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“One cannot even call him a house-serf…”

June 15, 2015

Back when I was collecting commonplaces of literary slavery, Russian and American, one thing that made my list was that house and field slaves were distinct categories in the eyes of masters and slaves alike. I recently realized that Lgov (Льгов, 1847), one of Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches (Записки охотника, 1847-51, 1872, 1874) plays a lot on these groups’ social and linguistic divisions.

First we meet Vladimir, a “freed house-serf” [вольноотпущенный дворовый человек] who “expressed himself with extraordinary elegance, and obviously plumed himself on his manners” (117 in Constance Garnett’s translation). When a serf accompanying the gentleman narrator tries to use ты, the informal “you,” with Vladimir, the narrator is impressed by Vladimir’s reply: an ironic вы-с, the formal “you” with an extra deferential particle attached (118).

Later a slave nicknamed Suchok tells his life story: a series of masters who had bought or inherited him abruptly made him a coachman, cook (on two occasions), waiter, actor, footman, postilion, whipper-in, gardener, or fisherman. His speech is marked as substandard, especially with non-standard spellings of words of French or German origin: кеятр for театр, ахтер for актер, фалетор for форейтор (see pp. 12125).

Here is Vladimir’s reaction to Suchok:

Sutchok ran to get his pole. During the whole time of my conversation with the poor old man, the sportsman Vladimir had been staring at him with a contemptuous smile.

‘A stupid fellow,’ was his comment, when the latter had gone off; ‘an absolutely uneducated fellow; a peasant [мужик-с], nothing more. One cannot even call him a house-serf [Дворовым человеком его назвать нельзя-с], and he was boasting all the time. How could he be an actor, be pleased to judge for yourself! You were pleased to trouble yourself for no good in talking to him.’ (126)

Сучок побежал за шестом. Во все время моего разговора с бедным стариком охотник Владимир поглядывал на него с презрительной улыбкой.

— Глупый человек-с, — промолвил он, когда тот ушел, — совершенно необразованный человек, мужик-с, больше ничего-с. Дворовым человеком его назвать нельзя-с… и все хвастал-с… Где ж ему быть актером-с, сами извольте рассудить-с! Напрасно изволили беспокоиться, изволили с ним разговаривать-с!*

That’s it – I just wanted to make a note of this neat and direct contrast, which is much more compact than, for example, the nobleman–house slave and nobleman–field slave romances in Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas and Men of the Forties.

* I used to be able to hide the Russian so that you’d only see it if you moused over the link at the end of the English quote, but WordPress doesn’t seem to let me do that anymore.

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