Monday, 25 November 2013

The droshkies of Imperial Russia

Writer Ross Browne observed the droshkies on this quay in central St. Petersburg.

On this early 20th century photograph of the Nicholas bridge (the present Blagoveshchensky bridge) and surroundings in St. Petersburg you can see (on the left) a number of traditional open four-wheeled horse-drawn carriages, droshkies, waiting for customers. The American writer
J. Ross Browne, who visited St. Petersburg in 1861, gives this vivid description of  the  droshkies, which once were such a common sight in the former capital of Imperial Russia:

The istrovoschik (sneeze and you have the word)—in plain English, the drosky drivers—are a notable feature in St. Petersburg. When I saw them for the first time on the quay of the Wassaly Ostrow, where the steamer from Stettin lands her passengers, the idea naturally impressed my mind that I had fallen among a brotherhood of Pilgrims or Druids. Nothing could be more unique than the incongruity of their costume and occupation. Every man looked like a priest; his long beard, his grave expression of countenance, his little black hat and flowing blue coat, gathered around the waist by means of a sash, his glazed boots reaching above the knees, his slow and measured motions, and the sublime indifference with which he regarded his customers, were singularly impressive. Even the filth and rustiness which formed the most prominent characteristics of the class contributed to the delusion that they might have sprung from a Druidical source, and gathered their dust of travel on the pilgrimage from remote ages down to the present period. It is really something novel, in the line of hackery, to see those sedate fellows sitting on their little droskys awaiting a customer. The force of competition, however, has of late years committed sad inroads upon their dignity, and now they are getting to be about as enterprising and pertinacious as any of their kindred in other parts of the world. The drosky is in itself a curiosity as a means of locomotion. Like the driver, it is generally dirty and dilapidated; but here the similitude ends; for, while the former is often high, his drosky is always low. The wheels are not bigger than those of an ordinary dog-cart, and the seat is only designed for one person, though on a pinch it can accommodate two. Generally it consists of a plank covered with a cushion, extending lengthwise in the same direction as the horse, so that the rider sits astride of it as if riding on horseback; some, however, have been modernized so as to afford a more convenient seat in the usual way. Night and day these droskys are every where to be seen, sometimes drawn up by the sidewalk, the driver asleep, awaiting a customer, but more frequently rattling full tilt over the pavements (the roughest in the world) with a load, consisting, in nine cases out of ten, of a fat old gentleman in military uniform, a very ugly old lady with a lapdog, or a very dashy young lady glittering with jewels, on her way, perhaps, to the Confiseur’s or somewhere else. But in a city like St. Petersburg, where it is at least two or three miles from one place to another, every body with twenty kopecks in his pocket uses the drosky. It is the most convenient and economical mode of locomotion for all ordinary purposes, hence the number of them is very large. On some of the principal streets it is marvelous how they wind their way at such a rattling pace through the crowd. To a stranger unacquainted with localities, they are a great convenience.

(image by Steve Bartrick Antique Prints)

Another writer, the Rev. Archibald Weir, who visited St. Petersburg a year before Browne, also wrote about the droshkies in the book Vacation Tourists and Notes on Travel in 1860, published by MacMillan and Co. in London:

Droshkies and their drivers, as well as the driving, are worth notice. The former are quite a national institution. From the Tsar to the serf, the droshky is the favourite conveyance. A man may keep any number and any variety of carriages he likes, but the droshky must be one. And no wonder. For one person they are very handy, neat turn-outs ; the horses are generally in good condition ; (a Russian merchant s ambition is to have a fat wife, a fat horse, and a fat coachman) ; the harness is very light, and when, as is often the case, studded over with silver, has a very elegant appearance. Moreover, those ugly appendages, blinkers, are not known in Russia. Droshkies are capable of great speed, and easily managed. Their size suits the build of horses, commonly used, low and short in the draught. One fault only is to be found with them the leg accommodation is scanty. I speak of the modern droshky, in which one sits as in a common chaise. The old-fashioned type, across which one sits astride, has well-nigh disappeared from St. Petersburg. A good many are to be seen at Moscow ; but they are the shabbiest on the streets, and will soon die out there. At St. Petersburg a tariff restrains the extortioning of the isvostchiks. It is true they never take the fare without a grumble ; but the fare is small enough, sevenpence the course. If they take you beyond the range, or with luggage, they make good use of their freedom from rule. But at Moscow things are different There is no tariff there, and consequently one must bargain before one hires, or pay any penalty the driver chooses to levy. There is also a marked difference in the manner of the Moscow isvostchiks. Such abusive, cunning, impudent fellows I never saw. Their eyes twinkle with roguery and insolence. No doubt every one who has ridden in a droshky associates it with insufferable jolting. But the blame is to be laid upon the roads, not upon the carriages. Over a smooth surface, such as the wood pavement in the Nevsky Prospekt, or the beautiful roads at Peterhoff or Tsarskoe-Selo, nothing can be more easy and pleasant than the swift motion of a droshky. But no springs in the world could ever soften the frightful joltings occasioned by the bad roads which mostly prevail. I thought nothing could be worse than the streets of St. Petersburg, till I got to Moscow, where, to the vileness of the pavement is added the hilliness of the ground.

A somewhat later description of the St. Petersburg droshkies is found in the book St. Petersburg (published in 1910) by George Dobson:

The most conspicuous of all the types of street-
life in St. Petersburg is the legkovoi izvostchik*
the Russian cabman, more commonly called simply
izvostchik. He is generally the first to attract the
stranger's attention, for he lies in wait for all new-
comers at every available point, and thrusts the
offer of his services upon them with persevering
insistence. Formerly he and his competitors used
to surround you at railway stations, theatres, etc.,
pull at your coat-sleeves, and argue with you in
the most persuasive manner. This habit of pester-
ing foot passengers at such close quarters is now
seldom indulged in, as the police regulations warn
the izvostchik off the pavements, and compel him to
keep to his seat. The droshky, on which he sits
and waits in every street (there being no regular
cab-ranks), is a small barouche, or victoria, with
more of a pony than a horse in the shafts. In its
present form, with rubber tyres and lifting hood
for rainy weather, it presents a great improvement
on what it was twenty-five years ago, when George
Augustus Sala described it as a perambulator on
four wheels, built for one and a half, and licensed
for two, with a moojick on the box driving like a
London costermonger. But although the droshky
is thus being gradually modernized, thanks to con-
tinual presssure from the police authorities, its
driver, the izvostchik, still remains a peasant from
the country, utterly indifferent to all progress.
More change has taken place in his droshky in the
course of a few years than in the whole race of
izvostchiks for the past century or more. The
political reforms which have bestirred other classes
have left him unmoved, and he seems to be resign-
ing himself to the prospect of being superseded by
electric trams, taxi-cabs, and other self-propelling

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