August von Haxthausen’s Studien über die innern Zustände, das Volksleben und insbesondere die ländlichen Einrichtungen Russlands (1847-1852; Google Books), an account of his 1843 journey to Russia from the point of view of agricultural economics, is famous for its impact on the Russian intelligentsia—it jump-started the debate on the origin of the mir (commune), which so obsessed late-nineteenth-century Russia—so when I saw a used copy of an abridged English translation, Studies on the Interior of Russia, for a few dollars, I bought it, despite my suspicion that it would prove too dry for extended reading. Imagine my surprise when I found it readable and interesting; I’ve only read a couple of chapters, but I’ve already hit a passage on inns so striking I feel impelled to share it. This has significantly altered the way I envisioned premodern travel:
Now that we have settled down for the first time in a hostel in the Russian interior, I want to make some general remarks on the subject. The European inn was formerly unknown in Russia. Instead, Asiatic caravansaries were customary. These are large, empty, unfurnished buildings, where for a modest price the traveler can find shelter for himself and his animals but nothing more. There is no innkeeper in the real sense; beds are not to be had, and one has to provide one’s own food. It is impossible to speak of a friendly reception by the innkeeper or of the service. There are still such caravansaries in the southern part of the Russian Empire, in Astrakhan and the Caucasian provinces. Throughout these areas there are inns without lodging, where one can get prepared meals and tea or, in the regions around the Black Sea, Turkish coffee. Formerly, when Russians traveled in the interior they had everything they needed with them — beds, provisions, etc. With the spread of European civilization in Russia, European-style inns are being introduced, but only very gradually. Even in Petersburg there is no hotel which one could compare in terms of comfort with an inn in a moderate-sized German city on the Rhine. Hotel Demuth and Hotel Coulon in Petersburg can hardly be ranked with a third-class inn in Germany in respect to elegance and comfort, even though they look like huge palaces from the outside. The beds and furniture are poor, I would say almost shabby. Very seldom is there a table d’hôte. If one wants to eat something in the hotel, it has to be specially prepared. Occasionally the owner leases the restaurant rights. One can hardly speak of service. Moreover, it is scarcely worth the effort to furnish an inn elegantly, since it would be appreciated only by foreigners and consequently would not be very profitable. The modern hotels in Petersburg and Moscow are, moreover, run exclusively by Germans, French, and Englishmen. The Russian merchant still prefers the Russian inns resembling caravansaries; as in former times the Russian aristocrat continues to take along his beds, etc. The very wealthy aristocrat takes with him even his cook and everything he needs. He makes himself at home in the inn and has his servants buy all the provisions.
(I also created a Wikipedia article for Haxthausen, since, shockingly, he didn’t have even a stub.)
By the way, I would like to extend my deepest thanks to the anonymous LH readers who were kind enough to send me the copies of Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews and Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800 by Michael Khodarkovsky that turned up unexpectedly on my doorstep in recent days. You have made me a happy Languagehat indeed.
Update. I hit “Post” just before the mail truck came; when I went out to get the mail, I found a couple of surprises in the mailbox, Viktor Shklovsky’s Third Factory and Serguei Oushakine’s The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia, two more books I’ve been eager to read for some time. I’m starting to feel like the protagonist of Alan Nelson’s story “Narapoia“: “Well, I keep having this strange feeling that people are plotting to do me good. That they’re trying to be benevolent and kind toward me. I don’t know exactly who they are, or why they wish me all this kindness, but… it’s all very fantastic, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is. Hattic blessings upon the benevolent!