My Wanderings in Persia
Aboard the Marie. — Derbend. — Deplorable Sights. — Autocracy. — Vatki. — Russian Policy. — ‘I am a Pole.’ — Nihilism.— Freedom. — Bulgarian Champions. — Astrachan. — Imperial Escorts. — ‘Niet, Niet.’ — Volga. — Tartars. — Saratova. — Nijni. — The Fair. - Bargains.— Tariff Rates. — Railway Locomotion. — Preparing to Alight. — Moscow. — Russian Jehus.
THE vessel was similar in build to the one in which we had left Enzelli, the saloon affording more accommo" dation to the requirements of travellers. As our vessel steamed out to sea we hailed an incoming steamer, which brought more passengers from Persia (those whom we passed near Teheran), who were destined to the loathsome dens of the sand-heap whilst we were ploughing the waves with the glad
thought in our hearts that England was once more ahead, and that our next stoppage (Nijni Novgorod) was but eight days from London.
We passed Alexinatz and Derbend, the latter a most picturesque town situated on the hillside overlooking the Caspian, once a Persian city, but now owning allegiance to the White Czar. On nearing the mouth of the Volga, we were transhipped from the Marie to the flat-bottomed steamer which awaited our arrival. It was much inferior to the one we had left; in this small tug we were conveyed to Astrakhan.
Leaving Patrosk, I witnessed a sight which will long remain deeply impressed on my mind, as being paramount in cruelty to anything I had previously seen. The severe losses Russia had sustained, in her atrocious war with Turkey, rendered it necessary that these gaps made by starvation and Turkish bullets, must in some way be filled, especially as public thought and
official whisperings verged on war with England.
A Russian recruiting officer was aboard our steamer, and as the vessel anchored at Patrosk, he stepped ashore to enlist in the army of their Czar all those who were so unfortunate as to come under military rules. He was accompanied by an armed force, who led between their ranks, lads, young men, and those bowed with years and sorrow, all bound — they knew not whither.
I could scarcely conceive the meaning of this procession, but on hearing bitter cries, heart-rending shrieks, and lamentations too intense for description, I ventured to inquire of a fellow-traveller the meaning of such a scene. His reply was curtly given: ‘The Czar has need of them!’
Mothers parting with sons scarcely over their — what should be — schooldays. Wives fondly clinging to their only hope and support. Old women looking amazed and dumb-stricken
at the thought of losing for ever their aged partners, some of whom appeared to need more the support of younger hands than to bear arms in the field. Loved ones bidding last farewells to each other; for the idea of reunion on earth could not be entertained, and the Russian belief of a reunion in another world is not over powerful.
During these anxious moments, the recruiting officer had been carrying round, and compelling the men to drink, large quantities of fiery liquor called vatki. The result was soon but too painfully evident. Those who but a few minutes ago had been loud in their grief, now became frantic with madness. The signal for our departure was at length given; long and temble cries arose from the bereaved, heart-broken women — for even in Russia we must feel that every heart knows its own bitterness — louder and more fiendish became the yells of the infuriated men entirely controlled by the maddening potency of the vatki.
Two stalwart young fellows, I noticed, who had refused to accept the poisonous drink — two young wives with small babes had been left behind — the widows, for such they might now be called, bitterly mourned the separation; and as the vessel moved away their sorrow appeared to be boundless. For some time these two young men were restrained from leaping off by the soldiers; as the boat gradually moved away, and the landing-place became more indistinct, their eyes were strained, hats waved, and shouts rent the air, and as the island became lost to our view so they for ever lost the dear faces they loved. Heavy heart-rending sobs broke from these crushed lives — such sobs and heavings which a man may only experience once during a life.
My thoughts naturally took their flight to the source of all this anguish and despotism, and strongly did I condemn to a Russian officer the iniquitous practice of such barbarous
tyranny, and the injurious social and national effects of such unreasonable dog-like despotism.
This, I thought, was in the country which boasts, and is boasted of carrying the torch of civilisation to Turkey! Better by far would Turkish humanity civilise the Russian Government. And this, too, was the effects of the Turkish war; unjust, ambitiously determined, evil and despicable as it was. May we ever be preserved from such a fearful system of inhuman lawlessness.
These conscripted men would of course be sent to the northern boundaries of Russia, or to the far west of Poland, perhaps form part of the Balkan or the Bessarabian guard, certain it is that they would never be quartered near their ruined homes on the Caspian Sea. Just as those recruited in Warsaw, and other parts of Poland, are despatched to Turkestan, Circassia, or Central Asian provinces.
Exceedingly mindful is Russia of her policy in this matter; perhaps through fear of in-
ternal dissensions and rebellions, were they permitted to remain in their native districts; the place where they, under compulsion, joined the army of the White Czar, glorious as it may be to some Russian-loving eyes.
When under quarantine, at Baku, I asked our factionnaire where it was he enlisted. His eyes glistened with delight at the thought of his early home; then his face assumed a mournful sadness, as he replied in good German: ‘I am a Pole, and was taken from Warsaw.’
I then inquired as to the probability of his return.
‘Ah, sir,’ said he, at the same time cautiously looking round — ‘Ah, sir, I shall never again see Warsaw.’ He informed me that when removed from Baku, Turkestan would be their next home, from whence they will never return.
Such is the accursed and blasting course adopted by the humanising Government of
Russia — a course which cannot fail to ultimately prove the ruin and downfall of their military greatness. And these terrible in roads on national customs and feelings must eventually burst forth in one common cry for justice and freedom. That cry will prove disastrous to Russia. May we not hear the commencement of the nation’s bitterness even now? The ever-occurring official assassinations, Secret Societies, Nihilism, and Socialism; is not this interpreted in one word — ‘Freedom?’ and that freedom will come sooner or later, we feel assured; and the longer it is postponed and brutally put off, the more disastrous will it prove to not only Russia, but also to other equally fettering and tyrannous autocracies.
The treaty of Berlin enumerates certain independent provinces to receive from the Turk free autonomy, which, we presume, signifies living by laws according to one’s own mind. Has, Russia got this self-government? Is Russia capable of apportioning out to others
that which she herself never possessed? Are the minions of Russia to carry freedom and humanity to a people whose laws, though corrupt, excel her own in every respect?
Such, however, was the case. Russia was allowed to declare war simply for the sake — as their devout Czar remarked — to uplift and free the poor Bulgarians. The sole and only cause was to obtain Constantinople.
When this so-called freedom had been proclaimed to Bulgaria, Russian troops marched back to vile slavery in their own land. Such is the land out of whose midst arose that great cry for Bulgarian emancipation and Turkish annihilation. The free Bulgarian, however, since acknowledges that the reform of his laws was a sad mistake; and he owns to having, in common language, leaped from the frying-pan into the fire. And there will he stay.
We reached Astrakhan the following day about noon. It is not what one would wish
to see in a first class seaport, and we thought, as our steamer anchored in the harbour, that by all appearances, Russia sorely needed a Samuel Plimsoll.
Rotten-looking crafts lie almost sunken by the heavy cargoes of timber from Nijni, bound — should they ever reach them — to the southern ports of the Caspian.
The streets are miserably dirty and uneven; the buildings, chiefly of pine brought down from Nijni Novgorod, are of an inferior style of architecture, even from what is generally seen in Russia. The droskies (public vehicles) painfully reminded me of the almost-forgotten land-journeys we had been accustomed to in the land of Iran.
Our passports and luggage were most closely examined by the officials of the Customs’ Department. Innumerable questions were put as to our reasons for travelling in Eastern Russia, and at such a time; we were eyed with evident suspicion by the General of Customs, who
wished to know if the one who possessed the English passport (meaning myself) was a diplomatic messenger. The pretensions to civility and courteousness which were shown to us, were doubtless to gain, if possible, additional information to that offered by our respective passports and other documents, but in this they failed, and we departed in peace to our hotel, after receiving what is unusual even in Russia, extra papers which conveyed to distant authorities the time we remained in Astrakhan, and the route which we intended to travel.
These unlooked-for attentions were gratuitously repeated at each town where we halted for a few hours from our journey.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg their zeal and interest in our welfare could not be exceeded. Escorts were — unasked for — placed at our service. When told of the unnecessary trouble thus taken, the gendarme imperiously waved his gloved hand and shook his crested
head. The only remark with which we were from time to time honoured by these law-guardians, was a repeated ‘Niet, niet!’ (‘No, no!’)
Twenty-four hours in Astrakhan, and once more our course lay westward.
The Volga, from this Caspian port up to Nijni Novgorod, presents various objects of interest in the wild scenery on its banks, the numerous islands which we pass, and the rudely-erected tents and huts of the Russian Tartars, some of which are unfit for habitation. These kennels — for they are nothing more— afford shelter to a whole family and more. No thought of indecency enters their heads, when parents, children, young and old, together crowd, day and night, in one small filthy room.
Like their neighbours, the Persians, the Russian never thinks of changing his wearing-apparel on retiring to rest. Their bed is of easy contrivance, a thick skin forms the under
portion on which he lays, and without divesting himself of a scrap of clothing, the weary Tartar prostrates himself on his rug, being covered with another though thicker one similar in appearance. Sheepskins are generally kept for this purpose.
The dwellings and habits, the everyday life and the moral and religious laws which are enjoyed by a Persian or a Bedouin Arab, are far superior and preferable to those of the Russian peasant Tartar, persecuted as he is by the Christian rulers. They have no church especially dedicated to their religion, yet they find means to devote certain portions of the day to sacred purposes in the house of Mohammedan compatriots.
Northwards from Astrakhan, the first place of importance is Saratova, a military centre for Eastern Russia; it is a thickly populated town chiefly inhabited by Tartar Mussulmans, who have now felt the yoke of military despotism, and cringe at the thought of wearing, by com-
pulsion, the uniform of a Christian sovereign, knowing that ere long they will receive the command to shed the blood of their fellow-believers, soldiers of some distant khanats, which is gradually falling under the dominion of Russia’s mighty power.
Up the Volga to Nijni, presents similar scenes of the destructive power ruling them; poor, ignorant, superstitious Tartars, driven like wild sheep by the soldiery of a Christian(!) district, tolerated and encouraged by the officers of a similar religion, (no Tartar ever rises above the rank of a private), their lives one continual sacrifice and sorrow at seeing usurpers occupying the ground their forefathers were wont to call theirs. Death, under such circumstances, must be welcomed by the patient follower of Mahomed’s doctrines as a great relief.
At Saratova we saw a band of these wretched Tartar soldiers pinioned and manacled, sentenced to perpetual imprisonment in the
wilds of Siberia for some trivial offence, perhaps returning a blow given by some brutal fellow-soldier, but a Christian; or may be for using words unallowed by the laws of serfdom. The cause of their exilement was unknown to us; yet, be it for what it may, the sight was sickening, and I involuntarily and fervently ejaculated: ‘Thank God I am not a Russian!’
Cruel and bitter are the tortures ruthlessly inflicted upon the unfortunate victims who fall into the hands of the Emperor’s merciless functionaries. But their heartrending cries can never reach the ears of the civilised world; the ruthless bonds of the despot’s sway are tightly drawn. Once en route for the mines of Siberia, they are heard of no more by those who knew them previous to the time when they fell victims to the most brutal and iniquitous despotism that disgraces blushing humanity.
A Polish Russian of Baku, for teaching
English and French, was arrested, and after undergoing barbarous punishment in a filthy den of the common prison, received the dread sentence which has brought terror and dismay to many an innocent subject of Russia’s imperial rule, and hurled the accursed bolt which has broken many a heart, and filled the soul with blank despair of the dark dismal future: ‘To Siberia.’ The sentence is not an elaborate summing up, yet who can picture the terrible fate of one thus condemned?
Women, tenderly nurtured, who have been reared in all the luxurious refinement of European society, all are subjected to the demoniacal will of the Russian Government. The shameful scenes enacted on the road to Siberia, especially upon the unprotected, pitiable daughters of Eve, are almost beyond belief. After quitting the place where the harsh sentence has been thundered forth, the prisoners are taken to St. Petersburg, from whence they are driven, chained together,
over the rough, stony, frozen roads leading to the snowy Siberian plains, subjected to all the infamous practices of a savage soldiery. After weary days of marching they arrive, with lacerated feet and torn flesh, at the frontier station; here they are handed over to other equally brutish taskmasters, and here, also, the curtain falls; we cannot penetrate further; what their sufferings are afterwards, is to us a sealed book. Such an infernal system, tolerated and upheld by a professedly Christian Government, places Russia far beyond the pale of civilisation, and almost of savage humanity.
Four days brought us to the great European-Asiatic emporium Nijni; and here we finished our sea voyage until reaching Calais, or Ostend.
Nijni Novgorod is world-wide famous for one thing only, i.e., the fair which is annually held within its spacious markets. Merchants from all parts of Russia flock to Nijni during
that time. The Persian, with his cunning, suspicious eyes, brings the elaborate silkwork from Resht and Teheran, the lambskins from Central Persia, Baghdad, and Kashan. The Afghan trader exhibits his wares from Khiva, Bokhara, Samarcand, and Merv.
Tea is brought direct from China over the vast Asiatic deserts; it is conspicuous by the immense black sheepskins in which it is packed, and reminds one of the Turkish water-skins.
Rich silk and needlework, from Cashmere and our North-Western provinces, finds a salable market at Nijni. Bright blades from Damascus. Sacred clay from Mecca. Persian calf from Hamadan; and various other equally famous ‘makes’ are seen here.
Merchants from Tiflis, and other parts of Circassia, bring with them articles more common to European eyes. Russian furs of every kind and quality are offered in abundance. Passing through the bazaars, the crowd is a motley one. The Khivan, with his long robe
and heavy sheepskin headpiece. Tartars, Turcomans, Afghans, and Persians dressed in the similar fashion but stamped with a different cast of feature. Circassians, Armenians, Russians, and even Turks, will in their turn command a few moments’ eager attention.
All are zealous in their desire to ‘give’ something to your excellency. The bargains are very similar to Persian ones, nothing is sold, everything is given away; the recipient of these favours giving in return what his generous heart may command. Should the free offering be below the market value of the article, the money is at once cast down on the dirty road as unclean; a tremendous battle of words ensue, the victory usually falling to the purchaser, although for some time the angry vendor persistently refuses to even touch the money; but as his anger fades away, new resolves are formed, and with mutterings as to its worthlessness, he carefully deposits
the coins in the depths of his capricious poches.
Pictures of Christ and the Blessed Virgin are in great request: each passer-by uncovers his head and makes the sign of the cross to the clay image.
During our stay at Nijni, the fair had but just commenced, all kinds of recent Parisian ___ were exuberantly strewn about the various stalls. Very little English ware is to be seen, owing, undoubtedly, to the high tariff-rates in existence; and through years of correspondence on the subject, it is impossible to alter the fixed rates — at least, so say the Russian Government looking, of course to their own advantage.
On the evening of the second day we left Nijni Novgorod, by railroad, for the ancient capital of All the Russians. Early the following morning, on awaking from an interrupted and uncomfortable sleep, we were told that Moscow would be reached in two hours.
The morning was cold, and to our minds winterly; the surrounding scenery was not of a most brilliant description, yet in the thousands of frost-silvered fir-trees which we passed, and the noise of the railway-engine as it puffed and shrieked through the forest, we found some interest and amusement.
Accustomed as we had been for years to the cold cheerless and comfortless saddle-rides, this mode of travelling was almost a novelty, and we felt scarcely less strange than did a Persian khan who, for the first time, was sitting somewhat uneasily in a railway-carriage; he was travelling to Berlin, to prepare the way for his Imperial master, who was then en route, viâ Tiflis.
The Russian railway to Moscow, though but an inferior one in speed, led us to think at least that we were now in Europe, away from the dreary night marches, bad accommodation, and affrighted sleeps.
We shortly observed our fellow-travellers
were preparing to alight: some were still of the cushioned shelves used for sleeping; rugs were being wrapped up, furs buttoned, the last glass of vatki swallowed, and by this time on looking from the carriage, I saw the gilded domes of the Imperial City, under whose walls the flower of the French army was so bitterly blighted. Moscow, the city of cities, as it was called by the Russian enthusiasts.
On alighting in the railway station, a crowd of droski drivers at once surrounded us, fiercely making war with each other as to who should drive their excellencies. One remarked that his horse was the sweetest creature and most perfect of animals; another chimed in with, ‘Oh, little father, this long-cherished companion of mine was born to carry such ones as your excellency; others were sure-footed, docile, and loving. We failed to see in Moscow that strict discipline which is enforced in other parts of Russia and the Con-
tinent generally with respect to these public conveyances.
After a strict examination of our documents, we were accompanied by the inevitable gendarme to the Hotel de Paris.