Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Buffooneries of the Russian Court

Amid the serious matters which present themselves so abundantly in the history of Russia, buffooneries of the coarsest character at times find place. Numerous examples of this might be drawn from the reign of Peter the Great, whose idea of humor was broad burlesque, and who, despite the religious prejudices of the people, did not hesitate to make the church the subject of his jests. One of the broadest of these farces was that known as the Conclave, the purpose of which was to burlesque or treat with contumely the method of selecting the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

At the court of the czar was an old man named Sotof, a drunkard of inimitable powers of imbibition, and long a butt for the jests of the court. He had taught the czar to write, a service which he deemed worthy of being rewarded by the highest dignities of the empire.

Peter, who dearly loved a practical joke, learning the aspirations of the old sot, promised to confer on him the most eminent office in the world, and accordingly appointed him Kniaz Papa, that is, prince-pope, with a salary of two thousand roubles and a palace at St. Petersburg. The exaltation of Sotof to this dignity was solemnized by a performance more gross than ludicrous. Buffoons were chosen to lift the new dignitary to his throne, and four fellows who stammered with every word delivered absurd addresses upon his exaltation. The mock pope then created a number of cardinals, at whose head he rode through the streets in procession, his seat of state being a cask of brandy which was carried on a sledge drawn by four oxen.

The cardinals followed, and after them came sledges laden with food and drink, while the music of the procession consisted of a hideous turmoil of drums, trumpets, horns, fiddles, and hautboys, all playing out of time, mingled with the ear-splitting clatter of pots and pans vigorously beaten by a troop of cooks and scullions. Next came a number of men dressed as Roman Catholic monks, each carrying a bottle and a glass. In the rear of the procession marched the czar and his courtiers, Peter dressed as a Dutch skipper, the others wearing various comic disguises.

The place fixed for the conclave being reached, the cardinals were led into a long gallery, along which had been built a range of closets. In each of these a cardinal was shut up, abundantly provided with food and drink. To each of the cardinals two conclavists were attached, whose duty it was to ply them with brandy, carry insulting messages from one to another, and induce them, as they grew tipsy, to bawl out all sorts of abuse of one another. To all this ribaldry the czar listened with delight, taking note at the same time of anything said of which he might make future use against the participants.

This orgy lasted three days and three nights, the cardinals not being released until they had agreed upon answers to a number of ridiculous questions propounded to them by the Kniaz Papa. Then the doors were flung open, and the pope and his cardinals were drawn home at mid-day dead drunk on sledges,—that is, such of them as survived, for some had actually drunk themselves to death, while others never recovered from the effect of their debauch.

This offensive absurdity appealed so strongly to the czar's idea of humor that he had it three times repeated, it growing more gross and shameless on each successive occasion; and during the last conclave Peter indulged in such excesses that his death was hastened by their effects.

As for the national church of Russia, Peter treated it with contemptuous indifference. The office of patriarch becoming vacant, he left it unfilled for twenty-one years, and finally, on being implored by a delegation from the clergy to appoint a patriarch, he started up in a furious passion, struck his breast with his fist and the table with his cutlass, and roared out, "Here, here is your patriarch!" He then stamped angrily from the room, leaving the prelates in a state of utter dismay.

Soon after he took occasion to make the church the subject of a second coarse jest. Another buffoon of the court, Buturlin by name, was appointed Kniaz Papa, and a marriage arranged between him and the widow of Sotof, his predecessor. The bridegroom was eighty-four years of age, the bride nearly as old. Some decrepit old men were chosen to play the part of bridesmaids, four stutterers invited the wedding guests, while four of the most corpulent fellows who could be found attended the procession as running footmen. A sledge drawn by bears held the orchestra, their music being accompanied with roars from the animals, which were goaded with iron spikes. The nuptial benediction was given in the cathedral by a blind and deaf priest, who wore huge spectacles. The marriage, the wedding feast, and the remaining ceremonies were all conducted in the same spirit of broad burlesque, in which one of the sacred ceremonies of the Russian Church was grossly paraphrased.

Peter did not confine himself to coarse jests in his efforts to discredit the clergy. He took every occasion to unmask the trickery of the priests. Petersburg, the new city he was building, was an object of abhorrence to these superstitious worthies, who denounced it as one of the gates of hell, prophesying that it would be overthrown by the wrath of heaven, and fixing the date on which this was to occur. So great was the fear inspired by their prophecies that work was suspended in spite of the orders of the terrible czar.

To impress the people with the imminency of the peril, the priests displayed a sacred image from whose eyes flowed miraculous tears. It seemed to weep over the coming fate of the dwellers within the doomed city.

"Its hour is at hand," said the priests; "it will soon be swallowed up, with all its inhabitants, by a tremendous inundation."

When word of this seeming miracle and of the consternation which it had produced was brought to the czar, he hastened with his usual impetuosity to the spot, bent on exposing the dangerous fraud which his enemies were perpetrating. He found the weeping image surrounded by a multitude of superstitious citizens, who gazed with open-eyed wonder and reverence on the miraculous feat.

Their horror was intense when Peter boldly approached and examined the image. Petrified with terror, they looked to see him stricken dead by a bolt from heaven. But their feelings changed when the czar, breaking open the head of the image, explained to them the ingenious trick which the priests had devised. The head was found to contain a reservoir of congealed oil, which, as it was melted by the heat of lighted tapers beneath, flowed out drop by drop through artfully provided holes, and ran from the eyes like tears. On seeing this the dismay of the people turned to anger against the priests, and the building of the city went on.

The court fool was an institution born in barbarism, though it survived long into the age of civilization, having its latest survival in Russia, the last European state to emerge from barbarism. In the days of Peter the Great the fool was a fixed institution in Russia, though this element of court life had long vanished from Western Europe. In truth, the buffoon flourished in Russia like a green bay-tree. Peter was never satisfied with less than a dozen of these fun-making worthies, and a private family which could not afford at least one hired fool was thought to be in very straitened circumstances.

In the reign of the empress Anne the number of court buffoons was reduced to six, but three of the six were men of the highest birth. They had been degraded to this office for some fault, and if they refused to perform such fooleries as the queen and her courtiers desired they were whipped with rods.

Among those who suffered this indignity was no less a grandee than Prince Galitzin. IIe had changed his religion, and for this offence he was made court page, though he was over forty years of age, and buffoon, though his son was a lieutenant in the army, and his family one of the first in the realm. His name is here given in particular as he was made the subject of a cruel jest, which could have been perpetrated nowhere but in the Russian court at that period.

The winter of 1740, in which this event took place, was of unusual severity. Prince Galitzin's wife having died, the empress forced him to marry a girl of the lowest birth, agreeing to defray the cost of the wedding, which proved to be by no means small.

As a preliminary a house was built wholly of ice, and all its furniture, tables, seats, ornaments, and even the nuptial bedstead, were made of the same frigid material. In front of the house were placed four cannons and two mortars of ice, so solid in construction that they were fired several times without bursting. To make up the wedding procession persons of all the nations subject to Russia, and of both sexes, were brought from the several provinces, dressed in their national costumes.

The procession was an extraordinary one. The new-married couple rode on the back of an elephant, in a huge cage. Of those that followed some were mounted on camels, some rode in sledges drawn by various beasts, such as reindeer, oxen, dogs, goats, and hogs. The train, which all Moscow turned out to witness, embraced more than three hundred persons, and made its way past the palace of the empress and through all the principal streets of the city.

The wedding dinner was given in Biren's riding-house, which was appropriately decorated, and in which each group of the guests were supplied with food cooked after the manner of their own country. A ball followed, in which the people of each nation danced their national dances to their national music. The pith of the joke, in the Russian appreciation of that day, came at the end, the bride and groom being conducted to a bed of ice in an icy palace, in which they were forced to spend the night, guards being stationed at the door to prevent their getting out before morning.

Though not so gross as Peter's nuptial jests, this was more cruel, and, in view of the social station of the groom, a far greater indignity.

A Russian state dinner during the reign of Peter the Great, as described by Dr. Birch, speaking from personal observation, was one in which only those of the strongest stomach could safely take part. On such occasions, indeed, the experienced ate their din ners beforehand at home, knowing well what to expect at the czar's table. Ceremony was absolutely lacking, and, as two or three hundred persons were usually invited to a feast set for a hundred, a most undignified scuffling for seats took place, each holder of a chair being forced to struggle with those who sought to snatch it from him. In this turmoil distinguished foreigners had to fight like the natives for their seats.

Finally they took their places without regard to dignity or station. "Carpenters and shipwrights sit next to the czar; but senators, ministers, generals, priests, sailors, buffoons of all kinds, sit pell-mell, without any distinction." And they were crowded so closely that it was with great difficulty they could lift their hands to their mouths. As for foreigners, if they happened to sit between Russians, they were little likely to have any appetite to eat. All this Peter encouraged, on the plea that ceremony would produce uneasiness and stiffness.

There was usually but one napkin for two or three guests, which they fought for as they had for seats; while each person had but one plate during dinner, "so if some Russian does not care to mix the sauces of the different dishes together, he pours the soup that is left in his plate either into the dish or into his neighbor's plate, or even under the table, after which he licks his plate clean with his finger, and, last of all, wipes it with the table-cloth."

Liquids seem to have played as important a part as solids at these meals, each guest being obliged to begin with a cup of brandy, after which great glasses of wine were served, "and between whiles a bumper of the strongest English beer, by which mixture of liquors every one of the guests is fuddled before the soup is served up." And this was not confined to the men, the women being obliged to take their share in the liberal potations. As for the music that played in the adjoining room, it was utterly drowned in the noise around the table, the uproar being occasionally increased by a fighting-bout between two drunken guests, which the czar, instead of stopping, witnessed with glee.

We may close with a final quotation from Dr. Birch. "At great entertainments it frequently happens that nobody is allowed to go out of the room from noon till midnight; hence it is easy to imagine what pickle a room must be in that is full of people who drink like beasts, and none of whom escape being dead drunk.

"They often tie eight or ten young mice in a string, and hide them under green peas, or in such soups as the Russians have the greatest appetites to, which sets them a kicking and vomiting in a most beastly manner when they come to the bottom and discover the trick. They often bake cats, wolves, ravens, and the like in their pastries, and when the company have eaten them up, they tell them what they have in their stomachs.

"The present butler is one of the czar's buffoons, to whom he has given the name of Wiaschi, with this privilege, that if any one calls him by that name he has leave, to drub him with his wooden sword. If, therefore, anybody, by the czar's setting them on, calls out Wiasehi, as the fellow does not know exactly who it is, he falls to beating them all around, beginning with prince Mentchikof and ending with the last of the company, without excepting even the ladies, whom he strips of their head clothes, as he does the old Russians of their wigs, which he tramples upon, on which occasion it is pleasant enough to see the variety of their bald pates."

On reading this account of a Russian court entertainment two centuries ago, we cannot wonder that after the visit of Peter the Great and his suite to London it was suggested that the easiest way to cleanse the palace in which they had been entertained might be to set it on fire and burn it to the ground.