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Russian planters and plantations

September 5, 2011

Aleksandr Ivanovich Gertsen (under the pen name Iskander, 1861):

One hears a lot about the great depravity of servants [слуги], especially serfs [крепостные]. It is true that they are not distinguished by an exemplary fastidiousness of conduct; their moral failings can be seen in the very fact that they put up with too much, and too seldom rise up and resist. But this is not the point. I would like to know which estate [сословие] in Russia is less depraved than they? Is it really the nobility, or the bureaucracy? Perhaps the clergy?

Why are you laughing?

Perhaps the peasantry can make such a claim, if anyone can…

The difference between nobles [дворяне] and house servants [дворовые] is as small as that between their names. I hate demagogic flattery of the crowd, especially after the disasters of 1848, but I hate aristocratic slander of the common people even more. Presenting servants [слуги] and slaves [рабы] as licentious beasts, the planters [плантаторы] deflect others’ attention and silence their own cries of conscience. We are seldom better than the mob, but we express ourselves more gently, conceal more adroitly our egoism and our passions; our desires are not so blunt and not so obvious for being so easily satisfied, for our habit of not restraining ourselves. We are simply richer, better-fed, and consequently have higher standards. When Count Almaviva enumerated the qualities he required from a servant to the barber of Seville, Figaro observed, sighing, “if a servant [слуга] must have all these virtues, could one find many masters [господа] suited to be lackeys [лакеи]?”

[…]

Going through my recollections of not only the house servants [дворовые] from our house and the Senator’s, but also the servants [слуги] of two or three houses close to ours over the course of twenty-five years, I remember nothing particularly depraved in their conduct. If anything one could speak of minor thefts… but here the concept is so compromised by their condition that it is hard to judge: a person-belonging [человек-собственность] does not stand on ceremony with his comrade and is on familiar terms with the master’s goods [барское добро]. It would be fairer to exclude a handful of favorites of both sexes, the master’s girls [барские барыни], informers [наушники]; but in the first place, they constitute an exception — they are the Kleinmikhels of the stables, the Benkendorfs of the cellar, Perekusikhins in work clothes, a barefoot Pompadour; moreover they are the ones who behave best, getting drunk only late at night and not pawning their clothes at the tavern.

The simple depravity of the others centers on a glass of wine or a bottle of beer, a cheerful conversation and a pipe, unauthorized absences from the house, arguments that sometimes come to physical fights, tricks played on masters [господа] who demand from them inhuman and impossible things. Naturally, their lack of any education on the one hand, and on the other the lack of their simple peasant ways under slavery [отсутствие… крестьянской простоты при рабстве] brought much that is abnormal and perverse into their customs, but this notwithstanding, they, like Negroes in America, have remained half-children: a trifle consoles them, a trifle upsets them. Their desires are limited and are sooner naïve and human than depraved. (33-35, emphasis in original)

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