Thanks to the rift between Western Europe and Russia, for a long time the West remained in the dark about what life was like Russia. And where there are no facts, rumours run wild, so as a result, Europeans developed a twisted perception of life in Russia.
For instance, in early 18th century a Russian resident in a European court could not find anyone to trade with Peter The Great, as people were simply afraid of going to Russia. They thought it was a journey to the end of the world, “somewhere on the border of the Indies.”
The most expansive work on Russia through the eyes of a foreigner in the 17th century was produced by the German scholar, Adam Olearius. He visited Moscow four times over the course of his life, and in 1657 published the “New Expanded Description of the Journey to Muscovy and Persia" (Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reise), in which he shared his observations – and provided illustrations as well, just for good measure.
The first thing Olearius took note of in Moscow was the primarily wooden architecture, with stone houses reserved for boyars, wealthy merchants and the Germans. “For this reason, they often have great fires. … Several nights while we were there we saw flames rising in three or four places at once. … The streets are broad, but in the fall and in rainy weather they are a sea of mud. For that reason, most of the streets are covered with round logs, laid in parallel to each other, so that one can walk across as readily as a bridge.”
The Eternal Mystery of Russian Women
Another oddity for Olearius was the traders in the vicinity of St. Basil’s Cathedral. He described the women who stood there selling jewellery whilst holding turquoise rings in their mouths. “I asked, with bewilderment, what it meant. The locals told me that it means the girls were for hire.” These were what some would today call “ladies of negotiable affection” and rings in their mouths were an indicator of their profession.
At the time, foreigners didn’t have to pay for a woman’s time to get her attention, though. The French traveller and emissary, Foy de la Neuville, wrote in his book ACurious Account of Muscovy (Relation curieuse de la Moscovie): “Russian women have a penchant for foreigners and are readily intimate.”
A great deal has been written concerning the appearance of Moscow's women, as well. For example, in Hans Moritz Ayrmann's Travels through Livonia and Russia, he admitted to prefer Russian women to Germans: “Faces so fair that they overshadow many nations.
Slim-figured and tall, so that long garments, covering from top to bottom, look very beautiful on them. Young women braid their hair and adorn it with pearls and gold, and it looks wonderful.
The Moscow woman can present herself with a stern or pleasant demeanour as required. You never see such a lady guffawing and it is rarer still to see one bearing a simpering smile, with which women of our land try to demonstrate good manners and pleasantry. They do not transform their visage by shaking their heads, biting their lips and rolling their eyes, as German women do.”
Olearius, on the other hand, had a different reaction. He believed the women were overly liberal with their makeup. “The women are of average height, generally well built, and are delicate in face and body. In the towns, however, they all paint and powder themselves so crudely and obviously that they look as though someone had thrown a handful of flour at their faces and coloured their cheeks with a paintbrush. They also colour their eyebrows and eyelashes black, or sometimes brown,” he revealed.
The traveller also wrote how Moscow women, especially the young, wore shoes with very high heels. Noble women lived a secluded life, unlike common girls: “ladies of leisure very rarely appear in public.” A noble lady would only leave her house if accompanied by her husband, father or older brother, and they primarily visited churches, monasteries or their friends and relatives.
Sweating and Swearing
The Russian banya – a steam room and bathhouse – was another thing foreigners found astonishing, as Europeans didn’t have steam rooms back then. Hans Moritz Ayrmann had a pleasant experience, which he shared in his book: “Commoners build banyas on running water; once they've heated up they go outside wearing nothing but what God gave them, enter the running water and sit there for a while, be it summer or winter.
In summer they use a ladder of sorts, made out of two long beams, to descend into the water and dip there, one by one. In winter they cut large holes in the ice and jump into the freezing waters. They believe it to be very beneficial for their health. We have not heard of such bathing customs, but I tried it for myself and quite enjoyed it, so I wanted to share it.”
Olearius was not impressed by this custom. “In Moscow we several times saw men and women come out of public baths to cool off, and, naked as babes, approach us and call obscenely in broken German to our young people.” Men and women bathing together was considered to be the norm.
He was also not a fan of Muscovites swearing, which he mentioned in his notes: “they use many vile and loathsome words, which, if the historical record did not demand it, I should not impart to chaste ears. … Not only adults and old people behave thus, but also little children who do not yet know the name of God, or father, or mother, already have profanity on their lips and say it as often to their parents as their parents to them.”
Moscow's architecture and daily life was described in detail in the notes of Paul of Aleppo, the Archdeacon of Antioch Orthodox Church. He was particularly impressed by the Kremlin's defensive construction. “This contrivance we did not see either in the walls of Antioch, or in those of Constantinople, or of Aleppo, or any other fortified town: their port-holes have a level range only over the ground at a distance; whereas these allow an aim at every person who approaches the bottom of the wall; and this for two reasons; one, because these walls are not, like the walls in our country, built perpendicular, in the form of a cube, but are sloped upwards, and because the port-holes, or embrasures, are contrived so as to command the very bottom of the wall.”
“On the [Moscow] River are many bridges, most of them supported on wooden piles. That which is near the [Kremlin], and opposite to the gates of the second line of the city walls, is much to be admired: it is level, and formed of large pieces of timber joisted into each other, and bound together with very thick ropes of the bark of the tree called Fihmioiir (the Lime-Teil, or Linden-tree), having its ends fastened on the towers and on the opposite bank of the river: so that if the water rises, the bridge rises too; for it is supported without pillars, being composed of planks lying on the water, and, when the water is low, resting on the ground. … The servant-girls of the neighbourhood and the women of the lower orders come to this bridge to wash their clothes in the river, as the water flows to its very edge,” he wrote.
'Their Most Usual Nourishment is Cucumbers and Astrakhan Melons'
Russian cuisine, of course, was also mentioned. Foy de la Neuville noted that in Moscow “they eat and drink very badly, their most usual nourishment being only cucumbers and Astrakhan melons (which they pickle in water in summer), flour and salt.” Olearius wasn’t as specific, saying only that “their daily food consists of groats, beets, cabbages, cucumbers, and fresh or salted fish.
“They have a very common food which they call ikra, made from the roe of large fish, especially sturgeon and whitefish. It is not bad.”
Going to bars for entertainment is not something new. Barhopping, although not called that exactly, was popular in the 17th century too. Here’s what Swedish diplomat Johann Philipp Kilburger said about Moscow: “All taverns, wine bars, beer and vodka drinking establishments in the vast land that is Russia belong to the tsar and to the tsar alone. Taverns therefore rarely have good beer, and although barley, malt and hops are cheap, it is sold at a hefty price.
Taverns are not numerous in Moscow, and other cities alike. I can commend the Russians for them having not only in taverns, but also ice rooms to cool drinks in the summertime. Here is how it’s done: each year the ice rooms are filled with ice in March.
Afterwards the place where drinks are to be stored is dug up and filled with water, which is frozen overnight, making the spot smooth and even. Then they put hay on the ice, making it melt more slowly during the summer and helping the barrels to withstand the moisture better.”
Russian kvass (a non- or lightly-alcoholic fermented beverage commonly made from rye bread) received a separate mention from Kilburger. “Almost everyone, especially the peasants, have the drink they call kvass. The drink is, as I am aware, not brewed – rye malt is mixed with hot water; it is always stored in open vessels and at night they add as much as was drunk during the day. As it becomes too watery and weak, it is made again, and the cycle continues. This kind of kvass is sold on every street in Moscow.”
Harsh Character in a Harsh Land
It turns out that the constant state of home improvement is also not a new thing. Dutch statesman Nicolaes Witsen complained in his notes:
“As we arrived on Jan. 25 it was apparent that the large ambassadorial house, where we were to stay, was very rundown, and maintenance was only just starting. The ambassador had four rooms available, but his noblemen, officers and other members of the suite had to resort to boxes standing around in the courtyard.”
It wasn’t as safe back then as it is today, so robbery was pretty much par for the course. Olearius was not exempt from this unpleasant phenomenon. He wrote that the streets were “very unsafe, so that unless one has good weapons and companions he cannot escape attack, as we had occasion to learn. Returning late at night from a party at a good friend's, one of our members who advanced far ahead of the rest of us was assailed by two Russian street robbers.
When he cried out to signal that he was in danger, we sped to his assistance, whereupon one of the thieves hid himself, and the other was beaten so severely that he could hardly drag himself away. Not a night went by without leaving assorted dead, who were discovered on the streets the following morning.”
Many writers commented on the difficulties of doing business in Moscow. Paul of Aleppo, for instance, wrote about street vendors: “The trade of the Muscovites is rudely free; and their sales are abundant, as they are not asked for tribute or taxes, nor are oppressed by any tyrannical collectors. Their language in dealing is something like that of the Franks. A certain converted Jew, born at Saloniki of Jewish parents and ancestors, who was interpreter at the Emperor's court, for the Greek and Turkish languages, told us, that the Jews surpassed all nations in treachery and devilishness; but that the Muscovites were above them, and had much the advantage of them, in cunning and ingenuity.”