Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 4

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Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 4

This is from Memoirs of a Revolutionist by P. Kropotkin. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 1906.


That same year I made my start as an investigator of popular life. This work brought me one step nearer to our peasants, making me see them under a new light; later, it also helped me a great deal in Siberia.

Every year, in July, on the day of "The Holy Virgin of Kazan," which was the fête of our church, a pretty large fair was held in Nikólskoye. Tradesmen came from all the neighboring towns, and many thousands of peasants flocked from thirty miles round to our village, which for a couple of days had a most animated aspect. A remarkable description of the village fairs of South Russia had been published that year by the Slavophile Aksákoff, and my brother, who was then at the height of his politico-economical enthusiasm, advised me to make a statistical description of our fair, and to determine the returns of goods brought in and sold. I followed his advice, and to my great amazement I really succeeded: my estimate of returns, so far as I can judge now, was not more unreliable than many similar estimates in books of statistics.

Our fair lasted only a little more than twenty-four hours. On the eve of the fête the great open space given to the fair was full of life and animation. Long rows of stalls, to be used for the sale of cottons, ribbons, and all sorts of peasant women's attire, were hurriedly built. The restaurant, a substantial stone building, was furnished with tables, chairs, and benches, and its floor was strewn over with bright yellow sand. Three wine shops were erected, and freshly cut brooms, planted on high poles, rose high in the air, to attract the peasants from a distance. rows and rows of smaller stalls, for the sale of crockery, boots, stoneware, gingerbread, and all sorts of small things, rose as if by a magic wand, while in a special corner of the fair ground holes were dug to receive immense cauldrons, in which bushels of millet and sarrazin and whole sheep were boiled, for supplying the thousands of visitors with hot schi and Kásha (soup and porridge). In the afternoon, the four roads lending to the fair were blocked by hundreds of peasant carts, and heaps of pottery, casks filled with tar, corn, and cattle were exhibited along the roadsides.

The night service on the eve of the fête was performed in our church with great solemnity. Half a dozen priests and deacons, from the neighboring villages, took part in it, and their chanters, reinforced by young tradespeople, sang in the choirs such ritornellos as could usually be heard only at the bishop's in Kalúga. The church was crowded; all prayed fervently. The tradespeople vied with one another in the number and sizes of the wax candles which they lighted before the icons, as offerings to the local saints for the success of their trade, and the crowd being so great as not to allow the last comers to reach the altar, candles of all sizes-thick and thin, white and yellow, according to the offerer's wealth-were handed from the back of the church through the crowd, with whispers: "To the Holy Virgin of Kazan, our Protector;" "To Nicholas the Favorite;" "To Frol and Laur" (the horse saints,-that was from those who had horses to sell); or simply to " The Saints," without further specification.

Immediately after the night service was over, the "forefair" began, and I had now to plunge headlong into my work of asking hundreds of people what was the value of the goods they had brought in. To my great astonishment I got on admirably. Of course, I was myself asked questions: "Why do you do this?" "Is it not for the old prince, who intends increasing the market dues?" But the assurance that the "old prince" knew and would know nothing of it (he would have thought it a disgraceful occupation) settled all doubts at once. I soon caught the proper way of asking questions, and after I had taken half a dozen cups of tea, in the restaurant, with some tradespeople (oh, horror, if my father had learned that !), all went on very well. Vasíly Ivánoff, the elder of Nikólskoye, a beautiful young peasant, with a fine intelligent face and a silky fair beard, took an interest in my work. "Well, if thou wantest it for thy learning, get at it; thou wilt tell us later on what thou hast found out," was his conclusion, and he told some of the people that it was "all right."

In short, the imports were determined very nicely. But next day the sales offered certain difficulties, chiefly with the drygoods merchants, who did not themselves yet know how much they had sold. On the day of the fête the young peasant women simply stormed the shops; each of them, having sold some linen of her own make, was now buying some cotton print and a bright kerchief for herself, a colored handkerchief for her husband, perhaps some lace, a ribbon or two, and a number of small gifts for grandmother, grandfather, and the children who had remained at home. As to the peasants who sold crockery, or ginger cakes, or cattle, or hemp, they at once determined their sales, especially the old women. " Good sale, grand mother?" I would ask. "No need to complain, my son. Why should I anger God ! Nearly all is sold." And out of their small items tens of thousands of rubles grew in my notebook. One point only remained unsettled. A wide space was given up to many hundreds of peasant women who stood in the burning sun, each with her piece of handwoven linen, sometimes exquisitely fine, which she had brought for sale. Scores of buyers, with gypsy faces and shark-like looks, moved about in the crowd, buying. Only rough estimates of these sales could be made.

I made no reflections at that time about this new experience of mine; I was simply happy to see that it was not a failure. But the serious good sense and sound judgment of the Russian peasants which I witnessed during this couple of days left upon me a lasting impression. Later, when we were spreading socialist doctrines among the peasants, I could not but wonder why some of my friends, who had received a seemingly far more democratic education than myself, did not know how to talk to the peasants or to the factory workers from the country. They tried to imitate the " peasants' talk " by introducing a profusion of so-called " popular phrases," but they only rendered themselves the more incomprehensible.

Nothing of the sort is needed, either in talking to peasants or in writing for them. The Great Russian peasant perfectly well understands the educated man's talk' provided it is not stuffed with words taken from foreign languages What the peasant does not understand is abstract notions when they are not illustrated by concrete examples. But my experience is that when you speak to the Russian peasant plainly, and start from concrete facts,-and the same is true with regard to village folk of all nationalities,-there is no generalization from the whole world of science, social or natural, which cannot be conveyed to a man of average intelligence, if you yourself understand it concretely. The chief difference between the educated and the uneducated man is, I should say, that the latter is not able to follow a chain of conclusions. He grasps the first of them, and maybe the second, but he gets tired at the third, if he does not see what you are driving at. But how often do we meet the same difficulty in educated people.

One more impression I gathered from that work of my boyhood, an impression which I did not formulate till after" ward, and which will probably astonish many a reader. It is the spirit of equality which is highly developed in the Russian peasant, and in fact in the rural population every. where. The Russian peasant is capable of much servile obedience to the landlord and the police officer; he will bend before their will in a servile manner; but he does not consider them superior men, and if the next moment that same landlord or officer talks to the same peasant about hay or ducks, the latter will reply to him as an equal to an equal. I never saw in a Russian peasant that servility, grown to be a second nature, with which a small functionary talks to one of high rank, or a valet to his master. The peasant too easily submits to force, but he does not worship it.

I returned that summer from Nikólskoye to Moscow in a new fashion. There being then no railway between Kaluga and Moscow, there was a man, Buck by name, who kept some sort of carriages running between the two towns. Our people never thought of traveling in these carriages: they had their own horses and conveyances; but when my father, in order to save my stepmother a double journey, proposed to me, half in joke, that I should travel alone in that way, I accepted his offer with delight.

A tradesman's wife, old and very stout, and myself on the back seats, and a tradesman or artisan on the front seat, were the only occupants of the carriage. I found the journey very pleasant,-first of all because I was traveling by myself (I was not yet sixteen), and next because the old lady, who had brought with her for a three days' journey a colossal hamper full of provisions, treated me to all sorts of home-made delicacies. The surroundings during that journey were delightful. One evening especially is still vivid in my memory. We came to one of the great villages and stopped at an inn. The old lady ordered a samovar for herself, while I went out into the street' walking about anywhere. A small "white inn," at which only food is served, but no drinks, attracted my attention, and I went in. Numbers of peasants sat round the small tables, which were covered with white napkins, and enjoyed their tea. I followed their example.

Everything there was new to me. It was a village of " Crown peasants," that is, peasants who had not been serfs, and enjoyed a relative well-being, probably owing to the weaving of linen, which they carried on as a home industry. Slow, serious conversations, with occasional laughter, were going on at the tables, and after the usual introductory questions, I soon found myself engaged in a conversation with a dozen peasants about the crops in our neighborhood, and answering all sorts of inquiries. They wanted to know all about St. Petersburg, and especially about the rumors concerning the coming abolition of serfdom. A feeling of simplicity and of natural relations of equality, as well as of hearty goodwill, which I always felt afterwards when among peasants or in their houses, pervaded me at that inn. Nothing extraordinary happened that night, so that I even ask myself whether the incident is worth mentioning at all; and yet, that warm dark night in the village, that small inn, that talk with the peasants, and the keen interest they took in hundreds of things lying far beyond their habitual surroundings, have made a poor " white inn " more attractive to me ever since than the best restaurant in the world.

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