In an earlier post about The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, I selected a scene from Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. Nikolai’s mother died when he was four years old, and she left 7 children behind. He has a fairly miserable childhood marked by benign neglect but full of interesting incidents and observations. In one section, he notes visiting his uncle, a commandant of a fortress. The name of the fortress isn’t given but I’m wondering if it is the Peter and Paul Fortress as Wrangel tells us that the Decembrists were kept there until they were executed or exiled. Wrangel glimpses an unknown prisoner held captive during Catherine’s reign and still there sixty years later through the reigns of three tsars. I thought right away of the Man in the Iron Mask–he was a prisoner for 34 years.
Wrangel seeds his memoirs with commentary about Russian society. For example he notes how each landowner was required to deliver serf “recruits” for the army, and these poor devils were then expected to serve for twenty-five years.
More was demanded of a man than he could possibly do. They were beaten and treated like dogs, and many died under the lash. The method was to kill three if necessary, in order to train one man.
The people themselves looked on the conscript as a man condemned to death, and on his departure as the equivalent of a funeral. As soon as the choice was made, the man chosen by his master was immediately handcuffed, imprisoned and guarded to prevent his committing suicide. The whole village gathered about his prison, and he would be given spirits to console him.
And then there’s a particularly despotic landowner, Count Visaur, murdered by a couple of his serfs. Wrangel makes a visit with his father to the dead man’s estate. It’s for sale:
Instead of one big house he had six or seven fairly roomy small ones, each built in a different style. According to his steward, each had contained a harem of women recruited from the wives and daughters of his serfs. They were all dressed to match their surroundings–in Chinese costume in the Chinese house, in Spanish dress in another house, and so on. The Count lived first in one house, then in another.
These houses were surrounded by a beautiful garden containing flower beds, canals with gondolas floating on them, artificial pools and statues. However the statues were no longer there and only their pedestals were there to be seen. The count’s old steward explained their absence telling us they were working in the fields. In the dead proprietor’s time the statues were living men and women, stripped naked and painted white. They had to stay motionless in their poses for hours at a time, when the Count was sailing in his gondola or walking in the garden. He even showed us the torture house–a torture chamber would not have been enough. It contained everything–whips, the boot–I cannot remember them all now. Being neither an executioner nor a victim, the names of these things did not interest me.
The Count’s death was quite as fantastic as his mode of life. One day when he was strolling past a group representing Hercules and Venus, the two statues jumped down from their pedestal; Venus threw sand in his eyes, and Hercules broke his neck with his club.
They were tried and condemned to the knout. Venus died under it and Hercules was sent to Siberia.
Later,in 1859, a formative, traumatic incident takes place which illustrates the sorry lot of some poor educators who have the misfortune to work for the nobility, but I can’t say that the incident is exclusive to Russia as it’s a scene that could very well take place in a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s a scene that Nikolai witnesses, puts two and two together, and comes up with the correct, sordid conclusion. A failed attempt at suicide ends with Nikolai requesting to be sent to Switzerland, and his father agrees.
This is a wonderful time for Nikolai, and he quickly adapts to the free spirited society in which he mingles. He meets Dumas and Princess Metternich but rather disappointingly doesn’t give us his impressions of the former. Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander II abolishes serfdom, Geneva is swarming with nihilists and anarchists, and Wrangel has time for neither. An anecdote concerning Bakunin sounds third hand.
Wrangel returns to Russia and then he sees the reforms for himself. The serfs can now marry as they please and it is illegal to beat them (that doesn’t stop Wrangel’s father), but the abolishment of serfdom has backfired in ways that no one predicted:
These months which I spent in the new Russia gave me an impression which I cannot describe. A new era had begun. Serfdom, which is an obstacle to all progress, no longer existed, but its abolition had not yet had the results which one was entitled to expect.
Neither the lords nor the former serfs could keep pace with the new order. The former, accustomed to forced labour which cost them nothing, thought themselves ruined, let their land go to the devil, turned everything they could into money by cutting down their woods wholesale, and by selling their property to speculators who did not buy with the intention of working the estate, but held it in the hope of a rise in land value.
The serfs, trained in obedience, and as yet incapable of looking after themselves, used their liberty to have a good time and drink as much as they could hold. Meanwhile agriculture and the land fell into decay.
The Russia of the past had vanished, and that of the future was yet to come.
That’s Wrangel’s version of the reforms, and it’s patronizing towards the serfs, who according to Wrangel, seem to see life as one big party, and without a master to ‘guide’ their decisions, they have become degenerates. He doesn’t mention that household serfs, who used to work as free labour, now were to be paid, so the landowners learned (or tried to learn) to manage with less, so many former serfs were simply cast adrift. The land serfs–now peasants–were so deeply harnessed with debt for the over-priced, usually poorer quality land they’d been allocated, they were working harder than ever trying to dig their way out of impossible debt. The former serfs were to repay the debt as ‘redemption payments’ over a period of 49 years.
Now that landowners had to pay wages, they discovered that they had to cut back their lavish lifestyles:
“I’ve made some reforms too” said my father. “I’ve only got twelve carriage horses in the stables now, and five saddle horses; one for myself, two for your sisters, and two for visitors. It’s quite enough. Nobody comes to the country anymore. The kennels are done away with, the hot houses are shut up, and there are only eight gardeners left. Manners change with the times. You’ve got to put a check on your fancies nowadays.”
Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn