RS Culture & customs ‘There is no such thing as a Russian who doesn’t love to travel fast’

‘There is no such thing as a Russian who doesn’t love to travel fast’

‘Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it that first invented you?
Only among a hardy people could you have come into existence-
only in a land which, flat and rough, lies spread over half of the world,
and spans miles the counting whereof would leave one with aching eyes.’

(Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, 1835-1841)

When there was neither the monorail nor the metro and even the automobile was a novelty, the roads were dominated by the horse.

There were all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles but they were all drawn by horses and yet people then still managed to arrange appointments and show up for them on time.

The famous troika is a uniquely Russian way of using a team of three horses to draw carts and buggies. The idea behind the troika was to allow relatively fast travel over long distances - the kind of travel that was always in demand among couriers, postal employees, government officials and anyone in a hurry. It was probably only in Russia that the idea of putting an odd number of horses in a team could have been conceived of, the result was a team, that despite its oddity, was very functional, looked good and allowed for fast travel.

The troika was a unique setup that never existed outside Russia. It’s the world’s only arrangement in which three horses are hitched in a row of three. The central horse must be calm and must run at a fast trot while the two more nervous horses on the sides must gallop with their heads turned sideway. The effort each horse is making is different; however the team can reach speeds in excess of 50 kph! This combination of trotting and galloping looks very beautiful with a rather unique kind of harmony to it.

The best kind of troika is one where all the horses are the same colour with the central one being noticeably larger than the ones on the side (10-15 cm taller).

History of the Russian Troika

The origins of the Russian troika go back centuries. The first mention of three-horse teams dates back to documents of the 17th century that deal with the history of the Russian postal service. In other words it’s safe to assume that the Russian postal services started using troikas around at that time.

Russia had needed tough draught horses since times immemorial. The Norwegians, British, French and Spanish had to design special sail boats, the caravels, in order to cross the Atlantic and chart sea routes to the Americas. But the Russians had to cover almost twice that distance from Moscow to Chukotka and the Sea of Okhotsk. So it’s little wonder that Russians so liberally employed troikas to lug parcels and cargo as well as carry passengers.

As early as the second half of the 17th century the postal services became able to significantly cut down the time it took to deliver mail by widely employing the power and endurance of the troika. Troikas could carry more cargo and cover longer distances travelling on traditionally bad Russian roads.

smile Note: ‘In Russia a road is a place that you intend to travel through’ smile (conventional wisdom)

In the last third of the 18th century and in early 19th century troikas began to be used for carrying passengers. At that time it was given the official status of the standard horse team for hauling mail, cargo and for carrying passengers. Troikas were used to draw carts, sleighs, wagons, bangers, sometimes buggies, but never carriages.

In the first half of the 19th century the troika became so popular that it turned into a kind of symbol of Russia. It was usually compared to the audacity, generosity and greatness of the Russian soul. Foreigners enjoyed riding troikas, recognising that it was the fastest and most dashing ride.

There is no such thing as a Russian who doesn’t love to travel fast! smile (Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls)

As railways appeared and began to spread in the 18th centuries, horse drawn carts in general and the troika in particular began to lose its importance in hauling mail and carrying passengers. Troikas continued to be used primarily in rural areas, during various mass events; thus they were still widely used during weddings and various celebrations when the driver would often show off by getting the central horse to gallop (this allowed the troika to achieve a very high speed; imagine sitting on the roof of a car that is travelling at 60 kph and that on the top of that it’s the kind of a car that can easily flip over as it goes into a turn smile).

In the 20th century the Russian troika began to be used only as an exotic entertainment during various celebrations, exhibitions and fairs as well as during various types of horse races.

‘There goes the dashing troika’

One significant element of a three horse team is its ample ornaments. Intricate decorations were put on the horse collars. In addition to pictures and carvings that covered the wooden parts of each horse collar, specially carved leather and hot-type combinations were also often used. Sets of metal castings of various shapes were widely used in general in horse harnesses as they were often beautifully set off by the leather of the saddles, bridles and other harness elements. The metal used in such ornaments was normally an alloy of copper with nickel or zinc, copper coated in silver and sometimes even silver. In addition to metal combinations, the harness would usually also be adorned with brushes, an element without which the Russian troika is impossible to imagine. The brushes were attached to the reins and breast collars, hanging down from the front and sides of the horses.

However, special pride was the arc over the central horse that was usually decorated with art and carvings. The carvings usually consisted of various geometrical shapes. As far as the art was concerned, originally gold painted arcs were very popular. A ‘golden’ arc was supposed to glitter in the sun, catching the eye and standing out against a background of fields or forests.

A ‘golden’ arc was supposed to glitter in the sun, catching the eye and standing out against a background of fields or forests

In the second half of the 19th century golden arcs got increasingly replaced with arcs with little paintings on them. These were true works of art. They depicted bug bunches of red and blue grapes as well as green grass. The contrast between the colours created a lush palette that was usually interspersed with evenly dispersed glare strokes. An arc like this could be seen at a long distance and was a great decoration.

In addition to the bright colours used in the decoration of the postal and courier troikas, it soon became apparent that a system of special signals was also needed. Troikas had to be able to make sound signals that could be heard a long way off in order to accomplish two goals. The first one was to notify pedestrians and other vehicles that a courier or postal troika was approaching and that they had to immediately make way for it; troikas, and especially courier troikas, usually travelled at very high speeds and in those days there were no traffic regulations! smile Therefore there was also a relatively high risk of running over a person or into another cart. The second goal was to give advance warning to the personnel of the next way station so they would have enough time to prepare replacement horses for the troika. It was imperative that the time it took to change horses was kept to an absolute minimum.

In those days the coach horn was widely used in Western Europe as a sound signal. Attempts to use the sound horn on Russian postal horse drawn carts had been made since the time of Peter I, but all of them had invariably ended in failure. Coach drivers invariably preferred to whistle or shout to call on people and other drivers to make way. Coach drivers were punished with fines and beatings but neither approach was effective. As a result the only application that the coach horn found in the Russian postal service was on its emblem.

Finally in the last third of the 18th century someone came up with the idea of using a small bronze bell, a miniature copy the kind of bell used in Russian churches and so liked by the people, as a sound signal for the troika. Pretty soon it was decided that the best place to hang the bell from was the arc over the central horse. The bell would be tied to the middle of the arc with a leather belt. As the horse trotted along the clapper would swing and hit the sound ring of the bell thereby producing a ringing sound. The bell hung under the arc of the troika came to be known as the arc bell as well as postal or coach bell.

In the last third of the 18th century someone came up with the idea of using a small bronze bell, a miniature copy the kind of bell used in Russian churches and so liked by the people, as a sound signal for the troika

The main function of the postal bell was to signal the approach of the troika. The bell would make a loud and demanding ringing sound that could be heard two verts away (editor’s note: ‘verst’ - old Russian measure of distance equal to 3500 feet or 1.6 km). Its other function was aesthetic. Couriers, passengers and coach drivers had to cover huge distances across the vast expanses of Russia. The melodic ringing of the bell made the long journeys seem less tiresome. It was for this reason that arc bells were designed to sound both loud and gentle.

Riding on troikas with bells became very popular in the 19th century. Postal troikas were followed by numerous privately owned troikas. Demand for troika bells began to increase exponentially. From the very beginning troika bells were cast by small shops, which became extremely widespread in many cities and towns across the country. The town of Valdai in Novgorod province was where small shop manufacture of troika bells originated; the town enjoyed a most advantageous location in the middle of the road between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which at the time was the busiest postal route in Russia. It was after the name of this town that troika bells were often referred to in Russia as Valdai bells.

Many bell makers liked to add inscriptions and ornaments to their cast bells. At the start of the 19th century the year of manufacture began to be inscribed on the bells. Oftentimes the name of the maker was added as well as the place where the bell was made. Quite often various catch phrases and slogans were also put on the bells, such as ‘Gift from Valdai’ (a quote from a famous song), ‘Give from the Heart’, ‘Buy the Bell and Ride Well, ‘The Bell Rings and Entertains as you Pick up your Pace’ and many others. Various ornaments were also widespread. Among the most favourite ones were eagles with one or two heads as well as St. George the Victorious.

Privately owned troikas with ringing bells often disrupted the operation of the postal service. Hearing the ringing of a troika bell, the attendants at a postal station would often dismiss it, thinking it was another one of those private troikas and not a postal cart. Numerous complaints of the postal service about private owned troikas with ringing bells lead to numerous decrees being issued by the government in the 19th century to ban the use of bells by private persons. Permits were issued only to people employed by the postal service or by local police with the understanding that they would only use the bells while performing their duties.

However, people would usually soon find loopholes in the formal wording of the bans and from the mid 19th centuries people started to put leather collars with jingle bells on the necks of all the three horses. The design of a jingle bell, which is essentially a hallow sphere with a single shot inside, meant that could not make a loud sound. This meant that the arc bell bans did not apply to jingle bells and these pleasantly sounding trinkets could be used in unlimited numbers. As there were no restrictions on how many jingle bells could be used people soon began to select jingle bells according to size and tone to put together sets of jingle bells with a unique sound.

By the late 19th century the bans on the use of bells on troikas expired and people started using both jingle bells and the original arc bells on troikas. Two to three dozen jingle bells were carefully selected to sound in unison with each other and with 1-3 arc bells. Each such ensemble was unique. Such ensembles went down in history as coach drivers’ accordions.

Races of Russian troikas

For the first time races of Russian troikas began to be held in early 19th century. They were extremely popular with the public who turned out in throngs to see them. In 1847 the Russian tsar set up an imperial prize for the best troika of Russia.

In Europe a Russian troika was seen for the first time in 1911. The events organised to celebrate the coronation of the British King George V in London included an international horse exhibition and horse races at the Olympia arena. Various types of horse teams were demonstrated during the exhibition, four-horse teams, two-horse teams, one-horse urban carts, etc. It was there that two Russian troikas were shown, one black and one gray.

The Russian troikas made such an impression on the public, that despite the fact that the British referees were a bit biased in favour of British horses, the grey Russian troika was awarded the first prize at the Olympia while the black one got the second prize. A London sports club was organising a competition to determine the most beautiful and fastest horse team and invited the Russian troikas to participate. The grey troika got the first prizes here both for beauty and for speed. Our troikas were so successful that they had to be exhibited every day, even though according to the original programme of the event they were supposed to have been shown just once.

The picture depicting the legendary grey troika that took all the prizes in London can now be seen in the Horse Breeding Museum of the State Agrarian University named after Kliment Timiryazev in Moscow.

In Soviet times almost everywhere in Russia Orel trotters began to be used for troikas exclusively. Such troikas looked so handsome that some of them were even presented as gifts to US officials.

Today races of Russian troikas are gaining in popularity. A troika race usually comprises two stages. On the first day the troikas are decked out in their decorations and jingle bells to compete in figure riding, that’s where they have to trace various shapes such as eights on the ground. On the second day they race.

Today the best troikas can be seen at the race track in Moscow. They come here from Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Saratov, Kaluga, Vladimir, Vologda and other ancient Russian cities

However, the most famous troika of recent years is the troika of light-grey horses of the Moscow Horse Farm with the Russian trotter Alexandrit as the central horse and the Orel trotters Priz and Vitok as the side horses. It was this troika that features in the opening footage of the Vesti news programme on the Russian national RTR TV channel.

* * *

The troika became very popular in Russia and was soon afavourite image of Russian writers, poets, artists and musicians. Mentions of troikas can be found in the works of all the authors of the Russian classic literature, Pushkin, Vyazemsky, Yesenin, Tutchev and others. Peter Chaikovsky’s November piece in his Seasons series is titled ‘Riding a Troika’. However, perhaps the most famous poet of the Russian troika was the great writer Nikolai Gogol.

‘Look at those horses! There’s hurricane blowing through their manes! Their ears perk up as they hear a familiar song coming from the hill, they tense up their chests in unison and almost without touching the ground with their hooves they streak towards it as if floating through the air on the wings of the God Almighty!’