Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

A Life Under Russian Serfdom

 | 
Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868

Myself, my childhood, and my family

Texte intégral

(IV)

  • 1 A pet name for Dmitrii.

1At the time when grandpa died, my dad was already about thirty. He had acquired excellent trading skills. With his own money and the confidence he gained from people, he maintained the household with no difficulty. Besides him and my mom, Dar’ia Egorovna, our family included my grandma and me, then aged two. (I was born on 5 January 1800.) I remember myself from the age of four. From that time on my memory retained everything. I knew, and remember well, the appearance of my relatives; I remember the things I enjoyed then and my habits; I remember the troubles I had. I remember how my late father strictly discouraged my pranks. Sometimes he was lenient with me out of respect for my grandma. Only she could obtain mercy for my sins. On occasion my mother would say to her husband, “What a strange habit you have of scaring the child, he is so frightened that he fears everybody.” My father’s response would be short: “Shut up.” With my grandma it was different. She would tell my dad, “Well, Mitia,1 I endured enough fear when our deceased grandpa disciplined you. Now I won’t let you take liberties with this kid. This is the only child we have. If he gets sick and dies...” Father did not contradict her but only smiled and went away.

  • 2 Knuckle-bones was a popular game among all social classes in Russia.

2One of my pranks I will never forget. On the Day of the Advent of the Holy Spirit, my father and mother went to another village for a church service. I was left at home with my grandma. I felt so free to do what I wanted! All morning I literally did not feel the ground under my feet, as though flying in the air. Then an old idea came into my head. My friends often used to brag when they found something: one found one thing, the other found something else. Sometimes they would show an old half-kopeck coin or a rusty five-kopeck piece dug up from the ground. But I had never happened to find even a quarter-penny: I had nothing to brag about. After I was tired of running around that day, that old idea occurred to me again: there were sacks with copper coins under father’s bed, twenty-five rubles in each... I took out one, untied it, and saw that it was filled with stained half-kopeck and five-kopeck coins from Catherine’s time. Well, I took a handful, as much as I could take in my hand, trying to grasp as many coins as I could. Near our house there was an empty piece of land where, in the past, there had stood a house of a prosperous childless elderly man. I buried the coins in various places there, marked each place, and then went to my friends. They were playing knuckle-bones.2 I approached them, said conspiratorially that I had found two five-kopeck coins and one half-kopeck coin hidden in the empty lot, and showed them my discovery. The guys left their knuckle-bones and immediately marched to the place. I followed them, too. One guy would start digging at one place, another at a different one, but all without success. But I found either a half-kopeck or a five-kopeck coin everywhere I dug. I amazed everyone, and even I myself felt an unrestrained excitement. In the meantime, my grandma was sitting on a bench by our house with other peasant women. Several times I brought her my “discoveries,” and she and her company started talking about the former owner, the childless elderly man, who in reality did indeed hide his money. Meanwhile, the evening was approaching; my father returned. My grandma began to brag about my good fortune. Dad listened to her in a sort of emotionless, cold way, then he stared at me, and probably at that very moment realized what the truth of the matter was. He ordered the servant to take care of his horse, while he went to the room and looked under the bed. He pulled out one sack, then the other, and glanced dubiously at the knots. He counted the money and found two rubles missing. I was standing in the next room, neither alive nor dead. Then I heard dad call me. I entered. Father asked strictly:

“That is how you make your discoveries. You are too young to swindle! Tell me, who taught you this?”

3The tears sprang from my eyes and I fell on my knees: “Dad, dear! I am guilty. I did it myself. Nobody taught me.” And I told my dad how for a long time I had been so disappointed that I had not found anything while my friends had. My grandma and mother watched in silence, waiting for father’s reproof. But father, having listened to my confession, addressed only my grandma, “That, mom, is what happens when a child grows up without proper care.” Thus, the rod was not used but I was required to make several bows to the ground before an icon.

(V)

  • 3 A pet name for Savva.

4I loved my grandmother more than anyone else. But I did not enjoy her support for long. In 1805 she was struck by a serious illness and, after several weeks, passed away. I cried bitterly, apparently not so much because she had died, but mostly because I felt that without her there was nobody to protect me. Although my mother spared me on the quiet, she would not say a word before my father. However, I don’t know whether I got more cautious or whether my dad became more indulgent, but I was beaten only on rare occasions, perhaps just when I played knuckle-bones too long and missed lunch. Even then my father would usually look out of the window or come out of the gate and call me, “Saushka!”3 I would abandon everything, run up to him, and stand as if rooted to the ground: “What do you want, father?” Dad would glance at me and, if everything seemed alright and I had not gotten dirty, he would say in a serious voice, “It’s lunchtime.” But if I had gotten dirty, he would pull my hair.

  • 4 A small mound of earth or stone around the outer wall of a peasant house.

5Only once was I punished harshly. I was sitting on a zavalinka4, rocking and quietly repeating a nasty word I had learned somewhere. My father overheard me saying it, sneaked up, and suddenly lashed a belt across my back: “Don’t say such words.” My mother comforted me with only a drink of water. Why he lashed me, he did not say. I realized that only later.

6This is the way I grew up until my seventh birthday. I loved to listen to fairy tales, particularly when Aunt Danil’evna told them. In order to read fairy tales myself, from a book—where, as Danil’evna said, there were many such tales—I began to study reading and writing without saying a word to anyone. I learned some basics and could even combine words, though I hesitated to say anything about it to my father. But he himself noticed that I was always leaning over his books, of which he had many. Once, on one happy occasion, he asked me suddenly, “Maybe you want to study?”

  • 5 In the original Russian version: “Cto zhe ty iazyk prikusil?” (“Have you bitten your tongue?”), wh (...)

I did not speak.
“Did the cat get your tongue?”5
“Yes, daddy,” I replied, “I would like to study.”
“You are still too young.”

  • 6 The names of the letters of the pre-1917 Russian alphabet.

7However, on the very next trip to Yaroslavl’ my father bought me a prayer book and the Psalter. “Well,” he said, “now Saun’ka, praise God, the books are ready. Soon you will go to a master.” And so it happened. As December approached, on the Day of St. Nahum the Prophet, after the church service, my father himself took me from the church to the parish priest, Ivan Petrovich. They gave me a church edition of the ABC and an ivory pointer. My “master,” as we used to call a teacher in our village, in my father’s presence, took my hand with the pointer, underlined the first line of letters, and named every letter. I repeated after him, and after that spelled out myself several times: “az,” “buki,” and so on, until “zhivete.”6 With that, my first lesson was finished.

  • 7 Purlevskii is referring to a Russian stove on which people lay for warmth.

8It did not require hard work from me to learn the letters and syllable combinations, because I had already seen them at home— although new, the little ABC-book had been my long-time friend. I soon finished learning them both, letters and syllables. But when we approached words under diacritical marks, this did not go well. I completely misunderstood what these marks were for and why. Only with practice did I master this subtlety. I needed to make one more effort: to learn punctuation marks, quotation marks, semicolons, colons and so on. Although, I hardly understood anything, I learned everything by heart. Then we got to the prayer-book and Psalter. I thoroughly memorized all the passages that the teacher assigned and read them carefully. The master, Ivan Petrovich, lay on the top level of the stove7 and corrected me, though he never paid attention to whether I was reading or speaking from memory. After a year, the reading course came to an end. Then we began to study writing: dashes, curves, then letters, and finally words and sentences themselves, such as, for example, “Who has God, has everything.” For about a half a year I scratched and wasted paper...

9During all my studies my father never tested me. But once, I remember, on an autumn evening, he asked me to write something. And he took my book of writing samples away from me... I took a pen but hardly knew what to write or how.

10“Why don’t you write...? ” When he saw that I was hesitating, he asked me to write down the following: “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

11“I never studied how to write such words,” I replied.

12“How so, ‘never studied’? You have studied how to compose words, so do it.”

13But I could not do this without the writing samples book: I stared at my pen and did not move.

14I can see it as though it were today. My dad straightened up, looked at me, and said:

15“Ah, dear, that’s how you’ve been taught. Well, do you know how to read? Bring the Psalter here.”

16He opened the book right on the seventh song: “God, Condemn not by Your Anger”—a very appropriate passage, which I knew well. But in the meantime, because of my embarrassment, my memory failed me. I was so confused that I could not put in any syllabic order letters I had learned a long time ago. Then I received a little punishment with a saying: “And you yourself wanted to study.” Dad ordered me to become a good reader within three days, otherwise a bigger punishment would await me.

  • 8 Denis Fonvizin (1745–92), eighteenth-century Russian author and writer of comedies, author of Nedo (...)
  • 9 Wooden planking fixed between ceiling and stove, used as a sleeping place.
  • 10 These books are famous Russian fairy tales. Some are available in English. See Russian Fairy Tales(...)

17After that day my learning went on by my own effort. Ivan Petrovich, despite the complaints of my father, continued to listen to my reading exercises as he himself lay on the stove. Finally, dad put six rubles in copper coins in a small bag and asked me to hand them to the “master” and give him a bow. However, my education continued at home. My father, although he himself had a limited education, was fond of reading. He did not limit himself to religious books alone. He was interested in contemporary secular literature, too. After his death he left several periodicals, such as Vestnik Evropy, Pochta Dukhov, and Zhivopisets, and among his books, I remember, were works by Karamzin, Kadm i Garmoniia, Zolotoi Osel, and many other novels and theatrical plays, by the way, by Fonvizin.8 From money given to me as presents, I also collected my own library. I kept my books on my polaty;9 they included Eruslan Lazarevich, Bova Korolevich, Il’ia Muromets (Ilya Muromets), Emelia Durachok (Emelya the Simpleton), Sem’ Simeonov (The Seven Semyons), and others.10 My idea of bliss consisted of reading them during the evenings to the whole family, except for my father. He did not like this practice of mine. Dad did not allow me to read secular literature without his permission. He also assigned me daily readings from Church History, The Lives of the Saints, and The Catechism. He made me explain the meaning of what I had read and rewarded me with a cup of tea. In our conversations he expressed sorrow that he could not teach me the basics of grammar, writing skills, and arithmetic, because he himself had never learned them. In our village, there was no one capable of teaching these things. In the city, serfs were not accepted into schools at that time. Father could only teach me basic accounting and business.

(VI)

18Reading under my father’s supervision and my conversations with him seem to have facilitated my childhood development and understanding, and I admired him not only as a father but as a knowledgeable person. There was one thing, however, that disappointed me. Unfortunately, my father had a fatal weakness, a strange sort of illness. He normally went a year or more without consuming alcohol. Then, overcome by a kind of illness for two or three weeks running, he would ask only for alcohol and could hardly eat bread. If no one gave him alcohol and no one was paying attention, he would go outside in his underwear and beg everyone he met to give him some wine. Such a respectable person was ready to give up his last possession for a glass of wine! After two weeks of hard drinking he became weak, thin, and overcome with fever. When he tried to get up from the bed, he would fall down in a paroxysm from which it was difficult to awaken him. Everyone at home worried and trembled for his life. His skin peeled in strips from his body and even from his tongue! How did his health endure this?

  • 11 A bogatyr is a hero or warrior in Russian folklore.
  • 12 Two arshins and eight vershoks is about five feet eleven inches.

19In truth, my father was sturdily built, clearly a Russian bogatyr,11 177.2 centimeters (two arshins and eight vershoks12) tall, not stout but thickset, with light-brown hair, a thick beard of medium length, and large deep-grey eyes. His appearance as a whole reminded one of an old saying of those times: “Be self-confident without haughtiness, and modest without self-abasement.” He always dressed in a way appropriate to his peasant status and to his circle: a red shirt worn outside velveteen trousers, a sleeveless cloth jacket and goatskin boots, or a bathrobe. These were the clothes he wore at home. On holidays, during the summer, father wore a dark-blue caftan of fine cloth and a light hat, and in the winter a cloth coat lined with Kalmyk fur and trimmed with beaver, and a golden Persian silk belt. At home he loved order and wanted everything to be clean and neat.

  • 13 A traditional loose Russian dress without a collar.
  • 14 A kokoshnik was an old Russian headdress worn by peasant women.
  • 15 A traditional collarless and sleeveless dress.
  • 16 The povoinik was a headdress worn by married Russian peasant women.

20This was the realm of my mother, Dar’ia Egor’evna, a kind and beautiful woman. She did the cooking and maintained the household. In addition, she was a cottage artisan: in the winter she spun fine yarn and in the summer wove canvas and kerchiefs. This meant she had her own money for holiday clothes. In those days, on holiday days, women wore silk feriazi13 trimmed with braid or lace, and a silk jacket. On their heads they wore a pearl-decorated kokoshnik14 covered by a kerchief. At the neck, women wore strings of pearls and a silver cross on a chain. In the winter, the women’s clothing consisted of rabbit-fur coats decorated with brocade or damask, kerchiefs, and, if it was very cold, a velvet coat trimmed with marten over the rabbit-fur coat. Women’s everyday dress included a white shirt and a red calico sarafan15. The head was covered with a povoinik16, with a cotton or silk kerchief over it.

21Our house was the finest in the village: it was built of stone and had one and a half stories with five large windows on the front side. It had two full rooms and an outer entrance hall, which led into a kitchen with a pantry. The lower level of the house had two storerooms and a closet for goods. One full room served as a living room for receiving guests; the other served as a family sleeping room. We had a male and a female servant. The former lived with us for about thirty years; the female servants sometimes changed, but one woman lived with us for fifteen years.

  • 17 A pud [pood] is a pre-1917 Russian measure of weight. One pud equaled 16.38 kg or 36.1 pounds. Nin (...)
  • 18 A chetverik is a pre-1917 Russian measure used for dry goods. One chetverik equaled 26.239 liters (...)
  • 19 The pre-1917 Russian pound (funt) was a little less than the American pound. One Russian pound equ (...)
  • 20 The author is referring to the 1860s.

22In addition to his commercial ties, my father enjoyed the favor of local nobles. In particular, the Karnovich family and old Stepan Stepanovich himself were frequent visitors in our house. They were treated with tea and soft pirogi, which my mother was truly skilled at making. In general we ate well: on meat days we would have cold jellied meat, boiled ham, then Russian cabbage or noodle soup, grilled lamb or chicken. We often had goose or duckling. In the fall, young lamb was considered the most delicious dish. The geese, ducklings, and hens were always our own. The foodstuffs we bought were very cheap. Bread was not made from the local harvest but shipped by river from Tambov province. In the spring, on the arrival of the ships, a nine pud17 sack of rye flour cost between six and seven rubles; the same quantity of rye grain between five and six rubles; the best-quality peas eighty kopecks per chetverik18; the same quantity of the best-quality millet the same price; eight puds of buckwheat four rubles; a pound19 of beef three kopecks; lamb two kopecks; a whole goose thirty kopecks; a duckling fifteen kopecks; a hen even cheaper; eggs four kopecks for ten; whole-milk butter fifteen kopecks a pound; vegetable oil five kopecks a pound; imported salmon, sturgeon, and beluga seven and ten kopecks a pound; red caviar fifteen kopecks; and the best Kazan’ honey between six and ten rubles a pud. And all these were sold not for silver but for copper or paper money. Looking at these prices from sixty years ago and comparing them with those of the present time,20 one might be led to believe that people were better off at that time.

23I would certainly reply that they were not. People were needier in those days. The common folk of the northern provinces lived almost entirely on rye bread and gray vegetable soup. Kalatch was considered to be a rare treat, and cake a wonderful gift. Everything the peasant household produced—dairy products, beef, lamb, eggs, and so on—was sold out of necessity. People lived on peas, oats, and steamed turnips. Our village was an exception. Trade and crafts brought us money and made us richer than other villages.

7.
Old peasant woman telling fairy tales

8.
Peasant boys playing knucklebones

Notes

1 A pet name for Dmitrii.

2 Knuckle-bones was a popular game among all social classes in Russia.

3 A pet name for Savva.

4 A small mound of earth or stone around the outer wall of a peasant house.

5 In the original Russian version: “Cto zhe ty iazyk prikusil?” (“Have you bitten your tongue?”), which means “Why don’t you speak?”

6 The names of the letters of the pre-1917 Russian alphabet.

7 Purlevskii is referring to a Russian stove on which people lay for warmth.

8 Denis Fonvizin (1745–92), eighteenth-century Russian author and writer of comedies, author of Nedorosl’, translated into English as The Minor.

9 Wooden planking fixed between ceiling and stove, used as a sleeping place.

10 These books are famous Russian fairy tales. Some are available in English. See Russian Fairy Tales, collected by A. N. Afanas’ev, transl. by Norbert Guterman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1945).

11 A bogatyr is a hero or warrior in Russian folklore.

12 Two arshins and eight vershoks is about five feet eleven inches.

13 A traditional loose Russian dress without a collar.

14 A kokoshnik was an old Russian headdress worn by peasant women.

15 A traditional collarless and sleeveless dress.

16 The povoinik was a headdress worn by married Russian peasant women.

17 A pud [pood] is a pre-1917 Russian measure of weight. One pud equaled 16.38 kg or 36.1 pounds. Nine puds is 147.42 kg or 325 pounds.

18 A chetverik is a pre-1917 Russian measure used for dry goods. One chetverik equaled 26.239 liters or 6.93 gallons.

19 The pre-1917 Russian pound (funt) was a little less than the American pound. One Russian pound equaled 409.5 grams, whereas one American pound is 453.6 grams. Eight Russian pounds equaled 3.3 kg or 7.2 American pounds. In the text the word pound refers to the old Russian measure of weight.

20 The author is referring to the 1860s.

Table des illustrations

Légende 7.Old peasant woman telling fairy tales
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/512/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Légende 8.Peasant boys playing knucklebones
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/512/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 243k

© Central European University Press, 2005

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540