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“This old man lived like a sultan on his estate” (Panaeva)

September 19, 2011

Avdot’ia Panaeva wrote fiction under the male pseudonym Stanitskii. She was married to one of the co-editors of The Contemporary and became the common-law wife of the other, Nekrasov (see this epigram). The young Dostoevskii, socially awkward and transparently pleased with the success of his first novel, fell awkwardly in love with her.

She is today best known for her memoirs, which include the story of traveling with her husband to an estate near Kazan that he and several relatives had jointly inherited. All the heirs needed to come in person to divide up their inheritance, including slaves. Here she describes one of the heirs:

Before breakfast I had already met all the relatives, who turned out to be characters. One unmarried old fellow, the owner of two thousand souls, a short, pimply man in a camlet militiaman’s uniform, wore in his side pocket a watch the size of a turnip that played different pieces every hour. This old man lived like a sultan on his estate and had even built a two-story stone building for his harem, which housed several dozen serf girls [крепостные девушки]. He had even come to the division of the estate with some of them. (chapter 4)

I’m uncomfortable with my own phrase “married and unmarried men from the master’s family have sex with female slaves,” as it sounds bland for a practice that certainly qualifies as rape by modern standards. I wanted to keep it vague to allow for the range of forms coerced sex took in both Russia and the U.S., from repeated violent rape to marriage in all but name, with much else in between. The harem that Panaev’s relative is said to have assembled would have been unlikely in America, if only because individual estates were smaller on average, and there were few single men with 2,000 slaves. Of course, it was evidently noteworthy in Russia too.

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