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Four Russian Serf Narratives

Translated, edited, and with an introduction by John MacKay

Publication Year: 2009

Although millions of Russians lived as serfs until the middle of the nineteenth century, little is known about their lives. Identifying and documenting the conditions of Russian serfs has proven difficult because the Russian state discouraged literacy among the serfs and censored public expressions of dissent. To date scholars have identified only twenty known Russian serf narratives.
    Four Russian Serf Narratives contains four of these accounts and is the first translated collection of autobiographies by serfs. Scholar and translator John MacKay brings to light for an English-language audience a diverse sampling of Russian serf narratives, ranging from an autobiographical poem to stories of adventure and escape. “Autobiography” (1785) recounts a highly educated serf’s attempt to escape to Europe, where he hoped to study architecture. The long testimonial poem “News About Russia” (ca. 1849) laments the conditions under which the author and his fellow serfs lived. In “The Story of My Life and Wanderings” (1881) a serf tradesman tells of his attempt to simultaneously escape serfdom and captivity from Chechen mountaineers. The fragmentary “Notes of a Serf Woman” (1911) testifies to the harshness of peasant life with extraordinary acuity and descriptive power.
    These accounts offer readers a glimpse, from the point of view of the serfs themselves, into the realities of one of the largest systems of unfree labor in history. The volume also allows comparison with slave narratives produced in the United States and elsewhere, adding an important dimension to knowledge of the institution of slavery and the experience of enslavement in modern times.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi

I could not have completed the project without the Morse and Griswold Fellowships awarded by Yale University; the aid offered by the staff at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and the Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents (RGADA); and the helpful staff at Yale’s...

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Introduction: Serfs as Writers

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pp. 3-22

The four works gathered here under the heading “Russian serf narratives” were composed by Russian serfs and former serfs between 1785 and about 1911; two of the texts were composed before and two after serfdom’s abolition in 1861. Readers will notice immediately that the narratives are very diverse in character. Chronologically they range from Nikolai Smirnov’s 1785 deposition, written by Smirnov in a desperate...

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"Autobiography" (1785)

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pp. 23-37

Among the documents of the Saint Petersburg Secret Investigation Office is a file from 1785 on the attempted flight across the western Russian border of the serf Nikolai Smirnov (1767– 1800).1 The file contains his deposition, in which he recounts how he came to decide upon flight and how he attempted to realize...

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"News about Russia" (ca. 1849)

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pp. 38-117

In August of 1849, a thick packet was given to the main post office in Saint Petersburg, addressed to Prince Petr Georgievich Ol’denburgskii, a liberal-thinking aristocrat and relative of the tsar whose family estate was in the district of Iaroslavl’, northeast of Moscow. The half-literate scribblings on the packet, the cheap paper of which the envelope was made, and the absence of...

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"The Story of My Life and Wanderings: The Tale of the Former Serf Peasant Nikolai Shipov, 1802-62" (1881)

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pp. 118-196

The following narrative, one of the longest published autobiographies by a Russian serf, appeared (like so many other memoirs) in the pages of Russian Antiquity (Russkaia Starina, in 1881). The translation that follows provides an abridged version of that text, with annotations clarifying Nikolai Nikolaevich Shipov’s1 complex...

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"Notes of a Serf Woman" (1911)

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pp. 197-212

The following autobiographical sketch appeared in 1911 in Russkaia Starina (Russian Antiquity), a Saint Petersburg journal that published an abundance of invaluable historical, biographical, and testimonial material from 1870 through 1918.1 At least two other, considerably longer, memoirs written...


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pp. 213-215

E-ISBN-13: 9780299233730
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299233747

Page Count: 215
Publication Year: 2009