About the beginning of December the ordinary monotony of Novgorod life is a little relieved by the annual Provincial Assembly, which sits daily for two or three weeks and discusses the economic wants of the province.* During this time a good many lauded proprietors, who habitually live on their estates or in St. Petersburg, collect in the town, and enliven a little the ordinary society. But as Christmas approaches the deputies disperse, and again the town becomes enshrouded in that “eternal stillness” (vetchnaya tishina) which a native poet has declared to be the essential characteristic of Russian provincial life.
* Of these Assemblies
I shall have more to say when I come
to describe the local self-government.
THE TOWNS AND THE MERCANTILE CLASSES
General Character of Russian Towns—Scarcity of Towns in Russia—Why the Urban Element in the Population is so Small—History of Russian Municipal Institutions—Unsuccessful Efforts to Create a Tiers-etat—Merchants, Burghers, and Artisans—Town Council—A Rich Merchant—His House—His Love of Ostentation—His Conception of Aristocracy—Official Decorations—Ignorance and Dishonesty of the Commercial Classes—Symptoms of Change.
Those who wish to enjoy the illusions produced by scene painting and stage decorations should never go behind the scenes. In like manner he who wishes to preserve the delusion that Russian provincial towns are picturesque should never enter them, but content himself with viewing them from a distance.
However imposing they may look when seen from the outside, they will be found on closer inspection, with very few exceptions, to be little more than villages in disguise. If they have not a positively rustic, they have at least a suburban, appearance. The streets are straight and wide, and are either miserably paved or not paved at all. Trottoirs are not considered indispensable. The houses are built of wood or brick, generally one-storied, and separated from each other by spacious yards. Many of them do not condescend to turn their facades to the street. The general impression produced is that the majority of the burghers have come from the country, and have brought their country-houses with them. There are few or no shops with merchandise tastefully arranged in the window to tempt the passer-by. If you wish to make purchases you must go to the Gostinny Dvor,* or Bazaar, which consists of long, symmetrical rows of low-roofed, dimly-lighted stores, with a colonnade in front. This is the place where merchants most do congregate, but it presents nothing of that bustle and activity which we are accustomed to associate with commercial life. The shopkeepers stand at their doors or loiter about in the immediate vicinity waiting for customers. From the scarcity of these latter I should say that when sales are effected the profits must be enormous.