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Théophile Gautier:

The Races on the Neva River, 1870

[Tappan Introduction]

One sixth of the land surface of the world, a territory nearly three times as large as the United States exclusive of Alaska, is ruled over by the Czar of Russia. This territory contains a population of about I50,000,000. During recent years Russia has been greatly disturbed within her own boundaries. The Russian persecutions of the Jews and the numerous massacres of these people have aroused the wrath and indignation of the world. The Government's determination to repress the ever growing desire of the people for political freedom has led to the imprisonment, exile, and execution of thousands of men and women, many of them young students. The most rigorous attempts at repression have only served to increase the discontent; the agitators, deprived of the right of speech, have fallen back on assassination, and many high officials have fallen victims to the "Terrorists." Strikes have prevailed, and when on "Red Sunday," in I905, the strikers attempted to march to the Winter Palace and submit their grievances to the czar himself, they were fired upon by the imperial troops. All Russia seethed with discontent, and the czar and his advisers, thoroughly alarmed, conceded the right of the people to have some voice in their own government by the creation of a duma, or parliament. When brought to the test of use, the rights granted by the Government were found to be hedged about with so many restrictions as to render them of little value. Nevertheless, some degree of freedom has been obtained.

WE came down upon the ice by a broad wooden slope, between the bronze lions of the quay, whose pedestals, when the river is open, mark the landing-place. On the day which I am describing, the sky had not that keen, intense color which it assumes when the cold reaches zero. An immense canopy of cloud of a very soft and fine pearl gray, holding snow suspended, hung over the city [St. Petersburg], and seemed to rest upon the towers and spires as upon pillars of gold. This quiet and neutral tint set off to unusual advantage the buildings with their delicate coloring relieved by fillets of silvery snow. In front we saw across the river, looking like a valley half filled by avalanches, the columns of red granite ornamented with prows of ships, which stand near the classic exchange. At the point of the island which divides the Neva into two streams, the needle of the fortress raised its aspiring golden point, rendered yet more vivid by the gray tint of the sky. The course---with its board stands, and its track marked out by ropes attached to stakes set in the ice, and by artificial hedges of fir branches ---stretched diagonally across the river. The crowd of people and carriages is immense. Privileged persons occupied the stands, if it be a privilege to remain stationary in the cold in an open gallery! Around the track are crowded, two or three deep, sledges, troikas, open carriages, and even simple telegas, and other vehicles more or less primitive; for no restriction seems to hamper this public amusement: the river is free to all. Men and women, in order to have a better view, turn out their coachmen, and stand upon the seats and the boxes. Nearer the barriers are the mujiks in their sheepskin touloupes and felt boots, soldiers in gray capotes, and other persons who have not been able to secure a better place. All this crowd, astir like a mighty ant-hill on the icy floor of the Neva, was a scene not to be witnessed without anxiety,---by me at least; for I could not forget that a deep river, as large, at least, as the Thames at London Bridge, bowed beneath this frozen crust, two or three feet deep at most, upon which was the weight of thousands of people closely crowded together, and a great number of horses, not to mention equipages of every description. But the Russian winter is to be depended on---it never plays the trick of opening trapdoors under the crowd and swallowing them up.

Outside the course, jockeys were exercising the horses who had not yet been on the track; or leading about, to cool them gradually under their Persian rugs, the noble animals who had furnished their share of the day's amusement. The track is a kind of lengthened ellipse; the sledges do not start abreast, but are stationed at equal intervals; these intervals diminishing or increasing according to the speed of the horses. Two sledges take their position in front of the stands, and two others at the extremities of the ellipse, awaiting the signal of departure. Sometimes a man on horseback gallops at the side of the horse to stimulate him through rivalry to the utmost exertion. The horse in the sledge only trots, but his pace is sometimes so rapid that the other can hardly keep up with him, and once under good headway, abandons him to his own-impulse. Many drivers, sure of their animals, scorn to employ this resource, and make the race alone. Any horse who breaks into a gallop loses his chance, if he makes more than six bounds before being brought back to the prescribed gait.

It is marvelous to see these splendid creatures, for whom wild prices are often paid, spin along over the level ice, which, swept clear of snow, is like a belt of dull-colored glass. The vapor comes from their scarlet nostrils in long jets; their flanks are bathed in a kind of mist, and their tails seem powdered with diamond dust. The nails in their shoes bite into the level and slippery surface, and they devour the distance with the same proud security with which they would tread the best-kept roads of a park. The drivers, leaning backward, grasp the reins with their utmost strength; for horses so powerful as these, having only a light weight behind them, and not allowed to break into a gallop, require to be restrained rather than urged. And they find, too, in this tension, a point of support which allows them to abandon themselves to their headlong pace. What prodigious steps these creatures take, looking as if they would bite their knees!

I could not discover that any special conditions regarding age or weight were imposed upon the contestants, only an amount of speed in a fixed time, measured by a chronometer,---or, at least, so it appeared to me. Occasionally, troikas enter the lists against sledges having one or two horses. Each man selects the vehicle and number of horses which seem best to suit him. Sometimes even a spectator, who has been sitting in his sledge and looking on, will take a fancy to try his luck,---and forthwith he enters the lists.

At the race which I am describing, a very picturesque incident occurred. A mujik,---from Vladimir, it was said,---who had come into the city bringing wood or frozen provisions, stood looking on from the height of his rustic troika. He was clad in the usual greasy touloupe, with an old matted fur cap, and felt boots white with hard service; a beard unkempt and lusterless bristled upon his chin. He had a team of three little horses, disheveled, wild-looking, shaggy as bears, frightfully filthy, with icicles hanging down underneath them, carrying their heads low, and biting at the snow heaped up in masses on the river. A douga like a Gothic window, painted with glaring colors in stripes and zigzags, was the part of the equipage on which most care had been bestowed---doubtless was the work of the mujik's own hatchet. This wild and primitive equipage offered the strangest possible contrast to the luxurious sledges, the triumphant troikas, and all the other elegant vehicles which stood drawn up along the edges of the track. More than one laughing glance ridiculed the humble troika. And, to tell the truth, in this brilliant scene it had much the same effect as a spot of wheel-grease on an ermine mantle.

But the little horses, whose hair was all matted with frozen sweat, looked out scornfully through their stiffened, shaggy forelocks at the high-bred animals that seemed to shrink away from contact with them,---for animals---like the rest of us! feel a contempt for poverty. A gleam of fire shone in their somber eyes, and they struck the ice with the small shoes attached to their slender, sinewy legs, bearded like an eagle's quills. The mujik, standing upon the seat, contemplated the course, without appearing in the least surprised by the prowess of the horses. Now and then, even, a faint smile gleamed below the frozen crystals of his mustache, his gray eyes sparkled mischievously, and he seemed to say: "We, too, could do as much."

Taking a sudden resolve, he entered the lists to try his luck. The three little unlicked bears shook their heads proudly, as if they understood that they were to maintain the honor of the poor horse of the steppes, and, without being urged, they went off at such a pace that everybody else on the track began to take the alarm---they went like the wind, with their little, slender limbs, and they carried off the victory from all the others,---thoroughbreds of English race, barbs, and Orloff horses---by a minute and some seconds! The mujik had not presumed too much upon his rustic steeds. The prize was adjudged to him, a magnificent piece of chased silver by Vaillant, the most fashionable gold-smith in St. Petersburg. This triumph excited a noisy enthusiasm among the crowd usually so silent and so calm.

As the conqueror came off, he was surrounded by amateurs, proposing to buy his three horses; they went so far as to offer him three thousand rubles apiece, an enormous sum for beasts and man both. To his credit be it said, the mujik persistently reused. He wrapped his piece of silver in a fragment of old cloth, climbed upon his troika, and went back as he came, not willing at any price to part from the good little creatures who had made him for the moment the lion of St. Petersburg.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 236-242.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

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