CATHERINE HAD ASSERTED and confirmed the administrative structure of the imperial government and dealt with the demands of the Orthodox Church. In the early months of her reign, she also had to confront a crisis in a basic and chronically unstable institution in the social and economic life of the empire: serfdom. It was an upheaval involving industrial serf workers in the mines and foundries in the Urals that first taught the student of Montesquieu and Voltaire that it was impossible to cure long-established injustice in a society simply by invoking philosophy, no matter how beautifully expressed and persuasive on the page.

In 1762, the Russian population of roughly twenty million consisted of hierarchal layers: the sovereign, the nobility, the church, merchants and townspeople, and, at the base, up to ten million peasants. Some of the peasants were partially free; a few completely; most not at all. Serfs were peasants in permanent bondage to land owned by the crown, the state, the church, private owners—almost all in the nobility—or to a variety of industrial and mining enterprises. According to a census taken between 1762 and 1764, the crown owned five hundred thousand serfs who worked on land owned by the ruler and his or her family. Two million eight hundred thousand serfs were classified as state peasants, owned by the state and living on land or in villages belonging to the state but allowed to meet their obligations by paying money or labor dues to the state. One million had been the property of the Orthodox Church; these were the serfs Catherine had taken from the church and transferred to the state. The largest number of Russian serfs—five and a half million, or 56 percent of the total—belonged to members of the nobility. All Russian noblemen were entitled by law to own serfs. A handful of these nobles were extraordinarily rich (a few owned thousands of serfs), but the vast majority were small squires owning land that required fewer than a hundred—sometimes fewer than twenty—workers to farm. Finally, there was a fourth category of unfree labor, the industrial serfs, working in the mines and foundries of the Urals. They did not belong to the owners or the managers of these enterprises; they were the property of the mines or foundries.

Serfdom had appeared in Russia at the end of the sixteenth century in order to keep laborers clearing and working the enormous expanse of the nation’s arable land. The fifty-one-year reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–84) had been followed by the Time of Troubles and rule by Ivan’s lieutenant Boris Godunov. When three years of famine descended on Russia, peasants left the barren land and flocked to towns in search of food. To bind them, Boris decreed a permanent bondage to the land, to be vested in the landowners. In the years that followed, the legal binding of workers to the land was needed to curb the nomadic instincts of Russian peasants; many simply walked away from work they did not like.

Over the years, the status of serfs deteriorated. When workers were first tied to the land, they had possessed some rights, and the system had been based on service duties and payments. Over time, however, the powers of landowners increased and the rights of the serfs were whittled away. By the mid-eighteenth century, most Russian serfs had become possessions, chattel; in fact, slaves. Originally—and supposedly still—attached to the land, serfs were now regarded by their owners as personal property that could be sold apart from the land. Families could be ripped apart, with wives, husbands, sons, and daughters taken separately to market and sold. Sales of talented serfs often took place in cities where their skills were extolled by advertisements in the Moscow News or theSt. Petersburg Gazette:

For sale, a barber and also four bedposts and other pieces of furniture. For sale, two banqueting cloths and likewise two young girls trained in service and one peasant woman. For sale: a girl of sixteen, of good behavior, and a ceremonial carriage, hardly used. For sale: a girl of sixteen trained in lace-making, able to sew linen, iron, and starch and dress her mistress, in addition to having a pretty face and being well formed.

Anyone wishing to buy an entire family or a young man and a girl separately, may inquire at the silver-washer’s opposite the church of Kazan. The young man, named Ivan, is twenty one years old, he is healthy, robust, and can curl a lady’s hair. The girl, well-made and healthy, named Marfa, aged fifteen, can do sewing and embroidery. They can be examined and had for a reasonable price.

For sale: domestics and skilled craftsmen of good behavior. Two tailors, a shoemaker, a watchmaker, a cook, a coach-maker, a wheelwright, an engraver, a gilder, and two coachmen, who may be inspected and their price ascertained … at the proprietors’s own house. Also for sale are three young racehorses, one colt and two geldings, and a pack of hounds, fifty in number. A maid of sixteen for sale, able to weave lace, sew linen, do ironing and starching and to dress her mistress; furthermore, has a pleasing face and figure.

The price of a serf, even one highly skilled, was often less than that of a prize hunting dog. In general, a male serf could be bought for between two hundred and five hundred rubles; a girl or woman would cost between fifty and two hundred rubles, depending on her age, talents, and comeliness. Serfs sometimes changed owners for no price at all. He or she could be bartered against a horse or a dog, and a whole family could be gambled away in a night of cards.

Most serfs worked the soil. But it was the condition and grievances of industrial serfs working in the mines, foundries, and factories of the Urals that posed Catherine’s first challenge. Originally, many Urals workers had been state peasants. To encourage the industrialization of Russia, Peter the Great in 1721 had offered these peasants to non-noble entrepreneurs to buy from the state, remove from the land, convert into industrial serfs, and attach permanently to an industrial enterprise. These serfs did not become the private property of the owners; they belonged instead to the enterprise and were sold along with it, like pieces of machinery. Their living conditions were horrendous, their working hours unrestricted, and the cost of their maintenance negligible. Managers were empowered to inflict corporal punishment. The rate of mortality was high; few industrial serfs reached middle age. Many had been simply worked to death. Not surprisingly, unrest among industrial serfs was acute. Under Empress Elizabeth there had been riots, suppressed by the army. Flight had always been the Russian peasants’ principal defense against oppression; industrial serfs attempted escape to the little-populated regions and deserts beyond the lower Volga. Not all of these runaways escaped alive, but the number of those attempting to flee was rising.

This situation confronted Catherine in her first summer as empress. Her reaction was to issue a decree, on August 8, 1762, declaring that, in future, owners of factories and mines were forbidden to purchase serfs for industrial labor apart from purchasing the land to which the serfs were bound. The decree also declared that new serf workers thus acquired were to be enlisted at agreed-upon wages.

News of this imperial decree reverberated through the mining and industrial regions. Hearing mention of agreed-upon wages, serfs in the Urals and along the Volga promptly laid down their tools and went on strike. Production at the nation’s mines and foundries came to a standstill. Catherine recognized that her decree had been premature. To force the industrial workers back to work, she was compelled to follow Eizabeth’s path and send troops. General A. A. Vyazemsky, the future procurator general, was dispatched to pacify the Urals; in places where former revolts had been suppressed by the lash and the knout, Vyazemsky resorted to cannon.

Before he left on his mission, however, Catherine gave Vyazemsky additional instructions. Having suppressed the strikes, he was to investigate the situation in the mines, study the reasons for the workers’ discontent, and ascertain the measures necessary to satisfy them. He was authorized to remove and, where necessary, punish serf managers:

In a word, do everything you think proper for the satisfaction of the peasants; but take suitable precautions so that the peasants should not imagine that their managers will be afraid of them in the future. If you find managers guilty of great inhumanity, you may punish them publicly, but if someone has exacted more work than is right, you may punish him secretly; thus you will not give the common people grounds to lose their proper dutifulness.

Vyazemsky toured the Urals and the lower Volga, punishing serf ringleaders with beatings and sentences to hard labor. But he also took seriously the second part of his assignment, namely the investigation of grievances, and administered retribution to managers guilty of cruelty or extreme mismanagement.

Catherine is said to have read Vyazemsky’s report with compassion, but, having used force to put down the strikes, she was caught between extremes. The industrial serfs, feeling their new power, were suspicious of any proposals she might make to satisfy their complaints. Simultaneously, mine owners and local government officials argued that it was too early to offer reform or even leniency to a savage, primitive people who could only be kept in order by the knout. Thus, except for the change in the terms of acquiring serf labor made by her initial decree, the condition of the industrial serf remained unaltered. Troubles continued, violence was frequent, and a few years later, the Pugachev rebellion swept the entire region of the Urals and the lower Volga. For Catherine, the lesson was that more than intelligence and goodwill were needed to break down the traditions, prejudices, and ignorance of both the owners and the serfs.

She continued to try. In July 1765, she established a special commission to “seek means for the improvement of the foundries, bearing in mind the easing of the people’s burdens and their peace of mind as well as the national welfare.” In 1767, she spoke of action necessary to forestall a general uprising by the serfs to throw off “an unbearable yoke.” “If we do not agree to reduce cruelty and moderate a situation intolerable for human beings,” she said, “then they themselves will take things in hand.”

Catherine, familiar with the Enlightenment belief in the Rights of Man, was intellectually opposed to serfdom. While still a grand duchess, she had suggested a way to reform and eventually abolish the institution, although it might take a hundred years to accomplish. The crux of this plan was that every time an estate was sold, all serfs on the estate should be freed. And since, over a century, a large number of estates were likely to change hands, she said, “There! You have the people free!”

If she accepted the iniquity of serfdom, why did Catherine, on reaching the throne, award thousands of serfs to her supporters? In the first month of her reign, Catherine made gifts of no fewer than eighteen thousand crown and state peasants who had been enjoying a certain measure of freedom. Put in its best light, she may have believed that this reversal of her belief was temporary. She had to deal with an immediate situation. The landowning nobility, along with the army and the church, had put her on the throne. She wished to reward them. In Russia in 1762, wealth was measured in serfs, not land. If she was going to reward her supporters beyond granting titles and distributing jewelry, she gave them wealth. Wealth meant serfs.

Because of the compromises imposed by the demands of her new role as empress, Catherine had to reconcile Russian serfdom and the Enlightenment concept of the Rights of Man. She had no contemporary European example to guide her. The Encyclopedists condemned serfdom in principle without having to confront it; a remnant of feudalism, it still existed only in scattered enclaves in Europe. In George III’s England, king, Parliament, and people looked the other way as English participation in the African slave trade resulted in the shipping of twenty thousand men and women every year as slaves to the West Indies. The American colonies—and soon the new American republic, whose leaders often used the language of the Enlightenment—offered flagrant examples of hypocrisy. The Virginia gentlemen and landowners who advocated American independence were mostly slaveholders. George Washington still owned slaves at Mount Vernon when he died in 1799. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” was a lifelong slave owner. For thirty-eight years, Jefferson lived with his slave Sally Hemings, who bore him seven children. Washington and Jefferson were far from alone in this presidential hypocrisy. Twelve American presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office.

•   •   •

In many ways, the condition of Russian serfs resembled that of black slaves in America. They were considered a human subspecies by their owners, and this chasm between serfs and masters was believed to be sanctioned by God. They were bought and sold like animals. They were subject to arbitrary treatment, hardship, and, all too often, cruelty. In Russia, however, there was no color barrier between master and slave. Russian serfs were not aliens in a foreign land; they had not been violently abducted from their homelands, languages, and religions, and carried thousands of miles across an ocean. Serfs in Russia were the descendants of impoverished, uneducated people of the same race, the same blood, and the same language as their owners. Nevertheless, as with slave owners in America, Russian serf owners had complete control over the lives of their human property. A serf could not marry without his master’s permission. The law set no limit on the right of owners to administer corporal punishment to their serfs; disobedience, laziness, drunkenness, stealing, fighting, and resisting authority were cause for being beaten with whips, cudgels, and the knout. The only limit on a nobleman’s power was that he was not permitted to execute a serf; he was, however, allowed to inflict punishment likely to cause death. A French traveler in Russia wrote, “What has disgusted me is to see men with grey hair and patriarchal beards, lying on their faces with their trousers down and flogged like children. Still more horrible—I blush to write it—there are masters who sometimes force the son to inflict this punishment on his father.”

The majority of Russian serfs were agricultural peasants, plowing, sowing, and reaping on land cleared from the forests. Depending on the time of year and the master’s whim, they could also be employed as woodcutters, gardeners, carpenters, candle makers, painters, and tanners of leather. Serfs tended cattle or worked at stud farms to breed carriage and riding horses. Serf women lived with constant physical drudgery. Frequently pregnant, they worked without rest in the fields beside their husbands, cooked food, washed clothes, and bore children, thereby creating little serfs to add to the master’s wealth. When these women were free of other duties, they were sent to gather mushrooms and berries in the forests, although they were not permitted to keep—or even to eat—any themselves.

It was a grim, patriarchal world. The domestic life of most serf families followed the age-old universal rule that applies in every culture and society: men, brutalized by their superiors, turned and brutalized those under their own power, usually their own wives and children. The male head of the serf household held near-absolute authority over his family. This sometimes included the practice that permitted serf fathers to use their sons’ wives for their own sexual pleasure.

The lives of serfs differed, depending on the number of serfs a landowner owned. A wealthy noble landowner might possess tens of thousands of serfs; these Russian grandees employed six times as many personal and domestic servants as people of the same rank in Europe. The household staff of a great nobleman could number several hundred; that of a less wealthy lord might be twenty or fewer. Household serfs were usually taken as children from serf families on the estate. Having been selected for their intelligence, good looks, and prospective adaptability, they were trained in whatever craft or work their master chose for them. The great nobleman had his own shoemakers, goldsmiths, tailors, and seamstresses. In the mansion, males and females, each wearing velvet embroidered with gold thread, would line the hallways and stand at entrances to rooms, waiting ready to obey the commands of the master or his guests. One serf’s duty might be simply to open and close a single door; another might stand ready to bring his master’s pipe or glass of wine; still another, a book or a clean handkerchief.

Because Russians loved elaborate spectacle, the wealthiest of the nobility created their own theaters, opera companies, one-hundred-piece orchestras, and ballets requiring scores of dancers. To support these performers, the great noblemen might also own composers, conductors, singers, actors, painters, and stagehands—everyone necessary to stage performance arts. Nobles sent their serf musicians, painters, and sculptors abroad in order to perfect their technique with French and Italian masters. Serfs also became engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, and architects. The lives of these talented men and women were easier than those of the field serfs who might be their parents or grandparents; sometimes their masters grew fond of them. Nevertheless, no serf, no matter how intelligent or talented, was ever allowed to forget that he or she remained a form of property; a favorite for a while, perhaps, but always vulnerable to being separated from his family; forbidden to marry or forced to marry someone not of his or her choice; expected to cook, sweep, or wait on tables as well as to dance or play an instrument; always subject to abuse and humiliation; always prey to predatory lust. Against this treatment, there was no protest. The serf could always be sent back to the fields. Or sold.

The history of Russian serf theater is filled with episodes of cruelty. One nobleman suddenly seized a singer who was playing the part of Dido. Slapping her face, he promised that when her performance was over she would be properly beaten in the stable. The singer, her face scarlet from the blow, had to go on singing. A visitor backstage at a princely theater found a man wearing a heavy metal collar lined with sharp spikes; when he moved even slightly, he suffered great pain. “I punished him,” the prince explained, “so that he plays the role of King Oedipus a little better next time. I’m having him stand like this for a few hours. His performance is sure to improve.” In the same theater, a backstage visitor found a man chained by the neck so that he couldn’t move. “This is one of my fiddlers,” the host explained. “He played out of tune so I’ve had to punish him.” The same owner would jot down his actors’ slightest errors and then go backstage during intermission and whip them.

Ownership of young men, women, boys, and girls gave free rein to serf owners wishing to act out their erotic fantasies. Some female serf performers were forced to act as servants at dinner, then move to the stage to perform, then move on to the bedrooms of the master’s male guests. One host assigned each visitor a serf girl for the length of his stay. Prince Nicholas Yusupov treated his guests to orgies that began on stage. When the prince tapped his cane, all of his dancers would strip off their costumes and dance, naked.

Against this backdrop of exploitation and cruelty, one romantic fairy tale stands out. Inevitably, it ended in shame, tragedy, and death.

For generations, the Sheremetevs had been one of Russia’s preeminent noble families. They had served the grand princes of Moscow, predecessors of the tsars. A Sheremetev was married to Ivan the Terrible’s son, Ivan, who was murdered by his father. Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev commanded the Russian army in Peter the Great’s historic victory over Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in 1709. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Sheremetev family was the wealthiest noble family in Russia, with estates totaling two million acres spread across the empire. Some of these estates consisted of dozens of villages, each village including more than a hundred households. Sheremetevs possessed saddles, billiard tables, and hunting dogs imported from England, ham brought from Westphalia, and clothing, pomade, tobacco, and razors, from Paris. Count Nicholas Sheremetev, the head of the family during most of Catherine’s reign, owned 210,000 serfs, more people than made up the population of St. Petersburg.

Kuskovo, one of the richest of the Sheremetev estates, lay only five miles east of the Moscow Kremlin. Here, in an Italianate palace, the walls of hallways and ceremonial rooms were hung with Rembrandts and Van Dykes. In the library, busts of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin faced shelves with twenty thousand volumes, including works by Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, Corneille, Molière, and Cervantes, and French translations of Milton, Pope, and Fielding. Outside the palace, in an artificial lake dug by serfs, floated a fully rigged warship and a Chinese junk.

Nicholas Sheremetev, grandson of the field marshal and heir to this wealth, grew up in a world of luxury and privilege. He was taught Russian, French, and German, the violin and the clavichord, and given lessons in painting, sculpture, architecture, fencing, and riding. As a boy, he was selected by Empress Catherine to became a playmate of her son and heir, Grand Duke Paul.

Nineteen years after Nicholas’s birth, a young serf girl named Praskovia was born on a Sheremetev estate. Her father was an illiterate blacksmith with a weakness for the bottle. He was often violent and regularly beat his wife in front of their children. At the age of eight, Praskovia was taken into the palace. Neither she nor her parents had a choice; serfs routinely were forced to give up their children whenever and for whatever purpose the master decided. She was taught to read and write. She met Nicholas when she was nine and he was twenty-six. Nicholas, still unmarried, liked women, and the women he found most appealing—or perhaps simply more available and undemanding—were his own serfs. He and Praskovia became lovers in the mid-1780s, when she was seventeen and he was approaching thirty-five. They grew closer, bound to each other not only because he was the master but by a shared passion for music. She had displayed a rare talent as a singer and he was driven by a vision of creating the finest opera company in Russia. She made her debut on the stage of the new Sheremetev opera theater while still an adolescent and immediately established herself as the star. With dark, expressive eyes, a pale complexion, auburn hair, and a slight, almost fragile build, she performed under the name of “the Pearl.” Her soprano voice has been described by her biographer as “a miracle of color and beauty, with amazing range, emotion, power, precision and clarity.”

Between 1784 and 1788, Nicholas staged over forty different productions: grand operas, operas comiques, comedies, and ballets. The Russian nobility flocked to see and listen to Praskovia sing. Empress Catherine, on her return from her Crimean trip in 1787, came to Kuskovo and, despite her tin ear, was deeply moved by Praskovia. It was, the empress said, the “most magnificent performance” she had ever attended. After the opera, Catherine asked to meet Praskovia, who was brought forth. The empress spoke to the singer briefly and later sent Praskovia a diamond ring worth 350 rubles—this at a time when giving gifts to serfs was unprecedented.

By 1796, however, Praskovia was suffering from an illness manifesting itself in severe headaches, dizziness, coughing, and pains in her chest. Forced to retire, she last sang on April 25 of that year when she was twenty-eight. Nicholas closed his theater and, in 1798, gave Praskovia her freedom. Later he explained:

I had the most tender, the most passionate feelings for her. Yet I examined my heart—was it overwhelmed merely by passionate desire, or did it see past her beauty to her other qualities? Seeing that my heart longed for more than love and friendship, more than mere physical pleasure, for a long time I observed the character and qualities of my heart’s desire and found in her a mind adorned with virtue, sincerity, a true love for humanity, constancy, fidelity, and an unshakable faith in God. These qualities captured me more than her beauty for they are more powerful than all the external charms and much rarer.

He proposed that they marry. The idea was revolutionary; no nobleman of Nicholas’s rank had ever married a woman born a serf. What would it mean—marriage between Russia’s wealthiest aristocrat and a serf, even one now liberated? Nicholas ignored the consequences and went ahead. On November 4, 1801, he married Praskovia. On February 3, 1803, at the age of thirty-four, she gave birth to her only child, Dmitry. Three weeks later, on the morning of February 23, Praskovia died. The city’s nobility, still enraged that Nicholas had married a former serf, refused to attend the funeral. Nor was Nicholas present; crushed by grief, he was unable to leave his bed. Six years later, at fifty-seven, he died and was laid beside her in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Their son, Dmitry, his only legitimate child, inherited the Sheremetev estates.

The story became a legend. It is said that in 1855, Catherine’s great-grandson, Tsar Alexander II, was walking at Kuskovo with Dmitry, listening to stories about Dmitry’s mother, Praskovia. Immediately afterward, according to family history, the tsar signed the initial decree that led in 1861 to the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed America’s black slaves.

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