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RUSSIA IN EAST LONDON By COUNT E. ARMFELT.
THE foreigners who dwell within our gates form one of the most picturesque elements of the metropolis. Among the alien communities, Russia in East London possesses special interest, and it teems with characters which are worthy the study of the artist. Tolstoi’s stirring scenes are forcibly brought to mind when one beholds the vast and heterogeneous Russian population which crowds the main streets and the by-streets and the alleys of the East-End. One realises at a glance that many of these men and women seen in the East India Dock Road, and in Commercial Road and White-chapel, are Tolstoi’s word-portraits made flesh.
Almost any day in the week we may meet a tall and handsom young man and a beautiful fair-headed girl, whose striking appearance is always remarked; they are brother and sister. They belong to an ancient family in Livonia; their father was a general who fell into dis-favour at the court of Alexander III., and the boy and girl were imprudent in speech. They had to flee the country, and they live in a cottage on a small pension which a relative secretly remits to them.
Here is a long-haired, bearded man with Kalmuck features. He is now a carpenter, but was once a well-to-do peasant proprietor in Southern Russia. He struck an officer who was mad with vodka and who had insulted his young wife. The next day he had to leave his home for ever.
Here again is a pale, beardless man, the lines of whose face tell a tale of intense suffering. He was once a member of a society of Skoptsei, or self-mutilators. He was converted to reason by a Nihilist convict. Together they tramped Siberia, escaped into Chinese territory, and ultimately reached London. The ex-Russian convict is now a compositor, and some people say that he writes Nihilistic pamphlets and produces a secret Nihilistic newspaper.
Now and again you may witness a social and Socialistic gathering followed by a dance where these Russians are largely represented. Russians, even of the higher order, are Socialists at heart, and their womenfolk are intensely Socialistic in their views, and preach the tenets of the “Religion of the Future” with the fervour of Apostles. At these meetings are not infrequently heard strange life histories and startling accounts of adventure. Yet how simply and modestly these stories and adventures are told. How easily one can see from the look and speech of the narrators that their lives have had more than the average of human sorrow and danger, and that, even while seemingly rejoicing in life’s pleasures, the finger of Fate presses its mark deeper and deeper into their being.
The educated Russian has more real learning and greater power of thought than the ordinary educated men of Germany and England; for while the latter have many pursuits and many pleasures the educated Russian, who as a rule is poor and noble and proud, has but his books and few enjoyments.
And thus also it is that his humour is tinged with grimness, that serious thought ever and anon runs through his lighter conversation, and that the most joyful occasions and the happiest moments round the steaming samovar are marred by melancholy and depressing thoughts.
Now and again it happens that the colony misses one or more of its prominent members, perhaps a man and a woman, or two women by themselves. They have disappeared suddenly, leaving no trace behind them. No one makes any enquiries, but these fugitives are not forgotten. Presently a new-comer fresh from the Fatherland makes his appearance, and brings tidings. Elzelina Kralchenskaya is in a Russian prison; Vera Ivanovna is in Siberia; Dmitry Konstantinovitch is dead. And within an hour Russian London in the East and Russian London in the West know the fateful news. The rapidity with which news spreads among them whenever any important event has come to pass is marvellous. The most illiterate, the men who can neither read nor write, are almost as well informed as those who belong to a club, or who daily frequent the Russian library and reading room and can see the latest periodicals and newspapers.
This library is unique in its way. It consists of one room on the second floor of a small house in Church Lane. There is a cigar shop by the side of the dark passage. The denizens are mostly Russians; and the library is free to all. The inscription we reproduce, printed on a piece of paper, surrounded by various notices, also in Russian, is affixed to the door. In English it reads “Free Russian Library. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.”
A long table, two long wooden benches, and two rough writing tables, one for the librarian, a few chairs, and several dozen shelves, about two thousand books, Russian periodicals and Russian newspapers about five days old, with a few prints on the walls, comprise all the furniture, and all there is to admire. The room is a little stuffy, though not uncomfortable. But it is sometimes very crowded, especially on Saturday afternoons and on Sundays. Men who can neither read nor write go there to have their letters read and written; and the librarian is always willing to assist applicants in this way. Apropos of this institution, it may be mentioned that a few journals representing advanced views of Russian exiles are periodically issued in London. Some are in the Russian language, others are printed in English. A street-seller of one of the latter is shown in an illustration on p. 24.
At the Russian Library you meet men belonging to every class of society and men of every type: naval cadets of the Imperial service, students and literary men, tradesmen, men without occupation who do not know a word of English, all congregate there at some time of the day, and the smoke which issues from cigars and pipes and cigarettes welds all these atoms of Russian society into an indistinct mass.
If you leave the Library in Church Lane and turn into the Commercial Road and go eastward you come to a thoroughly Russian neighbourhood. Union Street and its adjoining mean little streets are mostly inhabited by Russian Jews and by a few Christians of the peasant class. The latter are very poor, fervid icon worshippers. Their patron saints are numerous, and range from the Archangels and the Apostles down to the less-known names of the Russian calendar. Though these icons (which are mostly coloured pictures of the Madonna and Child) are bought at most trivial cost, they are sometimes lavishly framed in silver.
Christians and Jews commingle freely with each other in free England, for the gates of the Ghetto are memories of the past. The orthodox Catholics and the Roman Catholics, the Raskolniks of every sect, the Talmudish Jews and the Karaiim Jews, and the Memnonites live in amity side by side, and their national customs and their national language are the bonds which unite them all.
Race and creed are forgotten in that busy beehive of East London. Men and women and children only struggle for their daily bread. But by far the most successful strugglers are the Russian Jews. Their thrift is almost phenomenal, and may be said indeed to be often brought to the verge of absolute miserliness.
Yet, after all, who can blame them ? If they live on a piece of black rye bread and an onion, or a piece of fish fried in olive oil by way of a luxury, they at least know that their frugality and economy will, by-and-bye, enable them to alleviate the wants of their old people at home or bring some young and cherished relative out of the ” land of bondage.”
How constantly these voluntary and involuntary Russian exiles manage, through sheer industry and economy, to send remittances to their friends, may be inferred from the fact that nearly a million of roubles is yearly sent to Russia and Poland by the Ghetto Bank of Whitechapel. Drafts from five roubles upwards are issued by this bank, and for the convenience of customers it is open till ten o’clock at night, with the exception of the Jewish Sabbath. It reopens on Saturday evening, and it works all Sunday. It transacts every kind of business connected with banking, shipping, emigration and immigration. It has agents in every important town of Russia, and in all the provinces of the empire, including, of course, Poland.
And it has special agents not only in Russia, but also at Bremen, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. This remarkable establishment is situate at the corner of Osborn Street, Whitechapel. It is a quaint building. Its outside walls are covered with long lines of Hebrew characters, and other advertisements which announce the nature of the business carried on within. It is never without a customer. Every minute of the day is occupied by answering all kinds of queries in Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, and other languages, and in changing coins and paper money.
Adjoining the bank is a modest structure, which bears over its door an inscription, both in Russian and English capitals, signifying that it is the Post Office. Large numbers of letters and parcels for Russia and all parts of the world are sent from here. The great majority of the callers at this Post Office are aliens; but, though unable to speak English, they do not experience any difficulty, inasmuch as some of the officials in attendance are thoroughly conversant with the strange tongues in which they are addressed.
There are several trades which are almost wholly under the control of Russians. Such are those of the bamboo workers and slipper makers who reside in the streets abutting on the Commercial Road. The shipwrights, engineers, carpenters, affect the East India Dock Road. The cabinet makers, tailors, and bootmakers mostly live in Whitechapel. The skin-dressers, the seamstresses, the tailoresses, and the bow makers and milliners are found in every locality where there is anything to be earned.
There are half-a-dozen Russian doctors in the colony. They have dispensaries and an interesting private practice, for many men who are known to science and literature reside in Russian London of the East. Moreover, there are some pharmacies in Whitechapel and the adjoining district which dispense Russian drugs and prepare medicines from Russian prescriptions.
One of the features of Russian London in the East is found in its numerous cafe restaurants. They serve all the usual Continental dishes and delicacies of which Russians are so fond, such as caviare, smoked salmon, smoked goose, smoked beef, reindeer tongue, pickled lampreys, salted fish, bread flavoured with caraway seeds, strong cheeses, and gherkins.
The evenings are spent at a game of cards, in which ladies often join. The Russian woman has keen gambling instincts and is quite able to hold her own against the men. A bowl of strong punch brewed with the national rye spirit enlivens the proceedings, and cigarettes are common to men and women. Occasionally in some of these restaurants may be seen a professional letter writer, who will indite letters in Russian or Hebrew for those who desire him to do so.
Russian London in the East has its dark shadows, but who would deny that it has also its bright sunshine which reveals all that is noble in human nature ?
Source: Living London Edited by George R. Sims. Cassell and Company, Limited. 1902.