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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868

The bitterness of serfdom realized

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1I have already mentioned that, from my childhood, I had a great love of reading. But before my marriage I mostly limited my reading to books of ecclesiastical content and read very few secular publications. After I got married, I began to read real literature. And my curiosity was aroused to such an extent that I could spend entire nights sitting with my books. The poetry of those days particularly attracted me. As a result, I still retain in my memory many compositions and entire plays by certain poets. The intelligent judgments of talented writers always won out over my simpleminded peasant views and the superstitions usual for a commoner. Reading exposed my ignorance about almost everything.

2Nevertheless, this somehow lowered my self-esteem. Although I agreed with the ideas I read about and although my mind could comprehend them and my traditional assumptions were gradually vanishing, their place was being taken by some confusing and diffuse thoughts, which I not only barely understood, but which also aroused in me a skepticism about what I was reading. Of course, the cause of all this confusion was my own non-systematic reading.

3Perhaps this was for the better, because I was cautious about reaching hasty agreement with those brave ideas, which could hardly be applied to the actualities of my serf condition. After all, I was not a single man. I needed to think about and take care of my family...

4Although it scarcely satisfied my spiritual objectives, my business provided support for the household. Thus I decided to continue my life according to the familiar path of commerce. Later on, the books gradually took over, and the life I led also encouraged this outcome. Previously, before I burdened my mind with thoughts about my serf status, my life objectives were limited to achieving a status similar to that of prominent, well-off fellow-villagers, or at least a status that would do no injury to the memory of my father and grandfather. But after the event when the landlord forcibly increased our obligations, his power over us and the humiliating, slave-like condition of all society made me uneasy all my life.

5How to get rid of this centuries-old entrapment and free my family from it as well? I had to think over many things, while the hair turned white on my head... What could a married man, with limited knowledge, without money, and without connections and protection, do, and, more importantly, what could a serf do…? In truth, my feelings of irritation and my dissatisfaction could easily have got me into serious trouble. More than anything else, the temptation that I experienced as regards people who made huge fortunes through dishonest tricks made me unhappy. But the Almighty God preserved the purity of my credo. It was not in my nature to accept shabbiness, and my mind recognized only fair ways of making money. I had to make all my deeds accord with this belief.

6The limited commercial activity I pursued held out no promise of sufficient funds in the future to buy freedom. Therefore I decided to expand my trade. Having closely examined and considered all the possible ways of doing business with which I was familiar and handy, I decided on local commodities, purchased in large quantities for the port of Archangelsk. I had the fortunate idea of calculating the balance of price increases as the commodities passed through several hands.

7The result, in my view, was quite encouraging. Consequently, I dared to report my calculations to Arkhangelsk, to the trading company of Brant, with which I was completely unfamiliar. Of course, I gave a careful account of every detail, according to the circumstances and realities. I offered to become the house’s local commercial agent. But could I hope for success? I presented them with no support for my credentials, not even a simple letter of recommendation!

8Nevertheless, I suddenly received a letter from Wilhelm Ivanovich Brant with a clear order to purchase flax. (It was, I remember, one morning in 1822.) After that, in the next mail, I received thirty thousand rubles... Before I had a chance to turn around, he sent me sugar from his plant on commission...

9This business continued until 1830. Only once during those eight years did I happen to visit Arkhangelsk and meet my boss in person. Usually, the annual balances and reports were carried out via mail. It is hard to believe, but this is the truth. In my life this event became an encouragement for me and for new undertakings, which were no less profitable and significant. The year following Brant’s offer I decided to contact the manager of the Alexandrovsk Imperial Plant, General Aleksander Iakovlevich Simpson...

10And the result? He, too, gladly agreed to entrust me with the purchase of flax. I engaged in this activity for the next several years. Meanwhile, my local business continued as it had been before. The St. Petersburg flood of 1824 damaged my goods and brought losses of seven thousand rubles. Nonetheless, in 1826 I had fifteen thousand of my own in circulation. With such a sum of money one could buy one’s way out of serfdom, a state that always seemed to belittle me in the eyes of free people.

11But, as time passed, this cherished idea weakened... Whether because serfdom did not restrain the freedom of my commerce and my access to loans, or because I could not withdraw from my business activities the money necessary for buying my freedom, I can hardly say now. I only know that I delayed again and again until 1826, when an event occurred before my very eyes that made me feel all too sharply my bitterness of my lot as a serf.


12I have already described how the surrounding villages belonged to our estate and how in the past, beginning with the first owner who came after Repnin, the alcohol tax farmer, the peasants were sent to work in the manorial factory. On the second division of the estate, twenty-three villages with a cotton factory—in total about one thousand six hundred souls on the census register—passed to our landlord’s nephew, who in 1818 sold all his property to a prince by the name of *. Later on, although still serfs, these peasants were quite prosperous.

13But thirty or forty years before that things were different. At that time, the peasants were administered by a hired German manager who kept them downtrodden in every way. Besides labor duties, he also resorted to moral violence against them. Even marriages, in the form of voluntary unions, as had actually been the case, gradually disappeared, and almost every marriage was concluded by order of the factory administration. For these occasions they set a time, once a year, when, according to a special list, they called grooms and brides to the administration office. There, under the personal direction of the German manager, they formed couples, which afterwards, under the supervision of the administration, were sent directly to the church where a priest blessed several weddings at a time. Peasants’ priorities and desires were of no concern.

14In this sorrowful state of affairs, accompanied by constant complaining among them, a few peasants sent written complaints directly to the landlord. But the latter, unfortunately, paid no attention to them. Instead, he relied fully on the manager and, giving no consideration to their complaints, asked the manager to “teach” all the complainers the “domestic” way.

15And the fun began: every day a severe flogging. The peasants’ endurance was finally exhausted. In 1828 almost all the village, without being called on, gathered by the factory office in order to question this infidel: Why such tyranny? Having seen the big crowd, the sly German realized what was up. If he had just talked to the people and showed them the landlords’ order, the indignation would have ended.

  • 1 Purlevskii probably referred to vodka, which in Russia is also sometimes called “wine” or “white w (...)
  • 2 32 km or 20 miles.

16But no. He made his servants tell the people that he would talk with them in the evening. Then, that evening, he again delayed talking to them until the next morning, saying that he was sick, and he gave the people a glass of wine1 and bread for dinner. On the following night, however, without saying a word, he rushed to the provincial town thirty versts2 away and appeared before the governor with the charge that the prince’s peasants were disobedient and were in a state of rebellion, as though he himself had barely saved his life by fleeing. In the meantime, the peasants were not even thinking of rebellion and, sincere as they were, did not have the least suspicion of trickery. They accepted the manager’s kind response, a glass of vodka and bread, as signs of special favor and hope for the future. They headed for their homes peacefully and, in the morning, following what the manager had told them, again gathered around the factory business office, where they fully expected to achieve a fair resolution.

17No such thing! All at once several troikas carrying representatives of the authorities, military troops, and the manager pulled up. The casual way in which the crowd had gathered could scarcely have proved the manager’s slander, but he had apparently bribed someone. The representatives of the authorities shouted, “Why have you dragged yourselves here, mutineers? Go home, or every tenth man of you will receive a flogging.”

18The peasants were so shocked by this unexpected turn of events that they did not dare explain what the real story was but simply stared without saying a word. The authorities ordered the troops to seize from the crowd all those who were lingering, put them in chains, and take them to the city as the instigators. They also filed a report, formally signed by the authorities, that the mutiny had been pacified. But not only did the clerk refuse to sign the report, he also filed a protest stating that the people who had gathered had not been allowed to explain the reason for their meeting and that, in fact, at the first demand they had obediently left for their homes. However, his appeal was not shown to the governor and the arrested peasants were brought to trial. Nevertheless, the district court immediately released the arrested as innocent.

  • 3 Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855). On his reign see Bruce W. Lincoln, In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia’s (...)

19Everything seemed to have happened for the better, but then turned out for the worse. Although the accusations of rebellion were withdrawn from the peasants, their complaints against the manager were ignored and everything remained as it had been. Out of malice following his defeat, the manager began to take revenge and oppress the peasants even more harshly, reporting to the landlord that the peasants were rebellious and that the district court had indulged them in their rebellious ways. The landlord again avoided the issue. Mistrusting and ignoring the court decision, he instead used his own legal powers as a landlord. He ordered that all the discharged peasants, without further consideration, be sent either into military service or to live in Siberia. The peasants, meanwhile, had never believed in a happy ending and had a presentiment of the trouble coming from their oppressors. They wrote an appeal to the Highest Name, in which they described everything in detail, and all the literate people from all the estate villages signed it. As the landlord’s strict instruction reached the factory office and rumors about it spread, the peasants immediately sent four selected people to St. Petersburg to seek the tsar’s protection. This delegation presented an appeal to Emperor Nikolai Pavlovich3 in person and received from the Minister of the Interior a document allowing their free return to their native village.

20In the meantime, while the delegation was traveling, the estate authorities began to take peasants from the villages, according to the landlord’s direction. Waiting for the return of the delegation, the peasants decisively refused to give up their fellow-countrymen, doomed to perish. They stated that if the lord wished, they would only go into the military or to Siberia all together or no one would go at all... On the landlord’s behalf the manager appealed to the governor. The governor sent troops to all the villages and reported an insurrection to the minister.

21A terrifying commotion had begun. A whole garrison occupied the villages, terrifying the peasant households. Then, I remember, in June, they brought the inhabitants from all the surrounding villages to the village closest to ours and detained them. I myself was a witness of this. The people were placed around, and in the middle stood the authorities. About one hundred people, the younger ones, were given a sound whipping. Everyone, having crossed themselves, endured the punishment without saying a word. Those who were stronger tried to protect the weak ones and stepped forward. Women cried sorrowfully, children screamed. I am barely able to retell what I saw... The representatives of the authorities themselves turned away their faces and lowered their eyes.

22But it must be that guiltless suffering does not vanish without leaving a trace. That day was the last day of peasant suffering, out of which a new order emerged. In a short while the German manager was replaced by a new one, a Russian, an indulgent and kind man, who found ways to replace labor duties with machines and work contracts. Some peasants began to pay money rent and others worked at the factory voluntarily, for money which was counted against their labor duties. After a few years the situation improved. Many peasants even became prosperous.

23It is worth mentioning that, after a while, some importunate supplicant, a Finn, shot the prince with a gun at his house in St. Petersburg, in the presence of his family. Was this not God’s Judgment on the prince for the torturing of his peasants, and were not the latter in their turn suffering for the sins of their predecessors? We cannot be judges of this.


24Before this sad event I had viewed my serf status more or less with indifference, but the impression of what I saw that day revived my old desire to free myself and my family from bondage, even at the price of all the cash I had. I occupied myself with this desire for two years: I used various means, brought presents for certain people I needed and for the landlord’s closest servants, yet received only a little hope. Finally even this little vanished, due to zealous but not very subtle solicitations made by my kind friends, who overpraised me in the hope of helping my efforts. In particular, my commercial acquaintances made solicitations for me.

25Then one of them informed me that the landlord would not hear of losing me, because he “intends to employ you for business of his own.”

26As a matter of fact, shortly after this the estate management received instructions to “inform such and such a peasant of our estate and oblige him, under his signature, and with the strict responsibility of the management, not to dare bother in future with solicitations for his redemption. Moreover, well-known people are soliciting for him, probably with the goal of using him for their own commercial affairs. Therefore, keep special note of him until our further directions.”

27With a heavy heart I listened to the landlord’s instructions and signed a statement that I would not bother him in the future...

13. Peasant-migrant and a merchant


1 Purlevskii probably referred to vodka, which in Russia is also sometimes called “wine” or “white wine.”

2 32 km or 20 miles.

3 Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855). On his reign see Bruce W. Lincoln, In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia’s Enlightened Bureaucrats, 1825–1861 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1982.)

Table des illustrations

Légende 13. Peasant-migrant and a merchant
Fichier image/jpeg, 301k

© Central European University Press, 2005

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