An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia by Katherine Pickering Antonova (review)
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An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia. By Katherine Pickering Antonova (New York, Oxford University Press, 2013) 304pp. $74.00

This imaginative study explores various dimensions of the lives of a middling, serf-owning noble family in mid-nineteenth-century Russia. The family—Andrei Chikhachev, his wife Natalia Chernavina, their children, and other relatives—resided on estates centered in a relatively nonagricultural district of Vladimir province, approximately 250 kilometers northwest of Moscow. Sources about such gentry are extremely scarce. Antonova’s main contribution is to mine the uniquely interlinked diaries, correspondences, and published writings of this family, with a focus on the period from 1830 to 1860. Though primarily a work of social micro-history organized into thematic chapters, the resulting study makes important contributions to our understanding of gender roles, intellectual debates, and cultural values among Russia’s provincial nobility during the last decades of serfdom. [End Page 394]

Antonova relies heavily on a sporadic series of detailed diaries by Chikhachev, Chernavina, and their son Alexei Chikhachev, along with a set of message books that were passed back and forth between the household and their neighbor Yakov Chernavin (Natalia’s brother). These sources, which resulted from Andrei’s interest in self-critical writing, differ from the standard set of documents on which scholars have relied to study much larger serf estates.1 Their use has costs and benefits; as Antonova acknowledges, it leads her to focus on particular aspects of gentry life, significantly limiting her consideration of others.

Nevertheless, a major finding of Antonova’s research is that the gender roles within the Chikharev/Chernavina household were reversed from Western ideals: Chernavina was in charge of the day-to-day management of the estate, while Chikharev dedicated himself to educating their children, pursuing intellectual pursuits, and participating in local civil society. The analysis of gender roles in the middle chapters of the study (concentrating on the village, estate management, local society, illness and health, and domestic arrangements) constitutes the strongest part of the book, making an important contribution to the growing literature on the surprisingly empowered positions of many female elites in imperial Russia. Chikharev describes his activities well in his voluminous private and public writings, but Chernavina’s terse (and temporally limited) diaries leave little material for Antonova to investigate estate management. Indeed, economic and social historians interested in how smaller quit-rent serf estates actually functioned will be left with many unanswered questions.

The relative richness of Chikharev’s diaries, essays, and letters leads Antonova to dedicate the last three chapters of her study to his interest in moral education (vospitanie) as an organizing principal behind his daily activities and intellectual life. Chikharev was not only heavily involved in the instruction of his children; he also wrote a series of essays in local and national publications about how the gentry could exercise a healthy influence on serfdom and estate management in their role as locally oriented moral educators in service to the Tsarist state. These essays apparently had little significance for the debates about serfdom and agricultural development that gripped Russia during the mid-nineteenth century, but Antonova argues that Chikharev gave voice to a poorly understood conservative mid-level gentry who constituted a key source of support for serfdom and the imperial regime. These nobles held viewpoints that embraced certain progressive ideas from the West, but they were often more sympathetic to Russian Orthodoxy, traditional rural life (borrowing from Romanticism), and the social stability of the Slavophile movement. Antonova’s argument is mostly convincing, but her fixation on one relatively obscure rural gentry writer raises doubts about the representativeness of the examples, as well as about any [End Page 395] broader conclusions that might be drawn from them regarding the intellectual climate at the time.

Throughout her study, Antonova provides wonderfully detailed depictions of the internal life of the Chikharev/Chernavina family in a variety of contexts. Notwithstanding a few unfortunate repetitions across the chapters, her study is exceptionally well written, providing a useful complement to the rich fictional literature about serfdom and the serf-owning nobility. However, two areas are problematical. First, the lives of the...