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An Ordinary Marriage: Russia in the 19th Century

Relationships between men and women in 19th-century Russia did not follow the widely accepted clichés.

An Ordinary Marriage is based upon the rich and eccentric private documents of the Chikhachev family — gentry landowners who lived in provincial Russia — and offers a fascinating take on 19th-century Russian history and culture. The microhistory probes the family’s various activities as well as their reactions to the major ideas sweeping across Tsarist Russia, such as domesticity, sentimentalism and Romanticism.

In an interview with James Blake Wiener, author Katherine Antonova talks about the everyday lives of the Russian gentry, how it differed from the western model, and how surprisingly modern the relationships between men and women were at the time.

James Blake Wiener: At the heart of An Ordinary Marriage is an argument that the western cult of domesticity did not pervade the gentry class in late imperial Russia. The family’s patriarch, Andrei Chikhachev (1798-c. 1875), was the primary educator of his two children, while his wife, Natalia Chikhachev (1799-1866), oversaw the management of the estate, serfs and family finances. In your own words, why is it important for scholars to consider and study the activities of Russian gentry families?

Katherine Antonova: Well, it’s actually nothing new to say that not everyone lived according to the cliché of the cult of domesticity (with the wife as an “angel of the house” and the husband out in the world making a living). Historians have known for decades that people didn’t really live that way even in Victorian Britain, at the point of origin for that myth. If you think about any prevailing cultural myth that gets a lot of media attention today — for example, the idea of a “millennial” generation that is narcissistic, plugged-in to technology, tuned-out socially — does it really apply to you or people you know who technically fit the category? No, usually it doesn’t, or only partially. Such cultural clichés are partly generalizations, partly myths that serve the creators and consumers of media to help us talk through controversies and fears that mean a lot to us, even if we do it through sort of stick-figure stand-ins to represent real people and real concerns.

So, it’s not really anything exciting to show that Russian families, too, just like British, American or French families of that era, lived in a variety of ways that suited their personal circumstances, influenced by, but not enslaved to, prevalent cultural attitudes about men’s and women’s places at home and in the world. What is significant and interesting about what I’m showing is how this Russian case differed from the model of domesticity, and why. Which circumstances caused them to behave in given ways, and what did they think about it? Did it work for them? How much, or how little, were they like their neighbors and other peers? In general, these are the kinds of questions historians are interested in: how and why — cause and effect.

In the context of what historians know about Russian history today, one of the things my book also contributes is a really in-depth look into ordinary life for a slice of the population that has been really hard to pin down. The group I’m talking about were in some ways incredibly privileged — the Chikhachevs had hereditary legal nobility, which came with the exclusive right to own land with serfs, and various other legal privileges.

But, while only about 3% of the Russian population in the 19th century had hereditary nobility, only 3% of them were the super-rich aristocrats we recognize from Tolstoy’s novels. The vast majority of the nobility had rather middling income or less — many, in fact, were poor and lived essentially as peasants or anonymous townspeople. We know quite a lot about that most elite group of aristocrats. Many of them were prominent in government, their letters and diaries were preserved, often their writings were published in their lifetimes. And we know something about how their estates worked, because they usually had paid estate managers who would correspond with and keep records for the owners. Those people owned the majority of serfs in Russia. Yet the majority of serf owners were people like the Chikhachevs, who were not prominent, whose names have never been famous, whose papers were usually not preserved.

Andrei was mostly involved in bringing up their children, but he categorized this — explicitly — as intellectual and moral leadership, and therefore a masculine role. 

The “long” 19th century (roughly from the death of Catherine the Great in 1796 to the revolution in 1917) saw Russia go from, arguably, its peak of power and status, through decades of tremendous social upheaval, to the collapse of a 300-year-old regime and the socialist revolution. One of the central mysteries for historians has been why Russia did not have what we saw develop in western Europe and the US during that same period: a growing, prospering, increasingly vocal, property-owning middle social group that demanded progress and change, and fought off both the overwhelming power of old-regime privileged castes and outright revolution from the working classes. My book is part of a growing body of scholarship that is trying, bit by bit, to trace those people, what they were doing, what they thought and what roles they played — and didn’t play — in the social upheavals of the long 19th century.

Wiener: Could you perhaps offer a comment on why gendered marital roles differed in Russia from those found in Great Britain, France or the United States?

Antonova: The cult of domesticity was born out of incredibly unusual circumstances in Britain, France and the US, which offered propertied men unprecedented opportunities in what we have come to call a “public sphere.” Gradually or suddenly, at different times and in different degrees, such men started to vote, to be elected to office even without inherited rank; to make extraordinary profits in new commercial ventures; to participate independently in professional organizations, political parties and other institutions; and to become educated in specialized fields like law and medicine that brought social status and steady income. The theory goes that it was this drawing out of western middling-status men into economic and social activities separate from the family that forms part of the basis of domestic ideology. Tensions about the effects of these massive changes made people worry about the place — and purity — of home and family. So an image was created of the wife and mother as preserver of these values. Meanwhile, in real life, of course, many men continued to work from home, or be involved fathers, or to simply not be bothered by these concerns. Women went to work both inside and outside the home in this period. Real conditions varied from region to region, family to family. But the rhetoric was there, and rhetoric can color people’s attitudes and expectations, even where practical circumstances vary widely.

Russia in the middle of the 19th century was — like almost every other country on earth — still largely rural, did not have representative government, and had very limited nongovernmental institutions. Propertied Russian men didn’t get any kind of meaningful vote until much later (if ever!), and real influence in government was largely restricted to an elite few. Commercial activity was deliberately restricted by Tsar Nicholas I, who feared social upheaval if too much of the peasantry moved to towns and cities to become workers. Similarly, Nicholas restricted most forms of independent organization (he came to power in the midst of a coup intended to dethrone him, which had been organized through secret societies). So, one of the primary preconditions for the western model of domesticity was simply absent.

Then, what Russian propertied men were expected to do was perform state service, which is to say that they served as officers in the military, or mid-level bureaucrats, for at least a few years. This took them physically away from their estates. Those who weren’t rich enough to employ an outside manager and still depended on their income came from those estates, so noblewomen of this middling group generally needed to at least be capable of stepping in to take over management temporarily. Some, like Natalia Chikhacheva, did it for most of their active adulthood, even when husbands were at home. In Natalia’s case, she did it because she was good at it, Andrei was not, and they were deeply indebted. She eventually succeeded in paying off their debts with two decades of hard-work.

Finally, one sphere that was open to Russian men of middling status, education and income like Andrei Chikhachev was cultural and intellectual activity, so long as they kept themselves within the accepted bounds approved by government censors. So one of the main ways Russian men could assert or improve their status, and also simply take some part in social life beyond their homes, was what Andrei did: read and write and, to whatever degree their talents allowed them, take part in a public intellectual sphere through the written word. This is what Andrei considered a proper masculine role, because he understood it as both existing “beyond the home” (metaphorically in his case) and involving intellectual and moral leadership. In contrast, he saw the terrific skill Natalia applied to estate management as merely “practical,” therefore lesser, and appropriate to women. In terms of hours spent, Andrei was mostly involved in bringing up their children, but he categorized this — explicitly — as intellectual and moral leadership, and therefore, a masculine role. Later he wrote articles for newspapers, and made a modest local reputation for himself.

Wiener: I am curious to know what specific challenges you faced when researching An Ordinary Marriage? Did you enjoy working in the Russian archives?

Antonova: If such a cache of primary sources were preserved in the US or Britain, there would be several books written about it already. Part of the reason the Chikhachev papers have been relatively obscure until now is that they were preserved in a regional archive and, as it happens, in a city that didn’t even exist in the Chikhachevs’ time. So it’s not a place any researcher would think of first when looking for 19th-century documents — the papers ended up there more or less by chance. Then, until the 1990s, Western researchers couldn’t go to that archive at all — there’s an important military base nearby and the area was restricted. Finally, the topics that these papers are most revealing of — gender, women’s lives, provincial nobility, everyday life — were not considered very important for Soviet researchers.

Any good social history should teach us a really important lesson: to unsettle our stereotypes, and remember instead the endless variety of ways in which people respond to their circumstances. 

By the time I got there in 2004, travel and research in a provincial archive was not nearly so difficult, but it did have its challenges. When these archives were founded, their purpose was largely to control who could access historical documents — to restrict access rather than facilitate it. That principle has arguably been less of a defining force in the operation of Russian archives since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but change is slow and uneven. When I was there, any form of reproduction of documents was strictly controlled (and expensive), so I copied almost the entire Chikhachev archive by hand over the course of ten months. But, partly because such papers have never really been considered very important, I was able to access everything, albeit slowly, a few documents at a time.

Wiener: An Ordinary Marriage is a work of microhistory. It is built upon intimate and unusual primary source documents, namely, the Chikhachev family’s notebooks, letters, diaries, periodicals, journalistic essays and academic journals. Which surprised you the most and why?

Antonova: The most surprising thing of all is just that all these documents were preserved together: an ordinary woman’s diary of the mid-19th century, extending to many pages over several years, is an extraordinary find anywhere, but to also have her husband’s, son’s and brother’s diaries from the same time? I know of no other example of anything like it for a family of that time that wasn’t prominent, or professional writers. And there are also letters and legal documents and even maps and drawings!

Of all the types of documents preserved, there is one that represents a totally unexpected and revealing genre. They called it a “notebook correspondence”: It’s a series of books that were kept by the Chikhachevs and Natalia’s brother (and Andrei’s best friend), Yakov Chernavin, who lived on a neighboring estate. Each “side” kept a notebook, and wrote down messages or thoughts as they occurred to them; then every so often a messenger would exchange the notebooks. They would comment on each other’s writings in the margins, and add replies. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a recording of everyday conversation from the 19th century. This is amazing, because ordinary letters at that time tended to be very formal, closely following formulae that mostly left out the everyday activities that historians care about, but that were taken for granted by writers at the time. It was only really talented writers that tended to write rich, interesting letters. But here we have ordinary people interacting informally, almost in real time.

Wiener: What lessons can we draw from the experiences of the Chikhachev household and the activities of the Russian gentry class as a whole? Do you believe that any are applicable to present-day Russia? Could they perhaps allow us to better understand the evolution of Russian norms and culture?

Antonova: Any good social history should teach us a really important lesson: to unsettle our stereotypes, and remember instead the endless variety of ways in which people respond to their circumstances. One of the “trends” the media picks up on lately is a supposedly new phenomenon of “stay-at-home-dads,” but we see here that Andrei Chikhachev was doing that in Russia in the 1830s and nobody found it strange, let alone emasculating. We tend to think of domestic ideology both as “how it was” and perhaps how it always was, but history tells us that’s not true. The Chikhachev story broadens our view of the incredible degree to which people could be living very differently from that model, without even considering themselves, or being considered, remarkable, right at the height of the public rhetoric about it. Families have always arranged themselves in different ways; there is no “normal.” And change is constant: The Chikhachevs’ arrangement was completely unsettled in the next generation because the economic basis of it — serfdom — was abolished. The next generation of Chikhachevs suddenly look astonishingly modern: Natalia and Andrei’s son moved to a city, worked for the railroad and became separated from his wife, who had an advanced education in mathematics.

Broadening our understanding of ordinary Russians, specifically, is not only important for scholars trying to revise or expand on our narrative of the development of major events like the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the 1917 revolution. It’s important for everyone as a corrective to the ways media and political narratives can color our ideas about the world. For example, we know so little about middling groups in the 19th century because, first, in the late-19th century, forward-looking intellectuals were motivated to paint everything they wanted to change about their world as archaic, backward, destructive.

Then, after the revolution, the Soviet leadership aggressively worked to overturn cultural attitudes about who were the “heroes” and “enemies” of Russian history, and serf owners like the Chikhachevs were reviled or ignored. During the Cold War, American historians suddenly became very interested in everything about Russia. And for our own reasons we, too, bought into various stereotypes about an “absent” or “passive” Russian middle-class, and drew overly broad conclusions about what that meant about the nature of Russia itself. Some of us read too many novels and populate the historical Russia of our imagination with fictional characters.

Today, with the crisis in Ukraine, there’s a lot of very dangerous rhetoric on all sides that paints huge, diverse populations with broad ideological brushes. I think looking back very deeply at ordinary families like the Chikhachevs, and reading social history in general, can serve as a corrective to all this, forcing us to destabilize such easy stereotypes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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