Archives Imperial Russia

Correspondence on various questions

I am always running across bits and pieces of stories in the course of doing research that leave me wanting to know more (as I’ve posted about more than once before this!). It’s one of the things that I both love about the archives and find frustrating. At times, they have such rich materials, with stories that really allow you to figure out quite a bit about an individual person or about a turn of events. And sometimes they leave you hanging, with the set up for something, and no resolution, or not enough backstory to understand what was going on.

It’s certainly possible that I bring some of this onto myself by having a bit of a penchant for ordering files with titles like “Correspondence on various questions, 1893.” But I can’t stop ordering them because they so often brim with a sense of the fullness, as well as of the randomness, of life. In just that one file (part of the archives of the Gatchina palace administration) there are, among many, many other things:

  • a petition (proshenie) from the “residents of the town of Gatchina” for help in getting a secondary school for boys opened in the town
  • a letter from the administration’s superintendent recommending a recent graduate of the Gatchina girls secondary school for a job with the Warsaw Railways
  • a complaint from a professional theatrical prompter working a charity show in Gatchina expressing his UTTER OUTRAGE that the local police told him to prompt more quietly
  • a request from the Novgorod governor on behalf of someone working on his staff who was descended from a former administrator in Gatchina, and who needed documents about that ancestor to prove his nobility
  • a petition from the widow of a titular counselor, herself a member of the Gatchina Philanthropic Society, asking for support in her efforts to find a space in the St. Petersburg Widows Home
  • a report from the police about an outbreak of theft, including of money from donation boxes
  • a series of documents concerning whether the synod had allowed coconut oil to be used for church lamps (it had not, but one St. Petersburg lamp-oil company had produced pamphlets claiming it was acceptable)

And then there’s this. It’s certainly not the most important thing in the file, but it’s the thing I took the most delight in (at least at first).

To: His Excellency Mister Superindentent of the Palace Administration in the town of Gatchina

From: remaining at the Imperial St. Petersburg University in preparation for professorial rank, Serg. Iv. Runkevich

I have the honor to inform Your Excellency, that on 4 October of this year at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, passing through the Gatchina park toward the Warsaw train station, and having sat down for one minute on a bench, on which there were no signs of warning, I stood up from the bench with six bright oily traces of green paint like the lattice of a wooden bench on my coat. My attention was brought to the ruin of my clothing by the guard at the exit from the park, at which time the guard explained that the benches had been painted only yesterday 3 October. These circumstances not only have caused me material harm in the amount of no less than 25 rubles (half of the cost of the coat), but I was put in an unbearable position at my return from Gatchina home to Petersburg. Maintaining the proper respect toward Your Excellency, I allow myself to express the hope, that I will receive even only moral satisfaction without turning to legal authorities, for the purposes of which I have the honor to add my address: Petersburg, Nevskii pr., d. 86, apt. 9.

Sergei Runkevich

4 October 1893

(RGIA f. 491, op. 3, d. 424, l. 390)

I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I first read this. I can see it happening—I probably have seen it happen, in a film or a cartoon. The man stands up from a bench turns around, and there on his back are the stripes of paint. It’s utterly familiar.

Reading it again, though, I felt a bit bad for my first impulse, as I realized what a big deal this was for this man—a graduate student, who describes his position in the most convoluted terms! He got home from his day trip to Gatchina with a ruined coat, and, it seems, immediately sat down to write out this letter of complaint. It’s written in the moment, as he was likely still quite upset, and yet of course he still keeps to all the tropes of politeness.

I have so many questions. Had he bundled up his coat on the train, or would that have been an affront to decency? If not, did he stand the whole way to avoid getting paint on the train seats? Did he spread a newspaper in order to sit? Whatever happened, it would have made what was normally an easy ride a source of stress, particularly with the thought of arrival in the capital. What then—appear without a coat, likely unthinkable? Or hurry, head down, back home, hoping to avoid anyone he knew? Was he normally proud to have an address on Nevsky prospect near the Fontanka, but now wished he lived anywhere else, where he might have hopes of avoiding censorious eyes?

It’s also worth knowing that the Gatchina authorities responded quite kindly to young Runkevich. They checked into what had happened, and wrote him back on 7 October, expressing their sympathy for his troubles, agreeing that he had not been at fault, and promising to ensure that those who were would be called to account. They do not appear to have sent on twenty five rubles in recompense. But perhaps that is in another file.

Although this is a mere glimpse of this man’s life, I have found a couple of other possible traces. An S. I. Runkevich was teaching history and Latin at one of the St. Petersburg secondary schools from at least 1899 to 1917. H’s not necessarily the same man, but I hope he was, for I feel a bit comforted by the idea that he found a job (even if not the professorial one he wanted) not too long after this event. Of course, that he was still in Petrograd in 1917 brings up many, many other questions about his future. Still, for a time, at least he had a place.

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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