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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Russia and the Russians a Hundred Years Ago

By John Ledyard (1751–1789)

[Written at Yakutsk, Siberia, 1787–88.—The Life and Travels of John Ledyard. 1828.]

MANY instances of longevity occur in this place. There is a man one hundred and ten years old, who is in perfect health, and labors daily. The images in the Russian houses, which I should take for a kind of household gods, are very expensive. The principal ones have a great deal of silver lavished on them. To furnish out a house properly with these Dii Minores, would cost a large sum. When burnt out, as I have witnessed several times, the people have appeared more anxious for these, than for anything else. The images form almost the whole decoration of the churches, and those melted in one of them just burnt down, are estimated to have been worth at least thirty thousand roubles. The warm bath is used by the peasantry here early in life, from which it is common for them to plunge into the river, and if there happens to be new-fallen snow, they come naked from the bath and wallow therein. Dances are accompanied, or rather performed, by the same odd twisting and writhing of the hips, as at Otaheite.

Dogs are here esteemed nearly in the same degree that horses are in England; for besides answering the same purpose in travelling, they aid the people in the chase, and, after toiling for them the whole day, become their safeguard at night. Indeed they command the greatest attention. There are dog farriers to attend them in sickness, who are no despicable rivals in art, at least in pretension, to the horse doctor of civilized Europe. Dogs also command a high price. What they call a leading dog of prime character, will sell for three or four hundred roubles.

Everybody in Yakutsk has two kinds of windows, the one for summer and the other for winter. Those for the latter season are of many different forms and materials; but all are so covered with ice on the inside, that they are not transparent, and are so far useless. You can see nothing without, not even the body of the sun at noon. Ice is most commonly used for windows in winter, and talc in summer. These afford a gloomy kind of light within, that serves for ordinary purposes.

The Russ dress in this region is Asiatic; long, loose, and of the mantle kind, covering almost every part of the body. It is a dress not originally calculated for the latitude they inhabit. Within-doors the Russian is Asiatic; without, European. The Emperor gives three ranks to officers that come into Siberia and serve six years; two while out from Petersburg, and one on their return. It has two important effects, one to civilize Siberia, and the other to prostitute rank. I have before my eyes the most consummate scoundrels in the universe, of a rank that in any civilized country would be a signal of the best virtues of the heart and the head, or at least of common honesty and common decency. The succession of these characters is every six years.

So strong is the propensity of the Russians to jealousy, that they are guilty of the lowest offences on that account. The observation may appear trivial, but the ordinary Russian will be displeased, if one even endeavors to gain the good-will of his dog. I affronted the Commandant of this town very highly, by permitting his dog to walk with me one afternoon. He expostulated with me very seriously about it. This is not the only instance. I live with a young Russian officer, with whom I came from Irkutsk. No circumstance has ever interrupted the harmony between us, but his dogs. They have done it twice. A pretty little puppy he has, came to me one day, and jumped upon my knee. I patted his head, and gave him some bread. The man flew at the dog in the utmost rage, and gave him a blow which broke his leg. The lesson I gave him on the occasion has almost cured him, for I bid him beware how he disturbed my peace a third time by this rascally passion.

I have observed from Petersburg to this place, that the Russians in general have few moral virtues. The bulk of the people are almost without any. The laws of the country are mostly penal laws; but all laws of this kind are little else than negative instructors. They inform the people what they shall not do, and affix the penalty to the transgression; but they do not inform people what they ought to do, and affix the reward to virtue. Untaught in the sublime of morality, the Russian has not that glorious basis, on which to exalt his nature. This, in some countries, is made the business of religion; and, in others, of the civil laws. In this unfortunate country, it is the business of neither civil nor ecclesiastical concernment. A citizen here fulfils his duty to the laws, if, like a base Asiatic, he licks the feet of his superior in rank; and his duty to his God, if he fills his house with a set of ill-looking brass and silver saints, and worships them. It is for these reasons that the peasantry, in particular, are the most unprincipled in Christendom.