Aleksandr Nikitenko wrote a fascinating personal account in the 19th century, Up From Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824, translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson with foreword by Peter Kolchin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 228 pp [ISBN 0-300-08414-5]. It is one of the few accounts asctually written by a serf, although Aleksandr and his father were not in any way typical of Russian serfs. Often such personal accounts come from the middle class or wealthier classes. This is one of the rarer accounts of a serf boyhood. The book originally published in Russian in 1888 deals with Aleksandr's life up to the time when he was emancipated from serfdom in 1824, at the 19 or 20 years. The title that the translater gave the book, Up From
Serfdom, is designed as an obvious allusion to Booker T. Washington's 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery. The book besodes an evocative view of a serf childhood, provides an insight in to the violence that has racked modern Russia in the 20th century.
Aleksandr Nikitenko wrote a fascinating personal account in the 19th century, Up From Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824, translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson with foreword by Peter Kolchin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 228 pp [ISBN 0-300-08414-5]. Often such personal accounts come from the middle class or wealthier classes. This is one of the rarer accounts of a serf boyhood. The book originally published in Russian in 1888 deals with Aleksandr's life up to the time when he was emancipated from serfdom in 1824, at the 19 or 20 years. The title that the translater gave the book, Up From Serfdom, is designed as an obvious allusion to Booker T. Washington's 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery.
Aleksandr was born in the Ukraine, now an independent country, to serf parents in Tasrist Russia. He was born in Voronezh Province about 1804 or 1805. His parents were serfs of the fabulously wealthy Sheremetev family who has over 300,000 serfs. Aleksandr's family has descended from once-free Cossacks. His grandfather was the village cobbler. His mother's parents were poor farmers. There were millions of such serf families that have long since passed into historical oblivion. The reason that we now know about Aleksandr is that his father was gifted with a winderful voice. Although Aleksandr's experiebce was not typical, Up from Serfdom provides a unique portrait of Ruissian serfdom in the 19th and a personal accvount of what such bondage meant to the Russian people and the nation.
Most of Russia's land was owned by rich nobel families. Most lived in St. Petersburg or
some other great city. They did not themselves farm their estates. They had stewards who
administered their property and collected the revenue. They had huge numbers of serfs
who were bound to the land. The serfs payed a handsome annual tribute, a tribute which the
landowners' agents strove incessantly to increase. It was their serfs rather than
their land holdings which produced their income. In the 19th century about one-third of the Russian people were serfs. A serf was not quite a slave, but he was bound to the land and bound to reder services to the land owner. He needed the permission of the land owner to leave the land or for many important step in life, especially if he wanted to improve his situation. Serfdom was not ended in Russian until 1861. And even then the life of most serfs did not significantly change until the Revolution.
Aleksandr's father was recruited at an early age to go to Moscow to sing in Count Sheremetev's choir. The Count was an absentee landlord that lived in Moscow. There, he received a middle class education that opened his eyes to the wider world beyond his village and the possibilities that life offerred. It enabled him to pursue serious intellectual interests. It also gave him hope for rising above his sef status. Of course his education made cauded him to object to a life as a serf. Problems began almost as soon as he returned to his village from Moscow. He was made the village to persue a quixotic crusade. He inocently thought that he coild obtain justice through the existing legal system. He was soon denounced by the very Count Sheremetev who had brought him to Moscow and "exiled," with his family, to another Sheremetev votchina in Smolensk Province, which Aleksandr saw as being sent to Siberia.
The book draws a more complicated portrait of Russian serfs than peasants toiling upon the land. In fact, even though Aleksandr's father was constantly causing problems, he was made an estate administrator--but retained his serf status. He was sufficiently literate to interact with those of higher rank. His efforts including appeals to Empress Mariia Fedorovna go unansered. He continually suffers mistreatment and humiliation at the hands
of landlords and officials but refuses to recognize the coruption endemic to Russian society. The father' character and how he treats his family is warped by these experiences.
Aleksandr's mother was quite different. She was a archetypical serf mother, stoic, and loving. She was endowed with great common sense--firmly rooted in her peasant background. Through her husband's travails, it is her who holds the family together. Despite her husband's unfaitfulness, and stands behind him and supports his struggles.
Serfdom is a great burden for the Nikitenko family because Aleksandr's father is educated. There is thus no educational and cultural barriers between the family and non-serf families in the community. suffers from the oppressiveness of serfdom
precisely because no cultural divide separates the father, and later
the son, from their social betters. Indeed the Nikitenko family should have been a successful upwardly mobile provincial middle class family. They did no live in poverty. The grandfather was a shoemaker. The father became a clerk and estate administrator. Nikitenko himself becomes a teacher. They wear "urban" (rather than peasant) clothes and cultivate genteel manners in daily life. They associate with nobles, clerics, and merchants. Their only common tie is an interest in cultural refinement and intellectual pursuits.
Aleksandr as he grows up encounters the same experience. He is a bright boy and does well academically at the lower public school in Voronezh. He is, however, denied admission to a gimnaziia (secondary school) only because of his serf status. Sympathetic teachers offer to issue him a certificate of graduation that would identify him as the son of a bureaucrat, but he is humiliated. As a teenager, he becomes fiercely determined to gain his
freedom. He has many experiences where he is accepted by enlightened members of the provincial intelligentsia, but eventually reminded of his lolwly social status. Aleksandr is finally manumitted in 1824 thanks to the intercession of Prince Aleksandr Nikolaevich Golitsyn. Aleksandr found the struggle with his master a humiliating experience. The Count is a shallow, self-indulgent aristocrat who seemingly tries to keep the boy a serf just simply to remind the world of his own power.
Aleksandr's boyhood occurs at the time of the Napolenic invasion in 1812. One might have thought that his world would have been turned upside down as occurred throught Russia in the German invadion during World war II. Apparently unless families were in the path of the invasion which went straight to Moscow that the ompact was nothing like the Word War II experience. Aleksandr seems little concerned.
The book provides interesting information about other developments asffecting early 19th centuru Russia. Aleksandr describes the rise of the Russian Bible Society and post-1814 religious mysticism which sweeps Russia and to which Nikitenko was at first attracted. He describes the administrative experiment with clustering groups of provinces into governor-generalships, which Nikitenko considered a failure. He is especially interested in the school system that came out of the reforms promulgated by Tsarina Catherine II and Tasr Alexander I. He describes the resistance to reform and fear of any change to the existing social system by the nobles, bureaucrats, merchants, and clerics in his local community.
The Nikitenko family wears "urban" rather than the peasant clothes worn by most serfs.
Aleksandr's accounts ends with his manumission in 1824. The following year was a pivotal year for Russia. A group of young, reformist military officers in 1825 attempted to
force the adoption of a constitutional monarchy in Russia by preventing the accession of Tsar Nicholas I. The attemp became known as the Decembrist revolt. They failed utterly. Nicholas went on to rule as the most reactionary leader in Europe. Nicholas' successor, Alexander II, was more willing to tolerate modest reforms. The major step was taken in 1861 when he abolished serfdom. To give land to the serfs) meant to ruin the nobility, and to give freedom without land meant that the abolition of sefdom would have little real effect. The emancipation thus didn't bring on any significant change in the condition of the peasants--as the freed serfs were not given land and the vast majority remained bound by poverty to agricultural estates. As Russia began to industrialize, a further strain was placed o the political system which because of its corriupt autocratic nature could not adjust as took place in Western Europe. The workers were more dangerous to the system because they lived in the cities where they were more aware of the sicial injustices and easier to organize. Attempts by the lower classes to have more influence provoked fears of anarchy, and the government remained extremely conservative. This as Russia became more modern and industrialized, the inadequacies of autocratic Tsarist rule became increasingly apparent. It was the catastrophe od World War I in the 20th century that would lead to the Revolution that ended the Tsarist system.
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Bibliographies] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries]
[Boys' Clothing Home]
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to main Russian page]
[Russian choir page] [Russian movie page] [Russian school uniform page] [Russian royal page] [Russian youth organination page]
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to main country page]
[Australia] [Canada] [England] [France] [Germany] [Ireland] [Italy] [Mexico] [New Zealand] [Poland] [Scotland] [United States]