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Russian Peasant Born Linguist--Soldiers See Village Life--Communal Strips Of Land Tilled By Grandfather's Methods--Ash Manure--Rapid Growth During Days Of Perpetual Daylight--Sprinkling Cattle With Holy Water--"Sow In Mud And You Will Be A Prince"--Cabbage Pie At Festival--Home-Brewed "Braga" More Villainous Than Vodka--Winter Occupations And Sports--North Russian Peasants Less Illiterate Than Commonly Supposed.

The province of Archangel is in the far north or forest region of Russia. It is a land of forest and morass, plentifully supplied with water in the form of rivers, lakes and marshes, along the banks of which are scant patches of cultivated land, which is invariably the location of a village. Throughout the whole of this province the climate is very severe. For more than half of the year the ground is covered by deep snow and the rivers are completely frozen. The arable land all told forms little more than two per cent of the vast area. The population is scarce and averages little more at the most than two to the square mile, according to the latest figures, about 1905.

During the late fall and early winter, shortly after Company "A" had been relieved at Ust Padenga, we were stationed in the village of Shegovari. Here we had considerable leisure at our disposal and consequently the writer began devoting more time to his linguistic studies. Difficult as the language seems to be upon one's first introduction to it, it was not long before I was able to understand much of what was said to me, and to express myself in a vague roundabout way. In the latter operation I was much assisted by a peculiar faculty of divination which the Russian peasant possesses to a remarkably high degree. If a foreigner succeeds in expressing about one-fourth of an idea, the Russian peasant can generally fill up the remaining three-fourths from his own intuition. This may perhaps be readily understood when one considers that a great majority of the upper classes speak French or German fluently and a great number English as well. Then, too, the many and varied races that have united and intermingled to form the Russian race may offer an equally satisfactory explanation.

Shegovari may be taken as a fair example of the villages throughout the northern half of Russia, and a brief description of its inhabitants will convey a correct notion of the northern peasantry in general. The village itself is located about forty versts above Shenkursk on the banks of the Vaga river, which meanders and winds about the village so that the river is really on both sides. On account of this location there is more arable land surrounding the village than is found in the average community and dozens of villages are clustered about this particular location, the villages devoting most of their time to agricultural pursuits.

I believe it may safely be said that nearly the whole of the female population and about one-half the male inhabitants are habitually engaged in cultivating the communal land, which comprises perhaps five hundred acres of light, sandy soil. As is typical throughout the province this land is divided into three large fields, each of which is again subdivided into strips. The first field is reserved for one of the most important grains, i.e., rye, which in the form of black bread, is the principal food of the population. In the second are raised oats for the horses and here and there some buckwheat which is also used for food. The third field lies fallow and is used in the summer for pasturing the cattle.

This method of dividing the land is so devised in order to suit the triennial rotation of crops, a very simple system, but quite practical nevertheless. The field which is used this year for raising winter grain, will be used next summer for raising summer grain and in the following year will lie fallow. Every family possesses in each of the two fields under cultivation one or more of the subdivided strips, which he is accountable for and which he must cultivate and attend to.

The arable lands are of course carefully manured because the soil at its best is none too good and would soon exhaust it. In addition to manuring the soil the peasant has another method of enriching the soil. Though knowing nothing of modern agronomical chemistry, he, as well as his forefathers, have learned that if wood be burnt on a field and the ashes be mixed with the soil, a good harvest may be expected. This simple method accounts for the many patches of burned forest area, which we at first believed to be the result of forest fires. When spring comes round and the leaves begin to appear, a band of peasants, armed with their short hand axes, with which they are most dextrous, proceed to some spot previously decided upon and fell all trees, great and small within the area. If it is decided to use the soil in that immediate vicinity, the fallen trees are allowed to remain until fall, when the logs for building or firewood are dragged away as soon as the first snow falls. The rest of the piles, branches, etc., are allowed to remain until the following spring, at which time fires may be seen spreading in all directions. If the fire does its work properly, the whole of the space is covered with a layer of ashes, and when they have been mixed with the soil the seed is sown, and the harvest, nearly always good, sometimes borders on the miraculous. Barley or rye may be expected to produce about six fold in ordinary years and they may produce as much as thirty fold under exceptional circumstances!

In most countries this method of treating the soil would be an absurdly expensive one, for wood is entirely too valuable a commodity to be used for such a purpose, but in this northern region the forests are so boundless and the inhabitants so few that the latter do not make any great inroad upon the former.

The agricultural year in this region begins in April, with the melting snows. Nature which has been lying dormant for some six months, now awakes and endeavors to make up for lost time. No sooner does the snow disappear than the grass immediately sprouts forth and the shrubs and trees begin to bud. The rapidity of this transition from winter to spring certainly astonished the majority of us, accustomed as we were to more temperate climes.

On the Russian St. George's Day, April 23rd, according to the old Russian calendar, or two weeks later according to our calendar, the cattle are brought forth from their winter hibernation and sprinkled with holy water by the priest. They are never very fat at any time of the year but at this particular period of the year their appearance is almost pitiful. During the winter they are kept cooped up in a shed, usually one adjoining the house or under the porch of same with very little, if any, light or ventilation, and fed almostly exclusively on straw. It is quite remarkable that there is one iota of life left in them for when they are thus turned out in the spring they look like mere ghosts of their former selves. With the horses it is a different matter for it is during the winter months in this region that the peasants do most of their traveling and the horse is constantly exposed to the opposite extreme of exposure and the bleak wind and cold, but is well fed.

Meanwhile the peasants are impatient to begin the field labor--it is an old Russian proverb known to all which says: "Sow in mud and you will be a prince," and true to this wisdom they always act accordingly. As soon as it is possible to plough they begin to prepare the land for the summer grain and this labor occupies them probably till the end of May. Then comes the work of carting out manure, etc., and preparing the fallow field for the winter grain which will last until about the latter part of June when the early hay making generally begins. After the hay making comes the harvest which is by far the busiest time of the year. From the middle of July--especially from St. Elijah's day about the middle of July, when the Saint according to the Russian superstition, may be heard rumbling along the heavens in his chariot of fire--until the end of August or early September the peasant may work day and night and yet find that he has barely time to get all his work done. During the summer months the sun in this region scarcely ever sets below the horizon and the peasant may often be found in the fields as late as twelve o'clock at night trying to complete the day's work. In a little more than a month from this time he has to reap and stack his grain, oats, rye and whatever else he may have sown, and to sow his winter grain for the next, year. To add to the difficulty both grains often ripen about the same time and then it requires almost superhuman efforts on his part to complete his task before the first snow flies.

When one considers that all this work is done by hand--the planting, plowing, reaping, threshing, etc., in the majority of cases by home made instruments, it is really a more remarkable thing that the Russian peasant accomplishes so much in such a short space of time. About the end of September, however, the field labor is finished and on the first day of October the harvest festival begins. At this particular season of the year our troops on the Vaga river were operating far below Shenkursk in the vicinity of Rovdinskaya and it was our good fortune to witness a typical parish fete--celebrated in true Russian style. While it is true during the winter months that the peasant lives a very, frugal and simple life, it is not in my opinion on account of his desire so to do but more a matter of necessity. During the harvest festivals the principal occupation of the peasant seems to be that of eating and drinking. In each household large quantities of braga or home brewed beer is prepared and a plentiful supply of meat pies are constantly on hand. There is also another delectable dish, which I am sure did not appeal to our troops to the fullest extent. It was a kind of pie composed of cabbage and salt fish, but unless one was quite accustomed to the odor, he could not summon up sufficient courage to attack this viand. It, however, was a very popular dish among the peasants.

After a week or so of this preparation the fete day finally arrives and the morning finds the entire village attending a long service in the village church. All are dressed in their very best and the finest linens and brightest colors are very much in evidence. After the service they repair to their different homes--of course many of the poorer ones go to the homes of the more well to do where they are very hospitably received and entertained. All sit down to a common table and the eating begins. I attended a dinner in a well-to-do peasant's house that day and before the meal was one-third through I was ready to desist. The landlord was very much displeased and I was informed confidentially by one of the Russian officers who had invited me that the landlord would take great offense at the first to give up the contest--and that as a matter of fact instead of being a sign of poor breeding, on the contrary it was considered quite the thing to stuff one's self until he could eat no more. As the meal progressed great bowls of braga and now and then a glass of vodka were brought in to help along the repast. After an almost interminable time the guests all rose in a body and facing the icon crossed themselves--then bowing to the host--made certain remarks which I afterward found out meant, "Thanks for your bread and salt"--to which the host replied, "Do not be displeased, sit down once more for goodluck," whereupon all hands fell to again and had it not been for a mounted messenger galloping in with important messages, I am of the opinion that we would probably have spent the balance of the day trying not to displease our host.

If the Russian peasant's food were always as good and plentiful as at this season of the year, he would have little reason to complain, but this is by no means the case. Beef, mutton, pork and the like are entirely too expensive to be considered as a common article of food and consequently the average peasant is more or less of a vegetarian, living on cabbage, cabbage soup, potatoes, turnips and black bread the entire winter--varied now and then with a portion of salt fish.

From the festival time until the following spring there is no possibility of doing any agricultural work for the ground is as hard as iron and covered with snow. The male peasants do very little work during these winter months and spend most of their time lying idly upon the huge brick stoves. Some of them, it is true, have some handicraft that occupies their winter hours; others will take their guns and a little parcel of provisions and wander about in the trackless forests for days at a time. If successful, he may bring home a number of valuable skins--such as ermine, fox and the like. Sometimes a number of them associate for the purpose of deep sea fishing, in which case they usually start out on foot for Kem on the shores of the White Sea or for the far away Kola on the Murmansk Coast. Here they must charter a boat and often times after a month or two of this fishing they will be in debt to the boat owner and are forced to return with an empty pocket. While we were there we gave them all plenty to do--village after village being occupied in the grim task of making barb wire entanglements, etc., building block houses, hauling logs, and driving convoys. This was of course quite outside their usual occupation and I am of the impression that they were none to favorably impressed--perhaps some of them are explaining to the Bolo Commissars just how they happened to be engaged in these particular pursuits.

For the female part of the population, however, the winter is a very busy and well occupied time. For it is during these long months that the spinning and weaving is done and cloth manufactured for clothing and other purposes. Many of them are otherwise engaged in plaiting a kind of rude shoe--called lapty, which is worn throughout the summer by a great number of the peasants--and I have seen some of them worn in extremely cold weather with heavy stockings and rags wrapped around the feet. This was probably due to the fact, however, that leather shoes and boots were almost a thing of the past at that time, for it must be remembered that Russia had been practically shut off from the rest of the world for almost four years during the period of the war. The evenings are often devoted to besedys--a kind of ladies' guild meeting, where all assemble and engage in talking over village gossip, playing games and other innocent amusements, or spinning thread from flax.

Before closing this chapter, I wish to comment upon an article that I read some months ago regarding what the writer thought to be a surprising abundance of evidence disproving the common idea of illiteracy among the Russian peasants. It is admitted that the peasants of this region are above the average in the way of education and ability, but as I have later learned they are not an average type of the millions of peasants located in the interior and the south of Russia, whose fathers and forefathers and many of themselves spent the greater part of their lives as serfs. While the peasants of this region nominally may have come under the heading of serfs, yet when they were first driven into this country for the purpose of colonization and settlement by Peter the Great, they were given far greater liberties than any of the peasants of the south enjoyed. They were settled on State domains and those that lived on the land of landlords scarcely ever realized the fact, inasmuch as few of the landed aristocracy ever spent any portion of their time in the province of Archangel unless compelled to do so. In addition to this liberty and freedom, there was also the stimulating effect of the cold, rigorous climate and therefore it is more readily understood why the peasants of this region are more energetic, more intelligent, more independent and better educated than the inhabitants of the interior to the south.

After becoming somewhat acquainted with the family life of the peasantry, and no one living with them as intimately as we did, could have failed to have become more than ordinarily acquainted, we turned our attention to the local village government or so-called Mir. We had early learned that the chief personage in a Russian village was the starosta, or village elder, and that all important communal affairs were regulated by the Selski Skhod or village assembly. We were also well acquainted with the fact that the land in the vicinity of the village belonged to the commune, and was distributed periodically among the members in such a way that every able bodied man possessed a share sufficient for his maintenance, or nearly so. Beyond this, however, few of us knew little or nothing more. We were fortunate in having with us a great number of Russian born men, who of course were our interpreters, one of whom, by the way, Private Cwenk, was killed on January 19th, 1919, in the attack of Nijni Gora when he refused to quit his post, though mortally injured, until it was too late for him to make his escape.

Through continual conversations and various transactions with the peasants (carried on of course through our interpreters) the writer gradually learned much of the village communal life. While at first glance there are many points of similarity between the family life and the village life, yet there are also many points of difference which will be more apparent as we continue. In both, there is a chief or ruler, one called the khozain or head of the house and the other as above indicated, the starosta or village elder. In both cases too there is a certain amount of common property and a common responsibility. On the other hand, the mutual relations are far from being so closely interwoven as in the case of the household.

From these brief remarks it will be readily apparent that a Russian village is quite a different thing from a provincial town or village in America. While it is true in a sense that in our villages the citizens are bound together in certain interests of the community, yet each family, outside of a few individual friends, is more or less isolated from the rest of the community--each family having little to interest it in the affairs of the other. In a Russian village, however, such a state of indifference and isolation is quite impossible. The heads of households must often meet together and consult in the village assembly and their daily duties and occupations are controlled by the communal decrees. The individual cannot begin to mow the hay or plough the fields until the assembly has decided the time for all to begin. If one becomes a shirker or drunkard everyone in the village has a right to complain and see that the matter is at once taken care of, not so much out of interest for the welfare of the shirker, but from the plain selfish motive that all the families are collectively responsible for his taxes and also the fact that he is entitled to a share in the communal harvest, which unless he does his share of the work, is taken from the common property of the whole.

As heretofore stated on another page of this book, the land belonging to each village is distributed among the individual families and for which each is responsible. It might be of interest to know how this distribution is made. In certain communities the old-fashioned method of simply taking a census and distributing the property according to same is still in use. This in a great many instances is quite unfair and works a great hardship--where often the head of the household is a widow with perhaps four or five girls on her hands and possibly one boy. Obviously, she cannot hope to do as much as her neighbor, who, perhaps, in addition to the father, may have three or four well-grown boys to assist him. It might be logically suggested, then, that the widow could rent the balance of her share of the land and thus take care of same. If land were in demand in Russia, especially in the Archangel region, as it is in the farming communities of this country, it might be a simple matter--but in Russia often the possession of a share of land is quite often not a privilege but a decided hardship. Often the land is so poor that it cannot be rented at any price, and in the old days it was quite often the case that even though it could be rented, the rent would not be sufficient to pay the taxes on same. Therefore, each family is quite well satisfied with his share of the land and is not looking for more trouble and labor if they can avoid it, and at the assembly meetings, when the land is distributed each year, it is amusing to hear the thousand-and-one excuses for not taking more land, as the following brief description will illustrate.

It is assembly day, we will imagine, and all the villagers are assembled to do their best from having more land and its consequent responsibilities thrust upon them. Nicholas is being asked how many shares of the communal land he will take, and after due deliberation and much scratching of the head to stir up the cerebral processes (at least we will assume that is the function of this last movement) he slowly replies that inasmuch as he has two sons he will take three shares for his family to farm, or perhaps a little less as his health is none too good, though as a matter of fact he may be one of the most ruddy-faced and healthiest individuals present.

This last remark is the signal for an outburst of laughter and ridicule by the others present and the arguments pro and con wax furious. Of a sudden, a voice in the crowd cries out: "He is a rich moujik, and he should have five shares of the land as his burden at the least."

Nicholas, seeing that the wave is about to overwhelm him, then resorts to entreaty and makes every possible explanation now why it will be utterly impossible for him to take five shares, his point now being to cut down this allotment if within his power. After considerable more discussion the leader of the crowd then puts the question to the assembly and inquires if it be their will that Nicholas take four shares. There is an immediate storm of assent from all quarters and this settles the question beyond further argument.

This native shrewdness and spirit of barter is quite typical of the Russian peasant in all matters--large or small--and he greets the outcome of every such combat with stoical indifference, in typical fatalist fashion.

The writer recalls one experience in the village of Shegovari on the occasion of our first occupation of this place. It was before the rivers had frozen over and headquarters at Shenkursk was getting ready to install the sledge convoy system which was our only means of transportation during the long winter months. Shegovari being a large and prosperous community and there being a plentiful supply of horses there, we were accordingly dispatched to this place to take over the town and buy up as many horses as could be commandeered in this section. In company with a villainous looking detachment of Cossacks we set out from Shenkursk on board an enormous barge being towed by the river steamer "Tolstoy." On our way we became pretty well acquainted with Colonel Aristov, the commander of the Cossacks, who, through his interpreter, filled our ears with the various deeds of valor of himself and picked cohorts. He further informed us that the village where we were going was hostile to the Allied troops, and that there was some question just at that time as to whether it was not in fact occupied by the enemy. Consequently he had devised a very clever scheme, so he thought, for getting what we were after and incidentally putting horses on the market at bargain rates.

We were to bivouac for the night some ten miles or so above the town and at early dawn we would steam down the river on our gunboat. If there were any signs of hostility we were at once to open up on the village with the pom pom mounted on board our cruiser, and the infantry were to follow up with an attack on land. The colonel's idea was that a little demonstration of arms would thoroughly cow the native villagers and therefore they would be willing to meet any terms offered by him for the purchase of their horses. Fortunately or unfortunately (which side one considers) the plan failed to materialize, for when we anchored alongside the village the peasants were busily occupied in getting their supply of salt fish for the winter and merely took our arrival as one of the usual unfortunate visitations of Providence. The colonel at once sent for the starosta (the village elder as heretofore explained) who immediately presented himself with much bowing and scraping, probably wondering what further ill-luck was to befall him. The colonel with a great display of pomp and gesticulating firmly impressed the starosta that on the following day all the peasants were to bring to this village their horses, prepared to sell them for the good of the cause. ... The following morning the streets were lined up with horses and owners, and they could be seen corning from all directions. At about ten o'clock the parade began. Each peasant would lead his horse by the colonel, who would look them over carefully and then ask what the owner would take for his horse. Usually he would be met with a bow and downcast eyes as the owner replied: "As your excellency decides." "Very well, then, you will receive nine hundred roubles or some such amount." Instantly the air of submissiveness and meekness disappears and a torrent of words pours forth, eulogizing the virtues of this steed and the enormous sacrifice it would be to allow his horse to go at that price. After the usual haggling the bargain would be closed--sometimes at a greater figure and sometimes at a lesser.

Now the amusing part of this transaction to me was that with my interpreter we moved around amongst the crowd and got their own values as to some of these horses. What was our amazement some moments later to see them pass before the colonel who in a number of cases offered them more than their estimates previously given to myself, whereupon they immediately went through the maneuvers above described and in some cases actually obtained increases over the colonel's first hazard.

This lesson later stood us in good stead, for some weeks later it devolved upon us to purchase harnesses and sleds for these very horses and the reader may be sure that such haggling and bargaining (all through an interpreter) was never seen before in this part of the country. Somehow the word got around that the Amerikanskis who were buying the sleds and harness had gotten acquainted with the horse dealing method of some weeks past and therefore it was an especial event to witness the sale and purchase of these various articles, and, needless to say, there was always an enthusiastic crowd of spectators present to cheer and jibe at the various contestants. All these various transactions must have resulted with the balance decidedly in favor of the villagers, for they were extremely pleasant and hospitable to us during our entire stay here and instead of being hostile were exactly the opposite, actually putting themselves to a great amount of trouble time after time to meet with our many demands for logs and laborers, although they were in no way bound to do these things.

In our dealings with the community here, as elsewhere, all transactions were carried on with the starosta or village head. We naturally figured that this officer was one of the highest and most honored men of the village, probably corresponding to the mayor of one of our own cities, but we were later disillusioned in this particular. It seems that each male member of the community must "do time" some time during his career as village elder, and each one tried to postpone the task just as long as it was in his power to do so. True it is that the starosta is the leader of his community during his regime, but therein is the difficulty, for coupled with this power is the further detail of keeping a strict and accurate account of all the business transactions of the year, all the moneys, wages, etc., due the various members for labors performed and services rendered. This, of course, is due to the fact that everything is owned in common by the community: Land, food products, wood, in short, practically all tangible property.

Imagine, then, the starosta who, we will say, at eight or nine o'clock on a cold winter's night is called upon to have a dozen or more drivers ready the next morning at six o'clock to conduct a sledge convoy through to the next town, another group of fifty or a hundred workmen to go into the forests and cut and haul logs for fortifications, and still others for as many different duties as one could imagine during time of war. He must furthermore see, for example, that the same drivers are properly called in turn, for it is the occasion of another prolonged verbal battle in case one is called out of his turn. During the day he is probably busily occupied in commandeering oats and hay for the convoy horses and when night comes he certainly has earned his day's repose, but his day does not end at nightfall as in the case of the other members of the commune.

During our stay here, practically every night he would call upon the commanding officer to get orders for the coming day, to check over various claims and accounts and each week to receive pay for the entire community engaged in these labors. One occasion we distinctly recall as a striking example of this particular starosta's honesty and integrity. He had spent the greater part of the evening in our headquarters, checking over accounts involving some three or four thousand roubles for the pay roll the following day. Finally the matter was settled and the money turned over to him, after which we all retired to our bunks. At about one o'clock that morning the sentry on post near headquarters awakened us and said the starosta was outside and wished to see the commander, whereupon the C. O. sent word for him to come up to our quarters. After the usual ceremony of crossing himself before the icon the starosta announced that he had been overpaid about ninety roubles, which mistake he found after reaching his home and checking over the account again. We were too dumfounded to believe our ears. Here was this poor hard-working moujik who doubtless knew that the error would never have been discovered by ourselves, and, even if it had, the loss would have been trifling, yet he tramped back through the snow to get this matter straightened out before he retired to the top of the stove for the night. Needless to say, our C. O. turned the money back to him as a reward for his honesty, in addition to which he was given several hearty draughts of rum to warm him up for his return journey, along with a small sack of sugar to appease his wife who, he said, always made things warmer for him when he returned home with the odor of rum about him.


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