BEFORE THE REVOLUTION
by William Lyon Phelps
The best way to invade Russia is by sea; and I advise those who plan to visit the Soviet Republic to go via Stockholm. Copenhagen, Christiania, Stockholm are three interesting cities and should be seen in that order. Stockholm, the "Venice of the North," is one of the most beautiful, most picturesque, and most attractive places in the world.
It is surprising that the short sea voyage from Stockholm to Saint Petersburg (now Leningrad) is not better known; it is enchantingly beautiful. We left Stockholm at six o'clock in the evening of a fine September day, and as our tiny steamer drew away, the sunset light over the fair city hung a new picture on the walls of my mind. It took some five hours to reach the Baltic, five hours of constantly changing scenery, one view melting into another like a succession of dissolving panoramas.
Hundreds of miniature islands dotted with chateaux and country houses; winking lighthouse towers; "the grey sea and the long black land."
An impossible half-moon lent the last touch of glory to the scene. We stood on the top deck and beheld the spacious firmament on high, thick inlaid with patines of bright gold; while the long level light of the crazy moon fell across the darkening water and the myriad islands.
In the middle of the night we crossed the Baltic, and in the whitening dawn entered the gulf of Finland. The air was nipping and eager, but the sun rose in a cloudless sky. All day long the steamer nosed her way through the blue sea, twisting and turning among the countless points of the earth's surface that were just able to keep their heads above water. A few of these were covered with green grass, and supported white farm buildings where laughing children accompanied by dignified dogs ran out to see our transit; but for the most part these elevations were bald, with a tall lighthouse as sole decoration.
At five in the afternoon we reached Helsingfors (still my farthest north) and stepped ashore to spend six hours in seeing the town, the boat not proceeding toward Russia until late in the night. The clouded sky was low and harsh the next morning, and the sea was surly. Toward noon it cleared, and early in the afternoon we saw the gilded domes and spires of Holy Russia.
After a long delay with passports, we drove across one of the bridges over the Neva to our hotel at a corner of the Nevski Prospekt. Although it was only September, the temperature was under fifty, and seemed colder.
I had a severe cold, which had its origin in a chill I had caught in rashly touching a piece of toast that a waiter brought me in a London hotel. But I was right in style. Accustomed as I was to see on the streets of any American city the healthy, cheerful, well-clad and wellshod men and women, I was appalled by the faces and the clothes of the Russians. What they look like today I know not, but a more unhappy looking crowd than I saw every day on the streets of Russian cities I have never seen outside of pictures of Hell. Many of the people had their ears and mouths bandaged and on their feet were (if they could afford it) enormous knee-boots. All seemed to be suffering from the foot and mouth disease.
Never shall I forget the boots and overcoats and uniforms on the Nevski Prospekt. The question of leg-clothes would have interested the author of Sartor Resartus. In Edinburgh all the men and some of the women wore knickers, with stockings that seemed an inch thick. Compared with Europeans, Americans are tropically clad. In order to avoid the glare of publicity, I bought in Scotland a homespun golf suit.
I tried these abbreviated trousers just once on the Nevski Prospekt. Everybody stopped to stare. Had I worn a flowing purple robe, I should not have attracted such attention. Military officers gazed at me in cold amazement, as though I had leprosy; while the more naive passers made audible comment, which fortunately I could not translate.
Then I tried the experiment of conventional clothing, but wore low shoes. Everyone gazed at my feet, some in wonder, some in admiration, some in terror. I felt as I did many years ago when I wore a striped cap in Brussels. A stranger looked at me earnestly and then said in an almost reverent tone, and he said it three times: Nom de Dieu!
In America our citizens show much the same interest in strange clothing. Professor E. B. Wilson, a distinguished mathematician, bought a suit of clothes in Paris. He wore it only once in America. A citizen gazed at him steadfastly, and said "J-! "
The faces of the common people in Russian cities were sad to behold, whether one saw them on the street or in church. Not only was there no hilarity, such as one sees everywhere in
American towns; those faces indicated a total lack of illuminating intelligence. They were blank, dull, apathetic, helpless. Gorki said that the people in Russia had so little to look forward to that they were glad when their own houses burned down, as it made a break in the dull routine of life.
One afternoon I walked the entire length of the Nevski Prospekt, no mean achievement in a heavy overcoat. I began at the banks of the restless, blustering Neva, passed the extraordinary statue of Peter the Great, came through the garden by the statue of Gogol, and with the thin gold spire of the Admiralty at my back, entered the long avenue.
I followed the immense extension of the Nevski, clear to the cemetery, and stood reverently before the tomb of Dostoevski. Here in January, 1851, the body of the great novelist was laid in the grave, in the presence of forty thousand mourners.
In a corner of the enclosure I found the tomb of the composer Chaikovski; I gazed on the last resting-place of Glinka, father of Russian music. On account of the marshy soil, the graves are built above instead of below the surface of the ground, exactly as they are in New Orleans. It is in reality a city of the dead, the only place where a Russian finds peace. I passed out on the other side of the cemetery, walked through the grounds of the convent, and found myself abruptly clear from the city, on the edge of a vast plain.