A Russian's View Of Old Baltimore


June 09, 1991|By Carleton Jones

When Aleksandr Lakier, a young Russian professional, rolled into town from the north in 1857, he was well equipped for the role of world traveler. This 32-year-old specimen of provincial gentry had been a government official in his native land, and so was used to dealing with people. He was also a heraldry expert and historian. And he spoke five languages.

"Baltimore is the liveliest city in Maryland," Lakier wrote after taking a brief look at town from a railroad car. "The train, dispersing people with its bell, rode far into the city and came to rest at the depot. However the tracks extended farther along the most crowded streets; only, instead of steam engines, horses were harnessed to the cars and they pulled them right up to the wharf formed by the branches of the Patapsco river which empties into the Chesapeake Bay."

The uproarious freedom of Baltimore harbor must have seemed overwhelming to Lakier, for it had been only two years since Czar Alexander II had lifted travel restrictions, allowing ordinary Russians the right to escape from their native land.

Particularly startling to the visitor was the growth of the town. In 1857 there were about 200,000 residents, 15 times more than counted in the first census in 1790. In the same period, Lakier noted, the state's population had only shown meager growth. "Clearly," he wrote, "the great tobacco plantations, cultivated by slaves, did not have the adverse influence on city-dwellers that it did on the rural population."

Though he came from a nation where serfdom was a centuries-old tradition, Lakier deplored the slave tradition. In America, he said, slavery was a "hateful ulcer in a free society." Physically, the city seemed like others he had already visited, including Buffalo and Philadelphia. But the architecture struck his eye: "As everywhere else, there are numerous columns and buildings in the style of Greek Temples."

He was especially impressed by the durable tradition of the Catholic church. "It is remarkable," he wrote, "that the original Catholic character Maryland had at the time of its founding has been preserved down to the present time."

He also reported, probably not altogether accurately, "Currently Catholics constitute the predominant part of the population."

"Their churches," he noted, "are distinguished by glittering wealth and architecture, and the high cupola of the cathedral [the Basilica of the Assumption] is visible from afar."

In the basilica he was awed by the outstanding paintings he saw: "One, the removal of Christ's body from the cross, was a gift of French King Louis XVI; the other, a portrait of St. Louis burying his soldiers and officers in sight of Tunis, was sent by King Charles X."

No traveler of note was likely to miss the Chesapeake Bay and its abundance of wild life. Lakier sailed down the bay marveling at its size and the uniqueness of an area that had "countless coves that are quite deep."

"Rivers and streams empty into these coves, the shores are covered with green trees and the islands are overgrown with grass. Here are the haunts for the waterfowl that attract hundreds of hunters," he noted. An amazement was seeing bay hunters emerging from the thickets and packing ducks in small barrels for marketing "to all parts of the United States."

The Baltimore area also provided Lakier with a less glorious sight, one that recalled his Russia of repression and slavery. "One continually finds Negroes on the broad streets [of Baltimore], many of them dressed in rags, poor and begging alms," he said.

For more on Aleksandr Lakier's memorable trip to the United States, see "A Russian Looks at America" (University of Chicago Press, 1979).

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.