The Bi-Weekly Express - A Train de luxe - A Marvel of Cheapness - The Companionable Russian - My Prejudices Dispelled - Russian as I Found It - The Real Russia and the Real Siberia - 'Russia's Destiny'?|
I CAME back to the Western world, from Irkutsk to Moscow, by the famous bi-weekly express.
When my face had been set eastwards, Siberia was in the first flush of summer. But now, from the Hingan mountains, bordering Manchuria, till I crossed the frontier into Germany, a stretch of seven thousand miles, I saw nothing but a wilderness of white - the woods bare and the trees frosted, the plains like a silent snowy sea.
The cruel wind came in a whisper from the north-west, sweeping a crystal spray into drifts. The villages, ugly and gaunt, lay as though dead. Now and then along the trackside were seen sledges, rough boards on a couple of runners, and the Siberians crouched in a bundle of sheepskins, shivering with cold.
The wayside stations were dismal and desolate. There would be the clang of a bell; then the red-capped station-master would run out, heavily furred, and with one shoulder raised to ward off the icicle-teeth of the north; there would be a double clang; then the bell would ring three times and on the train would go again, on and on, a trailing speck across the white prairie. The country was at last like the Siberia of the novelists.
But the travelling! You good folks who get into the Scotch express at King's Cross, and have a fine dining-car and talk about how very luxurious travelling has become in these days, must journey between Irkutsk and Moscow to know what really can be done in railway comfort.
It was not a big train. There was the heavy engine, there was one first-class car, there were two second-class cars, a restaurant car, and another car for cooking, carrying baggage, and so on. The train was luxuriously fitted, and first-class passengers (there not being many) had each a coupé to themselves, double-windowed to keep out the cold, hot-air pipes in plenty, and a thermometer on the wall so that they might see the temperature; a writing table, a chair, a movable electric lamp with green shade, two electric bells, one to the car attendant, and the other in communication with the restaurant.
Each night the attendant would make up a comfortable bed, soft and clean, and the regulation is that the linen be changed three times in the eight days. A touch of the bell in the early morning, and a boy brought a cup of tea. Ten minutes later there was a rap at the door, and the attendant entering, put down your boots he had polished, and told you the bath was ready!
As the rails are wide, the coaches heavy, and the speed something under thirty miles an hour, there was none of that side-jerking which is so inconvenient on an English line. The train ran smoothly, with only a low dull thud, to remind you that you were travelling. So steady was the going that I shaved every morning without a disaster.
Returning to my coupé, I found the bed removed, the place swept and aired, and the attendant spraying the corridor with perfume.
In the middle of the car was a lounge, and at the tail of the end coach a little room, almost glass encased, to serve as observation car.
The restaurant was a cosy place, with movable tables and chairs, a piano at one end, and a library at the other. Outside were some forty degrees Fahrenheit of frost, but the heat of the carriages was kept at about sixty-five degrees, which was warm, but suited the Russians.
I am afraid I ministered to the general belief on the Continent that all Britishers are mad. Whenever the train stopped at a station for ten or fifteen minutes I jumped out, just in a light lounge suit and cloth cap, and started a little trot up and down for exercise. The Russians, who never put their noses outside the door, regarded me through the windows with open amusement. One told me I was known as 'the mad Englishman,' for, they argued, a man must be mad who forsakes a nice warm carriage to run up and down in the snow while an icy wind drags tears from his eyes.
How the railway administration makes that Siberian express pay is a wonder. The first-class fare for the entire journey is just over £8, while second-class passengers, who have all the advantages of the first, save that their coupés are not so finely decorated, only pay about £5.
Russia is determined to get all the quick traftic between Western Europe and the Far East. Now, if you go by boat from London to Shanghai it will occupy thirty-six days, and the cost will be from £68 to £95. If you travel express all the way by the Moscow-Vladivostok route you can get from London to Shanghai in sixteen days. Travelling first class the cost will be £33 10s., second class £21, and if you don't mind the rough of third class you can be taken the whole 8,000 miles for just £13 10s.
You go riding over the trans-Siberian line for one day, two days, a week, and still those twin threads of steel stretch further and further. The thing begins to fascinate, and you stand for hours on the rear car and watch the rails spin under your feet - miles, miles, thousands of miles!
It is not the gaunt, lonesome waste of Siberia that frightens you. What grips you and plays upon your imagination is that men should have thus half-girded the world with a band of steel.
The Russian is an easy and agreeable traveller. He puts up no barrier of chilly reserve between himself and his fellows.
On board that train was like on board ship. In a day everybody was friendly with everybody else. Russian military officers played cards all day long with German commercial travellers; a long-limbed, fair-whiskered naval officer, on his way home after four months' starving adventure in the far north map-making, became the devoted slave of the stout Moscow Jewess, who wore diamonds that made one's eyes ache, and who was constantly tinkling with one finger on the piano the refrain in Chopin's 'Funeral March '; three rugged, good-natured American gold miners, returning from the Mongolian mountains, lay on their backs reading novels, except when they turned over on their sides to spit; and a couple of Boers from the Transvaal, who had been gold prospecting in Southern Siberia, became the best of friends with myself. We avoided any reference to the war.
Twice there was an impromptu kind of concert on board. Dreary, grey, snow-driven Siberia was all around, but in that car, warm and light, with wine bottles about, the air filled with smoke, and the pianos jangling music-hall airs, we were the merriest throng.
So day by day we rolled to the west, leaving Siberia behind, climbing the Ural mountains and descending them into Europe. We left Irkutsk on Friday evening, November 1st, at midnight, and on Saturday evening, November 9th, 1901, we roared into the great station at five minutes past seven, exactly seven days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-five minutes on the way-arriving to the minute by the time-table - if allowance is made for the difference in time between the two cities.
Moscow was brilliant with lights. It was all wrapped in beautiful white, and like silent meteors there dashed thousands of sledges up and down and along its broad streets. To appreciate a Russian city, you must see it in frosted winter glory. And Moscow, one of the most striking of cities-quaint, Eastern, Byzantine-was aglow with happiness and mirth.
So I ended my mission of curiosity.
I went to Russia with, at least, some of the average Britisher's prejudices against the country. I came away with none at all. There were things, of course, which no Britisher can put up with, such as the unflinching iron of autocratic government, that crushes and kills all freedom in political thought. Whenever I got an English newspaper, with great black splotches by which the censor had obliterated criticisms of Russia, I always felt like mounting a table in the hotel dining-room and delivering an impassioned address upon the liberty of the press. Smearing out criticisms and sending boys to the hungry region of Yakutsk, because they have boyish ideas of socialism, strike the Britisher as puerile.
Russia, however, is an empire of contradictions. If you try to study her along a parallel of Western thought, you bungle and stumble, and are wroth. The actions of a country, like the actions of a man, should be judged from its own standpoint, and not from the standpoint of another. Heaven forfend that I, a scampering journalist, should play the dogmatist. But even a helter-skelter sightseer, if he keeps his eyes very wide open, and stretches his ears to their full length, may aw and hear some things that give him a glimmering of vision of what is beneath the surface of a nation's characteristics.
The fact of the matter is, as it struck me, Russia is half Eastern, and the Eastern man doesn't understand rule by reason. He only respects government by force. And honestly, knowing something of the crookedness of the Eastern character, how absolute is the lack among Russians of what I might call the arrogance of race - which is revealed in the very walk of a Saxon - how the Russian wants to be Western and yet stamped across him there is the likeness of his Tartar mother, and his nature restrains him, I hesitate to think that an autocratic rule is not the best for Russia. Many pressing reforms are undoubtedly needed; but they are reforms in detail and not in principle.
It was my fortune to come into contact with all classes in Russia, from personal advisers to the Emperor to moudjiks undergoing imprisonment for petty theft. Although corruption is rampant throughout the public service, I am convinced you would not stop it by establishing another form of government. You would simply raise a different brood of vultures. The towns have municipal representative control. But, in a general sense, from the mayor to the lowest scavenger, everyone has his price.
I saw evidence of what is called 'Liberal Russia,' people who are strongly imbued with Western ideas, and are in a kind of passive revolt against the Russian mode of government. The word Nihilist is an obsolete term, so I may call them Revolutionaries. Most of them were charming people - cultured, widely read, and full of kindness.
I liked them without admiring them. They argued like emotional women: they were all love and compassion for the human race, frenzied antipathy for all restraint; but they spoke of freedom in a way that left the impression on my mind they did not under-stand what the word implied.
Whenever I tried to get the conversation into a fixed rut in what way Russians could be given a voice in the government of their country, away they soared into the air with generalities about the rights of mankind. They wore delightful folks, but impracticable.
Now, as to Siberia, generally, I have made it clear it is not a land waxing great in beautiful landscape. There was much that interested me and had an individual fascination, but from the time I left Moscow till I reached Vladivostok, and from Vladivostok across Manchuria back to Moscow again, I never saw a bit of country which in beauty could not be easily rivalled during an afternoon's bicycle ride in Surrey.
Dismissing, however, the picturesque, and regarding Russia and the wide stretch of Siberia from a useful standpoint, I do not believe there is another region in the world so full of agricultural possibilities. People who talk enthusiastically about the wheat-growing possibilities of the United States should restrain their breath for when they come back to speak of Siberia. It will be the ultimate feeding ground of the world. But the Russian as a farmer is contemptible. Here is a land that only wants to be tilled; yet the Russian peasant is lazy, and prefers to buy flour from Portland, Oregon, than grow it himself. I saw the ship-loads of American flour being landed at Vladivostok.
And here again I must refer to the one little sore I felt all the time I was in Siberia - the way the Germans and Americans are pushing forward and supplying everything in the way of foreign goods which the Siberians want, cloth stuffs, general merchandise, railway locomotives, and, agricultural implements, while Britain has done nothing save build a few ships. I must have met a hundred German commercial travellers in Siberia; I never met a single English commercial traveller. I talked trade whenever opportunity presented, and the off-hand manner in which England was always dismissed as being, commercially, quite out of the running, stung my patriotism deeper than was pleasant.
In previous chapters I have endeavoured to describe Siberia as I saw it. There was much in the country that Western folk might criticise, much that raised more than a smile.
But if I were asked to express in one word what were my impressions, I would write 'favourable.' Whatever might be the evils of the convict system, Russia is removing them. The convicts are well cared for, and as for the political exiles, apart from the hardship of exile, they are left much to their own devices. I have been told by returned exiles that the pleasantest part of their life was when they were living in a little republic of their own, far from the outer world.
I am loth to destroy a delusion. But the popular idea that it is hard for the foreigner to enter Russia, that his steps are always dogged by the secret police, that ears are at every keyhole, that every letter is read by the censor, who is snifling for a plot, that it is necessary to keep one's tongue still if you don't want to suddenly disappear, and your friends never hear of you again - all this, and its like, is just a bundle of rubbish.
There are certain things that Russia doesn't want you to know, and they do their best not to let you know. It is, of course, necessary to have a passport; but with the exception of handing it to the hotel-keeper on the evening you arrive, and receiving it back on the morning you leave, there is no more trouble travelling in Russia than in any other land. Indeed, the foreigner is welcomed, and is given privileges the Russian himself often finds it hard to procure.
One word in conclusion.
Russia is no longer a second-rate power. She is in the front rank. Whatever be her methods, she dominates the politics of the Far East, and has her share in directing the politics of the world. Her march is east and south, inevitable and unchecked.
It was Bismarck who described Russia as a colossus on clay feet. But those feet have hardened since the words were spoken. They have clattered to the Pacific; they have clattered across Manchuria; they are in Mongolia; they are about Persia and about China. Not yet - 'Never!' cries the Britisher - but they hope some day to clatter through Afghanistan to India.
India is what the statesman in St. Petersburg, looking over his coffee and straight into your eyes, calls 'Russia's destiny.' And when your eyes throw back a defiance, he offers you a cigarette, smiles, and says 'We will see - in the future!'