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.’
Nikitenko’s memoir is the story of his quest for freedom, but it is not an abolitionist tract. The professor was cautious (he was a Government censor), and he writes as a prudent moralist, a successful man recalling, in grateful middle age, the steps by which, through persistence and well-deserved luck, he rose to public eminence. To people who met him, he probably looked and sounded like one of those teachers who won’t let you turn the page and get on with the story if you can’t conjugate your verbs. He took a scholarly approach to the writing of his memoir, going through letters, notes and old diaries. He seldom lets himself imagine, and there are none of the snatches of remembered dialogue that make Maxim Gorky’s comparable account, My Childhood, so vivid. But for all his donnishness, he can barely hide his own surprise, and what makes him interesting is the shadow of his other self, the serfdom he never quite escaped.
The young Aleksandr didn’t exactly start from scratch. His grandfather, a cobbler, drowned in his fifties after an undistinguished life of hard work, taverns and conjugal rows. But his father, Vasily Mikhailovich, escaped the cobbler’s workshop as a boy when he was selected to sing in the Sheremetevs’ choir in Moscow. The choir school provided him with a general education, and when his voice broke he took up the post of chief clerk in his native village. When Aleksandr was growing up, there were books in the house (and despite the family’s improvidence, there was usually a house), there was music, and in good times his father worked at a desk in a frock-coat and tails.
Aleksandr was sent away to the district school in Voronezh at the age of 11. By that stage, he had already worked his way through his father’s collection of Russian history books and had started writing poetry. At school, he recalls, ‘we studied Holy Scripture, some universal history, Russian grammar, arithmetic, physics, natural history, the elements of Latin and German and the duties of an individual and citizen.’ His favourite author was Plutarch, though he enjoyed Socrates and Plato as well, and devised a game to play with his friends called ‘Heroes and Orators’.
With tastes like these, his future seemed guaranteed. ‘From my very first steps in school,’ he writes, ‘I wanted more than anything else to become a censor’ – in school terms, a prefect. ‘When I advanced into the senior class,’ he continues, ‘my obsession gave me no peace.’ With time, as the star of his year, his ambition was realised. As censor of his class, he claims to have been popular, egalitarian and fearless. Whatever the real story, he was certainly learning his own worth among the sons of wealthy merchants and high officials, enjoying a prominence that had nothing to do with social class.
The problem was that he remained a serf and his status barred him from education beyond the age of 13. ‘For the first time I had to face the terrible curse that hung over me.’ It would be seven years, during which he worked as a private tutor and part-time clerk, before a summons came from St Petersburg. Even there, his patrons could not help him straightaway. Friends in Ukraine had brought his case to the attention of the Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs, Prince Aleksandr Golitsyn, an infamous reactionary who appears here, uniquely, as a progressive. But Golitsyn resigned shortly before Nikitenko arrived in the capital, taking the lesser office of director of the Postal Service. As a result, the Sheremetevs were in a stronger position to resist Nikitenko’s appeal, and for weeks all applications for his freedom were refused. He was saved by his own ambition, and the goodwill of a group of liberal officers and academics, who made the case a public embarrassment to the Sheremetevs. He was freed in a moment not of generosity but of exasperation.
The professor was always grateful to the people who helped him. Indeed, his memoir reads in places like a fable of divine justice, with the virtuous on one side and the wicked on the other. Among the former, predictably, is Nikitenko’s mother, who features as a kind of icon: radiant and two-dimensional. She was poor but honest, beautiful and gracious, with memorable dark brown eyes, ‘in which shone . . . much tenderness and goodness’, but of course her ‘chief strength lay in her heart and character’. This was just as well. Her husband had seemed like a good match when they married, but in Aleksandr’s account he was quixotic, always fighting lost causes (‘introducing truth where it wasn’t wanted’), a prey to ill-health and much given to romantic passions; all of which meant that he spent a lot of time away from his family. When he was home, he would spend months in the grip of unrequited love, ‘and at times the painful yearning and frustration building up within him was vented cruelly on his family.’ His wife attacked the problem, as many women like her did, by getting a job.
The really colourful characters are, of course, the villains. Vasily Mikhailovich worked for a number of employers, generally fleeing after a scandal or a few nights in jail, and the family’s circle of acquaintance included a selection of seedy aristocrats. In Nikitenko’s memory, these people are wealthy, but their riches naturally bring them little joy. The great Count Sheremetev, for instance, was reduced by ‘satiety . . . to a point where he was repulsive even to himself . . . Everything filled him with loathing – valuables, delicacies, drink, works of art, the obsequiousness of numerous lackeys.’ And finally, ‘nature denied him its most precious blessing – sleep, for which he himself said he would give millions, even half his domain.’ Antony, the Bishop of Voronezh, had a brother, Nikolai, who was also a priest, but ‘the most unworthy of all who bore this title. He wasn’t a swindler or evil man, but he drank heavily and behaved obscenely,’ while his sidekick, the lecherous dean of Ostrogozhsk, so outraged one of his parishioners that ‘she removed her shoe and whacked the reverend father’s face.’ There are unappealing women, too. Maria Fyodorovna Bedriaga, a wealthy landowner who gave the older Nikitenko a job and lodging for some years, ‘almost never smiled, and in her scowling, glowering look one would be hard put to find a hint of feminine tenderness . . . Acquaintance with her rarely ended without a summons to court.’
It doesn’t take much, reading this, to hear the narrating voice of Woody Allen in the Russian mode of Love and Death. There is Tatarchukov, a family benefactor, who ‘smelled like a goat . . . in a greasy frock-coat and drooping pantaloons’, who fell in love with a woman less than half his age. There is the music group at the Nikitenkos’ house, which stars a one-armed French horn player and a man who sings ‘for the prize of prunes and gingerbread’. There is Aleksei, Tatarchukov’s charismatic son, with whom Nikitenko père forms ‘a kind of romantic friendship’ but who dies young after catching a cold. And even Aleksandr’s patron, General Yuzefovich, turns against his protégé and then goes steadily insane. The problems are never trivial and they never announce themselves gradually. When Aleksandr returns from school one summer, for instance, he finds his mother in tears. ‘Father was hopelessly ill, and we had arrived in the midst of preparations for the administration of extreme unction.’ But as Nikitenko adds, more cheerfully, ‘with the exception of this unfortunate episode . . . everything was fine at home.’
What makes Nikitenko’s observations so absurd, and therefore funny, is his fatalism. Fate, a concept that gets sidelined in democracies, plays a commanding role in the serfs’ lives. They can be called to Moscow on a whim, moved from estate to estate, conscripted into the Army, or given easy jobs as stewards or tutors in a wealthy house. None of this deprives the Nikitenkos of ambition, however. What is striking is the range of their social contacts, the extent of their learning, and the determination with which all of them – father, mother and son – strive to improve their lives. Among their neighbours, too, are serfs who trade, who dress in Moscow fashions and drink tea, serfs who are snobs. Nikitenko insists that Russia was more liberal, even for these unfree people, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion than it was thirty years later. ‘Many people,’ he writes, ‘owned collections of serious books such as The Justinian Code, DeLolme’s The Constitution of England, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and his Spirit of the Laws . . . Crime and Punishments by Beccaria and the works of Voltaire.’ It doesn’t sound much like a land of arbitrary rule.
The truth, however, was that even these most literate of serfs did not have civil rights. ‘People could be bought and sold wholesale or in small numbers, by families or singly like bulls and sheep,’ Nikitenko writes. He is being circumspect. Though he doesn’t excuse the system, and even talks of its ‘corruptive effects’, there is much that he doesn’t say. For the majority of serfs, after all, life was a matter of backbreaking work, with little prospect of mobility or betterment. The brutality of a system that allowed every kind of abuse except actual killing was echoed among the peasants themselves in brawls, wife-beating and vicious acts of summary justice.
Nikitenko draws a subtle, even discreet, picture of all this. The most shocking murder in his book may be that of a large white cat, whose taste for stolen lard resulted in its being hanged and left to rot in the noose for two weeks. Nikitenko makes light of the brutishness that formed the background to his early life, and he is careful, in this published work, to keep on the right side of tsarist law, but behind the professorial façade he guards his own memory of humiliation. When he revisits this emotion he still is lost for words. ‘No one and nothing can convey the moral struggle a strong and courageous 16-year-old went through to consider suicide and find relief in the idea itself,’ he writes. ‘I acquired a pistol, powder and two bullets, and from that instant on I felt better.’ Ever the scribe, he even composed an essay for the occasion, ‘The Voice of a Suicide on Judgment Day’, and dedicated it to his mother. ‘So what if I’m not my own master,’ he wrote, ‘so what if I’m nothing in the eyes of society and its laws! Still, I have one right that no one can take away from me! The right to die.’ It was hard work – and perhaps a good helping of fate – that set him free. But millions of others were unlucky. Even as a Government official, Nikitenko had to buy his mother’s and his brother’s freedom. However lovingly he describes the village, the orchard and the summers of his youth, and however wistfully he talks of the Homeric virtues of his childhood friends, the basic immorality of serfdom is something he doesn’t trouble to disguise.