Monday, December 31, 2007

St. Nicholas, Potemkin, and Alexander Herzen

Some of you remember James Biedron* and maybe remember what the term Potemkin Village means. I thought of this when reading Herzen's memoirs while eating lunch today.

* Czar of Russian History, B-CC class of 1957, B-CC social studies teacher from 1969 to 2002, also 30-year coach of B-CC's "It's Academic" team.

At the turn of the year from 1837 to 1838, his three-year exile in the Siberian province of Vyatka was coming to a close. As it does, he recalls the incident a half year before that changed his fortunes. He tells it thus (this is scanned and ocr'd; unlikely to be error-free):

Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts; translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Humphrey Higgens (1968, Knopf)

Vol. 1
Chapter 17
The Tsarevich's Visit


THE Heir will visit Vyatka! The Heir is travelling about Russia to show himself and look at the country! This news interested everyone, but the governor, of course, more than any. He was harassed and did a number of incredibly stupid things: ordered the peasants along the high-road to be dressed in their holiday caftans, ordered the fences in the towns to be painted and the sidewalks to be repaired. At Orlov a poor widow who owned a small house told the mayor that she had no money to repair the sidewalk and he reported this to the governor.

The latter ordered the floors in the house to be taken up (the sidewalks there are made of wood), and that, should they not be sufficient, the repairs should be made at the government expense and the money recovered from her afterwards, even if it were necessary to sell her house at public auction. Things did not go so far as a sale, but the widow's floors were broken up.

Fifty versts from Vyatka is the place at which the wonder-working ikon of St. Nicholas of Khlynov appeared to the people of Novgorod.

When emigrants from Novgorod settled at Khlynov (now Vyatka) they brought the ikon, but it disappeared and turned up again on t?e Great River fifty versts from Vyatka. They fetched it back again, and at the same time took a vow that if the ikon would stay they would carry it every year in a solemn procession to the Great River.

This was the chief summer holiday in the Vyatka province; I believe it is on the 23rd of May. For twenty-four hours the ikon travels down the river on a magnificent raft with the bishop and all the clergy in full vestments accompanying it. Hundreds of all sorts of boats, rafts, and dug-out canoes filled with peasants, men and women, Votyaks, and artisans follow the sailing image in a motley throng, and foremost of all is the governor's decked boat covered with red cloth. This barbaric spectacle is very fine. Tens of thousands of people from districts near and far wait for the image on the banks of the Great River. They all camp in noisy crowds about a small village, and, what is strangest of all, crowds of unbaptised Votyaks, Cheremises, and even Tatars come to pray to the image; indeed, the festival has a thoroughly pagan appearance.

Outside the monastery-wall Votyaks and Russians bring sheep and calves to be sacrificed; they are killed on the spot, a monk reads a service over them, and blesses and consecrates the meat, which is sold at a special window within the precincts. The meat is distributed in pieces to the people; in the old days it used to be given for nothing: now the monks charge a few kopecks for every piece; so that a peasant who has presented a whole calf has to pay something for a piece for his own consumption. In the monastery-yard sit whole crowds of beggars, the halt, the blind, the deformed of all sorts, who sing 'Lazar' in chorus.* Lads-priests' sons or boys from the town-sit on the tombstones near the church with inkpots** and cry: 'Who wants lists written? Who wants lists?' Peasant girls and women surround them, mentioning names, and the lads, deftly scratching with their pens, repeat: 'Marya, Marya, Akulina, Stepanida, Father Ioann, Matrena. . . . Well, Auntie, you have got a lot; you've shelled out two kopecks, we can't take less than five; such a family-Ioann, Vasilisa, Iona, Marya, Yevpraxia, Baby Katerina. . . .' In the church there is much jostling and strange preferences are shown; one peasant woman will hand her neighbour a candle with exact instructions to put it up 'for our guest', another gives one for 'our host'. The Vyatka monks and deacons are continually drunk during the whole time of this procession. They stop at the bigger villages on the way, and the peasants treat them to enough to kill them.

So this popular holiday, to which the peasants had been accustomed for ages, the governor proposed to move to an earlier date, wishing to entertain the Tsarevich who was to arrive on the 19th of May; he thought there would be no harm in St Nicholas, the guest, going on his visit to his host three days earlier. Of course the consent of the bishop was necessary; fortunately he was an amenable person, and found nothing to protest at in the governor's intention of celebrating the 23rd of May on the 19th.

The governor sent a list of his ingenious plans for the reception of the Tsarevich to the Tsar-as though to say, 'See how we fete your son'. On reading this document the Tsar flew into a rage, and said to the Minister of Home Affairs: 'The governor and the bishop are fools; leave the holiday as it was.' The Minister gave the governor a good scolding, the Synod did the same to the bishop, and St Nicholas the guest kept to his old habits.

Among the various instructions from Petersburg, orders came that in every provincial town an exhibition should be held of the various natural products and handicrafts of the district, and that the things exhIbIted should be arranged according to the three natural kingdoms. This division into animal, vegetable and mineral greatly worried the officials, and even Tyufyayev to some extent. In order not to make a mistake he made up his mind in spite of his ill will to summon me to give advice.

'Now, for instance, honey,' he said, 'where would you put honey? or a gilt frame -- how are you to decide where it is to go?' Seeing from my answers that I had wonderfully precise information concerning the three natural kingdoms, he offered me the task of arranging the exhibition.

While I was busy arranging wooden vessels and Votyak dresses, honey and iron sieves, and Tyufyayev went on taking the most ferocious measures for the entertainment of his Imperial Highness at Vyatka, the Highness in question was graciously pleased to arrive at Orlov, and the news of the arrest of the mayor of Orlov burst like a clap of thunder on the town. Tyufyayev turned yellow, and there was an uncertainty apparent in his gait.

Five days before the Tsarevich arrived at Orlov, the mayor had written to Tyufyayev that the widow whose floor had been broken up to make the sidewalk was making a fuss, and that So-and-so, a wealthy merchant and a prominent person in the town, was boasting that he would tell the Tsarevich everything. Tyufyayev disposed of the man very cleverly; he told the mayor to have doubts. of his sanity (the precedent of Petrovsky pleased him), and to send him to Vyatka to be examined by the doctors; while the affair was going on the Tsarevich would have left the province of Vyatka, and that would be the end of it. The mayor did as he was bid; the merchant was in the hospital at Vyatka.

At last the Tsarevich arrived. He gave Tyufyayev a frigid bow, did not invite him to visit him, but at once sent Dr Enokhin to examine the arrested merchant. He knew all about it. The Orlov widow had given him her petition; the other merchants and townsmen had told him all that was going on. Tyufyayev's face was more awry than ever. Things looked black for him. The mayor said straight out that he had had written instructions for everything from the governor. Dr Enokhin declared that the merchant was perfectly sane. Tyufyayev was lost.

Between seven and eight in the evening the Tsarevich visited the exhibition with his suite. Tyufyayev conducted him, explaining things incoherently, getting into a muddle and speaking of a 'Tsar Tokhtamysh'.*** Zhukovsky and Arsenev, seeing that things were not going well, asked me to show them the exhibition. I took them round. The Tsarevich's expression had none of that narrow severity, that cold, merciless cruelty which was characteristic of his father; his features were more suggestive of good nature and listlessness. He was about twenty, but was already beginning to grow stout. The few words he said to me were friendly and very different from the hoarse, abrupt tones of his uncle Constantine and without his father's custom of making his hearer almost faint with terror.

When he had gone away Zhukovsky and Arsenev began asking me how I had come to Vyatka. They were surprised to hear a Vyatka official speak like a gentleman. They at once offered to speak of my situation to the Tsarevich, and did in fact do all that they could for me. The Tsarevich approached the Tsar for permission for me to travel to Petersburg. The Tsar replied that that would be unfair to the other exiles, but, in consideration of the Tsarevich's representations, he ordered me to be transferred to Vladimir, which was geographically an improvement, being seven hundred versts nearer home. But of that later.

After the departure of the Tsarevich, Tyufyayev with a heavy heart prepared to exchange his pashalik for the chair of a senator; but worse than that happened.

Three weeks later the post brought from Petersburg papers addressed to 'the administrator of the province'. Everything was turned upside down in the secretariat; the registrar ran in to say that they had received an ukaz; the office manager rushed to Tyufyayev; Tyufyayev gave out that he was ill and did not go to the office. Within an hour we learned that he had been dismissed sans phrase. The whole town was delighted at the fall of the governor; there was something stifling, unclean, about his rule, a fetid odour of red tape, but for all that it was nasty to watch the rejoicings of the officials.

Yes, every ass gave a parting kick to this wounded boar. The meanness of men was' just as apparent as at the fall of Napoleon, though the catastrophe was on a different scale. Of late I had been on terms of open hostility with him, and he would have certainly sent me off to some obscure little town such as Kay, if he had not been sent away himself. I had held aloof from him, and I had no reason to change my behaviour to him. But the others, who only the day before had been cap in hand to him, who had grudged him his carriage, eagerly anticipating his wishes, fawning on his dog and offering snuff to his valet, now barely greeted him and made an outcry all over the town against the irregularities, the guilt of which they shared with him. This is nothing new; it has been repeated so continually in every age and in every place that we must accept this meanness as a common trait of humanity and at any rate feel no surprise at it. .

My parting with Vyatka society was very warm. In that remote town I had made two or three genuine friends among the young merchants.

Everyone vied in showing sympathy and kindness to the exile.

Several sledges accompanied me as far as the first posting-station, and in spite of all my efforts to defend myself my sledge was filled up with a perfect load of provisions and wine. Next day I reached Yaransk.

From Yaransk the road goes through endless pine forests. It was moonlight and very frosty at night. The little sledge flew along the narrow road. I have never seen such forests since; they go on like that unbroken as far as Archangel, and sometimes reindeer come through them to the province of Vyatka. The forest is for the most part composed of large trees; the pines, extraordinarily straight, ran past the sledge like soldiers, tall and covered with snow from under which their black needles stuck out like bristles; one would drop asleep and wake up again and still the regiments of pines would be marching rapidly by, sometimes shaking off the snow. The horses are changed at little clearings; there is a tiny house lost among the trees, the horses are tied up to a trunk, the sledgebells begin tinkling, and two or three Cheremis boys in embroidered shirts run out, looking sleepy. The Votyak driver swears at his companion in a husky alto, shouts 'Ayda', begins singing a song on two notes. . . and again pines and snow, snow and pines.

Chapter 18
The Beginning of my Life at Vladimir

WHEN I went out to get into my sledge at Kosmodemyansk it was harnessed in the Russian style, with three horses abreast: one between the shafts and two flanking it. The shaft horse, with its yoke, rang the bells gaily.

In Perm and Vyatka the horses are put in tandem, one before the other or two side by side and the third in front.

So my heart throbbed with delight when I saw the familiar troika.

'Come now, show us your mettle,' I said to the young lad who sat smartly in the driver's seat in a sheepskin coat, the bare side turned outwards, and stiff gauntlets which barely allowed his fingers to close enough to take fifteen kopecks from my hand.

'We'll do our best, sir, we'll do our best. Hey, darlings! Now, sir,' he said, turning suddenly to me, 'you just hold on; there is a hill yonder, so I'll let them go.' It was a steep descent to the Volga; III the winter the way lay across the ice.

He certainly did let the horses go. The sledge did not so much run as bound from right to left, from left to right, as the horses whirled it down-hill; the driver was tremendously pleased, and indeed, sinful man that I am, so was I-it is the Russian temperament.

So my post-horses brought me into 1838-into the best, the brightest year of my life. I shall describe how we saw the New Year in.

Eighty versts from Nizhni Novgorod we, that is Matvey, my valet, and I, went into the station-superintendent's to warm ourselves. There was a very' sharp frost, and it was windy too. The superintendent, a thin, sickly, pitiful-looking man, inscribed my travelling permit, dictating every letter to himself and yet making mistakes. I took off my fur-lined coat and walked up and down the room in my huge fur boots, Matvey was warming himself at the red-hot stove, the superintendent muttered, and a wooden clock ticked on a faint, cracked note.

'I say,' Matvey said to me, 'it will soon be twelve o'clock; it's the New Year, you know. I'll bring in something,' he added, looking at me half-inquiringly, 'from the stores they put in our sledge at Vyatka.' And without waiting for an answer he ran to fetch bottles and a bag with some food.

Matvey, of whom I shall have more to say later, was more than a servant: he was a friend, a younger brother to me. A man of Moscow, apprenticed to Sonnenberg, whose acquaintance we shall also make, to learn the art of bookbinding, in which Sonnenberg, however, was not very proficient, he passed into my hands.

I knew that if I refused it would disappoint Matvey, and besides I had nothing against celebrating the day at the posting-station. . . .

The New Year is a station of a sort.

Matvey brought ham and champagne.

The champagne turned out to be frozen solid; the ham could have been chopped with an axe, and was all glistening with ice; but a la guerre comme a la guerre.

'May the New Year bring new happiness.' Yes indeed, new happiness. Was I not on the way back? Every hour was bringing me nearer to Moscow-my heart was full of hopes.

The frozen champagne did not exactly please the superintendent.

I added half a glass of rum to his wine. This new 'half-and-half'**** was very successful.

The driver, whom I had also invited to join us, was still more extreme in his views; he sprinkled pepper into his glass of foaming wine, stirred it with a spoon, drank it off at one gulp, uttered a painful sigh and almost with a moan added: 'It did scorch fine!' The superintendent himself tucked me into the sledge, and was so zealous in his attentions that he dropped the lighted candle into the hay and could 'not find it afterwards. He was in great spirits and kept repeating: 'You've given me a New Year's Eve, too!' The scorched driver started the horses off.

* A plaintive, wheedling song sung by beggars.
** The lists of names were sent up to the priest, who said a prayer for the owner of each name,
*** The Tatar khan of the Golden Horde who in 1382 sacked the Kremlin at Moscow and massacred 24,000 people.
**** In English in the text.

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