St. Petersburg – Russian Travel

It is a long way to St. Petersburg on the map. Across a corner of France, right across Belgium, across Germany, and a final northward stretch up to the Gulf of Finland—what an endless railway journey it must be! As a matter of fact, the capital of Russia is a whole day nearer London by rail than Seville, arid exactly the same distance as Naples. You leave Charing Cross at eleven; an engine, dining-ear and sleeping-ear are waiting on a siding at Calais; as soon as the conductor has secured all the passengers on his list the little train starts with a rush, and hardly checks its almost alarming speed until it lands you on the platform at Brussels, ahead of the train from Ostend which brings the direct passengers from Dover—the better route—by its proper few minutes. You leave Brussels at four minutes past six, the German frontier is crossed at Herbesthal at half-past nine, and you are in bed as the train runs through Cologne at eighteen minutes past eleven. While you are taking your morning coffee the miles of new houses, wide streets, and long avenues of Berlin flash by —the newest-looking capital in the world, and all day long the plains of agricultural Germany unroll, where innumerable stacks of straw prove how grain grows under an agrarian tariff.

You make your entry into Russia like a thief in the night. It is after eight o’clock, and dark, when you all pour in anxious flood from the train into the Customs Hall at Vierzhbolovo, or in German, Wirballen. Commanding figures in gray and gold, whom you take at the first glance to be at least Major-Generals, but who are really officers of police and customs, stand by the doors; a soldier collects passports as the passengers enter until he has a great sheaf of all sizes and colors; and a little army of porters in blouses and magenta belts and top-boots carries off the lug-gage, and quickly sorts it by the baggage numbers it bears. The officials gather round a table in the middle of the hall, where the passports are registered and stamped with a notice that you can not leave Russia again without a police permit, or without a Russian passport if your stay has lasted six months. I expected that our lug-gage would be ransacked through and through. On the contrary, I have never been more courteously treated, nor more expeditiously dispatched. But the striking contrast with all other Continental custom houses was the silence, the discipline, the routine, the order—there was neither rudeness nor chatter.

The gage of the Russian railway is wider than the German, with the obvious intention of preventing German rolling-stock from being available in Russia in case of invasion, so you change cars here—the only time between Calais and St. Petersburg—and in the night, with the wood-sparks belching from the big engine and tearing past the carriage windows, you pursue your unseen way through the mysterious country whose name has sounded differently in your ear from the name of every other country on the map since first you heard it. You only know it is Russia, because it differs so much from every description you have read of it. The mahegany-paneled carriage is lighted by a score of candles, among which more silent, dignified servants move, pouring vodka and bringing tea in glasses—and this is the only Russian thing, so far, in which popular rumor has met its liabilities.

Express speed in Russia, as exemplified by the Nord Express, is about twenty miles an hour, so the wide car runs easily and quietly. The red sparks fly ever from the wood-fed engine, the night passes and the dawn grows pink and gray over Russia. And what do you see? Why, heather! Miles upon miles of the lavender-pink ling, faithfully making carpet as ever for the silver birches and the Scotch firs, whose feet, seemingly, are not at ease beneath any other rug—Scotch firs, spruces, the Austrian Christmas-tree, silver birch, low-growing alder, and that shrubby tree I know only as “Scotch mahogany.” It grows here by loch sides, as in Scotland, where it makes your fingers pink when you cut a switch of it to string five meager, peaty trout upon.

There is hardly a sign of life. Little gray wood-shingled cottages, the house not to be known from the stable; little scrappy patches of oats, very short in the straw and very poor in the ear; the occasional huddled figure of a peasant moving slowly in the wake of some saddened beast. Here, in these Baltic provinces, is not the wealth of Russia—neither the industrial nor the agricultural sphere of activity I have come to see. Here is landscape, simple, vast, unalterable landscape—not country malleable to the touch of ambitious or covetous humanity. A crop, when there is one, rises bleakly, half-heartedly, from the sparse soil. Earth is grim, and has no heart.

And what else do we see? Every mile or two enormous heaps of pine-wood and silver birch, cut in blocks a foot long, and laid with marvelous precision—acres and acres of this cheapest and costliest of fuels—cheapest because its price is but the blow of an ax, costliest because it leaves sterility, famine, and flood behind it. Each station is ramparted around with these wood-stacks, each river we cross is choked with huge barges carrying it away. And whenever the train stops we see, moving silently behind the crowd of uniforms, the peasants of Bulgaria and Servia and Austrian Poland—the same poverty, the same sackcloth and sheepskins, the same rope shoes, the same loaf of black bread. They prove the existence of a tie one did not suspect between the Balkan countries which Russia loves and which do not always love her.

We see Vilna, where one June Napoleon entered in triumph, and whence one December he fled from his own army, leaving 20,000 sick and 5,000,000 of francs behind; and where the last Polish revolution died when its leaders were executed. We see Pskov, where Europe first touched hands with what has since become Russia, where the Duke of Moscow destroyed a republic, where Ivan the Terrible fled from an idiot saint, where Gustavus Adolphus with his army knocked at the walls in vain, where Peter the Great kept his cannons and his powder. And we see Gatchina, one of the summer residences of the Imperial Family, and where the best trout come from. Then, almost without transition of suburbs, the train draws up in a plain, lead-colored station, and we are in the city which the great Czar Peter built on the waters of the Neva and named after himself.

It is a remarkable railway journey—from Charing Cross to St. Petersburg in fifty hours, with only one change of carriage where the gage changes, with bed and board of the best, with never a single stop of more than five minutes, and such punctuality that, due at St. Petersburg at 2.45, the station-clock is striking three as we drive with our luggage out of the yard.