Serfs Who Are Snobs

Catherine Merridale

Aleksandr Nikitenko’s memoir is unusual: the fact that it exists is odd enough. Nikitenko was a serf, born in 1804 or 1805 in the village of Alekseevka, in the Ukrainian province of Voronezh. Few people from his background would have been able to write their own names, let alone a full-scale history of their lives. The thirty million serfs of the Russian Empire were little more than slaves – they followed their own trade but nothing they earned belonged to them – and their masters for the most part believed that too much education might turn them into rebels. But Nikitenko was to become a professor in St Petersburg, a literary critic and member of Government commissions. The turning-point came in 1824, when he gained his freedom from Count Sheremetev, the man who owned him. Forty years before Alexander II freed the mass of Russia’s serfs, this felt like a miracle. ‘I will not describe the emotions I experienced in those first minutes of profound, stunning joy,’ Nikitenko writes. ‘I can only say Glory to the Almighty and proclaim my eternal gratitude to those who helped me to be born again.’

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