The Great Fair – Russian Travel

From the Volga look in another direction—across the Okka—and there, on a low, almost inundated flat, exposed to the waters of both rivers, lies a scene of bustle and activity unparalleled in Europe. A vast town of shops, laid out in regular streets, with churches, hospitals, bar-racks, and theaters, now tenanted by more than a hundred thousand souls, but in a few weeks to be as dead and silent as the forests we have been surveying; for when the fair is over, not a creature will be seen out of the town, on the spot which is now swarming with human beings. Yet these shops are not the frail structures of canvas and rope with which the idea of a fair is associated in other countries. They are regular- houses, built of the most substantial materials, and are generally one story high, with large shops in the front part, and sleeping-rooms for the merchant and his servants behind. Sewers, and other means of maintaining cleanliness and health, are provided more extensively even than in the regular towns of Russia. This is Nijni-Novgorod.

The business of the fair is of such importance that the governor of the province, the representative of the Emperor himself, takes up his residence in it during the greater part of the autumn. There is a large and handsome palace built for him in the center, accommodating a train of secretaries and clerks numerous enough to manage the revenues of a king-dom. Strong posts of military are planted all round to keep down rioting, and the Cossack policemen are always on the alert against thieves, who, notwithstanding, continue to reap a good harvest from the unwary.

The first view of this scene from the heights of the Kremlin is very imposing; nor was the interest diminished by the repeated visits which we made to it during the three or four days spent in its neighborhood. The fair may be about a mile from the center of the city, but much less from the outskirts, to which, in fact, it is united by a long, wide bridge of boats across the two arms of the Okka, and a line of good houses along the steep and difficult slope leading to the bank of that river. This slanting street is filled with a countless throng from morning to night — carriages, wagons, droshkies, pedestrians, uniting to form the only scene out of England, except, perhaps, the Toledo of Naples, that can be at all compared to the crowds of Ludgate-hill or Cheapside. The crowd becomes, if possible, greater when we reach the river, the branches of which, all round the bridge, wide as they are, can scarcely hold the many barges of every shape and tonnage either discharging or taking in their car-goes. The shops in the nearer streets of the fair receive the goods at once from the river; for the more remote ones there are canals which the barges penetrate.

First advances a white-faced, flat-nosed merchant from Archangel, come here with his furs. He is followed by a bronzed, long-eared Chinese, who has got rid of his tea, and is now moving toward the city, to learn something of European life before setting out on his many months’ journey home. Next come a pair of Tartars from the Five Mountains, followed by a youth whose regular features speak of Circassian blood. Those with muslins on their arms, and bundles on their backs, are Tartar pedlers. Cossacks who have brought hides from the Ukraine, are gazing in wonder on their brethren who have come with caviar from the Akhtuba. Those who follow, by their flowing robes and dark hair, must be from Persia; to them the Russians owe their perfumes. The man in difficulty about his passport is a Kujur from Astrabad, applying for aid to a Turcoman from the northern bank of the Gourgan. The wild-looking Bashkir from the Ural has his thoughts among the hives of his cottage, to which he would fain be back; and the stalwart Kuzzilbash from Orenburg looks as if he would gladly bear him company, for he would rather be listening to the scream of his eagle in the chase than to the roar of this sea of tongues.

Glancing in another direction, yonder simpering Greek from Moldavia, with the rosary in his fingers, is in treaty with a Kalmuck as wild as the horses he was bred among. Here comes a Truchman craving payment from his neighbor Ghilan (of Western Persia), and a thoughtless Bucharian is greeting some Agriskhan acquaintance (sprung of the mixed blood of Hindus and Tartars). Nogais are mingling with Kirghisians, and drapers from Paris are bar-gaining for the shawls of Cashmere with a member of some Asiatic tribe of unpronounceable name. Jews from Brody are settling ac-counts with Turks from Trebizond; and a costume-painter from Berlin is walking arm-in-arm with the player from St. Petersburg who is to perform Hamlet in the evening.

In short, common merchants from Manchester, jewelers from Augsburg, watchmakers from Neufchatel, wine-merchants from Frankfort, leech-buyers from Hamburg, grocers from Konigsberg, amber-dealers from Memel, pipemakers from Dresden, and furriers from Warsaw, help to make up a crowd the most motley and most singular that the wonder-working genius of commerce ever drew together.

As most of the Oriental dealers who frequent the fair belong to tribes which are in constant intercourse with the Russians of the south, there is not such a diversity of garb as might be expected from the variety of tongues assembled. The Iong robe of Russia, as a compromise between the loose folds of the East and the scanty skirts of Europe, is worn by a great majority.

There are Russians, of course, from every corner of the empire; but the greater part of the crowd, we were assured, and certainly the most singular, consists of dealers belonging to tribes of Central Asia, whose names we never heard before, and will not pretend to repeat; this in fact, is the great point of union between Europe and Asia, which here make an exchange of their respective commodities. There is no spot in the world, perhaps, where so many meet belonging to the different divisions of the globe. The number of Mahomedans is so great, that a handsome mosque has been built for them at the end of the fair, in which worship is performed as regularly as in their native cities.

The gaudiest display of all is among the numerous shops for silks and shawls. Most of these articles being of oriental manufacture, the patterns far outshine even the waist-coats of our modern beaux. The manufactured silks here disposed of every year are estimated at ten millions and a half of roubles (£420,000) —while of raw silk 308,000 pounds are sold. Nothing surprized us more, however, than the furniture-shops — costly tables, chairs, sofas, all the heaviest articles of furniture, brought in safety to such a distance, and over such roads, were what we did not expect to meet, even in this universal emporium. Large mirrors, too, from France as well as St. Petersburg, and crystal articles from Bohemia, were displayed in great profusion; and many a longing eye might be seen near the windows of the jewelers and silversmiths, who are said to do a great deal of business, not only in selling their home-made articles, but also in buying jewels brought from Asia.