Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824

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Aleksandr Nikitenko, born into Russian serfdom in 1804, almost miraculously gained his freedom as a young man, thirty-seven years before serfdom was abolished in the Russian Empire. His compelling autobiography -- here translated into English for the first time -- is one of the very few ever written by an ex-serf. Nikitenko describes the tragedy, despair, unpredictability, and astounding luck of his youth, bringing to life as never before the experience of a serf in nineteenth-century Russia.
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Editorial Reviews

James C. Scott
A rare and powerful document. Nikitenko’s memoir should take its place next to the very best ex-slave narratives and those of untouchables in India.
Library Journal
In 1975, translator Jacobson first acquainted us with Nikitenko in Diary of a Russian Censor which she edited. Now, again in his own words, we have this account of Nikitenko's childhood and adolescence, which he began writing in 1851. His constant preoccupation, other than survival, was to be free of the serf conditions into which he was born. He shows very well the gratuitous capriciousness of the serf-owning gentry, which placed him "at the mercy of whim and chance." In a unique career, he learned how to read and write, became a teacher, and made some powerful friends, who in 1824 sought to free him from his owner the richest man in Russia, who regarded his appeal as "not worthy of attention." An intriguing account, with a most useful introduction by Peter Kolchin, contrasting contemporary Russian serfdom and black slavery in the United States. For academic and specialized libraries. Robert H. Johnston, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Canada Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The memoirs of a former serf from early-19th-century Russia who writes poignantly of his fight for freedom. Nikitenko provides a touching and lively account of the vicissitudes of his boyhood. A bright and imaginative child who loved learning and nature, Nikitenko was nevertheless (along with his entire family and some 300,000 other serfs) the personal property of one Count Sheremetev, who had the legal authority to dispose of the boy according to his will. The author's family was unusual in a number of ways, however. First of all, they were descended not from serfs but from free Cossacks who had fallen into bondage—and the ancestral memory of this disgrace served to keep them from accepting their fate. Secondly, they were not peasants. Nikitenko's father, Vasily, had gone to school and worked as an estate clerk rather than a farmhand. Because his father valued learning so highly, the author was able to receive a rather exceptional education for someone from his circumstances. In spite of his abilities, however, he could not, as a serf, go on to high school—and his resulting bitterness nearly drove him to suicide. Although Nikitenko did manage (at 14) to become a schoolteacher, he never abandoned his dream of entering the university. Eventually he was helped by influential friends to buy his own freedom, and his narrative ends with a description of his 1824 manumission. He later enrolled in St. Petersburg University, eventually becoming a professor there as well as a government censor. In 1841 he finally achieved his family's release from bondage. An uplifting saga that offers an engrossing eyewitness view of Russian history and makes a valuable contribution to slaveliterature. (3 maps; 25 illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300097160
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,326,664
  • Product dimensions: 4.36 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Read an Excerpt

It was the arbitrary nature of the serfholder's power that weighed on serfs like Nikitenko, for as they discovered, even the most benevolent patron could turn overnight into an overbearing tyrant. In that respect, serfdom and slavery were the same.
—Peter Kolchin, from the foreword
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Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Translator's Note xxi
Acknowledgments xxiii
Maps xxv
Chapter 1. My Roots 1
Chapter 2. My Parents 6
Chapter 3. Father's First Attempt to Introduce Truth Where It Wasn't Wanted 18
Chapter 4. My Early Childhood 24
Chapter 5. Exile 32
Chapter 6. Home from Exile 39
Chapter 7. Father Returns from St. Petersburg 46
Chapter 8. 1811: New Place, New Faces 54
Chapter 9. Our Life in Pisaryevka, 1812-1815 66
Chapter 10. School 79
Chapter 11. Fate Strikes Again 94
Chapter 12. Waiting in Voronezh 104
Chapter 13. Ostrogozhsk: I Go Out into the World 107
Chapter 14. My Friends and Activities in Ostrogozhsk 119
Chapter 15. My Friends in the Military; General Yuzefovich; The Death of My Father 133
Chapter 16. Farewell, Ostrogozhsk 149
Chapter 17. Home Again in Ostrogozhsk 165
Chapter 18. The Dawn of a New Day 177
Chapter 19. St. Petersburg: My Struggle for Freedom 187
Translator's Epilogue 203
Notes 207
Glossary 221
Index 223
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