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Russian Houses

Missing picture

The Izba, being only the peasant's thatch, gives no idea of the dwelling of the merchants and the nobility. A single room usually makes up the dwelling of the muggik and his family, as they all gather to sleep on the huge stove that heats the house.

In the home of the great lord, on the other hand, the number of rooms is singularly multiplied; and one has to pass through a score of salons to reach the chamber of the lady chatelaine. It is true to say that beds are considered in Russia to be quite eccentric furniture: almost always these salons are furnished and even cluttered with sofas and couches, so that they can serve as bedrooms for friends, relatives, neighbours and family guests.

However, the largest of these rooms is the one where the daily receptions take place, and it is distributed in various very distinct parts that are called establishments.

Here, it is an elegant mahogany cradle, all tangle of ivy, honeysuckle and other climbing plants, whose roots plunge and snake in small boxes filled with carefully watered vegetable earth. It is illuminated by a lamp hanging over a table around which several people are having tea or playing either cards or lotto, for the Russians love gambling as much as dancing, that is, to fury.

Further on, a Chinese screen envelops and hides a group of conversationalists lying in soft armchairs. In the middle of the salon, other visitors are sprawled out on a mountain of down cushions called the pâté.

In one corner, a few girls laugh, embroider and whisper to each other, munching on sweets. The other corner is abandoned; it is the one where the Russian stove rises, this architectural monument of earthenware bricks, which from the floor rises to the ceiling and spreads a gentle heat, equally delicious in the interior of these houses which are enveloped by a cold of 25 to 30 degrees.

The rigidity of the atmosphere is forgotten, thanks to the regulated temperature of the flat. There are no closed doors: the warm air must circulate everywhere and you can move from one room to another without any painful transition.

Also see all these women walking in summer finery among the flowers, which are fresh and fragrant, as if the Naples sun were caressing their corollas. Flowers! flowers! they are the supreme luxury, they are the passion, they are the charm of these icy regions! by dint of roubles and industry, they succeed in overcoming nature. Every hotel has a greenhouse; some even have a real flowerbed, luxuriant with plants, in the middle of which stretch and curve flowery paths bristling with artificial rocks from which water cascades in an ever-gushing stream.

The Russians who created these marvellous winter gardens are therefore right to say that they see the cold, because they do not feel it.

A Frenchman, M. Brochay, who established a wallpaper factory in the vicinity of Pefersburg about forty years ago, introduced the fashion for this kind of decoration, which is becoming more and more widespread among people of average means.

However, many old families, especially in the provinces, have remained faithful to the old custom of covering the walls of each room with a layer of red, blue, green, or yellow, and of having a garland of flowers and fruits of the imagination run across this plain background; these arabesques form a border which at least has the merit of originality, for the models for them cannot be found in nature.

Let us not forget, before leaving Russia, the Orthodox emblem which is everywhere the Palladium of the home, for rich and poor alike.

Only the image, coloured in the Byzantine style, is nowadays relegated by the people of the world to the back of a rarely visited room. The Panaggia (the Virgin) no longer has the honours of the living room transformed into a chapel, as in the past, while she still occupies the first place in the home of the mougik.

But everywhere, in the lordly house as well as in the Izba, a small crystal lamp, suspended by a metal chain, shines day and night before the Holy Virgin. It is to her that the mougik naively turns, not only before starting his work and his meal, but also before or after all the acts of his life. His faith and tenderness for the Panaggia, whose smiling and gentle eyes watch over him incessantly, can only be compared to the devotion of the southern Italians for the Madonna.

The mougik will not cough or sneeze in front of the image without greeting it with a sign. If he beats his wife, you can be sure that he has asked or will ask permission from the Panaggia, who is too merciful to ever think of upsetting him in his tastes and habits.

Let us hope, however, that one day she will forbid him to get drunk during the seven days of the week with the most execrable brandy in the world!

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée