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Russian Isba -

Russian Isba at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

The Russian Izba.


What is this charming wooden construction that looks like a Swiss chalet?

If we come closer, we can easily recognise the Russian Izba by its walls, which are made of large beams that fit into each other with deep notches at each end.

To prevent air, wind and snow from getting in through the narrow gaps that necessarily open up between the beams, they are caulked like the hull of a ship and the interior is lined with smooth, shiny boards that conceal their nakedness; then these boards are painted in various shades and decorated with borders that do not always show the painter's first-rate talent, but which amuse the eye even when they would not charm it.

Before entering this double building, we will first describe its exterior.

The Izba is composed of two houses, connected one to the other by a sort of shed, the tops of whose doors are sculpted.

One of these houses is reached by a staircase of four steps, which, with a fine balcony and fine columns, supporting a wooden canopy, like everything else, forms the prettiest terrace in the world.

A lace of openwork ornaments crowns the top of a pointed roof, decorated with two horses' heads. Each door and window is surmounted by carved capitals with elegant shutters.

The other house does not have a ground floor terrace. Instead, an artistically carved balcony extends in front of its first and only floor, while the roof boards above form a kind of canopy that shelters it from the rain, the swirls of snow and the rays of a sun that has no time to lose.

We do not know whether this plank roof will be painted, like that of most Russian Izhas, in yellow, red, or green; it is still untouched by the paintwork which produces such picturesque effects in the steppes and in the middle of birch forests.

All this provides a rather graceful whole, but still lacks life. They are children's toys seen through a microscope. But come the fine days and we shall look with more interest at these houses which will then, according to Russian custom, be lined with vases of flowers from top to bottom of their facades.

It will then please us to populate by thought the terrace with the frail columns of a group of fresh Muscovite peasant women with their richly braided sarafane, their canvas shirt cut on the chest and their white arms sparkling through the muslin of the wide sleeves! The pavoïnik embroidered with gold will be closed on the head of the married women whose hair it jealously hides and open on that of the young girls, whose long braids adorned with ribbons are left to float freely.

To complete this picture, a few muggiks will mingle with the group of women: the old men wrapped in large caftans of cloth buttoned from the chin to the feet, and tightened around the body by a silk belt of various colours, sometimes spangled with gold; the young men with soft boots up to the knee, a red shirt, stapled on the left side (of the chest, floating over the baggy trousers and held at the waist by a black velvet waistcoat.

Perhaps we shall see one of these peasants wearing a flared felt hat, trimmed with flowers or peacock feathers, sitting aside; he will pluck a few discordant sounds from the strings of a rude little guitar, then he will swing his head with the nonchalance of a child who is rocking himself, and will sing half aloud, to a melancholy and monotonous tune, one of those interminable national songs which celebrate the poetic beauties of the snow and the winter.

In this way we shall know the mougiks, those fanatics of brandy and St. Nicholas, as if we had made the journey from Moscow.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée