A WINTER IN CAPTIVITY
The town of Tobolsk lies picturesquely spread, partly on the high banks of the Tobol, partly on the river's edge, just at the point where that river falls into the mighty Irtysh. At this very spot the Cossack conqueror of Siberia, Yermak, was drowned in the seventeenth century. He tried to swim the river during a raid against one of the nomad tribes, but sank, weighed down by his armour. Yermak's coat of mail is shown in the Tobolsk museum, while his banner is kept as a national relic in the Cossack cathedral at Omsk.
On closer inspection Tobolsk lacks the attraction it has at a distance. The houses are mostly of wood, with here and there a brick one which is either a Government office or belongs to a wealthy merchant. The churches are very fine, but their number is really disproportionate to the population, for there are twenty-seven large churches in Tobolsk and less than 30,000 inhabitants. The beauty of these churches lies chiefly in their interior architecture and ornamentation. Not even in larger and less distant towns can be seen such beautiful wood-carving and artistic antique plaster-work, quite untouched by restoration. Some of the ikons date much further back than the churches themselves, and were probably brought by the first settlers as their most precious belongings. Some were very interesting. In the Church of the Assumption, for instance, I noticed a curious ikon of St. Irene, presented to the church by an eighteenth- century merchant in memory of his spouse. It was nearly life-size, and evidently was the effigy of the deceased lady, in full evening dress with panniers and powdered hair. Every detail of jewellery and dress, down to the red heels of her shoes, was minutely reproduced, and it needed the martyr's palm which the saint holds in her hand to convince the beholder that the presentment was not the portrait of an ordinary mortal, but that of a martyr - presumably in full dress!
The lower and upper towns are connected by a very steep road and by a high brick staircase, which was a monument to the work of Swedish prisoners of war in Peter the Great's time. It must have been truly hard labour to build it. These poor people left another memory of their stay, for it was they who executed Peter the Great's vast plan of deflecting the course of the Tobol in order to give space for projected warehouses at the foot of the hill. It was a gigantic work and must have been undertaken with the idea that Tobolsk would develop far more than it has done. Practically it has remained in exactly the same stage as it was at the time of the great Tsar's death. The aquatic origin of the lower town is apparent to this day, during every spring and autumn. The streets are all boarded over like a floor, as they used to be all over Russia in olden times. Often when the unwary pedestrian steps on one of these boards it rises under his feet as on a pivot, the rusty nails at one end having got loosened, and large puddles of black water are disclosed from which arise indescribable odours. All the springs, of course, still remain, and the cellars of the houses are flooded for parts of the year. No wonder that in the warm season the lower town, where the Governor's house stood, was a hotbed of malaria.
There was little movement in the streets in winter. There were no cars, of course, and few people drove about in the bitter cold. One could see peasants doing their shopping, or people hurrying to their work, but no Tooolese ever went for a walk! Indeed the amount of clothing that had to be put on made walking a difficulty. Towards spring, when it got warmer, the rich merchants used to drive up and down the main street, displaying the most beautiful horses, and, during the carnival, innumerable sleighs, gaily decorated with ribbons and bells, could be seen dashing up and down with large parties of young people. It is the custom for the marriageable maidens of the town to drive about at this time decked out in their best, in order to be seen by eligible suitors.
A curious feature of Tobolsk was the daily market. This was held in the centre of the town. As soon as it got light the booths were opened in which the peasants who daily came up from the adjoining villages displayed their wares. Many who came only occasionally to town and had no booths of their own simply laid their goods on the frozen ground. In the market-place could be seen the motliest gathering of men and women imaginable. Here was a Tartar in a typical furred cap, expostulating with some old crone over the price of a smoked sterlet. Farther on a fisherman, well wrapped up in furs but wearing huge waders, examined some complicated Norwegian fishing-nets. Beside him could be noticed an Ostiak (a tribesman of Lapp origin) who had come to do his shopping in town. His face could scarcely be seen, for it was nearly covered by the fur hood of his curious coat, which was fashioned of different furs arranged in patterns outside, and lined with bearskin. This kind of coat was known locally as a "goose." The Ostiak was buying something that looked like round white stones, but which was in reality frozen curds. Bread, butter, game, milk, everything indeed, was sold in the open air and was, of course, frozen, so that the milk was chopped with a hatchet and sold by the pound! The air was full of the sound of voices loudly haggling. The proximity of the East makes itself felt in this, and no transaction could be completed without the prices being loudly and lengthily discussed. The noisiest altercations took place before the booths where the villagers assembled to purchase ironmongers' goods, fishing-nets, coffins, and the huge wooden boxes, painted a bright green, in which feminine Siberia keeps its trousseau. Next was the old clothes market, where every imaginable masculine and feminine garment was displayed: a general's full-dress uniform could be seen hanging beside a baby's frock. Owing to the lack of imported material the prices were enormous; but it was a boon to the people who were not millionaires, for all the things that could not be purchased in the shops could be bought second-hand in the market.
There were no secrets in Tobolsk, for there was neither paper nor string to wrap up the parcels. Everyone came back carrying his or her purchase. It was always known when Mr. X had mutton for dinner, as all the town could have seen his wife walking down the street with half a sheep under her arm, or when Mrs. Z bought new felt boots for her children, for she carried them slung on her shoulder. The richer inhabitants of Tobolsk are mostly merchants dealing in fish or fur, the majority self-made men who had originally been peasants from the surrounding districts. Many of these it appeared were quite uneducated, only just able to spell their names, but shrewd business men who had amassed huge fortunes.
I was astonished to hear how many millionaires here were in Tobolsk. From the outward look of the town and from what could be seen of the life of the people this seemed quite unlikely. The rich fishermen, as they are still called, kept to peasants' dress and worked at their trade in summer by the side of their own workmen. Local society, of course, I did not meet. This consisted of the families of a few Government officials, and was always a shifting element, as everyone who came to Tobolsk tried to get a change of post as soon as possible. The nucleus of the intelligentsia consisted of a few Polish families that had been exiled to Tobolsk after the Polish rising of '64. There were also the descendants of the Dekabrists (as the heads of the Rising in 1823 were called) who had married in Tobolsk and whose families had never left it. These descendants of political exiles provided a contingent of doctors, as well as of teachers for the local high schools. The Tobolese youth graduated either at the University of Tomsk or at the Commercial School at Tyumen, as Tobolsk had nothing beyond the high school. Owing to this, all the more promising youthful element drifted away as soon as it could.
Navigation was open for only a little over three months in summer. September generally saw its close, and then came the interminable winter in which a horse sledge was the only means of reaching the nearest railway junction. No one who could help it remained in this place of stagnation, so old-fashioned that even in 1917 Gogol would have found in it many characters for his books. I heard from my landlady that there used to be a few concerts and theatricals in winter, but since the revolution all these gaieties had disappeared. There were only a couple of cinemas with worn-out films, which still, however, managed to entrance the Tobolese.
When I went about in the town I was surprised to see placards with orders of the Governor appointed by Kerensky still posted up at the street corners. Banks were actually open and business was going on as usual, though the directors had glum faces, foreseeing the fast approaching time when they would have to suspend payment, as the supply of currency had ceased coming from Petrograd. This state of things lasted during the first months after my arrival at Tobolsk.
The house in which Miss Mather and I lived belonged to a well-to-do family, but like most of the Siberian homes it was singularly lacking in comfort. The well-scoured floors were shining and slippery from the amount of soap expended on them, but there were no carpets of any kind. The furniture was mahogany of a most mortifying hardness; the muslin curtains were spotlessly white, but formed no protection from the blasts that came from the windows. Perhaps this was supposed to make up for the lack of ventilation in the room, for no Siberian window is made to open. Every house has double windows, but lacks the movable pane which is to be found in the windows of the Russian houses. The only air is admitted by a small round opening in the wall, about three inches wide, which is closed by a large wooden cork, going right through the wall, looking rather like a glorified champagne stopper. I must say that I was surprised to find, when this was opened in midwinter, what a large amount of cold air could come in through so small a hole! On the other hand, the houses have a very large number of windows more suited to Italy than to the north. This can only be explained by the craving to let in as much light as possible in the daytime to make up for the long hours of darkness of the northern winter night. This longing for an illusion of living in sunnier climes must also be the reason for half of the best parlour always looking like a greenhouse, with rows of Ficus elastica stiffly ranged against the walls and generally three or four canary cages swinging among them.
In this particular year the lack of labour had prevented the town being sufficiently provided with fuel for the winter and most of the houses were icy. We had to do as our neighbours did and wear felt boots and coats in the rooms. Our hostess was the mother of a large family. Her days were well filled, for housekeeping is no joke in Siberia, where food plays a leading part in life. The good lady prepared gargantuan repasts every Sunday, when all the family assembled. There was fish in every form and of every size. I once saw an ungainly frozen sturgeon some six feet high propped in a corner against the door, waiting to be cooked and chopped up, as there was no table large enough to hold it. Caviare was served in such huge bowls that it was quite unappetising -there were seas of it; and as to pastries -! There were no bakers' shops in Tobolsk, so every housewife had to make her own bread, and endless were the varieties they produced. And the pirogs and the pelmeni! The pelmeni is a small flat cake, rather like a tiny boiled pudding, no larger than a half-crown, with chopped meat inside. When this national Siberian dish was on the menu all the good woman's friends were invited to the feast, while on the preceding day the whole household, including the maid and the small grandchild, had for hours rolled and pinched pastry and minced and pounded meat. Such mountains of pelmeni were prepared that they looked to me sufficient for a regiment, but the guests always seemed to be able to dispose of them. It is true that a pelmeni invitation means that you will get only that delicacy in all its forms - pelmeni floating in the soup, boiled pelmeni, and, lastly, the same, fried! Had I gone through such an ordeal I think I should never have wished to see them again.
As washing arrangements in private houses are mostly on the same lines as those at the hotel, the Russian steam bath plays a great part. Every house, even a peasant's cottage, has its own bath-house attached to it, as is customary in the villages in Russia. Among the merchants, whose bath-houses are very luxuriously fitted, an invitation to a friend for bath and tea was much appreciated. A party of brick-red ladies in elaborate nightcaps could be seen in many homes on Saturdays, the consecrated "bath day," sitting before a well-laden table. To judge by what we withessed, it is incredible that such a vast number of samovars are needed to minister to the thirst which long washing operations in an almost suffocating temperature engender.
Both the Governor's house and the Korniloff house had the advantage of possessing bathrooms. I was the first to use the bathroom in the Korniloff house. None of my colleagues had had the courage to try it, for it had special heating arrangements and the soldiers had to be approached diplomatically if they were required to heat one stove more. The bath was a most wonderful arrangement in carved white marble, with ornate bronze taps -the former owners of the house having been extremely wealthy. Its geographical position was unique, for it was suspended nearly half-way up the wall and no steps led to it! To reach it I had a chair put on a table, and in this way I managed successfully to clamber in. One of the soldiers had graciously agreed to heat the bath for me, on condition that I should run it for him afterwards, as he wanted to try what this kind of bath was like. I did so, and in this way we bathed regularly in turns.
This man was rather a curious type. He was one of the most violent orators of the Soviet, an extremist, and a crank. He told me that he had a respect for Woman in the abstract, "having a soft heart"! which, in parenthesis, did not prevent him from being absolutely ruthless towards his political opponents. As I belonged to the gentler sex, he talked lengthily to me while he heated the stove. I was interested by his conversation, for he had previously been a workman in a large china factory in Russia, and his account of the sweated system on which it was conducted was appalling, and I had the impression that it was a true picture. He, on his part, listened attentively, much interested, when I explained to him the Danish laws for the protection of workmen, and we finally came to discuss his matrimonial projects in a really friendly manner.
To return to my lodgings. Besides our hostess's family, a stout merchant woman, who hailed from Berezoff, a town in the extreme north, also had rooms in the house. Someone had told me before that the natives of the lands bordering on the Polar Circle were all pale, puny, and stunted in their growth. She was an evident and convincing contradiction to this report. The worthy soul was about six feet high, weighed probably about seventeen stone, and her round countenance showed a dangerous tendency to apoplexy when she returned from a party where she had enjoyed prolonged steaming and copious draughts of tea. Her usual dress was a trained black satin gown of antiquated shape, while a black handkerchief was tied peasant fashion over her head. At first I believed her to be a humble friend of my hostess. It was surprising to be told that she was an extremely wealthy fish exporter. This curious woman had a wonderful business head, and after her husband's death ran her own firm very successfully, unaided. She was almost illiterate, but had decided to give her only daughter the advantages she lacked, and had come to Tobolsk on that account. That young person was about sixteen and was imbibing knowledge at the high school. She inherited none of her mother's shrewdness or good nature, and her only occupation during the day was looking out of the window while eating pounds of expensive sweets. In the evenings she went to the soldiers' dances, a proceeding on the girl's part which was vainly forbidden by her head-mistress, but was a sign of the times, for all the girls of the town of every class flocked to these dances.
The Berezoff lady told me many interesting tales about the life and customs of the people in her part of the country. Many nomad tribes live near Berezoff, the Ostiaks being the most numerous. The whole upper course of the Irtysh and the Obi is a flat and bare snow plain, which suddenly comes to life in the course of three short summer months. The snow melts very rapidly, the rivers break up, and summer follows winter in the course of a week. Nothing can grow on these plains except stunted birches and fir trees, cranberries and cloudberries. The people live on fish and by fish, for it is the greatest produce of the country. As the nomads can live all the year on the result of their summer's fishing, they do not trouble their minds much about the soil, which the Ostiaks only cultivate in patches here and there. Wherever they happen to pitch their tents in spring they sow a little wheat and one or two vegetables that ripen quickly and do not need much care, and this suffices for their simple wants. The moment the snow falls they wander about from place to place on their sledges drawn by reindeer or dogs, the well-known Siberian laikas.
There are very few churches, and from time to time a priest is sent from Berezoff to go round the encampments in order to minister to the spiritual needs of the people. These priests withess curious scenes. The tribes travel hundreds of miles to attend a service. They bring ancient babies to be baptised who have been born five or six years previously, but could not be brought before for some reason or other, and who generally protest vigorously at the immersion which the ritual of the Orthodox Church demands. The young folk come to get married, and rows of couples stand one behind the other during the one ceremony. The priest has to be very careful not to make a slip in reading out the names of the different parties from the pieces of paper on which they are noted. It was said sometimes that an agonised voice would be heard saying "Not Peter to Mary, but Peter to Katherine," or vice versa. They were not unnaturally terrified at the idea of being inadvertently married to the wrong person!
Some come to have their relations buried "by proxy." When an Ostiak dies he is generally buried by his people without any religious ceremony, but when a priest arrives in the neighbourhood the dead man's relatives take a few handfuls of earth from the grave, tie it up in a handkerchief and bring it to the priest. He holds a memorial service, during which all the little bundles are blessed. The Ostiaks take the earth back with them and sprinkle it over the mounds, and have the comfort of believing that their departed relative has received Christian burial at last.
The Church and everything connected with it has preserved many old-fashioned customs in Siberia. It is the land of stranniki (wandering prophets) and beggars! I used sometimes in Tobolsk to go to evening service in an old-world monastery, whose dilapidated walls showed that it was not one of the churches frequented by local fashion. This gave it a special charm to my mind. Rows of black-robed monks intoned the chants in the particularly low and sweet bass voices that are found among Russians. In the middle of the church stood the abbot-bishop in a long violet mantle, his face the ascetic countenance of a medieval Christ. The Middle Ages were also suggested by the beggars at the door. There were rows of them, some blind or paralysed, others displaying hideous sores or wounds. They sang the chants and dirges so beloved of the Tsars of olden days to quaint old tunes that I had never heard before, and when a few kopecks were given them they intoned prayers for the souls of all one's departed. They prayed for "The mother that bore you, the father that loved you." Every relation was mentioned with a different epithet, and the refrain was the anthem of the Burial Service: "And may they rest with the Lord and His Saints."
Some of the beggars were not quite bona fide. I often met one man who had lost his legs in some accident, dragging himself about the streets in a little trolly. He owned a good-sized house, where his family lived comfortably on his gains. Another beggar was a hale and hearty woman, who always started her appeal by saying that she was the mother of orphans and one herself, and had to go about naked and unshod. This description was not quite accurate, for even if she really was an orphan, she was a ripe one, being about fifty, and she always wore an excellent sheepskin coat and most elegant red felt boots, the envy of her neighbours. She had quite sufficient means, but considered begging an easy and simple way of increasing her income. The public allowed themselves to be imposed upon, partly from good nature and partly from a superstitious fear that a refusal might bring them ill luck.
Towards the end of February 1918 the Bolshevik regime was definitely introduced at Tobolsk. The heads of the Kerensky administration fled and Bolsheviks came from Tyumen to replace them. A Soviet combined the functions of all the Government offices. The law courts were closed. A popular university for peasants took the place of the high schools which were abolished, only the primary schools being left. In the new university most of the old university's programme, as well as lectures on foreign languages, was to be expounded in the course of four months! It was a farce - only the ignorant could be deluded into thinking that people who could only read two-syllable words in their own language would be able to follow these lectures with any success, but the peasants and soldiers flocked to them. They believed what they were told about the value of education and were unable to realise how utterly useless this superficial knowledge would be to them without the grounding of the intermediate stages. Poor souls, they all felt now that they were "University men."
A special thank you to firstname.lastname@example.org for scanning the text for this online edition.
Contact Bob Atchison for comments on this site.
Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:
The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910
Return to the Alexander Palace Time Machine