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Pronouns of power and solidarity

August 26, 2011

How did peasants wish their (former) masters would address them around the time of the emancipation? Here are two guesses by writers born into the nobility:

Tolstoi, 1864:

Mar’ia Vasil’evna: Yes, you mean the [emancipation] manifesto – how funny you are!

Nanny (with resentment): Yes, I mean the paper that says house servants get kicked out and sent to live under a bridge for their pains, as if you didn’t know! Anyway, never mind about them! What was I saying. That’s when the change started. It’s most of all when he’s [Mar’ia Vasil’evna’s 50-year-old husband, the lord of the manor] in front of Anatolii Dmitrievich [age 35], I heard something not long ago that was plain disgusting. You excuse me, ma’am, I’m going to tell the whole truth. You can’t reinvate yourself at fifty [В пятьдесят лет карахтер нельзя переменить]. All he’s done is lose respect. I mean, he just wants to make a show of his new ways, but he hasn’t reinvated himself at all. Not long ago guess who he was spoiling – Kiriushka Deev, the peasant. This was when Anatolii Dmitrievich was there. “You [вы, the formal pronoun],” he says – this is Kiriushka he’s talking to! – “if you want to work, then come.” I heard it and thought, what on earth is this? Like he’s talking to some perince [прынцу] or other. It made me spit.

Nekrasov, 1867:

Господа давно решили,
Что души в нем нет.
Неизвестно – есть ли, нет ли,
Но с ним случай был:
Чуть живого сняли с петли,
Перед тем грустил.
Господам конфузно было:
“Что с тобой, Иван?”
-“Так, под сердце подступило”,-
И глядит: не пьян!
Говорит: “Вы потеряли
Верного слугу,
Всё равно – помру с печали,
Жить я не могу!
А всего бы лучше с глотки
Петли не снимать”…
Сам помещик выслал водки
Скуку разогнать.
Пил детина ерофеич,
Плакал да кричал:
“Хоть бы раз Иван Мосеич
Кто меня назвал!”…

The master’s family had decided long ago he didn’t have a soul. Who knows if he had one or not, but a certain thing happened to him: they cut him down from a noose barely alive, he’d been sad before that. It was a bit awkward for the master’s family: “what’s the matter [что с тобой, using the familiar pronoun], Ivan [familiar non-use of patronymic]?” “I don’t know, the feeling just came over me,” and he looks at them – he isn’t drunk! He says, “you’ve lost a faithful servant, I’m going to die of sorrow anyway, I can’t go on living! It would have been best if you’d left the noose on my neck”… The lord himself sent vodka to cheer him up. The lad drank the erofeich, cried and shouted, “I wish just once someone would call me Ivan Moseich [the formal mode of address]!”

Both authors put the argument in the mouth of a peasant. They paint opposite, and to my mind psychologically convincing, pictures. I imagine different (ex-)slaves in the 1860s held different views, and Tolstoi and Nekrasov are emphasizing the ones they each find appealing: people who believe in “knowing their place” in spite of a new egalitarian fashion among their former masters, or people whose need for human dignity can’t be taken away by years of degrading treatment.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2013 8:44 am

    An interesting juxtaposition! Tolstoy was a wonderful writer but an incorrigible aristocrat despite his unusual political and religious ideas. His take on how the slaves felt was probably quite close to that of the Southern slaveocracy in the US.

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