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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868

My activities in estate life

Texte intégral


  • 1 In order to leave the estate temporarily, serfs (just as any social estate, including the nobility (...)

1Until 1828, while paying my rent regularly, I participated but little in the communal affairs of the village that did not touch me directly. I spent all my time on my commercial pursuits. I frequently heard complaints from my fellow-villagers about the bailiff’s abuses of power. Since I was a relative of his and got on well with him, I told him many times informally to improve the way he carried out his duties. I would tell him this in a straightforward, friendly way. This offended him, and he began to treat me unfairly. Either he would delay the issuing of a travel document for me, on the pretext that the landlord needed me there, or he would persecute me with anything else he could think up. As regards travel passes, there was no great problem.1 Paying no attention to the bailiff’s whims, I went directly to the landlord, who never hindered my commercial activities and always gave the order to issue me with a travel pass. On some occasions he reprimanded the bailiff in no [uncertain terms].

  • 2 On the Nizhegorod fair see Anne Lincoln Fitzpatrick, The Great Fair: Nizhnii Novgorod, 1840–90 (Ne (...)

2Once, instead of a travel pass, I unexpectedly received an order to be ready for a sale of iron produced at the landlord’s mills at the Nizhegorod fair...2! The rumors about the lord’s counting on me had come true.

3The honor of being entrusted to conduct this business was very unwelcome to me. Not because I feared the business but because I was concerned about our stupid rules of trade. They constrained commerce as if it, too, were in serfdom, or as if customers had to buy our mill’s products and therefore must absolutely comply with the instructions given to those who were sent to the fair. Much about these instructions can be seen from the following.

4For example, they prescribed: 1) Iron, of all types must be sold at a price higher, not cheaper, than the prices of all other producers, such and such a type for such and such a price. You are responsible for any neglect. 2) Purchases must be paid for in cash. No amount should be sold before payment. 3) All quantities sent to the fair must be sold without fail, and thereafter a certain amount of money should be sent by mail to the Siberian mills, a certain amount transferred via the bank to us in St. Petersburg, and a certain amount retained until new instructions. 4) If, contrary to expectations, products cannot be sold at the set prices, report to us and wait for our instructions about price reductions...

5Can business be carried out in this way? And who, from the free estates, would agree to undertake such a responsibility, when in wholesale it is not customary to require the customer to pay the full price before delivery? Rather, one always relies on an advance payment, a memo, or just a verbal promise... My situation was quite risky; but what could one do about it? Argue with the land-lord?

  • 3 2,400,000 kg.

6On the first occasion I received under my supervision about one and a half hundred thousand puds3 of iron. Although a significant quantity, I had no difficulty in selling it. Right from the time of its opening in 1817, I was quite familiar with the Nizhegorod fair and its commercial rules. It was not difficult to meet with the chief iron dealers. Not hindering myself by strictly observing the owners’ petty restrictions I acted freely, according to the general situation of business at the fair. Consequently, with God’s help, I completed my first sale quite successfully and received the landlord’s appreciation and a reward of five hundred rubles.

7This had such a positive effect on my self-esteem that I nearly gave up my idea of redeeming myself from serfdom.


8Around this time our communal management became more and more chaotic. The peasants’ complaints about the bailiff annoyed the landlords to such a degree that they finally ordered the estate management office to appoint me as a bailiff. I was to take charge of all forthcoming communal affairs and to ask the former bailiff for detailed reports about all previous activities in village life.

9Although this prestigious assignment certainly flattered my selfesteem, it hardly made me happy. Indeed it scared me, because I had no experience in village governance. In light of my objective view of this matter, I repeatedly implored the landlords to spare me from the new responsibility they had imposed on me. They disagreed and kindly confirmed my appointment. They suggested that I find a responsible, knowledgeable assistant so that I could continue my own commercial activity without hindrance.

10This solution allayed my concerns and allowed me to undertake the new tasks in addition to my existing ones. I began to dig into communal matters. When I studied the commune’s outstanding affairs, various abuses came to the surface. They were so serious that the former bailiff even voluntarily returned some of the communal money he had spent. To my misfortune, under cover of submissiveness to his lot he became very hostile toward me, which I noticed but to which I hardly paid any attention. For my part, I tried to finish the initial inspection in a quite lenient, routine way, without spreading gossip or initiating any scandals.

11Having finished with the outstanding business, I moved on to establish my own routine. Although I had become a public person without any desire on my part, I still faced the task of dealing with communal needs in a fair way. For instance, I was one of the first to notice that our important commercial village did not even have a school. Nobody had ever taken care of this.

12I immediately told the commune that we needed a school and it enthusiastically supported my opinion. I drew up a plan. Of course, the landlords’ agreement was needed. They did not put up any objections, and indeed commissioned me to take care of all educational matters.

13Everything was approved! The archpriest of our church became the theology teacher. The local authorities sent someone to teach grammar, calculus, and orthography... By the day of the grand opening, seventy boys who wished to study had come forward. During the first year this number increased to one hundred. In the exams, in the presence of the principal, many pupils did excellently. In general, all were able to read and write, whereas in my childhood a boy, even a gifted one, having spent the same amount of time with a priest, could merely mumble the syllables of the Psalter. Even then he would mostly rely on memory, as I had experienced myself.

14Because I found this success so rewarding, I decided to suggest a trade school in addition to our regular school. This was necessary in Velikoe because we never engaged in agriculture but for generations had dealt in trade and commerce. Unfortunately, this idea met with no success. The landlords refused to donate five thousand rubles in cash, and the village communal assembly denied approval and even openly resisted my plan, regarding it as a king of corvée...

15Then I noticed that the area of our residence, which already had three thousand souls of both sexes, did not have any local medical facility. The ill could benefit from only occasional visits by a district physician, and even these were only for the prosperous and in exceptional cases. Everyone else either perished without medical care or resorted to the drugs of a quack. I was very upset at this situation. However, I did not dare to suggest my idea to the village commune, because I knew about their deeply rooted superstitions. Instead, I presented the idea directly to the landlords.

16They approved it immediately and, in addition, themselves arranged for the arrival of a physician in private practice by the name of Mikhail Loginovich. They set the doctor’s salary, which they agreed to fund, and made arrangements for an appropriate living place, servants, and firewood. This good man rendered us great service, or one might even say kindness. He set up a small village pharmacy and taught several boys pharmaceutics and nursing arts—all this, thanks to the landlords, without the slightest burden to the commune. The commune, after a while, realized the usefulness of what had been done and appreciated our doctor, who also valued the simple openness of our peasants. I was very pleased by this mutual respect. Mikhail Loginovich was always an esteemed guest in my house.

17Finally, the idea of improving our cottage industries and village crafts occurred to me. All commerce and trade were to be carried out on the basis of absolute honesty. In truth, one needs to have patience to make commerce fair; but in return, when your reputation for fairness has reinforced your business reputation, everyone will gladly do business with you and even allow your trade to predominate with them. Besides honesty, trade must not confine itself to old-fashioned production methods but must follow the needs of the times. Profit should come not from the use of cheap, lowquality or counterfeit materials for the manufacturing of goods, but from skillful mastery and the durability of the products.

18Now I need to reiterate what I have already said in part. From time immemorial, in my birthplace, Velikoe, women had been highly skilled in producing fine linen cloth, which was famous everywhere for its quality. This women’s labor was fully rewarded until foreign technical innovations developed cheaper and improved modes of production. In the face of competition, our women should have taken advantage of their previous profits to develop new methods. But instead of doing everything they could to readjust their work to the new conditions, they tried to serve their own interests by adding cotton threads in the weft. At first they earned huge profits from doing this, because even a skilled dealer was unable to notice the fraud.

19But, of course, the admixture became apparent when the product was put into use. We began to lose our reputation for fine linen cloth, to such an extent that people stopped buying it! Therefore, I made a plan and suggested to the commune that it forbid this evil fraud. At first no one seemed to understand me; they could not see where their real advantage lay. I took my concerns to the village’s chief management. Not only did they pay no attention to the issue, they returned my papers to me with a reprimand and prohibited me from bothering them in the future with “ideas of this kind that can disrupt the collection of rent...”

14. Peasant-migrants carpenters


1 In order to leave the estate temporarily, serfs (just as any social estate, including the nobility) had to have a document (internal passport, pass, or permit) which they obtained from the local authorities (bailiffs of landlords). Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move,” 633–39.

2 On the Nizhegorod fair see Anne Lincoln Fitzpatrick, The Great Fair: Nizhnii Novgorod, 1840–90 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).

3 2,400,000 kg.

Table des illustrations

Légende 14. Peasant-migrants carpenters
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© Central European University Press, 2005

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