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South to the Caucasus


ISSUE:  Spring 1928

There are no journeys like Russian journeys. It was always so since the first iron rails were laid across the steppe. The wood-burning engines spread a sail of curling white smoke behind them, instead of shedding cinder imps. The tracks are broad gauge, wider than American or European, and the seats long enough for a man to lie full length. In the old days, to be sure, spaciousness was eaten away by a fury of bundles. A feather bed was nothing. A samovar a trinket. People brought their asthmatic dogs, their birds, and any amount of household gear for “living on a train.” Once on the night express from St. Petersburg to Moscow I timidly asked if my fellow traveller’s dog could not ride in the corridor and brought on myself an hour’s debate on foreign lack of understanding for our brother beasts. Russians were always a people for bundles, and bundles were part of the fun. I have had a general, on the way down from Archangel, untie seven huge packages, carefully wrapped in linen and stitched for him, merely to show a stranger what he was fetching his family as presents.

Nowadays the bundles are not quite so big. One likes to put up an appearance of the proper thing, and it is not proper to be too heavy with this world’s goods, or worse, to look like a private trader going with his stock to higher prices. Even so, they all outparcel visitors from the land of fitted week-end bags. A mobile communist or two with a brief case and a load of books will travel light, but the rest, and you among them, if you are wise, will be armed, first of all, with a tea-kettle and a glass. It is golden tea that makes Russian travel into something old and sociable and pleasant even in ten day stretches.

At each station there is a big bricked-in oven with a boiler of hot water along the station platform, or inside, along the lunch counter spread with bread and butter and roast meat and cucumber pickles. As the train pulls to a stop the passengers get set and with incredible speed are off, kettles in hand, making the dash to the boiling water for the next hour’s sociability. No gallantry here. The women race with the men, grandfathers with urchins. It is important to be at the head of the line, for first come are often the only ones served if the wait is not long, and though the Providnik, that cross between philosopher and porter who is the majordomo of your Russian train, may have a constant samovar of hot water in his end of the car, the station dash is part of the ritual of travel. What variety of kettles; old battered ones dented into veteran shapes, big bulgy ones to serve the sots for tea, little china pots decorated with roses, with the look of peasant cheeks, sturdy, copper ones like our own bought from the man at Nishni Novgorod who presided at the state copper trust booth. How the kettles smoke in the winter when you race back down a frosty platform!

I

But it was a summer journey that I went the last time. Spring and fall may be the favorite seasons elsewhere, but Russia is a country best at midwinter or midsummer, bells and snow and wadded people delightful in January, and, provided it has been a fruitful year, toward August a drowsy content with the earth and a merriment in gathering the winter bread that outdoes the festivals of any other nation.

We took the train from the Kursk station in Moscow for the Caucasus the third Monday in July. I had seen the station last the winter of the famine when its floor had been covered with dusty, sack-like shapes that huddled comatose on the floor, the flow of refugees from the south creeping north for bread. But 1925 had brought a harvest, an old time harvest, surpassing even 1913, so memorable for its plenty. And 1926 was just as good. The station floors attested comfort again for city and for country. They, were scrubbed until they shone. Fresh white-wash or rather red-wash made the station building look like new. Inside we stopped at the news-stand to buy our journey’s reading, a rack full of plums—”Crocodile” with its racy cartoons of all and sundry and dry stabs at the foibles of commissars and party bigots, “Gudok” (The Whistle), a newspaper, and “30 Days,” a magazine owned by the railway union, “Projector,” a weekly owned by Pravda, the newspaper of the Communist Party, “Bezboznik” (The Godless), the illustrated magazine of the Atheist Society, devoted largely, to comparative theology, popular science, and feminism, with ribald caricatures of popes and parsons. There were dozens more we did not buy. Three magazines devoted exclusively to chess! For there is a craze for chess in Moscow and all the public parks are full of little gazeebos where workmen, when the day is done, play the game. Whether it is because chess was formerly the legendary game, proper only to the educated classes, and therefore a sort of intoxicating pleasure to those who have newly come into possession of privileges and rights, certainly it is true that chess enjoys a sort of baseball popularity. The movies get their due as elsewhere. Nine magazines in all. One, a particularly nice one, bound in a sort of red oil cloth, comes from the Ukraine.

We are Americans, but we mount the train in Russian fashion, carrying a large birch box, like a small ice chest, provisioned with sugar, lemon, and Madeira, and butter, big buns from the German baker on Kuznetski Most, who will tell you how his family, has had a shop at the same address for one hundred and thirty-seven years, how he hated the revolution, but presently discovered that if you worked in your business yourself, it was not taken away from you, and did you not think, as so many people had for a hundred years, that his buns and caramels were unequalled? Usually I travel third class in Russia. It is crowded, to be sure, and the boards are hard, but there is always room there, too, to stretch out full length and the talk is saltier and better and more general—one end of the car shouts to another and whatever was to be said for New England town meetings can be twice and thrice said for the popular discussions in Russian third class carriages. First, second, third classes— I used to look down on them as a child, when I was told that in free America there was but one class. I feel differently now, and with extra fare trains all I can see is that we have the classes but not the names, and we have with the fact none of the advantages of Russian three class travel. “Russian Hard,” which is Number three, is very cheap. One can go for days and days, see Europe and Asia, for under fifty dollars. “Russian Soft,” which is Number two, costs just twice as much, and shuts you off into cabins like any European train. Wagons Lits, which is first, costs three times as much as Russian Hard but carries with it nights on heavy linen sheets. For excitement passing the sailing of any ship, give me the departures from Nishni station of the Trans-Siberian Express—friends come laden with caviar and wine and potted plants, little Crimean apples and melons from Turkestan, pillows and tea and green Tartar shoes with fur lining to keep your feet warm beyond the Urals. People weep, whether because the China coast is eleven days away and people go away for years, or whether because it was from this very station so many exiles started for the mines and death, and so many soldiers took their leave for Manchuria. There is a carpet alongside the train, still, and a band plays. The mixture of tears and laughter is not to be forgotten. But any Russian departure has a special hubbub. The bundles, perhaps. The clink of kettles. The variety, of peoples, each looking like himself and his station in life and never resembling any advertisements for coats and pants and collars, for there are as yet no national advertisements of Anrow collar brands, or even B, V. D’s. Presently. It is the Russian intention to have machine-made clothes. But when the second bell sounded and the train pulled out for Kharkov last year we all looked like people and not like ‘ads.’ Seven white-whiskered peasants, a delegation from somewhere to the center, clambered into Russian Hard and I regretted at once the folly of taking Wagons Lits. We drew nobody at all. I could imagine what tales the seven would be telling of the village, of the city, what deep discussions on the price of cotton goods, what “anecdotes,” which is the Russian word for travellers’ naughtiest stories, of wedding nights and soldiers’ loves. But we were not long alone, and if at first he did not seem promising he too gave up a tale. He had an overhanging mustache and was in shabby European dress of middle-class cut. He brightened when he saw that we were foreigners. I understood his little look, for to a Russian traveller anybody from abroad is an oyster to be opened. He was not Russian really, but a German who had been born and bred in the Baltic, dispossessed by the Revolution, and assistant manager now of a big German seed concession near Rostov on the Don. He had been in Moscow to see the General Manager and was now on his way back to the thirty thousand acre farm in the south, having arranged for German potash and made his report on labor conditions and local politics. The German firm’s contract required the Soviet Government to furnish the land and designated the kind of seeds needed. One fifth of the seed crop was returned as rent for the land, and the rest held on option for government purchase at prices set and current in the international seed market, a fairly stable and non-speculative one. At the end of the thirty, year lease the Russians may renew or not, according to the needs of the national economy. The German company is obliged also to train a required number of Russian experts in seed culture. I found no fault with this. Michael Simonovich in 1914 used often to describe angrily a certain German factory in Moscow which had existed for fifty years without training a single Russian engineer. My fellow traveller related the facts of his employment in a melancholy monotone, as if all pleasure in life and work were gone out of him. He had no enthusiasm for anything. He did not even hate the Soviets. He was without rancour and without liveliness. He wished for advice about his daughter, She was charming, he said, and before the revolution he had accumulated quite a dowry for her, and marriage would have settled everything, but now where would he find a son-in-law to support her? And besides she herself had become flighty in the soviet high school. Not with political ideas. He shuddered at that. But one day she thought of going on the stage and the next of singing in a cabaret. True, he admitted, half the young people of the old bourgeoisie had enrolled in theatre training schools. It was the escape profession. The possible make-believe. Too late he discovered that the music lessons he had paid for in her childhood were quite good enough to enable a middle-class maiden to beguile a suitor with ballads but by, no means good enough for an entertainer of the public or even a music teacher. He had been obliged to make her essay a little stenography. He was cheered for a moment and then depressed by my assurance that in America, too, fathers were inducting their daughters into honest trade and labor or the daughters were inducting themselves . . . that divorce was not unknown in the chief of the capitalist countries, and one insured a little against the possibility that marriage might prove no absolute solution of a woman’s life and living. The train was coming to a stop. He snatched his kettle and I mine and we raced for boiling water, stopping on the way back to buy big mugs of clabbered milk held up by rows of peasant women with baskets of fish and cheese, and boiled eggs, and roasted fowls, and trays of black bread and white rolls. With all our health breads, no prophet or commercial baker has brought to America Russian black bread, so delicious, fining and laxative, good for teeth, slow to stale, and half as costly as our tasteless white loaves. All in due time, I suppose. We shall get black bread. They will get corn flakes. “Do please give me some of those delicious crumbs for lunch,” Chicherin’s secretary used to beg, having once met that American confection.

II

The train pulls out and we go on, sipping, sipping tea with a spoonful of raspberry conserve at the bottom of the glass, for we are rich, and it is midsummer. This is a peasant country, and with promise of good harvest, a swell of feeling moves over the land, and city hearts as well have a ravished sense that God, if indeed there is a God, has been good to all of us. In the corridor of the train a stranger tugs my sleeve and points to the horizon. The bright white specks moving there are the harvesters, and the golden mounds of straw, more golden than mountains of czarist roubles or pointed heaps of soviet gold, are the straw stacks after thrashing. In all the world there is no better wheat land than here in the Ukraine. Czarist gold, soviet credit-that is what it was all made of, the black earth and the sweat of peasants. The fields stretch away flat and endless, as if to the ends of the world the sun must be shining so in radiant blessing of the newborn harvest. Now we pass thrashers so near that we can hear them shouting, and see their arms and legs moving steadily to and fro; we can see the white shirts and the red kerchiefs and, quite close to the track, a girl, with a basket of lunch, stands, as breathless at the sliding train coming across the wheat fields, going down the yellow lane, as are we who pass at the world she lives and walks in. Barefoot peasant boys scream at us, running close in the little ditches by the side of the track, “Deitya pazhalusta, gazettu, deitya pazhalusta.” “Give us a newspaper, give us a newspaper,” and the young woman from the end compartment, where travel a delegation of German school teachers visiting children’s homes, exclaims at the vast hunger of the Russian young for international politics. Midway in her observations a young man in a gray woolen shirt identified for me by the provodnik as a responsible party member from Batum, laughs loud and uproariously. “Would it were so, Comrade; would it were so, but I am obliged to tell you that the gamins are after the makings of cigarettes. Think well of us, think as well of us as you can, but there is danger in fancying yourself in Utopia. You can never go on from there. From reality the way is clear for doing in every direction. Nothing is altogether good,” he went on more to himself than to the chagrined German lady who was hanging on his words. “Even that beautiful harvest there . . .”, he waved his hand and we were all silent leaning against the windows and gazing at the miles of ripened wheat, “has its seamy side, for now some will be rich and some will be poor and those who were together in adversity will be full of division, and those who said they would pay taxes gladly if only the harvest were good will be twice as sly in hiding their grain, and full bellies will make them loud against the price of cotton goods. Only the price of cotton is going to go down. The city will see to that.” We were slowing up at another station. The kettles again. We pelted off and down the platform. This time the peasant women were offering apples and squares of sponge cake, and an old woman, brown and wrinkled as a fig, held up a tray with honey golden as the straw stacks.

We will eat our dinner in the Kharkov station. This is the city again and we have thirty minutes wait. The crowds bustle and shove and the bundles on this one’s back collide with the parcels in that one’s arms. The restaurant is not too clean, but the borsch is rich and great hunks of beef swim in the bowl where we pour sour cream over the beets. Hardly are we half through when a boy—at sight one of the army of homeless ones, his ragged clothes hanging about him like gray moss, woe in all his lines but the apache slant of his cap, moves briskly up to the table. “Are you through?” he asks, and seeing we are about to say yes, with a deft swoop he has cleared our soup plates of meat, piling up his collection in a basket the size of a dishpan, and almost with sleight of hand tucked a pound of bread into what I would have sworn was a pocketless suit. He was gone to the next table before we could question him; no one seemed to molest him. “The problem is quite as appalling as it was five minutes ago,” I say to my companion, “that there should be hundreds of thousands of homeless children. But I can see now that they do not all go hungry, and I can understand Lisa Alexandrovna’s story of how one wild boy turned her whole school against the comforts of home and study.”

We buy a roast chicken for a rouble as we go back to the car and with tea again we shall have bread and chicken and a sickle pear. We eat too much. Certainly. And we wash it down with good Madeira from the cooperative stores at seventy cents a bottle; and that is why when I sleep everything runs topsy turvy in my dreams. The homeless boy comes back looking more like Huckleberry Finn than ever and I remember how the man in Gosizdat, the state publishing house, gave me an illustrated copy of “Tom Sawyer” in Russian, and told me that Tom and the Jungle Books still lead all the other stories in spite of hundreds of new tales about firemen and birds and beasts and newspapers and power plants and china factories all printed in large editions and with five colors. Printed by the Government! Senator Borah was introducing a resolution to have a new five color edition of “Red Riding Hood” with a key, about the United States and Mexico. No, we have no color printing in government publications.

I wake up and find that our compartment has new occupants, a thin mousey creature and a rather wax works husband. It is the middle of the night but wre are soon all awake and she has explained how the window must come down at Once. With her it is not the night air. She relates in horrified whispers, with crescendos worthy of detective fiction, instances of thievery through open windows, pruning forks used to snatch fur coats, long arms, magnets to draw watches. “Fresh air has a worth above rubies,” I murmur to her deaf ears. I will stay awake and guard the crack where the air comes in, I say, putting my fist in the window, and so for a long time we talk. Her husband is a lawyer from Leningrad. Were it not that he is not a communist he would have a very good job in the government. Not that she would want him to be a communist at any price. But the truth is that he has just done a piece of extra work for the government and that is why they are on holiday to the Black Sea. She herself would have preferred the Crimea. Her grandmother had been there with the Imperial Court and she is sure that there would have been the better place. But someone in the government has commended Sotchi and so they are going there for three days. The rest of the time they will travel. Not that she enjoys travelling. What? A Russian who does not enjoy, travelling? Have I not met many a spirited Russian returned from a three weeks vacation twenty days of which he had spent on train and boat, and still thirsty for locomotion? “One can make oneself at home on a train.” “Is it not right for a man to behold the land he lives in and study its length and breadth?” “Where does man open his heart so well as in an inn or upon a journey?” These are their comments, but of course their trains do not jerk so much as ours, or race until the scenery is unintelligible blur. The husbands are stowed in their uppers. The lady from Leningrad goes on talking. She is determined to move to Moscow. There is no housing shortage in Leningrad and it is true that many national departments, the patent office among them, have been moved to the north to ease Moscow of overcrowding, but the center is the center, and if one’s husband is to have a career, and if oneself is to have scope, move to the capital one must. She shivers in the night air, so warm and soft, that rolls in from the summer steppe. I ask her if she works. And she tells me she thinks it is better for a woman to be supported. Her mousey nose wrinkles and she pats a flat breast with a dab of lace on the night gown, and by the dim light I marvel at such contained vanity and such bloodless pride in all this active rosy new world. In the morning she has migraine, and we move away to the end of the car to leave her in peace.

And so the journeying to Sotchi goes on. Rudzutak, the Commissar of Railways, has a special car attached to the train. And at every station he is met by railway workers, who gather about him on the platform, in fresh white shirts, and though I walk as closely as I can to the little group, I cannot hear what they are talking about.

III

Rostov on the Don is one of the three great towns of South Russia, but we do not stop for long, and the red sheds high on the banks of the river, pointed out to us as tobacco factories, and the usual gold and pink cupolas in the distance, are not more exciting than many of the little villages we have passed. It is warmer today; the summer sun has burned the plain to toast, and in the heat the travellers grow sleepy and the babel dies to hum and silence. At the stations we forget to gallop for boiling water, and buy instead deenies, sweet yellow melons hung in little straw cages. Dripping and somewhat refreshed, we climb back into the car and sit for hours swapping Tchekov stories with the Commissar from Baku and waiting for the Sea of Azov to appear at our right, and the station stop of Tan-garov where Tchekov was born, and where he used to sit in his father’s grocery shop watching short weights dealt and hearing mean talk. It is curious that though Tchekov was not a great writer—and he was not by the definition that he himself set of great writers—he had not that force in literature which creates new life, yet how much wiser all of us are talking in that Russian train and what an intimate climate our fondness for him, and our memory of the Little Darling and the ishvoshtik who had lost his son, has made. “Do not read guide books to Russia,” we say to each other, “read ‘The Story of a Life,’ that moving classic of provincial life, written so long before ‘Main Street,’ and then you will understand.” We press our faces against the pane as we pnil up to a little town, and straining, seem to see the very characters that we have been talking about, bringing their parcels aboard. “Only I am not in the stories,” boasts the young commissar, and “True enough,” echo the others.

The Sea of Azov lies like a sheet of copper, very hot and red and still. Somewhere along this shore, Iphigenia was brought, and oniy the other day a new Greek temple was found with gold cups and plates for offerings. A bearded merchant from Tiflis explains to me in a guttural French that hereabouts are many temples and all the Caucasus is the mythland of ancient Greece . . . if indeed I am of those who call it myth when, was it not so? Was not Prometheus bound to the crags of Mt. Kazbek, and who does not believe in Prometheus?

I believe in Prometheus, and we go on to talk of how the rugs are hidden in the mountains now that the way to Constantinople is no longer clear and the old ways of bargaining are dead or sleeping. “The bargains do but sleep, American, you may believe me when I say I have tried to do business under this lettered law of the revolution. The government has been glad to use me. But the itch to trade is a good itch, and it will come back when men are wiser. All men must be wiser. When there are too many fools in the world, all the bargains are bad. The government sees that. But the government is foolish, too.”

We travel on a new railway to Sotchi, the Black Sea resort which is our destination. The narrow track leads down the coast between mountain and coast. The coast is but the hem of the mountains and is wet with the sea. We ride hatless, and since yesterday I have packed away my stockings. The cost of life is lowered so, and I swing my big brown legs like the children and forget about ladders. The Sotchi station is no bigger than a cottage; it swarms with people from the north on vacation. Raya and Costya are there to meet us. They have captured a droshky for us. They have rented a room for us in the Hotel Riviera. They point out the villas as we sway along the road and tell us who comes now to stay in the Grand Duke’s palace. The landscape has a rugged lovely dustiness, a gold and sandy look, that I have seen before only in Mexico. All the colors seem brighter and richer than greens and blues elsewhere. The atmosphere is such that every tree has a plastic quality, the trunks seem round and thick.

Costya nods at a house where we might have staid, a stucco mansion with plum trees in the garden. It is privately owned. Those houses where the owner made his residence have not many, of them changed hands, but the others, the play places for a month, or only for summer, have been re-dealt. That monstrous gob of fantastic plaster and over-decorated scroll work has been given to the Moscow trade-union newspaper; the steel workers union from the Ukraine owns that row of little cottages; the Moscow teachers’ union has those ample grounds and mansion. “Thousands of workers come here, the well ones for short vacations, and the sick for longer.” Raya tells me there are many sanitariums back in the hills toward Stari Matzesta where the sulphur baths are, and many fine doctors. I can get there by a Ford which runs every hour. And if I stay three weeks she promises me a big convention of resort managers under the commissariat of health. It is planned to spend many millions of roubles promoting a national scheme of cures with salubrious climate and natural springs.

IV

The Riviera Hotel was built shortly before the war in a sort of Florida boom this stretch of coast has had. The Grand Duke Nicholas had his place at Gagri, twenty miles away, and helped finance the speculation. We walk through the garden close-scented with rose and honeysuckle, under the palms and by the stately wall of cypress, and find a restaurant upon the pier. How dirty, the tablecloths are, and how fine the food, big bowls of sweet porridge, and plates of chicken in sour cream!

Our room is bare; narrow beds, a wardrobe, a necessary table, but wicker chairs on the balcony shaded with clambering rose though it is a fifth story climb. And as we stand on the balcony a steamer is hailed. It is the Chicherin on the run from Batum to Constantinople and Genoa, a four thousand ton passenger and cargo boat, riding the choppy seal and silver sea.

From the steamer out there on the Black Sea the hotel must be a glistening sight, with its white towers and balconies and stretches of terrace and walls beneath the cliff. The crammed and bustling caravanseries of Scheveningen and Atlantic City are small and homely beside this holiday hotel. But coming closer, there is something sad and silent. I am disquieted by lack of bustle and jamboree. At first I miss the jostling crowds and the parasols, the smart frocks, and the gaudy carnival of spending. But as the days wear on, and I wake in the morning to Katushka’s tap as she fetches the fresh eggs and the buns and lets in the man with samovar, and as we eat dreamily on the balcony the meal we prepare for ourselves, and watch the cypress tips move in the morning breeze, a bliss not known at Brighton overtakes me. The rooms in the hotel are all full, I can hear the man on the neighboring balcony translating to his secretary a treatise on agronomy. The pair on the balcony below are lovers and gossipers. She is telling him one thousand and one love stories of stenographers in the Comintern, and he interrupts to tell her that in all the world there is no other girl with hair like hers. We do not mean to listen, but lying there breathing the honeysuckle that flourishes with no thought of parties or politics, these are the sounds that float to us.

Katushka comes back to make a formal call to inquire about emigrating to America, and then blushing says that Roumania would be far enough, for her young man was swept there in some fighting and has had no passport to return. She brings word of an Armenian with scarfs for sale. It is a summer resort after all.

But what a beach! I take my sheet and my book and walk along the shore. The men’s beach comes first. Many hundreds of them, old men, little boys, splashing, strutting, sleeping. No one wears any clothes. I cross the imaginary line that marks the women’s beach and look far down to the curve of the shore where the family beach begins. I take off my garments one by one, and make them fast with stones. I stare about me and see that no one has noticed that a stranger has come. Many times have I bathed in Russian steam baths with a score of other women, and felt a sort of tenderness for what naked bodies tell, with their scars of work and childbirth, beauty, of youth and of age. A kitten-footed wind pats me in passing. A mother is teaching her baby to wade. Three brawny factory girls from Moscow arrange and rearrange themselves for a photographer after a lively bargain over the price of the tintype. Maillol’s woman with the thorn had no such back as these. An old woman, with breasts shrunken like dried fruit and ill-cut hair, undresses not far from me, and walks forth over the stones into the sea, and is lost in the spattering rainbows on the breakers. The heads of the swimmers are specks on the horizon. How strange and various are human creatures without the mask of clothes. The Black Sea has a buoyance special to itself. I scarcely move, yet it holds me. I reach out my arms to the waves as they come. And so for hours, day after day after day, I move in the water or lie quietly on my sheet and become one with the summer and place. Sometimes my neighbor is a landowner’s daughter, with delicate chemise made long ago by nuns. One day it was a corpulent actress from Moscow who had two questions about America . . . did a large woman or a small one play the Empress Catherine in Shaw’s play, and did I know her brother who had a studio in Carnegie Hall. We swim and burn and tan and strengthen and of them all, only I peer and wonder and take a stranger’s pleasure in a great and naked land.

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