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Noblemen pursuing house and field slaves, and noblewomen foiling their plans

January 22, 2013

Writers looking back at serfdom from after February 19th, 1861 often describe a male slaveholder blocking the marriage of two serfs because he was himself interested in the woman. In Vsevolod Krestovskii’s A Death in Spring (Весенняя смерть, 1861) the master blocks Parasha’s marriage so he can sleep with her. In Nekrasov’s “On an Exemplary Slave, Faithful Iakov” (“Про холопа примерного—Якова верного,” written 1876; for Juliet M. Soskice’s English translation search this page for “dutiful serf”), another serf-owner blocks Arisha’s marriage and sends her would-be fiancé Grisha to the army because he would have liked to sleep with her if the lower half of his body were not paralyzed.

Pisemskii, who really seems eager to explore master-slave sexual relationships from all sides in Troubled Seas (and, apparently, A Bitter Fate), sometimes shows a female slaveholder keeping one of her male relatives away from one of her female peasants, in one case by compelling a marriage between the woman and another peasant.

Bibi, an older, never married, ostentatiously religious woman, spends much time policing the chastity of her female relatives and female slaves. She “did not like to give away her female servants in marriage, and by thirty or so her girls grew terribly thin and old, and then dried up and stayed like that for the rest of their lives” (part 1, chapter 3), and when one of her young peasants got pregnant she would be severe and unforgiving (1.6). Bibi’s nephew, penniless ne’er-do-well young officer Viktor Basardin, visits her estate and gets on her good side by feigning religiosity and sincerely whipping her misbehaving slaves. However, he tries to seduce her maid Irodiada, to his pious aunt’s horror, and Bibi indirectly expels him by leaving with her household, including Irodiada, and waiting for her nephew to go away (1.18). Irodiada is a character with an interesting story and a great deal of agency: besides successfully resisting Viktor’s advances, she earlier became the only woman to work her way back into Bibi’s good graces after a pregnancy out of wedlock (1.6), and she later plays on Bibi’s devoutness to win her freedom and go work for Bibi’s niece, Viktor’s sister, instead (3.1). It is also suggested that Irodiada may be of noble stock, the illegitimate daughter of Evsevii Osipovich, who, if I’m not mistaken, is Viktor’s mother’s sister’s daughter’s half-brother (3.4).

Meanwhile, the romance between Aleksandr Baklanov and the peasant Masha ends with Aleksandr’s mother Apollinaria Matveevna (who is Evsevii Osipovich’s half-sister) marrying Masha off against her will to one of her fellow peasants. She was afraid her son would marry Masha (as he had insincerely promised to do), in part because her grandfather had married a serf-girl, who had beaten her in what she considered an unjust reversal of roles (2.13). This chapter illustrates how Pisemskii thinks human interactions work, with everyone behaving selfishly but not far-sightedly. Aleksandr says he will marry Masha to make her happy and their affair thus more pleasant for him, which leads to her being taken away from him by his mother. Masha not only naively takes this promise at face value, but uses it as an excuse to stop doing her share of the field slaves’ work, which draws the mistress’s attention and leads to her sudden, unwanted marriage. Apollinaria Matveevna decisively breaks up Aleksandr and Masha, but at the cost of Aleksandr carrying out his threat to go to Petersburg, leaving his mother lonely at the country estate. Just about every character awakens in the reader a mix of contempt, pity, and horrified self-recognition.

The field slave Masha and house slave Irodiada speak differently and are unequally resourceful, with Irodiada understanding the nobility’s ways much better and knowing how to use her knowledge.

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