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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868

My grandfather

Texte intégral


1As serfs belonging to the same person who paid a set rent and worked only rarely for the lord and who were therefore not overworked in the estate mills (unlike in earlier times) and living without pressures from outside officials, our predecessors possessed full freedom to develop their own economic life. The village’s central location, its twice-weekly markets, its two-week fair in September, and the villagers’ own sharpness all assisted them. They only lacked honesty and integrity. Therefore not many of our peasants prospered. Nor was the way of life at that time pleasant. The houses clearly revealed poverty—out of over six hundred houses in the village, only ten were made of stone and no more than ten of the wooden houses were much different from huts by appearance.

2One of those stone houses belonged to our family, which, from time immemorial, had enjoyed the respect as well as the confidence of those even outside the local and town residents. I do not know anything about my family’s forebears, except that, in the past, they had lived in one of the estate’s twenty-three hamlets, a place called Purlevo. That is why, when they moved to the village under Prince Repnin, they came to be called Purlevskie (from Purlevo). I heard a lot about my grandfather, Petr Petrovich. My late father, Dmitrii Petrovich, had a great appreciation for his business and often talked about what he himself had witnessed. My clearest memory is when the village commune elected my grandfather bailiff. Having prayed to God, he called the entire commune to the village office and said:

  • 1 Tsar Gorokh (peas) is a Russian epic and literary character who lived and reigned in time immemori (...)
  • 2 A kind of fancy Russian loaf.

“Orthodox Christians, I have called you in not to make a rent payments redistribution—this should continue as it is now and everyone should pay attention to it himself. My duty now is to look after things so that everything will get better. I must tell you frankly about your disastrous situation, of which you yourselves are the cause. I will speak sincerely of myself as an example for you. My prosperity came from fair and hard work. No one can reproach me for laziness or dishonesty. If we, by Almighty Providence, must be serfs, at the same time we have not been deprived of the means to better our way of life. Although the arable land we have is not enough to sustain ourselves, we have the freedom of choice to do everything we can. The location of our village clearly compensates for the scarcity of arable land, because it provides the means for trade and for other business for everyone and as everyone pleases. We are sometimes clever in domestic trade, but how many of us really make good use of it? Everyone comes to the marketplace, but many of us bustle about the whole day for the sake of a kopeck or two. Nor do we get anywhere with crafts: we work just as in the times of Tsar Gorokh1. Indeed, we have no good kalatch2 in the village, no spice-cake to treat visitors, and no smithy to shoe a horse. When the villagers from round about have sold their goods at our market, what can they buy from us apart from knitted wear and shoes? They make their purchases from other people! Other people make a more profitable use of our own market than we do.”

3The villagers replied to my grandfather:

“We don’t have anything to start with, poor people that we are...”

4Then he changed his tone:

  • 3 Village communes often practised what became known as krugovaia poruka (collective responsibility) (...)
  • 4 His grandfather was probably referring to the tsarist military service. Transgressors of the law w (...)

“Listen,” he said, “I’ll tell you how it is. The cause of our wretched life is not poverty but the absence of accord among us— the schism in our faith, and unfairness and deception among us. That is why we do not trust one another. Were we poor but still honest and just people, we would have abilities. Unpleasant talk spreads around about us. Nobody will rely on us, because we cannot rely on ourselves. Let’s make a decision that from this day on we will all bail one another out for such and such an amount of money, according to each person’s ability and behavior.3 What bail each one deserves will be decided by specially elected people. They would issue annual guarantees. In case of complaints against someone, we will collect the money he owes, bail him out, and force this person to repay the amount. If someone squanders the loaned money they should be deemed harmful to the commune and sent into tsarist service.”4

5In order to get things started, my grandfather offered two thousand rubles from his own savings for ten years with no interest. The purpose of this was to create a common fund for anyone who needed to borrow money so they could begin trade. In return they would have to pay six kopecks annually for each ruble. Agreement was achieved by consensus. This agreement was written on paper and kept in the commune office. Initially they collected 6,500 rubles in total, which subsequently, because of interest and other fees, increased to 30,000.

6From that time (this happened in 1794), our peasants seemed to be reborn and began to look after one another. In no more than three years the formerly empty village square was lined with shops.

7They sold not only small articles but luxury goods and everything that the peasant household needed. Smithies were built. Instead of old-style shoes the village shoemakers began to produce German boots with sharp toes and creaks. Even the neighboring lords bought them with pleasure. The villagers gradually built oil mills and put several brickyards into operation. The sale of flax and linen canvas expanded. The peasants also began to sell their goods at distant markets.

8My grandpa remained bailiff from 1794 until 1802 and tried to keep everything in good order. He introduced bookkeeping, for which purpose two young fellows were taught accounting. My grandfather, Petr Petrovich, passed away in October of 1802, at the age of sixty. How did it happen that he was able to make himself into such a personage? This is how. His elder brother lived in Moscow for many years as a merchant’s assistant. He brought his younger brother (my grandpa) to Moscow, where he lived for twenty years. He worked first as an errand boy and then as an assistant to a very smart individual from whom my grandpa learned Muscovite trading habits and other things. After his return to the village, he engaged in trade himself. When his son, my father, grew up and became his dependable assistant, my grandfather had the free time to look into the conditions of his fellow villagers, figure out their problems, and think up the means to solve them.

9During the winter, grandpa’s commerce consisted of purchasing flax and handmade peasant yarn. Some of the former was sold locally to traders traveling from various localities, but the biggest part went to Vologda merchants for the port of Archangelsk. Later he sold flax directly to the Popov Archangelsk trading house. The peasant yarn supplied linen mills in Yaroslavl’ and Kostroma for canvas and ticking. In the summer, he bought peasant yarn, as well as narrow peasant linen canvas, both twisted and smooth. Both types were sold to Moscow merchants—the twisted for the Ukrainian market and the smooth for Moscow and for state suppliers. The volume of his trade was quite considerable. Grandpa’s finances reached twenty thousand, a great sum in those times!

  • 5 Home-made fruit liqueur.

10In family life, my grandpa was well known for his hospitality. Food was always abundant: various kinds of pies and tarts, homebrewed beer and white honey were never lacking. In those days people drank little tea but grandfather already had a tea-set with a copper teapot. The set looked lovely behind the glass of the blue cupboard and was used only for occasions: after a bath or after a long trip in cold weather, or on holidays when the village priest with his wife and our close relatives visited. When city visitors came on business, the copper teapot sat prominently on the table. They would drink a glass of nalivka5 with their company, but nobody in all his life saw grandpa drink. He held himself and everyone at home under strict discipline. My late father was no exception to the rule and got hardly less than all the others. Even after he was married he still tried to hold himself in hand in his father’s presence. “Where fear is—there is piety, too,” grandpa used to say. And no one grumbled about him. Only much later my mother recollected on occasions that “the breadwinner was strict, and, if he noticed something wrong, he would glance at you in such a manner that would give you a shiver. He was not impolite though.” Grandfather was handsome in appearance and eloquent. “At some relaxed moments he would speak in such a charming way that one could listen to him forever,” my dad used to say.

  • 6 The Trinity Sergius Monastery (Troitse-Sergieva Lavra) was founded by Sergius and Stefan in 1342, (...)

11Not long before his death my grandpa went to Moscow, prayed in the Kremlin cathedrals, and visited the Trinity Sergius Monastery.6 He brought back a small samovar from which, it seems, he did not drink. Soon he was overcome by illness. Before he died, grandpa asked for the icon of Our Lady of Kazan’, blessed my father, and solemnly said:

12“Well, my dear son, from this time on you are the full master of your life. Be a good Christian and son of the Orthodox Church. Respect your mother and remember me, love your wife and son, and stand for the truth. All the property goes to you but my holiday suit is for my grandson—let him remember his grandpa. Donate one hundred rubles to the church and give one hundred to the priests for their service. Give my cane and fur hat to Father Semen. This is my last word in the presence of the Invisible God.”

13These words exactly were written down by my dad, and the let-ter was given to me by my mother after my father’s death. My grandpa died upon taking the Last Communion, saying farewell to the family and in full consciousness. So it was said about his death.

Scene of peasant family life


1 Tsar Gorokh (peas) is a Russian epic and literary character who lived and reigned in time immemorial. The expression “Like under Tsar Gorokh” usually refers to something old, out of fashion, and outdated.

2 A kind of fancy Russian loaf.

3 Village communes often practised what became known as krugovaia poruka (collective responsibility). For a general discussion see David Moon, The Russian Peasantry. For Russian-language literature see V. A. Alekandrov, Sel’skaia obshchina v Rossii (VII – nachalo XIX v.) (Moscow: Nauka, 1976); idem, Obychnoe pravo Krepostnoi derevni Rossii, XVIII nachalo XIX v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1984); and L. S. Prokof’eva, Krest’ianskaia obshcina v Rossii vo vtoroi polovine XVIII–pervoi polovine XIX veka (Leningrad: Nauka, 1981).

4 His grandfather was probably referring to the tsarist military service. Transgressors of the law were often sent into the army. On the topic of Russian military service before 1861 see Jon L. H. Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar: Army and Society in Russia, 1462–1874 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), and Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, From Serf to Russian Soldier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

5 Home-made fruit liqueur.

6 The Trinity Sergius Monastery (Troitse-Sergieva Lavra) was founded by Sergius and Stefan in 1342, forty miles northeast of Moscow. Today, the monastery houses a monastic community and remains the center of monasticism of the Russian Orthodox Church. Near the monastery lies the city of Sergiev Posad. For more information about the monastery see Scott M. Kenworthy, “The Revival of Monasticism in Modern Russia: The Trinity-Sergius Lavra, 1825–1921,” Ph. D. diss., Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 2002.

Table des illustrations

Légende 5.Peasant dinner
Fichier image/jpeg, 299k
Légende 6.Scene of peasant family life
Fichier image/jpeg, 387k

© Central European University Press, 2005

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