In the 19th century Russia, a young aristocrat could find several ways to entertain himself. He could take a walk, go to the theatre, or attend one of the many different salons. More often than not, the choice fell on the salon – a place where many young, beautiful, talented and wealthy gathered to have fun. How exactly they entertained themselves?
Let’s take a look on several activities, that helped to break the boredom on a free evening.
Playing cards came to Russia a while ago, in 16th century, along with the dicing. This activity has quickly became very widespread. Some rulers tried to battle gambling, or at least control it. For example Peter The Great forbid to loose more than one ruble during a card game for those who served in the military or in the navy. Catherine the Great ordered to not lend money to those, who lost in the game and now needed to pay their debt. In the end, however hard authorities tried, cards remained a very popular activity among the aristocrats and soldiers. It is well reflected even in literature of Russian authors. People like A. Pushkin, M. Lermontov, N. Gogol, L. Tolstoy have mentioned and described gambling in their works.
There were two types of card games: the ones where the winner was determined by chance, and the ones where the result depended on the wit of the players and how observant they are. It seems that the former kind was more popular, especially the games Pharaoh and Stoss.
Another popular activity among the aristocrats of the 19th century were the so-called petits-jeux. The name comes from French, a language in which almost every Russian aristocrat of the time was fluent, and means ‘small games’. They had simple rules and usually involved some kind of easy physical activity. Some of them developed from the common folk games, like Gorelki. Another very famous game was Fanty. Every guest wrote a task on a piece of paper and put it in a hat. Then a person closed their eyes and took a random paper out of it. Whatever task was written on it, it should have been performed in front of the other guests. The game is still popular even now and is sometimes played among groups of friends.
19th century was the period when board games became known in Russian cities. They looked very much like the ones we know now: they had a field, little figures, dice. Generally the board games of that time were structured like journeys, in order to win, a player had to reach the final destination faster than his opponents. One of those games was “Journey across Russia”, where you needed to get from Odessa to Moscow either through Kiev or through Kursk. Some of those board games were pretty hard and demanded attention and strategy. For example the game “Battle of Sinop”, that was created following the events of the battle during Crimean War between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. One person played for the Russian side, the other one for the Turks. They rolled a die and slowly went to their goal, dealing with storms, shipwrecks, and enemy’s attacks.
Another form of entertainment popular in aristocratic circles of the 19th century, once again, with a French name. It is a sort of literary game, where the participants would compose funny or amusing poems using the rhymes given to them. Sometimes, they were also given a certain topic.
Another version of the game, that went viral in the 19th and 20th centuries among different social groups, required a little team work. First person wrote several lines on a piece of paper, then covered most of it, leaving only the last couple of lines visible. This paper was then given to the second person, who continued the poem based on the words they saw, then they once again covered the majority of the poem and passed the paper further. In the end everyone read the ridiculous and often hilarious poem everyone contributed to.
Among other activities that were popular in Russian aristocratic salons of the 19th century were puzelya (puzzles), charades, billiards and table tennis.