Island Democracy in the Caspian

A PORTION of my six months’ sojourn in the government of Astrakhan was devoted to a tour through the fisheries of the Lower Volga and the Caspian Sea, and it was in preparing for my trip southwards that I became acquainted with a family whose name is a “ household word ” throughout the Russian Empire. Not to ally the Sapozhnikofs with the rise of the fishing industries in Russia would be well-nigh as unnatural as to dissociate the Rothschilds from the history of banking in Europe. Yet the reputation of the firm at Astrakhan is as intensely local in some of its aspects as it is wide-spread and cosmopolitan in others. Successive members of that firm, among them the earliest contributors to the prosperity of the place, have left marks upon the annals of Astrakhan that cannot soon be effaced nor forgotten. Nor is it for so-called enterprise — for the good always done by the right employment of capital — that the firm is best remembered by the “ metropolis of the Caspian.” It is a repute for a kind of philanthropy not at all common in these days that seems to have been most easily won by the Sapozhnikofs. They were the first among Russian industrial firms to bestow pensions upon workmen after a certain length of service, and they have long insisted on providing wedding dowries for the daughters of their employés. By far the larger number of their benefactions are unknown and incommunicable, because of the secrecy with which the firm has always sought to guard its simple and natural impulses from misconstruction ; yet some of the deeds which have created its popularity in Astrakhan are of much too public and historic a character to be easily suppressed even in the interests of modesty. One of them carries the local memory back to an unusual spring rising of the waters, many years ago, when the Volga, having broken through its natural barriers, began to spread and threaten the dwellings of a number of peasant laborers. Hundreds of workmen had been hurried up to repair the breach, but the earth cast into it was as quickly washed away by the fast-rising flood. At this juncture, the Sapozhnikofs, without feeling their interests jeopardized (save in a truly humanitarian sense), at once threw open their extensive stores, and directed the workmen to use their flour in arresting the inundation. Thousands of bags were carried down to the breach, and there piled up into a solid wall, against which the waters broke in vain. The flour, of course, perished, causing to the Sapozhnikofs a loss of nearly half a million of roubles ; yet the Volga was beaten back, and the poor laborers’ homes were preserved from destruction.

It was through M. Alexander Alexei Sapozhnikof, its youngest member, that the firm received my first call in Astrakhan. I found a fine representative of that modern type of young Russia which is now leaving its impress upon the contemporary history of the fatherland. I mean by this that I met a young man of charming manners, a cosmopolitan by education, travel, and sympathy ; one who liked nothing better than to know foreigners and exchange views with them. Alexei Alexandrovich conversed with me in English, which he spoke with Russian correctness. His knowledge of languages was still further shown by the French, German, and Italian books — newly arrived, some of them still uncut— that lay on his library table. What most impressed me in this enlightened young millionaire was the great simplicity of his character, the ease and gentlemanliness of his demeanor, and an utter absence of that snobbery of wealth which sometimes gives such offensive odor to the possession of money, in the countries which the commercial spirit has claimed for its own.

Our interview ended in Alexei Alexandrovich inviting me to pay a visit to the fisheries of the firm, on the island of Iskamin, reached in twenty hours of steaming from Astrakhan. On the following morning, I received a note informing me that the screw-boat the Two Brothers would be at my disposal at seven o’clock the same evening, in case I decided to begin my trip at that hour. I accepted the offer without delay, and at the time named found a handsome, newly painted steamer awaiting my arrival, near the Sapozhnikof quay. My host, who had strolled down to wish me a pleasant journey, briefly introduced me to the captain, and politely committed the vessel and its crew to my direction. A steward thereupon showed me the way to the cabin which had been set apart for my use. A brightly polished samovar hissed on a central table, as we entered a room as snug and comfortably furnished, I am ready to aver, as any ever prepared for ocean traveler since steamships began ; and such was the effect of an open door, permitting a glimpse into the larder, that in ten minutes I was ready for tea. Half an hour later, I went on deck, and found myself afloat on the Caspian Sea, autocrat, as it were, of my own little craft, and journeying rapidly southwards twixt two twilights : on the one hand, the vanishing lights of Astrakhan ; on the other, the dying glow of a September day.

Soon after sunrise, next morning, I had my first view of the isles of the Caspian. Some of them are mere spots of green girdled by the blue sea ; others present their sandy tops to the sky for miles. But all have been built by “Mother Volga,” with the sediment of which that venerable lady has been despoiling the Russian earth for so many centuries. In the larger maps of this little-known territory the islands depend from Astrakhan like a bunch of grapes clinging to its parent stalk ; yet to the naked eye, harvesting its own knowledge, they seem thrust apart by waters as wide as the Neva or the Thames, the distance between some of them almost equaling that from horizon to horizon. A generous climate and a tender sky, the one recalling Southern France, the other suggesting Italy, are Heaven’s dower to all these marine oases ; and they flourish, from the Volga’s mouth to the Wolf’s Tail, with a perennial prosperity that is none the less wonderful because it is unknown in countries far away.

Here in the deeps of an inland sea, isolated alike from the worlds of the East and the West by the liquid rim of the Caspian, are the homes of populations more remarkable, perhaps, than any that have yet been produced by the civilization of a modern state. Scattered over a hundred islands, and not numbering more than a few thousand persons, this ideal community lives a life of complete indifference to all that may be happening on the mainland. Its men and women are born, live, work, and die without caring to see more of Russia or of human existence than that which can be glimpsed from their own or some neighboring islet. New ideas, as they are called, never penetrate into regions like these, yet it has been here given to a simple fishing population to solve the problem of individual rights whole decades in advance of the socialisms of Europe and of the West. No law is here needed to maintain the repute of the community in the eyes of the world, nor is force, public or private, relied upon for immoral services in the interest of moral ends. A policeman is never seen ; the very function of judgeship seems to be unknown amongst the people. I hardly need add that there has not been noted for years, in these favored spots, the faintest suggestions of vice or of crime.

Some of my readers may perchance wonder by how much diligent church work or missionary enterprise such immunities have been purchased. Plentiful as are churches in Russia, I saw none in the islands of the Caspian. The priest is as rare as the policeman. It is true that church ceremonies are occasionally necessary, but the ecclesiastical dignitary to perform them must be brought from territories afar off. Strangest of all is the fact that the passport system, enforced throughout the mainland, is here so relaxed that “ papers ” are not asked for ; there being, in reality, no one to demand them. A semblance of authority may be found in the personage known as the fisheries inspector, but his duties concern the submarine rather than the overground population.

The real cause of this ideal state of things is to be found in the simplicity of the aims and lives of the people. In this one little corner of the world, at least, there is no struggle going on for the possession of wealth. Classes of rich and poor remain unrepresented by the faintest signs of social differentiation. The inhabitants seem equally well to do, and all labor, without exception, to satisfy only the simplest needs of existence. Pitiless competition is yet a stranger, for the work is constant, and the population varies little in number from year to year. Food is incredibly cheap, at a price menaced by no monopoly or tariff law : indeed, the fish diet upon which the people subsist almost exclusively has been said with truth, comparative if not absolute, to cost nothing. Nevertheless, it enters not into anybody’s head to take a selfish advantage of the smallest of such favoring circumstances. The hearts of these toilers have grown great in their constant battle with the sea, and it is out of mutual sympathies, not from disintegrating hates, that their wonderful democracy — compound of Russian, Tatar, and Calmuck — has drawn its simple virtues, its unconscious greatness, and its cohering strength.

Iskamin itself — fairly representative of the group — is an island about three miles in diameter; partly dotted with sand-hills, or bugri, near the point of debarkation, on the west falling towards the water in a gentle slope of green. Most of the houses were visible within easy distance of the pier ; further inland, a few domiciles alternated with Calmuck kibitkas, or the wooden huts of some Tatar agriculturists. Having pointed out from the deck these signs of civilization, the captain escorted me to the place selected for my sojourn while on the island, — a small country house of two stories, built on rising ground, and commanding, from a balcony, a view over the larger part of Iskamin. The cook had preceded me, I was informed, and ere I could fairly take possession of my apartments a young man came forward to state that he had been requested to watch over my comfort, to provide me with such amusement as the island afforded, to make me as familiar as I cared to be with methods of fishing, and to accompany me in whatever direction I needed his society or his help.

On the day following, I allowed myself to be conducted to the fisheries of Iskamin. Our first visit was paid to the large wooden building in which fish, having been received from the boats, are opened, salted, and packed in barrels for transit. Work had been temporarily suspended, but we found nearly two hundred young women standing together at the end of the shed (almost every face turned inward), chanting Russian songs. The spectator’s first glance fell upon the rosy cheeks and bright eyes of the group ; his next rested on the masculine picturesqueness of their attire. Each wore loose-fitting, white linen trousers, a short jacket, and a head-dress consisting of a large colored handkerchief, carried over the crown and tied beneath the chin. Sometimes the girls sang in unison ; at other times solos were given, the singer exhausting her memory and vocal resources before yielding place to her neighbor. Of the gestures indulged in, there was one in which the whole group took part ; it consisted of a swinging, balancing motion of the body, the feet being carried alternately to the right and left.

All at once an immense barge was seen approaching the landing-place. The singing broke off abruptly, the group dissolved, and in the twinkling of an eye each girl had taken her seat at a low stool, provided with a small table. The worker was then seen to be armed with two implements : one a sharp hook set in a handle, the other a keen-bladed knife. As soon as the fish have been unloaded, a heap of them is placed near each stool. Using her hook, the girl catches up a fish, and, dealing with it on the table before her, slits it with the knife in three places from head to tail, a dextrous final movement discarding the entrails. Each fish, after being treated in this way, is thrown upon a second heap, for salting. Another worker thrusts salt into the longitudinal slits left by the knife, and then deposits the fish in a barrel, for final exportation. Frequent repetition has given to both operations a rapidity which makes it somewhat difficult to follow them. An expert worker is said to be capable, even with allowance made for long stoppages, of opening two thousand fishes in a day.

The girls who open fish work “ by the piece,” receiving at the rate of a rouble a thousand, in a part of the Russian Empire where the laborer is better off with 1s. 6d., or thirty cents, per day, than is many a West European artisan paid five or six times that amount. The salters, on the other hand, receive a fixed salary, determined by their experience and capacity. Work generally begins at six o’clock in the morning, when there is light at that time ; but the length of the workingday is often extremely irregular, since it depends on the success of the fishing operations, the state of the cargoes, and other variable circumstances. To save a newly arrived load of fish from putrefaction, it is occasionally necessary to work throughout the night.

From the vataga thus described I was escorted to a prettily decorated pleasure-boat, lying close to the pier. Six Calmuck rowers, rendered picturesque alike by nature and art, pulled us rapidly from Iskamin. In an hour the islands had fallen behind, and the Caspian, in all its blue and rippled extent, lay peeping at us over the last sandbank to the south. A barge-like vessel, without bulwarks, resembling many of the Finnish craft seen in the Neva, had been moored near the bank, and on its deck we saw twenty Mongol figures turning a rude wooden capstan. From the capstan a line ran into the water, on the surface of which it was stretched in an immense circle, fully half a mile in circumference. The Calmucks turned their capstan with deliberate slowness, by a series of impulses that carried each man forward no more than a step at a time ; all chanting, meanwhile, a weird song full of effects in the minor key, — now suggesting triumph, now lamentation. They were dragging in the " floating net,” and we had arrived at the spot in time to follow the operation from beginning to end. The net, by means of weights at the lower, and floats at the upper, extremity, is made to hang like a wall, which completely surrounds the circular mass of water around which it is carried. In recovering the meshes, the two ends of the net are gradually drawn out in such a way as to continually diminish the space inclosed, and yet prevent the escape of the fish. When the circle has been at last narrowed until it has a diameter of no more than a few feet, it is seen to be alive with fish, which are then taken out by hand, to be deposited in boats for removal. But the ultimate yield of the throw by no means represents all the fish originally shut in by the stretching of the net. So ineradicable is piscine love of liberty, and so energetic is the abhorrence of these intelligent creatures for human tormentors, that hundreds of the inclosed fishes fight their way out of the trap long before the brawny arms of the spoilers can be stretched out to seize their victims. A sterlet, finding its activity circumscribed by a “floater,” will retreat a hundred yards or more, and then, going forward with the speed of an ocean steamer, will often cut its way through the stoutest net, leaving in it a gap often several feet in width. Nor are smaller fish daunted when the meshes prove too strong for them. Not a few escape by burrowing into the muddy bottom below the lower rim of the net. But by far the larger number discover the narrowing walls of their prison when it is too late.

Numerous restrictions limit the use of the floating net, but their aim is to increase rather than lessen the destruction of piscine life. One of them, for example, prohibits the taking of sturgeon until the fish have returned from their spawning places in the delta of the Volga. A fine of fifty roubles is the penalty imposed for use of the floating net in the open sea. Upon “ sleeping nets,” on the other hand, few restrictions are placed. They consist of hempen meshes supported by stakes driven into the sea or river bottom. A modification of this net is used for winter fishing, after apertures have been made in the ice. With the “ pocket nets,” — so called from their shape, not because of their diminutiveness,—upwards of forty thousand fish have sometimes been taken at a single throw. Two boats are necessary for successful work with the pocket net. From the prow of one of them the head fisher thrusts his spear into the water from time to time, alert to give the signal on the approach of a shoal of Caspian herring. This fish, which is somewhat larger than the English herring, was formerly known to the people as the beshenka, or “ mad fish ; ” for years nobody would eat it, the herring being valuable solely on account of its oil. But owing to the efforts of the Fishery Commission, under the presidency of M. de Baer, it was formally naturalized as aliment, and to-day the consumption of it has attained to dimensions literally enormous. Caspian herring, I ought to add, undergo a special preparation in brine. They are deposited, with large quantities of dry salt, in capacious vats ; the brine undergoes liquefaction, and the herring are kept saturated with it for months. The duration of the salting process depends upon the kind of the fish ; the quantity of salt used, upon the season. In the case of certain varieties, saturation for six days suffices ; sturgeons are kept in the vats for six months. A barrel of the Caspian herring, containing about a thousand fish, may be purchased in the vataga for about 22 roubles ; that is to say, $11. A single sturgeon (belouga variety) has been known to weigh as much as 150 puds, or 5400 English pounds. The ordinary size of the fish is represented by about a third of this weight, that is, 50 puds ; the proportions and cost being,—head, 10 puds (360 lb.), 50 roubles ; caviare, 5 puds (180 lb.), 350 roubles ; remainder of carcass, 45 puds, 600 roubles : in all, 1800 lb., for $500. In the seasons of open navigation, fish of all kinds are usually sent up the Volga in barges or steamers specially constructed for the purpose, either packed in brine, or alive in large tanks, to which the river water has free access. Only the sterlet and some other expensive varieties are transported to their destination alive.

The subsidiary industries more or less closely associated with fishing in the Caspian and Lower Volga seem to have been extensively developed during the past decade. The older inhabitants of the islands remember when much caviare was thrown away, and when even the waves could not dispose of it rapidly enough to prevent it from becoming dangerous to human health. In places vast deposits of it arose above the surface of the water, like islands of guano, to putrefy in the sun. To-day the demand for caviare as an article of food is larger than ever, and is steadily increasing. To Western Europe alone 15,000 puds (540,000 lb.) are annually exported. It is also worth noting that while more sturgeon are caught in one year than were taken in two a decade ago, the price of the roe is steadily maintained. The choicest caviare, that which is fresh from the fish, is of a light brown color, and costs about two roubles a pound in the Russian capital. Treated for exportation, and then known as ordinary pressed black, caviare brings about a rouble per pound, wherever purchased in Russia. The best caviare is that prepared from the roe of sturgeons caught between the 8th of July and the 15th of August. At other times, the process has fewer conditions in its favor ; in some cases, the quality of the caviare is so deteriorated by excessive heat and carelessness that a pud (36 lb.) of the article is worth not more than from three to four roubles. That exceedingly palatable fish, the sterlet, furnishes by far the best caviare known to gourmets, yet it supplies the delicacy in quantities so small as to exclude sterlet caviare from the market as an article of commerce. Caviare for European consumption is yielded almost exclusively by the sturgeon ; yet Greek merchants purchase the roe of much inferior fish, convert it into a highly complex kind of caviare, and then export it to Constantinople, Athens, and other cities of Turkey and Greece.

Changes in the fishing industries of the Caspian often remind one of those vicissitudes of agriculture that suggest resort to lands formerly deemed unworthy of cultivation. I have already spoken of the late employment of the Caspian herring as as an article of nutrition. The river lamprey has also attained with tardiness to popular favor. It was first taken for its oil, and was for years used, dried, as a torch by the Cossacks (whence probably the widespread fable concerning the “ candle-eating ” Russians). A thousand lampreys yield about eight pounds of pure, transparent oil, worth three roubles per pud. Recently the fish was introduced into the market as an article of food, and so popular has it become that the demand seems to be exhausting the supply quite rapidly. Another example of this increased utilization of everything utilizable in fish is furnished by the improved methods which have been devised for the preparation of isinglass from the sturgeon. Nevertheless, it still requires a belouga of immense size to supply a few ounces of isinglass, and the price of the article stands very near the old cost of one hundred and fifty roubles a pud ; that is to say, about two dollars per pound. Some years ago, at the Cossack village of Samyani, a surgeon invented a process of making isinglass from the scales of fishes, and did actually sell his product, alleging that two pounds of it were worth a pud of the material prepared in the ordinary way ; but there has been no following up of the experiment on a large scale. The long-suffering sturgeon goes on yielding, in addition to its own flesh, not only caviare and isinglass, but also the veziga which enters so largely into the composition of the fish pies eaten by the riparian populations of the Volga and the Caspian Sea. Veziga is the spinal cord of the fish, washed and dried, and the people pay for it at the rate of about half a rouble a pound. Five pounds of veziga represent the yield of a thousand sturgeons.

In acquiring such information as this I spent two days in and about the Sapozhnikof vatagas, and was at last glad to pass from salting - rooms and icechambers, from slippery walks and an atmosphere odorous of fish and brine, to the green slope along which, on its uninhabited side, Iskamin looks across a strip of water-worn sand to the sea. I passed hours of every subsequent day somewhere in this verdant three miles of leaf and shrub ; wandering in and out of Calmuck tents ; swinging in Tatar hammocks to the lap-lap of the Caspian, the dry chirp of the cicada ; or lazily watching the incessant war of fish and bird on the bone-strewed marge between those rival kingdoms, once the battleground of the fang and the beak. I remember being awakened from one irresistible doze by a flap of wings, and on starting up I saw, dabbling in the shallow water ten yards distant from me, a splendid flamingo, right royal in movement and stature, of dazzlingly white plumage, tipped here and there with wondrously delicate rose. A murderous instinct (the legacy of all men properly linked with their ancestors) swelled within me to kill this beautiful bird, — an instinct which, on analysis, I found to be less, perhaps, a selfish decision by appetite as to which of us should pick the other’s bones than a wantonly human excess of what the physicists call “ energy of position.” I was tempted, at any rate, just long enough to feel, with Heine, that the passion for killing game is an affair of the blood, not of education ; yet having left my gun behind me, I could not fairly claim the credit of any moral decision in the matter. The flamingo himself, with a distrust of my species evidently much older than his years, formally refused to regard me as an exception ; for when I clapped my hands to acquaint him of my nearness, he rose precipitately into the air, and in a few moments was lost to sight.

The companion of most of my wanderings in Iskamin never failed to dine with me, whatever might be our separate arrangements for the day. Here I must confess that, with the exception of bread, vegetables, and a few dainties, including caviare, my diet on the island was wholly fish. Beef is phenomenally cheap in Astrakhan, but the cow is rarely seen in Caspian territory, nor do the insular populations display any marked fondness for the other animal foods. The prevailing sandy character of the islands does not favor stock-raising, yet the true cause of the local abstinence from meat is the luxurious fare provided by the marine world. For myself, I can say not only that I had placed before me during my sojourn the finest specimens known of the scaly dwellers of the Caspian, but that to a variety in kind, not a little embarrassing, there was added on my behalf a still more remarkable variety in method, the contribution of what was afterwards described to me as the best cooking talent in Astrakhan. Nor must I fail to urge that, even confined solely to sterlet and sturgeon, no reasonable man’s appetite could grow sated in the circumstances under which, for a fortnight, I daily dined off fish in Iskamin.

It was on a certain afternoon, at the close of one of these fish dinners, that my companion was commissioned by our cook to bring her a supply of chylym. Electing to follow him out of curiosity, I was led along a branch of the Caspian running inland as far as a tiny lake, which we found almost overgrown with a species of water-plant. My guide sprang into a boat, and was soon engaged in collecting from the wet stalks strange growths resembling nuts, many-ribbed, of a dirty green color. Having nearly filled his craft, he called a fisherman, and sent the cargo home by water. At tea, that day, the cook placed before us some cakes of a peculiar though agreeable flavor, whereat I indulged in a timid glance of inquiry, and was promptly informed that they were the fruits of our afternoon trip to the lake. The cook, it seemed, had opened our nuts, ground the kernels into a kind of flour, turned the flour into paste, and served up the result to us hot from the oven. " Bread upon the waters " is thus no mere figure of speech in Iskamin, but a reality, and to find it again after many days means simply for the islanders to lay in a supply of chylym for winter use.

A still more pleasant afternoon I spent in visiting the haunts of the farfamed Nymph of the Caspian. Neither rock nor whirlpool besets the approach to this coy beauty, but as the siren can be seen only in her bath, from the luxurious heat of which she draws not a few of her charms, one might well be led to prefer both Scylla and Charybdis to the peril of the brink to which this fascinator lures unsuspecting travelers at Chyulpan. Yet the danger is much more apparent than real. The Nympha Caspica has broken up no households and precipitated no fratricidal wars ; the worst that can be said against her is that she has planted a deep and never-to-besatisfied longing in the heart of botanical Europe. Men of science, tender in their admiration of her beauty, and wishing to see it flourish elsewhere, have carried her virtues to foreign parts in vain. This tall, lily-like flower, with its overflowing bulb of tender pink, bearing its seeds in a punctured gourd, and bathed far up its slender stem by a continual flow of well-nigh boiling water, mysteriously renewed, — this queen of desert, unpopulous Chyulpan, scattering her perfume over land and sea, is the unique product of unique conditions, and can no more be transplanted than the Caspian itself.

The remaining days of my sojourn in Iskamin were largely spent among the islanders and in their houses. I learnt that formerly the domiciles were aggregated as much as possible, but that, owing to the additional danger created by this arrangement during conflagrations, and to the frequent burning down of the habitations thus massed together, it was now customary to separate houses from each other by considerable distances. Yet this isolating tendency has modified neither the social habits of the islanders nor their system of mutual help. A bake-house, with oven, is usually erected by the builder for every three or four domiciles, and the families concerned supply the needed culinary skill in turns. In a few special cases, each household does its own cooking at a stove or furnace in the open air. The population, which consists of males and females in about equal numbers, is mainly Russian, but contains Mongol elements, the Calmucks being highly prized both as good fishers and expert boatmen. The few Tatars I met were the only agriculturists which the island is capable of supporting. They were what in commercial phrase would be called large growers of watermelons, in which capacity they had introduced into Iskamin a system of irrigation such as is often found in Central Asia, but is rarely seen in Europe : a horse, marching in a circular path, causes a wheel furnished with buckets to turn within a large tank kept full of water ; each bucket, as it reaches the top of the wheel, discharges its burden into a receiver, from which wooden spouts radiate, thus carrying the water to various parts of the ground to be irrigated.

I have little more to add than that at the end of a fortnight my sojourn in Iskamin came to a close, and that the Two Brothers conveyed me safely back to the metropolis of the Caspian. I have since thought much of the life amid which I moved in that part of the world, and have found less charm, perhaps, in the actual events of my daily existence there than in the grateful setting of unworldly tranquillity which closed them in. Verily, when I come to compare that sluggish ongoing of life with the furious progress I know so well in countries farther west ; when I contrast the simple naturalism of places not yet won for enterprise nor exploited by greed with the maniac activity of our machine age, most of it unholy, much of it distracting and injurious, I am led to think first of some limpid mountain tarn, mirroring heaven far up among the voiceless hills, and then of some lower flood, restless and swollen, noisy with the clank of countless wheels, and dark with its burden of the cares of the children of men. And when I look back at those strange people, not yet cultured enough to be untruthful, nor selfish enough to be dishonest, and think again of their homely faces, true “ household countenances ; ” of their quiet manners, as graceful as untutored ; their simple dignity, without affectation ; and their uncalculating hospitality, as eager to entertain a beggar as a king, I pray fervently that civilization may be long in reaching Astrakhan, and that the good friends I left behind on these isles of the Caspian may be the last of all to come under its corrupting sway.

Edmund Noble.