Four Russian Serf Narratives

Paperback | November 24, 2009

EditorJohn Mackay

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Although millions of Russians lived as serfs until the middle of the nineteenth century, little is known about their lives. Identifying and documenting the conditions of Russian serfs has proven difficult because the Russian state discouraged literacy among the serfs and censored public expressions of dissent. To date scholars have identified only twenty known Russian serf narratives.
    Four Russian Serf Narratives contains four of these accounts and is the first translated collection of autobiographies by serfs. Scholar and translator John MacKay brings to light for an English-language audience a diverse sampling of Russian serf narratives, ranging from an autobiographical poem to stories of adventure and escape. “Autobiography” (1785) recounts a highly educated serf’s attempt to escape to Europe, where he hoped to study architecture. The long testimonial poem “News About Russia” (ca. 1849) laments the conditions under which the author and his fellow serfs lived. In “The Story of My Life and Wanderings” (1881) a serf tradesman tells of his attempt to simultaneously escape serfdom and captivity from Chechen mountaineers. The fragmentary “Notes of a Serf Woman” (1911) testifies to the harshness of peasant life with extraordinary acuity and descriptive power.
    These accounts offer readers a glimpse, from the point of view of the serfs themselves, into the realities of one of the largest systems of unfree labor in history. The volume also allows comparison with slave narratives produced in the United States and elsewhere, adding an important dimension to knowledge of the institution of slavery and the experience of enslavement in modern times.

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Although millions of Russians lived as serfs until the middle of the nineteenth century, little is known about their lives. Identifying and documenting the conditions of Russian serfs has proven difficult because the Russian state discouraged literacy among the serfs and censored public expressions of dissent. To date scholars have ide...

John MacKay is professor of Slavic and East European languages and literatures and film studies and is chair of the Film Studies Program at Yale University. He is author of Inscription and Modernity: From Wordsworth to Mandelstam.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 9 × 6 × 0.6 inPublished:November 24, 2009Publisher:University Of Wisconsin PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:029923374X

ISBN - 13:9780299233747

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations   
Acknowledgments   

Introduction: Serfs as Writers   
Nikolai Smirnov, "Autobiography" (1785)   
P. (Petr O.), "News about Russia" (ca. 1849)   
Nikolai Shipov, "The Story of My Life and Wanderings: The Tale of the Former Serf Peasant Nikolai Shipov" (1802–62)   
M. E. Vasilieva, "Notes of a Serf Woman" (1911)   

Index   

Editorial Reviews

The four narratives in this volume, none of which have previously been translated into English, offer a wide variety of first-person perspectives on serfdom. The narratives are fascinating in their own right; the addition of the wide-ranging introduction and thorough historical notes make Four Serf Narratives an important volume for anyone interested in the study of unfree labor.”—Anne Hruska, Slavic and East European Journal