restricted access 5. Arson as Impotent Spite or Potent Practice: Peasants as Vengeful, Covetous, or Wily Actors
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5 Arson as Impotent Spite or Potent Practice: Peasants as Vengeful, Covetous, or Wily Actors VENGEANCE IS LIKE A FIRE. THE MORE IT DEVOURS, THE HUNGRIER IT GETS. -J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace, 1999 ARSON. AUGUST 10,1895. A PEASANT'S COW-SHED. THE SUSPECTS ARE THE VICTIM'S SISTERS. -District policeman's report on incidents in Borovich, Novgorod Province. Fires set by peasant women within their own communities were the most alarming of all fires to educated observers. This is startling in the context of the St. Petersburg arson fires of 1862 and the anxiety about controlling both peasants and fire in the countryside that they generated, and against the backdrop of the historiography of rural arson as protest in Russia and elsewhere. Perhaps the fact that one of Orthodox Russia's first saints was a female arsonist contributed in some way to the ease with which those who wrote about arson combined fire, women, and revenge in their imaginings. Olga, the first Kievan ruler to adopt Christianity in the tenth century, appeared in early chronicles also as the widow who defended Kiev against the assault of rival Derevliane, who sought to exploit dynastic weakness when Olga's husband died. The climax of her incremental strategies was to send pigeons and sparrows into her opponent's wooden town with tiny fiery brands attached to their legs, defeating Derevliane through strategic incendiarism. "There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught fire at once." 1 It was not for this act that Olga earned sainthood, but she did leave a powerful image of female vengeance in cultural memory to prompt the association ofwomen with fire when arson emerged as a public concern in the 1860s. 129 As early as 1869, D. M. Pogodin, one of the first authorities on rural arson, declared that "it is the young baba, most often a young woman, who has not yet been tempered by every kind of hardship and sorrow, [who is] completely exhausted by the demands of her family and having consequently lost all reason, who takes vengeance; she sets fire to the house of her father-in-law or husband in a fit of meaningless despair and impotent spite.,,2 This conviction took hold in the 1860s and held firm for four decades. Nothing convinced the reading public more fully that peasant women were likely to act out their grievances by practicing arson than the extensive coverage the Court Herald gave in July 1867 to the case against Fekla Antonovna Sergeeva, a resident of the village of Zmievka, Riazan Province, who was accused of setting seven fires in her village between August 21 and September 8, 1864. At the time of the fires, Fekla Antonovna was eighteen years old and in a marriage whose unhappiness was common knowledge in the village. Beginning on August 21, fires broke out in various outbuildings belonging to members of her husband's family, whom the fires followed as they moved from household to household. In each case, the fires started in structures where there was no reason to have any fire. Several of the fires had spread. The fire on September 8, for example, consumed eighteen peasant homesteads, including houses and outbuildings. This generalized damage meant that members of the community beyond Sergeeva's in-laws had reason to identifY and punish the culprit. Their decision to accuse Fekla Antonovna was the result of their perception of her family situation. Further, several neighbors testified that they had observed her in the vicinity of the fires when they broke out. During the trial, the defense attorney added another reason for their accusation precisely against Fekla: that she was a woman, that the villagers expected the guilty party ofsuch a crime to be female, and that they had assumed that "she committed arson out of female stupidity and impotent spite."'3 Finally, Fekla Antonovna was an outsider in this community, having only recently been married to a young man in Zmievka. Before that marriage, she had been a stranger. She had remained a stranger for two reasons. First, she was extremely reserved-"rather severe" in her own estimation, "sullen" according to her in-laws. Worse still, having kept entirely to herself while she was with her husband's family, she also took off frequently to return to her mother's home in another village, complaining of leg pain and seeking treatment there. Immediately before the first...