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A slavery question

August 14, 2014

I’ve been thinking about Russian and American slavery again lately, thanks to John MacKay’s book about Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russia and an exchange between Sarah J. Young and Languagehat in the comments here. Regular readers know that I agree with LH on this one. Of course Russian serfdom/slavery and U.S. slavery weren’t exactly alike, but I think using two words (“serfdom” and “slavery”) and treating them as unrelated phenomena is more misleading than using the word slavery for both. After all, being a slave in Virginia in 1750 was different than being one in Connecticut in 1840 or Mississippi in 1860, but we have no trouble using the same word to describe these varying conditions of bondage.

Meanwhile there’s an offhand remark of MacKay’s that I’m wondering about:

In spite of the fact that he fathered a daughter with one of his bondswomen—not uncommon in Russia, though less prevalent than in the US South—of Turgenev’s fundamental hostility to the institution of serfdom there can be no question, and reading the Sketches and other works written between 1847 and 1855 as in part “tendentious” is certainly not wrong. (location 849 of 3875 in True Songs of Freedom, my emphasis)

Here’s my question: how can we know? MacKay has a footnote here, but it’s to a source about Turgenev’s “Hannibal’s oath” against serfdom. He’s treating the greater prevalence of masters fathering children by their slaves in the U.S. as an established fact.

One of the important differences between American and Russian slavery is at the heart of the question: race. On a Southern plantation, the appearance of a slave’s baby could reveal the father was a white man. There must have been a nonzero number of babies born on Russian estates who were successfully passed off as the children of an enslaved woman and her husband, when they were biologically the master’s. Who can say how many?

We can’t ask literature to be a mirror of reality, but what I read makes the practice of Russian landowners having sex and children with their slaves seem more “ubiquitous” than “not uncommon.” See these posts on Panaeva’s memoirs, Leskov’s “The Toupee Artist” and “Ancient Psychopaths,” or Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas and Men of the Forties. Or look at noble authors’ oblique confessions about their youth, like the line Где иногда бывал помещиком и я from Nekrasov’s angry, embittered, and confessional “Homeland” (Родина, 1846). If you weren’t sure what he meant by “where at times I was a landowner myself,” read on for the reference to неребяческие желания ‘unchildlike desires.’

Peter Kolchin agrees with MacKay and has a three-part explanation:

  1. Russian landowners had more slaves each than their American counterparts, so a given female slave was less likely to be the particular one that the master decided to coerce in Russia.
  2. Russian landowners had less day-to-day contact with the slaves who worked the fields (though they could and did have sex with house servants).
  3. American planters saw black women as naturally promiscuous, while Russian slaveholders were comparatively likely to worry about the effects of their advances on the slave herself or her family.

Kolchin also points out that anti-slavery writers had every reason to present the sexual exploitation of slaves as frequent (see pp. 111-14 of his Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom). The math of #1 has me convinced that the average Russian slave was less likely to be raped than her American counterpart, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded that a typical Russian slaveholder (who, by the same math, had on average more young, female slaves to choose from) was less likely to force himself on the women under his control. It seems likely that such events were common in both countries; that we can’t know for sure how frequent they were in either; and that Russian landowners probably had an easier time keeping these matters secret, or at least plausibly deniable. Does that seem right?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2014 5:08 pm

    It does to me, and I’d want to see some pretty convincing evidence for MacKay’s statement to the contrary.


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