A Life Under Russian Serfdom: Serf Villages

Something that largely stuck out to me during the second half of the Russian Serfdom piece was the developments within Purlevskii’s village. On page 105 and 106 Purlevskii discusses his development of a local school and medical facility for the serfs as well as his hope of establishing a trade school. These developments seemingly made serf life bearable for most. I wonder if serfdom would have continued had land owners implemented better village facilities.

A Life Under Russian Serfdom- the memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii Pages 23-60

The Life in Russian Serfdom is a first hand translated account of what life was like for a serf. This first section focuses on village life, followed by his grandfather’s leadership and then his childhood. What is clear here is that this was an “upper class” serf family, for lack of a better term. His village home was made of bricks, not wood like others and there were multiple rooms. It is established as a very nice house for a serf to own. The village of Velikoe saw fairly independent serfdom. Owned by three different lords in this time there are the ones who ignore the serfs, those who are passive and those who are more strict. This allows for Purlevskii to draw his own conclusion about what sort of Lord he wants in control. It was a village full of craftsmen and traders rather than an a village focused on the agricultural outlet. This led to an overall improvement on the day to day life of a serf. In this section it discusses the passivity of the Lord over Velikoe. He leaves the serfs to their own devices except for their taxes and sending a certain number of people to work for the estate.  Savva’s grandfather is not only elected by the serfs to be the bailiff (tax collector) but proceeded to make a small loan system to help fellow serfs improve their abilities, crafts and their trading opportunities in and among themselves. This developed into a town or city not unlike many others in this time with the exception that everyone inside the city is not free. There is another abnormal system, education. Savva’s father has enough money to pay a priest at the church to educate his son and it is revealed that he, himself has some basic education. This was not a common trait describing serfs. Most were left uneducated so that they could not rise or revolt. What this section presents in an antithesis to most modern serf narratives, these people had no freedom, that is true, however they were fairly independent and some became wealth within their social parameters. 

Focusing on the third chapter, there are detailing and expounding upon what a day in the  life of a child in serfdom. The chapter discusses in more detail what the village life was like, the impact his grandfather had on the village and the family as well as how Purlevskii grew up. This section allows for a more detailed understanding of how children were raised, educated and cared for during this time giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the serf family structure of this time. Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii was born in January 5, 1800 to a father who was an accountant just like his grandfather, name Dmitrii and a mother name Dar’ia, his childhood was like any other every other childhood, playing pranks and getting into trouble with other children at his village, his father came off as a strict man towards Purlevskii when he plays pranks and become mischievous when is comes to playing as a kid. When his parents went away for the “Day of the Advent of the Holy Spirit,” he discovered a sack of coins under his father’s bed which was dated during the reign of Catherine the Great and stole some of the coins to show it to his friends. When his parents come back from “The Day of the Advent of the Holy Spirit” his father finds out that the bag of coins have been untied and two are missing, he furiously confronted Savva of taking the coins and he confessed he took the coins to show it to his friends, his punishment was to bow several times to an icon. At the age of 7-years-old his aunt came to visit him on his 7th birthday and used to tell him fairytale stories to him, which he begins to start reading and writing which he became interested in, later on his father found out he started to read and happily took his son to Yaroslavl for books, which included ABC practice books, later on he was good at pronouncing the letters in Russian dialogue while studying with his father.  Savva’s weakest point in studying would be putting the letters in a whole word and putting them into a sentence which his father would make him write something in a sentence, if he didn’t do it well he would get in big trouble. Later on Purlevskii later on collected Russian fairytale stories and tells it to his family. For this conclusion to this summary Savva Dmitrievich Pulevskii childhood memory he mentions that he admires his father’s learning and understanding as a father.

Discussion Questions:

  1. We see three owners of Purlevskii and his community. Some of them ignore them, some are strict and others are passive as long as the taxes get paid. What does it say about the Lord of the region by allowing his Serfs to elect their own bailiff? Could this be beneficial or detrimental? Why?
  2. In the “My Grandfather” Chapter, we see the establishment of a functioning trade and self-government system. Petr Petrovich even establishes a loan system to allow serfs to invest in a business and fill the village square. How do we see the Lord of the land reaping the benefits of this? How might this serf improvement, improve his economic and social standing?
  3. Where do we see differences in what we have learned about agricultural serfdom versus what serf life was explained as in this passage? How about from the factory serfdom? What are the advantages or disadvantages of each of these systems?
  4. It is clear throughout the chapters that the Purlevskii family is not a normal serf family. They have a stone house and have nice material objects and money. How do we see a social divide within the Serfdom system exemplified by the texts? Look particularly at Purlevskii’s education (pgs 54-55) and the standing of the Purlevskii family home (pg 59)
  5. When men and women are commanded to go to the house to serve the master, we are reminded that the Serfs are not free. Further, this is a rather shocking event to a reader however Savva treats it very calmly, as more of an inconvenience. Where do we see the education of children about their social class as serfs? Should it have been more explicit?
  6. Why did the economy not recognize the powerful possibilities of treating the serfs like human beings? 
  7. What does the word Schism mean? Where have we seen this before and how is it detrimental to the Serf society? 
  8. Why did Purlesvskii steal from his father’s coins that were given to his grandfather ?
  9. Why does Purlesvskii father disapprove his son not collecting fairy tale?
  10. What made Dmitrievich get into reading and writing?

Adjusted Reading List for Weeks 8 and 9!

The Midterm is coming up and we could all use an extra day to work. I am giving you Friday, Oct. 11 off from class. Please use the time to work on your midterm paper. In order to accommodate this change, I have revised the readings for Weeks 8 and 9. Please click on the Syllabus tab to see what you need to read over the next two weeks. Happy Fall Break!

Nicholas Karamzin, “Memoir of Ancient and Modern Russia”

Nicholas Karamzin is a Russian writer, poet, historian and critic. Karamzin wrote memoirs to try and change how the government was being run. He is also known as the founding father of Russian Conservatism. Alexander I greatly valued his advice on political matters and in 1811 Karamzin presented his work to Alexander to try and persuade him. 1811 was still considered a liberal period in Alexander’s rule so this could have had some affect on why the memoirs had little effect, and Mikhail Speransky was influential in Alexander’s life helping to push reforms of the government and government departments. Russia was also on the verge of going back to war with France. The major theme of the document is criticizing Mikhail Speransky (without ever calling him out) and the liberal government. Karamzin believed Alexander was a good ruler, and it was the liberal government and influences that was causing the problems in his reign. He criticized everything from Peter the Great, Catherine II, education, serfdom, and the overall government setup. The memoirs had no practical effect but it became an important piece of Russian literature.

Discussion Questions:

1.) Why didn’t Karamzin name Mikhail Speransky in the document?

2.) In the document Karamzin speaks highly of Alexander. Can we consider this document as propaganda for the Tsar? If yes, why would Alexander need such a document? What can this tell us about his situation and could it have been used for a broader influence as well?

3.) Can we consider Alexander a conservative ruler going against Peter the Great and Catherine II’s previous policies? Why might he want to portray Alexander as a conservative compared to Peter and Catherine? 

4.) How does Karamzin use people to legitimize his point of view through the document? (People’s willingness to change, the Senate, ex pg 283)

5.) What problems is Karamzin pointing out in the Russian Government?

6.) According to Karamzin, why is western influence on education a bad thing for the people? Could he believe that all western influence on Russia is bad, and would he not consider Russia to be a European country?

7.) How is the struggle between liberalism and conservatism in Russia affected by international situations like the French Revolution and Napoleon? 

8.) Even though Karamzin says that Alexander is a good, caring, kind ruler of Russia why is he trying to persuade Alexander not to emancipate the serfs?

9.) Why does Karamzin only focus on men in the Russian society (only mentions Catherine II) and not women and the roles they play?

10.) How is Karamzin making disguised attacks against Speransky in the last section of the document? 

Peter The Great— Yes Team

Peter the Great had many great accomplishments which included the Westernization of Russia, the new Law of Succession, and the Rise of the roles of Women. During this time Russia was falling behind in basically every part of modernization. Westerners viewed Russians as dumb and behind the times because they did not care about modernization and had little sense of education of any kind. Then Peter came along and wanted to make Russia a known powerhouse in Western Culture. After visiting Europe, Peter was influenced by Western Culture so much that he decided to bring it back. He brought back ship making skills, which led to the creation of the Russian Navy, and ships made such an impact on life that he created a museum for his first boat, “Botik”. He brought back a new form of dress for men and women. This new form of dress was refreshing compared to the old fashion. Westernizing Russia created new trade opportunities and alliances that Russia would have never had before. Peter liked merit. He liked having others work for things, and he did the same. Peter created the Table of Ranks where everyone would start at the bottom and work yourself up by merit. This new system encouraged anyone to possibly become gain nobility on their own. If you ranked high enough, it could be passed down hereditarily. Peter also created a new Law of Succession. He changed the old law of succession from passing the power onto the closest male blood relative, to the Tsar being able to appoint their own successors. This lessened the chances of regencies, unfit rulers, and undoing the good work of previous tsars. While improving the chances for more capable rulers who know the positions and women being able to become rulers. Before Peter came into power men and women were separated in all aspects of life. Women stayed in the terem, or a separate living quarters. Women had some decision making but not much. Peter encouraged women and men to socialize in public settings called assemblies. These parties put men and women together socializing, and having fun. Peter before his death claimed his wife Catherine the First Empress of Russia. After his death, she ruled until her own death. Women held higher roles in society under Peter. Peter the Great was a great ruler for Russia. He was practical, imaginative, a utilitarian ruler who cared about his people and did whatever he could to create peace and prosperity

Catherine the Great’s Accession to the Throne

After the death of Peter the Great Russia was left in a state of disputability due to him not naming an heir. This caused the throne to have a total of six rulers over the course of the next thirty-seven years. While these short rules was an unfortunate reality due to the short lifespans of the time, the problems that were caused as a result were further escalated due to the largely differing ruler of these six individuals. The most notable of these rulers being, Anne, Elizabeth, and Peter III. Anne was the daughter of Peter the Great’s half brother Ivan V, and she agreed to take the throne under a list of “Conditions” which was set by the Supreme Privy Council. However, after Anne’s accession to the throne she disregarded the “Conditions” and abolished the Supreme Privy Council. Additionally she tended to favor her German patrons, and was know for normalizing an excessive amount of luxury within the nobles of the state. Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great and was determined to return Russia to the glory days of Peter the Great. She furthered the Russian institutions that Peter created and furthered the Russian state as a world power by partaking in the Seven Years’ War. However, for all the work Elizabeth did she also caused several issues such as her obsession with the aesthetic of the west and attempting the implement that in Russia. This caused the Russian state to sink into a deep debt with no way to recover as they could not tax the struggling peasants any further. Peter III was nominated by Elizabeth to act as her heir to the throne and was the son of Elizabeth’s sister. Peter was said to be feeble minded and act according to his whims. The most notable example would be his choice to withdraw Russia from the Seven Years’ War to protect Prussia as he had a deep admiration for Frederick the Great who ruled Prussia at the time. This made Peter extremely unpopular amongst the Russian nobles and military leaders as this would have been a powerful defeat for the Russian state. However, throughout Peter III’s rule his wife, Catherine, spent her time wisely making powerful allies and making herself a necessary piece of the Russian political society. As Peter continued to fall in favor Catherine plotted to overthrow him and take the throne with the support of several Russian officers, nobles, and guards. In the summer of 1762 Peter III was deposed and Catherine was crowned as Empress. Catherine was seemingly adored by those that sided with her. A significant example being how the Guards started to riot to protect Catherine when they heard a rumor that she was going to be attacked by Prussians and later apologized for waking her up. Catherine marks the end of the instability that followed Peter the Great’s death and we will see the dedication that she has for the state and the cunning with which she will rule.

Catherine’s letter to Poniatowski outlines her accession to the throne and the motives she had behind her rebellion. Catherine was subjected to a failing marriage that was largely characterized by their adulterous nature and quarreling. Peter had solidified his true feelings toward his wife when he tried to have her arrested. With her true love being Russia, Catherine planned to dethrone her husband for six months and elicited the help of officers and privates alike. The Orlov brothers were the main proponents of her accession and provided her with support and protection. Despite the challenges that Catherine faced, she was met with unwavering support by the troops. She was credited with saving the country because Peter lacked the intelligence to be a successful leader.


  1. Did Peter the Great’s work with the Westernization of military and education have a direct effect on Elizabeth’s obsession with obtaining the aesthetic and ornateness of the West through excessive shower of wealth? pg. 214. pg. 156
  2. In the piece Catherine II’s Account of Her Accession to the Throne she makes several references to how much the guards and the other officers are willing to do for her as well as describing how courageous they are. Is this a political move to make herself seem more like the chosen leader of Russia or an honest account?
  3. Was Peter III choice to withdraw Russia from the Seven Years’ War the key piece that lead to his downfall or was it inevitable due to his incompetence as a leader?
  4. Was the period after Peter the Great’s death a time of growth in social freedom for women? We see the rule of three women within the following thirty-seven year after his death as well as an increase in women taking on lovers publicly and an increase in divorces or separations. pg 163
  5. Elizabeth while on the throne failed to make any improvements for the state and instead revoked the laws that were established under Empress Anne that had caused some improvements. Was Elizabeth’s rule tainted by her pursuit to honor her father’s memory? pg. 155
  6. Catherine methodically planned her accession for many months and used non-violent tactics. Would Catherine’s accession to the throne have been successful if she had used violence instead?
  7. Catherine was adamant about leading the country herself. Why was this method more effective than electing an outsider to take Peter’s throne?
  8. On page 74 Catherine mentions Osten’s devotion to her, what does this reveal about her character? Is she a blameless victim in the story of her accession?
  9. In the past we have seen Tsars and Emperors banish their wives to convents. What would have been the effect of arresting Catherine opposed to sending her to a convent.
  10. On page 74 Catherine introduces Elizabeth Worontsov as the woman to which her husband hoped to be betrothed. What other role does Elizabeth play in Catherine’s accession?

Syllabus Adjustments for Week 6!

Dear Muscovites,
Thank you for your excellent work in yesterday’s debate about Peter’s greatness! As we get ready for our midterm assignment, I’ve made a few adjustments to the syllabus for week 6 (Sept 30-Oct 4). Here is what you need to read:

Mon, Sept 30
A History of Russia, chapter 19″
M.M. Shcherbatov Laments Corruption at Court”
“Catherine II’s Account of Her Accession to the Throne”
Do not read: “Peter III’s Manifesto Emancipating the Russian Nobility”
In class on Monday, we will go over the midterm assignment

Weds, Oct 2:
A History of Russia, chapter 20″
The Nakaz, or Instruction, of Catherine II to the Legislative Commission of 1767-1768″
Do not read: “Charter to the Nobility”
In class on Wednesday, we will talk about academic writing

Fri, Oct 4:
A History of Russia, chapter 21-22
“Alexander Radishchev Excoriates Russia’s Social System”
“Catherine II’s Manifesto against Pugachev and Pugachev’s ‘Emancipation Decree'”
“Russia Annexes Crimea”
[Note: this is the same as on the syllabus]

Keep up the good work, and please let me know if you have any questions!

Peter the Great- Yes Team (Pros)

Peter the First was truly a great Emperor of Russia. He benefited the country in countless ways and he set up the groundwork for the Russia that is seen today. Peter allowed for progression, reorganization and modernization to a country that had known trials, tribulations and instability in a multitude of departments. Peter created a concrete government structure that allowed him to truly serve the people of his country rather than rule over them. He created the twelve colleges allowing for experts to come together to develop ideas and legislation that would help the Czar in the reformation process. In 1711, Peter even established the senate as a consulting and in his absence ruling force with more knowledge and experience than any Boyar Duma beforehand. The remainder of the colleges allowed for Russia to advance with the oversight of their autocratic leader rather than a more direct rule. Peter also secured a stronger economic system for his government to function off of. From the 1699 organization of townspeople taxation to the first recorded census in 1718 to the trade deals he made in his travels, Peter saw that the government had money to complete all of the reforms he was establishing. Peter also saw an increase in literacy and education. He established primary schools and normalized the upper-class tutoring education style from the West. He also reformed the Cryillic alphabet to be easier to print certain symbols and allow for an easier production of texts. In addition to all of this Peter mandated that his government officials be capable and educated before they were allowed to step into service to the State. This allowed for a more educated and well-versed representatives helping Peter to make decisions for the whole of Russia. The Grand Embassy of 1697 opened up countless doors for Russia on the western world stage. It opened up the possibility for alliances and allowed Russia to create its own image and political relations with countries rather than going through what was said by foreign diplomats.  750 foreigners returned with him gifted in countless trades and skills to help educate and advance the government. Peter also takes the time to develop a diverse education in a variety of topics, subjects and skills that allow him to be a better leader and to be able to fully understand what developments he wishes to see in his own country. Peter the Great is also responsible for founding one of the world’s most beautiful cities of St. Petersburg and opening and maintaining control over the baltic coast thanks to his successful negotiation of the Treaty of Nystad to end the Great Northern War. No one is soon to forget that Peter established the beginnings of Russia’s modern army. He established laws of conscription, he reorganized, retrained and modernized both his military forces and his military technologies. He studied strategies and concepts from around the world that allowed him to be a formidable enemy in wars. Peter learned every rank and position in the army and navy (including building ships) to allow for his deep understanding of each position in each strategy. He also established the Russian Navy which was not a small fleet. It contained 48 major warships, 787 minor warships, auxiliary craft and was consistently serviced by more than 28,000 men. This establishment allowed Russia to truly begin to prove itself as a military powerhouse and also ensured the protection of ports. Peter the Great did all of these things and more…

  • Spread of literacy/increase in education 
    • Calendar reform in 1700
    • Language reforms 
    • production/distribution of texts
    • More locations/tutoring available for the upper classes to learn how to read
    • Primary schools 
    • Mandatory skills learned by nobility
  • Westernization
    • New Technology– Shipmaking 
    • New Clothing– More modernized 
    • New Opportunities for trading & alliances
    • His two foreign friends 
  • Foreign affairs
    • Very invested in learning about other cultures. Goes on a —- long trip to western europe to learn first hand and talk to diplomats of other nations
    • Doesn’t send ambassadors to do this , very invested in relationships with other nations
  • Concrete Governmental structure
    • 12 colleges
    • Governing Senate in 1711
    • 1721 intermarriages between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is now allowed
  • Economic Advances
    • Individual head tax 
    • Census
    • Towns organized for taxation in 1699 
    • Ideological mercantilism 
  • Law of succession
    • Changes law of succession from brother to brother to the tsar picking his own successor
    • Possibly able to pick women 
  • Separation of church and state
    • With the 12 Colleges basically gets rid of the church’s role in government, but doesn’t take church completely out of russian life 
  • Overall a peaceful homefront
    • Only two revolts by the streltsy
  • Rise of the role of women
    • Assembly Balls– women and men are allowed to socialize instead of being kept in the Terem
    • Made his wife Catherine Empress
  • Rise of the arts and culture
    • A lot of new architecture 
  • St. Petersburg 
    • Treaty of Nystad
      • Signed in 1721 between Sweden and Russia ending the Great Northern War
      • Sweden gave up conquests along the Baltic coast and was able to establish St. Petersburg and he kept the territory gained for a long time
  • Establishes the autocrat as a servant of the people
    • Peter openly establishes that everything he does is done for his people and for the sake of russia
    • He makes the head of state position the responsibility that it is rather than what some had considered it in the past
  • Develops a social scene on nobility 
    • Assemblies
      • Establish a social level to the noble class
      • Allows for business, conversation, ideas and fun
      • Men and Women allowed to be in the same space and no longer keeping the genders completely separate 
  • The Grand Embassy
    • A full 18 months spent abroad making politically strong international connections with the West. 
    • Establishes alliances and partnerships as well as training and education
    • Comes back to Russia with 750 foreigners to help train and educate his nobility in different aspects of trades and military knowledge
    • Puts Russia on the map for the West and allows for the West to have a new picture of Russia not just one that was presented by others 
      • Change the narrative surrounding Russia
    • He was the founder of the modern Russian Army
    • He established General conscription, reorganized the military structure and worked to modify both military maneuvers and tactics as well as military technology
    • Beginning in 1715, there was a mandatory 1 draftee from every 75 Serf Households
    • Made himself the lowest rank in the army so he could learn all of the positions and work his way up
    • He established and built the Russian Navy
      • 48 Major warships, 787 minor warships, Auxillary crafts 
      • Serviced by 28,000 men 
  • Table of Ranks
    • Advance by merit
    • Everyone is able to work their way to the top and get a chance to become some sort of nobility
    • Gets rid of old system where your rank was determined by your family’s status

Additional Questions for Peter the Great

  1. Referring to responsibilities 1, 4, and 9 on the Ukaz on the Responsibilities of the Senate, do you think that the Senate was granted too much power during a period of rebuilding?
  2. If Peter was alive today, how do you think his ideas of reforming Russia would be received?
  3. What are some societal mannerisms from this time period that are still around today?
  4. Do you think Peter the Great would be accepted as a ruler in modern Russia?
  5. Do you feel as if Peter’s Succession law was fair? Do you think the heir of the throne should always be hereditary?

Reform under Peter the Great

Under Peter I Russian society advanced at an unprecedented rate. He created a new governing institution, the Senate, to rule in his absence, which would eventually become a permanent body; He adopted the Western European calendar, which counted the years after the death of Christ rather than the creation of the world, and decreed that all “men of rank” must shave their beards, further identifying Russia with Europe. All this enacted relatively early in his reign. These reforms largely spawned out his time spent in Europe traveling with his embassy, an unprecedented move for a tsar to make. It was after these travels that he enacted the many reforms stated above, serving as the beginning of his “westernization” of Russia. To this end, Peter the Great instituted compulsory education of the nobility, while also advocating for Russian students to travel to foreign schools to learn, believing it necessary to effectively westernize Russia. If a child of nobility would avoid this education, he would be forbid to wed. His dedication to the intellectual enlightenment of the Russian people would not end there, as later into his reign he would establish and fund an academy in Russia, focusing on the advancement of science and technology. It is through these educational reforms that Peter firmly established Russia as a modern nation and even guaranteed further advancement long after his death; for it is through these educational institutions that further innovation would come. Peter also established a Table of Ranks during his rule as tsar, a system that only considered the merit of the individual, rather than his status in society. This ranking system consisted of 14 levels and corresponded to both military and civilian roles. Under this system, an individual could even attain nobility if they reached a high enough rank. Curiously, one of the many rules attached to the Table of Ranks stated that the wife of a man of rank held the very same rank, an unusual statute in a society that often kept women in seclusion. Even with this large step forward in consideration of an individual by what he can offer rather than what he has, Peter had also taken a step back with his establishment of the rule of Primogeniture earlier in his reign. This law would forbid the division of property among the children of a wealthy man after his death, and only allow the oldest son to receive the property. Overall, Peter’s steps to westernize Russian society was indeed successful. Whether or not it was good for Russia is for the individual to decide.

Discussion Questions:

  1. From the beginning of his reign, Peter the Great saw himself as a servant to the state, rather than its master. Would it be reasonable to say that Peter served as the first example of a nationalist leader in Russia?
  2. When Peter first decreed that all “men of rank” were to shave their beards, he went directly against a major belief held by the orthodoxy. Why wasn’t there an all out revolt by the citizenry of Russia? After all, this law directly questioned the faith. 
  3. Did Peter act too quickly in his Westernization of Russia? Would some of his failed reforms, such as the reform of 1719 separating administrative and judicial powers in Russia have survived if it had not been so hastily instituted? 
  4. Concerning the appointment of officials, Peter I always considered an individual by their merit, rather than their status. How much of a catalyst do you think this served as when considering the many revolts under Peter’s reign?  
  5. It is stated in the text that Peter the Great admired Ivan the Terrible. Even so, he ruled very differently from the former autocrat. Did you notice any similarities between the two despots during your reading? (Pg 190)
  6. Only a single year passed during Peter’s reign without war. What does this say about his dedication to attaining his goals? Do you think that this was, overall, good for Russia?
  7. What do you think Peter’s most impactful reform was? Why?
  8. One of the Rules attached to the table of Ranks was that the wife of a man that attained a rank held that same rank, and would advance in rank as he did. Why do you think the tsar felt this necessary?
  9. What do you think Peter wished to achieve by instituting compulsory education?
  10. Do you consider the establishment of primogeniture a step forward or a step backwards?