Old Russia Over the Border

JUST over the border from the new Russia, and so out of reach of Soviet iconoclasm, lies the monastery of Petchory, a bit of the Middle Ages so perfect and so untouched by the rush of our modern world that we who made a pilgrimage there have difficulty to convince ourselves that what we found was not a dream of another world.

From the moment we stepped off the little train we were part of a pageant, a long procession winding over the hills to the village of Petchory. First, in a grand carriage, drove the Metro polite, the Russian Orthodox Bishop of Esthonia, in a tight black robe and high hat with flowing veil, come on the train from Tallinn to help to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Archimandrite, the head of the monastery. Then there were three gay strolling musicians, a lad in a bright-blue peasant blouse with a great shock of yellow hair, playing a huge accordion, a tall youth in a red blouse and a broadbrimmed hat who fiddled, and a debonair half-drunken one who called out maudlinly to us, for Americans were unknown sights and attracted more attention than the Bishop.

Two old priests, sitting with as much dignity as they could command on the top of a pile of hay, came rattling over the cobblestones in a crude cart. We sat by the road and watched the procession straggle by, more picturesque, more gorgeously Russian than we ever imagined Russia could be. Tall peasant men in linen blouses with gay girdles, barefooted old women with kerchiefs on their heads, half-naked children rolling hoops crookedly over the rough cobblestones. We crossed a river where naked boys were bathing and women were washing clothes by beating them with paddles. And then, over low hills, we saw the blue and green domes of the monastery.

We stopped at a thatch-roofed cottage to ask for something to eat, and were cordially ushered into a low, pinkwalled room, one corner hung with icons, the floor covered with gay handwoven rugs. A crude bench ran along three sides of the room, and on the fourth, half hidden by a cotton curtain, was the great white-plastered stove, with room for three to sleep on top and one on a shelf built along its side. Our hostess, a barefooted peasant woman in a flowered kerchief, set earthen plates, large wooden spoons, a pitcher of fresh milk, hunks of black bread, new butter and honey, on a great brown table decorated with gay painted figures. Two tiny yellow-haired boys stood in one corner and watched us with wonder in their eyes. One by one the rest of the family came in to gaze at the strange Americans — a bent old grandmother, the tall white-haired grandfather in high boots and a Russian blouse, a wee girl in a red apron. The grandmother told the one of us who understood Russian that several years ago two other Americans had come to Petchory, so she had seen our like before.

They offered us new-mown hay to sleep on for the night, so we left our packs in a corner and started out to the monastery. In a little shop in the village we found Gospozha, a beautiful Russian woman with golden hair and large coral earrings, a gray-blue dress the color of her eyes, short-vamp shoes, and bare ankles as beautifully kept as her hands. ‘I am rather a pet of the Archimandrite,’ she said, tossing her head. ‘ I will take you to him and to the service.’ Russians are communicative, and we soon learned that she and her husband had been in the household of the Tsar and had fled during the revolution to this tiny Esthonian village. She spoke beautiful French and German, but ‘Bah,’ she said, ‘I would not learn Esthonian. It is so very ugly.’

Over the little village the turrets of the monastery gleamed blue and green and golden in the sunshine. We went under an arched gate, through a dim passage, and past a tiny shrine into the sunlit cloister gardens. Through great old trees we saw the buildings of the monastery, pale pink, salmon, cream, and white, under roofs the color of green willow leaves. Sometime in the fourteenth century the first monk had come to Petchory. First he and his followers lived in the forest, then in catacombs under the ground, and gradually there grew up this beautiful place which seems not to have changed since the Middle Ages. In the days of Ivan the Terrible it grew so strong that Ivan feared the power of Cornelius, its head, and came himself to Petchory. And when Cornelius came to meet him, and knelt to give him bread and salt, Ivan the Terrible slew him.

The bells were ringing for the evening service. First a great bell tolled slowly, then others joined one by one until there were fifteen, vibrant, excited, filling the valley with their clamorous chimes. One by one the monks in their long black robes filed up the long shady stairway to the church. The Archimandrite in his golden headdress stopped to speak with us. We could not understand what he said, but his face was old and kind.

The steps of the old Russian church are wide and white. Little yellow leaves dropped on them from high trees and the fragrance of incense floated out through the great doors. For two hours we stood with reverent peasants and watched the old priests move slowdy through the formal ceremonies; listened to the deep-voiced chanting of the ritual and the choir singing strange delightful music. All the priests were old and had soft hair falling to their shoulders and long soft beards. They wore silver-blue brocaded robes, and the Metropolite had a great stiff gown of purple and silver and a high gold and jeweled crown.

Most of the worshipers were hushed peasants in gay old Russian dress, bearded men in embroidered-linen blouses and high boots, and women with white kerchiefs, scarlet headbands and girdles, and much crimson embroidery on their full sleeves and aprons. Their flat feet stood solid and unshifting and their wide hands reached often to make the sign of the cross, from forehead to heart, from one strong shoulder to the other. Some brought yellow candles and lighted them before the pictures of their favorite saints and kissed the glass that guards the pictures from their lips. An old stooped woman pushed me aside so she could kneel to kiss the robe of a priest who passed, swinging a silver incense-pot. A young man beside me, tall and thickly bearded, sang softly with the choir. And next to him a young girl held the knot of her white kerchief under her chin while she knelt to pray. There were beauty and true reverence at Petchory.

Gospozha took us to the Black Cat, Petchory’s restaurant, for supper, and then home to our log cottage. The watchdog of our peasant host barked loudly at us as we swung open the unpainted door and came into the little courtyard made by the peasant’s home and the three or four other huts, all log and with thatched roofs, that were used to house his horse and cow and pig and chickens. After washing in the little river back of the house and drying on red-and-white hand-woven towels, we found homespun blankets spread out for us in the hayloft and climbed in.

The next day was Sunday, and the sacred oil burned before the icon in our peasant’s house. The samovar was going when we went in for breakfast, and there were curds and black bread on the table. The grandmother was getting into her beautiful old peasant dress to wear to church, and the mother had put shoes on her bare feet.

Already carts were rolling over the cobblestones to the village, taking families to the church. For to-day was a great day at the monastery, and the Metropolite had come from Tallinn. After breakfast we followed them and found the gardens of the monastery thronged with people who had come from miles around. I was glad to have seen it first in the stillness of the night before, for to-day it swarmed with the scarlet and black and white of the gayly dressed peasants. For six long morning hours the service lasted in the great church, and for most of that time we wandered around the cloister gardens, watching the people who had come to spend the day, to worship for a little in the church and wander out again to sit on the grass in the sunshine and gossip with their neighbors. Besides the Russians in their beautiful old costumes there were a few ‘half believers,’ so called because they are members of the Russian church but are Esthonians and not Russians, and little groups of soldiers, beggars in rags, and gay dirty gypsies who wanted to tell our fortunes and heaped black curses on our heads when we did n’t give them money.

After the service there was a great feast in honor of the Archimandrite, and huge iron kettles of borsch, a Russian soup of beets and sour cream, and trays of kalachi, a kind of bread, were carried across the courtyard to feed the multitude. Two serving women carrying a long tray stumbled on the steps near us and a dozen kalachi fell to the ground. An old monk coming along behind stooped to pick them up.

That afternoon a monk with auburn hair led us, with lighted candles in our hands, through the long damp passages of the catacombs, and showed us the ancient cells and the chapel where the monks once met to worship and the tombs of all the monks who had died at the monastery in six hundred years.

We lingered so long listening to his tales that we left too short a time to walk the long miles to the train that was to take us back into the world again. So we bade a hurried farewell to our peasant family and hailed a passing cart. Gospozha bargained with the driver, cursing him roundly. ‘Can’t you see they are Americans?’ she said. ‘And you robbing them like that!’ But they finally came to terms and we joggled off, waving her good-bye and watching the turrets of the old world disappear beyond the river.