When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

The Days of the School Tyrant

In my childhood there were no schools with primary classes. Admission to the gymnasium, which corresponds to the eighth and ninth grades of the American school, the high school, and the first two years at college, was only secured by the passing of an entrance examination at about the age of ten. Accordingly, we had to receive all our preparatory training at home. This system has since been changed, for there are now two preparatory classes for children under ten, so that they can prepare their entrance examinations at school, instead of at home.

It was the custom among the nobles to keep a resident tutor for their children, as a member of the household during the period of preparation. My parents, however, could not afford this expense, for our estate, though ample, was not large, in comparison with Russian estates, and it took good management to derive sufficient income from it. We lived a long way from any city, and there were no transportation facilities.

Thus it followed that my two brothers, my sisters, and myself were given our preparatory training at home first from Mother, who made time to superintend our studies, in spite of her numerous household duties. Mother was a highly cultured woman, speaking several languages, and was a musician besides. Batiushka, the priest on the estate, did his share in teaching us. We were required to learn elementary arithmetic, grammar and composition, our prayers and the catechism.

Every morning, for at least two hours, we studied. Father's military ideas prevailed on the question of time, and nothing was allowed to interfere with our educational routine. I was always impatient of my morning lessons, for I wanted to be out-of-doors in summer, climbing trees and swimming; in winter, skating and battling in the snow. Of course I knew that I had to pass the gymnasium examination, so when I was in class I applied myself to my work. Both Mother and Batiushka were strict, and while the range of studies we took up was not large, it was very thorough. Batiushka was gentle and we were quite fond of him, but his quizzes are still to be remembered. Batiushka, which, as I said before, means "little father," was the title by which our tutor-clergyman was known. Every priest is Batiushka to his flock, for he is regarded as the father who takes care of them all. Our Batiushka, whose small church and house were quite near us, always wore cotton trousers, tucked into high boots that reached to his knees, with a long coarsely-woven cassock, that reached from his chin almost to his ankles. Neither his hair nor his beard ever were cut, according to the rule of the church, so both were long, and his hair hung down his back in straggling curls. Besides his visits to the schoolroom, he was a frequent guest at our house in the evenings.

When Batiushka came to instruct us in the catechism and prayers, he had to teach us a new language, and this added a great deal to our labors for the gymnasium entrance examinations. The Russian Bible and all the prayers are written in Old Slavonic, which is so old a form of Russian that it is different from it in many ways. The words were different, and even the letters were shaped strangely, but we had to learn to read it fluently from the original text. This meant much work and study, far more than I ever wanted to do, but Mother was always ready to help us, for it would have been a terrible disgrace had any of us failed in the examinations.

When, at the age of ten, I went for my examination, my excitement was great, and when it was known that I had passed and was actually entered as a pupil in the first class, I felt that I was quite grown up.

At last came the day when I was to leave Luka-Barskaya to go to the gymnasium at Nemirov, a small town in the same government.

"It's quite a long drive," explained Ivan to me, as we drove away in charge of the coachman, Stepan, "but I'll show you everything, and you won't mind being away from home a bit. I didn't, when I went."

Nemirov, in 1858, when I went there for the first time, belonged to a very old Polish noble, Count Felix Pototzky. He had given the necessary funds for the building of the gymnasium, which was only accessible, in those days, to the sons of the nobility and privileged classes. No provision had yet been made for the education of the serfs, though to-day vast efforts are being made to give opportunities to the peasants.

I remember Count Pototzky as an old man, always heavily scented, who held a prominent position at the Court of the Tsar. Consequently, he spent his winters in Petrograd at the Court, and his summers in his Palazzo in Nemirov. This was a mansion surrounded by a wide park, in which an orchestra played on fine evenings, and which was open to the people of the town, who went there in large numbers. The park was traversed by many flower-bordered alleys that meandered among the green lawns and glades of woodland. When Ivan took me around, the first thing he showed me was the playground next to the gymnasium.

"Count Pototzky has given all these things, too," he explained, showing me a bewildering array of swings and nets. "See those nets, spread above the ground? Well, those are for jumping on, this way," and I found myself alone, while Vania jumped like a monkey on the large nets, spread over a great distance, that bounced him up into the air like an elastic ball. I did not need much encouragement to join him, or to learn the use of the swings and giant strides.

The houses in Nemirov were mostly built of wood with thatched straw roofs, and nearly all of them were surrounded by huge gardens. In summer the streets were so dusty that we traveled to the gymnasium through clouds of dust, and we fancied ourselves a company of hussars on the charge.

In winter-time the mud was so deep that we had to wear high boots, and I still feel the delight with which Ivan and I used to wade into the middle of the street, where the mud was deepest. We played that it was lava from a volcano.

These high boots were almost universally worn in Russia, both by children and by grown-up people, partly because it was a custom, and partly because of the deep mud on the streets of provincial towns. The boots are still worn, although there has been a vast improvement in the condition of the roads.

We reached school at nine o'clock in the morning and were not let out until three o'clock in the afternoon, with only an allowance of half an hour for dinner, and recesses of ten minutes between lessons. Many of the boys brought sandwiches for dinner, but Ivan and I used to race home, for the house where we boarded through the term was not far from school. Ivan was a better runner than I, but that sharp trot every day through dust, or mud, or snow built up my wind amazingly. Almost the only exercise we had during school term was that which we undertook for ourselves, for we had none of the school sports that are so wide-spread in England, and—to a less degree—in America. We had a large courtyard in the school, where we played ball in summer. One of our favorite games was lutka, which is the Russian name for baseball, played similarly to the American game, except that we had no coaching or training. Another game that absorbed us was stenka, a kind of handball, except that we played it without rules, and very much as we pleased. In winter we waged battles with snowballs, which were so fierce that the teachers did not dare show themselves in the yard for fear of well-aimed "bullets" hitting them.

The work at school was hard and the conditions under which it had to be done were more than unpleasant. We were treated almost like convicts, and the teachers handled us just as they pleased.

"Hey, you, porridge-eating beetles! Keep quiet! Silence!" would shout old Volkovsky, our teacher of arithmetic, when we became too noisy. But we did not stop.

"Ha! Whew!" he would spit on the floor, then get up from his desk.

We all knew that if old Volkovsky got up for any other reason than that of going to the blackboard, we were going to have trouble. Immediate silence reigned the silence before a storm. With bated breath, not daring to move, we waited for the hurricane to descend on some one of us. Suddenly a blow would whizz through the air, and we turned in time to see the head of one of our comrades banging helplessly against the desk, as old Volkovsky hit the culprit.

Teacher Gishman, who taught French and German, used a ruler as a means of corporal punishment. He always called out four boys at a time for questions, and made them stand in a row before him.

"Vinegar?" he asked. If the answer was not instantaneous, he passed on to the next.

"Quicker—you—you!" When all had failed, he shouted: "Give me your paws, you scoundrels."

"Es-sig" he hissed between his teeth as his ruler came down on the hand of the first boy.

"Es-sig" he repeated with acerbity, as he raised the ruler on the next boy. When he had finished, the four boys returned to their seats with red faces, while four new victims, with pale faces, were called out. After his lessons our hands were swollen and red, as if we had been playing two of our favorite ball games, stenka and kasha, after which our hands often were so swollen that we could not bend the fingers.

Our reading teacher, Antonikovsky, found vent for his temper in an entirely different way.

"You, pig's ear, read," he commanded, poking the boy thus addressed in the back.

"You dirty snout, sitting next to the pig's snout, repeat what I said!" and the boy at whom his finger was pointed was compelled to repeat the words. He had a perfectly marvelous imagination, and there was little repetition in his epithets, for he always invented new ones. When he lost his temper he used to catch the culprit by the ear and squeeze very hard.

I cannot deny that we made so much noise that we could not even hear ourselves talk. When recess was announced, I remember one of the boys, Cherkassky, jumping up on a bench, and stamping hard with both feet, shouting, "Pe-reme-na!" "Re-ce-e-ess I "We would take up the cry in different tones, and the teacher, with his fingers in his ears, hurriedly left the class room. Suddenly, amid the hubbub—like a bomb—Overseer Korssun entered and grabbed all the boys close to him by the hair. We dodged, like sheep, the blows that were showered on us.

At intervals Inspector Delsal arrived in the class room, followed by the janitor, Ossiatovsky, with a bunch of rozgi or rods, and placing a stool in front of the benches, began whipping the noisy ones.

The state of affairs in the gymnasia of Russia had become a national scandal, and efforts were made to reform these conditions. A year after my entrance into this atmosphere of continuous abuse and corporal punishment, the system was entirely changed, after which we were never abused and whipped, although the spirit in the gymnasium was anything but peaceful. The rough discipline, however, taught us boys a few things. It taught us to combine against the teachers, and many a bitter practical joke was played on them, not slight jests, but affairs that were flavored with revenge and hate. The seeds of hatred toward those in power were sown at school. We had heard rumors of the coming change, but not even the most sanguine of us believed that the Pirogoff reform would be as sweeping as it was. The masters were ordered to treat the pupils with respect, and instead of the raucous "you" or even insulting epithets, they were required to address us by name with the prefix Gospodin or Master. This shows how utterly the point of view had changed. It was a marvelous reform, but it was too sudden.

After the trusteeship of Pirogoff, to whom every one of us owed a debt of gratitude, Baron Nicholas obtained the position, and having been brought up in the schools of the old style, he believed that rough handling led to manliness. He tried to restore the old system, but this was impossible. We had learned that school could be managed without brutality, and the effort to force it on us again led to revolt. The feeling between the boys and the masters became even more bitter.

At this time an insurrection broke out in Poland, which, once having been a great and important kingdom, has always been impatient and resentful of being merely a Russian province. The Poles were anxious to shake off some of the hardships imposed on them by Russia, one of which was the refusal of the government to allow Polish in schools. In Nemirov, most of the nobility were Polish, while the peasants were katzapi or Little Russian. The Polish noblemen organized themselves and their trusted followers into a militia which used arson as a weapon. This caused the Russian government to take strong measures to crush the rebellion and prevent further burning of houses.

Nemirov became an armed centre, the streets were filled with soldiers and every house was watched. The officers searched all the homes in which they suspected the presence of revolutionary literature. It was a very exciting time, and the political unrest permeated our schoolrooms, where most of the boys were sons of Polish nobles, with a minority of Little Russians. I remember seeing gendarmes or police peeping into houses through the cracks in the shades in an effort to find evidence of incriminating activities.



That vacation, when Stepan came to drive us three boys home, he was frightened.

"Piotr Karpovitch," he said to the eldest of us, "the people are attacking all the Pani (nobles)."

"But we're not Polish Pam, we're Russian," answered Piotr in bewilderment. Nevertheless, we had to get home, so we started on our eventful journey.

To reach Luka-Barskaya we had to pass about ten villages, and at the very first one, trouble began. As we approached, some of the peasant guards closed the village gates, thus barring the road, while others, with clubs in their hands, rushed out of the guard-house, shouting:

"Stop!" at the same time catching the bridles of the horses.

Our horses, frightened by this unusual treatment, lurched from side to side, with their heads thrown back, whereupon one of the guards used his club on their heads to quiet them down. This only increased their panic. Meanwhile the rest of the guards, having closed the gates, began shouting and demanding our passports. Until these were produced and read to the satisfaction of the men, who now realized that we were Russians and not Poles, there was so much abuse and noise that we were almost deaf.

Had this happened only once we might not have felt the journey so disturbing, but the same scene was repeated in the following three villages. We were already beginning to think that we would get home with nothing worse than abuse and noisy demonstrations, when we reached a larger village, where the guards were apparently even fiercer.

"Stop!" yelled the guard, daring to point his bayonet at us.

We stopped, but the horses, now driven to a panic fear, began plunging wildly from side to side, dragging the carriage with them.

"Stop!" yelled a chorus of armed guards, running up to the swaying carriage.

But the horses would not stop. A roar of orders issued from the men and some of them made a rush at the carriage, with their clubs raised, while others did their best to terrify further the already panic-stricken horses. A one-sided battle ensued, in which the guards belabored the horses, and battered the carriage with peasant stupidity, seeming to think that it, too, was responsible for the disobedience of orders.

"What do you want, you fools?" shouted Piotr vainly through the deafening tumult. "We're Russians!"

But his words were drowned in the yells of the men, to which was now added the furious barking of a dozen fierce village dogs.

"Your passports," yelled the attacking guards, ignoring the fact that Piotr had held them ready for several minutes. One of the guards came forward through the struggling mob, when unexpectedly there was a sharp crack, and the carriage listed to one side. The shaft was broken.

A sudden silence fell over the whole crowd when it became apparent that damage had been done. Arms that had been brandished were dropped, the ringleaders, who had been so domineering and valiant a moment before, pulled off their caps and stood shamefaced. Like boisterous children, who have done something wrong, they hung their heads, silenced, confused and back to the tame obedience of the servile peasant. The man with the bayonet hastily grabbed the passports.

"We didn't know who you were, Baritchi (masters)," he said, glancing guiltily at the broken shaft, around which a few of the men had gathered. "We'll see what we can do to fix it up for you."