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Historical and theological experience

Charitable people in Old Russia

by V.O.Klyuchevsky

Charity-here is a word with very controversial implications but a very simple meaning. Many interpret it in different ways, but all understand it in the same way. Ask what it means to do good to one's neighbour and you may receive as many answers as there are people you ask. But put them directly before an accident, before a suffering person and ask what to do-and everyone will be ready to help in all ways possible. The feeling of compassion is so simple and direct that one feels like helping even when a sufferer does not ask for help, when help is detrimental and dangerous for him, when he may abuse it. At leisure it is possible to ponder and argue on the terms on which to loan governmental funds to the needy, on the organisation and comparative significance of the state and public aid, on relations of both to private charity, on provision of the needy with jobs, on the demoralising influence of gratuities... But when you see a man drowning, your first movement is to rush to his help without asking how and why he came to be in water and what moral influence our help will exert on him… The only important thing is to help him to survive, and if he should abuse our help, it will be his fault…

This is how private charity was understood in old times in our country; this is how we, too, certainly understand it, having inherited good notions and traditions of old through historical education.

The Old Russian society led by the Church learnt diligently through centuries to understand and fulfil also the second of the two principal commandments which include all the law and prophets-the commandment of love of one's neighbour. In a situation of social disorder and lack of security for the weak and protection for the offended, the practice of this commandment was exercised predominantly in one direction: love of one's neighbour was believed to be expressed first of all in selfless compassion for those who suffer, and personal alms-giving was considered its primary demand. The idea of this alms-giving was put in the basis of practical morality; the need for giving arms was fostered through all the means of spiritual and moral pedagogy available at the time. To love one's neighbour means first of all to feed up the hungry, to give to drink to the thirsty, to visit a prisoner. The love of fellow-men meant in fact the love of the poor. Charity was not so much an auxiliary means of social building as the necessary condition for personal moral health: the lover of the poor needed it more then the poor himself... An old Russian benefactor, a "lover of Christ", intended not so much to raise the level of public welfare by his good work as to raise the level of his own spiritual perfection. When two old Russian hands met, one begging for Christ's sake, the other giving in the name of Christ, it was difficult to say which one gave more to the other: the need of one and the help of the other merged in interaction of the brotherly love of both. This is why Old Russia understood and appreciated only personal, direct charity, alms given from hand to hand, in secret at that from not only other people's eyes, but also from one's own left hand. For a benefactor, a beggar was the best possible prayer-man, intercessor and spiritual benefactor... A benefactor had to see people's need with his own eyes and then to relieve it in order to gain spiritual benefit; a beggar had to see his benefactor in order to know for whom to pray. Old Russian tsars, early in the morning on the eve of great feasts, used to pay secret visits to prisons and alms-houses to give alms to their inhabitants with their own hands and to visit poor people living on their own. Just as a disease can hardly be studied and healed by a drawing or a dummy of the diseased body, so alms given indirectly seemed little valid. Because of this view of the significance of charity, begging in Old Russia was considered not an economic burden for the people, nor an ulcer in public order, but one of the principal means of moral education of the people, a practical church-attached institution of public good manners. As a clinic needs the patient to learn to cure diseases, so the Old Russian society needed the poor and wretched to cultivate the ability and habit to love men. Alms was an additional act of church service, a practical requirement of the rule whereby faith without good works is dead…

It is difficult to say to what extend this view of charity helped to improve social life in Old Russia. No method of social study can estimate how much good was poured in people's relationship by this everyday silent thousand-handed charily, how much it accustomed people to love men and disaccustomed the poor to hate the rich. The significance of this personal charity was revealed more vividly and tangibly when the need for charitable aid was aroused not by the misery of particular unhappy lives, but by a national physical disaster… Poor harvest and crop failures were not rare in Old Russia. The want of economic communication and administrative efficiency turned local food shortages into famines.

A disaster of this kind happened under Tsar Boris in the early 17th century. In 1601, hardly had the spring sowing ended, terrible rains began to pour and kept pouring all summer. Field work was stopped; the corn failed to ripen; harvest could not be started before August; and on the Dormition Day a hard frost struck and beat down the unripe corn and almost the whole of it was left in the field… With the very first signs of crop failure, speculation on crop began to come into play… Crop prices were inflated to terrible heights: a tchetvert1 of rye…went up 30 times. The Tsar took strict and decisive measures against the evil: he prohibited distilling and brewing, ordered to track down buyers-up and whip them mercilessly at market places, to take the census of their reserves and sell them by retail in small portions, prescribed compulsory prices and punished by heavily fines those who tried to hide their reserves.

A surviving manuscript has revealed to us one of the private charities that worked at that time from below, in provinces, while the Tsar struggled with the national disaster from above. There lived in her estate a widowed land-owning lady, the wife of an affluent provincial nobleman, by name of Ulyana Ustinovna Osoryina. She was a simple, ordinary, good woman of Old Russia, modest and afraid of rising above those around her in anything. She differed from others only in that pity for the poor and wretched-the feeling with which a Russian woman is born-was more subtle and profound and was expressed more intensively in her than in many others. Developing with continued practice, it gradually came to fill all her being and to become the main stimulus in her moral life, the incessant drive of her invariably active heart…

Love of the poor did not allow her to be a thrifty proprietress. She reckoned her house provisions only for a year, giving out the rest to the needy… Sometimes she had no penny left at her household after charity and had to borrow money from her sons, using it to sew winter clothes for the poor, while herself, already almost 60, had no fir coat to wear in winter. The beginning of that terrible three year-long famine under Tsar Boris caught her in her Nizhni Novgorod estate completely unprepared. She failed to gather any crops from her field; there were no reserves; almost all the cattle perished for want of fodder. She did not loose courage, but took to the task of selling out the rest of the cattle, clothes, ware and all that was valuable in the house. She used the gains to buy bread, which she distributed among the hungry, letting no applicant go with empty hands and taking special care of feeding her servants. At the time many thrifty masters simply banished their serfs from the homesteads to avoid feeding them, but gave them no certificates of freedom so that they could be brought back to slavery later on. Left to the mercies of fate amidst the general panic, serfs began stealing and robbing. Ulyana tried her best to prevent her servants from doing it and held them near herself as long as she could. Finally, she came to the point of uttermost poverty, having cleaned herself out so that nothing was left to put on to go to church. Exhausted, with all the corn used up to the last grain, she declared to her serfs that she could no longer feed them and that those who wished could take their title-deeds of possession and certificates of freedom and go free with God. Some of them left her, and she saw them off with prayer and blessing, while other refused to be free and declared that they would rather die with their mistress than leave her. She sent out her faithful servants to fields and woods to gather bark and goose-foot and began baking bread from these surrogates, which she and her children and serfs ate and even managed to share with the poor, "because at that time the poor were numberless", as her biographer laconically observes. The landowners living nearby reproached these beggars: What are you coming to her for? What can you take from her? She herself is dying of hunger. "We will tell you this", said the beggars, "we have been to many villages where they gave us real bread, but it did not give us as much content as the bread of this widow, what's her name you said?" Many beggars could not even name her properly. Then the neighbouring landowners began to send their servants to Ulyana for her wonderful bread and, having tried it, found that the beggars were right and talked among themselves with astonishment: what great masters are her serfs at baking bread! For two years she had to endure this poverty and did not grieve nor complained or gave in to God in madness or was dead beat with poverty. On the contrary, she was as cheerful as never before-this is how the biographer concludes his story about the last feat of a mother. She died soon after the famine was over, in the beginning of 1604. The tradition of our past has not preserved for us a more lofty and moving example of the charitable love of one's neighbour.

Nobody has counted and no historical manuscript has recorded how many Ulyanas were there in the Russian land at that time and how many hungry tears they wiped by their good hands. One may assume there were enough of both, because the Russian land survived those terrible years refusing to live up to the expectations of her enemies. Here private charity met the efforts of the authorities. It is not always the case, however. Private charity suffered from certain inconveniences. Usually it gives occasional and fleeting aid and often not to those in real need. It can be easily abused… It is pure in its source, but easily lends itself to corruption in its flow. Here it goes against the will of benefactors and can be diverted from the demands of the common good and order… Public charity has its advantages: inferior to private charity in vigour and quality of motivation and in its moral and educational influence on both sides, it is more prudent and effective in its practical results, giving the needy more durable aid and permanent asylum…

It came to the lot of the 18th century to gain a sad advantage of understanding and appreciating through hard experience all the importance of the charity issue, raised already by the Council of One Hundred Chapters, as a matter of legislation and administration and bring it out of the realm of personal moral feeling into the area of social building…

In those hard years, standing close to the Tsar was a man who by his good example showed how private charity could be combined with public charity and how the feeling of personal compassion could be used to build a stable system charitable institutions. It was F. M. Rtischev, a close chamberlain at the court of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, later his butler, i. e. a minister of the court. This man is one of the best memories bequeathed to us by Russian antiquity. One of the first propagators of academic education in the 17th century Moscow, he was one of the prominent statesman of the Alexis' time so abundant in men of great intellect. Very busy with the service, enjoying the full confidence of the Tsar and the Tsarina and the great respect of the court society, the mentor of the Tsarevich Alexis, Rtischev set himself as the task of his private life to serve the suffering and needy humanity… The high position only broadened as it were the space for his love of men, giving him an opportunity to see how many are people who need help, and his compassion was not content with giving aid to the first suffering that came along. From the height of the Old Russian compassion for concrete personal misfortune, for this or that miserable person, Rtischev could rise to the ability to sympathise with people's misery and to struggle with it as though it was his personal disaster…

A plan of public charity that developed in Rtischev's mind was calculated for the most painful sores of the then Russian life. Firstly, the Crimean Tartars in the 16th and 17th centuries made it a profitable trade to carry out predatory raids on the Russian land where they took captives by thousands and dozens of thousands and sold them to Turkey and other countries. In order to save and bring these captives back home, the Moscow government arranged to ransom them at public expense and for this purpose introduced a special common tax called captivity money… But the state allowance was not sufficient. Having seen a lot of suffering among war prisoners during military campaigns, Rtischev concluded an agreement with a Greek merchant who lived in Russia and who, while running a business with the Mohammedan East, paid ransom for many captive Christians at his own expense. To this good man Rtischev gave what is now 17 thousand roubles to which the Greek, having agreed to operate the ransom, added his own contribution, thus making it a sort of charity campaign for ransoming Russian captives from the Tartars… Rtischev did not forget about strangers either, whose captivity cast them to Russia, relieving their condition with his intercession and charity.

The Moscow unpaved street of the 17th century was very sloppy: misery, idleness and vice lied there together in the dirt; beggars and cripples cried out to passers-by for alms; drunkards wallowed in the mud. Rtischev made up a team of delivery men who picked up these people from the streets and delivered them into a special house set up by Rtischev at his own expense, where the sick were treated and the drunks sobered. Supplied then with all the necessary things, they were released to be replaced by new patients. For the elderly, blind and other cripples who suffered from incurable diseases, Rtischev bought another house, spending on its maintenance his last money. This house known as "Fyodor Rtischev's Hospital" existed also after his death, supported by voluntary donations. Thus Rtischev created two forms of charitable institutions: an inpatient asylum for those who needed provisional aid and a permanent asylum for those who needed the love of men to take them on its hands till their death…

With careful and profoundly compassionate attention Rtischev would stop before the new sort of people who needed compassionate attention-the sort which only began to arise under Juliania: the serfdom of peasants ripened in the 17th century… Being a major landowner he once, in need of money, had to sell his village of Ilyinskoye. Having struck a bargain with a major buyer, he himself lowered the agreed price, but led the new owner to an icon and forced him to swear that he would not increase the philanthropically calculated dues the peasants were to pay to their former master-an unusual and a little strange form of a verbal bill of exchange taken by its giver on his conscience. Supporting his peasants' equipment with generous loans, he was afraid most of all of disrupting their households by unbearable tributes and statute labours and frowned every time when noticed an increase of manor-house's income reported by his managers.

No report has survived to show whether Rtischev's attitude to serfs met with a response in the landowners' community. But his charitable work appeared to have made an influence on the legislation. Good ideas supported by good implementers and examples are easy to put on a sort of flesh and blood, to be embodied in customs, laws and institutions. The uncalculating private charity of Old Russia reared the beggary skill, became a means of nourishing idleness and sometimes itself turned into the cold fulfillment of church decency, into the distribution of pennies among those who asked, not those needed aid. Benefactors, such as Juliania and Rtischev, restored the true Christian meaning of charity the source of which is a warm and compassionate feeling, while the goal is elimination of poverty and suffering. The legislation began to work in the same direction after Rtischev. Since the time of Alexis' successor, a long list of decrees followed against the idle professional beggary and private alms-giving. On the other hand, the authorities of the state lent a helping hand to that of the Church for concerted efforts to build charitable institutions. Under Tsar Fyodor Alekseyevich, the Moscow beggars were sorted out: those really helpless were ordered to be kept in a special asylum at public expense, while healthy idlers to be given jobs in workhouses conceived perhaps at that very time. It was planned to build in Moscow two charitable institutions-a hospital and an almshouse for the sick, vagrants and beggars lying in the streets, so that they could not wander and wallow there. Apparently, the institutions were to be like those set up by Rtischev. At the Church Council of 1681, the tsar suggested that the patriarch and hierarchs should set up the same kind of asylums for the poor also in provincial cities, and the Council accepted the proposal. Thus, the individual initiative of a good and influential man gave a direct or indirect impetus to the idea of setting up a whole system of church-state charitable institutions and not only renewed the zeal of voluntary donators to do good, but also prompted its very organization and the desirable and possible forms it should take.

Indeed, the memory of these good people is so much the dearer as their example not only gives encouragement in hard moments, but also teaches to act as Juliania and Rtischev-these models of Russian charity. The same feeling prompted them different ways of action correspondent to the status of each. One did charity more at home in her close village community, while the other acted predominantly on the capital's broad street and square. For one, charity was an expression of personal compassion, while the other wanted to turn it into an organized public philanthropy. But walking different paths, they moved to the same goal. Without overlooking the moral and educational significance of charity, they looked at it as an incessant struggle with people's need, with the misery of their helpless neighbour. They and those like them cultivated and carried this view through centuries to keep it alive in our society till this day, revealing itself whenever it is needed. How many Ulyanas inconspicuously and noiselessly wage this struggle in the poky holes of places hit with poverty! No doubt, there are Rtischevs and they will ever be. The legacy of their lives will work even when they themselves are forgotten. From their historical distance they will not cease to shine like beacons in the night darkness, illuminating the way for us and needing no light of their own. And their legacy is this: to live means to love one's neighbour, i. e., to help him live; to live means nothing else and there is nothing else to live for.

(abridged from Bogoslovsky vestnik, January 1892, Sergiev Posad, p. 89)

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