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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 259-279

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Liberation through Captivity

Nikolai Shipov's Adventures in the Imperial Borderlands

Dept. of History
University of California
Davis, CA 95616 USA
Dept. of Modern Languages, Russian Division
University of Strathclyde
Livingstone Tower
26 Richmond Street
Glasgow G1 1XH
In order to write down one's own recollections, it is by no means necessary to be a great man, or an extraordinary villain, a celebrated artist, or a statesman; it is enough to be merely a man, to have something to tell, and to be able and willing to tell it.
—Alexander Herzen1

In Nicholas I's empire, the southern borderlands were a place of escape from intolerable conditions of serfdom. Fleeing servility, refugees from the north could hope to enjoy, at least temporarily, the life of freedom that a semi-lawless region offered. Theirs was a secret world, rarely visible outside occasional police reports of the 1830s and 1840s. But one of these fugitives, Nikolai Shipov, recounted a remarkable liberation tale in his autobiography Istoriia moei zhizni i stranstvii (The Story of My Life and Wanderings), first published in the journal Russkaia starina in 1881.2 Starting with his childhood in the 1810s and ending in 1863, the memoirs recounted the deprivations of serfdom overcome through legal escape to the status of meshchanin (free townsman). In many [End Page 259] respects, Shipov's account resembled another liberation tale of the time, also published in Russkaia starina: Aleksandr Nikitenko's My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804–1824, entitled in its English translation Up from Serfdom.3 Though these authors' paths to freedom differed, their vivid expressions of revulsion and anger at their condition as chattels of the nobility made them both eloquent voices from Russia's lower depths in the closing half-century of serfdom.

The path of Shipov the self-styled wanderer entailed many an adventure on the fringes of the multinational Russian empire that he came to know first as a trader and entrepreneur.4 In accentuating roaming, his autobiography intriguingly intersected Ocharovannyi strannik (The Enchanted Wanderer, 1873), Nikolai Leskov's famous story of the fugitive serf Ivan Fliagin.5 The sad and cynical peasant drifters of Maksim Gor´kii may also spring to mind. But Shipov significantly differed from all the types of peasants one finds in 19th-century Russian literature or journalism.6 Armed with knowledge of formal law, Shipov fled south in a desperate attempt to achieve emancipation and the freedom that full legal status brought citizens under the tsar. Captivity in Chechnya made that dream of civic liberty come true. This extraordinary escape from bondage was indeed "something to tell" (to borrow Herzen's phrase), and Shipov proved very "able and willing to tell it."

Shipov's memoirs are unique in several ways. First of all, they are our sole autobiographical account of serf liberation through captivity. In these terms, Shipov's narrative possesses significance comparable to the rare autobiographies [End Page 260] of slaves fleeing Southern plantation enslavement in U.S. antebellum history. Like the American genre of "up from bondage," Shipov's liberation story has the import of an exemplary exploit resonating beyond the time it so compellingly illuminates.7 His preface expressed the hope that his memoirs would arouse the "sympathy" of "every person" whose life had brought "injustice and troubles." This eloquent plea for understanding of his overriding need to throw off the yoke of serfdom evidently struck a deep chord in his Soviet editor, whose Aesopian language of 1933 praised our author's "sincere passion for independence."8

Dwelling longest on the Chechen episode, Istoriia moei zhizni i stranstvii is important as well for its special qualities as an authentic Russian captivity narrative. Shipov's great originality was to invert the master-plot of real-life stories about Caucasian mountaineers kidnapping Christians of the Russian empire. Russians had been publishing such accounts...


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