When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

Fairied Winter in the Ukraine

With the first flurry of snowflakes, our lives and habits changed. As the house sank deeper and deeper in the ever-falling snow, our great and persistent play-enemies, the weeds of the orchard, began to disappear, their tips alone remaining as dark spots on the white background. Instead of bees, they now attracted birds, who flocked in hundreds to peck at the dry seeds. Yet the bees were not forgotten.

It was always Ivan who suggested an expedition to the cellar.

"Volodia," he said, with just a slightly shamefaced look, "won't you go down with me to listen to the bees?"

So, quietly, with our wooden swords still girded on as a protection against the ever-lurking enemy, we crept down to the warm, dark cellar, where in a corner the beehives stood. We needed no light to guide us, for the low buzzing of the bees could be plainly heard, and we crouched down beside them, close together.

"I wonder what they are talking about?" hazarded Ivan.

"They might be telling each other stories," I answered, listening to the soothing hum, which has always retained for me its mysterious charm.

"No," said Ivan, "I think they're arguing why so many have to work to keep the idle drones."

But I persisted that they only told stories, and even now I listen to the bees with the same thrill of mysterious imaginings. Many a time, after that, Ivan's childish interest in the workers and the drones recurred to me. It was a prophecy of his life.

Our winter wars, always an important part of our daily routine, were well provided with munitions. I remember the gigantic snow forts we built, for we had all winter in which to build them, and the snowball ammunition that was prepared for the engagements made huge piles behind the ramparts. We naturally played with certain boys of our serfs, but in winter this increase in numbers was particularly welcomed. We built great snow men that towered above us, and we had secret tunnels in our snow hills that took a long time to melt.

Another source of great joy was skating, and when lessons were over, we would put on our heavy fur-edged coats, padded with the wool of our own sheep, and scamper off to the lake, just as eager to skate as we had been to swim. I remember very well the day that I graduated from the wooden skate, and first learnt the joy of the keen, steel blade. There was great rivalry between Ivan and me, and although he was older, I could beat him at figure-skating. I spent my time writing my name on the ice, of course in Russian letters, and figure "8's" I considered a simple feat.

The peasant boys, or hloptzi, always fixed up a furrkadlo or ice merry-go-round. A heavy wooden post was first driven into the ice in the middle of the lake. The hloptzi then attached to it a thin pole about thirty-six feet long, so arranged that it could swing freely round and round the pivotal post. To one end of this lever a small sled was fastened, and the other end was left protruding about six feet beyond the post. Two people could get into the sled and then it would be whirled around at a terrific speed by pushing on the shorter end, those riding in the sled making it go even more swiftly by striking the ice with the foot. How we enjoyed skimming like birds over the smooth, shining ice! The roar of the furrkadlo could be heard a mile away on clear frosty days.

Although cold weather and storms did not keep us indoors, yet the winter days were short, and we played many indoor games. We boys were especially fond of babki, or pig-bones, a kind of nine-pins made from the bones of a pig's leg. The initial charm of the game lay in the difficulty of getting the bones with which to play it. Every time a pig was going to be killed, its bones had claimants long before the fatal day. Clumsy playing meant the loss of bones. As these could not be replaced with any degree of ease, and either they had to be won back or the loser wheedled them from Ksenia when the next pig was killed, it followed that every game was striven for in bitter earnest.

In the living-room, where we played babki, we were also allowed to spin tops. The room was almost as big as a tennis court, so we had plenty of room to spin those that were made for us by handy peasant boys. All the tops were brilliantly colored. One of the boys among the serfs had a positive genius for making them, and although he showed me many times the simple process, I never achieved his success.



Often, while we were engrossed in seeing whose top would spin the longest, a faint sound of bells reached our ears.

"Pahpa's got the troika," I was always the first to exclaim, for my hearing was very keen. "Let's get Mahma to ask him if he'll take us out." We knew that Mother was our best ally, and she would often secure from Father privileges for us which our own clumsy methods sometimes lost.

"Pahpa," she would say, going outside the house where the troika stood, "can the children go?"

Father would look at us and our eager faces, and then the sparks would light up his stern eyes as he nodded his acquiescence.

Bundled up in our coats and blankets we climbed into the troika, or three horse sled. Bells jangled on the arched wooden neck-harness peculiar to Russia. The sled was filled with straw, into which we snuggled. Lightly Father touched the horses, and we were off! I can still remember the whistling of the wind as we flew over the smooth hard ground, and I have never seen such driving anywhere as in Russia.

During the long evenings we often played blind-man's-buff, the game of all games beloved by Russian boys and girls. We were allowed to invite into the house Timko, one of my play fellows, whose mother had been my grandmother's serf, and in whom much confidence was placed. Timko and we three boys had grown up together, for he was only two years older than I, and I always found him a willing companion in my rougher games. There was never any stiffness between us and the serf or peasant boys, for they knew that we were the baritchi or young masters, and that they belonged to the village. We were allowed to make as much noise as we pleased, my mother only occasionally glancing into the huge room when a particularly loud burst of boisterousness made her fear for the safety of the furniture.

Freight sledge


At other times we avoided the noisy games, and found our own pleasures in a quieter mood. Ivan and I, who were inseparable, had a secret between us. We both loved the kitchen circle, and it was undoubtedly there that were laid the seeds of that love for the peasants which became our ruling interest in later years.

The kitchen was a large, low room, with a great open fireplace and oven on one side, along a ledge of which stood earthenware pots. This was Ksenia's kingdom. Here she spent her days cooking for the whole household. In her homespun and brightly embroidered peasant dress, she fitted there. Around the walls of this big kitchen were long benches stretching from corner to corner, and here, after the day's work, the peasants came for their supper. The men took off their heavy fur jackets and clumsy footwear, and sat at ease, chatting among themselves. Some settled on the benches, while others sat on the tree-stumps, of which several were scattered around. Still others climbed on the oven and dozed there comfortably till mealtime. This was always the favorite spot of the Russian peasant, and the lejanka as it is called, is the place of honor, for there it is warm, no matter how cold the wind outside.

The vast expanse of the room was lighted by a burning log stuck into a clumsy slab of clay, built into the ledge of the fireplace, in which two holes were made for logs. These were chopped off from the still burning logs and changed when they burnt out. In this semidarkness, fogged with a slightly acrid smoke, and peopled with tired men, Nikola, the story-teller, told fearful tales of robbers and ghosts and dead people. And as I listened to these, the shivers would creep down my back, and Ivan and I would press closer to each other and move away from the windows where the cold moonlight cast weird shadows upon the snow-covered weeds and the bare branches of the orchard trees. The wind swayed the ice-covered branches and made them crackle in the quiet night, and Ivan would whisper to me patronizingly:

"Volodia, if you wake up to-night and you're afraid—you can wake me; I won't mind."

The glow from the fire and the flickers from the torch played over the moveless and tired group, while Nikola, speaking the Ukraine dialect, with its picturesque expressions, told the story of the moujik Prokop and his dealings with the Tsar Goblin.

"Prokop was a very poor moujik—so poor that he often had no food," Nikola began, while the assembled hloptzi leaned forward eagerly. "One morning as he was leaving his izba to work on the fields he could find to eat only one small crust of bread. He took it, grateful that there was even that much. When he had come to the field, had hitched his oxen and made his plough ready, he took off his coat, wrapped in it the crust of bread for his midday meal, put the bundle under a bush and went to work.

"Now a goblin had been sitting near that bush, underground, and he saw the moujik put away the crust. He was an under goblin and had been sent from the Dark World Underground to God's world of the sunlight to try to make at least one man discontented with his lot. There was only one requirement, and that was that he must succeed with the first man he tried, for if he failed, he would be compelled to return to the Dark World and tell his failure to the Goblin Tsar, who could then punish him. He could make him live for a whole year in a hole under a church, which is an awful fate for a goblin."

Many of the listeners crossed themselves, and there was a silent pause while one of the moujiks replaced the burnt out torch with a fresh one. The log spluttered with a brighter gleam, and Nikola went on:

"Now the under goblin knew that Prokop had only this crust of bread to eat. Making a face at the moujik, who was ploughing, the goblin unwrapped the bundle and took the crust. Then he put the coat back under the bush. The crust was hard, very hard for a goblin's teeth, but the goblin had to eat it because Prokop might say something that had prayer words in it, hoping that the bread would come back, and then the goblin would have to return it. But if he had eaten every crumb, he couldn't give it back, no matter what Prokop said.

"At last the sun rose half way in the sky and Prokop stopped to eat his dinner. He went over to his coat, unwrapped it and looked in vain for the crust. The goblin stood invisible, expectantly rubbing his hands with their long, sharp nails and waited anxiously for Prokop to say some complaining and unholy words.

"But the moujik did not. After a moment's silence as he discovered his loss:

"'May my crust be as welcome to him who took it as it would have been to me,' said Prokop.

"He walked to the spring, where he drank his fill of water and returned to work.

"The goblin stood dumfounded, for all his plans had failed. Hastily he returned to the Dark World Underground and presented himself to the Tsar Goblin.

"'Your Imperial Majesty,' he said trembling, 'I took away his last crust from a moujik, and he only uttered a kindly wish!'

"The stern Monarch looked at the cowering goblin and said:

"'I give you three years in which to catch that moujik. If you fail then, I'll make you count the grains of dust on every cross in the world. Go!'

"Very sad and frightened, the goblin hurried away from the Awful Presence. He changed himself into a man, went to Prokop and asked the moujik to hire him during the ploughing season. Prokop was sorry for him, so he told him that he could stay and work, although he, too, was a poor man.

"Prokop, never suspecting that this man was a goblin, accepted his friendship and listened to his advice.

"The first year the goblin advised Prokop to sow all his wheat on his hillside patch and none in the valley. Sure enough, it was a season of great rains, and while the crops of others rotted, Prokop was able to gather so big a harvest that he could not even use all the wheat, and some was left. He did not know what to do with it.

"The next year the goblin advised Prokop to sow his wheat in the patch of land that lay in a swampy valley. There was a drought that year. All the crops dried up and there was famine and suffering, but Prokop had so much wheat that he could not use it during the winter and he had still a great deal of grain left over.

"Then Prokop had too much wheat and he wondered what to do with the grain.

"'I'll show you how to make vodka,' said the disguised goblin, rubbing his hands with glee.

"Prokop, who knew nothing about vodka, or whiskey, and was quite unsuspecting, was willing to be shown. So vodka was made of the extra grain, and Prokop invited many moujiks to his izba and offered them the vodka to drink.

"After the first glass the moujiks became suspicious and cunning. They showed signs of distrust and watched each other warily. After the second glass, they became quarrelsome like wolves and snapped angrily at each other's remarks. Two of the men began to fight. And, as the goblin watched them, he made grimaces of delight and chuckled to himself.



"After the third glass of vodka, the moujiks became sullen and sleepy. They staggered out of the izba and into the gutters before it, where they lay on the street like swine. The goblin watched Prokop as he lurched from the izba and fell, and he was happy. He felt sure that at last he could return to the Tsar Goblin with confidence in his future in the Dark World Underground. So he changed back into his goblin shape and appeared before the black throne.

"'Well,' said the Goblin Tsar, 'what have you done to reinstate yourself in the Dark World?'

"So the goblin told of his three years' work and described Prokop, lying in the gutter, face downward.

"'You must have put the blood of a fox in the vodka to make the moujiks cunning,' said the Tsar Goblin, 'and the blood of a wolf to have made them fierce, and the blood of a swine to have made them act like the swine that lie in gutters!'

"'No, I didn't do any of these things,' said the under goblin. 'I didn't have to do them, for in every man there is much of the animal, only it has to be brought out. As long as Prokop did not have enough to eat, he worked well and lived without discontent, but as soon as he had more than he could eat, he learned to make vodka, and that brought out the animal desires that were in him.'

"'I don't see that you have done anything,' said the Dark Emperor; 'had you put the blood of a fox, a wolf and a swine in the vodka, you might have claimed that it was your act which made Prokop discontented with his lot. But now he doesn't fight and lie in the gutter because you have made him wish to be a fox, a wolf and a swine, but because the vodka is stronger than he. You have failed,' thundered the Monarch, pointing a fearful finger at the trembling goblin. 'Now go and count the grains of dust on all the crosses in the world,'

"He will count them until the Judgment Day," concluded Nikola, "for are we not always erecting new crosses to show God's love?"