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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868

My marriage, my landlord, my trade, and other things

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1Not long after my return from Moscow, our landlord sent an order to the estate administration, requiring that the rent be collected two years in advance and that the money be deposited in full with the Moscow Council of Trustees (Moskovskii Opekunskii Sovet). (He had made a donation for some charitable purpose.) Those who failed to pay in full were to be drafted into the army. The richer peasants were obliged to pay for those who could not find the money, and by doing so these peasants gained freedom for themselves and their families from future conscription.

2The lord’s order was read at the village assembly. People talked it over and decided to apportion how much money each household had to pay. As bad as peasant life could be, no one wanted to become a soldier and each tried to fulfill his share. My levy was one hundred rubles. I had only seventy rubles in cash and my mother gave me the other thirty. To help me stay in business she also sold her pearl necklace for one hundred and twenty rubles and gave this money to me. This money really helped me. My trade became brisker and I even got outside credit and bought a horse. In the winter I usually traded in flax and yarn. During the summer, I rented an apple orchard with a friend of mine. This also turned out to be a success. In two months we both gained a profit of eight hundred rubles in cash.

3But in the meantime the landlord wrote again to the bailiff, ordering him to select four tall men no older than twenty, who would be suitable to stand on the footboard at the back of his carriage, as well as four beautiful eighteen-year-old girls. All these people were to be taken personally to the landlord in St. Petersburg...

  • 1 Piter is an abbreviated name for St. Petersburg.

4As usual, this order was read out at the village gathering. Nobody dared to complain about it. Everyone, however, was saddened, in particular those who had young sons and beautiful daughters. My mother, too, worried about me. She yelled out, “The old sinner. At his age, to engage in such overindulgence! What if they take you into this service because you have no defense? I will not be able to bear it. I will leave the house and follow you to Piter.1 I’ll bow down to him and ask him to let you go in the name of your father, about whom the landlord often boasted before his lickspittles. And if he doesn’t take compassion upon you I will scratch out his eyes. Let God and the tsar be my judge! I am a mother!”

5I had never seen my mother in such a state. I could not stand it and began to weep myself and to comfort her, saying that “The bailiff is my father’s old friend and will not bring any harm to us. He won’t send me into the lord’s service. There are many other young fellows in our village who are taller than me.”

6“Well, Saushka,” my mother said, “people do not remember friendliness. You may be saved by something else. The bailiff has a niece. I have heard that he wants to marry her to you...”

7Meanwhile, the bailiff was deciding with the elders in the estate administration which families were to send their young sons and daughters. People said that I, too, had been named, but the bailiff himself took me off the list. The fathers of the young people who were selected, regardless of how much they tried to butter up the bailiff, were left to shed tears as they parted with their sons and daughters—and in particular the mothers wept for the fate of their beautiful daughters.

8Thus, until 1818, my time was spent on everyday matters. Then my mother again began to talk insistently about marriage. She made it clear that I could choose my bride, but suggested that a tie with a good family would serve us well. At that age I still had no inclination for marriage but promised my mother that I would think about a bride and marry.

  • 2 Eight thousand metric tons, or 16,368,000 pounds.

9Not long afterwards Petr Ivanovich, our fellow-villager, arrived. For about thirty years he had been the chief convoy manager of the barges that transported iron from the landlord’s Siberian mills to St. Petersburg. This had amounted to half a million puds2 of iron hardware annually. In the village, Petr Ivanovich lived with his family for no more than two months a year. He had a reputation as a kind, good-natured, and honest person. His employees loved him like a father. The landlord himself respected him, and in person and in his letters called him nothing but Petr Ivanovich. In the village, too, everyone greeted him with low bows. My late father was a friend of his, and since he had an only daughter it was often said that we “shall become relatives, with God’s blessing.” I often used to stare at this girl, who was a year younger than me. We played together in the summer, and in the winter went tobogganing. Now, in my present situation, I could hardly hope that her family would agree...

10But still I hoped...

11On one occasion when Petr Ivanovich was in the village, I was walking near their stone house. Suddenly a window was opened and I was called in. I entered and saw that my mother was there. And Petr Ivanovich said that he had already noticed everything and had made a decision that, because of my shyness and my mother’s widowhood, he himself would offer to reinforce the old familial friendship by bringing our families together.

12So, with a cheerful feast, we celebrated our wedding... Besides the dowry, my father-in-law, a kind man, gave me one thousand paper rubles to help my business.


13According to our local customs, marriage at the age of eighteen was nothing unusual, but now it seems to me rather odd that, having been quite a shy and obedient boy in my childhood, I suddenly felt in myself a change in the opposite direction, as if I had obtained some particular right. Whether it was because I had got my hands on a thousand rubles, or because I felt secure in having such a father-in-law on my side, or just because when a person gets married he becomes independent and able to stand on his own feet, I found myself in a completely different situation. Various ideas arose in my head. They came one after the other. Every day I had new plans. In my imagination I projected a pleasant and smooth future, as though everything would depend solely on my own intentions. In a word, I decided to achieve for myself, at any cost, the standing that my grandfather and father had enjoyed. Their personal examples stood firmly in my head. They served as the starting point for the development of my natural ambition, which hovered over me like a whip and drove me forward.

14In truth, it was no big deal for me to expand my business. I had only favorable conditions on my side. The experience I had gained in the past gave me sufficient knowledge about commodities. I knew very well when and where the best commodities were available. While trading, I made it a rule to obtain the lowest profit just to get people’s confidence in order to win them as regular customers.

15While expanding my commercial activities, and at the same time remaining modest, I gained confidence. If there was a shortage of cash when I was making a purchase, dealers would ask for a downpayment of half, with the rest to be paid later without interest. Confidence in me grew to such an extent that finally, when we were negotiating a deal, they did not even mention a cash downpayment. I always kept my promises, maintained the correct weights and measures, and was fair in all calculations.

16My successful trading continued until 1820. My cash capital, however, grew only a little, by a few hundred rubles, because I carried out some renovations on the house and made additional purchases of some household items. Initially, my mother criticized me. She believed that I had enlarged my business beyond my capacities. She was also angry with me because she felt that I had larger household expenses than in the past, especially when I invited to dinner important people that I needed. Of course, my mother’s reproaches were not pleasant but I refrained from arguing with her and continued to manage my business as I saw fit.

17In the meantime, the husband of one of the female heirs of the deceased landlord, a military general, A., and his wife, came to the village. They were greeted and treated properly. They summoned the villagers and said:

“We, fellows, need to be more meticulous in the future. We need to discuss something. For example, from the entire village we collect only twenty thousand in rent a year. The deceased lord, the father of my wife, gave you privileges for many years, and we too, since his death, have continued to indulge you for the last two years. We expected you to be appreciative and yourselves raise the rent you pay, in keeping with contemporary costs. We don’t want to talk about the past—let it pass—but you should understand our kindness and try to value us for it in the future.”

18The bailiff and the household elders replied with bows that they were very grateful for everything and prayed to God for the landlord’s health and honored the memory of his deceased father. The landlord responded to this, smiling:

“Well, this is no bad thing. Thank you for remembering the late landlord. But do not forget that now we need money. We do not want to increase the rent, but instead we will do this: collect two hundred thousand rubles right now, pay it in advance, and we will not require anything from you for the next ten years. Since you are all well-off people, it will not be difficult to fulfill our request. Well, what do you say to that?”

19In this way, the lord addressed a completely unexpected question to the village meeting.

20Everyone was taken aback and could hardly speak a word. Having misunderstood their silence as agreement, the landlord continued:

“So you will do as I have said? Will you?”
Again there was no response.
The lord then continued:
“Well, men, be careful to pay everything exactly.”
“No, father. We cannot!”
These words suddenly came out of my mouth. And at this very moment replies started to pour out from other places, as though from a sack. One said: “No, our benefactor, it is no joke to gather two hundred thousand! Where would we get it from?” “We are so ‘well off’ that we ourselves are often in a need of a ruble,” another bawled.
“But look what houses you have built for yourselves,” smiled the landlord.

21Here people began to speak out:

  • 3 3,051 acres.

“So what, houses! What are houses to us? To us they are our bread. We are not agriculturalists. Our land is only 1,130 desiatinas3 for 1,300 souls. We support ourselves by trade and commerce alone. We pay our rent with no arrears. What else do you want?”

22The noise got louder.

23Having met such a decisive refusal, the landlord, thinking perhaps “What’s the point of my talking to these fools,” looked at us, smiled again, turned away, took his wife’s hand, ordered the bailiff to prepare the carriage and bring the horses, and left at once for Yaroslavl’.

24We began to feel relieved, but our happiness did not last long. The heirs, after obtaining from the civic chamber (grazhdanskaia palata) a confirmation that such and such an estate of theirs was not encumbered, mortgaged the entire estate of 1,300 serfs to the Council of Trustees for twenty-five years and received two hundred fifty rubles per soul, which totaled 325,000 rubles. Two months later, the landlord’s order was read out clearly at a village gathering called for the purpose.

25“Because of the twenty-five-year loan of 325,000 rubles from the Council of Trustees, plus interest, thirty thousand rubles per year are required. The estate administration is duly obliged to collect this sum annually from the peasants in addition to the annual rent of twenty thousand. The total annual dues of fifty thousand will be redistributed by specially appointed people at their discretion, so that no household shall fail to pay its share. Otherwise, under the bailiff’s charge, those who fail to pay are subjected to the following: young people to immediate military conscription; those unfit for military service to work in the Siberian metallurgical mills.”


26In the midst of wordless silence, interrupted by deep gasps, they finished reading the ghastly order... At that very moment, for the first time in my life, I tasted the sorrow of my status as a serf. At that very moment, for the first time, a grievous question arose in my naive mind: “What are we?” My heart was breaking into pieces and urging me to speak out, but looking around at the sorrowful faces, and hearing only solitary whispers, I managed to hold back my passions and keep them inside me.

27The events shocked not only me: such a huge obligation was of extraordinary concern to everybody. Indeed, this obligation seemed to us unlawful. But what could one do? In those days peasants were prohibited from complaining against their landlords. Willfully refusing to pay the lord would mean stamping ourselves with the stigma of rebellion; if we attempted stubborn arguments we would be subjected to harsh punishment, which would reduce everyone to complete impoverishment. The gathering ended with the writing of a formal verdict on ourselves: payment of the requested sum according to the received order, laying our hopes on God. No one wanted to deprive himself of the village of his birth: it was better to deny ourselves a holiday treat just to avoid trouble. The only consolation was our unrestrained freedom to engage in economic activities.

28Despite the common hardship, our family, thanks to the Most High, did not sink into complete poverty. My business endeavors proceeded well. We had no shortage of food. I always paid regularly the dues, about two hundred paper rubles, levied on me. But I thought constantly: “Why did our landlord do this to us?” I began to pay attention to what, up until this moment, had never occupied my thoughts— the local peasant way of life.

Reading lesson


1 Piter is an abbreviated name for St. Petersburg.

2 Eight thousand metric tons, or 16,368,000 pounds.

3 3,051 acres.

Table des illustrations

Légende 10.Reading lesson
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© Central European University Press, 2005

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