Item of the Day: Coxe's Travels (1787)
Full Title: Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark. Interspersed with Historical Relations and Political Inquiries. Illustrated with Charts and Engravings. By William Coxe, A.M.F.R.S. One of the Senior Fellows of King's College, Cambridge; Chaplain to his Grace the Duke of Marlborough; Member of the Imperial Economical Society at St. Petersburgh, And of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Copenhagen. In Four Volumes. The Third Edition. Volume the First. London: Printed for T. Cadell, In the Strand, MDCCLXXXVII.
Book III. Travels into Russia.
August 20. We came into Russia at the small village of Tolitzin, which in 1772 belonged to Poland; but is now comprised in the portion of country ceded to the empress by the late partition treaty. The province allotted to Russia comprises Polish Livonia; that part of the palatinate of Polotsk which lies to the east of the Duna; the palatinates of Bitepsk, Michislaw, and two small portions to the north-east and south-east of the palatinate of Minsk: this tract of land (Polish Livonia excepted) is situated in White-Russia, and includes at least one third of Lithuania.
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At Tolitzin we were greatly astonished at the cheapness of the post-horses: and when our servant had discharged the first account, which amounted to only two copecs, or about a penny a verst* for each horse, we should have concluded, that he had cheated the postmaster in our favour; if we had not been well convinced, from the general character of the Russians, that they were not likely to be duped by strangers. Indeed we soon afterwards discovered, that even half of the charge, which we thought so extremely moderate, might have been saved; if we had taken the precaution of obtaining an order from the Russian embassador at Warsaw.
From Tolitzin, through the new government of Mohilef, the road was excellent, and of considerable breadth, with a double row of trees planted on each side, and ditches to drain off the water. We passed through several wretched villages; ferried at Orsa over the Dnieper, there only a small river; went through Dubroffna; and arrived in the evening at Lady. The country from Tolitzin to Lady is waving and somewhat hilly, abounds in forest, and produces corn, millet, hemp, and flax. In the largest villages we observed schools and other buildings, constructing at the expense of the empress, and also churches with domes, intended for the Polish dissidents of the Greek sect, and the Russians who chuse to settle in the country.
Lady is situated in the government of Smolensko, and, before the late dismemberment, was one of the Russian frontier towns: we took up our quarters at the post-house, where we procured a very comfortable apartment. These post-houses, which frequently occur in the principal high-roads of Russia, are mostly constructed upon the same plan, and are very convenient for the accommodation of travellers: they are large square wooden buildings, enclosing a spacious court-yard, in the center of the front is a range of apartments intended for the reception of travellers, with a gate-way on each side leading into the court-yard; the remainder of the front is appropriated to the use of the post-master and his servants; the other three sides of the quadrangle are divided into stables and sheds for carriages, and large barns for hay and corn. We were agreeably surprized, even in this remote place, to meet with some English strong beer; and no less pleased to see our supper served in dishes of our countryman Wedgewood's cream-colored ware. The luxury of clean straw for our beds was no small addition to these comforts.
Upon calling for our bill in the morning, we found our charge as reasonable as the entertainment was good. The satisfaction we expressed at our reception, perhaps, induced the secretary ( as the post-master himself was absent) to think us proper subjects of imposition. The distance to the next station was about ten miles, and the secretary demanded three times the sum allowed by the public regulations, under pretence of our not being provided with an order for post-horses. We hinted some surprize at this charge: the intimation, though conveyed in the mildest terms, the secretary thought proper to answer with expressions of contempt and defiance; he ordered the horses again into the stables, and declared we should not stir from the place until we discharged the full sum. Though we might easily have been prevailed upon by the slightest apology to have submitted to the fraud, we determined to chastise his insolence. We repaired to the director of the custom-house, and were immediately admitted: to our great satisfaction he spoke German; and after we had laid our case before him he told us, that the Russian had demanded treble the sum he was intitled to; he assured us, we should receive instant redress, and that the offender should be punished for his imposition. Having dispatched a messenger, to whom he whispered a private order, he desired us to wait his return, and offered us coffee. While we were drinking it, he gave us various information relative to the Russian posts; added several hints, which afterwards proved singularly useful; and he particularly cautioned us to procure an order for horses from the governor of Smolensko. In the midst of this conversation we heard a carriage drive to the door, which we perceived to be our own, with all things ready for our immediate departure: our old friend, the post-master's secretary, made at the same time his appearance in a very submissive attitude; we interceded with the director for his back, and obtained a promise that he should only be reprimanded. After making those acknowledgements to our friendly director, which were due to his politeness; we took our leave, and proceeded on our journey.
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The Russians differ widely in their appearance and dress from the Polish peasants. The most striking contrast arises from their method of wearing their hair: the Poles shave their heads, leaving only a small tuft upon the crown; whereas the others suffer their hair to hang quite down to the eye-brows and over the ears, and cut it short round the neck. The country was undulating and hilly, and more open than usual until we arrived within a few miles of Smolensko; when we plunged into a thick forest, which continued almost to the gates of that town, without the intervention of a single village, or scarcely of a single cottage.
*Three quarters of a mile.