Omsk - The Heart of Siberia - A genuine Droshki - Nitchevo! - 'My Little Dove' - The Policeman's Rattle - The Irtish River - Omsk Gaieties - Omsk Celebrities - The finest Pasture Land in the World - American Manufacturers to the Front - John Bull lags Behind - 'The Best Danish' from Omsk - A Khirghiz Camp - The Red Indians of the Steppes - Omsk en fete |
It was on the night of Wednesday, August 28th - after I had watched the sun set like a huge crimson balloon behind the line to the far rear of us - that the conductor came and informed me we would be at Omsk within the hour.
I intended to halt there for a day. So I threw my belongings together - not forgetting to tie my clattering metal teapot, the gift of the baroness, to the handle of my kit-bag - and then looked out the window. We were going at a dead crawl. But far ahead I could see the moon-like glow of many electric lights. We rumbled across a huge girder bridge, 700 yards long, spanning the Irtish - the mast gleams of many boats at anchor, and the red and green lights of a steamer churning the water to a quay side, showing far below - and we ran into a big, brilliantly lighted station, crowded with people and with the grey and red of military uniform everywhere.
Before the train came to a standstill a hungry pack of blue-bloused, white-aproned porters mounted the train and literally fought with one another for the privilege of carrying passengers' baggage, and receiving the consequent tip. My two bags were enough for two ordinary porters. But my gentleman wouldn't hear of another porter helping, and barked savagely at anyone who offered assistance.
There were other folk getting on at Omsk; plenty of people going east, and throngs who had come to meet or see friends off. There was a well-lit dining-room, and conventional waiters were scurrying with hot plates, soups, and tea, and there was the pop of bottles everywhere.
And this in the heart of Siberia, I thought! I couldn't get myself to realise it. Apart from details I might have been landing at a civilised place like York. I approached the stationmaster and asked him in my fumbling Russian to recommend me to the best hotel in Omsk. He gave a snap of his fingers and instantly there appeared an hotel porter in dark blue coat edged with gold lace, and the name of an hotel on his cap in gold letters. He spoke German, which is the commercial language of Russia. In two minutes my baggage had been piled on a droshki, and with a whoop from the driver to his horse we set off.
I have before referred to the curious fact that hardly ever is a station close to a town. Omsk does not depart from the rule, and therefore Omsk station is three miles from Omsk itself. There was no regular roadway, but a stretch of ground some three hundred yards wide, bumpy and dusty, and with great pools of slush.
The droshki I was in was a real droshki. The thing they call a droshki in Petersburg is a sort of abortive Victoria. The genuine article has a humped-up seat with no back, so that every bump you are jolted in a way to mike your bones rattle, and you are in constant imminent peril of being pitched into the adjoining pool.
At one violent lurch off went a bag of mine into the mud. I tried to be indignant, but the driver, as he went back, only laughed and exclaimed, 'Nitchevo!' - a word which takes the Russian happily through life, and means 'What does it matter; nothing matters; why worry?'
It was midnight, and pitch dark. The horse, though a sorry animal, could go well - perhaps because its stable was at Omsk; and we jolted on, far ahead of anyone else. We were tearing across a bleak and muddy plain. I addressed my driver, a hulking fellow, as 'My little dove!' which is the proper thing to call your coachman in Russia when you want to please him, though he was as much like a dove as I am like a man-o'-war. He was delighted, and whacked the horse again.
Omsk looked as though it had gone to bed. It was like a big village, with the streets very wide and uneven, and most of the houses one-storey and ram-shackle. There were tipsy wooden posts at the corners, and on their summits were flickering little back-kitchen kind of oil lamps. Not a soul was to be seen.
Suddenly there was a clatter-clatter-clatter-clatter of a wooden rattle. I had not heard that sound since I was in Western China. Siberia is next-door neighbour to China. I knew what it was. It was the policeman on his rounds. In England we make our constables wear rubber-soled boots at night so they may move about stealthily and surprise thieves. In Siberia the police keep the rattles going, so the thieves have full warning when the guardian of the peace is approaching!
You can't convince a Siberian any more than you can a Chinese that the thing is stupid. 'Ours is the best plan,' says the Siberian, 'for it gives householders confidence that the police are about.'
So I reached the hotel, a big barn of a place, bare and cold. But I got quite a passable bedroom - though the springs of the bed were like those in a lodging-house sofa - and after a wash I sought the restaurant. It was a big room, well lighted with giant lamps. On the centre table were two imitation palms. On the little side table were vases with little bonnet-shop flowers - an attempt to make the room cheerful. Then I sat down to a tired Britisher's supper of steak, chipped potatoes, and bottled beer. And I was in the wilderness of Siberia!
A few years ago Omsk was no more than a village, though the seat of Government of the steppe territories was there, with one or two big whitewashed official buildings. The rest, however, was a cluster of huts. It was a post station where horses were changed by travellers, and where gangs of chained criminals were divided and sent to various regions. But no manacled prisoners have been marched through its streets for four years now. There is a prison, but it is retained for local wrong-doers. Now and then a train, iron-built and all the windows heavily barred, grunts through Omsk station with the faces of brute murderers and political prisoners peering out. But that is seldom.
The town is not unlike a West American settlement. It is in a raw unfinished state. Huge handsome buildings are in course of erection, but round about are rude log shanties. The finest structures are the churches and the breweries.
The Irtish River is alongside. I went aboard a passenger steamer which plies between Semipalatin, not far from the Chinese frontier, and Obdorsk, within the range of the Arctic Circle. There were excellent cabins, a long dining room, and a comfortably furnished sitting room. Such fine waterways are the Ob and the Irtish, the latter a tributary of the other, that every summer one or more steamers from London, which have come round by the North Cape and skirted the foot of Novaia Zemlia, drop their anchors at Omsk, bringing English wares and taking back wheat and skins.
The main street is broad. There are several large stores. The church of St. Nicholas is an imposing bulb-towered edifice of bedizened Byzantian architecture.
It was a holy day when I was at Omsk - they have about 200 holy days a year in the Russian Empire, when no work can be done - and I went to see the church just as the congregation was dispersing. The ladies were more or less fashionably dressed in bright summer costumes and beflowered hats, and had gay parasols. Summer dresses and parasols in Siberia - there was something incongruous in the idea!
'That,' I was told, as I stood watching, 'is one of the evidences of civilisation coming to Omsk. Four years ago the women - like that old lady - never appeared in the streets in other than a plain dark-coloured dress and a black shawl tied about the head. But since the coming of the railway there has been a great influx of men wanting to start business and they have been followed by their wives and daughters.'
The old wooden theatre that did duty three years back is already sneered at, and the erection of a fine opera house is in progress.
'Yes,' said the local resident showing me round, theatrical companies come out to Omsk. They're not good, but they are willing to do anything. I have seen 'Hamlet' one night, and the next night the same company has given us the opera 'Faust.''
There are 50,000 people in Omsk, and of these twelve or fifteen thousand are soldiers. Quite half the old population - the people who were here before the railway - are the descendants of convicts. A number of exiles, indeed, still live in Omsk. They are not generally known, except to the police. They are at liberty to engage in business as they please. The only restriction is that they must not leave Omsk. The town, I found, was rather proud that two celebrated Russian writers, Petropavlovski and Dostoyevski - the latter wrote 'Memoirs from a Dead House,' which even in translation makes your flesh creep - were exiled in Omsk, and the houses in which they lived are shown to the visitor. Dostoyevski was twice severely flogged, once for complaining of soup given him, and once for saving a fellow convict from drowning. The second thrashing was so severe that he was taken to the hospital as dead. When he reappeared, however, he was called Pokoinik (the deceased), and Pokoinik was his name until death really overtook him.
Omsk, you should bear in mind, is the very centre of 2,000 square miles of the finest pasture land in the world. I met two Americans in the town pushing the sale of American agricultural implements. One, the representative of the Deering Manufacturing Company, said to me, 'Sir, I have been all over the United States, and this is my third summer visit to do business in Omsk. I tell you Siberia is going to be another America.' He also told me that three years ago he sold only 40 reaping machines. That year, 1901, he sold 1,500, and next year he proposed to bring out 4,000. Deering's were doing a good trade because they are first in the field. The Government were buying their machines, and then selling them again to the emigrants, getting repayment by instalments. Altogether there are eight American agricultural implement manufacturers' representatives in Omsk.
'Any English?' I inquired.
'Not one,' he laughed back, and I saw the glow of Yankee satisfaction at getting what he afterwards called 'the bulge on John Bull.'
Besides Americans selling agricultural wares, chiefly mowers and reapers, there are fourteen firms in Omsk engaged in the newly-developed Siberian butter trade with England. The largest firm belongs to a Russian Jew; the other thirteen belong to Danes. It was a Dane in St. Petersburg who four years back accidentally saw Siberian butter. He was struck with its excellence. Three years ago 4,000 buckets, each containing about 36 lb., were shipped by way of Riga and Revel to England, and sold in the English market, I've a suspicion, as 'the best Danish.'
Last summer (1901) 30,000 buckets a week were exported from Siberia to England.
I got into a talk with a Dane engaged in butter-buying.
'Yes,' said he, 'the way the butter business has sprung up is amazing, But what has been done is but a tiny scrap to what will be done in the future. You've seen the cows, what miserable looking things they are. But the pasturage is so good that there is seven per cent. of butter fat in the milk. There are only two steam dairies in all Siberia; all the other butter is made in primitive fashion by hand. The conditions are such that it is not so clean-flavoured as it should be. But it is splendid butter all the same. The output at present, with a thin population and defective methods, is small, and the competition among the rival firms to get it is American in its keenness. I travel six or seven hundred versts every week on either side of the railway line, buying butter from the peasants. It is brought in native carts all that way to the railway. But the peasant doesn't understand business. I'll make a contract for so much butter to be delivered to me in Omsk at a certain price - about eleven roubles (22s.) the pood (36 lb.) has been the price this summer; but when in Omsk the man may meet one of my competitors, and he has no hesitation, if offered a few kopeks (pence) more a pood, in selling it to my rival. When I remonstrate he simply said the other man offered more. He doesn't understand the morality of a bargain.'
'And about the morality of the other butter buyer?' I questioned.
'Well,' the Dane answered, 'competition is right up to the knife. This week five train loads of nothing but butter have left Omsk for Riga. You've seen the trains may-be, painted white, with all the latest refrigerating appliances fitted up. The Russian Government is delighted at what is taking place. The authorities will do anything for us. They have just issued a pamphlet in Russian showing how the Siberian peasants can start profitable dairying with the necessary machinery for an outlay of 500 roubles (£50). The Russian peasant, however, is slow. But the Jews have come into the business, and many are already making fortunes by dairying. My firm started a big dairy about 400 versts south from here. The peasants would not believe a machine could separate the butter from the milk. They said the devil was in the machine. There's been a drought down there. Everybody believed it was because the Almighty was angry that they should allow these devil machines in the country. So they wrecked the place and smashed every separator we had. But it will be all right in a year or two, as soon as they get more civilised. They are beginning to see the advantage of machinery. The winter food for the cows has had to be cut by hand. Now these people are beginning to see that if the grass is cut by machines they can get far more hay, and keep four or five times as many cows, and then the separators make better milk; so some of them are on their way to becoming rich.'
In the afternoon I drove out to the plain beyond Omsk and visited a Khirgiz camp. The Khirgiz are the Red Indians of the West Siberian steppes.
The Russians have conquered them and pushed them upon the least fertile tracts of land to make room for immigrants. The race is decreasing in number, and will one of these days disappear from the face of the earth altogether.
They are not unlike the 'Red Man of the Wild West' in feature, but are listless and drowsy. There is a strong strain of the Tatar in them, shown by the slit of the eye. They are nomads, driving flocks of sheep before them. Indeed, the sheep is their standard of value. A woman is only worth four sheep, but a cow is worth eight sheep, a horse is worth four cows, and they will give three horses for a gun.
I found them very agreeable, smiling folk. Their tents looked like huge cocoanut shells cut in half. They were framework covered with coarse felt. The men were clad in sheep-skins, but the women had bright-hued cotton wraps, red and yellow print. They showed hospitality by offering me fermented mare's milk, which I lied about by saying it was delightful, though I was near to sickness with the vile stuff. It took a fortnight to get the taste out of my mouth.
We squatted on mats and smiled and nodded. When I suggested taking their photographs, which they understood, they were delighted. But there was a delay, for even feminine vanity extends to the Kirghiz, and we had to wait till the young women decked themselves in their gorgeous native costumes. One put on a huge red hat trimmed with foxskin. I was with the Kirghiz only some half-an-hour. As, however, I bade them farewell native fashion, by holding both hands in mine and shaking them, I could not help but feel sorry for those children of the Siberian plain, who have lost their heritage and are soon to be extinct. The touch of civilisation means death to them.
So back in a whirl of dust to Omsk, where, at the hotel, was as good a little dinner as any traveller need desire.
In the evening there was a fete in the public gardens, and to that I went with two Americans. Probably seven or eight thousand people gathered in the grounds, chiefly young fellows and young women. Apart from the military, there was hardly any difference in the dress from what you see in an English or American town. There was the usual laughter and flirting going on.
On a raised platform a band crashed waltzes, and everybody who could get on the platform danced. You may have witnessed the dancing at Belle Vue, Manchester, on an August Bank holiday. There you see a great mass of perspiring lads and lasses swinging each other by the hour. The Omsk scene was like that, but on a smaller scale. There was also an open-air theatre. It was impossible to get anywhere for the crush. But from the distance it looked rather a mournful performance-probably a Russian version of 'East Lynne.' I thought I recognised the death of little Willie.
Then, to wind up, there was a grand explosion of fireworks, whizzing rockets releasing blue and red stars, gorgeous designs, and the mob crying '0-o-oh!' for all the world like Londoners at the Crystal Palace. The final piece showed the name of the Czar in coloured lights, with a crown above. Everybody cheered and hallooed, and the men waved their hats.
And this was in far Siberia, 2,805 versts east of Moscow!