A Russian Village Destroyed by Fire.

THAT Russia’s internal economy presents many weak and backward phases is plainly in evidence in the general lack of an organized system for the extinguishing of fires. I am of course alluding to the rural districts of the empire. No one who has not observed him can form any adequate idea of the primitive and generally unprogressive manners of the typical moujik or Russian peasant. Secluded from the outer world by many natural causes, the village commune is always badly prepared for any event which interrupts its humd:um existence. When such an event, however, takes the form of an outbreak of fire, sudden and disastrous, helpless consternation ensues. It is hardly credibles but nevertheless a fact, that in such cases the minor rural community depend upon some larger and more prosperous neighbor or else fall back on a farcical makeshift of its own. Some years ago I had occasion to visit Russia and was passing the night at a large village of the interior. Just as I was about to retire the quiet gradually settling over the place was rudely broken by an alarm of fire. I naturally mingled with the crowd that gathered in the street before the inn door and discovered that the messenger from a hamlet nearly three miles away had come to beg assistance in the extinguishing of a serious conflagration. The “ department ” at once began its preparations for turning out. As a matter of fact there was no regular personal organization whatever, the fire company being made up of volunteers from the general crowd. The latter, headed by the Pristav or chief officer of police proceeded to a wooden shed on the outskirts of the village. This was the “fire station,” containing three large water barrels mounted on trucks, a coil of ordinary rubber hose, and an antique hand engine of the pattern popular in this country at the time of the Declaration of Independence. The horses were pressed into service from the stable of a wealthy peasant, and when harnessed to the barrel trucks felt quite strange, refusing, at first, to budge an inch. By dint of much coaxing they finally were induced to start on a jog trot. Two men sat in front as drivers, two others hanging on behind. At the head of the line rode the Pristav in full uniform, in his private carriage, followed by the engine, the extreme rear being closed by a motley mob. My curiousity being aroused, l hired a tarantass and followed in the wake of the procession.

When we arrived on the scene, I gazed ion the most pit 1ful spectacle I think it has ever been my lot to witness. We emerged from the somber, silent highway into a fierce blaze of lurid light, in which every object was clear and distinct as in noonday. Several houses had been completely destroyed, and others were in a fair way to meet the same fate. The whole village was built of wood, and every moment fiery sparks were falling upon another roof. The prospect before the unfortunate inhabitants was desperate, and while some made feeble efforts to combat the (lames, the majority crowded in the square, in a state of hopeless resignation. It was a true picture of characteristic moujik helplessness and fatalism. Some had mounted on their haystacks, grasping the hay convulsively, as if they were thus able to preserve it from the flying sparks. Others, more practical, drew canvas covers over their stacks. Men stood around in groups, with lustreless eyes and despairstricken faces ; women, surrounded by weeping children, sat upon heaps of their scanty household goods, hastily removed from the doomed dwelling. The village pope passed from one to another, speaking words of hope, and counseling resolution, lie, poor man, seemed almost as distraught as his flock. One striking figure was that of a devoted monk, who bravely exerted the superior moral influence always wielded by the “ Black ” clergy. He moved calmly through the crowd bearing an icon, exhorting the people to gaze on it and take courage. This monk seemed to effect some good. His beautiful icon, a metal panel depicting the Blessed Virgin, the figure painted on the surface, the face and hands appearing through apertures, was fastened to his breast. As he passed along the people bowed reverently before him, and muttered scraps of prayer.

Meantime it was both painful and ludicrous to see the efforts of our volunteer firemen as they drew water from an old well by an exasperatingly tedious process, laboriously worked the wheezy old hand-engine, and sent their puny stream hissing faintly on the roaring (lames. Excepting the pious monk, almost the only man present who really retained his presence of mind was the 1‘ristav, or officer of police, who, perceiving the hopelessness of the firemen’s task, directed that a gap be made in the line of houses by simply tearing one of them down. The engine was at once abandoned and willing hands went vigorously to work with ax and crowbar. This timely proceeding resulted successfully and saved the remainderof the dwellings, including the church.

A fire is a terrible visitation to the Russian peasant. He is characteristically improvident, living for the hour, and from hand to mouth. Should he lose his home his situation is desperate, cast out upon the world without resource of any kind, and confronted by a future of blank despair. Insurance is a thing unheard of ; the flames have left him almost as poor as he was when he came into the world, and he possesses nothing but the clothes he wears. His helplessness in time of disaster is increased by the unhappy fatalism which dominates his whole existence, causing him to sit down, stare impending ruin in the face, wring his hands, and say there is no use in tighting against dcstinv. I never saw this characteristic so strikingly exemplified as on the above occasion, each detail of which is still as clear in my mind as on the night I witnessed it.

No posts to display