Something entirely new, unseen and unheard-of formerly, has lately shown itself in our country districts. To our village, consisting of eighty homesteads, from half a dozen to a dozen cold, hungry, tattered tramps come every day, wanting a night’s lodging.
These people, ragged, half-naked, barefoot, often ill, and extremely dirty, come into the village and go to the village policeman. That they should not die in the street of hunger and exposure, he quarters them on the inhabitants of the village, regarding only the peasants as “inhabitants.” He does not take them to the squire, who besides his own ten rooms has ten other apartments: office, coachman’s room, laundry, servants’ and upper-servants’ hall and so on; nor does he take them to the priest or deacon or shopkeeper, in whose houses, though not large, there is still some spare room; but hetakes them to the peasants, whose whole family, wife, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters, and big and little children, all live in one room — sixteen, nineteen, or twenty-three feet long. And the master of the hut takes the cold, hungry, stinking, ragged, dirty man, and not merely gives him a night’s lodging, but feeds him as well.
“When you sit down to table yourself,” an old peasant householder told me, “it’s impossible not to invite him too, or your own soul accepts nothing. So one feeds him and gives him a drink of tea.”
Those are the nightly visitors. But during the day, not two or three, but ten or more such visitors call at each hut, and again it is: “Why, it is impossible…,” etc.
And for almost every tramp the housewife cuts a slice of bread, thinner or thicker according to the man’s appearance — though she knows her rye will not last till next harvest.
“If you were to give to all who come, a loaf [the big peasant loaf of black bread] would not last a day,” some housewives said to me. “So sometimes one hardens one’s heart and refuses!”
And this goes on every day, all over Russia. An enormous yearly-increasing army of beggars, cripples, administrative exiles, helpless old men, and above all unemployed workmen, lives — that is to say, shelters itself from cold and wet — and is actually fed by the hardest-worked and poorest class, the country peasants.
We have Workhouses, Foundlings’ Hospitals, Boards of Public Relief, and all sorts of philanthropic organisations in our towns; and in all those institutions, in buildings with electric light, parquet floors, neat servants, and various well-paid attendants, thousands of helpless people of all sorts are sheltered. But however many such there may be, they are but a drop in the ocean of the enormous (unnumbered, but certainly enormous) population which now tramps destitute over Russia, and is sheltered and fed apart from any institutions, solely by the village peasants whose own Christian feelings induce them to bear this heavy and gigantic tax.
Just think what people who are not peasants would say, if — even once a week — such a shivering, starving, dirty, lousy tramp were placed in each of their bedrooms! But the peasants not only house them, but feed them and give them tea, because “one’s own soul accepts nothing unless one has them to table.”
In the more remote parts of Sarátof, Tambóf, and other Provinces, the peasants do not wait for the policeman to bring these tramps, but always receive them and feed them of their own accord.
And, as is the case with all really good deeds, the peasants do this without knowing that they are doing a good deed; and yet it is not merelya good deed “for one’s soul,” but is of enormous importance for the whole of Russian society. It is of such importance for Russian society because, but for this peasant population and the Christian feeling that lives so strongly in it, it is difficult to imagine what the fate would be, not only of these hundreds of thousands of unfortunate, houseless tramps, but of all the well-to-do — and especially of the wealthy who have their houses in the country.
It is only necessary to see the state of privation and suffering to which these homeless tramps have come or have been brought, and to imagine the mental condition they must be in, and to realise that it is only this help rendered to them by the peasants that restrains them from committing violence, which would be quite natural in their position, upon those who possess in superfluity all the things these unfortunates lack to keep themselves alive.
So that it is not the philanthropic organisations, not the Government with its police and all its juridical institutions, that protects us, the well-to-do, from being attacked by those who wander, cold, hungry, and homeless, after having sunk — or, for the most part, having been brought — to the lowest depths of poverty and despair; but we are protected, as well as fed and supported, by that same basic strength of the Russian nation — the peasantry.