the wife he usually picks one of the strongest and healthiest women in the community. This selection is in all seriousness an important matter in the priest's life because he draws practically no salary from his position and must own a share of the community land, till and cultivate the same in exactly the same manner as the rest of the community, consequently his wife must be strong and healthy in order to assist him in the many details of managing his small holdings. In case she were such a strong and healthy person, the loss of the wife would be a calamity in more ways than one to the priest as is apparent by the above statements.
While the religious beliefs and doctrines of the average peasant is only used by him as a practical means toward an end, yet it must be admitted that the Russian people are in a certain sense religious. They regularly go to church on Sundays and Holy Days, of which there are countless numbers, cross themselves repeatedly when they pass a church or Icon, take the holy communion at stated seasons, rigorously abstain from animal food, not only on Wednesdays and Fridays but also during Lent and the other long fasts, make occasional pilgrimages to the holy shrines and in a word fulfill carefully the ceremonial observance which they suppose necessary for their salvation.
Of theology in its deeper sense the peasant has no intelligent comprehension. For him the ceremonial part of religion suffices and he has the most unbounded childlike confidence in the saving efficacy of the rites which he practices.
Men of education and of great influence among the people were these sad-faced priests, until the Bolsheviks came to undermine their power; for the Bolsheviks have spared not the old Imperial government. The church had been a potent organization for the Czar to strengthen his sway throughout his far-reaching dominions and every priest was an enlisted crusader of the Little Father. So the Bolsheviki, sweeping over the country, have seized, first of all, upon these priests of Romanoff, torturing them to death with hideous cruelty, if there be any truth in stories, and finding vindictive delight in deriding sacred things and violating holy places.
The moujik, ever susceptible to influence, has been quick to become infected with this bacillus of agnosticism, and while he still professes the faith and observes many of the forms as by habit, his fervor is cooling and already is grown luke-warm. Now on Sundays, despite all of the execrations of the priest, and the terrible threats of eternal damnation, he often dozes the Sabbath away unperturbed on the stove; and lets the women attend to the church going. Under Bolshevik rule Holy Russia will be Agnostic Russia; and it is a pity, for religious teaching was the guiding star of these poor people, and religious precepts, hard, gloomy and dismal though they were, the foundation of the best in their character.
Icons are pictorial, usually half length representations of the Saviour or the Madonna or some patron saint, finished in a very archaic Byzantine style on a yellow or gold background, and vary in size from a square inch to several square feet. Very often the whole picture is covered with various ornaments, ofttimes with precious stones. In respect to their religious significance icons are of two classes, simple or miracle-working. The former are manufactured in enormous quantities and are to be found in every Russian house, from the lowest peasant to the highest official. They are generally placed high up in a corner of the living room facing the door, and every good Orthodox peasant on entering the door bows in the direction of the icon and crosses himself repeatedly. Before and after meals the same ceremony is always performed and on holiday or fete days a small taper or candle is kept burning before the icon throughout the day.
An amusing incident is related which took place in the allied hospital in Shenkursk. A young medical officer had just arrived from Archangel and was sitting in the living room or entrance-way of the hospital directly underneath one of these icons. One of the village ladies, having occasion to call at the hospital, entered the front door and as usual stepped toward the center of the room facing the icon, bowed very low and started crossing herself. The young officer who was unacquainted with the Russian custom, believing that she was saluting him, quickly stepped forward and stretched forth his hand to shake hands with her while she was still in the act of crossing herself. Great was his consternation when he was later informed by his interpreter of the significance of this operation.
Doughboys on the Railroad front at Obozerskaya will recall the fact that when the first three Americans killed in action in North Russia were buried, it was impossible to get one of our chaplains from Archangel to come to Obozerskaya to bury them. The American officer in command engaged the local Russian priest to perform the religious service. By some trick of fate it had happened that these first Americans who fell in action were of Slavic blood, so the strange funeral which the doughboys witnessed was not so incongruous after all.
With the long-haired, wonderfully-robed priest came his choir and many villagers, who occupied one side of the square made by the soldiers standing there in the dusk to do last honors to their dead comrades. With chantings and doleful chorus the choir answered his solemn oratory and devotional intercessions. He swung his sacred censer pot over each body and though we understood no word we knew he was doing reverence to the spirit of sacrifice shown by our fallen comrades. There in the darkness by the edge of the forest, the priest and his ceremony, the firing squad's volley, and the bugler's last call, all united to make that an allied funeral. The American soldier and the priest and his pitiful people had really begun to spin out threads of sympathy which were to be woven later into a fabric of friendliness. The doughboy always respected the honest peasant's religious customs.*****
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