Memories of foreigners about their visit to Russia at different times
Memories of foreigners about their visit to Russia at different times

It is widely believed that the common people in Russia have always lived hard, constantly starving, and endured all kinds of oppression from the boyars and landowners. However, was it really so? Of course, for objective reasons, we now have almost no statistical data on pre-revolutionary Russia, such as GDP per capita, the cost of the consumer basket, the cost of living, etc.

As material for this article, we will use quotes from the memoirs of foreigners about their visits to Russia at different times. They are all the more valuable to us, since foreigners do not need to embellish the reality of a foreign country for them.

Interesting notes were left by Yuri Krizhanich, a Croatian theologian and philosopher who arrived in Russia in 1659. In 1661 he was sent into exile in Tobolsk - his views on a single, independent church of Christ, independent of earthly disputes, were unacceptable both for the defenders of Orthodoxy and for Catholics. He spent 16 years in exile, where he wrote the treatise "Conversations about dominion", also known as "Politics", in which he carefully analyzed the economic and political situation in Russia.

People even of the lower class lump whole hats and whole fur coats with sables … and what can you think of more absurd than the fact that even black people and peasants wear shirts embroidered with gold and pearls? … made of pearls, gold and silk …

It should have been forbidden for ordinary people to use silk, gold yarn and expensive scarlet fabrics, so that the boyar class would be different from ordinary people. For it is no good for a worthless scribe to wear the same dress with a noble boyar … There is no such disgrace anywhere in Europe. The poorest black people wear silk dresses. Their wives are indistinguishable from the first boyars.

It should be noted that only in the 20th century did the world come to the conclusion that the style of clothing ceased to determine a person's wealth. Jackets are worn by ministers and professors, and jeans can be worn by both a billionaire and an ordinary worker.

And here is what Krizhanich writes about food: “The Russian land is much more fertile and more productive in comparison with the Polish, Lithuanian and Swedish lands and White Russia. Large and good garden vegetables, cabbage, radish, beets, onions, turnips and others grow in Russia. Indian and domestic chickens and eggs in Moscow are larger and tastier than in the countries mentioned above. Bread, indeed, in Russia, rural and other ordinary people eat much better and more than in Lithuania, in the Polish and Swedish lands. Fish are also abundant. " But what was, according to V. Klyuchevsky, in 1630, a typical land-poor (sown field of one tithe, that is, 1.09 hectares) peasant farm of the Murom district: “3-4 bee hives, 2-3 horses with foals, 1 -3 cows with calves, 3-6 sheep, 3-4 pigs and in the cages 6-10 quarters (1, 26-2, 1 cubic meters) of all bread."

Many foreign travelers note the cheapness of food in Russia. This is what Adam Olearius writes, who, being the secretary of the embassy sent by the Schleswig-Holstein Duke Frederick III to the Persian Shah, visited Russia in 1634 and 1636-1639. "In general, all over Russia, due to the fertile soil, food is very cheap, 2 kopecks for a chicken, we received 9 eggs for a penny." And here is another quote from him: “Since they have a huge amount of wild game, then it is not considered such a rarity and is not appreciated as we do: wood grouses, black grouses and hazel grouses of various breeds, wild geese and ducks can be obtained from peasants for a small amount of money».

The Persian Oruj-bek Bayat (Urukh-bek), who at the end of the 16th century was part of the Persian embassy to Spain, where he converted to Christianity and became known as Don Juan Persian, gives similar evidence of the relatively cheapness of food in Russia: “We stayed in the city [Kazan] for eight days, and we were treated so abundantly that the food had to be thrown out the window. There are no poor people in this country, because food supplies are so cheap that people go out on the road to look for someone to give them to."

And here is what the Venetian merchant and diplomat Barbaro Josaphat, who visited Moscow in 1479, writes: “The abundance of bread and meat here is so great that beef is sold not by weight, but by eye. For one mark you can get 4 pounds of meat, 70 chickens cost a ducat, and a goose no more than 3 marks. In the winter, so many bulls, pigs and other animals are brought to Moscow, completely peeled and frozen, that you can buy up to two hundred pieces at a time. " The secretary of the Austrian ambassador to Russia Gvarienta John Korb, who was in Russia in 1699, also notes the cheapness of meat: “Partridges, ducks and other wild birds, which are an object of pleasure for many peoples and are very expensive for them, are sold here for a small price, for example, you can buy a partridge for two or three kopecks, and other breeds of birds are not purchased for a large sum. " Korb's compatriot, Adolf Liesek, who was secretary to the Austrian ambassadors who were in Moscow in 1675, notes that "there are so many birds that they do not eat larks, starlings and thrush."

In the same 17th century in Germany, the problem with meat was solved in a different way. There, during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), about forty percent of the population was destroyed. As a result, it got to the point that in Hanover, the authorities officially allowed the meat trade of people who died of hunger, and in some areas of Germany (a Christian country, by the way), polygamy was allowed to compensate for the loss of life.

However, all of the above refers to the period before the 18th century, i.e. Moscow kingdom. Let's see what happened during the period of the Russian Empire. Interesting are the notes of Charles-Gilbert Romm, an active participant in the Great French Revolution. From 1779 to 1786 he lived in Russia, in St. Petersburg, where he worked as a teacher and educator for Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov. He made three trips to Russia. Here is what he wrote in 1781 in his letter to G. Dubreul: (unfortunately, he does not specify which particular region of the peasants he is talking about).

“The peasant is considered a slave, since the master can sell him, exchange him at his discretion, but in general, their slavery is preferable to the freedom that our farmers enjoy. Here everyone has more land than they can cultivate. The Russian peasant, far from city life, is hardworking, very savvy, hospitable, humane and, as a rule, lives in abundance. When he completes the preparation for the winter of everything necessary for himself and his cattle, he indulges in rest in a hut (isba), if he is not assigned to any factory, of which there are many in this area, thanks to the rich mines, or if he does not go on a journey through his own business or business of the master. If the crafts were better known here, the peasants would have less time for leisure during the period when they are not engaged in rural labor. Both the master and the slave would benefit from this, but neither one nor the other knows how to calculate their benefit, since they have not yet sufficiently felt the need for crafts. Here, simplicity of morals reigns and a contented look would never leave people if small bureaucrats or large owners did not show greed and avarice. The small population of the region is in many ways the reason for the abundance of everything that is necessary for life.Food is so cheap that the peasant lives in a very prosperous way with two louis."

Note that the Russian "slavery" of the peasants is more preferable than the "freedom" of the French, not someone writes, but a future active participant in the Great French Revolution, held under the slogan "Freedom, equality and brotherhood." That is, we have no reason to suspect him of bias and propaganda of serfdom.

Here is what he wrote in one of his letters about the situation of the French peasants even before his departure to Russia:

Everywhere, my dear friend, both at the walls of Versailles and a hundred leagues away from it, the peasants are treated so barbarously that it turns the whole soul of a sensitive person. It can even be said with good reason that they are more tyrannized here than in the remote provinces. It is believed that the presence of the lord should help to reduce their misfortunes, that, having seen their misfortunes, these gentlemen should try to help them cope with them. This is the opinion of all who have a noble heart, but not the courtiers. They are looking for entertainment in the hunt with such ardor that they are ready to sacrifice everything in the world for this. All the environs of Paris have been converted into game reserves, which makes it forbidden for the unfortunate [peasants] to weed out the weeds in their fields that choke their grain. They are only allowed to stay awake all night, chasing deer ravaging them out of their vineyards, but they are not allowed to hit any of these deer. A laborer stooped in slavish obedience often wastes his time and skill in serving powdered and gilded idols, who relentlessly persecute him, if only he decides to ask for payment for his labor.

This is just about those very "free" French peasants, whose "freedom", according to Romm, is worse than the "slavery" of the Russian serfs.

A. S. Pushkin, who had a deep mind and knew the Russian countryside well, noted: “Fonvizin at the end of the 18th century. traveled to France, says that, in good conscience, the fate of the Russian peasant seemed to him happier than the fate of the French farmer. I believe … Obligations are not at all burdensome. The cap is paid by the world; corvee is determined by law; quitrent is not ruinous (except in the vicinity of Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the variety of industrial turnover intensifies and irritates the greed of the owners) … Having a cow everywhere in Europe is a sign of luxury; not having a cow is a sign of poverty."

The position of the Russian serf peasantry was better than not only the French, but also the Irish. This is what the English captain John Cochrane wrote in 1824. “Without any hesitation … I say that the situation of the peasantry here is much better than that of this class in Ireland. In Russia there is an abundance of products, they are good and cheap, and in Ireland there is a shortage of them, they are filthy and expensive, and the best part of them is exported from the second country, while local obstacles in the first make them not worth the expense. Here in every village you can find nice, comfortable log houses, huge herds are scattered over immense pastures, and a whole forest of firewood can be purchased for a pittance. The Russian peasant can get rich with ordinary zeal and thrift, especially in the villages located between the capitals. " Let's remind that in 1741 hunger took to the grave one fifth of the Irish population- about 500 thousand people. During the famine of 1845-1849. in Ireland, from 500 thousand to 1.5 million people died. Emigration increased significantly (from 1846 to 1851, 1.5 million people left). As a result, in 1841-1851. Ireland's population declined by 30%. In the future, Ireland also quickly lost its population: if in 1841 the population was 8 million 178 thousand people, then in 1901 - only 4 million 459 thousand.

I would like to highlight the housing issue separately:

“Those whose houses were destroyed by fire can easily acquire new houses: behind the White Wall in a special market there are many houses, partly folded, partly dismantled.They can be bought and delivered cheaply and folded,”- Adam Olearius.

“Near Skorodum stretches a vast square, where an incredible amount of all kinds of wood is sold: beams, planks, even bridges and towers, already felled and finished houses, which are transported anywhere without any difficulty after buying and dismantling them”, - Jacob Reitenfels, nobleman of Courland, stayed in Moscow from 1670 to 1673.

“This market is located on a large area and represents a whole mass of ready-made wooden houses of the most varied types. The buyer, entering the market, announces how many rooms he wants, looks closely at the forest and pays money. From the outside it will seem incredible how you can buy a house, move it and put it up in one week, but you should not forget that houses here are sold as completely finished log cabins, so it costs nothing to transport them and put them back together,”wrote William Cox, English traveler and historian, visited Russia twice (in 1778 and 1785). Another English traveler, Robert Bremner, in his book Excursions in Russia, published in 1839, wrote that "There are areas of Scotland where people huddle in houses that the Russian peasant will consider unsuitable for his cattle.".

And here is what the Russian traveler and scientist Vladimir Arsenyev wrote about the peasant's dwelling in his book "Across the Ussuriysk Territory", which was based on the events of his expedition through the Ussuri taiga in 1906:

There were two rooms inside the hut. One of them contained a large Russian stove and beside it various shelves with crockery, covered with curtains, and a polished copper washstand. There were two long benches along the walls; in the corner is a wooden table covered with a white tablecloth, and above the table is a deity with ancient images depicting saints with large heads, dark faces and thin long arms.


The other room was more spacious. There was a large bed against the wall, hung with a chintz curtain. Benches again stretched under the windows. In the corner, as in the first room, there was a table covered with a homemade tablecloth. A clock hung in the partition between the windows, and next to it was a shelf with large old books in leather bindings. In another corner stood Singer's manual car, near the door on a nail hung a small-bore Mauser rifle and Zeiss binoculars. Throughout the house, the floors were cleanly scrubbed, the ceilings were well carved, and the walls were well poured.

From all of the above, it is clear that, according to the testimony of the foreigners themselves, who could compare the life of ordinary people both in Russia and in their countries, and who do not need to embellish Russian reality, during pre-Peter the Great Russia, and during the Russian Empire, ordinary people lived in on the whole, not poorer, and often richer than other peoples of Europe.

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