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Life under Russian Serfdom

Life under Russian Serfdom

Translated and edited by BORIS B. GORSHKOV
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Pages: 130
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  • Book Info
    Life under Russian Serfdom
    Book Description:

    This is a translation of one of very few Russian serfs' memoirs. Savva Purlevskii recollects his life in Russian serfdom and life of his grandparents, parents, and fellow villagers. He describes family and communal life and the serfs' daily interaction with landlords and authorities. Purlevskii came from an initially prosperous family that later became impoverished. Early in his childhood, he lost his father. Purlevskii did not have a chance to gain a formal education. He lived under serfdom until 1831 when at the age of 30 he escaped his servitude. Gorshkov's introduction provides some basic knowledge about Russian serfdom and draws upon the most recent scholarship. Notes provide references and general information about events, places and people mentioned in the memoirs.

    eISBN: 978-615-5053-95-5
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. ii-v)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vi-vi)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS (pp. vii-viii)
  5. INTRODUCTION (pp. 1-19)

    Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, a former serf from Yaroslavl’ province, wrote his memoirs shortly before his death in 1868. The literary and political journal Russkii vestnik (Russian messenger) published them in 1877.¹ Their publication epitomized the intellectual interest in the life of common people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this era several serf memoirs appeared in Russian literary journals or were published as books.² But Purlevskii’s memoirs stand somewhat apart. Unlike most exserf memoirists, such as the famous Aleksander Vasil’evich Nikitenko who gained freedom from serfdom at the age of eighteen and became a distinguished statesman and...

    • PREFACE (pp. 23-24)
      N. Shcherban

      Our birthplace, the village of Velikoe (“Great”), Yaroslavl’ province (thirty-five versts40 from Yaroslavl’ city eastward along the main road to Rostov), had, from time immemorial, along with the surrounding villages, belonged to the sovereign’s court department. A church, two market days a week, and the production of peasant shoes, mittens, gloves, and woolen stockings remain relics of those old days. Traditionally, these crafts sustained the local market, which in the summer was enlivened with the additional sale of cloth and fine handkerchiefs (perhaps even better known than the village itself), and, during the winter, became brisk with the sale of...

    • MY GRANDFATHER (pp. 43-48)

      As 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...


      At the time when grandpa died, my dad was already about thirty. He had acquired excellent trading skills. With his own money and the confidence he gained from people, he maintained the household with no difficulty. Besides him and my mom, Dar’ia Egorovna, our family included my grandma and me, then aged two. (I was born on 5 January 1800.) I remember myself from the age of four. From that time on my memory retained everything. I knew, and remember well, the appearance of my relatives; I remember the things I enjoyed then and my habits; I remember the troubles...

    • AND MY ADULT LIFE BEGAN... (pp. 63-69)

      Our 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...


      Not 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.

      The lord’s order...


      In spite of everything, it turned out that our situation was not too bad. We had a neighbor, Ivan Ivanovich, who lived not far away from our village. He was a first-rate debauchee and was fond of urban beauties. He lived permanently in his village; endlessly, and without count, he took money from his peasants. Whatever he demanded had to be brought at once, otherwise a whipping would follow.

      In this way a landlord, who was by no means young, robbed his peasants and beat them with or without reason until they finally rebelled and threatened him... Ivan Ivanovich realized...


      I 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...

    • MY ACTIVITIES IN ESTATE LIFE (pp. 103-108)

      Until 1828, while paying my rent regularly, I participated but little in the communal affairs of the village that did not touch me directly. I spent all my time on my commercial pursuits. I frequently heard complaints from my fellow-villagers about the bailiff’s abuses of power. Since I was a relative of his and got on well with him, I told him many times informally to improve the way he carried out his duties. I would tell him this in a straightforward, friendly way. This offended him, and he began to treat me unfairly. Either he would delay the issuing...

    • MY FUTURE FATE RESOLVED (pp. 109-110)

      This was how my plans on village governance developed. In general, everything was fine and everyone was satisfied with me. I also occupied myself with selling iron products at the Nizhegorod fair. Until 1830 this part of my activity also went well. As a result, I always received praise and rewards. In 1830 we sold our iron at prices even higher than we had expected.

      Unfortunately for me, an outbreak of cholera killed two of my assistants, who had taken care of transporting iron products from the Siberian mills and delivering them, according to my sale orders, to the customers,...

    • EPILOGUE (pp. 111-114)

      Unfortunately, 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.

      The 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...

  7. INDEX (pp. 115-119)
  8. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  9. Back Matter (pp. None)