THE REAL SIBERIA
John Foster Fraser
The Russian and his Knife and Fork - Irkutsk Industries - Employers and Employed - Officialdom - Russian Dislike of Hurry - Siberian Waterways - Our one Import!
THE Russian, as you find him in Siberia, has many good qualities. Above all he is hospitable. This prompts him when giving you a glass of wine to spill it on the table-cloth. That indicates his liberality. To be careful and watch the pouring so that it comes within an eighth of an inch from the rim of the glass would mean stinginess, and such a thought is abhorrent.
But a commission needs to be sent the length and breadth of the Russian Empire to teach the people, officials as well as ordinary folk, what are the table manners of Western nations.
Said a man to me in a restaurant, "I knew at a glance you could not be a Russian, because you were using your knife and fork in a civilised way."
You know how a player of a kettledrum holds the sticks - that in the right hand in a sort of grip, and that in the left with the palm turned up and by the two first fingers. A Russian holds his knife and fork in the same way. He gets a piece of meat on the end of the fork, and with it sticking up in the air bites whilst stoking vegetables into his mouth with his knife. There are no mustard spoons, so he dives his knife into the mustard pot. Personally, I was regarded as an extraordinary being because I declined to use a serviette that evidently six other people had used.
It takes time for a Britisher to conform to the meal hours of the Russian. There are no bacon and eggs for breakfast. Indeed, there is no breakfast at all. You have a glass of tea, or two glasses of tea, with slices of lemon in it, and that serves till two, three, or five o'clock, when you have dinner.
Before dinner it is usual to have a sekuski. In case you should have no appetite, there is a side table laden with twenty dainties. You have a glass of vodki, and toss it down your throat at one swallow. If you are an old hand you have two, four, or six vodkies, which put you into the best of good humour, but unfit you for anything but gossip for the rest of the afternoon.
Then you pick up a fork lying about - never washed or wiped from one day's end to the other - stick it into a sardine, or a slice of onion, or a little bit of cheese, or some caviare, and you eat. You have just enough of these to provoke an appetite, and when it is provoked you sit down to dinner. In the afternoon or evening you will drink many glasses of tea, which is, I admit, an enjoyable occupation. Between ten o'clock and midnight you have supper, really another dinner, and about three o'clock in the morning you think of going to bed.
To do things in the proper way and be correct and Western is, of course, the ambition of Irkutsk. So there is quite a social code. The old millionaires, who for forty years found Irkutsk society - such as it was before the coming of the railway - quite satisfied with a red shirt and a pair of greased top boots, are now "out of it." A millionaire only becomes a gentleman when he tucks in his shirt and wears his trousers outside and not inside his boots. It is etiquette to put on a black coat between the hours of ten in the morning and noon. No matter how sultry the evening is, if you go for the usual promenade and not wear a black overcoat you proclaim you are unacquainted with the ways of good society.
As to wealth, there is but one standard in Irkutsk. A man is known by his furs, and his wife by her furs and pearls. Macaulay writes somewhere about Russian grandees coming to court dropping pearls and vermin. I would be sorry to say things are exactly like that. But certainly the Russian is as sparing with water as though it were holy oil from Jerusalem.
When railway travelling a Siberian lady decks herself in all her finery, light-coloured gowns and feathered hats, and loads of jewellery. The English-woman who travels in a plain tailor-made garment and a straw hat is thought something of a barbarian.
And yet it would be unfair if I attempted to convey the idea that Irkutsk is nothing but a wealthy, flauntingly dressed, criminal, and licentious city. There are the many schools, the philanthropic institutions, the museum, to prove Irkutsk has another side.
Though there is no manufacturing in the town save seven breweries, there is a thriving industry in house building, and there is a fortune for someone who starts a saw-mill. Most of the houses are of wood, and every bit of it is sawn and prepared by hand.
In Irkutsk and throughout Siberia generally are artels or associations of workmen. They make a contract to finish a certain amount of work in a given time for a given sum, and they share the proceeds equally. I constantly came across wandering artels, especially builders. These will get a peasant's cottage ready for occupation in four or five days. Indeed, labour throughout Siberia is generally done by these working communities, with no master between them and the persons who want a thing done. For instance, in many of the villages, as the Siberian can't understand agriculture, the peasants find it difficult to get sufficient sustenance out of their land. So a foreman is elected, a common workshop is built with common funds, and weaving, working in bone and leather, and other industries are carried on, and at intervals the foreman drives away to the nearest town, and sells the produce.
The relations between employers and employed are all settled by strict law. Wages must be in cash; there must be no Sunday labour in factories, and no arbitrary dismissal except for given offences. The hours for women and children are limited. Fines imposed are to be in accordance with the standard sanctioned by the Labour Inspection Department, and they must all be paid into a fund for sickness or accident. Most country factories, and all factories in towns employing a certain number of hands, must provide a school, library, hospital, and bathroom for free use. Strikes, as we understand them, are rigorously prohibited. But when a dispute arises between an employer and his workpeople a magistrate acts as umpire, and his decision is final.
In Irkutsk, in Tomsk, and in Omsk, I endeavoured to get into touch with the commercial classes, and find out their ideas about the future of Siberia.
All the best men I came across were Russians from the Baltic Provinces, and therefore more German than Russian. The keenness of competition is already beginning to be felt, but it will be these men who will amass gigantic fortunes within the next quarter of a century. They admit the ordinary Russian will have to alter a good deal before he is a successful business man.
The Russian lacks energy. If a thing is to be done he cannot see what difference it makes if it is done to-morrow, or next week, or next month. He is improvident and extravagant. So he finds his property mortgaged to the Jews, and the foreigners, or Russians of foreign extraction, making most of the money.
On all sides I heard grumblings about the corruption of officials. There must be honest officials, but commercial men declare the officials are continually blocking the way, not only with dilatory red-tapeism, but by hindering everybody who will not give enough in bribes. Indeed, I was told that the bribing here, there, and everywhere, which cannot be avoided, is often such that very little margin of profit remains. The foreigners get disgusted with the oiling of palms that must be gone through at every turn. Here, indeed, a very pressing reform is needed, and the best reform should be the better remuneration of these officials. They are wretchedly paid.
The number of oflicials met with is simply amazing to the man from Western Europe. One is staggered at the thought of what must be the cost of this army of government employees, notwithstanding their poor pay. Every man in government service wears uniform, and as it takes at least four Russians to do in a post office what a girl of eighteen will do at home, some glimmering of an idea may be obtained of their number. In a small town through which pass four passenger trains a day, and, say, eight goods trains, you will find two, or maybe three, great buildings. They belong to the Railway Administration, and eighty or a hundred men will be employed. You wonder what on earth they can find to do.
Now and then I got into conversation with officials, and dropped more than a broad hint that they wasted time, and suggested that if they intend to do much with so wonderful and rich a land as Siberia they must wake up. Never once did I find them resent my attitude. They got along very well, they said, and they didn't see why they should race and tear about like Englishmen and Americans. There the Eastern nature peeped out. Hurry they don't understand.
One travelled Russian was quite candid. "It is no good," he said; "a Russian can't do a thing quickly. If he tries he only makes a mess."
Till the foreigner came along, the possibilities of Siberia only dimly entered the Russian's mind. It has, however, been drilled into him, and just now he is a little feverish. He doesn't know how to develop it himself, and he is somewhat dog-in-the-mangerish about the outsider.
The government, on the other hand, is spilling money freely - spilling it in the sense of getting no return - hoping to make Western Siberia a mighty grain-producing land.
I suppose no country on the globe has such waterways as Siberia. Three rivers, the Obi, the Yenisei, and the Lena, can be navigable from their estuaries for thousands of miles. About a hundred steamers, chiefly belonging to Mr. Sibiriakoff, known as "the gold baron," because of his wealth, ply on the Lena.
Trade, however, on the Lena has its drawbacks, because it is more or less frozen for nine months in the year. The Obi is more favourably situated, as it flows into the Arctic Ocean further south, and passes through a comparatively populous district. There are 150 steamers on it belonging to various companies; it and its tributaries have regular navigation for 10,000 miles. There is the Angara river here at Irkutsk, carrying with a rush the waters of Lake Baikal down to the Yenisei river and to the Arctic. Vessels can get through to Baikal now. But it is not easy, though it could be made so by a little engineering. Then you would get a waterway for 4,000 miles. I feel like apologising for giving this school-geography- book-information were I not aware of the misconception there is at home about Siberia.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is in contact with all these rivers at many navigable points, and where it is not, branch lines are hurriedly being constructed. Therefore everything is to hand to make Siberia prosperous, so far as the government can provide. But, alas, there is one thing requisite and not to be found - energy!
Of course, there is at present a volume of trade. It could not be avoided. But it is a mere scratching in the region of possibilities. I have already described the Omsk butter trade, one ot the most remarkable of suddenly-sprung-up industries. But it was a Dane who saw what might be done with Siberian butter. The government, as I have said are buying quantities ot American machinery for the agricultural districts, but what is required is a body of expert foreign farmers to go about giving sound practical instruction in wheat raising. Before many years, if that were done, and the flood of immigration continues, Siberian wheat would be beating the wheat of the United States and Canada out of the world's market. The government is fostering the beet sugar trade. It is in full swing, and I was told that in 1900 ten times as much beet, sugar was produced as in any previous year.
One or two efforts in the way of large timber exportation have failed chiefly owing to mismanagement, added to the fact that the wood was carried in a green condition. There is a two-thousand-mile belt of forest running right across Siberia. Timber should therefore become one of the chief items of Russian export. Interior China is almost bereft of forest vegetation, and at present gets immense quantities of seasoned timber from California. Here, then, is a market at Siberia's very door.
An interesting sight in Irkutsk is the piled-up cases of Chinese tea, all tightly and well wrapped in cowhide, ready to be sent to corners of the empire. But, as I explained in a former chapter, although Irkutsk is the distributing centre of tea, and through tea and gold gained its commercial eminence, tea now plays a comparatively small part in the trade of the city, because for years most of the tea for Russian consumption is sent direct from Chinese ports to Odessa. Again, with the proposed line from Irkutsk across the Gobi desert to Pekin - a line not so much in the air only as we Britishers would like - tea will be sent to the great cities of Russia, and there will be no need of the services of Irkutsk as a distributing agency. However, at present all tea brought to Russia by overland route comes to Irkutsk and it is estimated that some forty to sixty million pounds' weight reach there every year. Indeed, in the busy season - in winter, when the transit is quick and cheap because of sledges - as many as six thousand boxes of tea are often delivered daily.
There is coal to any abundance all over Western and Central Siberia. That I saw did not strike me as good. It is nevertheless used by the engines over long sections of the Siberian railway. Until, however, some finer seam is struck, Siberia has at present little chance of a successful market for her coal. As to using it herself, that is not at all likely when there is so much wood to be had simply for the fetching.
Now, I went to Siberia on a mission of curiosity, and with no other enthusiasm than that of the man fond of travelling and seeing new lands. But he would be blind indeed who could pass through this country and not appreciate what could be done with it if - well, if England had it.
But here I have a regret. Siberia is open to British trade. And yet between Chelyabinsk and Vladivostock Britain takes the place of a very bad third. Germany comes first and America second. I saw German and American wares constantly. The only article of British manufacture that stood ahead was sauce. I saw advertisements of British agricultural machinery, but I never saw a machine. I met dozens of Germans engaged in commerce. I only met two Britishers so engaged. One of these represented an American firm, and the other a French firm. Whenever I noticed a warehouse for machinery or agricultural implements I went in. Generally American, but sometimes German. When I asked if there was any English they said no, but produced, thinking I would like to read them, elaborately illustrated catalogues from engineering firms. Usually they were in the English language. They were only waste-paper. But in every hotel, in every restaurant, I saw the familiar bottles of familiar English sauces. That my country should purvey to Siberia little else than sauce - I felt like smashing the bottles!
Chapter XII: Across the Great Lake Baikal
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