When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

The Battles of the Cherry Orchard

I had more play, when I was a little boy in Russia, than most American boys have, and my play was altogether different. I didn't go to school until I was ten years old, and until that day of wonder—the first day at school—I studied at home and played all over our estates.

My father was a Colonel of Hussars in one of the Tsar's regiments, and he was so fond of horses that even after he had retired from active duty in the army, our stables were never empty of the fleet Arabian steeds he loved so well.

"I can't imagine home without horses," he said one day to Mother, when she suggested that he reduce their numbers, and his stern face, with its long, flowing beard, softened as he thought of his stable favorites.

Father was a noble, of course, for in that time no one could be an officer in the Russian army unless he belonged to the nobility. He also came of warrior stock, and as far back as Russian records go (and they are very old) there was always one of my ancestors an officer in the army. As I remember Father, he was already grey; he had a stern face, with strong lines on each side of the mouth; his soft white hair was long and his flowing white beard reached halfway down to his waist. In public he wore a gorgeous uniform consisting of a brilliant blue tunic, so heavily braided with gold across the chest that it shone like a cuirass, red riding-breeches and black, Russian leather boots, reaching just below his knee. In the house Father wore civilian dress, but both when he went out and when people came to see him, he always wore the dashing Hussar uniform. He never smiled or laughed, and my daughter is always telling me that I, too, seldom smile and never laugh.

"Pahpa," I said one day, climbing on his knees, "if I tickle you, won't you laugh?" whereupon I tickled him, and his brown eyes lit up with humorous twinkles and sparks almost flew from them. But his mouth remained stern and set, although, like all Little Russians, he loved fun and jokes.

There were five of us children. Piotr was the eldest; then Ivan, than whom I, Vladimir, was two years younger; my sister Aniuta; and another sister, who was still younger. In the evenings Father often told us stories of the Russian wars, in which the nobles of Little Russia and of the Cossack country nearby had always participated. I often heard the tales of the cavalry charges of the Hussars and of the Cossacks. We boys were so familiar with the Crimean War that we often enacted in our play the campaigns Father had described so graphically, and he taught us that to be men we had to be brave and stoical.

As I remember Father, he was actively engaged in the management of the estate, which, though it would not have been considered a large one then, stretched over several coombes or small hills of the undulating country of the Podol government.

In Russia the word "government" corresponds to the American word "state"; the Podol government being about the size of Illinois. We had serfs on our estates, so it was necessary to keep them all employed, and although they were given their freedom when I was still at school, I can well remember the numerous families of serfs living and working on our land.

Russian children


My mother also was a noblewoman, and like all women of high rank she had great responsibilities and took her duties as mistress of an estate very seriously. It was for her to superintend all the work of the women serfs: the weaving of the cloth of which our clothing was sewn, the growing of the flax and the preparing of the linen fibres, for all our linen also was made on the estate.

I remember very well that, according to custom, although Mother had dozens of domestic slaves, the making of jam was never left to them, but was the special concern of the lady of the house. Mother was very generous and hospitable, and, consequently, the amount of jam and preserves that was made in the huge home kitchen was enormous. I always took care to know when jam was being made, and, together with Ivan and Piotr, never failed to get my share of the penka or sweet skimmings.

"Volodia," my mother used to say reprovingly, using the diminutive for my name, "you'll turn into sugar if you eat so much!" Even this threat did not frighten me away, and I am still just as fond of sweet things, although it is half a century since that time.

The Podol government was famous for the embroidery which was done first by the serfs, and now by the peasants. It was a part of Mother's duties to superintend the embroidering of both clothing and household linens, which were richly decorated, usually with black and red or blue embroidery. Nothing we had was machine-made.

In addition to this constant urgency of household duties, Mother entertained largely, and in the Russia of that time hospitality implied the invitation of twenty or thirty persons at a time, most of whom stayed for two or three days, sometimes for weeks, and all of whom generally remained overnight. During the shooting season our neighbors came to shoot over our preserves, and Father would visit other estates. Hospitality was profuse all over the country, for the estates of the nobles were large and far apart and they had no one but themselves with whom to associate.

In those days—that was sixty years ago—the houses of the nobles carried out the patriarchal life of early Russia. Our house, like most of them, was only one story high, but it covered a large area, spreading itself out in the shape of a hook, containing many rooms, how many I do not remember. The rooms were large, with stained floors, and they were heated by Russian stoves which were built into the house, and in which we burned the wood cut from the forests on the estate. Although the Podol government is in Little Russia, or toward the southwest corner of the great Russian empire, in winter it was so cold that double windows were put in, and the stoves never went out. The roofs were low and thatched, for, in those days, the modern use of tiles and slates was unknown.

The house was surrounded by chestnut trees and stood at the end of a huge courtyard, all sides of which were built up. Here, on either hand, were the dairies, the barns, the stables and little house of the foreman, who acted as manager of the estate. Just inside the gate, which was guarded by two huge weeping-willows, which I often climbed, and a giant poplar, which I was never able to climb, stood the well. To this the peasants came for their water every evening, and thus the courtyard in front of the "great house" became the general gathering-ground of the serfs. The courtyard was always full of bustle and excitement, and so the weary leagues of land that stretched around us never gave the sense of loneliness that is found in the American prairies.

The whole estate was my playground, but my brothers and I played mostly in the orchard, which surrounded the house on all sides except the one facing the yard. We had almost every kind of fruit, and I remember especially the cherry trees, which were very old and very big, with masses of cherries. When they were ripe, Father used to call in the foreman, Gavrilo, and say to him:

"Tell everybody that they can go to the orchard with pails and get all the cherries they want."

"Yes, Barrin"(Master), Gavrilo would reply, "the cherries are very abundant this year."

The serfs then spent what time they had to spare in shaking down the cherries from the trees, or we boys would climb the branches and shake for the mere fun of sending down showers of juicy fruit on the heads of the devchata or peasant girls. For weeks we lived on cherries, and when everybody had as many as they could preserve, the pigs were allowed to eat the remainder. Mother spent her days during the cherry season in preserving, and as the jars were put on the shelves of our large cool cellar, Ivan and I would creep around to see where they were being stored.

"They're in that corner where Pahpa kept the bees last winter," Ivan would whisper. It was essential for us to know the location of the desired crocks, in order that the raids we contemplated on them might be successful.

Father never allowed the weeds and undergrowth in the orchard to be cut, and every year he had to defend his preference from Mother's attacks.

"The weeds look so untidy from the house, Pahpa," Mother would say with gentle reproach.

"They don't look particularly well," Father acquiesced, "but you know that the best honey comes from the wild flowers. If we cut them, we won't have either the quantity or the same aromatic honey. . . ." Father always won his point, for Mother knew that he loved his bees, and that, next to his horses, he prized his numerous hives.

So the weeds were allowed to grow, till they stood above our heads, and Piotr, Ivan and I used to have exploring and rescue parties in the orchard, pretending that it was a jungle. I can recall that the gooseberry bushes were so high that we used to hide under them and not be seen at all. Raspberries, which grow freely in Russia, we also had in abundance.

On the outskirts of the estate were many elms, not large and spreading like the American trees, but the slighter witch-elms. The boughs of these trees were so elastic and springy that when we climbed on them they bent and swayed like giant fishing rods. Ivan and I were particularly fond of climbing them.

"Vania," I shouted to Ivan, using his pet name, as I swung wildly in the air, "watch me I'm a monkey!" As the bough sprang upwards elastically, I let go, and the spring carried me to the next elm, where I caught another bough, and so we traveled through the wood, making believe it was the forest primeval.

When we tired playing "monkeys," there was the little lake beyond the orchard.

"I'll get there first, Volodia!" Ivan would cry as he ran, rapidly unfastening the only two garments he wore: an embroidered linen shirt and linen trousers.

"No you won't," I would pant behind him, struggling with the buttons; but he was two years older, so I rarely was able to beat him. By the time we reached the pond, which was not far from the house, both were undressed and with a wild cry we leaped into the warm, clear water. We spent a great deal of our time on this lake bathing and swimming, or watching the water, hanging from the boughs of a weeping-willow tree, which drooped so that its twigs touched the surface of the pond. One end was covered with a water plant and looked like a lawn. There I often saw birds settle, and it was only when their feet sank and they felt the water below that they rose hastily with a little frightened chirp.

Wonderful journeys we boys made over that lake. Often we were shipwrecked mariners, stretched out helplessly on the raft, which was one of the lake's chief attractions to us, or sometimes we lay flat on it, heads over the edge, watching the tench swimming in the clear water. Some of them were nearly a foot long. There was a fascination about the teeming life at the bottom, midst the featherlike water-weeds. On warm sunny days the weeping-willow was reflected in the brilliant waters, and for many years I wondered why the tree was there, upside down.

"Is it another tree?" I asked Ivan, as we basked on the raft, very still, so as not to disturb the image.

"No," said Ivan, "it's the spirit of the tree."

Mother taught us to read very early, and we read a great deal. There are very few boys' books written by Russians, but all the great historical writers are in translation. "The Three Musketeers" by Dumas was an especial favorite, and since there were three of us boys, we enacted anew, over and over again, the adventures of d'Artagnan, Porthos, and Aramis. I was always the quick-witted d'Artagnan, resourceful and intrepid; Ivan, with his dreamy, idealistic nature, played the part of Aramis, the true gentleman, and the more gross part of Porthos fitted Piotr. We were all satisfied with our parts, and never changed them.

One day, I remember, it was very sunny and the air was particularly exhilarating. We laid out the plan of a battle royal, and our enemies were the honey-giving weeds in the orchard. With wooden swords we attacked our numerous "enemies" snipping off their heads with dexterous blows. The "foe" made no resistance, so we mowed our way through with shouts of triumph, leaving a trail of ruth behind. We did not notice how the character of our "enemy" changed, and we found ourselves mowing down the tall corn, a field of which was planted beyond the weeds. The "enemy" lay dead around us in hundreds, and when enough of the corn was trampled, flushed with victory, we started off for a cool dip in the lake.

That evening, at supper, Father said to Mother, looking sternly at us boys the while:

"The cows must have got into the corn field this afternoon, Mamoussia (little mother); they must be more carefully herded, for they trampled down a great deal of the corn."

We took the hint. It was generally wise to pay heed when Father spoke, for though kind, he was an army officer and knew exactly what discipline meant. Mother always protected us, but it was not possible to cover all our misdeeds.

Of course we learned to ride horseback soon after we could walk, and except for several of the horses that were reserved for Father, we had the run of the stables. We generally rode barebacked and at a wild gallop along the dusty roads, any peasants that might happen to be near, scattering at the thud of the flying hoofs.

On one occasion—I wasn't going to school yet—a bull that had got away from the herd stopped to watch us as we whirled by.

"Looks ugly!" shouted Piotr.

His warning was too late. The bull, having decided that I was the most objectionable of the party, started after me with his wicked little eyes shining, his horns low and his tail straight out in the air. My horse, maddened with fear, turned toward home, over the fields and through the woods. I was nearly swept off his back several times by low hung branches and my face and hands were scratched with the brambles and briers that switched across me as we tore through the underbrush. Fortunately the gate into the courtyard of the house was open and the horse rushed through it, heading straight for the stable, the angry bull only a few feet behind. Without stopping, my Arab galloped full speed toward the low door, giving me hardly any opportunity to realize my danger.

"Jump—jump—on the roof!' came shouts from the men working in the courtyard.

No one moved.

Instinctively I rose on my knees, half crouching on the horse's back, and jerked myself upwards just as he reached the door. The force with which I was riding threw me up on the low-pitched stable roof, up which I rolled and down on the other side, falling safely on the soft weeds beyond. The straw of the thatched roof scratched me a good deal, and I was bleeding from the cuts and bruises.

A moment later Piotr came riding up and jumped off his horse.

"I'm all right" I said, breathing heavily, but getting up and trying to look unconcerned.

"That ride," said Piotr, in his grave, judicial way, "was just like d'Artagnan's escape from the ruffian spies. I salute you!"