The Russian Kumys Cure
IT is not many years since every pound of freight, every human being, bound to Astrakhan from the interior of Russia simply floated down the river Volga with the current. The return journey was made slowly and painfully, in tow of those human beasts of burden, the burlaki. The traces of their towpath along the shores may still be seen, and the system itself may even be observed at times, when light barks have to be forced up stream for short distances.
Then some enterprising individual set up a line of steamers, in the face of the usual predictions from the wiseacres that he would ruin himself and all his kin. The undertaking proved so fabulously successful and profitable that a wild rush of competition ensued. But the competition seems to have consisted chiefly in the establishment of rival lines of steamers, and there are some peculiarities of river travel which still exist in consequence. One of these curious features is that each navigation company appears to have adopted a certain type of steamer at the outset, and not to have improved on that original idea to any marked degree. There are some honorable exceptions, it is true, and I certainly have a very definite opinion concerning the line which I should patronize on a second trip. Another idea, to which they have clung with equal obstinacy, though it is far from making amends for the other, is that a journey is worth a certain fixed sum per verst, utterly regardless of the vast difference in the accommodations offered.
Possibly it is a natural consequence of having been born in America, and of having heard the American boast of independence and progress and the foreign boast of conservatism contrasted ever since I learned my alphabet, not to exaggerate unduly, that I should take particular notice of all illustrations of these conflicting systems. Generally speaking, I advocate a judicious mixture of the two, in varying proportions to suit my taste on each special occasion. But there are times when I distinctly favor the broadest independence and progress. These Volga steamers had afforded me a subject for meditations on this point, at a distance, even before I was obliged to undergo personal experience of the defects of conservatism. Before I had sailed four and twenty hours on the broad bosom of Mátushka Volga, I was able to pick out the steamers of all the rival lines at sight with the accuracy of a veteran river pilot. There was no great cleverness in that, I hasten to add ; anybody but a blind man could have done as much; but that only makes my point the more forcible. It was when we set out for Samára that we realized most keenly the beauties of enterprise in this direction.
We had, nominally, a wide latitude of choice, as all the lines made a stop at our landing. But when we got tired of waiting for the steamer of our preference, — the boats of all the lines being long overdue, as usual, owing to low water in the river, — and took the first which presented itself, we found that the latitude in choice, so far as accommodations were concerned, was even greater than had been apparent at first sight.
Fate allotted us one of the smaller steamers, the more commodious boats having probably “ sat down on a sand bar,” as the local expression goes. The one on which we embarked had only a small dining-room and saloon, one firstclass cabin for men and one for women, all nearly on a level with the water, instead of high aloft, as in the steamers which we had hitherto patronized, and devoid of deck-room for promenading. The third-class cabin was on the forward deck. The second-class cabin was down a pair of steep, narrow stairs, whose existence we did not discover when we went on board at midnight, and which did not tempt us to investigation even when we arose the next morning. Fortunately, there were no candidates except ourselves and a Russian friend for the six red velvet divans ranged round the walls of the tiny “ ladies’ cabin,” and the adjoining toilet-room, and the man of the party enjoyed complete seclusion in the men’s cabin. In the large boats, for the same price, we should have had separate staterooms, each accommodating two persons. However, everything was beautifully clean, as usual on Russian steamers so far as my experience goes, and it made no difference for one night. The experience was merely of interest as a warning.
The city of Samára, as it presented itself to our eyes the next morning, was the liveliest place on the river Volga next to Nízhni Nóvgorod. While it really is of importance commercially, owing to its position on the Volga and on the railway from central Russia, as a depot for the great Siberian trade through Orenburg, the impression of alertness which it produces is undoubtedly due to the fact that it presents itself to full view in the foreground, instead of lying at a distance from the wharves, or entirely concealed. An American, who is accustomed to see railways and steamers run through the very heart of the cities which they serve, never gets thoroughly inured to the Russian trick of taking important towns on faith, because it has happened to be convenient to place the stations out of sight and hearing, sometimes miles out of the city. Another striking point about Samára is the abundance of red brick buildings, which is very unusual, not to say unprecedented, in most of the older Russian towns, which revel in stucco washed with white, blue, and yellow.
But the immediate foreground was occupied with something more attractive than this. The wharves, the space between them, and all the ground round about were fairly heaped with fruit: apples in bewildering variety, ranging from the pink-and-white-skinned “golden seeds ” through the whole gamut of apple hues ; round striped watermelons and oval cantaloupes with perfumed Orangecolored flesh, from Astrakhan; plums and grapes. After wrestling with these fascinations and with the merry izvóstchiki, we set out on a little voyage of discovery, preparatory to driving out to the famous kumys establishments, where we had decided to stay instead of in the town itself.
Much of Samára is too new in its architecture, and too closely resembles the simple, thrifty builders’ designs of a mushroom American settlement, to require special description. Although it is said to have been founded at the close of the sixteenth century, to protect the Russians from the incursions of the Kalmúcks, Bashkírs, and Nogai Tatárs, four disastrous conflagrations within the last forty-five years have made way for “improvements ” and entailed the loss of characteristic features, while its rank as one of the chief marts for the great Siberian trade has caused a rapid increase in population, which now numbers between seventy-five and eighty thousand.
One modern feature fully compensates, however, by its originality, for a good many commonplace antiquities. Near the wharves, on our way out of the town, we passed a lumber-yard, which dealt wholly in ready-made log houses. There stood a large assortment of cottages, in the brilliant yellow of the barked logs, of all sizes and at all prices, from fifteen to one hundred dollars, forming a small suburb of samples. The lumber is floated down the Volga and her tributaries from the great forests of Ufá, and made up in Samára. The peasant purchaser disjoints his house, floats it to a point near his village, drags it piecemeal to its proper site, sets it up, roofs it, builds an oven and a chimney of stones, clay, and whitewash, plugs the interstices with rope or moss, smears them with clay if he feels inclined, and his house is ready for occupancy. Although such houses are cheap and warm, it would be a great improvement if the people could afford to build with brick, so immense is the annual loss by fire in the villages. Brick buildings are, however, far beyond the means of most peasants, let them have the best will in the world, and the ready-made cottages are a blessing, though every peasant is capable of constructing one for himself on very brief notice, if he has access to a forest. But forests are not so common nowadays along the Volga, and, as the advertisements say, this novel lumber-yard “meets a real want.” When the Samarcand railway was opened, a number of these cottages, in the one-room size, were placed on platform cars, and to each guest invited to the ceremony was assigned one of these unique drawing - room - car coupés.
About four miles from the town proper, on the steppe, lie two noted kumys establishments ; one of them being the first resort of that kind ever set up, at a time when the only other choice for invalids who wished to take the cure was to share the hardships, dirt, bad food, and carelessly prepared kumys of the tented nomads of the steppes. The grounds of the one which we had elected to patronize extended to the very brink of the Volga. In accordance with the admonitions of the specialist physicians to avoid manystoried, ill-ventilated buildings with long corridors, the hotel consists of numerous wooden structures, of moderate size, chiefly in Moorish style, and painted in light colors, scattered about a great inclosure which comprises groves of pines and deciduous trees, — “ red forest ” and “ black forest,” as Russians would express it,—lawns, arbors, shady walks, flower-beds, and other things pleasing to the eye, and conducive to comfort and very mild amusement. One of the buildings even contains a hall, where dancing, concerts, and theatricals can be and are indulged in, in the height of the season, although such violent and crowded affairs as balls are, in theory, discountenanced by the physicians. All these points we took in at one curious glance, as we were being conducted to the different buildings to inspect rooms. I am afraid that we pretended to be very difficult to please, in order to gain a more extensive insight into the arrangements. As the height of the season (which is May and June) was past, we had a great choice offered us, and I suppose that this made a difference in the price, also. It certainly was not unreasonable. We selected some rooms which opened on a small private corridor. The furniture consisted of the usual narrow iron bedstead (with linen and pillows thrown in gratis, for a wonder), a tiny table which disagreeably recalled American ideas as to that article, an apology for a bureau, two armchairs, and no washstand. The chairs were in their primitive stuffing-and-burlap state, loose gray linen covers being added when the rooms were prepared for us. Any one who has ever struggled with his temper and the slack-fitting shift of a tufted armchair will require no explanation as to what took place between me and my share of those untufted receptacles before I deposited its garment under my bed, and announced that burlap and tacks were luxurious enough for me. That one item contained enough irritation and excitement to ruin any “ cure.”
The washstand problem was even more complicated. A small tapering brass tank, holding about two quarts of water, with a faucet which dripped into a diminutive cup with an unstoppered waste-pipe, was screwed to the wall in our little corridor. We asked for a washstand, and this arrangement was introduced to our notice, the chambermaid being evidently surprised at the ignorance of barbarians who had never seen a washstand before. We objected that a mixed party of men and women could not use that decently, even if two quarts of water were sufficient for three women and a man. After much argument and insistence, we obtained, piecemeal: item, one low stool; item, one basin ; item, one pitcher. There were no fastenings on the doors, except a hasp and staple to the door of the corridor, to which, after due entreaty, we secured an oblong padlock.
The next morning, the chambermaid came to the door of our room opening on the private corridor while we were dressing, and demanded the basin and pitcher. “ Some one else wants them ! ” she shouted through the door. We had discovered her to be a person of so much decision of character, in the course of our dealings with her on the preceding day, that we were too wary to admit her, lest she should simply capture the utensils and march off with them. As I was the heaviest of the party, it fell to my lot to brace myself against the unfastened door and parley with her. Three times that woman returned to the attack ; thrice we refused to surrender our hard-won trophies, and asked her pointedly, “ What do you do for materials when the house is full, pray ? ” Afterwards, while we were drinking our coffee on the delightful half-covered veranda below, which had stuffed seats running round the walls, and a flowercrowned circular divan in the centre, a lively testimony to the dryness of the atmosphere, we learned that the person who had wanted the basin and pitcher was the man of our party. He begged us not to inquire into the mysteries of his toilet, and refused to help us solve the riddle of the guests’ cleanliness when the hotel was full. I assume, on reflection, however, that they were expected to take Russian or plain baths every two or three days, to rid themselves of the odor of the kumys, which exudes copiously through the pores of the skin and scents the garments. On other days a “lick and a promise ” were supposed to suffice, so that their journals must have resembled that of the man who wrote : “ Monday, washed myself. Tuesday, washed hands and face. Wednesday, washed hands only.” That explanation is not wholly satisfactory, either, because the Russians are clean people.
As coffee is one of the articles of food which are forbidden to kumys patients, though they may drink tea without lemon or milk, we had difficulty in getting it at all. It was long in coming; bad and high-priced when it did make its appearance. As we were waiting, an invalid lady and the novice nun who was in attendance upon her began to sing in a room near by. They had no instrument. What it was that they sang I do not know. It was gentle as a breath, melting as a sigh, soft and slow like a conventional chant, and sweet as the songs of the Russian Church or of the angels. There are not many strains in this world upon which one hangs entranced, in breathless eagerness, and the memory of which haunts one ever after. But this song was one of that sort, and it lingers in my memory as a pure delight; in company with certain other fragments of church music heard in that land, as among the most beautiful upon earth.
I may as well tell at once the whole story of the food, so far as we explored its intricate mysteries. We were asked if we wished to take the table d’hôte breakfast in the establishment. We said “yes,” and presented ourselves promptly. We were served with beefsteak, in small, round, thick pieces.
“ What queer beefsteak ! ” said one of our Russian friends. “ Is there no other meat ? ”
“ No, madam.”
We all looked at it for several minutes. We said it was natural, when invalids drank from three to five bottles of the nourishing kumys a day, that they should not require much extra food, and that the management provided what variety was healthy and advisable, no doubt; only we should have liked a choice ; and
— what queer steak !
The first sniff, the first glance at that steak, of peculiar grain and dark red hue, had revealed the truth to us. But we saw that our Russian friends were not initiated, and we knew that their stomachs were delicate. We exchanged signals, took a mouthful, declared it excellent, and ate bravely through our portions. The Russians followed our example. Well
— it was much tenderer and better than the last horseflesh to which we had been treated surreptitiously ; but I do not crave horseflesh as a regular diet. It really was not surprising at a kumys establishment, where the horse is worshiped, alive or dead, apparently in Tatár fashion.
That afternoon we made it convenient to take our dinner in town, on the veranda of a restaurant which overlooked the busy Volga, with its mobile moods of sunset and thunderstorm, where we compensated ourselves for our unsatisfactory breakfast by a characteristically Russian dinner, of which I will omit details, except as regards the soup. This soup was botvinya. A Russian once obligingly furnished me with a description of a foreigner’s probable views on this national delicacy: “ a slimy pool with a rock in the middle, and creatures floating round about.” The rock is a lump of ice (botvinya being a cold soup) in the tureen of strained kvas or sour cabbage. Kvas is the sour, fermented liquor made from black bread. In this liquid portion of the soup, which is colored with strained spinach, floated small cubes of fresh cucumber and bits of the green tops from young onions. The solid part of the soup, served on a platter, so that each person might mix the ingredients according to his taste, consisted of cold boiled sturgeon, raw ham, more cubes of cucumber, more bits of green onion tops, lettuce, crawfish, grated horseradish, and granulated sugar. The first time I encountered this really delectable dish, it was served with salmon, the pale, insipid northern salmon. I supposed that the lazy waiter had brought the soup and fish courses together, to save himself trouble, and I ate them separately, while I meditated a rebuke to the waiter and a strong description of the weak soup. The tables were turned on me, however, when Mikhéi appeared and grinned, as broadly as his not overstrict sense of propriety permitted, at my unparalleled ignorance, while he gave me a lesson in the composition of botvinya. That botvínya was not good, but this edition of it on the banks of the Volga, with sterlet, was delicious.
We shirked our meals at the establishment with great regularity, with the exception of morning coffee, which was unavoidable, but we did justice to its kumys, which was superb. Theoretically, the mares should have had the advantage of better pasturage, at a greater distance from town; but, as they cannot be driven far to milk without detriment, that plan involves making the kumys at a distance, and transporting it to the “cure.” There is another famous establishment, situated a mile beyond ours, where this plan is pursued. Ten miles away the mares pasture, and the kumys is made at a subsidiary cure, where cheap quarters are provided for poorer patients. But, either on account of the transportation under the hot sun, or because the professional “ taster ” is lacking in delicacy of perception, we found the kumys at this rival establishment coarse in both flavor and smell, in comparison with that at our hostelry.
Our mares, on the contrary, were kept close by, and the kumys was prepared on the spot. It is the first article of faith in the creed of the kumys expert that no one can prepare this milk wine properly except Tatárs. Hence, when any one wishes to drink it at home, a Tatár is sent for, the necessary mares are set aside for him, and he makes what is required. But the second article of faith is that kumys is much better when made in large quantities. The third is that a kumys specialist, or doctor, is as indispensable for the regulation of the cure as he is at mineral springs. The fourth article in the creed is that mares grazing on the rich plume-grass of the steppe produce milk which is particularly rich in sugar, very poor in fat, and similar to woman’s milk in its proportion of albumen, though better furnished: all which facts combine to give kumys whose chemical proportions differ greatly from those of kumys prepared elsewhere. Moreover, on private estates it is not always possible to observe all the conditions regarding the choice and care of the mares.
At our establishment there were several Tatárs to milk the mares and make the kumys. The wife of one of them, a Tatár beauty, was the professional taster, who issued her orders like an autocrat on that delicate point. She never condescended to work, and it was our opinion that she ought to devote herself to dress, in her many leisure hours, instead of lounging about in ugly calico sacks and petticoats, as hideous as though they had originated in a backwoods farm in New England. She explained, however, that she was in a sort of mourning. Her husband was absent, and she could not make herself beautiful for any one until his return, which she was expecting every moment. She spent most of her time in gazing, from a balcony on the cliff, up the river, toward the bend backed by beautiful hills, to espy her husband on the steamer. As he did not come, we persuaded her, by arguments couched in silver speech, to adorn herself on the sly for us. Then she was afraid that the missing treasure might make his appearance too soon, and she made such undue haste that she faithlessly omitted the finishing touch, — blacking her pretty teeth. I gathered from her remarks that something particularly awful would result should she be caught with those pearls obscured in the presence of any other man when her husband was not present; but she may have been using a little diplomacy to soothe us. Though she was not a beauty in the ordinary sense of the Occident, she certainly was when dressed in her national garb, as I had found to be the case with the Russian peasant girls. Her loose sack, of a medium but brilliant blue woolen material, fell low over a petticoat of the same terminating in a single flounce. Her long black hair was carefully braided, and fell from beneath an embroidered cap of crimson velvet with a rounded end which hung on one side in a coquettish way. Her neck was completely covered with a necklace which descended to her waist like a breastplate, and consisted of gold coins, some of them very ancient and valuable, medals, red beads, and a variety of brilliant objects harmoniously combined. Her heavy gold bracelets had been made to order in Kazán after a pure Tatár model, and her soft-soled boots of rose-pink leather, with conventional designs in many-colored moroccos, sewed together with rainbow-hued silks, reached nearly to her knees. Her complexion was fresh and not very sallow, her nose rather less like a button than is usual; her high cheek-bones were well covered, and her small dark eyes made up by their brilliancy for the slight upward slant of their outer corners.
Tatár girls who made no pretensions to beauty in dress or features did the milking, and were aided in that and the other real work connected with kumysmaking by Tatár men. According to the official programme, the mares might he milked six or eight times a day, and the yield was from a half to a whole bottle apiece each time. Milk is always reckoned by the bottle in Russia. I presume the custom arose from the habit of sending the muzhik (“Boots”) to the dairy-shop with an empty wine-bottle to fetch the milk and cream for “ tea,” which sometimes means coffee in the morning. The mare’s milk has a sweetish, almondlike flavor, and is very thin and bluish in hue.
At three o’clock in the morning, the mares are taken from the colts and shut up in a long shed which is not especially weather-proof. In fact, there is not much “ weather” except wind to be guarded against on the steppe. In about two hours, when the milk has collected, the colts follow them voluntarily, and are admitted and allowed to suck for a few seconds. Halters are then thrown about their necks, and they are led forward where the mothers can nose them over and lick them. The milkmaid’s second assistant then puts a halter on the neck of a mare and holds her, or ties up one leg if she be restive. In the mean time the foolish creature continues to let down milk for her foal. The milkmaid kneels on one knee and holds her pail on the other, after having washed her hands carefully and wiped off the teats with a clean damp cloth. If the mare resists at first, the milk obtained must not be used for kumys, as her agitation affects the milk unfavorably. Roan, gray, and chestnut mares are preferred, and in order to obtain the best milk great care must be exercised in the choice of pasture and the management of the horses, as well as in all the minor details of preparation .
The milking-pails are of tin or of oak wood, and, like the oaken kumys churn, have been boiled in strong lye to extract the acid, and well dried and aired. In addition to the daily washing they are well smoked with rotten birch trunks, in order to destroy all particles of kumys which may cling to them.
The next step after the milk is obtained is to ferment it. The ferment, or yeast, is obtained by collecting the sediment of the kumys which has already germinated, and washing it off thoroughly with milk or water. It is then pressed and dried in the sun, the result being a reddish-brown mass composed of the micro-organisms contained in kumys ferment, casein, and a small quantity of fat. Twenty grains of this yeast are ground up in a small quantity of freshly drawn milk in a clean porcelain mortar, and shaken in a quart bottle with one pound of fresh milk, — all mare’s milk, naturally, — after which it is lightly corked with a bit of wadding and set away in a temperature of + 22° to + 26° Reaumur. In about twenty-four hours small bubbles begin to make their appearance, accompanied by the sour odor of kumys. The bottle is then shaken from time to time, and the air admitted, until it is in a condition to be used as a ferment with fresh milk. Sometimes this ferment fails, in which case an artificial ferment is prepared.
One pint of ferment is allowed to every five pints of fresh milk in the cask or churn, and the whole is beaten with the dasher for about an hour, when it is set aside in a temperature of +18° to 26° Réaumur. When, at the expiration of a few hours, the milk turns sour and begins to ferment vigorously, it is beaten again several times for about fifteen minutes, with intervals, with a dasher which terminates in a perforated disk, after which it is left undisturbed for several hours at the same temperature as before, until the liquid begins to exhale an odor of spirits of wine. The delicate offices of our Tatár beauty, the taster, come in at this point to determine how much freshly drawn and cooled milk is to be added in order rightly to temper the sour taste. After standing over night it is ready for use, and is put up in seltzer or champagne bottles, and kept at a temperature of +8° to + 12° Réaumur. At a lower temperature vinegar fermentation sets in and spoils the kumys, while too high a temperature brings about equally disastrous results of another sort. Kumys has a different chemical composition according to whether it has stood only a few hours or several days, and consequently its action differs, also.
The weak kumys is ready for use at the expiration of six hours after fermentation has been excited in the mare’s milk, and must be put into the strongest bottles. The medium quality is obtained after from twelve to fourteen hours of fermentation, and, if well corked, will keep two or three days in a cool atmosphere. The third and strongest quality is the product of diligent daily churning during twenty-four to thirty-six hours, and is thinner than the medium quality, even watery. When bottled, it soon separates into three layers, with the fatty particles on top, the whey in the middle, and the casein at the bottom. Strong kumys can be kept for a very long time, but it must be shaken before it is used. It is very easy for a person unaccustomed to kumys to become intoxicated on this strong quality of milk wine.
The nourishing effects of this spirituous beverage are argued, primarily, from the example of the Bashkirs and the Kirghiz, who are gaunt and worn by the hunger and cold of winter, but who blossom into rounded outlines and freshness of complexion three or four days after the spring pasturage for their mares begins. Some persons argue that life with these Bashkirs and an exclusive diet of kumys will effect a speedy cure of their ailments. Hence they join one of the nomad hordes. This course, however, not only deprives them of medical advice and the comforts to which they have been accustomed, but often gives them kumys which is difficult to take because of its rank taste and smell, due to the lack of that scrupulous cleanliness which its proper preparation demands.
There are establishments near St. Petersburg and Moscow where kumys may be obtained by those who do not care to make the long journey to the steppe; but the quality and chemical constituents are very different from those of the steppe kumys, especially at the best period, May and June, when the plumegrass and wild strawberry are at their finest development for food, and before the excessive heats of midsummer have begun.
As I have said, when people wish to make the cure on their own estates the indispensable Tatár is sent for, and the requisite number of middle-aged mares, of which no work is required, are set aside for the purpose. But from all I have heard I am inclined to think that benefit is rarely derived from these private cures, and this for several reasons. Not only is the kumys said to be inferior when prepared in such small quantities, but no specialist or any other doctor can be constantly on hand to regulate the functional disorders which this diet frequently occasions. Moreover, the air of the steppe plays an important part in the cure. When a person drinks from five to fifteen or more bottles a day, and sometimes adds the proper amount of fatty, starchy, and saccharine elements, some other means than the stomach are indispensable for disposing of the refuse. As a matter of fact, in the hot, dry, even temperature of the steppe, where patients are encouraged to remain out of doors all day and drink slowly, they perspire kumys. When the system becomes thoroughly saturated with this food-drink catarrh often makes its appearance, but disappears at the close of the cure. Colic, constipation, diarrhœa, nose-bleed, and bleeding from the lungs are also present at times, as well as sleeplessness, toothache. and other disorders. The effects of kumys are considered of especial value in cases of weak lungs, anæmia, general debility caused by any wasting illness, ailments of the digestive organs, and scurvy, for which it is taken by many naval officers.
In short, although it is not a cure for all earthly ills, it is of value in many which proceed from imperfect nutrition producing exhaustion of the patient. There are some conditions of the lungs in which it cannot be used, as well as in organic diseases of the brain and heart, epilepsy, certain disorders of the liver, and when gallstones are present. It is drunk at the temperature of the air which surrounds the patient, but must be warmed with hot water, not in the sun, and sipped slowly, with pauses, not drunk down in haste; and generally exercise must be taken. Turn where we would in those kumys establishments, we encountered a patient engaged in assiduous promenading, with a bottle of kumys suspended from his arm and a glassful in his hand.
Coffee, chocolate, and wine are some of the luxuries which must be renounced during a kumys cure, and though black tea (occasionally with lemon) is allowed, no milk or cream can be permitted to contend with the action of the mare’s milk unless by express permission of the physician. “ Cream kumys,” which is advertised as a delicacy in America, is a contradiction in terms, it will be seen, as it is made of cow’s milk, and cream would be contrary to the nature of kumys, even if the mare’s milk produced anything which could rightly pass as such. Fish and fruits are also forbidden, with the exception of klubniki, which accord well with kumys. Klubnika is a berry similar to the strawberry in appearance, but with an entirely different taste. Patients who violate these dietary rules are said to suffer for it, — in which case there must have been a good deal of agony inside the tall fence of our establishment, judging by the thriving trade in fruits driven by the old women, who did not confine themselves to the outside of the gate, as the rules required, but slipped past the porter and guardians to the house itself.
We found the kumys a very agreeable beverage, and could readily perceive that the patients might come to have a very strong taste for it. We even sympathized with the thoroughgoing patient of whom we were told that he set off regularly every morning to lose himself for the day on the steppe, armed with an umbrella against possible cooling breezes, and with a basket containing sixteen bottles of kumys, his allowance of food and medicine until sundown. The programme consisted of a walk in the sun, a drink, a walk, a drink, with umbrella interludes, until darkness drove him home to bed and to his base of supplies.
We did not remain long enough, or drink enough kumys, to observe any particular effects on our own persons. As I have said, we ate in town, chiefly, after that breakfast of kumys-mare beefsteak and potatoes of the size and consistency of bullets. During our food and shopping excursions we found that Samára was a decidedly wide-awake and driving town, though it seemed to possess no specialties in buildings, curiosities, or manufactures, and the statue to Alexander II., which now adorns one of its squares, was then swathed in canvas awaiting its unveiling. It is merely a sort of grand junction, through which other cities and provinces sift their products. In kumys alone does Samára possess a characteristic unique throughout Russia. Consequently, it is for kumys that multitudes of Russians flock thither every spring.
The soil of the steppe, on which grows the nutritious plume-grass requisite for the food of the kumys mares, is very fertile, and immense crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, oats, and so forth are raised whenever the rainfall is not too meagre. Unfortunately, the rainfall is frequently insufficient, and the province of Samára often comes to the attention of Russia, or even of the world, as during the present distress, because of scarcity of food, or even famine, which is no novelty in the government. In a district where the average of rain is twenty inches, there is not much margin of superfluity which can be spared without peril. Wheat grows here better than in the government just north of it, and many peasants are attracted from the “ black bread governments ” to Samára by the white bread which is there given them as rations when they hire out for the harvest.
But such a singular combination of conditions prevails there, as elsewhere in Russia, that an abundant harvest is often more disastrous than a scanty harvest. The price of grain falls so low that the cost of gathering it is greater than the market value, and it is often left to fall unreaped in the fields. When the price falls very low, complaints arise that there is no place to send it, since, when the ruble stands high, as it invariably does at the prospect of large crops, the demand from abroad is stopped. The result is that those people who are situated near a market sell as much grain and leave as little at home as possible in order to meet their bills. The price rises; the unreaped surplus of the districts lying far from markets cannot fill the ensuing demand. The income from estates falls, and the discouraged owners who have nothing to live on resolve to plant a smaller area thereafter. Estates are mortgaged and sold by auction ; prices are very low, and often there are no buyers.
The immediate result of an overabundant harvest in far - off Samára is that the peasants who have come hither to earn a little money at reaping return home penniless, or worse, to their suffering families. Some of them are legitimate seekers after work; that is to say, they have no grain of their own to attend to, or they reap their own a little earlier or a little later, and go away to earn the ready money to meet taxes and indispensable expenditures of the household, such as oil, and so on. “Pri khlyéby bez khlyéby ” is their own way of expressing the situation, which we may translate freely as “ Starvation in the midst of plenty.” Thus the extremes of famine-harvest and the harvest which is an embarrassment of riches are equally disastrous to the poor peasant.
Samára offers a curious illustration of several agricultural problems, and a proof of some peculiar paradoxes. The peasants of the neighboring governments, which are not populated to a particularly dense degree, — twenty male inhabitants to a square verst (two thirds of a mile), and not all engaged in agriculture, — have long been accustomed to look upon Samára as a sort of promised land. They still regard it in that light, and endeavor to emigrate thither, for the sake of obtaining grants of state land, and certain immunities and privileges which are accorded to colonists. This action is the result of the paradox that there exists overproduction hand in hand with too small a parcel of land for each peasant!
Volumes have been written, and more volumes might still be written, on this subject. But I must content myself here with saying that I believe there is no province which illustrates so thoroughly all the distressing features of these manifold and complicated problems of colonization, of permanent settlements, with the old evils of both landlords and peasants cropping up afresh, abundant and scanty harvests equally associated with famine, and all the troubles which follow in their train, as Samára. Hence it is that I can never recall the kumys, which is so intimately connected with the name of Samára, without also recalling the famine, which is, alas, almost as intimately bound up with it.
Isabel F. Hapgood.