As far as literary figures go, Sergei Aksakov had an inauspicious beginning but flowered in middle age. Aksakov’s A Family Chronicle first appeared in 1846 in installments in a minor Moscow publication. He (1791-1859) was fifty-six years old by this time, and after a youth spent translating famous works while writing privately, he became a press-censor under Minister of Education, A.S. Shishkov. By 1839, however, Aksakov retired from government service and turned to writing. A Russian Gentleman (A Family Chronicle) was published in book form in 1856, along with A Russian Schoolboy (Recollections). Years of Childhood (The Childhood Years of the Bagrov Grandson) was published in 1858. Aksakov died the following year (1859), but his book Recollections of Gogol was published posthumously. Sergei Aksakov fathered two sons Konstantin and Ivan who were both major figures in the Slavophile movement.
Aksakov’s A Russian Gentleman, is a semi-autobiographical, Russian pastoral (as are A Russian Schoolboy and The Childhood Years of the Bagrov Grandson), with, for the purposes of the books, the name “Aksakov” becoming “Bagrov.” In the excellent introduction, Edward Crankshaw notes:
“A Russian Gentleman is a classic example of that essentially Russian genre, a factual record faintly disguised as fiction, or a fiction so actual, so apparently inconsequent and uncontrived, that it reads like fact.”
This merging of fact with fiction, of course, brings up many questions, but any auto-biographical work is, by its nature, just one version of events. This idea of a ‘version of events’ becomes very apparent as the book develops, but more of that later.
The ‘Russian gentleman’ in the title is a thinly disguised version of the author’s grandfather–Stepan Mikhailovich Aksakov, a man, who during the reign of Catherine the Great made the bold move of selling his inherited lands “in the province of Simbirsk” and moving about 200 miles east in Ufa in the province of Orenburg. The original Aksakov family estate in Simbirsk had been owned solely by the author’s great-great-great-grandfather (don’t think I have too many ‘greats’ there). In A Russian Gentleman, the name Aksakov becomes Bagrov and we are told that over the years, and with each succesive generation, marriageable daughters had been given a “portion” which “took the shape of a certain number of serfs and a certain amount of land.” Consequently, since the land had never been surveyed, by the time Bagrov inherited, various branches of the family–living side by side–squabbled over the land, and “life under these conditions was intolerable.” And so in the story, Stepan Mikhailovich Bagrov buys 12,000 acres in Ufa and moves his family and possessions (including his serfs and his livestock) to his newly purchased land. A Russian Gentleman is the story of the move eastwards and the establishment of the new household, the son, young Alexei Stepanich Bagrov’s maturation and his subsequent courtship of Sophia Nikolaevna, their marriage, trials and tribulations, and finally the birth of their son. The significant details of the Aksakov/Bagrov divide seem to be unchanged, but since the author would not have been born at the time of events, most of the story must be heresay, exaggeration or even imagined in a fill-in-the-blank way.
The first part of A Russian Gentleman (Fragment I: Stepan Mikhailovitch Bagrov) is fascinating. The author describes how his grandfather decided to buy land in the Bashkir territory, and that there were stories circulating of how “whole districts were bought for a song” under somewhat dubious and hardly legal circumstances. Bagrov travels to the region and pays 2500 roubles for 12,000 acres of land, hoping (vainly as it turns out) to avoid lawsuits by acquiring the land through legal documentation. A portion of the novel then describes the move, which is made in stages, the first constructions built and the first crops sowed on the virgin soil. It all sounds like a marvelously bold adventure so fitting for its time.
Fragment II: Mikhail Maximovich Kurolesov is one of my very favourite sections of the book. This section details the marriage of the grandfather’s cousin, Praskovya Ivanovna Bagrov to the crafty, opportunistic army officer Mikhail Kurolesev. Praskovya is a substantial heiress of several properties and numerous serfs, and Kurolesev, disliked by the author’s grandfather, worms his way into the good graces of Praskovya’s female relatives, and consequently Kurolesev snares his 15-year-old bride.
When the news of the marriage reaches Bagrov, he is furious and has a very low opinion of Praskovya’s new husband: “The man is a knave and rotten all through.” At first the newlyweds are forbidden to visit the Bagrov household, but over time, Bagrov forgives his cousin and her husband and allows them to visit Bagrovo. As the relationship heals and grows, Bagrov revises his opinion of Kurolesev, who is now retired from the army and gives all indications of being a sensitive and sensible landlord. Kurolesev buys property in both Simbirsk (Kurolesovo) and Ufa and another property–a “seat” in which the couple live in the village of Churasovo. As the years pass, Kurolesev travels between these properties and rumours begin to float back about the dissipated lifestyle he leads away from home. These rumours culminate in a letter which details Kurolesev’s scandalous behaviour: unrestrained “evil tendencies,” “drunken revels,” and “monstrous passions.” Praskovya, who up to this point, has very deliberately turned a blind eye to her husband’s behaviour, travels to Parashino, an estate in Ufa, and once there, her deepest fears at confirmed. But Praskovya gets more than she bargained for….
Fragment III: The Marriage of Young Bagrov, Fragment IV: The Young Couple at Ufa, and Fragment V: Life at Ufa concerns the author’s father, his courtship of Sofya Nikolaevna and the beginnings of their married life together. The sections concerning young Bagrov’s sisters and their hostility to their soon-to-be sister-in-law are amusing:
“It is a well-known fact that in the good old days of Empress Catherine–perhaps it is the case still–there was little love lost between a man’s wife and his sisters; and the case was worse when the sisters had only one brother, because his wife must become the sole and undisputed mistress of the household. A great deal of selfishness underlies human nature; it often works without our knowledge, and no one is exempt from it; honourable and kind people, not recognizing selfish motives in themselves, quite honestly attribute their actions to other and more presentable causes; but they deceive themselves and others unintentionally. Where there is no kindness of heart or refinement of manners, selfishness shows itself without any concealment or apology; and so it was with the womenfolk of Stepan Mikhailovich.”
The sections which describe young Bagrov and his courtship, and the trials and tribulations of Sofya Nikolaevna are not as interesting. I’m going to describe it this way: imagine a puff piece bio written about some celebrity–everything would one-sided, written to flatter the subject, and that’s just what Aksakov does when describing Sofya Nikolaevna–a thinly disguised version of his mother. Here’s a passage describing Sofya Nikolaevna:
“Meanwhile as the engaged couple met more often and together longer, they became more intimate. Sofya Nikolaevna for the first time saw her lover as he really was, and realized for the first time what a heavy task lay before her. She had made no mistake in thinking that he possessed natural intelligence, a very kind heart, strict principles of honour, and perfect integrity in official life, but otherwise she found such a limitation of ideas, such pettiness of interests, such an absence of self-esteem and independence, that her courage and firmness in the execution of her purpose were more than once severely shaken.”
Sofya Nikolaevna, is not exactly considered much of a match. Her mother and stepmother dead and her father, a stroke victim, she’s more or less raising three brothers and two sisters alone with “only twopence to her fortune.” But according to Aksakov’s version, Sofya is throwing herself away on a very poor specimen. This sort of view continues as Sofya is raised to martyrdom and then sainthood. Interestingly, the introduction mentions that the author’s mother (and of course Sofya is just a very thinly disguised version) was “unable to reconcile herself to the bucolic existence to which she was now called…adored by her son and devouringly possessive of him.” Indeed Aksakov’s relationship with his mother does seem evident through his depiction of the lofty, saintly Sofya Nikolaevna.
Finally while the book is invaluable for its vivid descriptions of Russian daily life, the most interesting part of the book is its depiction of serfs and serf life. Here’s a description of Grandfather Bagrov:
“But my grandfather, while acting in accordance with the spirit of his age, reasoned in a fashion of his own. In his view, to punish a peasant by fines or by forced labour on the estate made the man less substantial and therefore less useful to his owner; and to separate him from his family and banish him to a distant estate was even worse; for a man deprived of his family ties was sure to go downhill. But to have recourse to the police was simply out of the question; that would have been considered the depth of disgrace and shame; every voice in the village would have been raised to mourn for the offender as if he were dead, and he would have considered himself as disgraced and ruined beyond redemption. And it must be said for my grandfather, that he was never severe except when his anger was hot; when the fit had passed away, the offence was forgotten. Advantage was often taken of this; sometimes the offender had time to hide and the storm passed by without hurting anyone. Before long, his people became so satisfactory that none of them gave him any cause to lose his temper.”
Of course, there’s a lot to read there between the lines, and there are passages of serfs (and family) running off to hide to escape physical punishment–although at the same time, the idea appears repeatedly that serfs are “thieves and shirkers, to a man !” Another, even uglier view of serfdom in found the behaviour of Kurolesev–a man whose blood lusts include grabbing serf women for orgies and flogging other serfs to death using the slowest most painful instruments. And of course, those who first complain to Kurolesev’s wife are the serfs who are shouted down and silenced for daring to complain about their master. Oddly enough, and rather naively so, the author writes that “forty years later,” Kurolesev’s serfs only had glowing reports of their old master.
On a final note, although Pugachev’s rebellion occurred during this period, details of the rebellion are remarkably absent. Although Pugachev is viewed by the author as part of the overall troubles: “famine, plague, and the rebellion of Pugachev,” there is little else, with the family moving away until “all disturbances passed over and calmed down and were forgotten.” While Pugachev’s rebellion was a major event, especially in the region, it’s treated as an unpleasant aside, rather like bad weather that inevitably passes. Given all the trouble brought to Pushkin by the subject matter, perhaps the total lack of details was a politic decision by Akashov.
My Oxford World Classics edition is translated by J.D Duff.