March 01, 2012

The Mail Troika

The Mail Troika
A 1987 stamp celebrating the history of the postal service.

Every language has untranslatable words that the whole world associates only with that language, with all the things that makes that language what it is. For Russian, one of those words is “troika.” Ask a foreigner about it and you will get a sheepish “Oh, yes!” as he vaguely imagines Russia’s wide open spaces and a kibitka bouncing over a rutted road, pulled by three horses harnessed abreast and driven by a coachman decked out in “a beard, mittens, and devil knows what he sits on; but when he stands up, waves, and strikes up a song—the steeds go like the wind, the spokes of the wheels blend to a smooth disc, the road simply shudders, and the passerby stops and cries out in fright – there she goes racing, racing, racing!...”1

In all fairness, though, the associations you would hear from our thoroughly motorized compatriots are not a whole lot broader. The first thing that a relative sophisticate will think of is the old folk song, “Here comes the mail troika, tearing along. . .” And there is plenty of truth in that, the truth of Rus, a troika, and a coachman, all flying off into the inscrutable distance. These are Russian national symbols, and they come as a package deal or not at all.

“A letter gets nowhere all by itself, but drop it in a box and it goes winging and running and swimming, over the hills and far away.” Well, yes and no, Samuil Marshak. Behind the outward simplicity of that poetic image lurks a long, long story, the story of the country’s most popular and accessible form of communication, which was horse-powered mail delivery. A Great Divide lies between someone defying all odds by entrusting a packet in the care of a dashing ne’er-do-well riding at breakneck speed behind a three-horse team and a contemporary calmly marking an envelope “Air Mail” and dropping it in a post box. In a record for the year 885, Nestor’s Tale of Bygone Years (also known as the Primary Chronicle), the scribe tells us that “Oleg sent to the Radimichians, to inquire. . .” And after that, for many centuries, horse couriers galloped over the highways and byways of Russia, until the volume of correspondence became so unwieldy that a special service was needed to handle it. And thereby hangs our tale.

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