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  • A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov
  • Lina Bernstein (bio)
David L. Ransel, A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov, Based on his Diary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. 320 pp. ISBN 978-02532-2020-2, $24.95.

Despite recent endeavors of historians of Russian merchant culture to demonstrate its complexities and multifacetedness, the view has long persisted that Russian merchants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were ignorant, uncultured, illiterate, backward, greedy, and dishonest. This widespread attitude toward merchants, and not only in Russia, certainly has some basis in reality. The idea of merchant dishonesty and greed could have appeared also as a result of a misunderstanding of the nature of commerce. Thus in his article (1770s) "O vsegdashnei ravnosti v prodazhe tovarov" (About long-term consistency in the sale of goods) in the satirical journal I to i së (This and that), the Russian poet, playwright, and pamphleteer Alexander Sumarokov wrote, "Those who hike up the prices of their goods only because there is a shortage in the market are the cruelest robbers; they resemble thieves who steal during a fire, thereby deepening the misfortune of the misfortunate" (V. P. Semennikov, Russkie satiricheskie zhurnaly, 1769–1774 g.g. St. Petersburg, 1914: 19). Whatever the reason, the image of the unscrupulous, cruel, and uncultured merchant had been disseminated by Russian high literature (in contrast to folk tales and songs) since the middle of the eighteenth century.

In contrast, literary caricatures of the Russian nobility, such as Fonvizin's scheming Skotinins and the gallery of good-for-nothing landowners produced by Nikolai Novikov in his satirical journals, did not translate into the condemnation of the entire class. Not so with the Russian merchant of fiction, who, according to a famous pronouncement of the nineteenth-century literary critic Dmitriĭ Pisarev, is depicted, accurately, as the willfully ignorant inhabitant of a "dark kingdom." So it is not amiss to say that a negative view of merchants has been to some extent a literary trope. [End Page 569]

Unsurprisingly, this negative literary trope became even more deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Russian population under Soviet ideology. Not many historians were interested in changing this view, although some obvious historical facts have always been available for scholarly interpretation. For example, in Catherine's Legislative Committee of 1767, 206 out of 564 delegates were merchants—who acted in the public sphere, delivered public speeches, and wrote opinions on policymaking. This degree of representation alone attests to the strong presence of merchants in Russian culture and to their role in it. And what about merchant charities? Not only churches and monasteries, but also schools, theaters, and, later, museums were built with merchant sponsorship. Merchants were elected to city offices including that of mayor, even in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and as such were responsible for all citizens of the city, including the nobility. Their names can be easily discovered. Who were these merchants, and were they backward and illiterate? What was their background, and what was their professional and social milieu?

One such merchant was Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov (1754–1824). A member of the first merchant guild (the highest rank), he occupied a number of offices in the town of Dmitrov, in Moscow province, including that of mayor, and although he eventually lost his capital and social standing, he was able to regain his bearings and lead a fulfilling life. Throughout his adult life, he kept a diary, which he began in 1769 and continued almost daily for over forty years (up to Napoleon's occupation of Moscow in 1812), presenting the ups and downs of his fortunes. He titled his diary The Journal or Notes on the Life and Adventures of I. A. Tolchënov, a title similar to those of Western adventure novels translated into Russian and their Russian imitations. The length of this journal, its consistency, and most importantly, the great variety of topics and records of both successes and failures make it exceptional among eighteenth-century Russian merchant diaries.

In his book A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich...


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