The Real Siberia - Siberian Settler and Settlements - Shortcomings of the Russian Farmer - His Lack of Energy - Siberian Horses - Tartar Sheep - Big Game - How Siberia is Administered - Peasant Life |
It was while at Omsk that I awoke to the fact that my previous idea about Siberia was marvellously wrong. It was, of course, the popular idea, which is more dramatic than the actual condition. Siberia, to that useful but ill-informed individual, 'the man in the street,' is a horrible stretch of frigid desert, dotted with gaunt prison houses, and the tracks over the steppes are marked with the bones of exiles who have died beneath the weight of chains, starvation, and the inhospitable treatment ot savage Russian soldiers.
Britishers and Americans love to sup on horrors. An Armenian atrocity, the life of Captain Dreyfus on Devil's Island, the slow death of men chained to barrows in Siberian mines, all that is gruesome and cruel, thrills! It is the convict life of Siberia - so contrary to all that we enlightened ones of the West think right - that we have had depicted luridly in books of travel, magazine articles, and in melodrama.
It is not so much because travellers have written about what they have never seen, as the insatiable thirst of the public for sensation that has been ministered to. Prison horrors are more attractive than methods of cattle rearing, and so the tendency has been for writers to pick out the worst feature in Siberia, the convict system, weave together all the dreadful stories they can find, dwell on the horrible life in the snow, until the public, reading about nothing but convicts and snow in Siberia, imagine that Siberia has nothing to show but convicts and snow.
I had not, however, been long in Siberia before I realised that the desire on the part of writers to give the public something dramatic to read about had led them to exaggerate one feature of Siberian life and to practically neglect the real Siberia, full of interest but lacking sensation. So let me try to wipe from the public mind the fallacy that Siberia is a Gehenna-like region.
Away north, where the land borders the Arctic, there is no vegetation but moss and lichen. Beneath that, southwards, comes the great forest zone, a belt of dense woods two thousand miles wide, running east and west across Asia. But further south still is the agricultural region, through which I travelled and which the Russian authorities seem ardently anxious to develop. And it is in this region, between the Urals and Lake Baikal, that there are thousands of miles of country as flat as a billiard table, and thousands of miles of pleasantly undulating wooded land - not, I admit, a place to go to in search of picturesque scenery, but about as fair as I have seen, and ripe for agricultural projects.
There is hardly any spring in Siberia, the change from the long winter to the blazing summer being little more than the matter of a fortnight.
To talk of a Siberian winter is, I know, to make one shudder. Yet in all the towns I visited people said, 'Why do you come here in the summer, when our roads are so dusty? It is in winter we have a good time. It is cold, 30 degrees, of frost, but you don't feel it much, for it is so dry and the air so still. The sky is cloudless for a month at a time. Then the sledging-ah, it is when the sledging is in full swing you should see a Siberian town!'
What impressed me as soon as I crossed the Urals was that the human race - beyond a few migratory tribes - should not have flourished more in this land. Yet, now, since the opening of the railway, the Russian Government is almost going on its knees to induce European Russians, who on the southern sandy steppes find it so hard to make both ends meet, to migrate to Siberia.
European Russia is thinly enough populated in all truth. But the parts good enough for cultivation are under peasant proprietorship, and a father's land is divided among the sons, so each generation has a smaller and smaller piece of ground to nurture. The more venturesome have their eyes on Siberia, where they hope a less starvation life is to be got. As I said in a former chapter, there has been a steady flood of emigrants to this side the Urals. On some of the trains are fourth-class carriages, about as bare as a guard's van on an English goods train, and as much lacking in luxury. But the absence of cushions and lavatory accommodation does not, I fancy, trouble the new-cowers. Most of them have a stolid content. They pay about a shilling fare per hundred miles. In cases of need the Government will make an advance of £10 without interest.
A Russian who desires to emigrate here must get permission from the authorities. The permission is necessary, for land has to be allotted, and arrangements made for State officials to conduct the parties. For the first three years no immigrant is called upon to pay taxes. In Western Siberia a grant of some 32 English square miles is made to every man, and in some cases there is an additional grant of six miles of forest. In Central Siberia the extent of the grant is determined by the quality of the land.
As the settlers are practically State tenants, sale and mortgage of land is forbidden. If an immigrant has a little money, and wants to purchase a particular strip, he can, however, do so on paltry terms. Near the large towns the cost for a square verst (a verst is about two-thirds of a mile) ranges from 10s. to 12s., whilst in other places good land can be bought for 6s. a verst. The buyer must deposit half the sum in the local treasury. This ensures the delivery of the land for three years' use or profit. Full proprietorship is obtained by the buyer spending, on plant and working, a sum not less than twice the cost of allotment. From 1893 to last year 18,900,000 acres of State land in Western Siberia were transformed into immigration plots.
May is the month when the tide of immigration sets in. As Russian official red tape is quite as slow unwinding as elsewhere there are often huge crowds of emigrants at stations, thousands oven, waiting for days till they can be conducted to their plots. Naturally enough there is misery among the ignorant immigrants who get dumped in a particular district, knowing little about the climate or the soil. So the Government have appointed Commissions of Inquiry, though neither the immigrant nor those already settled have any voice. Further, there has been organised among Russian philanthropists a relief committee which has representatives at thirty stations where immigrants chiefly stop, and these men give advice to the discouraged and sick.
I confess to being amazed by the inducements held out so that Siberia may be speedily peopled. Not only at every station is the big steaming samovar, so that hot water may be obtained for the constant occupation of tea drinking, but at every station also is a big chest of medical appliances, and there is always an official who must know how to render first aid to the injured. Food for children, sick persons, and indigent may be got free. Other immigrants buy their food at cost price. Then on arriving at their destination the immigrants receive seed from the Government for next to nothing. Tools are to be bought on easy terms.
Nowhere in the United States - and Siberia is frequently alluded to as the new America - have I seen such an expanse of magnificent agricultural land waiting for man and his plough. And yet there is small prospect for some generations, at least, that Siberia, through Russian farmers, will give of its teeming abundance to the rest of the world.
The fact is, the Russian is one of the worst farmers on the face of the earth. It is probably the strong strain of the Tatar in him that makes him indolent. He is certainly no born agriculturist. Catherine the Second recognised this a hundred years ago when she invited German colonists to settle in Southern Russia, hoping their example would have effect on the Russians themselves. Five years ago I went through this colonised region. Compared with Siberia it was a wilderness. The German villages, however, wore neat and clean. There was frugality among the people. The farms might yield little, but they were cared for, properly tilled, and all fenced.
The Russian Government, with all its faults, and undoubtedly they are many, is acting benevolently to the Siberian settlers, buying American agricultural machinery, and re-selling on easy instalment terms. Yet everywhere I remarked how the immigrant lacks energy. First of all, he won't live on a farm three, five, or ton miles from anybody else. He insists on living in a village or town, though his farm may be thirty miles away. He tills a stretch of ground, and sows wheat, but he never thinks of reaping till it is dead ripe; then he cuts with a hand sickle, and half the foodstuff rots in the rains. When he has used up one piece of ground he moves to another. He dodsn't understand manuring. He doesn't look forward to the next year, or the year after. As a rule, he has no desire to get rich. That impetus, which has done so much to spur the American, is non-existent. To get through life with as little trouble as he can seerns his only ambition.
The farmers, are, of course, all of the old serf class.
They have behind them an ancestry little removed from slaves, with nothing to mark them from beasts of burden but their speech. From such a people a bright and intelligent yeomanry is, of course, not to be expected.
The Government, as I have explained, is trying to educate the settlers into the advantages of modern appliances. But when all that is done Siberia will give but the scrapings of its wealth, for no Government and no machinery can alter the character of a race. And the great block to development for generations will be that the Russians have not the real qualities of agriculturists.
Every day as I travelled through this land and looked at its possibilities I found myself muttering, 'Oh for a hundred families of my own North-country yeomen to settle here to show what can be done, and in half a generation go home with fortunes made.'
Siberia is a good country for horses. They are sturdy workers, and as hardy as you can find. In Central Siberia there are eighty-five horses to every hundred of population. In the United States the proportion is twenty-two to the hundred, and in France seven to the hundred. The Siberian proportion, indeed, is only excelled by the Argentine Republic, where the rate is 112 horses to every hundred inhabitants. In the region of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Cheylabinsk to Irkutsk it is estimated there is something like three million horses. The average peasant horse is worth from 24s. to 30s. The horses used for the post, and which have enormous powers of speed and endurance, cost from £2 10s. to £3. The finest horses, which would fetch about £60 in England, are to be got from £5 to £7.
Under the impetus of the butter industry it is likely enough the rearing of cattle will somewhat improve. At present beasts are small and lean, and bullocks are chiefly used for draught.
The vast tracks of natural pasture are ideal for sheep grazing. The fat-tailed Tatar sheep is the best. At present these sheep are reared for the fat on their tail. This fat grows all through the summer, and a yearling will give twenty pounds of tallow. In the winter months the tail gradually disappears. It is one of the provisions of nature. When no food is to be got because of the snow the animal gets sustenance by the gradual disappearance of the fat tail. When it is housed and fed in the winter months the tail remains. This fat-tailed Tatar sheep is not, however, very good for wool. An inferior sheep is bred for this.
In a purely agricultural region comparison of heads of animals with numbers of population is interesting. The proportion of horned cattle varies from fifty per hundred inhabitants in West Siberia to seventy per hundred in East Siberia. As to sheep there are eighty-five to the hundred in the West, but in the East there are 135 sheep to every hundred of inhabitants. In the towns I have inquired the price of meat. Fairly good beef and mutton can be got for 2d. and 3d. a pound, and a good plump chicken can be brought for 8d.
It was the fine skins that the nomads brought over the Urals that first attracted Russian trade in Siberia. The most valuable is the sable. The tribes hunt for sable in winter. Mounted on snow-shoes they go into the forest and follow the trails. Sometimes a sable gets into a hole, and then the hunter must wait, maybe for days, before it will come out. But it is worth waiting for; the skin will bring him from 50s. to £9 - a considerable sum to a nomad. The skin of the blue fox is also much prized. Some authorities say the blue fox is the same as the white Arctic fox - only the summers are so short in the Polar regions that the fox does not think it worth while altering his fur, whilst in the south he does not put on his white fur because the summers are long. Only the piece by the paws is worn by rich Russians, and the rest is exported. A cloak of these paws is worth £1,000. A black fox skin is worth £50, and a silver fox skin will fetch £25.
The whole country is full of bear, reindeer, wolf, elk, beaver, hare, and antelope. Ardent sportsmen, seeking for some fresh country to try their guns, might do worse than go to Siberia for a couple of months in early autumn. Besides animals, they will find plenty of game - geese, ducks, grouse. If the sportsmen get among the Khirgiz tribe they may see good hawking. These people have big, well-trained hawks that will strike foxes and even wolves.
All this - though possibly dull to the man who would like a series of thrilling convict stories - will, I hope, do one thing. It will indicate that Siberia is not the harsh frozen prison too generally imagined.
Only two steps above the savage is the peasant as I saw him in Siberia. He is uncouth, and his passions are primitive. He hulks about with his red shirt outside his trousers, and never does to-day what he can put off till to-morrow. But he has come to a fine country. Siberia is no longer an evil-omened word. It is capable of much more than freezing exiles to death. And it is with the object of making that fact plain I have written this chapter.