The special interest that every German takes in the welfare and progress of his fellow countrymen in foreign lands, and also the general interest which the German colonies in Russia evoke in anyone that is concerned with the condition of peoples and states prompted me to live for a while in one of the colonies near Odessa. Such a visit, I felt, would enable me to make some interesting comments and at the same time to observe the peculiar character of the different nationalities that populate the steppes. I therefore chose Lustdorf, a friendly German village lying right on the shore of the Black Sea, twelve versts to the south of the city.
As I had already made the necessary arrangements for room and board with the mayor of the village, I mounted my horse one morning, to ride to my summer resort on the steppe. I rode leisurely through the gardens and chutors of Odessa and passed by the "Little Fountain," where people, like the Danaids of old, were ceaselessly occupied with the task of hauling water. After stopping briefly near the Russian hamlet of Fontal to view the garden of a wealthy Greek, I continued my ride past a small Russian monastery and the farm of a prosperous Bulgarian colonist who owned extensive vegetable gardens.
Soon I reached the borders of my German colony of Lustdorf. Just inside the border I came across a beautiful spring, where a plant for washing wool had been established. People told me that for a long time the spring was the object of contention between the monastery and the colony. Both parties had begun a lawsuit which had even been venued to Petersburg, where it was finally decided in favor of the colony. Although the stream was only as thick as one's arm, the colonists were now deriving from it an annual revenue of 500 rubles, for that was the sum the Odessa merchant, who owned the wool-washing plant, had to pay for the lease of the spring.
Night began to fall as my chestnut steed and I finally reached the small liman (estuary) on whose elevated banks Lustdorf is located. I rode up from the seashore and reached the mayor's house where I found two small rooms in readiness for me, and the kind people anxiously awaiting my arrival. The "Gospodin Schulz," as he is called by the neighboring Russians, who have a profound regard for the mayors of the German colonies, was a highly respected, judicious man by the name of Lang. Throughout my stay at his house he was to become my sincerely devoted friend and also my teacher in regard to many interesting conditions existing in this area.
His wife, who was tirelessly busy with the management of the house and the children, proposed to prepare my meals, while the pretty seventeen-year-old daughter Bäbele was to be my waitress and chambermaid. [Bäbele is the Swabian form of Barbara, same as English "Babs".] The mayor's aged mother was also still living, a woman already in her seventies, who had come to this country at the age of forty, and who could therefore still speak the Swabian dialect as purely and fluently as if she had just arrived from the Neckar. After her husband's death she was spending the remainder of her days with her son, mending the clothes and stockings of her young grandchildren, preparing the salad for the kitchen, peeling potatoes, shelling peas and beans and reading the Bible in the evening.
A German traveling through Russia once remarked: "As I approached the banks of the Volga near Sarepta I was struck by the prevalence of the German dialect in this region." Indeed, the heart of a German is thrilled when, after roaming about among all sorts of strangers, he suddenly finds himself in the midst of dear fellow countrymen and the amenities of his homeland, as though he had come upon a small piece of his native land right in the middle of a remote desert.
I felt completely at home with these good folk, who did everything to make my stay with them most pleasant. My room had a sofa, a table and chairs, and the windows were adorned with geraniums and myrtle. On one side I had a view of the small flower garden of my friend Bäbele; on the other side I surveyed the farmyard, where the mayor and I set up a tent that very evening and where I intended to have my coffee the following morning. In my bedroom there was, of course, only a plain bed with a layer of straw, but I soon discovered that it was wonderful to sleep on it.
After I had taken an evening stroll with the mayor through his vineyard and got a view of his establishment, his wife invited me to a snack of Holderküchle and milk which Bäbele had already served in my room. I in turn invited the mayor to share the snack with me, and from that moment on he remained my daily companion and my constant guide on all walks and excursions. Those Holderküchle are a Swabian pastry. The people gather the blossoms of the elderberries that grow by the seashore, dip the yellow umbles into a batter of eggs and flour, bake them in butter, and eat them with sugar and appetite. This we now proceeded to do, and the mayor began to tell me the story of a shipwreck that had taken place last fall and whose sad wreckage--a ship's rump--I had seen on the beach on my way here.
In the course of such and similar stories I spent my first night in the village of Lustdorf, of which I soon grew very fond. It also happened to be a Saturday evening, which has always been my favorite evening of the week. For me, too, it came as a surprise "to hear the German dialect," and indeed in song. For the young German boys sat together half the night and sang old German songs, such as: "Freut euch des Lebens," "Es ritten drei Reiter zum Tore hinaus," and many others which I had not heard for years, and which I certainly would not have expected to hear again on the shores of the inhospitable Pontus.
As I had anticipated, I slept very well on my straw bed (I had lain on harder beds in the Russian post stations), and when my Bäbele opened the shutters the next morning and the Sunday sun streamed through the window and the schoolmaster started to ring the bell for church, I felt so at home that I reached for my steaming coffee, enjoyed one cup after another in good German fashion, and then took a stroll through the village.
When the village was first established, the colonists had given it the name "Kaisersheim." However, when Duke de Richelieu came riding into the village one day and pondered the name, he deemed it inappropriate that his name should have been selected for no special reason and without the approval of the Czar. He therefore requested that another name be chosen, and the colonists agreed to re-baptize their village by the name it still bears. [Duke de Richelieu, a French émigré, was governor of Odessa and governor-general of "New Russia" from 1804 to 1816. He spoke German fluently and was acclaimed "Father of Odessa".]
The houses in the village are all nicely constructed of a soft conglomerate of limestone. All have only one story, spacious rooms, and green shutters on all the windows. All are kept neat and tidy. To be sure, Lustdorf has a special need for larger rooms, since suitable accommodation is required for the numerous summer guests that come to enjoy the sea-baths. The progress of the colony is evident from the fact that in the thirty years of its existence the interior of the houses has been renovated for the third time.
In the beginning the government had provided the settlers only with reed huts, in which they practically froze to death in the wintertime. Following the example of the Russians, the colonists soon began to dig themselves into the ground and build adobe houses. Finally, when their situation improved and they had become more well-to-do, they built the present handsome houses. The same development took place in the other German colonies that I had the opportunity to visit.
The houses are situated on both sides of a broad street, and each house is surrounded by a spacious yard. In the rear part you find the unroofed threshing plot and the uncovered skirte (long stacks) of grain, hay, and straw. Behind these stacks are located the vineyards, orchards, and vegetable gardens. The village street is lined with two rows of beautiful acacia trees, and at the gable end of every house there is a small, well-tended flower garden, the care of which is always in the hands of the older daughters of the family. Decked out in their pretty Sunday clothes, these girls were now standing at the stone wall distributing larkspur and gillyflowers [carnations] to their favorites among the lads of the village who were sauntering down the street and jesting with the girls.
When the schoolmaster sounded the second bell, the mayor's seventy-year-old mother, with a sparkling white bonnet on her head and a white apron over her blue cotton skirt, came out of the house to go to church. As I accompanied her on the way she hold me that it took a long time and cost many a life before the colony achieved the prosperity I was now witnessing. During the first period of settlement the hardships had been great, and she was now one of the few that had survived those storms. Most of the German immigrants had, in fact, perished before they were even able to take possession of the land that had been granted them. Even the trek to Russia had been a terrifying experience. It lasted two summers and one winter. One party had come down the waterway of the Danube. They had fared worst of all, for at the delta of the Danube malignant diseases had broken out among those immigrants, and a large number of them were carried off.The other parties had come by way of Vienna, Moravia and Galicia, and after staying in the last-named province the entire winter, they continued their trek through Podolia. In the beginning all the women had been terribly frightened of the Russians, and even now she could not help tremble a bit whenever a Russian visitor comes unexpectedly into the house. There was also much fear of the Turks who, at that time, were still in possession of the west side of the Dniester. Indeed, the poor womenfolk suspected that every vessel that appeared on the river might be a part of the piratical Turkish fleet.
"The worst thing," added the mayor, who was walking along with us, "was the fact that the immigrants had found practically nothing prepared for them on their arrival. To be sure, the land was there, twenty-five desjatin for each of the forty families who were to be settled, but the available dwellings were so wretched that the colonists had to dig themselves into the earth, like the Russians. Moreover, the plows given to them were such sorry contraptions that when put to use the plowshares bent like tin. To make matters worse, the colonists really had no idea in what latitude they were now living; some even thought that the land belonged to Podolia. Nor did they know when to start work in the fields, when to sow, when to reap, whether to fertilize, or indeed what to plant and sow. The Russians, whose language they did not understand, were unable to enlighten them on these matters. Therefore, the more well-to-do among the settlers hired Russian farmhands and let them manage the farms and fields as they liked. The best food was set before them and they were almost regarded as sacred persons. People were often heard to say: "For goodness sake, let's keep the Russians contented, for on them our whole welfare depends!" The poorer settlers simply imitated the example of the well-to-do and their Russian servants, sowed and planted when they did, etc. In due time the situation changed in a twofold respect. On the one hand, the Germans not only soon learned what was needful and proper, but with their hard work and their ambition to improve themselves, combined with the greater knowledge of agriculture already gained in Germany, they were soon able to improve their farm implements and farming methods to such a degree that the Russians are now often heard to exclaim: "Tak i njemtzi sdalajut!" (That's the way the Germans do it!). On the other hand, those that were formerly well-to-do now belong to the poorer class, whereas those that had practically nothing to start with are now the most prosperous in the community.
This process was repeated in all the colonies, and the cause of it was that the rich always relied on their Russian servants and squandered their money on them as well as on their unsuccessful enterprises, whereas the poor gained useful experience without incurring any losses. Indeed, in relying upon their own efforts, they had learned more and learned it better.
The schoolmaster, a native Swiss, read the sermon rather poorly, but I was nevertheless edified, for the association with a group of people for religious purposes is always uplifting. However, I believe that church affairs in the colonies are not in their best condition.The best preachers from Lithuania and Esthonia, which supply most of the preachers in the Russian interior, do not like to come this far, even though the clergymen in the colonies are not badly off. They get 120 desjatines of land and a fairly good salary.
Since many Germans are scattered through all of Russia, the Lutherans have a certain number of superintendencies throughout the country, just as Russia (as a whole) is divided in many gubernias (administrative districts), or the Greek church into several eparchies. In every larger city there is a parish with its own preacher who at times is also the superintendent of a large area extending over several gouvernements, and is therefore responsible for the supervision of religious services in the German colonies. Oftentimes the preachers come into conflict with the colonial authorities who resent their influence and place all sorts of obstacles in their path. Hence it happens that many colonies do not engage a preacher, and the church remains in an obvious state of neglect. Often the schoolmaster takes over the functions of the pastor, although on occasion a visiting missionary from Basel may stop over at a colony.
In the course of several walks among fishermen, shepherds, and colonists I gained a much clearer understanding of this area and its people. And so the first days of my sojourn at Lustdorf were spent with many informative talks with my friend the mayor, with some innocent banter and jesting with my cheerful Bäbele. I even came to her defense a bit against her mother who claimed that the girls born in Russia were less inclined to work as hard as those from Germany, and yet I found that the girl was quite active. However, the care-worn spirit of the German women, their restless, ceaseless activity, their unflagging drudgery and worrying--this, to be sure, tends to disappear among the Russian-born girls, and for that reason all the daughters here find themselves in opposition to their mothers. I found some fault here with the mothers who, in almost German fashion, get so involved in work that they miss the joy of living. Actually, I liked the balance of German diligence and Russian ease which I detected among the young people of the colony. It was very instructive for me to compare German housewives with Russian ones, and I could not help marveling at the striking difference in the character of each ethnic group. It seemed obvious to me that not a single exemplar of such a busy worker like the mayor's wife (and I found many others of her type in the village) could be found among the 50 million Russians, nor could such a lively product be derived from the stuff of which the Russian national character is baked.
In my opinion, there is no cause to fear that the poor management of Russian households, their customs, and language will soon replace the German way of life in the colonies. The Germans are massed together here in large numbers, almost always they marry their own people, and the Russians are not permitted (by colonial law) to settle in the colonies. They still dress in the German fashion; only the winter fur coat has been adopted--because of the climate. The Swabian dialect is passed on from father to son. Russian, which of course they must learn for business reasons, is spoken only with Russians. To be sure, some young German sons, and especially some of the poorer people, have defected and established themselves outside the colony where they became Russianized, but they are comparatively few. Most of the people who find no means of livelihood in the rapidly rising population of the colonies move to the cities, where many good opportunities are open to their industry and ambition, and where they again find German communities that preserve the German spirit through churches, schools, and other associations.
In point of fact, the superiority of the Germans over the Russians is, in many respects, so great that whenever the two nationalities come into conflict it is not surprising to see the German come out on top. The German thinks, the Russian does not; the German works and forges ahead; the Russian gets stuck and easily goes backward. The German even cheats more thoroughly than the Russian, who despite his wily chicanery is invariably the dupe in the end.
Also the physical character of the Germans has certain advantages over the Russian. If the latter is more versatile and resistant to wind and weather, hunger and thirst, the German in turn is more vigorous and robust. This is apparent even in the everyday petty conflicts--I mean the fights that take place between Germans and Russians--in which the latter are invariably the losers. A German fist is not afraid of two or three Russians, and a lone Russian will never venture to oppose a German, man to man. For the ethnologist I could adduce some interesting stories and observations the upshot of which is that "German blows," as Schiller already noted in his Fiesco drama, are feared as much here as they are in Italy. Pisse Njemetzi, "Devilish Germans!" the Russians shout at us, when a German comes driving along in his heavy, ironbound, chain-clanking wagon, and they make way for him because they have already discovered that in the event of a collision their own wooden cart will get the worst of it. For all these reasons the German colonist is far more feared and respected by the local Russians than he is hated, as has been falsely stated in a recent newspaper article on the German colonists in Russia. The Russian is far too conscious of the superiority of the German, to leave much room for hatred.
However, while we are discussing scrapping and fighting, we should not fail to admit that the Russians resort to this disgusting activity far less frequently than the Germans. In this regard I have heard my countrymen use expressions that are quite unknown to the Russians. On hearing them, I could not help blushing for my nationality, and the more pacific and conciliatory character of the Russians appeared to me in beautiful light.
Often enough the Germans scrap and fight until the blood flows. The Russians, in contrast, poke each other a bit on their thick fur coats, and the matter is settled. To be sure, the poor Russian is accustomed to getting more blows than he delivers, and thus it is not merely his greater love of peace but also his lack of independence, just as it is not merely German coarseness but also the feeling of greater independence. However, even in the raising of their children I found the Germans much more apt to resort to physical punishment than was the case with the Russians. The outcries of the vigorously beaten children could be heard through the villages all day. The Russians live much more amicably with their children and they caress them more often. On the other hand, it must be observed that the Germans pay much more attention to training and discipline than is the case in Russian families that are often completely wild and unruly.
In regard to the young children I also noticed that the German children appeared less neat and clean than the Russian ones whom I always found very tidy and proper. Even the grownup German women and men did not appear to have as much personal cleanliness as the Russian mujiks. It is, however, very difficult to make general judgments about cleanliness. One nationality is more particular in this respect, the other in that. The German women work a great deal and can therefore not always appear very attractive. Hence, on workdays the women, with their wild flying hair, give one the impression of just having emerged from the sheer despair of their household drudgery.On a Sunday, the day of rest and leisure, the situation is altogether different. Then the spic-and-span German woman definitely had the advantage. In point of fact, it is characteristic of the various classes in Russia that no very great difference can be noticed between their Sunday attire and their workaday clothes. The numerous feast days make it impossible to celebrate all of them in special holiday attire, and for the Russians the weekdays are not workdays or business days to the extent that special clothes are necessary. Everything flows together in a rather chaotic way.
My Bäbele, who brought me flowers every morning from her garden for my breakfast table and found my humorous company quite congenial, had of course other admirers who took her more seriously. She was much sought after, for she was the prettiest girl in the village and the daughter of a man who held a most respected position and stood in high regard and frequent contact with Germans, Russians, and Greeks in the neighborhood as well as in Odessa.
Of her admirers, one was more richly endowed with emotion, the other with rank, and the third with money. The sentimental one was a young farm lad of the village; the man of rank was a Cossack officer; and the man of means, a young German who was the owner of a wine tavern in Odessa. The sentimental one called every evening and there was chatting, laughter and teasing. The Cossack rode up to the house a couple of times, drank a glass of wine with the girl's father, ogled her from a distance, and then one fine day came right out with a proposal of marriage. He told the mayor that he had known him for some time and had also become acquainted with his daughter Bäbele (actually he had never spoken a word to her), and that he was well pleased with her diligence and good behavior. He admitted that he had only a rather poor house and a small salary, but he did possess rank and title, two medals, and a silver cross. At present he was the owner of three horses and was planning to buy a kaleska, a buggy. He would, therefore, like to ask for Bäbele's hand. She would, he felt sure, do a fine job of housekeeping and on Sundays she could go out for a buggy ride. The mayor poured him another drink and suggested that the matter could be discussed some other time. The suitor, having gotten the mitten, mounted his steed and rode off.
The tavern owner from Odessa came out to the village every Sunday--the deep vexation of the poor sentimental one--and asked permission to take Bäbele to a dance. The parents were decidedly in favor of him, and Bäbele too was willing. The only point that created a feeling of apprehension was the fact that this suitor had a shock of flaming red hair. I, for my part, would have liked to see the girl remain in the village and, for that matter, would have gladly granted her to the smart village lad. Since I had also made an issue of the red hair, I now began to fan the flames even higher so as to increase their repelling force, although I gradually began to doubt my success. The matter was decided shortly before I took my departure from the village. The glitter of the gold won out, the aversion to the golden hair was overcome, and before I left I had to congratulate Bäbele on the happy event that declared her the fiancée of the redheaded wine-seller from Odessa, and cast the poor village lad into the pit of despair.
The first longer excursion that I decided to undertake with the mayor was into the neighboring German colonies and to the mouth of the Dniester Liman. One fine morning at five the mayor's son Jakob hitched up a pair of bays and climbed on the buckboard of a Hungarian farm wagon, of the type which several Hungarian-German colonists had introduced into all the German colonies here. The mayor and I took our places in the rear on a layer of straw that was covered with a pretty multicolored Russian blanket. Our way took us first along the small, narrow peressip of the village liman. It was completely dried out; only here and there on its cracked and scarred surface thin layers of salt were to be seen. After crossing the broad terrain that lies between the shore and the elevated steppe, we proceeded upon the long, wide peressip of a much larger liman that always holds salt water, but breaks out into the sea about every ten years. It was the Suchoi Liman, as our map indicated. Its water is strongly salinated and contains several varieties of sea fish. On its banks we also saw countless heaps of seashells.
More interesting were the human settlements on its shores. These were so numerous and so charming in their scenic setting that I imagined I was at one of the small lakes in Holstein. The liman, which forms a connected mass towards the sea, divides into two crooked arms farther inland to the north. In the foothills of the forked area lay a large German colony, with attractive church and handsome houses, named Kleinliebenthal. To the right of this village lay the large village of Alexandrovka, which is inhabited by Greeks. On the left stood the Russian hamlet of Burlaktschi Balk, "Valley of the Rogues," and at the apex of one arm the Malo-Russian village of Suchoi Liman. Besides these settlements, there were several fishing huts along the shore, and the estate and country house of the Countess Potocki.
The sight of so many settlements really came to me as a surprise. I never encountered a similar scene on the steppes. On the peressip stood a long row of fishermens' huts and between the villages herds of cattle and horses moved about. Enough variety of people and occupations to give us food for thought as we rode along the narrow ridge between the liman and the sea, enjoying our cigars. About midway on the long ridge, the mayor suddenly said: "Jakob, halt's mol an, de Pferde woll'n sich a Mol verschnaufe!" (Jakob, stop a while, the horses would like to catch their breath a bit.) I thought to myself that life is not made that pleasant for the poor Russian horses, for a Russian never stops to worry about what his horses want or do not want.
The "Rogues' Village" got its name in the old days when marauding bandits lodged in every ravine and at the mouth of every river. Now these places are inhabited by Russian tillers of the soil. And yet only a few years separate us from those earlier times in this region. One must marvel at the magic power which the Russian empire has exerted on the civilization and cultivation of these vast wastelands. No matter how far we go back into history, we encounter nothing but wild, plundering hordes of nomads. But here before our eyes we now find a picture of peaceful, busy settlers. It would indeed be difficult to find any better ones in those lands that have been cultivated since the dawn of history.
Our way took us through the Greek colony of Alexandrovka. It was founded in the days of Catherine the Great, who had settled a group of unhappy Moreitoses here. The people were now all Russianized and spoke Russian much more fluently than the German colonists. They had also adopted most of the Russian customs, lived in indolence, and squandered their money in the taverns. They are inefficient farmers and even though they received much more generous grants of land from the Empress than was allotted to the Germans--depending on his rank, each Greek settler received eight to ten times more--they are now all in debt to the two neighboring German colonies. The latter find time, after having worked their own fields, to cultivate the fields they have leased from the Greeks. Indeed, the latter will often lease their land ten years in advance, in order to obtain ready cash. After the money is squandered, they eke out an existence in their wretched huts. The difference between the outward appearance of their village and that of the German colonists is that between night and day. Everything is in a state of unsightly decay. There are no trees and no gardens. The village church also had the same dreamy aspect. Instead of a bell they simply hooked up a piece of scrap iron on which the blows of a hammer called the community together. With sad thoughts we drove on.
After a long drive across the Greek steppe we again reached German terrain--the fields and gardens of the large colony of Grossliebenthal, which is also the administrative seat of the entire German district and the headquarters of the chief mayor. Ten other colonies belong to this district, six of them Evangelical and four Catholic. In the Odessa region of "New Russia" there are four such districts, each with its chief mayor: Liebenthal, near the mouth of the Dniester; Kutschurgan, farther up the Dniester; Glückstal, to the east of Odessa; and Beresan to the northeast. These four districts have about 25,000 inhabitants and, like other Russian colonies, are subject to the so-called "Colonists' Welfare Committee" in Odessa, of which the president is a Russian general. All matters coming before this Committee are conducted in Russian, although all the officers also understand German. For every district there is an inspector who serves as an intermediary between the colony and the Committee. He is generally also a Russian, but the mayors are of course Germans who are elected by their own communities. The same is true of the chief mayors and also the village and district clerks. In each village two men are elected as "burgomasters" to assist the mayor in his work. An adjutant of the mayor, known as the village beadle, assembles the townsmen to the regular meetings by ringing a bell through the streets. Those colonists who fail to appear are liable to pay a fine.
In addition to the colonial districts already mentioned, there are several others in South Russia. Over 30,000 colonists are settled in Bessarabia, 50,000 near the Sea of Azov, 5,000 in the Crimea, and 5,000 in the Caucasus. The most prosperous of all these German colonies are those on the banks of the Molotschna River, near the Sea of Azov. Some farmers there have herds of 20,000 sheep, and the colonists live in very attractive homes.
All the colonies in Russia are regarded as distinct class, and when a colonist on the Volga [River] or in the Caucasus is punished for some crime, the deed is also made known on the Dniester. They are also interested in one another in other ways, for instance when preachers from the Crimea are transferred to Bessarabia, or schoolmasters from Sarepta on the Volga come into the southern colonies. Adventurers and beggars from Germany sometimes roam from colony to colony. Occasionally, also some practices and customs spread from one colony to another. We have already mentioned the Hungarian farm-wagon which is to be found in all the colonies of South Russia. I should, indeed also mention the cattle from the Molotschna, which all the South Russian colonies are trying to introduce.
To be sure, the colonies in the different regions of this vast empire did not all obtain the same amount of land grants and government loans. As a rule, those in South Russia received sixty desjatines (162 acres) of land per family, and a so-called "advance loan." This loan usually consisted of two horses, two cows, two oxen, a few farm implements, and a small sum of money. The sixty desjatines of crown land are regarded as indivisible property for which the colonist proprietor pays taxes, which at present amount to fourteen rubles. All the German colonies in Russia probably pay a total of 2 million rubles per year to the imperial treasury. The original land grant, it should be noted, may not be divided among the sons through testament, but several families may live on it, if they can secure a livelihood. Nor may any of the land be sold without the permission of the government. Every district is held responsible for the tax payments of all its settlers, and also for the long-term repayment of the advance loans.
The increase of the population in the German colonies is commensurate with the great expansion of population in the Empire as a whole; perhaps it even grows faster. Thus, the small colony of Lustdorf had 208 people at the time of the census of 1815. In the census of 1835, there were 357 people, not counting those that came into the colony from elsewhere. If one adds the nineteen that moved away, we find that the population had doubled in twenty-five years. Similar results are indicated in the lists that I saw in other colonies. On one-half of the original homesteads two or more families are now living. Moreover, every year many families move away to the city. In Lustdorf one-sixth of the population has already moved to town. The younger men that can find no livelihood in the village often settle on some land that well-to-do fathers have purchased for them, somewhere among the Russians. Sometimes the landless sons became dessiatintschiks, namely renters that have leased a few dessiatin from some Russian nobleman. They build a sod house and work the land as long as they like or until they have saved enough money to buy property of their own.
To what extent the German colonists can thrive in this country is evident from the following example. A Mennonite in the Molotschna, though he came as a poor man to this country, has become so prosperous through his hard work and enterprise that his property today is valued at 2 million rubles. He owns a herd of 20,000 sheep whose wool contributes in no small way to the flourishing commerce of Azov. I was also told of other colonists that owned 12,000 sheep and 7,000 head of cattle. To be sure, there are also many poor people, but there are no beggars or uncared-for indigents to be found in any of the German colonies. All this is, of course, not solely due to German industry but also to the favorable conditions in which they are placed. It is easy for the Germans to better themselves among the Russians.
In point of fact, every German farm establishment on the steppes is generally superior to that of the Russians. The Germans are the only inhabitants of the steppe that have developed effective means against the depredations of the grasshoppers. They also have been the chief exterminators of the snakes that formerly infested the steppes. When there is a famine in the land the Russians come to the German colonists to obtain some of the surplus grain from their granaries. The colonists cultivate the idle fields of the neighboring Greeks and other indolent peasants. They are never in arrears with their taxes and invest their capital in useful enterprises. Hence a German colonist was led to tell me with justifiable pride: "If the Czar were to come to this district, he would have to acknowledge with joy that we Germans have been largely responsible for the cultivation of the steppes." As a matter of fact, when Alexander, while passing through the Molotschna on his final trip to Toganrog, surveyed the thriving German colonies, he cried out in astonishment: "Children, we really don't need to travel to Germany anymore. We have more than Germany right here in our own empire!"
The houses in the colony of Grossliebenthal were on the whole very attractive and in good condition. Less so, the gardens, which were full of weeds and thistles. In truth, gardening is not making much progress in the colonies of the steppe. They were actually in better shape in the earlier years. On the one hand, farming and the raising of livestock are really more productive, while on the other hand the difficulties of gardening are too great. The gardens on the higher levels of the steppe were particularly drab and desolate. Those located in the valley were still in good condition and of such impressive size that I could not help marvel that so much has been achieved in the short period of thirty years.
Every house has its well and its fine spacious cellar. Because of the hot summers, these cellars are dug to an astonishing depth. I found it most fascinating to observe how the people store the milk to keep it cool. There is a broad staircase with numerous steps. In the early spring the milk is placed on the top-most step. As the days grow warmer it is set several steps lower down, in the beginning of the summer still lower, and finally during the greatest heat, it stands at a depth of twenty-five and more feet.
Since we did not find the chief mayor at home, we called on the district clerk. In the offices we found everything spacious, neat, and even elegant. We then took a look at the communal sheep ranch, the community garden and vineyards. Every district owns certain communal property: a large orchard, a vineyard, a sheep ranch, and a fishery. From the proceeds of these various enterprises a communal treasury is set up, from which the needy or those that require capital for some useful enterprise can obtain a loan against the necessary security. We have here actually a kind of loan bank of the type which some of the noblemen back home established in several areas. These community treasuries provide good services, especially in lean years. In the treasury of this colonial district (comprising ten villages) there were cash assets of 300,000 rubles. The other treasuries of the district were in similar good condition, for the Fire Assurance Fund amounted to 197,000 rubles and the Widows' and Orphans' Fund amounted to 160,000 rubles. Thus, the total cash assets for the ten villages was 650,000 rubles. I think this is brilliant enough.
We stayed for the night with the district clerk, who had a very charming house and was indeed a man of status, married, with a nice income of 400 thalers, and, as I soon discovered, the real manager of the district. During the evening we discussed a hundred topics relating to the colonies and the steppes: snakes, grasshoppers, Mongolian mounds, agriculture, etc. We finished with a discussion about egg production and came to the surprising conclusion that the hens of the steppe lay twice as many eggs as the German ones. In Germany a hen lays no more than sixty eggs per year, while the hens here lay 120 and more.
The next day we drove through many other German colonies: Alexanderhilf, Freudenthal, Petersthal--all of which lay in a row along the valley of the Baraboi, a small insignificant stream that was now completely dried up, except near the villages where its water had been collected into stavoks, ponds. This construction of ponds is a common feature throughout the steppes of the Ukraine. Every landlord and every village builds a dam of earth across the river bed, to contain the water. A channel with sluice gate and bridge-crossing is provided to take care of the overflow in the spring. The man-made ponds are called stavoks, and every stream of significant size deposits its water in a larger number of such stavoks. In this way, water for washing clothes and watering the livestock is obtained.
The colonies of Petersthal and Freudenthal are the most prosperous in this area. They are inhabited by Hungarian Germans, that is, by Germans who had originally settled in Hungary and later emigrated to Russia. In Freudenthal we visited a colonist who had such a splendidly furnished home that it would scarcely be surpassed by the richest peasant houses in Switzerland. In the spacious living room we saw the finest furniture, even a large, beautiful grandfather's clock for which he had paid 200 rubles in Odessa. In the bedrooms stood the most enchanting beds, with white curtained canopies, and everything else in the house was likewise well furnished.
The preacher of Freudenthal, who is also the Evangelical Superintendent of all Russia, was, regrettably, not at home. He is said to be a very original character, and completely devoted to his farmers. Indeed, he is himself a big farmer and hauls his cattle, his wheat, and his kirpitsch (dry manure) to the markets in Odessa. He is said to have done much to improve agriculture in the colony, which, to be sure, can still stand a lot of improvement. However, as long as the grain flows abundantly into the farmers' hands, improvements will be rather slow in coming. A big farmer here usually loses as much grain on his threshing floor as a small peasant back home can manage to harvest. The threshing floors are simply open surfaces on a level patch of hard-packed earth. An unexpected rain often soaks the grain that is spread out on the floor, where it is completely ruined, because with the rapid germination that takes place it begins to sprout at once. An enormous amount of grain is also lost to the ducks and chickens that have a splendid feast, and much is also trampled and destroyed.
Threshing, which for us back home is a perspiring job for even the toughest worker, is here just mere child's play. Two or three wagons are hitched up, the young boys climb on the buckseat, their sisters and neighbor's children pile in the back of the wagon, and they drive round and round over the grain that is spread out on the threshing floor. In Freudenthal I was shown the strangest threshing rig I have even seen--a Bulgarian one. It consisted of several boards set together on the same plane, curved in front like a sleigh runner and studded on its lower surface with numerous flint stones. The Bulgarians around here drag this threshing sled over their grain, but I could not rightly understand how the kernels were thereby separated from the ears.
From Freudenthal we drove westward to the Dniester. As we came into the valley of its tributary, the Kutschurgan Liman, we saw before us two broad terraces on which large herds of livestock were grazing. These belonged to the Russian village of Majak which is located about five versts above the Liman. Its inhabitants are so-called Raskolniki, that is to say, "Old Orthodox" Russians who in earlier times had left their fatherland because of its opposition to their faith and settled in what was then Turkish territory.
Since it was getting late in the day, the mayor suggested that we ought to stay overnight in the village with one of the families he was acquainted with. Just as the Scythian troglodytes in the time of Herodotus, so the native Malorussian of the steppes lives in a semlanka, a sod house. Indeed, there is every likelihood that his primitive type of dwelling is still much the same as it was in antiquity. Certainly, the building material is the same.
Because of the cold in winter and the heat of summer, but particularly because of the lack of timber and wood, the steppe dwellers conceal themselves and their dwellings halfway in the earth. They excavate a cellar three to four feet deep and according to the dimensions of the proposed house. Three beams of equal height are then erected on the south elevation, one at each end and the third in the middle. A horizontal beam, called the swolok (Durchzug), is placed over them to serve as a ridge pole. From the ground level on the north side a sloping roof of reed and turf is laid out to extend as far as the ridge. Seen from the northern approach, such a house looks deceptively like a slight elevation of the landscape. On the sunny side, a wall of earth about four feet high is erected and a couple of pieces of glass inserted into it to serve as window panes. From this side the house gives the impression of being in the process of sprouting from the earth.
The entrance to the semlanka is provided by the peressinja, an enclosed stairway leading from the ground level to the subterranean floor of the house. At each end of this passageway there is a door, to keep out the heat as well as the cold.
Our prospective host gave us a very friendly and hospitable reception. No sooner had we expressed our desire to be permitted to stay overnight, when everyone began to provide for us in the very best way. The young son put our horses out to pasture. The wife and aged mother of our host set about to prepare a supper for us in the summer kitchen.
After having seen the primitive exterior of the semlanka, I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself in such a comfortable and attractive room. Outside it was very hot, but down here it was delightfully cool. The air was fresh and fragrant, for the clay floor was strewn with grass and the walls adorned with bunches of aromatic herbs. Everything was so neat and tidy that one cannot sufficiently praise the Malorussians in this respect, compared with the Great Russians and the Poles. Pretty, quaintly colored quilts covered the benches and a number of plump comfortable pillows lay on the beds. The windows had gay curtains and the walls were adorned with brightly printed wallpaper and several little mirrors. But nothing was more prettily decorated than the holy icon that hung in a niche in one corner of the room. The niche was bordered on three sides with small silver-edged curtains and on a painted shelf below it lay a profusion of offerings, fruits and flowers. In front of the icon hung a silver lamp that was kept burning night and day. The whole thing seemed like something that had been set up for the children as a surprise on Christmas Eve. What a childlike simplicity of faith must animate the hearts of these good people!
As we were chatting through the falling twilight the finest supper began to appear on the table: borscht soup, lentil pottage, egg omelet cake, and the best milk in the world. Borscht--the national dish of the Malorussians--is a treat for anybody, especially in the summertime. Every conceivable kind of delicious, savory herb and vegetable gets into this soup: sliced beets, parsnip, kummel [caraway seed], parsley, purslane, thyme, leek, etc. The base of all these ingredients are lentils and a chunk of mutton, while the common element in which everything swims is a sourish kwas, the well-known national beverage of the Russians. To each bowl of the steaming soup the diner adds a portion of cool thick cream.
The good people wanted to give us their own bed for the night, while they proposed to sleep in the yard. But we requested that they simply spread some straw for us in the adjoining vacant room, and there we had a good, if brief, night's rest. The next morning, just as the sun peered over the high grass of the steppe, we sat down for a light breakfast of tasty white bread and fresh milk. As our wagon rolled out of the yard our kind hosts send along a thousand good wishes: "Dai Bog wam starowie!"--God give you good health! God grant your body and soul happiness, salvation, and well-being!"
My last days in Lustdorf were spent visiting with all kinds of people, with colonist, gypsies, shepherds, and horse herdsmen. I also made a last longer excursion--this time to the towns of Ovidiopol and Akerman, near the mouth of the Dniester. But as I gradually noticed that the sources of new ideas and the fountains of new information were beginning to flow rather sparingly, I found myself thinking of some new region to visit. So I packed up my writing materials, took leave of my excellent host, wished my Bäbele a sweet life with the redhead from Odessa, and bade farewell to these good people. As I rode back to the city, I began to look forward to my projected excursion to the Crimean peninsula.