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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

Boris B. Gorshkov

The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrevich Purlevskii, 1800–1868


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  • 1 The following text was written by the journal editor Shcherban.

1Unfortunately, with these very words, the original manuscript comes to an abrupt end. The autobiographer’s death in 1868 prevented him from finishing the story of his life. His further fate is known only from oral histories, told to me by people well acquainted with him. I will retell it in brief. I am sorry for the lack of details, which would perhaps be of great interest.

2The serf bailiff, Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, who fell into disgrace as the result of another’s guilt and because of hostile slander, came out of his lord’s study neither dead nor alive. The scene had been terrible. The landlord strictly ordered him to “go back to the village immediately and wait there for further instruction.”

3This terrifying phrase “wait for further instruction” overwhelmed Purlevskii. He imagined the kind of reprisals that he himself had been witness to many times—corporal punishment, maybe the “red hat,” perhaps even Siberia... Usually logical, on this occasion he lost his head completely and immediately decided to flee. Where to? There was no need to think much about this: where the Old Believers, who probably often fled his village, usually ran to— beyond the Prut, beyond the Danube!

4On that very day he disappeared from St. Petersburg. The realization that his sudden disappearance would serve as proof of his guilt made him uneasy. In order to discourage the landlords from thinking of him as a runaway and of his flight as a confession of guilt and escape from deserved punishment, on his way he sent a letter to the landlords in which he explained in detail that he could not be even technically at fault in a matter that had occurred on its own, without his physical presence. He explained the moral motives that had caused him immediately to look for escape, abandoning everything, because of the possible consequences of the slander against him.

5When he had left home for St. Petersburg, Purlevskii had taken with him only a small amount of money, and after his expenses in St. Petersburg and the fare for the trip back, he arrived in Moscow with only fifty rubles, twenty rubles of which, that he had put in a wallet, were stolen... Using what was left he somehow got to Kiev, where he had not so much as a kopeck. He, a prosperous peasant, homeowner, and bailiff, had to go on foot to Kishinev.

6The Prut was a stone’s throw from there, but he had no money to arrange a convenient, safe passage, which was usually provided by the frontier Jews for a decent sum of money. There was nothing he could do. Alone as he was, our poor industrious fellow approached the river in the dead of night, cut some cane, tied it into a bundle, lay on it, pushed off with his legs, and struck out down the river.

  • 2 A Christian religious sect in Russia. The members of this sect practised celibacy, self-castration (...)

7The current took him to Moldova. After a few days our fellow found himself in Iassakh, exhausted, ragged, hungry, and without money. There he encountered quite a few Russians who had fled, in particular Skoptsy2, who were making a living mainly in the carrier’s trade. Purlevskii joined them. They sheltered their fellowcountryman, gave him food, and took him into their service. The former homeowner became a servant, and was glad of it.

8Nevertheless, he soon began to make his way up: his honesty and hard work were noted. He was entrusted with a carriage and began to work as a carrier, and received a salary calculated upon a share of his receipts. He started to make money and became prosperous, and even began to dream about buying his own carriage sometime in the near future. But once, while half asleep, he overheard a conversation: “He is a good fellow, we need to convert him to our faith...”

  • 3 An Old Believer group who settled in the Kuban’ region in the early eighteenth century. For more i (...)

9Staunchly Orthodox, Purlevskii had never particularly admired the Old Believers from his own village and he certainly could not imagine himself as a convert to the Skoptsy! Because he had heard that the Skoptsy often used force he became very scared, and at the very first opportunity he fled beyond the Danube to the fisheries, where he joined the Nekrasovtsy.3

10He lived there for two years, receiving much kindness and enjoying many things. One thing distressed him: he missed his country, his village, and his family, of whom, in spite of the letters he sent, he received no news. He could barely keep himself from returning. But how? He was still a runaway serf!

11The Nekrasovtsy were very curious about what was going on in Russia and subscribed to newspapers. Once, in around 1834, they read in Odesskii vestnik that, at the representation of Count Vorontsov and by a Merciful Decree from on High, all runaway serfs who had not committed crimes were allowed to settle freely in the Novorossiisk area, where they would be welcomed.

12Having gathered all his few savings, Purlevskii immediately went to Odessa and obtained the status of a townsman. There he found employment as a waiter in a bar. The owner admired Purlevskii and he became a manager.

13A certain magistrate’s officer used to go to that bar. He was very fond of Savva Dmitrievich and in a short while this acquaintanceship proved quite useful. Someone in Odessa sent a denunciation that such and such a runaway serf from Velikoe was living there. The estate management was almost ready to drag him back, but the magistrate’s officer and the Kherson criminal chamber defended his registration in the estate of Odessa townspeople.

14At that time Iakhnenko and Simirenko established their famous sugar refinery. The above-mentioned magistrate secretary was a nephew of theirs. On his recommendation, Savva Dmitrievich was given a job as a commissioner in the newly opened business. Initially things did not go well. Once, for example, in 1847, he went to Astrakhan’ with fifty kegs of sugar, lived there for three months, and did not sell a single one. He was about to return with nothing when a local dealer of colonial goods, I. I. Kozlov, came to him and bought all fifty kegs.

15With the help of this dealer business went well and the position of S. D. Purlevskii was solidified. He entered the merchant estate. Prior to the 1850s, he traveled throughout all of Russia and lived mainly in Sevastopol. In 1852 he moved to Moscow, where, until his death in 1868, he remained a commissioner of the famous Iakhnenko and Smirnenko Corporation. In 1856 he bought freedom for his only son for two thousand five hundred silver rubles (his mother and wife, it seems, had died long before then). When the Manifesto for the Emancipation of the Peasants was announced, the old man, having returned from a church service, sat at the table and, without saying a word, dissolved into tears...

16From such tears an endless, inexhaustible sea of appreciation flowed around the throne of the empire’s Reformer!


1 The following text was written by the journal editor Shcherban.

2 A Christian religious sect in Russia. The members of this sect practised celibacy, self-castration and eschatology. The Skoptsy receive attention in Laura Engelstein, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.)

3 An Old Believer group who settled in the Kuban’ region in the early eighteenth century. For more information on the Nekrasovtsy see The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, Joseph L. Wieczynski, ed. (Gulf Breeze, Fl.: Academic International Press, 1976), under Nekrasovtsy.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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