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Up from Serfdom

Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824

Aleksandr Nikitenko
Translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson
Foreword by Peter Kolchin
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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    Up from Serfdom
    Book Description:

    "It was the arbitrary nature of the serfholder's power that weighed on serfs like Nikitenko, for as they discovered, even the most benevolent patron could turn overnight into an overbearing tyrant. In that respect, serfdom and slavery were the same."-Peter Kolchin, from the forewordAleksandr Nikitenko, descended from once-free Cossacks, was born into serfdom in provincial Russia in 1804. One of 300,000 serfs owned by Count Sheremetev, Nikitenko as a teenager became fiercely determined to gain his freedom. In this memorable and moving book, here translated into English for the first time, Nikitenko recollects the details of his childhood and youth in servitude as well as the six-year struggle that at last delivered him into freedom in 1824. Among the very few autobiographies ever written by an ex-serf,Up from Serfdomprovides a unique portrait of serfdom in nineteenth-century Russia and a profoundly clear sense of what such bondage meant to the people, the culture, and the nation.Rising to eminence as a professor at St. Petersburg University, former serf Nikitenko set about writing his autobiography in 1851, relying on his own diaries (begun at the age of fourteen and maintained throughout his life), his father's correspondence and documents, and the stories that his parents and grandparents told as he was growing up. He recalls his town, his schooling, his masters and mistresses, and the utter capriciousness of a serf's existence, illustrated most vividly by his father's lurching path from comfort to destitution to prison to rehabilitation. Nikitenko's description of the tragedy, despair, unpredictability, and astounding luck of his youth is a compelling human story that brings to life as never before the experiences of the serf in Russia in the early 1800s.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13031-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xx)

    Aleksandr Nikitenko’s memoir,Up from Serfdom, is a doubly atypical work. Most obvious, it is one of only a handful of surviving autobiographies written by ex-serfs in Russia;¹ students of Russian serfdom do not have access to anything remotely like the dozens of slave autobiographies that shed light on the “peculiar institution” in the southern United States.² Equally important, Nikitenko’s narrative describes the life of a highly unusual serf. It gives a good—but very partial—picture of the peculiar nature ofRussia’speculiar institution.

    To an American audience, what will probably seem most striking about Nikitenko’s memoir is the...

  4. Translator’s Note
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  6. Maps
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
  7. 1 My Roots
    (pp. 1-5)

    In the province of Voronezh, on the Tikhnaya Sosna River, between the small county towns of Ostrogozhsk and Biryuch, is a village, orsloboda‚called Alekseyevka.¹

    Alekseyevka was settled by Little Russians [Ukrainians], Cossacks, whom Russian policy, in time, forced into serfdom. They certainly didn’t foresee this when they responded to a government summons to colonize border lands. Many thousands of Little Russians from Ukraine migrated across the Don River and settled along the Sosna, Kalitva, and other rivers to protect Russia’s borders from invasions by Crimean Tatars.²

    Originally Alekseyevka sloboda was granted to the Cherkassky princes. They passed it...

  8. 2 My Parents
    (pp. 6-17)

    A few facts about my father’s childhood have come my way. When Father, Vasily Mikhailovich Nikitenko, was eleven or twelve, one of Count Sheremetev’s agents arrived in Alekseyevka to select boys for the count’s choir. Father had a fine soprano voice, so he was sent to Moscow to join it. Even then the count’s choir was famed for its artistry.

    At that time Nikolai Petrovich wastheCount Sheremetev. Like a true noble during the reign of Catherine II, he lived the high life. And that was all he was capable of doing. His name does not appear among the...

  9. 3 Father’s First Attempt to Introduce Truth Where It Wasn’t Wanted
    (pp. 18-23)

    After the wedding, Father took his bride to his parents’ home, believing he could continue living there as before. But soon this turned out to be impossible. His mother could not forgive him for a marriage that had shattered her dreams. And as a woman who spoke her mind, she made her displeasure with her daughter-in-law very clear. Naturally, the young woman, my future mother, became the butt of Grandmother’s wrath. Neither the maiden’s youth, beauty, nor total submissiveness could assuage Grandma Stepanovna Nikitenko’s feelings.

    Father could either remain a silent witness to the undeserved insults and humiliation heaped daily...

  10. 4 My Early Childhood
    (pp. 24-31)

    Although I can reach back into my toddler years, my memory retains only the most prominent features of people and events. Yet these recollections are very sharp and vivid. I can picture people, events, and places as if I were experiencing them now. Probably my earliest memories go back to age three—and even two. One is of feeling utterly miserable when I was ill with smallpox and was wheeled around the garden in a carriage. The other is of a hunchbacked lad, Tretyak. I was terrified of him, probably because of his pathetic appearance, although there was nothing frightening...

  11. 5 Exile
    (pp. 32-38)

    Father was peacefully occupied working his plot of land and teaching the local inhabitants to read and write. He was unaware that misfortune was about to strike. He no longer held an official position in the sloboda and was not involved in community affairs, but his enemies continued to regard him with suspicion. He had been a witness to their lawlessness, although he now kept silent about it. They were nevertheless determined to get rid of him. I don’t know what pretext they concocted to discredit him in the eyes of Count Sheremetev, but suddenly an order came from Moscow...

  12. 6 Home from Exile
    (pp. 39-45)

    Father’s return to his native soil was a real triumph. His enemies were glum, but the other inhabitants of the sloboda expressed their pleasure for all to hear. The Little Russians are known as a poetic people. No matter how insignificant an occasion or event, they love to set it to music. On our return we learned that they had composed a special song about us when we were sent into exile. But I can only remember the first two lines:

    Oy, the latest modes are reported,

    Vasilka to icy waters was deported.*

    Now the song was replaced by congratulations...

  13. 7 Father Returns from St. Petersburg
    (pp. 46-53)

    The whole time Father was in St. Petersburg we received only bad news from him. He had arrived there safely, had been well received by the young count’s guardians, but soon felt the pernicious effects of the northern climate. He began to feel poorly, and held out for a long time—then finally he wrote Mama that his only hope for relief was to return home, to his native soil, as quickly as possible.

    In the middle of September a covered wagon, looking as if it had made a long journey, halted in front of our cottage. In the wagon...

  14. 8 1811: New Place, New Faces
    (pp. 54-65)

    Father waited a long time until he finally found a desirable position. In Boguchar county lived Marya Fyodorovna Bedryaga, a wealthy pomeshchitsa, the owner of two thousand souls. She offered my father the position of steward of her estate, where she too resided. The conditions were favorable, particularly in light of our family’s circumstances at that time: a thousand rubles per year, plus housing and food. We packed up quickly and left Alekseyevka in the summer of 1811 . I was seven years old.

    Our journey was very pleasant. We left with light hearts and bright hopes for the future....

  15. 9 Our Life in Pisaryevka, 1812–1815
    (pp. 66-78)

    Father plunged into his new job with enthusiasm. The pomeshchitsa and peasants quickly felt the positive results of his conscientious labor. Some noticed how order had been restored where they hadn’t seen it for many years; others felt a slackening of oppression and, though living in poverty and ruin, began to feel some hope for their future. Marya Fyodorovna had to admit that she was indebted to my father in many ways. Finally convinced of his honesty, she entrusted him to manage her estate. And so she decided to go on a journey that she had been planning for a...

  16. 10 School
    (pp. 79-93)

    There I was, almost two hundred versts from my family, living among Moscals and attending school—all unusual experiences for me. Naturally timid and shy, I had a hard time adjusting to a new way of life and new people. Moreover, I was terribly homesick for my native land. They say that all Little Russians in foreign lands suffer some degree of homesickness, and some even die from it. So it was no surprise that I fell ill. For several weeks I had a raging fever and turned into a real skeleton. My illness was kept from my mother. Otherwise,...

  17. 11 Fate Strikes Again
    (pp. 94-103)

    Shortly before I graduated, I heard that my father had run into new troubles. In his letters to me, he had said nothing about this. However, I knew that he was no longer in Pisaryevka, but living in Dantsyevka, crown land in Boguchar county.

    During my studies in Voronezh, this wasn’t the first time that I had been convinced of the unstable and unenviable nature of my father’s existence. I remember another occasion, when he had gotten involved in a court case in Voronezh. He had traveled to Voronezh to speak personally with the governor, or rather with Senator Khitrovo,...

  18. 12 Waiting in Voronezh
    (pp. 104-106)

    When I arrived in Voronezh I appeared at the old apartment I had lived in when I attended the county school. I had no money for rent and handed the landlord a letter from my father. Father asked him to take me in and promised to pay very soon for my bed and board. Kalina Davidovich Kleshcharev frowned but, kind and trusting, agreed meanwhile to give me a nook for a bed and let me dine with him.

    As was to be expected, I was not admitted to the high school. I was too shy to meet the director as...

  19. 13 Ostrogozhsk: I Go Out into the World
    (pp. 107-118)

    The year was 1816. Ostrogozhsk, formerly a part of Slobodsko-Ukraine province, now belonged to Voronezh province. Sprawling Ostrogozhsk county was populated almost entirely by Little Russians transferred there in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, to protect southern borders from invading Tatars. Only a small number of Russians had nestled here and there along the Sosna River to form several small settlements.

    About ten thousand people lived in the town of Ostrogozhsk. These, too, were Little Russians, except for the merchantry, who constituted a large segment of the Russian population.

    At that time Ostrogozhsk was a...

  20. 14 My Friends and Activities in Ostrogozhsk
    (pp. 119-132)

    Two years passed, during which I acquired a reputation as a good teacher. I had many pupils, and a whole school of children of both sexes that assembled at the home of burgomaster Pupykin, the merchant.

    The chief, and probably only, merit of my instruction lay in my approach to learning. I did not force the children to mechanically learn lessons by heart but above all tried to instill in them a desire for knowledge, an interest in learning. Other than this I had no carefully thought-out system, nor did I employ any particular pedagogical approach in use at the...

  21. 15 My Friends in the Military; General Yuzefovich; The Death of My Father
    (pp. 133-148)

    Changes occurred in our life at home, an indirect effect of Grigory Fyodorovich Tatarchukov’s death. The year before he died, his young wife had moved to Moscow with her little daughter. Besides his widow and the child, his heirs included two sons from his first marriage. Of two other daughters, whom I mentioned earlier, one died in childhood while her father was still alive; the other, who had married Belyakov, received her share of the inheritance earlier.

    The sons of the deceased hated their stepmother and, unlike their father, were greedy. They would go to any length to deprive stepmother...

  22. 16 Farewell, Ostrogozhsk
    (pp. 149-164)

    The news of my father’s death reached us through General Yuzefovich. He tried as hard as he could to soften this new blow to our poor mother. The general himself joined us in our grief. He said that in my father’s death he had lost an indispensable assistant. He promised, as before, to take care of the family.

    A strange incident preceded his death. Among the complicated and muddled phenomena we encounter in life, some generate superstition in simple-hearted people. That was the case with my mother. Not long before Father died, she had a dream in which, for the...

  23. 17 Home Again in Ostrogozhsk
    (pp. 165-176)

    Mother wasn’t expecting me, so it was an especially joyous occasion for her. As usual, I found her in difficult straits. My modest earnings, which were sent to her, had always been quickly exhausted, and, until the next pay packet would arrive, she had to eke out a living from her own labor.

    Now I had returned home with three hundred rubles in my pocket, which promised to ease her financial burden. This made our reunion an even happier one. The money also gave me the opportunity to rest and get my bearings before searching for employment.

    My Ostrogozhsk friends...

  24. 18 The Dawn of a New Day
    (pp. 177-186)

    The year 1821 was gone, and the end of 1822 was drawing closer. I had passed my eighteenth birthday. There was no change in my situation, neither was there a hint of one on the horizon. In the meantime a historic political event, scarcely noticed by the general public, brought me closer to my goal.

    In Russia in the 1820s, Bible societies were introduced almost everywhere. Their purpose was to spread the Holy Scripture, principally the Gospel.¹ At that time, the entire New Testament and the Psalter of the Old Testament were translated into Russian and published together with a...

  25. 19 St. Petersburg: My Struggle for Freedom
    (pp. 187-202)

    I left Ostrogozhsk in early May of 1824 , and arrived in St. Petersburg on May 24 th. I traveled in a cart drawn by hired horses, so-calleddolgiis,rather than by stagecoach. The first day I only got as far as Voronezh, where I had to stop anyway to pick up a copy of my certificate of graduation from the county school. I figured on spending three or four hours in Voronezh, but stayed several days. When I finally departed, my former teachers, Morozov, Grabovsky, and School Inspector Sokolovsky, arranged as memorable a send-off as my Ostrogozhsk friends had...

  26. Translator’s Epilogue
    (pp. 203-206)

    The newly liberated serf destroyed his diary entries for 1825 . And no wonder! In December an uprising against Tsar Nicholas I failed. Among the leaders of the Decembrists were some close friends of Nikitenko, including Prince Yevgeny Obolensky, in whose home he had been living as a tutor to the prince’s younger brother.

    The Decembrists were members of secret revolutionary societies whose goal was a democratic form of government. Their ranks consisted of many officers in the Russian army who had served in Western Europe during the Napoleonic wars. During that time they had encountered liberal Western ideas, and...

  27. Notes
    (pp. 207-220)
  28. Glossary
    (pp. 221-222)
  29. Index
    (pp. 223-228)