The Russian Manchester

I’ve been following a thread from my work on soslovie that has led me to do some reading on the then village of Ivanovo in the early parts of the nineteenth century. I came across references to a number of serfs freed by Count D. N. Sheremetev who became merchants of Moscow in the 1820s, and they led me back to Ivanovo, where a number of them continued to live as factory owners in the area. I’ve been trying to trace out some issues with the social world of the village, where former serfs turned merchant factory masters lived in very close contact with their workers—who were of course mostly still serfs—and what that meant for life in the “Russian Manchester.”

On the side, though, I’ve also come across a whole slew of interesting little stories about other aspects of life in the region, and so I’m going to do a mini-series of posts about Ivanovo, mostly from the time of serfdom, but a few moving later into the nineteenth century.

Theses stories come from two major sources. Some come from the archives of the Sheremetev estates, mostly from RGADA. These are almost unbelievably rich files, with all sorts of glimpses of life in this unusual peasant village. There are letters from the serf agents of serf manufacturers living in Riga or St. Petersburg in the 1820s to their employers, starting with florid phrases of greeting, and ending with pleas for news about their relatives back in the village. (RGADA f. 1287, op. 5, d. 5389). There is a letter from a village priest, asking the village administration to find out whether a woman rumored to have given birth recently actually had. (It turned out she had given birth, and had given the baby a “secret baptism.”) (RGADA f. 1287, op. 5, d. 6954).

Other stories come from reading through the provincial newspaper, Vladimirskie gubernskie vedomosti, and I really can’t say enough good things about spending time reading through newspapers like this. There are of course long(ish) articles about locally interesting things, or more general articles often borrowed from other newspapers or journals, but there are also all sorts of tiny things—advertisements, little weather or other reports—that give a fuller sense of life in this place and at this time. I still remember the oddest thing I came across when doing dissertation research almost twenty years ago was an advertisement in the local Kazan’ newspaper for a hotel/restaurant named “Old Mexico.” In the 1840s.

I think it’s only by reading newspapers like this that you find odd little things about everyday life. Like the fact that in 1847, someone placed an advertisement about a lost dog in Vladimir, offering a reward of 3 silver rubles. And then see a couple of issues later that a pud, which is 36 pounds, or more than 16 kilograms, of salted sevruga cost 3 rubles 50 kopeks.

Or it’s by reading newspapers that you find reports like this one:

“News from the province” (April 7, 1856)
From Ivanovo the editors hear, that not long ago a moose was brought in to the village, killed about 9 versts away, on the border with Kostroma province; its weight turned out to be 17 puds. Six shots from a rifle barely knocked it from its legs, which were torn up nearly to its knees, likely due to the fact that it had walked through the woods through deep snow for no small distance. It fed itself, it seems, on bark and moss. The meat of the moose was bought by the foreigners living in Ivanovo for food.

These are all just short odd little bits, but over the next few months I’ll post some slightly longer tales of life in the Russian Manchester. There will be more thoughts about lists, the tale of a nineteenth century energy crisis, a story of calico design, and an investigation of vagrancy and begging in the village.

About Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History; Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)
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