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Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
With Notes on Russia, Koords, Toorkomans, Nestorians, Khiva, and Persia

by Lady Mary (Leonora Woulfe) Sheil

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Chapter 2

Departure from Warsaw – Feldt Yäger – Russian post-houses – Gytomir – Kief – St. Sophia – Baptism in the Dnieper – Suspension bridge over the Dnieper – Progress to Odessa – Appearance of the people – Jewish Synagogue – Odessa – Prince Woronzow.

It is time to leave Warsaw, where we have been detained too long, and to commence our tedious journey to Odessa. The extreme kindness of Count Nesselrode had diminished some of its difficulties by assigning us a non-commissioned officer of the Feldt Yäger (or Government Messenger) department, whose knowledge of languages, however, being confined to German and Russian, we were not only completely in his hands as far as our dealings with the people of the country were concerned, but we were hardly able to communicate our wants and wishes. His presence certainly relieved us from embarrassment, for in Russia a Feldt Yäger is nearly as powerful at the post-houses as the Czar himself His proper duty was to drive in advance, furnished with his courierski padrojna, which enabled him to claim horses for us, to the exclusion of all other travellers, even if they had been harnessed to their carriages, and to prepare horses at the next stage. He travelled in an exceedingly light uncovered waggon, without springs, called a pavoska, drawn by three horses abreast, of which the centre horse invariably trots, while the two others gallop. It is in this manner that the despatches


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of the Government are rapidly conveyed all over the empire. The Russians will tell you that these couriers often travel at the rate of more than 300 miles a day for ten successive days, which must be one of the exaggerations in which Russians occasionally indulge. Be it as it may, these couriers are indefatigable, and so great are the fatigues they endure in these shocking waggons, that few among them live to an advanced time of life; and moreover, being obliged to travel in all weathers, night and day, fair and foul, many perish in the snow. To them alone is conceded the cruel privilege of forcing the horses forward till they drop or die from fatigue. Our Feldt Yäger was not one of these reckless characters. On the contrary, he often retarded our progress by feigning that the stables were empty and no horses to be had, in the mean time indulging himself in a sound sleep for some hours, indifferent to our impatience and to the subsequent detection of his falsehood. At other times he would stealthily remain behind at night, leaving the Russian postilions to crawl along as they pleased, and then join us rapidly next morning. In short, the benefit of his guidance was not without alloy.

The tendency to exaggeration alluded to above, as seen in many Russians, may, it seems to me, be traced to credulity as much is to any other source. I remember in Persia a Russian gentleman, of great gravity and holding a high official appointment, who, when expatiating on the sagacity of the wolves in his country, used solemnly to assert, that they were accustomed to swallow a large quantity of earth to make themselves heavy preparatory to seizing a cow by the tail. The weight of the earth


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added to that of the wolf soon rendered the unsuspecting victim a prey to the calculating marauder. This gentleman was a native of Little Russia, where they are said to have a faith that ought to remove the Himalayas themselves.

We occupied five dreary days and nights in reaching Kief, our road lying through immense plains, intermingled with prodigious forests, and enlivened here and there with large tracts of cultivation, though with a scanty population, which in some of the villages, consisted entirely of Jews. Twice each day we stopped at the wretched post-houses to partake of the fare they afforded, which rarely exceeds tea, eggs, and bread, diversified in Russia with that detestable Muscovite concoction called stehee, which is a broth composed of hot water, tallow, cabbage, and salt. These places never contained beds; a bare floor, a wooden bench without cushions, a few wooden chairs, were their sole attractions to a traveller. These humble accommodations were compensated by civility, cordiality, and a cheerful alacrity to remedy every deficiency. Gytomir, half way between Warsaw and Kief, where we arrived September 27th, was to us an oasis in the desert. At this town we found a bustling inn, where we were delighted to recruit ourselves with a dinner of welcome beefsteaks, our single meal for five days, and English porter, for which beverage the Russians entertain even more devotion than our own countrymen. The merits of Meux, Barclay, and Guinness are as shrewdly scanned by them as those of Lafitte and Château Margaux, in a London dining-room. Five days and nights passed in a carriage, even with the advantage of its being what our Irish servant called a


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"dormouse," were no small trial, and glad we were, tired and travelworn, to get sight of the "Mother of Russian cities," as Kief from its antiquity is styled, situated on a high bank overlooking the Dnieper. Our Feldt Yäger explained our slow progress by invectives against the Polish postilions, who were, he said, of violent temper, and would not allow themselves to be flogged or abused. "But wait," he continued, until we enter Russia, "and there I can do as I please." He certainly kept his promise, both with whip and tongue.

We were most kindly received in Kief at the house of Mr. Vignolles, whose hospitality saved us from the vexation and discomforts of a Russian inn, not the least of whose miseries was the incessant conflict to be waged with the bloodthirsty nomadic tribes which abound in Russian dormitories at that season of the year.

Fatigue had so overcome my strength, that I was glad to devote to repose, nearly the whole of the three days we spent at Kief; and I am ashamed to be obliged to confess to the indolence of not having seen its chief curiosity, the catacombs, where the remains of so many saints of the Russian calendar are laid. This city is to the Russo-Greek Church what Rome is to Catholics, and the Church of St. Sophia (the oldest in Russia, it is said) is the Russian St. Peter's, though mighty is the difference. It is a very picturesque building, or rather collection of buildings, and as rich as abundance of gilding both inside and out can make it. We were deeply gratified by the solemn chanting of the Russian monks, which surpassed, in my opinion, in religious grandeur and effect, the elaborate and scientific psalmody of St. Peter's. At Moscow,


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and above all, St. Petersburg, the church music is described as magnificent – the exclusion of all other than vocal music in the Greek Church having naturally directed all the efforts of the priesthood to excellence in this branch of harmony. The service was said to be in old Sclavonic, which is equally unintelligible to the people at large, as Latin to the majority in the Catholic Church. The same means of translated prayer-books adopted throughout the Catholic world, are probably taken in the Eastern Church to remedy the inconvenience. We were informed that the grand festivals of the Church are celebrated at Petersburg, Moscow, and Kief, with a gorgeousness far surpassing the most imposing solemnities at Rome. The appearance of the priests at Kief was deeply impressive. Their long locks and venerable beards gave them an apostolic air, much at variance with our ideas of clerical propriety and smoothness of face, at the present day.

Kief is said to have been a great city before the invasion of the Moghuls, by whom it was utterly destroyed. It was here, 800 years ago, that Vladimir the Great forced the whole population to embrace Christianity by baptizing them by a simultaneous plunge in the Dnieper. The present town, like every city in Russia, where land is abundant and population scanty, is spread over a large extent. With the stately Dnieper flowing at its feet, the neighbouring hills, the forest and the steppe in the distance, the gilded domes of the churches glittering and sparkling on all sides, it scarcely justifies the uncourteous remark of the English Ambassador to Catherine the Second, that the aspect of the city was detestable.

The Dnieper seems to be half a mile in width, opposite


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to the city. Mr. Vignolles was employed in the arduous undertaking of building a splendid bridge over this fine river, by a contract which he had concluded with the Russian Government. His operations had converted Kief into a small English colony, from the numerous artisans whom Mr. Vignolles had brought from England to contribute their practical skill to his science. This monument of distinguished English talent was not more than half built when we saw it. The great difficulty to be surmounted was the increased weight and rapidity of the Dnieper in spring. Mr. Vignolles had suffered a heavy loss in the previous season. The melting snow and ice had filled the Dnieper, which rolled and rushed against the columns of the rising bridge with overwhelming fury, and in a moment 30,000l. were dissipated, and the labour and anxieties of two years scattered to the winds and waves. Mr. Vignolles was full of confidence in his power to baffle all the insurrections of the Dnieper, and I hear that he has succeeded in accomplishing his arduous undertaking. Returning from inspecting Mr. Vignolles's curious works, we drove in a carriage over the Russian strange contrivance for connecting the two banks of the Dnieper. This consisted of thick planks floating in the water, placed closely side by side, like a raft, across the whole breadth of the river, and braced by bands of rope together. At each movement of the wheels and of the horses, these planks sank into the water, sometimes to an alarming depth; but though the passage looked hazardous, it was free from danger. Notwithstanding its size and volume of water at Kief, it is to be lamented that this fine stream should contribute so little to the wants of the daily increasing


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civilization of the tracts through which it rolls its course. Its cataracts, the shallows at its mouth, its shifting sands, which change the passage from year to year, all concur to render its navigation difficult and its commerce comparatively insignificant. At Mr. Vignolles's table, it was more than once a subject of discussion among his intelligent sons and assistants, whether the impediments caused by the cataracts could not be surmounted, among other ways, by a canal conducted from above the falls. When the temple of Janus shall be happily closed, let us hope the sovereign of Russia may find leisure to solve this problem.

With the fear of the Caucasus before our eyes, and nervously anxious to anticipate a heavy fall of snow, we hastened to continue our journey. My husband had frightened me with a description of a passage of these mountains during winter, which he had performed some years before. The mountaineers had cut a passage through the snow exactly the breadth of the sledge, with three fiery courier horses abreast. Above was a wall of snow several hundred feet high, and which the least gust of wind would bring down in an overwhelming avalanche, while on the outside, was a precipice many hundred feet deep, and quite perpendicular, which the sledge partially overhung. To add to his enjoyment of the sublimity of the scene, my husband had the satisfaction to find himself seated on the outer side of the sledge, while the inner seat was occupied by his servant. The cold was of such intensity that he saw, or thought he saw, the air in motion, dancing and jumping in the minutest and most brilliant particles, which he said must have been the original


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indivisible atoms from which modern philosophy has framed the universe. In passing by the spot afterwards, and seeing how terrible it was even in fine autumn weather, I rejoiced we had hurried on, in spite of fatigue, to escape the snow.

If in Poland we were struck by a general air of poverty amounting to squalor, in Russia we were surprised to find an appearance of comfort and the enjoyment of at least the necessaries of life. Kief contained few or no beggars; all, both in the city and in the country, seemed to have employment and to be comfortably clothed and fed. These remarks are applicable to the whole of the Russian dominions, in Europe at least, which came under our observation, and the effect is rendered more striking by the immediate contrast with Poland. From what cause does this difference arise? It cannot be owing apparently to the immense superabundance of soil in Russia over the population, for in Poland the inhabitants are not numerous, nor is there a deficiency of land.

Soon after leaving Kief we entered on the steppe, which we traversed almost up to Odessa. Contrary to my expectation, we found large tracts of meadow, and even of tillage, though at distant intervals. In fact, instead of being a barren plain, as I had been led to imagine, the steppe may be described as a grassy level, or prairie, highly susceptible of cultivation, and covered with aromatic herbs in early summer. We were four days and nights on this part of our expedition, but the severe experience of the journey from Warsaw had inured us to hardship, and we travelled in comparative ease and comfort, though without encountering any objects of


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interest. During a change of horses at a small town on the Saturday we went into a Jewish synagogue, and were received with great civility. The congregation was numerous, the room crowded. beyond endurance, the odour intolerable, and the confusion great; the flock, both men and women, being intently engaged in the perusal of the Bible, which each person read aloud, perhaps each a different chapter. The heads of the men were covered, though, no doubt, their feet were bare.

At Odessa, where we arrived at the end of September, we had our first specimen of a Russian hotel, of which the less said the better, unless to exclaim with Dante, "Guarda e passa." We however forgave a great deal of what was defective, disagreeable, and indecorous, on finding that our landlord spoke Turkish, with which my husband was well acquainted. This fortunate circumstance released us at once from the thraldom of the Feldt Yäger, from which we had suffered much vexation. Odessa being a modern city, it contains few edifices of historic or traditional note. Like other Russian towns of recent construction, the streets are wide and regular. The large number of new and excellent houses in preparation showed evident signs of wealth and increasing commerce. We had the pleasure of forming here the acquaintance of Prince Woronzow; the Lieutenant of the Emperor, with nearly absolute authority over the immense tract reaching from the Pruth to the Caspian. He is a man of great wealth, and has ever preserved a reputation for the highest honour. In appearance and manners, he altogether resembles an Englishman of the highest class, and the illusion is completed by the perfection with which his


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Highness (for to that elevated title has he attained) speaks the English language. He invited us to pass a day at his beautiful palace at Aloupka, in the Crimea, whither he was to proceed that day, while we were to follow in a Russian war steamer, to sail the ensuing morning with passengers to Sebastopol, Kertch, &c. We passed the day in strolling through the town and in looking at the well-supplied shops, and closed our ramble by lounging in the pretty promenade overhanging the sea, of which it commands a fine view, as well as of the picturesque rock on which the castle is built.


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