Read CHAPTER XI of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on


The Russians have little or no humor, though they are not deficient in a certain grotesque savagery bordering on the humorous. There is something fearfully vicious in the royal freaks of fancy of which Russian history furnishes us so many examples. We read with a shudder of the facetious compliment paid to the Italian architect by Ivan the Terrible, who caused the poor man’s eyes to be put out that he might never see to build another church so beautiful as that of St. Basil. We can not but smile at the grim humor of Peter the Great, who, upon seeing a crowd of men with wigs and gowns at Westminster Hall, and being informed that they were lawyers, observed that he had but two in his whole empire, and he believed he would hang one of them as soon as he got home. A still more striking though less ghastly freak of fancy was that perpetrated by the Empress Anne of Courland, who, on the occasion of the marriage of her favorite buffoon, Galitzin, caused a palace of ice to be built, with a bed of the same material, in which she compelled the happy pair to pass their wedding night. The Empress Catharine II., a Pomeranian by birth, but thoroughly Russian in her morals, possessed a more ardent temperament. What time she did not spend in gratifying her ambition by slaughtering men, she spent in loving them:

“For, though she would widow all
Nations, she liked man as an individual.”

She never dismissed an old admirer until she had secured several new ones, and generally consoled those who had served her by a present of twenty or thirty thousand serfs. On the death of Lanskoi, it is recorded of her that “she gave herself up to the most poignant grief, and remained three months without going out of her palace of Czarsko Selo,” thus perpetrating a very curious practical satire upon the holiest of human affections. Her grenadier lover Potemkin, according to the character given of him by the Count Segur, was little better than a gigantic and savage buffoon licentious and superstitious, bold and timid by turns sometimes desiring to be King of Poland, at others a bishop or a monk. Of him we read that “he put out an eye to free it from a blemish which diminished his beauty. Banished by his rival, he ran to meet death in battle, and returned with glory.” Another pleasant little jest was that perpetrated by Suwarrow, who, after the bloody battle of Tourtourskaya, announced the result to his mistress in an epigram of two doggerel lines. This was the terrible warrior who used to sleep almost naked in a room of suffocating heat, and rush out to review his troops in a linen jacket, with the thermometer of Reaumur ten degrees below freezing point. Of the Emperor Paul, the son of Catharine, we read that he issued a ukase against the use of shoe-strings and round hats; caused all the watch-boxes, gates, and bridges throughout the empire to be painted in the most glaring and fantastic colors, and passed a considerable portion of his time riding on a wooden rocking-horse a degenerate practice for a scion of the bold Catharine, who used to dress herself in men’s clothes, and ride a-straddle on the back of a live horse to review her troops. Alexander I., in his ukase of September, 1827, perpetrated a very fine piece of Russian humor. The period of military service for serfs is fixed at twenty years in the Imperial Guard, and twenty-two in other branches of the service. It is stated in express terms that the moment a serf becomes enrolled in the ranks of the army he is free! But he must not desert, for if he does he becomes a slave again. This idea of freedom is really refreshing. Only twenty or twenty-two years of the gentle restraints of Russian military discipline to be enjoyed after becoming a free agent! Then he may go off (at the age of fifty or sixty, say), unless disease or gunpowder has carried him off long before, to enjoy the sweets of hard labor in some agreeable desert, or the position of a watchman on the frontiers of Siberia, where the climate is probably considered salubrious.

These may be considered royal or princely vagaries, in which great people are privileged to indulge; but I think it will be found that the same capricious savagery of humor if I may so call it prevails to some extent among all classes of Russians. In some instances it can scarcely be associated with any idea of mirthfulness, yet in the love of strange, startling, and incongruous ideas there is something bordering on the humorous. On Recollection Monday, for example, the mass of the people go out into the grave-yards, and, spreading table-cloths on the mounds that cover the dead bodies of their relatives, drink quass and vodka to the health of the deceased, saying, “Since the dead are unable to drink, the living must drink for them!” Rather a grave excuse, one must think, for intoxication.

In the museum of Peter the Great at St. Petersburg stands the stuffed skin of his favorite servant a gigantic Holsteiner one of the most ghastly of all the grotesque and ghastly relics in that remarkable institution. It is not a very agreeable subject for the pencil of an artist, yet there is something so original in the idea of stuffing a human being and putting him up for exhibition before the public that I am constrained to introduce the following sketch of this strange spectacle.

In one of the arsenals is an eagle made of gun-flints, with swords for wings, daggers for feathers, and the mouths of cannons for eyes. A painting of the Strelitzes, in another, represents heaven as containing the Russian priests and all the faithful; while the other place a region of fire and brimstone contains Jews, Tartars, Germans, and negroes!

The winter markets of Moscow and St. Petersburg present some of the most cadaverous specimens of the startling humor in which the Russians delight. Here you find frozen oxen, calves, sheep, rabbits, geese, ducks, and all manner of animals and birds, once animate with life, now stiff and stark in death. The oxen stand staring at you with their fixed eyes and gory carcasses; the calves are jumping or frisking in skinless innocence; the sheep ba-a at you with open mouths, or cast sheep’s-eyes at the by-passers; the rabbits, having traveled hundreds of miles, are jumping, or running, or turning somersaults in frozen tableaux to keep themselves warm, and so on with every variety of flesh, fowl, and even fish. The butchers cut short these expressive practical witticisms by means of saws, as one might saw a block of wood; and the saw-dust, which is really frozen flesh and blood in a powdered state, is gathered up in baskets and carried away by the children and ragamuffins to be made into soup.

I can conceive of nothing humorous in these people which is not associated in some way with the cruel and the grotesque. They have many noble and generous traits, but lack delicacy of feeling. Where the range of the thermometer is from a hundred to a hundred and fifty degrees of Fahrenheit, their character must partake in some sort of the qualities of the climate fierce, rigorous, and pitiless in its wintry aspect, and without the compensating and genial tenderness of spring; fitful and passionate as the scorching heats of summer, and dark, stormy, and dreary as the desolation of autumn.

I could not but marvel, as I sat in some of the common traktirs, at the extraordinary affection manifested by the Russians for cats. It appeared to me that the proprietors must keep a feline corps expressly for the amusement of their customers. At one of these places I saw at least forty cats, of various breeds, from the confines of Tartary to the city of Paris. They were up on the tables, on the benches, on the floor, under the benches, on the backs of the tea-drinkers, in their laps, in their arms every where. I strongly suspected that they answered the purpose of waiters, and that the owner relied upon them to keep the plates clean. Possibly, too, they were made available as musicians. I have a notion the Russians entertain the same superstitious devotion to cats that the Banyans of India do to cows, and the French and Germans to nasty little poodles. To see a great shaggy boor, his face dripping with grease, his eyes swimming in vodka, sit all doubled up, fondling and caressing these feline pets; holding them in his hands; pressing their velvety fur to his eyes, cheeks, even his lips; listening with delight to their screams and squalls, is indeed a curious spectacle.

Now I have no unchristian feeling toward any of the brute creation, but I don’t affect cats. Nor can I say that I greatly enjoy their music. I heard the very best bands of tom-cats every night during my sojourn in Moscow, and consider them utterly deficient in style and execution. It belongs, I think, to the Music of Futurity, so much discussed by the critics of Europe during the past few years a peculiar school of anti-melody that requires people yet to be born to appreciate it thoroughly. The discords may be very fine, and the passion very striking and tempestuous, but it is worse than thrown away on an uncultivated ear like mine.