- An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia by Katherine Pickering Antonova
Historians of the family, gender, and rural society will find much of interest and importance in this first book by Katherine Pickering Antonova. The “ordinary [End Page 742] family” of the title refers to the Chikhachevs, Russian serfowners of middle noble status. Like a Russian novel, the book is populated by memorable characters—Andrei Chikhachev and his wife Natalia; Natalia’s bachelor brother Yakov; their neighbors and friends; and last but far from least, the serfs amidst whom they lived. Antonova successfully reconstructs their multifaceted lives thanks to a large family archive in the Ivanovo Historical Museum. According to Antonova, this collection of diaries, letters, account books, notebooks, and legal documents, extending from the 1820s into the 1870s, represents “what is so far the most extensive and elaborate archive of gentry family papers preserved in provincial Russia” (xi). Her assertion, though difficult to prove, nevertheless rightly accents the unusual breadth and depth of the documents, which she is the first to exploit fully. Relying extensively on the Chikhachevs’ own words to reconstruct their world and their worldview, the book is a fascinating analysis of gender roles, the landlord economy, authority and power, and provincial intellectual and cultural life in the final decades of Russian serfdom.
Andrei and Natalia lived entirely on the income derived from their peasants. Together the couple owned several hundred serfs, and resided fulltime on one or the other of two modest country estates. The couple is a study in contrasts, both in personality and in the ways Russian property law, rural economic life, and social expectations shaped their contrasting gender roles. “Imaginative, verbose, and playful” (88), Andrei dedicated himself to the upbringing of the couple’s two children. At the same time, he participated in provincial civil society as a philanthropist and member of the Vladimir branch of the Moscow Agricultural Society, to whose journal he contributed numerous articles. Natalia, described by Antonova as “meticulous, somewhat humorless … and orderly,” played little role in rearing or educating her children. Instead, she managed the family’s household and estate economies. Thanks to her skillful administration, the couple successfully climbed out of a pile of inherited debts into a comfortable yet precarious prosperity, dependent on the vagaries of weather, health, and the productivity of serf-based agriculture.
Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the reader to Vladimir province’s Kovrov district, its economy and local gentry. Antonova emphasizes Andrei’s strong identification with his native district and preference for rural life, thus providing an interesting corrective to the stereotype of the absentee Russian serfowner with little allegiance to his home district. The complex relations between the Chikhachevs and their serfs are elaborated in chapter 3. Antonova shows how Andrei and Natalia were embedded with their peasants in a nexus of mutual responsibilities, the fulfillment of which was essential for survival. With the threat of serf unrest “ever-present” (69), the Chikhachevs balanced discipline with paternalism, including Andrei’s sincere commitment to his peasants’ education and moral improvement. The knowledge and skills required for effective household and estate management become clear in chapter 4, which analyzes Natalia’s vast responsibilities, from planning agricultural and handicraft production to overseeing the labor of serfs and the payment of taxes. It is interesting to note that while Andrei advocated agricultural education for (male) nobility, his own family’s economic success was due to a woman who apparently had no formal education in accounting or farming. Unfortunately, Antonova does not speculate on how Natalia acquired the skills she exercised so effectively. By detailing the daily responsibilities of an active estate mistress, this chapter illuminates the real-life implications of laws that granted Russian women, unlike their western peers, control over their [End Page 743] property. Antonova frequently compares Natalia to middle-class Anglo-American women, but the unique legal situation of Russian noblewomen, along with the rural focus of Natalia’s life, limits the usefulness...