Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk was a pleasant, unexpected surprise. Published in 1863, this gentle satire, play-like in its presentation, is a far cry from the usual 19th century Russian novel. The story takes place in 1862, a year after the Emancipation of the serfs. A note in the novel explains “the ensuing reforms required the landowners and peasants to agree which lands the former would make available for purchase to the latter. Until this arrangement was finalized, peasants were considered ‘temporarily obligated’; and continued to pay their landowners (in money or in kind) whatever they had been paying as serfs.”
The plot is simple: Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a man in his 40s who has ruined his health with his hard living, wants to holiday abroad and “take the waters” for his rheumatism, but short of funds. he decides instead, and especially in light of reforms, to spend the summer at his country estate, Beryozovka. When he arrives, he finds the place a wreck. Taking a walk, he stumbles across the well-ordered, much smaller, Sneki estate which belongs to Nastasya Ivanovna, a fifty-five-year old widow, “mistress of fifty souls,” who lives with her 17-year-old daughter, Olenka. Erast, who has pleasant childhood memories of Sneki, decides to ask if he can spend the summer there.
He was of modest height, stooped, and had a sunken chest; his long face had sunken cheeks and thin lips; he had thick sideburns and very sparse hair on his forehead, as well as bony hands with almost transparent skin, and eyes that were a bit dull, although they appeared to be very large due to the thin skin of the eyelids and pale forehead. Nastasya Ivanovna was not aware that many find a certain beauty in this sort of semi-decrepitude, as the loss of freshness in a man attends the formation of what is called une physionomie. She failed to realize how highly valued and how highly Ovcharov himself valued it. Ovcharov believed that he had une physionomie de penseur and would not have exchanged it for any other.
Erast, the owner of 500 souls, is socially, much higher class than Nastasya Ivanovna, and his request to stay at Sneki, is socially awkward for the widow. She does not have a spare bedroom, as she already has a surprise guest in the form of her second cousin, a fossilized spinster, the pious, well-respected but nosy and nasty, Anna Ilinishna Bobova.
Erast asks to stay in the newly constructed bathhouse, and while the widow accepts him as a guest, he insists on paying especially for the whey he demands daily for his health. An awkward dance of politeness then takes place between the widow and Erast, but finally a deal is struck. The widow is incredibly stressed by this but Erast is happy. The novel then follows the events of the summer:
new currents of education had blown through in a gust, that same education that is wafting from every corner of our native land; second, her home had been the site of a struggle between old and new ideas, and Nastasya Ivanovna had taken part in this struggle and, without realizing it, had even achieved a victory; and third, to her own amazement and the envy of the ladies of the neighboring small estates, she had come within a hair’s breadth of developing into an enlightened woman herself.
While the novel’s initial premise is Erast’s insistence of becoming a guest at Sneki and the widow’s subsequent dilemma (is she a host or a hotel keeper?), the novel spins on class, and this is where the city vs country fits in. The country widow is lower in the class system than Erast, and yet his home is in such a state of disrepair, he cannot stay there. Instead he relies on the widow who runs a well-ordered estate (even if Erast looks down on the decor). There are two other Muscovites who look down their noses at the widow and yet view her as a resource for whatever they need: Anna and Katerina Petrovna. While in reality Katerina is impoverished, her social position places her above the widow and the widow’s daughter, Olenka.
When Katerina who has become a matchmaker, decides, for convenience, to make a match between her impoverished lover, Semyon, a man she calls “mon protegé” and Olenka, she expects everything to go smoothly. The novel’s humour is definitely directed towards the three Muscovites who descend upon Sneki. These three represent the respectable pillars of Moscow society with Erast as the intellectual, Anna almost an institution of religious respectability, and Katerina, the matron who arranges marriages but can’t keep her own house in order. Katerina is a neglectful mother whose children are so ill-fed, they get food from the peasants, and son George can be found singing vaudeville songs. The ‘pious’ Anna is in reality, spiteful, manipulative and cunning. There’s plenty to find amusing in Erast, a man who thinks rather highly of himself, and while he’s a perfect example of the neglectful owner of a country estate, he amuses himself with writing poems, sketches, reviews and rants about the state of the country:
It is time, however, that we-those of rank, the decrepit aristocrats-realized that we won’t be around much longer. Very soon, we will die off. I’ll put it bluntly: there is no need for the upper crust to go on.
City Folk and Country Folk is a 19th century Russian novel of manners. If you’ve read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novels , then you are used to complex, multi-plot novels with many characters who wrestle with massive moral dilemmas. City Folk and Country Folk is completely different. The novel, which is gently comic, has very few characters, and feels like a play. Characters enter and exit in very specific scene sets.
The author, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, is one of three sisters who were Russian writers. Sofia died at age 41 of abdominal tuberculosis
Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov