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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883)

Russians Abroad

From “Smoke”

IN front of the Conversation House at Baden-Baden the usual crowd was assembled. The band was playing the old, well-known tunes in the pavilion. Round about the green tables, indoors, were to be seen the customary faces, with that expression of dull, savage, grasping cupidity which the habit of gambling will at last stamp upon the finest features. And, as usual, there was the inevitable gathering of our worthy compatriots near the Russian Tree. On meeting, they bowed to one another with the dignified coolness proper to persons of the highest social standing. When they had sat down, they did not talk to each other, but tried to kill time by doing nothing at all, or by laughing at the silly, stale, vulgar jokes of a so-called Bohemian, who came from Paris, a loquacious buffoon with an absurd little peak of hair on his chin, and enormous boots on his flat feet. These jokes of his, which he had borrowed from old Parisian comic papers, were loudly applauded by the Russian nobility, who showed that they appreciated foreign wit while acknowledging their own want of imagination.

The said listening Russians were the flower of our society, the most refined and cultured people of our land. There was Count X., the distinguished amateur, who, though he read like a schoolboy, sang operatic airs superbly—something like a French hair-dresser. There was the fascinating Baron Y., incomparably versatile, author, orator statesman, and scholar. And then there was Prince Z., a patron of the masses and the Church, who had made a fortune out of the manufacture of adulterated brandy. And there was the dashing General O., who had once upon a time gained a great victory, somewhere, over somebody, but whose want of self-mastery was evident through his behavior. A delightful fellow was P., an alleged invalid and wit, who was in reality as strong as an ox and as stupid as an owl, and whose specialty was elegant deportment. Statesmen and diplomats of European fame there were, profound and acute, who thought that Irish bulls were issued by the pope, and that the taxes for the support of the poor were contributed by the poor themselves. Besides all these were the ardent but diffident adherents of the stage, young bloods with hair exquisitely parted behind, gorgeous whiskers, and clothes made in London.

Yet, though there seemed nothing wanting to put these gentlemen on an equal footing with the buffoon from Paris, our ladies nevertheless paid no attention to them. Thus, Countess C., the renowned lady of fashion, from her malicious tongue nicknamed “Queen of the Wasps,” when the buffoon was absent slighted her countrymen, showing her preference for Italians, Austrians, Americans, attachés of foreign legations, and even the greenest sprigs of the German aristocracy. About this social star hovered Princess Babette, in whose arms Chopin had breathed his last—an honor claimed by a thousand ladies in Europe; Princess Annette, who would have been a fairy but for her stoutness—qualifying her for a washerwoman; Princess Paquette, whose husband, after being made governor of his province, had got into a fisticuff match with a subordinate, and then absconded with twenty thousand rubles of government funds; and finally there might be mentioned giddy Mlle. Zizi and melancholy Mlle. Zozo. But, one and all, these ladies turned their backs upon their countrymen in cold disdain.