Reading Turgenev: Genealogies among Russian Serfs

In “Raspberry Water,” one of Ivan Turgenev’s “Sportsman’s Sketches” (1852), one finds a note related to genealogical reckoning among Russian serfs. He introduces the reader to Stepan (Stepushka), a young serf of unknown parentage who wasn’t listed in peasant censuses and didn’t receive any pay (in money or goods) from the landowner. This serf had no known kinship ties, no past and no residence. Then Turgenev mentions Grandpa Trofimych, ostensibly another serf, who knew the genealogies of all the serfs up to the fourth generation. Trofimych recalled that Stepan was a relative of a Turkish girl that the deceased landowner brought back from a military expedition.

19th century Russian kinship system was of Lineal type, with both maternal and paternal kin equally recognized and with no unilineal groupings. Hence genealogies were not diligently maintained by each and every family. Deep genealogies existed among nobility, as a tool legitimizing their rights and privileges. Among serfs, families had shallow genealogical knowledge. Only specialists such as Trofimych possessed interest in serf genealogies and they maintained them for a wide range of households. Interestingly, not only that serf Stepan didn’t have any known kindred, he wasn’t listed in censuses either. While in large-scale, state-run societies censuses provided a more accurate and comprehensive demographic outlook than genealogies, both form of human resource management complemented each other, so that an individual who had no kin didn’t make it into the census either.

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