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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868

And my adult life began...

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1Our commerce continued in an orderly way, as it had before, but not quite as successfully as it had been in my grandfather’s time. A shipment of grain sank, some debtors failed to pay, thus our finances decreased considerably. Nevertheless, in spite of all this my father had no real difficulty with his business. He was not embarrassed by his serf status but often felt a certain sadness when he had to obey the landlord’s whims. For example, once the landlord summoned my dad to St. Petersburg and kept him there for almost a year solely to demonstrate to his visitors what peasants he had! Still, relations between my father and the landlord were the best. The lord even empowered my dad to administer the estate and represent him in courts and juridical institutions, where the lieutenant-colonel was engaged in some lawsuit with his nephews. This caused our family much trouble and drew my father away from his own business. But, most importantly, the clerks my father dealt with often tempted him into drinking.

2In August 1811, after a bout of drinking, my father got very sick. It happened as follows. He went to Moscow to handle some business errands. There, having got used to partying with officials and clerks, he drank a great deal at a big party and then continued to drink alone the following week. Rumors about it reached our village. We sent a relative to Moscow to rescue my father. Apparently, the relative had no experience in dealing with people in such a state as my dad had gotten himself into. He took a coach and carried my father back home, allowing him neither rest nor vodka on the way. My father arrived back home in such a poor condition that he could hardly get off the coach. They said that his blood had clotted, and his system finally failed him. On 4 September my dad died. He was forty-two years old. In his will he left everything to my mother, asked his friends and relatives to take care of me, and made a note to our servant: “Mikhailo, don’t abandon my son and be his advisor in commerce.”

  • 1 Here Purlevskii refers to the Russian campaign of 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars, known in Russia (...)
  • 2 Even after St. Petersburg became Russia’s capital, Moscow also retained the name “capital.” It was (...)

3From that time on the laboring part of my life began. My mom, although a neat and efficient housekeeper, hardly understood anything about commerce, because my late father had kept her out of his business. Unfortunately, the very year he died he had loaned almost all his money to the Vologda merchants, who then incurred considerable losses at the port of Archangelsk. My mother tried to take care of this and made several trips to Vologda herself, but with no great success. She managed to reclaim only about two thousand paper rubles. At that time I was eleven years old and had no practical commercial experience. My advisor Mikhailo was a loyal individual but was also incapable of anything. My mother had no confidence in our abilities. She kept the money and gave us only five hundred rubles so that I could launch myself in business. With so little money the family’s commercial activity slowed down. The winter came to an end with no profit. Then the year 1812 approached…1 Commerce had declined everywhere, but what would happen to ours? In the village of Velikoe, people hardly thought about business and instead prayed to God for their survival. They buried or hid their belongings and prepared to flee. All the males, from ten to sixty years old, armed themselves with pikes to guard the village at night. All essential items became expensive. Our earnings declined and we spent all the money we had previously saved just to buy basic goods. We held barely five hundred rubles in reserve. As for state and manorial dues, we had to pay them on time and in full, always up to one hundred rubles. My mother wept that the money was running out. Even so, with a great effort we managed to keep up, although we felt sad and woeful about our own misfortunes and those of the poor people who were fleeing Moscow with nothing but their lives. We only breathed freely when Napoleon abandoned the capital2 and God began to punish him for the horrors he had inflicted on us.

  • 3 200 versts is about 213 km or about 133 miles.

4Nevertheless, I know scarcely any details of what happened then, because our region is about two hundred versts from Moscow.3 My curiosity about many significant events remained unsatisfied. I remember only that the bodies of the enemies, who were regarded as the servants of hell, were not buried but burned instead.


  • 4 Here Purlevskii is referring to an area of Moscow.
  • 5 Kitai-Gorod is an old area of Moscow located by the Kremlin and surrounded by a wall. The area was (...)

5By the end of the fall things had calmed down and people gradually began to return to Moscow. There they found everything in ashes and faced a complete lack of foodstuffs and everything else necessary to restore their destroyed households. The lack of goods was experienced everywhere. I decided to ask my mother to allow me to go with Mikhailo to Moscow with goods to sell. At first she hesitated, but finally agreed. With two hundred rubles of my own and three hundred on credit I bought boots, stockings, linen for shirts, and various other merchandise for laboring people. Six days later our carriage safely approached Moscow. We stopped at a coaching inn at the Cross area.4 The next morning customers came and cleaned us out entirely. Having made a great profit we went on to have a look at Moscow. The outskirts where we stopped showed almost no sign of destruction, but when we went further, beyond Sukharevskaia Square inside the city, we saw devastation every where. Even the Kitai-Gorod5 had a sorrowful look: burnt houses, ruins, windows with no glass, and empty shops. But when we saw the damage to the Kremlin, our hearts pounded and our tears flowed. The two previous years, when I had visited Moscow with my late father, I had seen the Kremlin in all its beauty!

6That same evening we returned home. My mother was exceptionally happy with our return home and our good fortune. When she counted the money she saw that, after all our expenses, we had earned over two hundred rubles in profit. I, too, was in a state of excitement. But when we told her about what we had seen we all began to sob and we forgot about our gains...

  • 6 Sbiten’ was a traditional Russian hot drink made from water, honey and various spices.

7Profit, however, always remains a lure for people. Within a month we set out again for Moscow with the same commodities. But this time we did not commit the sin of earning big profits, because many other traders elsewhere had brought the same goods in abundance. We recovered what we had spent only with great difficulty, and even suffered a small loss. Meanwhile, life and economic activity had begun to return to Moscow. Since there were still only a few residents in the city, rents were very cheap. With a little money one could find a space for a shop. I thought it would be worthwhile setting up a small sbiten6 shop. This idea came to me and I knew that I had enough money to carry it out. Our Mikhailo was formerly a sbiten’ maker and made a great drink.

8With these ideas in mind I went back to the village. I thought about it over and over again. Mikhailo also supported the idea and said, “With you I will go for it.” I decided to tell my mother. It upset her terribly and she shouted that I had gone crazy. She forbade me even to think about such nonsense and insisted that since “your grandfather and dad were in business here, you should be too.”

  • 7 The first cholera epidemic broke out in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the central Russian provinces i (...)

9At that time I had a best friend, Nikita. He was a little older than me. We went together to Ivan Petrovich to study, and on holidays Nikita stayed with us to play and read tales. After my mother had refused, I told him about my Muscovite plan. He quickly understood the idea and explained it to his father, who also saw the point. Nikita and his father dashed to Moscow. They hired a sbiten’ maker in a village along the way and in two weeks opened a store on Makhovaia Street. After a month Nikita’s father returned home and thanked me for giving him the idea. A year later, Nikita visited the village and brought bread and cookies. He told me privately that he had earned three thousand rubles. He took his brother back to Moscow (their father had three sons) and put him in charge of the sbiten’ store, while he opened a grocer’s shop. Within ten years these two brothers (by the name of Lebedev) had made a hundred thousand rubles, bought themselves out of serfdom and married, and by the 1830s possessed big capital and two stone houses. When the first cholera epidemic struck Moscow, the entire family was wiped out.7

10Meanwhile, when I heard the rumors about Nikitushka’s wealth, I had scarcely any regrets but was in fact very proud that my idea and advice had brought him a fortune. I was glad to receive letters and sometimes presents from him. As for me, I still lived in Velikoe and traded flax and yarn for small amounts of money, mostly around the local villages. I had no money to buy a horse and therefore used to go on foot to the local markets and fairs. If I bought something, I sold it right there and, if I made a tiny profit, I went back to my village with it. The work was hard and I made scarcely enough money for me and my mother to live on.

11Time passed and there seemed to be nothing awaiting me. In the year 1817, my mother began to make hints about marriage. “You are of age,” she said, “and I am not healthy; we have a decent house, we can find a rich bride.”

12I did not want to disappoint my mother with a refusal and only asked her first to let me go on foot to Moscow to pray to the saints and maybe to find something useful. For some reason my mother readily agreed to let me go this time. My thinking, however, was as follows: since Nikita was now rich, he could scarcely refuse to lend me some two or three hundred rubles, if only for a year, in order to start my own business. With this money I would start up some enterprise.

  • 8 40.5 km or 25.2 miles.

13With high hopes I arrived in Moscow, found my friend, and called to see him. Nikita was no longer what he had been. He greeted me, however, invited me to a tavern, treated me to tea after my long trip, and asked me this, that, and the other about my life. I told him, frankly, that “our life is as it has always been. We work hard and get paid very little, almost nothing. If I had in my hands one or two hundred, I could make a pretty penny even in our village, but I have only about half a hundred in turnover. What can one do with that? Earn about three rubles and go thirty-eight versts8 back home.”

14Remembering our old days of friendship, I nearly added, “Would you, brother, lend me some money to start up in business?” But I hesitated. I expected that my old friend would himself ask me:

“How much do you need?”
But my Nikitushka realized what I had come for and began to explain that, although he had money, he still needed it himself. He had invested most of his wealth in goods and had almost no cash, although he had debts to pay off.

15I had scarcely expected such a pretext and restrained myself from further talk. Nikita asked me:

“How long are you staying in Moscow?”
“I’m leaving for home today.”
“Right,” he said, “food is expensive in Moscow. It is no joke staying here even for a day.”

16At the same time he took from his side pocket a wallet loaded with paper money, took out a blue five-ruble banknote, and said:

“Take this. It may be useful on your way back. And take a loaf of Moscow bread with you for our teacher, Ivan Petrovich, as well. He is still alive, I suppose?”

17I answered “Thanks be to God, he is alive and well,” took the bread, but refused to accept the money. “Thank you for your hospitality and treat, now goodbye and take care,” I said, and rushed away from the tavern.

  • 9 Eighteen versts is 19.08 km or 11.86 miles.
  • 10 Mytishchi is a town northeast of Moscow.

18I barely remember how I walked across Moscow and how I found myself eighteen versts away,9 in Mytishchi.10 There I drank water from a well and took a short rest. That night I stopped at the Trinity Sergius Monastery. I slept well. In the morning I prayed to the saints, and on the third day reached home. My mother had not expected me back so soon. Surprised at my early return, she asked:

“Have you really been to Moscow?”
“I have been, Mother. Only this time I did not like Moscow.”

19My mother did not ask me any more. She was pleased that I had come back.


1 Here Purlevskii refers to the Russian campaign of 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars, known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812. On this war see Alan Palmer, Napoleon in Russia (London: Simon and Schuster, 1976), and Eugene Tarle, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 1812 (New York: Octagon Books, 1979).

2 Even after St. Petersburg became Russia’s capital, Moscow also retained the name “capital.” It was sometimes referred to as “the old capital,” while St. Petersburg was known as “the northern capital.”

3 200 versts is about 213 km or about 133 miles.

4 Here Purlevskii is referring to an area of Moscow.

5 Kitai-Gorod is an old area of Moscow located by the Kremlin and surrounded by a wall. The area was traditionally populated by craftsmen and shopkeepers.

6 Sbiten’ was a traditional Russian hot drink made from water, honey and various spices.

7 The first cholera epidemic broke out in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the central Russian provinces in the fall of 1830. According to some incomplete data, 466,000 people were affected by the disease in 1831, of whom 42 percent died. The disease originated in Asia in the early 1820s and first struck the Caucasus and Astrakhan’ regions. Ia. I. Linkov, Ocherki istorii krest’ianskogo dvizheniia v Rossii v 1825–1861 gg. (Moscow: Gos. uchebno-pedagogicheskoe izd., 1952), 26–27.

8 40.5 km or 25.2 miles.

9 Eighteen versts is 19.08 km or 11.86 miles.

10 Mytishchi is a town northeast of Moscow.

Table des illustrations

Légende 9. Peasant boy
Fichier image/jpeg, 349k

© Central European University Press, 2005

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