Imperial Russia The Case of the Dead Cheese Master

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VIII: The Other Things He Left Behind

Before I get to the fate of the cheeses, I want to take a post to talk about the other things Tinguely left behind. The archival file includes two inventories of Tinguely’s private property, virtually identical. The first (ll. 6-7) follows closely on the inventory of livestock and cheeses I talked about in my last post. It lists the property in precise detail:

  • silver table spoons — 5
  • silver table forks — 5
  • silver ladle with a wooden handle — 1
  • silver shoe buckles — 1 (presumable one pair)
  • shoes, old, leather, mens — 1 (pair)
  • kamzol (a jacket or jerkin), black satin, old — 1
  • breeches, black satin, old — 1
  • frock coats, cloth, old — 3
  • kamzoly, various, worn out (vetkhye) — 3
  • shirts with cuffs — 9
  • cloth — 1
  • silk stockings:
  • — Black pairs — 2
  • — White pairs — 2
  • linen towels — 7
  • mirror, small — 1
  • handkerchiefs, cotton, worn out — 2
  • breeches, suede/doe-skin, old — 1
  • jacket with sleeves, for work — 1
  • chairs, simple, worn out — 4
  • cow hides, untanned — 2
  • goat hides, untanned — 12
  • boots, leather, warm — 1
  • boots, cold, pairs — 2
  • pans, copper — 3
  • pot, copper — 1
  • frying pans, iron — 2
  • dishes, porcelain, pale yellow — 5
  • bowl, the same — 1
  • harnesses, old (?) — 2
  • saddle — 1
  • fur coat, bear, Polish, covered in camlet (a kind of cloth), old — 1
  • featherbeds — 2
  • pillows — 4
  • blankets, fabric, old — 2
  • blanket, flannelette — 1
  • iron-bound chest — 1
  • gun, old — 1
  • various written documents and а copy of his passport
  • And his own livestock and fowl:
    • pigs — 5
    • goats — 3
    • rams — 1
    • ewes — 1
    • bull — 1
    • geese — 20
    • ducks  — 15
    • chickens, Russian — 18

To me, at least, this is a fascinating list. The inventory follows a certain logic. The first items were likely the most costly—silver tableware, and silver buckles. Then Tinguely’s clothing, then other household goods, and finally livestock.

One question to ask of the list is the provenance of the various items. In other words, did Tinguely come to Russia with some of these goods, or did he purchase them after his arrival? That’s mostly an impossible question to answer properly. It’s easy to imagine that someone might bring silver tableware with him as a portable way of carrying value. And if he took the route I suggested, it would have been easy to pick up a fur coat described as “Polish” along the way.

I wonder, too, about his livestock. He owned no cows, which at first glance seems odd for someone who was in Russia making his mark as a cheese master. But the bull was perhaps a key. I noted a few posts ago that there was an effort in the late eighteenth century to improve Russia’s cattle stock by importing Swiss (and other) cattle breeds. What better means to economic survival for a Swiss cattle trader and cheese maker than by bringing a breeding bull to Russia and settling on the outskirts of St. Petersburg? There the many palaces of the wealthy could support “improved” livestock efforts and pay for the privilege of bringing in new stock.

Given that we know that Tinguely worked for the Gatchina administration, produced cheese on his own time, and, if I’m correct, also earned money by selling access to his breeding bull, it seems quite right to think of him as a person “of moderate means,” as the report on finding his body suggested. So too does the list of his property: several changes of clothing (and the second inventory adds a three items to that list of clothing: an “old hat,” an overcoat, and a caftan), tableware and dishes for guests, a moderate supply of livestock. This all suggests a life of moderate prosperity.

At the same time, many of the items were described as “old” or “worn out.” Perhaps that simply meant they were used, not brand new, but it does suggest that Tinguely’s economic status was a bit more marginal than the long list might imply.

If so, though, the second inventory makes things even a bit more unclear because it gives a sense of what one item, in particular, was worth. First, it noted that Tinguely had received 50 rubles for the sale of two calves—something that may confirm his outside work as a cattle breeder. But more amazingly, it noted the value of the cheeses purportedly in Tinguely’s possession:

“Good cheese, weighing 51 puds 10 funts, worth about 16 rubles a pud, or 820 rubles.”

First, that’s a lot of cheese. Around 1850 pounds of cheese, or 840 kilograms of cheese. Second, that’s a lot of money. And that fact is why the question of who really owned the cheeses Tinguely left behind became such a contested issue in the weeks after his death.

By 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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