Before I started keeping an eye out for them, I thought descriptions of Russian noblemen taking sexual advantage of slaves were uncommon – a few sympathetic portrayals of the peasant women this happened to, and a few cryptic remarks from noblemen that seem to express guilt for the advantage they took on their fathers’ estates in their youth. Now it seems to me that it’s one of the most frequent slavery themes. A quarter of the way through Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), I’ve found two scenes of this sort that stand out for their two-sided psychological realism and complexity – it’s not just master-slave power relations, but also occasional cross-class gender solidarity and conflict between multiple codes: what should a female slaveholder, who believes in keeping the peasants down but also, on Christian grounds, in a strict female chastity, do about her male relatives and female servants?
I’ll save the scene that answers that question for another post, and here want to record the plot of part 2, chapter 8, “Что прежде всего.” Aleksandr Baklanov has returned to his mother’s country estate after completing his university studies in Moscow. Disappointed in love (his beautiful, impoverished cousin married an old rich man) and in ambition (he did worse than his rivals at Moscow University), he has decided nothing is better than country retreat. Two serfs, Petrusha and Masha, quickly become central to his life.
He seems to want to be on terms of friendliness with Petrusha, but the difference in status makes an equal friendship impossible. Baklanov gives Petrusha a rifle and brings him hunting with him, which both men seem to enjoy, but Petrusha could hardly refuse to go. And Baklanov wants more than Petrusha’s friendship or service in any case, saying as they return from the hunt:
— Немного же мы с тобой, Петруша, настреляли, — сказал он.
— Совсем нынче птицы мало стало, — повторил тот свою любимую фразу.
Они снова взяли ружья на плечи и пошли. […]
— Может, другой здесь дичи много! — проговорил Александр и посмотрел на Петрушу.
Тот тоже на него посмотрел.
— Что в юбках-то ходят, — прибавил Алексаднр.
Петруша усмехнулся и почесал себя за ухом.
— Пожалуй, что добра этого есть немало.
“You and I didn’t shoot much today, Petrusha,” he said.
“Not much fowl these days,” said the other, repeating his favorite sentence.
They put their rifles back on their shoulders and walked on. […]
“Maybe there’s a lot of another kind of game!” Aleksandr said and looked at Petrusha.
He looked back at him.
“That goes around in skirts,” added Aleksandr.
Petrusha smirked and scratched behind his ear.
“I’d say there’s no shortage of those goods.”
Baklanov ends up asking Petrusha to arrange an encounter for him with a girl named Masha. Petrusha can only express his reluctance by saying he will obey more slowly and stiffly than usual. He is so hesitant that we wonder if he himself is interested in, or even engaged to, Masha already, or if he is trying to shield all the peasant women from Baklanov, knowing he will fail (he won’t name any names of particularly attractive girls when asked, as if he were refusing to betray friends to the police). Or perhaps he is making the task seem difficult to get money out of it; later in the process Baklanov gives him a silver ruble. At Baklanov’s repeated insistence, he tries to talk to Masha to set something up. Baklanov is nervous: even though he is the heir to the estate and thinks he can, like his father before him, have any peasant woman he wants, he is afraid. Afraid of being discovered by his mother, afraid also, it turns out, of ruining Masha’s reputation. Petrusha’s first attempt to convince Masha to meet the young master fails, and he suggests Baklanov should try himself. Baklanov does:
— Что, вы видели ее-с?
— Видел! Но мне решительно невозможно с ней говорить… Все замечают: я хуже этим ее обесславлю, если стану ухаживать за ней.
— Это точно что-с, — сообразил Петруша.
— Переговори, Бога ради, ты! Обещай, что всю семью их я отпущу на волю!
— Понапугать ее хорошенько надобно, вот что-с, — произнес гайдук […]
“Well, have you seen her, sir?
“I have! But it’s decidedly impossible for me to talk to her… Everyone notices it: I’ll dishonor her worse if I start chasing after her.”
“That is quite right, sir,” reasoned Petrusha.
“You talk to her, for God’s sake! Promise I’ll set their whole family free!”
“The thing to do is give her a good scare, sir,” said the footman.
Of the two men, the slave Petrusha calls for threats instead of promises, when Baklanov, propelled by sexual desire, is ready to offer (or at least promise) freedom to her whole family. Baklanov feels dependent on Petrusha for help.
Petrusha’s approach works, and Masha meets Baklanov somewhere secluded, then meets him again and again. He asks her romantic questions (“do you like to walk in the field and pick flowers?”) and she can hardly understand his frame of reference (“When? Isn’t time. What there is, is holidays, and then too you have to go around keeping an eye on the animals”). He asks if she loved anyone before him (“no”) and if she loves him, to which she answers “Вас, известно, жалею,” where the verb жалеть means “pity” in the standard language and “love” regionally, so that her “you know I love you” (to avoid translating that as “it is well known that I love you,” as I don’t think she means the whole village knows) sounds like “I pity you.”
This episode comes in the context of Baklanov’s failed courtship of his cousin, but also of the unrequited love of the daughter of his Polish landlady in Moscow for him. Baklanov knew he could have slept with her and saw his decision not to as heroic, but the narrator disagrees:
— Будь покойна, мой кроткое существо… я не погублю тебя! — произнес он тоном самоотвержения.
Но в самом деле Казимира просто не нравилась ему своей наружностью.
“Be at ease, my meek creature… I shall not ruin you!” he said in a tone of self-denial. [just after she has left the room]
But in reality he just was not attracted by Kazimira’s physical appearance. (part 2, chapter 2)
Finally two points on Baklanov’s attitudes toward his family’s serfs in general. Lamenting the bad influence of his family (after another student who had no family did better than he did), Baklanov tells Kazimira what his mother always used to say to him:
Сашенька, батюшка, не учись, болен будешь!.. Сашенька, батюшка, покушай. Сашенька, поколоти дворового мальчишку, как это он тебе грубиянит
Sasha, my dear, don’t study, you’ll make yourself sick! Sasha, my dear, eat something. Sasha, give the house-serf boy a thrashing, what is he doing being so rude to you (part 2, chapter 6)
Right after this, ruling out a career in government service, Baklanov spells out his plan:
Только и осталось одно […] сделаться помещиком… Около земли все-таки труд честный, и я знаю, что буду полезен моим полуторастам, или там двумстам душам, которые мне принадлежат.
Only one thing remains, […] to become a country gentleman… Close to the land there is honest work anyway, and I know I shall be useful to my one hundred fifty or perhaps two hundred souls, who belong to me. (part 2, chapter 6)
This is enough part of Baklanov’s self-image that he promises Petrusha things will be better soon for the family’s serfs (part 2, chapter 7).