Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other awful things humans have lived through.

Russian Cholera Epidemic of 1829-31

What looks to be a very nice man of the Kirghiz people, with his awesome falcon. Today these people live in Afghanistan, China, and Turkey.

Who can we blame for this epidemic? This one’s fresh and new: the Kirghiz tribes. It started in India, but it was the Kirghiz people who probably brought it to Russia. I’m sure they’re very nice people, but as we know shit happens.

Aside: in 1978, when shit hit the fan in Afghanistan (yes, there it is again), the Kirghiz people asked to come to Alaska, because they thought that was a climate they would find rather familiar and hospitable, but the U.S. was like, no, there’s definitely not enough room in Alaska for any more people, or something, I don’t know, anyway, they didn’t get to go to Alaska.

Orenburg, which is closer to Khazakstan than Moscow, first reported cases in August 1829. Orenburg is a sort of gateway from central Asia to European Russia. In October, Orenburg took action. Those with cholera were quarantined, they couldn’t do their laundry with everyone else, and their homes were “fumigated,” God only knows what that means.

Orenburg: a colonial place. It did not exist until the Russians created it in 1741. It was a site of the biggest peasant revolt in Russian history (and you know how they like their peasant revolts). Pushkin visited post-cholera, in 1833, and met the man who would later write the first good Russian dictionary.

Because Tzar Nicholas I was busy with Poland and other European crises, it wasn’t until August 1830 that the national government stepped in to get involved. They did decide to go ahead and have the Nizhny Fair, perhaps because a recent response to bubonic plague was met with great unhappiness by the people, great unhappiness displayed by riots.

Tsar Nicholas I trying to distract rioters: “But what on earth is that?”

To be fair, the Niznhy Fair sounds completely awesome and I wouldn’t want to cancel it, either. The rich of Moscow would put together this fair, and they had people from India and other parts of Asia come in with all their fancies. I wish I’d been to the 1964 World’s Fair, and I wish I had been to the Niznhy Fair.

Anyway, when cholera got to Tambov and Kursk, there were riots there.

In St Petersburg, angry people attacked police stations. and hospitals, killing doctors. This was, I have to say, even for the most zealous anti-Tsarist activists, counterproductive. But perhaps puts our own anti-mask crazies in perspective.

An English doctor who was in St. Petersburg during this epidemic wrote in the London Gazette,

Giddiness, sick stomach, nervous agitation, intermittent, slow, or small pulse, cramps beginning at the tops of the fingers and toes, and rapidly approaching the trunk, give the first warning. Vomiting or purging, or both these evacuations of a liquid like rice-water or whey, or barley-water, come on; the features become sharp and contracted, the eye sinks, the look is expressive of terror and wildness; the lips, face, neck, hands, and feet, and soon after the thighs, arms, and whole surface assume a leaden, blue, purple, black, or deep brown tint according to the complexion of the individual….

Believe it or not, I’ve cut off the even uglier parts of his description.

In what sounds like a nice development, when the disease arrived, citizens created the Moscow Cholera Council, which would also be a good name for your band, and enabled them to work together against the spread of the disease.

Russian troops took cholera into Poland, where two of my great-grandfathers were beginning their childhoods, probably not expecting to end up as farmers in Nebraska. (It’s not a great idea to be born in eastern Europe, if your’e considering where and when to be born.)

About 100,000 people died, including the tsar’s brother.

One good thing came out of all of this!

Maybe two good things.

Maybe my great- great- ancestors were exposed to cholera and did not die, leading me to have the really excellent immune system I have thus far enjoyed. (As of today, September 5, 2022, I have never tested positive for covid.)

Frantisek Sebek, Sr. of Bohemia, an optimist it seems, perhaps 1880.

Another good thing was that people in Russia who were interested in medicine had a fire lit under their asses and studied and published a lot, aiding in our common struggle with cholera to this day.

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