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An emancipated woman

February 28, 2013

One of the four women Baklanov courts and makes miserable in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) is a peasant on his estate, Mar’ia. In part 2, chapter 8, he pursues her rather elaborately, enlisting the help of the footman Petrusha, hiding as much as possible from his mother, and acting rather nervous and desperate. His position as master wins the day, as Petrusha threatens Mar’ia on Baklanov’s behalf and, frightened, she becomes his lover. Baklanov’s mother discovers the affair and marries Mar’ia off to another peasant against her will. Baklanov leaves in a fit of pique and Mar’ia (Masha) chases after his departing carriage, apparently having become emotionally attached to him despite the initial coercion:

Masha, catching up to them, jumped onto the footboard of the carriage, embraced the master, and started kissing him.

“Farewell, Mar’ia, farewell!” he said hurriedly. “Here, take this!” he added and handed her a hundred-ruble note.

But even the money, it seems, did not make Masha happy. Rather carelessly thrusting it into her bosom, she reluctantly climbed down from the footboard and followed the carriage with her eyes for a long, long time as it grew more distant from her. (2.13)

This is not the end of Mar’ia’s part, though. Life pre- and post-emancipation is a bigger theme in the novel than nihilism, and Pisemskii shows us how Mar’ia receives Baklanov when he returns to his estate after February 19th, 1861. Baklanov arranges a feast for his former slaves largely so he can try to seduce Mar’ia again (her husband is in St. Petersburg, working), where he makes a fool of himself, sitting close to Mar’ia, trying to get her to drink vodka, and sending for a bottle of Madeira when she won’t. Finally she refuses him:

Baklanov took Mar’ia by the back of her sarafan and sat her down next to him.

“Now, sir, don’t touch me!” she said, moving away from him.

Other peasant women, noticing this, went a few steps further away.

“Let’s go to the room,” Baklanov whispered to her.

“I haven’t gone out of my mind yet, sir…” she replied, giving him a mocking look.

“Well, you used to come, didn’t you?”

“As if you didn’t drink our blood every which way back then!” replied Mar’ia.

Baklanov felt ashamed and irritated.

“I didn’t force you, as I recall?”

“I must have gone of my own free will, then!” replied Mar’ia mockingly. (5.19)

A lot is wrong in the Russia of Troubled Seas before and after the serfs are freed, but here is one victory for the peasants, one thing that has actually changed for the better. I may have said this already, but I love the way Pisemskii handles the master-slave sexual relationship, giving both nuanced human psychology and the cold logic of power relations their due.

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