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We read about the past with too much detachment, when it isn’t “ours”

September 3, 2011

In 1861 Russian serfs were emancipated by decree, and the U.S. Civil War began. By 1865 the two largest systems of chattel slavery the world has ever seen were legally ended (though it didn’t mean immediate de facto equality in either place).

Of course, it’s best to see each thing in its context, to allow for differences between cultures and periods, and internal variety within them. But in this case I think American readers like me can understand the nineteenth-century Russian context better if we try to charge it with the emotional reactions we usually can’t help having to discussions of race or the Civil War. That serfdom doesn’t arouse such feelings is an accident of

  1. growing up in the U.S.,
  2. skin color keeping alive a culturally powerful, if often genealogically spurious, distinction: African-Americans, and black Africans in the U.S., are marked as “post-slave,” and white Americans as “post-slaveholder,” and
  3. the lack of such physical markers of slave(holder) ancestry in Russia, combined with a post-1861 and post-1917 history that made other fault lines more salient there.

The comparison isn’t original to me: there is Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. John MacKay teaches a course called Slavery and Serfdom in Russian and American Literature. I’ve seen a production of The Cherry Orchard with an African-American cast (to bring out the parallel most obviously, I suppose the Russian nobility would be played by white actors, but even an all-black cast made the “social changes after emancipation” context come alive for me more than reading Chekhov on the page).

And it’s not just modern scholars, teachers, and directors. I’m not sure what nineteenth-century American commentators had to say about Russian serfdom, but Russians drew the parallel. I’m thinking of coverage of the Civil War (by Chernyshevskii?) in The Contemporary – is this straightforward news about events in South Carolina, or Aesopian language saying Russian masters are lying to themselves if they think their serfs wouldn’t harm them given the chance? I’m also thinking of Gertsen, who in chapter 2 of My Past and Thoughts makes the comparison as explicit as can be for both masters/planters and Russian/Negro slaves.

Coming soon: a working list of slavery commonplaces from both literatures, and posts of particular examples.

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