Kohl, J. G. (Johann Georg) 1808-1878: Russia: St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kharkoff, Riga, Odessa, the German Provinces on the Baltic, the Steppes, the Crimea, and the Interior of the Empire [excerpts]: an electronic transcription
CHAPTER X: THE SERVANTS OF ST. PETERSBURG.previous section | next section
FROM very ancient times the Russian nobles have divided their serfs into two classes: the agricultural peasants who live on the estates and cultivate the soil, and the so-called "Dvorniye Liudi," who are chosen for the personal service of the lord, as footmen, gardeners, coachmen, and others. These servants soon obtained certain advantages; were not used to dig the soil, and not given up for military service. As they were no better fed in their lord's house than in their own, had their own bread and kwas to provide, to be content with what remained from their lord's table, and as they had rarely any other clothing than that worn on the paternal dunghill, such servants cost very little to keep, and whole companies of stable-boys, stove-heaters, scullions,' lamplighters, couriers, table-coverers, and housemaids, were easily admitted into a household. These thorough old Russian servants, who, with their shoes of lime-bark, and sheepskin cloaks, formed a strange contrast to the palaces they lived in, where they slept on the stoves in the kitchen, or on the chairs and floors of the rooms, are still to be met with in country houses in the interior. Even in many houses in Moscow and St. Petersburg (generally in those of the poorer nobles) the lower offices of the household are still filled by these serf servants, who are provided perhaps with a better caftan and boots, but after serving for a time in the kitchen or the stable, are dismissed to their fields again. These people differ too little from the rest of the peasants to form a class apart.
The observation which the masters soon made, that their own serfs were much idler, slower, and more perverse in service than those who worked for hire, the increasing wants of a newly-civilized capital, and of luxury growing with the growth of the empire, have called forth a numerous class of ministering spirits, consisting of natives of all nations, and of the most various relations in life, the study of which is one of the most interesting that a capital can offer to the ethnograph or psychologist. By far the larger part are those members of the superfluous population of the estates, who are not wanted for the cultivation of the soil, and whom their lords have permitted to seek their fortune in the towns. They are furnished with a pass or permit, which runs thus: "I permit my krepostnoi tshelovek (serf) Jephim,-on payment of a yearly sum of sixty, seventy, eighty rubles (as the case may be) which he is to transmit half-yearly,-to seek his livelihood in any way, in any town or village of the Russian empire, for so many years until it be my pleasure to call him back to my estate, X., where he is registered." The serfs thus manumitted for a time, come to the cities and engage in various occupations, in hotels, coffee-houses, manufactories, and in wealthy private families, where, however, those entirely free are preferred, on account of the dependence of the former on another master, by whom they are continually liable to be recalled. It is curious to see with what inconceivable adroitness and rapidity these people from the plough accommodate themselves to their new position. They come up raw and unfashioned from the sheepfold, stumble over the floors of the sitting-rooms, and scarcely know how to place a table against the wall. In a few months they are coxcombs in gay liveries, exhaling perfume, dancing on the smoothest polished floor with the waiting-maids, and assisting their masters into their carriages with the grace of a court page.
An immense number of servants are recruited from the army. These poor fellows, when they are dismissed after their twenty or twenty-five years' service, have commonly forgotten during that time any mechanical art whereby they might live, have lost their relations by death, and their former masters by having served as soldiers, for the emperors service sets them free from all other. On the other hand, as Dentshuks (servants) to so many officers, they have learned to obey to admiration, and, therefore, naturally seek employment to attend on single gentlemen, or as porters, messengers, or watchmen in public institutions. For the latter purpose, they are generally preferred to all others, for which reason they are met with in numbers at all hospitals, poor-houses, theatres, at the exchanges, and in the schools as door-keepers, waiters, etc. in their old worn uniforms, and a whole series of medals and crosses on their breasts. If any master desire a being who has absolutely no will of his own, who is ready to devote all his powers of mind and body to his service, who is yielding, submissive, and patient enough to bear all his whims and humours, even his anger and injustice, without a murmur; in a word, if any one wish for the very ideal of a servant, who will bear his master, as it were, upon his hands, go through fire and water for him without complaint, who neither sleeps nor wakes without permission, nor eats nor drinks but at command, who makes no other answer, and has no other thought, on the receipt of any
possible order or commission but "slushu" (I obey), let him at once engage a Russian dentshuk, who, after he has endured the fiery ordeal of twenty years' service as a Russian soldier, and learnt suppleness by countless punishments, will find the hardest place mild and easy. It is not possible that one who loves to rule could find a softer cushion whereon to lean than such a dentshuk-so good-tempered, so obliging, so unwearied, so attentive and obsequious as never other man can be, unless we could unbrutify our faithful dog, and breathe his devoted spirit into a speaking, living human form.
After these three classes of Russian servants, the Germans are the most numerous in St. Petersburg, then the Finlanders, Esthonians, and Lettes. The French and Tartar fill only particular offices, but these almost exclusively. The English of this class are the fewest, and they, too, seem to appropriate some particular posts. To describe this division of employment by nations, it will be necessary to mention the different charges and offices in a Russian house more in detail. A review of this kind is, besides, well calculated to throw light upon the domestic life of Russia, as it characterizes not only the generally-overlooked class of servants, but in many respects their masters also.
A fully-appointed house of the first class in Russia, without mentioning the numerous resident relations, old aunts, cousins, adopted children, etc. without mentioning the educational staff, the German, French, and Russian masters, tutors and governesses, the family physician, companions and others, who, as majorum gentium, must of course be excluded, has so astounding a number of serving-folk of one kind or another, that the like is to be found in no other country in the world. The following may be named as never wanting in the list: the superintendent of accounts, the secretary, the dworezki or maitre d'hotel, the valets of the lord, the valets of the lady, the dyatka or overseer of the children, the footmen, the buffetshek or butler and his adjuncts, the table-decker, the head groom, the coachman and postilions of the lord, and the coachman and postilions of the lady, the attendants on the sons of the house and their tutors, the porter, the head cook and his assistant, the baker and the confectioner, the whole body of mushiks or servants minimarum gentium, the stove-heater, kwas brewer, the waiting-maids, and wardrobe-keeper of the lady, the waiting-maids of the grown-up daughters and of the governesses, the nurses in and past service and their under-nurses, and, when a private band is maintained, the Russian kapellmeister and the musicians.
If all these places are filled with free people, it may be easily supposed that the maintenance of such a household is no trifle in a city where wages are extravagantly high. The servants of the first-class, such as the maitre d'hotel, valets de chambre, and the furniture-keeper, generally have as much as 1000 rubles a year; the head-cook, if a Frenchman, 2000, and sometimes more; the coachman and footmen 30 to 50 rubles monthly; the foreign waiting women 60 to 80 monthly; and even the lowest of the house servants from 20 to 30, also monthly. Many of these posts are to be filled on each of the twenty estates that the family may possess under every meridian and parallel; besides the army of stewards, gardeners, Saxon shepherds, miners, commissaries, pensioned servants, etc. who are all to be overlooked and paid from St. Petersburg, the principal residence of the family. For the receipt and payment of money, and the management of the correspondence connected with it, some of the Russian grandees have almost as much counting-house business as a merchant in a considerable
way of business. From these counting-houses the servants receive their wages, the pensioners of the family their allowance, and the heads of the house themselves the money for their personal expenses. The head of the financial department-often an intimate friend, or near relation of the family-lays at times an account before the chief, of the hundreds of thousands which he has received from the gold and platina mines of the Ural mountains, from the corn-fields of Moscow, the vineyards of the Crimea and Caucasus, for the wool and tallow from the herds and flocks on the Steppes, or from the salt-mines of Biarmia; and of the hundreds of thousands he has paid for sturgeons and pine-apples, bonnes, lackeys, and chambermaids.
The dvorezki, who is considered as the head of the whole tribe of serving-men, and who generally possesses the full confidence of his lord and lady, is usually a Russian, has entered the house a boy, and risen by degrees to his important post. Of course he is a great man in the eyes of the other servants, most of whom he retains or dismisses at his pleasure; and as keeper of the keys to all the stores of the house, all pay their court to him, and even the foreign waiting-maids dare not refuse him at Easter the "Christohs woskress" and the attendant salute.
Of valets and footmen there are often from twelve to twenty in one house, and as they are paraded more than any other before the eyes of the public, the youngest and best-looking men are always picked out. They are dressed with great elegance, and have one livery for the house and another for the promenade-a state livery for balls and visits at court, where they are glorious in velvet and silk, and a mourning suit for the deaths that in families so extensively connected are of frequent occurrence. All these gentry are the supplest, most adroit fellows in the world-born Figaros - and in their manner, and in their very courteous and dancing-master-like demeanour, leave the lackeys of other countries far behind. They are generally great draughts and chess players, and, with the little capital amassed from their wages, often carry on small money speculations within the house itself, where from time to time ready money is at a premium.
There are no hussars and jagers in a Russian household, but Cossacks and Circassians in their national costume are numerous; and Albanians, Servians, and Armenians are also sometimes seen in their rich native dresses; nor are even negroes wanting in this rendezvous of nations. The dyatka, or overseer of the little boys of the family, is an attendant rarely wanting in a Russian house. Very often he is some veteran soldier, who takes upon himself to meddle a little with education. As this branch of service is very well paid, better qualified persons sometimes pursue it. He is to the boys what the bonnes are to the girls. He carries them about, takes them out to walk, tends them in sickness; and it is really admirable to see the patience of these old child-loving veterans with their spoiled charges. Some families take a pride in having the whole service of the house performed by French domestics, and some have among the first class of attendants, Germans, Swedes, and even Polish Shlakhtitzi (inferior nobles); but in the stables, and all thereunto belonging, all are national, oriental, and long-bearded. A Tartar coachman is the most fashionable. It is plain that the whole form and essence of the Russian equipage is of Mongul-Tartar origin; the numerous technical Tartar words in use may be cited in proof of this. According to a Russian's belief, this kind of equipage is so fit and proper that he would not exchange it for any
other; in fact it is so generally liked, that in St. Petersburg it is adopted by all nations, the English excepted, whilst in other points it is the Russians who adopt foreign modes.
The coachman, therefore, and certainly not to his disadvantage, clothes himself in the old national dress. A fine blue cloth caftan, fastened under the left arm with three silver buttons, and girded round his middle by a coloured silk sash, invests his upper man strait and tightly, leaving the handsome throat bare, and falling in long, rich folda over the lower limbs. On his head he wears a high four-cornered cap, covered with some costly fur, and a handsome bushy beard falls like a rich bordering of fur over his breast. The carriage of the man is worthy of his picturesque costume; both he and his horses seem to be conscious that they are admired. The postilions, clad like the coachman, are pretty boys, from twelve to fourteen years of age. This is a great point; long lads of sixteen or eighteen on the leaders would offend every Russian eye. As no person of rank, in the majority of the Russian cities, ever drives with less than four horses; as not only the master of the family, but the mistress also has a coach-and-four for her own use, while in some there is another carriage for the children; the number of horses and drivers in many private establishments may be easily imagined; their studs often emulate those of princes.
The most celebrated Russian coachman, who, although a common bearded Russ, is become almost an historical personage, was Ilia, the coachman of the Emperor Alexander. He served the emperor, faithful as his shadow, for thirty years, and was much in favour with him from his experience and originality of character. He accompanied the czar in all his travels, and is therefore a well known person, not only at all the hundred thousand post stations of the Russian dominions, but throughout the capitals of Europe. He adhered to his master even in death, and slept, during the whole journey, wrapt in his furs, under the hearse that brought the imperial corpse from Taganrog to St. Petersburg. As during the life time of Alexander, Ilia was often alone with him, the words spoken from the box into the carriage were not without weight, and many a courtier tried, with very little reserve, to gain the favour of the witty coachman. He now lives, rewarded with the rank of a counsellor of state, in a palace in St. Petersburg, where he gives entertainments to his friends and kindred, and relates anecdotes of the deceased emperor.
In the kitchen department-no insignificant one any where, but least of all in Russia, all is French, or Frenchified. The majority of the Russian nobles are quite happy when they can find a Frenchman who, for some 2000 or 3000 rubles yearly, will have the goodness to direct their kitchens, and to whose humours and caprices they are willing in return to accommodate themselves. "We poor fellows," said a Russian cook to me once, "if we do not do every thing properly it's v'polizie (to the police) directly, or v'Slibir (to Siberia), paiki nada (stripes are wanted here)! But if a French cook is found fault with for spoiling a dish, he answers, "No one need mind eating that. It is not nice perhaps, but it is wholesome."
These cooks, who are very great gentlemen, and drive to market in elegant equipages, make out most incredible bills. In some houses the cost of the table amounts to some hundreds of thousands of rubles.
Many people have found it advisable to make an arrangement with the cook to furnish the dinner at so much a head. Ten rubles is an average sum. On extraordinary occasions it will be fifty, a hundred, and even more. The hospitality maintained in some of the houses, where every day a number of strangers find their places at the host's table, is not therefore quite so cheap as some travellers represent it.
St. Petersburg is the high school for all the cooks of the empire. Every noble of the interior has a number of young men, en pension, in the kitchens of the great houses in St. Petersburg, who are to return accomplished cooks; and a family from the capital removing into the interior with the whole corps of Frenchified servants, soon have their kitchen swarming with a multitude of candidates striving to acquire new and piquant recipes from the initiated.
Although there is a post office in St. Petersburg, there are still so many commissions to be executed in a great house which do not fall exactly within any one's department, that it is thought necessary to keep a "house courier'' to drive out every morning, noon, and evening, to deliver letters, parcels, and so forth. The merchants on Vassili Ostroff have a similar figurant in their houses to carry out letters and money, whom they call "Artelshtshik." He is generally a long-bearded Russ, and by virtue of his beard a trustworthy man, for he is often employed to carry hundreds of thousands, without any uneasiness being felt for their safety. When we consider the numbers already mentioned, the servants, and the servants' servants, and that many of them are married, and live in the house with all their et cetera, it will be admitted that a Russian house must be tolerably well filled, and swarming in every corner. The whole of the lower regions is commonly given up to them, where they pack themselves as well as they can with bag and baggage, home-made furniture, and household utensils, not forgetting the pictures of saints, and their everlasting lamps.
Yet it is well known that a Russian nobleman, in spite of his train of servants, or perhaps because of his train of servants, is very badly served. As no one will do what is "not in his place," a commission has a vast number of hands to go through before it is executed. A valet is asked for a glass of water, he tells a footman, who calls to a scullion; he is found sleeping about somewhere, and after a long search after a decanter, runs to the spring, and the water comes, perhaps, at last, when his master is no longer thirsty. "Sluga! pasluish!" (Here, servant, here), is called from a door. "Sei tshas! sei tshas !sei minut!" (Directly, directly, this minute), is answered from above and below, from staircase and courtyard. The caller waits a quarter of an hour, but no one comes; for Paul supposes that Ivan is gone, and Matwei knows that Vanka heard as well as he. The call is repeated. "Sluga pasluishi," and " Sei tshas," is echoed back, but no servant comes; and a hundred times a day a man may be convinced of the truth of the Russian proverb, which says, "Sei tshas" means to-morrow morning, and "Sei minut" this day week. Yet they fancy there is no doing without a retinue of servants.
"Ah! you really embarrass me with your kind visit," said Prince N- to a friend who came unexpectedly to dine with him. "I must apologize to you, for you will be very badly attended to. One-half of my servants are gone hunting with my son; I have sent out some on business myself,
and my good mother, who has driven out of town to pay a visit, has taken away nearly all the rest." Nevertheless, there were five diligent pair of hands to wait on twelve persons.
It is singular that the male servants should be much more numerous than the female. Generally the rooms are swept and the beds made by men, and the ladies, in addition to their waiting-maids, have a chamberlain who attends them every where. The waiting damsels are of all nations: arch Parisian grisettes; Swiss maidens pining with home sickness; Swedes from Stockholm come to seek a better fortune, i. e. more money; German Amalias, or Matildas, who write sentimental verses; Russian Sofinkas or Olgas, very discontented at the number of foreigners they see preferred to themselves; and over all this pot pourri of nationality, the same Russian sauce is poured. They speak a jargon half Russian, half French, garnished with many other words from many other languages; they must dress gaily and fashionably to please their mistresses, try to make them selves agreeable, and fall in with the prevailing tone.
The nurses occupy a remarkable position in Russia, the same or nearly so that they do with all the Caucasian nations, among whom the nurse remains often for life, the friend and adviser of her foster-child, and where a noble or princely house is sure to contain a whole chorus of nurses, as well those of the grown up, as of the younger children, and of the master and mistress of the family. So long as she remains in the house, the nurse is always an object of distinguished regard to all her housemates; she is flattered and spoiled on all sides, and as every thing is done to please her for the sake of the child, she seldom falls to turn out a very capricious, told, obtrusive, and particularly well-fed person. Intrusted with the mother's costliest treasure, the nurse accompanies her lady every where, - to church, to the promenade, to the boudoir, and in the carriage. As these nurses are peasant-women who have not laid aside the habits of their homes, and yet whose places demand a certain richness of dress, the national female costume is seen in them in its fullest splendour, as the male costume is with the coachmen. The Russian nurses are seen on the public walks in rich gold brocaded stuns, and high kakoshniks of false and Teal pearls on their head; the joyous look, the red cheeks of these gaudy peacocks, the boldness and assurance of their demeanour, explain at once the relation in which they stand. Long after their period of service has expired, they receive abundance of presents from the family, whose favour is extended also to the foster-children. Something of superstition is mingled with this kindness, as in almost every custom of the Russians, for they ascribe to the nurse and her children all manner of mysterious influence over the nursling.
The Germans resident in Russia relate terrible stories of these Russian nurses. Their childlike gaiety and humour fit them peculiarly for sport and merriment with children; but on the other hand, when they get out of patience, they have recourse to the most barbarous and inhuman means to quiet their noisy little charges. For instance, striking them on the head till they are stupified, holding them by the feet with their heads downwards till the blood mounts to the head, and shaking them so violently as to throw them into convulsions, besides frightening the elder children by dressing themselves up as ghosts. Other tricks so detestable have heen attributed to them, that they will not bear repetition. A lady who had had a Russian nurse told me frightful stories of what she had endured
from her, and seemed to think it little short of a miracle, that she had escaped with so much health and understanding after such treatment. The following anecdote is not the only one of the kind I have heard in St. Petersburg. A family of rank came to St. Petersburg from Moscow on business. Going one day to pay a visit in the city, they left their daughter, a child five years of age, at home with her nurse. On their return in the evening the half-intoxicated nurse fell at their feet shedding a torrent of tears, and exclaiming, "Pamiluitye, vuinovat, vuinovat" (Have compassion on me, I am guilty, I am guilty)! and told them how she had left the child a few minutes alone, and that when she came back it was nowhere to be found, it had been stolen. The despairing parents made every possible search but in vain, and were at length compelled to return childless to Moscow. The nurse appeared so wretched that she was forgiven. About three years afterwards the father came again to St. Petersburg, and while passing one day through the streets, thinking of his lost Anninka, he heard a feeble voice crying out, "Papinka, papinka" (Papa, papa)! He turned and saw his little daughter muffled in rags, miserable and sickly, sitting in a cart drawn by a filthy beggar-woman. "Woman, where did you get that child ?" cried he, seizing her and snatching the child who sunk sobbing and half-naked in his arms. On examination, it appeared that the beggar had bought the poor little creature from the nurse for 20 rubles, and reduced her to the state in which she was found, purposely to excite compassion. Begging is no longer permitted by the police, and such things are now more likely to happen in London or Paris than in St. Petersburg.
In many wealthy families a good music master is often retained, and in some, particularly in the provinces, a private band. In fact, it is easy enough for a nobleman to get one together, his peasants are always at hand, and learn as easily to play on the violin as to clean his boots. It is only necessary to have a German musician in the house, which is indeed somewhat expensive, and to let him tutor them for a time, till a band is formed, and then at a ball, or any such occasion, the lord has only to muster the stove-heaters and superfluous table-deckers to have a very tolerable orchestra. Here and there, where the taste is more refined, three or four well-paid German musicians will be found on the establishment; but this is rare, and so are the private horn-bands, which foreigners on their first arrival at St. Petersburg seem to expect to hear from every house.
On some of the estates schools have been established, where a select number of peasant-youths are taught reading, writing, etc., in order to render them serviceable afterwards, as gardeners and bailiffs, or in St. Petersburg as grooms of the chamber and secretaries. These youths bring with them the capacity for further improvement. Many of them acquire the arts of reading and writing, they themselves scarcely know how, and even the little postilions may often be seen in a corner of the stables diligently forming the letters with their frozen fingers. Nothing can excite the surprise of a stranger, more than the extraordinary passion for reading now prevalent among servants in Russia. The greater part of the antechambers of the
, where there are always a number of servants assembled, are regular
; those who are not playing at draughts, the favourite game, are generally
. It is no rare thing to see six or eight in different corners thus engaged; and if their occupation
strikes a foreigner, who expects nothing but laziness and barbarism, with admiration, as indicative of advancing civilization, his admiration will rise to astonishment if he give himself the trouble of inquiring into the nature of their studies. A Translation of Bourrienne's Memoires, Karamsin's
of Russia, the Fables of Kruiloff, the
of Prince Odojevsky, the Tales of Baron Brambares, Bantysh Kamensky's History of Lesser Russia, Polevoy's Outlines of the History of the World, a translation of the Aeneid, and others of the same kind, are the works he will find. I know not whether our domestics have yet risen to Luden's History of the Germans, or Raumer's Hohenstaufen?
It is worthy of remark, that the young literature of Russia, which has already produced much that is excellent, as yet entirely unknown to us, has hitherto thrown off none of a base and spurious kind. That with the good much that is worthless exists, is undeniable, particularly in the scientific branches, where all is good for nothing; but as it was calculated for the educated classes, it contains nothing vulgar, insipid, or common. The servants, and such of the lower classes as are more and more becoming
s, are compelled to satisfy their literary appetite with wholesome food. Their taste will refine itself in consequence, and enough has already been written in Russia to keep a zealous reader in breath. Circulating
abound in St. Petersburg. In the
, of course, it is more difficult to obtain books, and there, many really touching examples of the literary yearnings of people are related. I knew an old chamberlain, who in his leisure hours had learned Kruiloff's Fables by heart, and had read Karamsin's
of Russia, six times through, because he could get no other books. All that is written about Napoleon among us, is translated directly into
, and read by all classes, in the antechambers particularly, with uncommon ardour.