In this picture we see the wrought-iron veranda entrance to the fashionable photographer Pasetti on Nevsky Prospect. In the far off distance the gilded spire of the Admiralty can be seen. This street scene is typical of Petersburg in 1900. People are going about their business - a cab has just arrived at its destination. One important aspect of life in the city is missing - the police - who could be seen throughout the town and particularly on the main boulevards.
Above: Russian police in evening and daytime uniforms.
In 1855 Edward Jerrmann, a traveller to Petersburg, gave his impressions of the police in the city:
"The singular position of the police in this country is very peculiar. Russia is a "police-state," in the strictest sense of the word; and as everything in the country is subjected to their superintendence, so also is their responsibility enormous. To save this as much as possible, they (especially the subaltern officials) keep themselves within the very letter of their orders, from which literal observance the grossest absurdities often arise. There is a standing order of the police that, on the breaking up of the Neva, as the thaw is announced to the police, agents are to be stationed on both banks to prevent the accidents which would arise from persons attempting to cross. It has not unfrequently happened that the Budschniks (policemen acting as street guardians), to whom execution of this order has been entrusted, have taken it too literally and have not only prevented persons crossing from the side of the river on which they were stationed, but also would not suffer those to land who, when the river began to break up, were already upon the ice, and with peril of life bad reached the shore. These were forcibly repulsed by the Budschniks, because the letter of their instructions was to let no one cross the ice. A similar too-literal interpretation, of the regulations in case of fire caused a terrible calamity at the burning of the Lehmann Theatre, as I shall presently have occasion to relate...
Around 1900 William Barnes Steveni, an Englishman who lived in St. Petersburg for many years and spoke the language fluently related this story about a humorous encounter with the police:
Twelve or fourteen years ago, the most successful and popular of all the entertainments assembled on the Admiralty Square during the Maslinizza, was that given by the celebrated pantomime company of the German manager, Lehmann. There was a perfect rage for these pantomimes; all Petersburg flocked to see them; and, although they were repeated every two hours, the temporary theatre in which they were played was continually filled to suffocation. During one of the morning performances, whilst the pit was in full glee and uproar of delight, the harlequin suddenly rushed upon the stage, and exclaimed, "Fire! sauve quipeut!" The announcement was received with a general burst of laughter at what was taken for a stupid joke. The misapprehension was fatal, for it shortened the brief space during which escape was possible; in a few moments the flames burst out from behind the scenes; the wooden building was in a blaze. The audience, wild with terror, rushed to the doors; unfortunately these opened inwards, and the pressure of the frantic throng closed them as effectually as iron bars and bolts. Exit was impossible. Outside, a workman, who bad assisted in the building of the theatre, stepped forth from the crowd and called for an axe, declaring that he knew every joint of the boards and beams, and could quickly open a passage for the imprisoned audience. But the budschnik or policeman on duty would not permit this to be done till his superiors came to decide upon the matter. At last, urgent necessity overcoming every other consideration, the punctilious police agent was pushed aside, several men seized axes, and soon a large opening was made in the side of the building. A dense cloud of smoke made the crowd recoil, and, when it had cleared away, a horrible spectacle presented itself. In closely packed masses sat men, women, and children, apparently still gazing at the stage, which was a sheet of flame. Rescue had come too late; the sudden smoke, filling the crowded building, had stifled the entire audience: not one was saved."
"A curious incident once happened to me while standing in the doorway of the building of the Grand Staff chatting with the secretary of the American ambassador. He was an Englishman, and used to collect anecdotes for his chief, which he duly entered in a special book. One of his stories so tickled my fancy that I burst into a hearty laugh, to the immense amusement of the bystanders. People in Russia rarely laugh and sing in the streets as they often do in London. A police officer near by was evidently puzzled, and approached me, inquiring why I behaved so boisterously. I told him that I was enjoying a joke, and added: "Surely it is not forbidden to laugh in Russia?" The policeman, who had a great idea of outward decorum, replied, to my astonishment: "Moshno smejatsja no ne tak gromko" (You may laugh, but not so loudly)! After that little lesson I moderated my expression of amusement when out of doors, in order not to shock the susceptibilities of the law.
Next photograph: A St. Petersburg Fruit Store
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