Love and An Ordinary Marriage in 19th-century Russia

This week I spoke to Kate Antonova about the relationship between Natalia and Andrei Chikhachev – a marriage rooted in the depths of Russia and illuminated by the diaries that they both wrote throughout their marriage.

Holly Smith: Hello, and welcome back to Past Loves – the new weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you an insight into the lighter side of history. I’m Holly, your true romantic host, and I am so excited about today’s episode. Anyone who knows me will know that I am mildly obsessed with Russian history. It is the love of my life. And I rarely get to have conversations with people about the joys of Russian history. So to be able to speak to my guest today I was in absolute heaven I had a whale of a time, especially because I was able to discuss this really wonderful love story centered around an amazing couple in my favourite place and time period. And well, I think you can hear from the interview that I essentially feel like all of my Christmases have come at once.

It was an absolute joy talking to my guest Associate Professor of Russian history at Queens College in the City University of New York, Kate Antonova. So Kate is also the author of An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia. And this is a book about the relationship between Natalia and Andrea Chikhachev and they, as you will find out, are a fairly ordinary couple. But it is the diaries that both of these kept throughout their marriage that makes this pair remarkable. And these are diaries that have survived revolution, two world wars and the Soviet period when archives were being centralized. So the fact that these diaries are still there, and still offer this quite incredible, multifaceted look at a marriage is really, really special. And what I love most about these diaries is the insight into a marriage that endured that they give us and not only a marriage that endured but also a marriage that brings into question our idea of what a traditional marriage may be. This is a marriage and a love story centered around family and attachment. And it is so unique in how we’re able to tell it but it gives us so much. I really hope that from this episode, it’s clear just how deeply important micro histories of love stories such as these are to our greater understanding of the history of love and attachment and affection as a whole.

We start by setting the scene in the long 19th Century, because this is an important backdrop to their lives and the long 19th century in Russia, which starts with the death of Catherine the Great in 1796 and then goes through until the revolution, is a time of massive change, quite obviously, and this is crucial to their life as a couple. So we delve into that and then we look into how they built a marriage that lasted and the legacy that they have left us with these diaries. I find it really romantic. I hope you love as much much as I do the precious insights that Natalia and Andrei give us into an ordinary marriage.

Kate Antonova: My book is mostly focused on the 1830s, which is a period I’ve always been interested in, because actually like the 1830s, kind of anywhere, it tends to be a period people don’t pay attention to there’s the 18th century, the age of revolutions, and then we talk about climbing into World War One and Russia revolution and all of that stuff. It gets left out in the middle is how we went from one to the other. I find that pretty important, but it doesn’t get enough attention. So yeah, in Russia, the period under Catherine the Great is kind of known as the golden age of serfdom, not in the sense of serfdom being good, but in a sense of being the height of serfdom and the height of the old regime society. So that means landholders with lots of serfs and dependent largely on sort of agriculture. Industrialisation is not a thing yet not in Russia in any way. It’s barely an idea anywhere else. And then when Catherine the Great dies and she’s succeeded by her son, Paul (who hated her for a variety of reasons – it’s a wonderful separate story) among other things, what he did was make aristocratic service to the state no longer compulsory. So under the old regime system, serfs serve their landlords but the landlord serves the state. And it’s a hierarchy and obviously very distinct hierarchy. But everyone is theoretically serving someone, theoretically, the sovereign serves God etc. So Paul kind of undid all of that without any good plan or replacement. So what happens if you have the aristocracy if they’re rich enough to not need an income if they own enough serfs, their land is valuable enough, they can just do nothing, which some do, but most actually will continue to serve in the government for the influence of it and those are the richest kinds of landlords. The less rich landlords, which are the people I focus on, are actually the majority of the aristocracy and really should properly be called Gentry because they’re not super wealthy, but they do own property and they own serfs. They are left with a dilemma because they’re no longer required to serve, but they need an income. And the government is no longer really putting a lot of effort into making sure land and services, enough income to ensure that they have the service class because that’s been done. And meanwhile, as we get into the 19th century industrialisation is at least a question. It didn’t really get started in Russia until the 1890s. But there’s a lot of pressure and questioning about when that should happen. what that would mean for the serf labor class, right? They become mobile, industrial labor that could start a revolution. Well, that’s what terrifies the Tsars. And so that’s why they put off industrialisation. From the point of view of middling property owning Gentry, would they have access to more wealth through industrialisation? Do they need to actually intensify the search process to hang on? Should they be putting their efforts into service and politics? Those are open questions and they haven’t been really very well studied yet. But for the people I’m looking at this one family the father of the family does serve in the army briefly largely because he does need to even though it’s no longer compulsory, he needs some income and he needs especially connections. Connections are really important to these kinds of people to getting a good marriage for their children and to having people to turn to when they’re in debt. There’s no safety net. So you need connections. So he goes and serves in the army, but he just missed serving in the Napoleonic Wars. That is the path to rising up into the, you know, higher ranks of the army and better regiments and so on. And that could lead to high ranking posts that could give you a real income, allow you to live in the capital cities, the possibilities for that dry up when the Napoleonic Wars end. So for my main character, Andrei Chikhachev, it was a great disappointment that he was not able to be a hero in the wars. And he ends up studying in a military school and then briefly joining the army after it’s all over, which is not really interesting. So he actually ends up teaching in a military academy, the same one where he studied for a couple of years and then going back to his estates to get married. So that’s what a lot of people end up doing at this time is they go back to their estates to get married. But for these middling people who don’t have a huge amount of wealth from their property, it means a struggle to manage the estates efficiently enough to get by and to hopefully set up their children to continue the same life. What happens to actually a lot of middle aged countries, they slip into poverty and so that’s the kind of struggle for these people. On the one hand they own serfs, hundreds of serfs which sounds like incredible wealth, right? But the actual incredible wealth in Russia were the people who own hundreds of thousands of serfs because the agricultural yields are so low in Russia. And because they actually owe quite a lot of responsibility to serfs to get enough profit to actually be wealthy – that actually required hundreds of thousands of serfs and huge numbers of properties as well. So these people in the middling category, have to manage estates, manage to maintain their serfs, but they’re also of course exploiting their serfs for labour. But all of that doesn’t balance out because the low agricultural yields into much wealth, and many of them are indebted, which my family was as well. So that’s their kind of struggle. 

napolean's retreat from moscow
Painting depicting Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow (1920) | Credit: history.com

Holly: That’s who we hear about those people who own hundreds of thousands of serfs. That’s who we are very aware of the Russian elite; lots was written about them. They’re the ones in the novels.

Kate: Yes, that’s those people. They’re talking about in stories and we focus on them because it’s been difficult to get records from the middle gentry.

Holly: Yeah. So you mentioned that Andrei was in the military, but I understand that he had quite an unsettled early childhood. 

Kate: Yes, he was an orphan. So his mother died very early and his father died. I think he was about 10 sometime later, but still during his childhood, but after his mother’s death when he was I think just a toddler he was given to his aunt to raise so he was actually raised by an uncle with cousins who he remained close to for the rest of his life. But he also had an older brother, who turned out to be a wastrel. He was considerably older, he theoretically would have inherited the major part of the estate, but he was a gambler, and the word wastrel could cover a lot of things. Exactly all of what that was, but he ended up grossly in debt and then died relatively young. So Andrei ended up inheriting not just part of the property through his father directly and then what was left of his brother’s property, but he also inherited debts from his older brother. So his estates, when he finally inherited them, he ended up being the only heir eventually but they were deeply, deeply indebted by the time he got control of them. So he was not a great marriage prospect to be honest.

Holly: No, so I find it quite remarkable that Natalia married him because she had quite a stable childhood, didn’t she?

Kate: Yes, exactly. She grew up in a similar area. And we don’t know for sure, but she and Andreis family, including the family who grew up with his aunt and uncle, must have all known each other. But her background is very different. She had a large family – a large, stable family and roughly comparable estates in terms of how much they owned but with no debt, so they were in relatively good shape financially for kind of middling income people. And well, her marriage prospects would not have been extraordinary. She couldn’t have gone to, you know, Petersburg balls like a Pushkin novel and meet some Tsar, that was not going to be her future. Her prospects were within this provincial world that she inhabited, but she came with a good dowry. She came with good management skills, housekeeping skills, all of the things that a young lady should have at the time. They were about the same age when they married, they were only about a year apart. So we don’t know exactly why they married each other. But I think one of the major factors probably was that Andrei was very good friends with Natalia’s brother. And there are some references that suggest that that friendship might have been first, and then he married Natalia later that it would have been his best friend’s sister, basically. So I suspect that’s a major factor. And also, I mean, I think we have to assume they fell in love on some level – that wasn’t just a marriage of convenience that it wasn’t that they were neighbouring estates because she could have had better prospects. I think that alone suggests that there was some element of love. Now, Andrei had an extraordinary personality. That’s very clear from all of his writings, and his friendship with Natalia’s brother, I think would have meant that he was trusted as an individual that he wouldn’t end up being a wastrel so that even though his estates were indebted that he himself at least was a good man and her family would have known that so, you know, other prospects that were less known might have been riskier in some ways. So there were calculators involved, certainly there would have been in any marriage of people of that class at the time. But I think we have to assume that they knew each other quite well, before they married and that there was affection at the bottom of it. There had to be.

Holly: Well, that is lovely to think about. So they got married in September of 1820. And if we start to look at their marriage, the first decade was quite difficult. 

Kate: Yes, the hardest period of either of their lives, arguably, even for Andrei, who had a very difficult childhood, that period from 1820 to 1830, was incredibly difficult. And one of the most notable things is they didn’t write diaries from that time, or at least they didn’t survive. So they may have written them and burned them later, because it was so difficult, which is very possible, or they may not have been up to writing the way they did in later years. But the letters that survived and there are a few key letters from this period that they kept because it did note these things and then some of the other events they mentioned later, but over this 10 year period, Natalia basically lost almost her whole family, everyone but her brother who was Andrei’s best friend. Her parents, one after the other, and then there was a terrible boating accident. Her brothers were all naval officers. Her father had been a naval officer as well. And her brothers returned from naval service where they went away around the world on big ships, they came back and died in a local boating accident. 

Holly: I mean, it’s bizarre.

Kate: Yes, deeply bizarre. And there was an incredibly touching letter. It was this torn piece of very old stained paper, it could have been tear stained, I don’t know for sure, but definitely stained. And the handwriting was just clearly someone very upset. And it was from other writing to inform someone about the boating accident. And you could just see the horror that was in that document and the way that it was saved, you know, partially torn. I don’t know what part of it might have been torn out, but that this was a devastating event. They went from a stable family with three sons, all naval officers, which would have ensured the kinds of connections that ensured generations of stability basically, and they lost two of them and then the parents one after the other, and the father died first – Natalia’s father died of natural causes. And then her mother was a widow for a while and then there was, in addition, a period of serf unrest on their estates, which from the point of view of the serfs, I can, you know, without having their voices I can very much take their side. From the point of view of the family, where we have to put ourselves very uncomfortable in the shoes of people who owned serfs and whose income was based off of exploiting serf labor, the mother was left as a widow and it may have been that the serfs saw this as an opportunity to renegotiate, shall we say? And what they were actually doing was they were destroying parts of the forest that were owned by Natalia’s family. The forest was a tremendous resource for landowning families because you got honey and furs as well as lumber from the forest. And the forest, generally, they would be owned by a landlord, but that used in common by all the peasants that that landlord owned, but whatever was exported or sold at market from the goods of that forest would be a crucial part of the income of the family, the noble family that owned it. So serfs were essentially attacking the family by destroying parts of the forest, it seems from the references, we have got, that the reason they were doing this is as they went the better deal for how much they got out of that forest and may have been trying to take advantage of Natalie’s mother. As it turns out, what happens is that Andrei steps in to handle this for her. And that’s why we have records of it. And he ultimately rounds up what he thinks are the instigators and gets them sent to Siberia.

Holly: A very classic Russian response.

Kate: Exactly, exactly. And it’s very awkward reading to read those documents because on the one hand, they were a newly married young couple trying to set themselves up and he is forced to just handle his in-laws’ entire family affairs because they went from the stable, prosperous family to total chaos and the prospect of losing everything very quickly. And at this point in time, by the way, Natalia is surviving brother Jacob is away with the Navy at that point. So he’s not present. That’s when Andrei steps in so he’s trying to save his wife’s family that’s very touching. On the other hand, he’s cruelly exploiting the serfs so he’s simply could have negotiated with privately. He decides it’s a few troublemakers and that everybody else is fine and so he gets rid of the troublemakers and that does seem to put an end to the problems so maybe he read the situation in its context of the time more or less accurately. But there are many contradictions to the kind of life these people lead.

credit: Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash

Holly: And they moved to Moscow for a little bit as well, didn’t they? That was more for Andrei’s side of the family in terms of inheritance.

Kate: Yes, yes. And that’s an interesting thing, because moving to the cities was, I mean, if you read the novels of Chekhov, which are set at a later time, the late 19th century, that’s what everyone wanted to do, right? And most of these provincial people couldn’t afford it. So initially, when I was coming at this where much of what we know about provincial nobility is from literature, I’m going ‘Wait, how did they afford to go to Moscow? What?’ and what it turns out is the reason they go is to deal with a lawsuit and lawsuits like lawsuits in the US today go on for years, and this was not particular to Russia. But it was a thing that lawsuits go on, especially family disputes over property. They would get as ugly as they do today and take many years to sort out. So Andrei had the prospect of inheriting some property which would have been very helpful in their circumstances, especially with Natalia’s family in such difficulties, but that property was encumbered and being fought over by other relatives. So he had to go to Moscow to oversee the legal case and to be present to sign papers and write testimonies and so on over a long period. And the way they could afford that, actually, number one, they were young married, and they didn’t have children yet, so they didn’t really have other responsibilities, but they went to Moscow and stayed with friends and relatives. So it’s not like they set themselves up in a big house with a ballroom and that kind of nobility in Moscow kind of thing. They were actually living in a very modest part of the city on the outskirts and living with family and friends. 

Holly: And so he didn’t inherit it?

Kate: No. They spent years fighting with this and money to live in Moscow during that time and ultimately didn’t really get anything out of it. There much later seems to have been a small settlement where basically he didn’t get anything. So yes, they spent all of these years and then also during that period from 1828 to 30, I presume, although again, the references are not directed that Natalia was having some miscarriages – a long series of reproductive difficulties throughout most of her life actually. It may have been eventually what killed her but their first 10 years of marriage involved trying to have children mostly not successfully fighting over lawsuits and property and trying to deal with the in laws, tremendous round of burdens that I think interestingly looking back today sounds pretty familiar.

Holly: Yeah, it’s a remarkable decade that they pushed through in that first bit of marriage, which is hard in itself.

Kate: Yes. And then what brings them back to the provinces actually is an epidemic ironically enough of cholera, that hit Russia in 1830 to 1831. And Andrei, this is really, I think, a huge change in their lives between the kind of young crisis years of that first decade where they just must have been managing day by day through unbearable stress, and then 1830 he comes back to his estates and is invited to be a provincial inspector for cholera. So his job was to go household, the household and make sure people were following rules for what we now call social distancing – looking at who is sick and who wasn’t and to keep records, which is a dangerous thing to be doing, putting yourself in danger. He did that very successfully. He was really good at it. And it gave him a certain amount of status in the province. It introduced him to everyone in the province. And that it’s the beginning of what will be the rest of his life, which is to be an important man in his region. And it’s an important part of his self identity from there on. That’s also the point where they settled back in the provinces the lawsuit, they just put it behind them at that point with bitterness, references to the law for the rest of his life, but they end up at home. And then of course, they have two living children in 1820 and 1825. So they find they’re able to have two children who will live into adulthood – Alexei and Alexandra – so that begins another decade of raising children.

Holly: And so they settle into what we would think considering the cliches of the time were quite unusual settings within the domestic sphere, but actually we suggest that maybe they are a really good symbol of what was actually quite normal?

Kate: Yes, for the time and the place. And that’s why the title of the book is An Ordinary Marriage – and I have to thank my publisher, my editor came up with that title. It is on the one hand, these are ordinary people. And part of what I like about it is unlike every romance ever written, we don’t know about their courtship very much, but it begins with marriage and follows everything afterwards. But I love that glimpse into ordinary life. But the other part of the title is the argument actually, is that their marriage was ordinary, even though from 1830 until their children are grown, at least in many ways beyond that, Natalia’s job is the financial management of their estates, getting them gradually out of debt and the material management of the whole family making sure everyone has what they need materially, Andrei’s job is to raise the children, both intellectually and morally. He takes on responsibility for those aspects of their rearing, and they also have wet nurses when they’re babies and then nannies later so Natalia’s job towards our children was really pretty strictly material support, making sure they’re clothed and fed. Andrei is the one who spends time with them, plays games with them, invents games for them, oversees their education, all of that. And that, of course, seems odd to us when we first hear that particularly for the 19th century.

Holly: Yeah, the Western pervasive idea is that angel in the house.

©National Trust
A symbol of domesticity at the time of the angel in the house | ‘Windsor Castle in Modern Times’: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with His Favourite Greyhound, ‘Eos’, and Terrier, ‘Dandit’, and Victoria, the Princess Royal | Edwin Henry Landseer ©National Trust 

Kate: Exactly. The domesticity, the angel in the house, which of course, is an image and a sort of pressure for what a family should look like that really emerges in England in the 1830s. But is overwhelmingly present in the advice books, but also the literature. You know, artistic literature is everywhere in the printed word in Europe in the 1830s, including in Russia, and there have been studies of the periodical press in Russia that showed domesticity as an idea to be just ever present. And I know Andrei and Natalia were reading all of that. So that was what first interested me about them is they were certainly totally aware of this sort of ideal family model of the woman in the kitchen with the children and the angel of the house and the man outside working. But the reason that image arises in the West in the 1830s is it’s about the rise of industrialisation which separates the workplace from the home. And it’s the rise of suburbs because industrialisation is put work out in the factories. And so middle upper middle class or lower Gentry families, the man’s job is to oversee some business or property somewhere else. So the home becomes separate and that’s when the woman becomes the angel of the house. So there’s a couple of things. Number one is even in the West, that was a model and an ideal that you were supposed to live up to. But the thing is when people write something in advice books, it means people weren’t actually doing it. They wouldn’t have needed that advice if they were already living that way. So we know even in, you know, quintessential England and all the other Western European cases that in fact, it was more complicated in real families, but in particular, in Russia, the workplace is not separated for the middling Gentry. So the fundamental structural and economic reasons for that model didn’t exist. And so the question is not so much, why it wasn’t practical for them to live the way that that model suggests, but how they could read so much about it, and be living in a completely different way. What was fascinating to me reading their diaries and their letters and so on was that they wrote constantly, for example, about novels they read, they read Jane Austen, for example, they would read these novels and newspapers that had a lot of translations from British newspapers, for example. And they wouldn’t say, ‘wow, these British people are so weird. We don’t live like that’ You know, nothing along those lines, they think this is normal. In fact, both seem to approve of the domestic model and to use its language sometimes while living what seems like the opposite. And so the conclusion that I come to and there’s another book by Michelle Morrissey, about property ownership in Russia that does the sort of representativeness part of this and about how normal this was, but that because the estates that they lived in and worked that was their income, which are agricultural estates, with serf labour, because the nature of inheritance in Russia was that when a mother and father die, for example, their property would be split among all of their children, including the female children – rather than primogeniture in England where almost all of it goes to the oldest son, right? So that meant estates over time got all broken up into little pieces, so that property ownership was a bunch of parts of villages or tiny villages here and there. And you would have various estates that are somewhat separated geographically and are a problem to manage, because they’re somewhat, you know, scattered and all of that. So that the nature of the home, on the one hand, it’s one place. It’s not like there are men who are off being lawyers or doctors or running factories, because those were not gentrymen’s positions, but also the home itself. There’s a house, of course, and there’s the estates that support the household, but there’s also the villages where the serfs live, who do the labour on that household. And then there’s outlying villages. There’s these kinds of layers to: how do you define the home? It’s certainly beyond the house, which is how the home is generally defined in the western model anyway, even though it wasn’t always real. For Russian Gentry estate owners, when they’re thinking of the house, they’re really thinking of their estates that are this complicated economic venture that was actually not usually particularly prosperous and was a management problem. So the woman’s place was in the home in their minds, but that meant Natalia, his job was to manage these scattered estates that are really a labour management and financial management job. That’s exactly what she did.

Holly: And she was quite good at it wasn’t she?

Kate: And she’s wonderful at it! She does get them out of debt, which is absolutely extraordinary in 10 years, and that’s actually quite rare. It was not rare to be in debt, it was really rare to get out of debt through their own work, and Natalia did that. And honestly, if they had switched jobs, it would have been a disaster because Andrei would have been terrible at that. And similarly, I think Natalia would have been pretty awful actually, at raising the children. And we can maybe get into that if you want to? 

Holly: Yeah, I would like to discuss both of their approaches to parenting. That’s very interesting here within their marriage, which does revolve that this decade around the children.

Kate: Exactly, yeah, it revolves on the children. It’s clear in both of their diaries that they’re both deeply attached to their children and deeply concerned about their family and that like many married couples in that 10 years of primary child caring, that’s their whole world. You know, it’s very difficult to think about anything else, and it’s very overwhelming. And it’s a lot. I’m in that stage myself. But their approach and the way they handle that kind of stress and attachment is very different. So Natalia obsesses about making sure that children have what they need in terms of clothing, she actually sews for them and makes lace for her daughter’s dress and things like that. But it’s not just that she’s maintaining a vast economic enterprise that produces textiles, for sale at a market, and that’s a big part of their income. Part of that is clothing, their children, but she’s also clothing their serfs at the same time, that’s part of her responsibility and selling for market. And so her attention is on that enterprise. And that includes both her primary parenting role and all of the rest of it. So on the one hand, she’s obsessed with the economics of it and managing well and then she works herself to the bone to do that. She works incredibly hard. But you can see when she’s talking about her children, what the primary references in our diaries are about what they need for clothing. It’s not just a sort of, you know, ‘well, what do they need this year? I should get an extra pair of pants’ whatever casual. It’s almost obsessive. She’s putting all of her care and worries into the clothes. And she obsesses about it to that degree, but you don’t see the references to you know, what are the kids saying? What are their feelings? All of that stuff is Andrei’s diaries. But the other thing you see in Natalia’s diaries is constant references to her health because she was experiencing pain that was, I believe, related to reproductive issues – something like a prolapsed uterus or something – and a lot of miscarriages. An infant that died in its first year, and that was in this 10 year period. And that was clearly traumatizing for them. She’s going through pregnancies and miscarriages and chronic pain related to all of that, which undoubtedly had to also be emotional, but she doesn’t write about her emotions in the diary. So she sort of channels all of that into work. And that’s what then comes to the diaries, but you can sort of see the forcefulness of it and the only time there’s anything emotional at all in any of her diaries is about her son, when he’s about to go off to Moscow for schooling and she cries for days. And in between the crying she’s obsessing about what he needs to pack.

Holly: I mean, it would be a shame to break from regime at that point.

Kate: Exactly. I think that proves my theory that she’s channelling all of her feelings into the clothes because she literally and the only part where there are any clear explicit feelings, it’s like ‘I cried all day, how many stockings do I still need to make?’ Like all in one sentence. And then you contrast that to Andrei and his diaries in this period, which are very extensive, are constantly about what the children are saying, what the children are doing, cute little references, he uses nicknames for them. He’s constantly planning games for them. He’s constantly thinking about what they need for their proper development. And he’s reading about education and all the latest ideas about education from the west, he’s putting tremendous energy into giving them the best start in life that he can. And for him that is partly intellectual, partly moral and religious and also nurturing and loving. The part that we expect to be the kind of feminine duty because the Western model of nurturing and caring that we very much today even in Western society associate with femininity, for this family that was Andrei’s job. And so my argument is that partly they fell into this because this is what Andrei’s natural disposition was and Natalia was clearly just a born manager. And I think they took advantage of their skills which is really interesting and touching about their marriage. But at the same time, we know that in a larger sense, this was not unusual. And that is because Russian gentrymen, to go back to that to sort of what their options were, because they were no longer required to serve the state. That’s not something they need to do anymore. There’s no voting or democratic politics in Russia, because they don’t have that and industrialization hasn’t begun. So there’s very little prospect for starting an enterprise, for example, that happens more and more after the emancipation of serfs in the second half of the 19th century. And even at this period, there were very few super rich nobles who invest in enterprises, but you had to have a lot of capital for that. It was very complicated in this earlier period, so people like Andrei couldn’t do that. At this point, the Russian universities, they’re very small in number and they’re not producing many graduates. That’s gradually beginning to change at this time. But for a man of Andrei’s generation, he wasn’t going to be able to become a doctor or an engineer. Those were not options for him and his education. So what was he going to do? What was left for Russian Gentry men is to be a moral leader and an intellectual leader.

© Katherine Pickering Antonova 2012
Natalia and Andrei’s house | © Katherine Pickering Antonova 2012

Holly: So it’s kind of this sphere separated from the estate and his role is to be within this cultural sphere.

Kate: Yeah, it’s beyond the home and so they could read all that stuff about domesticity and say, well, Natalia’s in charge of the home and Andrei is working beyond the home. Because the intellectual sphere is bigger and more important and therefore masculine, of course, and it is beyond the home. And he literally writes that ‘yes, he sits in a study all day but he could be called away at any moment.’ And also the work of the mind is elevated and important to the world, not just to the everyday functioning of the family. So they’re actually in their own minds following the western model quite closely. And there are sort of practical circumstances that just the everyday reality looks unfamiliar, but that it fits those categories in their minds.

Holly: So how does he express himself within this cultural sphere? I heard he worked in a journalistic role at one point.

Kate: Yes, he does eventually. It starts about 1830, which is his first diary, which is almost entirely a child care diary. It’s constantly about his children that grows as the children get older. And all parents understand this, once the children start to go to school and the caregiver at home starts to have a little bit more time, what he was doing is he was taking the skills he had learned and applied so well to his children and thinking, well, where else can I apply this?  And he had been reading other people’s advice about education and upbringing and he had some opinions about some of the stuff that he read. So he starts to write to the newspaper that eventually gets him his own column in the local newspaper. That gives him the confidence to start submitting to higher profile newspapers. So he spends much of the rest of his life writing for newspapers largely for provincial audiences but occasionally breaks beyond. And then he gradually again, as the kids get older starts to get involved in charity projects, he becomes very involved in local efforts that are all related to education to found the first library in the province. He’s part of an agricultural society that works on issues like how to teach serfs practical skills, they realise that emancipation is probably on the horizon. And so they’re thinking through what that transition would look like for them out in the provinces. He’s deeply involved in those discussions. And his concern is primarily how to educate everyone, that the Gentry around him should be better educated to be better managers,  that serfs need more skills, they need literacy. He taught his serfs to read when that was frowned on by many landowners. He was doing that from the very beginning. So he himself said that he had always wanted a better education for himself. And so he worked to give that to his children. And then having done that, he’s like, ‘well, I’ve got some skills now’ and he tries to sort of pass them on to everyone else he can find.

Holly: That’s really interesting because I know during the revolution, they use a lot of iconography around reading as an idea of liberating the serfs. So the idea that he was preparing them much earlier for life with these skills shows his obsession with that cultural sphere.

Kate: Yeah, I mean, in many ways, his whole political worldview was that education was the future of everything. He’s kind of a man of the Enlightenment in that sense. And even though he’s living well past that sort of height of the Enlightenment period for many high profile thinkers, as you get to the 1830s 1840s, they’re moving to other places. Andrei’s still kind of in that enlightenment place, if it just if everybody had more education, we could solve all of our problems. And so his view on the emancipation of the serfs, for example, on the various social political issues in Russia, he is ultimately very conservative in the sense that he’s incredibly admiring of the monarchy and he’s just got this sort of knee jerk loyalty to it. He does recognize problems he does recognize that serfdom is unsustainable. He doesn’t address the moral aspect of that directly, but he clearly recognises that it’s unsustainable and it’s not necessarily healthy for all the parties involved. And his answer to that, rather than the kind of emancipation that eventually comes or radical restructuring that revolutionaries will want – his answer is to gradually educate everyone so that everyone is capable of better, more forward looking roles. That the serfs would have greater skills and could be doing different things, and that the Gentry also should have more skills and be able to do things like starting factories and so on. His real concern was that the countryside would be destroyed by industrialisation. He’s a big believer in the countryside, and he thinks it’s morally better as well as healthier and all kinds of other things. Yeah, he wants industrialisation, if it happens to be kind of gradual, and to not disrupt the village life and that’s partly he really does have a real concern about the well being of serfs, because he knows that part of his job because he lives so closely with serfs, unlike the the wealthier landlords is to protect them in case of fires and thieves and natural disaster type things as part of his responsibilities. He actually takes it very seriously. And in fact, he’s right when emancipation comes, it removes the layer of direct exploitation from landlords, but it also removes the protection from local disasters and the obligation that landlords had which, you know, not all of them were as conscientious as the Chikhachevs, of course. But for those villages that were lucky, they lose that with emancipation. That was exactly what Andrei had hoped to avoid. And his whole notions about education were that everybody basically needed to be enlightened enough to consider these problems in a rational and clear way and try to manage this in a way that did least harm.

russian revolution reading propaganda poster
Simakov, Da zdravstvuet solntse! Da skroetsya t’ma! (Long Live the Sun! May the Darkness be Hidden!), three coloured lithograph, 1921, 49×61 cm., BS. In The Bolshevik Poster by Stephen White (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 37.

Holly: It’s a real testament to their relationship that they were both given these spaces in which they flourished. Did it work for them, like as a couple? 

Kate: I think it’s a question I asked myself a lot as I was reading the documents, and I’m writing it up in a book: how successful was this marriage? Because they go through so much pain, they both I think had very difficult lives, the tremendous losses and the grief of losing loved ones was just overwhelming for both of them and that really sticks out particularly as they get older and their reflecting back on their lives. That’s what leapt out for both of them. But that said, I think the marriage is what held them together through that. And in fact, the worst crisis of all and well first, Natalia, his last brother dies, it’s very difficult for them both because they were both so close to him. Their whole family, their children were very close to him. They handle that grief is a family and get through it. And then their daughter in her adulthood, she reaches adulthood, but then she dies in childbirth, tragically, and that’s probably the worst blow of all, from the way they both write about it is absolutely the worst blow and it’s partly because it comes upon so many other losses. At that point, Andrei has this huge crisis where he considers becoming a monk and removing to a monastery. He just can’t take it anymore. And he wants to run away from the world. And what stops him from doing that is Natalia. Natalia says, ‘No, we need you. Your family needs you.’ And I found it incredibly touching because in many ways, she did everything and after the children were grown, it’s kind of arguable that he gave any practical contribution to the family. She was really handling everything and he was writing articles after the children were grown at least. But what was clear in that and we have the letter that what she meant was that they loved him. They needed him not because of a practical contribution. For that to be coming from Natalia especially, I found deeply touching. And that’s what pulls him back to the world and forces him to live with the pain of living with a family and risking future losses again.

Holly: Yeah, I mean, from a woman who is so seemingly practical to have that awareness of the key emotional role he plays in the family. 

Kate : Yes, and that she doesn’t express affection well. She expresses it by giving people stuff they need, by sending Andrei off shopping with an allowance. That’s sort of her way. 

Holly: That’s her love language.

Kate: Yes, exactly. By knitting stockings for them, you know that’s how she’s expressed affection their whole lives and for example, there’s one moment that I love too which is earlier when Andrei is struggling to try to write a novel which goes very badly. He’s not a good novel writer. It’s absolutely terrible and he gives it up after a chapter. But she’s a little bit frustrated. There’s one moment where she really expresses frustration that he’s always off writing when she’s, you know, really working herself to the bone. And she ends that comment with ‘well let him write.’ And that to me, too, is incredibly affectionate. That’s ultimately saying, ‘This is who he is, and he has to be who he is.’ And she’s accepting that but clearly with affection that has to be there. And I think that when she calls him back from the monastery, that’s what she’s drawing on. And she doesn’t say directly ‘We love you too much.’ She says, ‘We need you.’ But that’s her way of saying it. And I think he knows her love language just as she understands his. And that ultimately, is the clearest evidence of what their relationship really was at the core.

Holly: They really build a life together and work towards it. And I think there’s a lot to be said about those incredibly intense love stories that they whisk you away in the romance of it all, but really the great ones, the ones that endure and can withstand all of this trauma that they go through. 

Kate: I mean, I think this is why it’s a little ambiguous. There’s not exactly a happy ending, in a sense that it sort of all led up to something. They simply go through a life, a very ordinary life with a lot of the ordinary struggles for the time and they get through it together. And that’s that. There’s no kind of triumphant ending. And in fact, the tragedies just keep coming. And Natalia’s death 10 years before Andrei is a tragedy for him. And so he has to survive that as well. And interestingly, he doesn’t write nearly as much, certainly not the private writing after that, and it may have been partly his eyesight going but it’s as if his private writing was about their family life. And when she’s gone to a certain degree that’s over. Again, I find this touching because all of the diary writing, they were obsessive about writing so much which is why we know so much about them. It was from the period of 1830 when they have live children, and they’re settled down together and they’re living very close, family unit and it continues until Natalia’s death. And that suggests to me that with all that obsessive writing and hard work was about their family unit and their devotion to that family unit. Outside events keep coming in, there are deaths and then the emancipation of the serfs hurts them economically in a big way and changes their children’s lives and so on. There’s nothing they could do about any of that. But they retained those family bonds through all of it. They raised children loving children who adore them and they adore their children and, and that’s what they have. And I think, given how much is really out of our control in life, I find that admirable.

russian 19th century society
The house in summer | © Katherine Pickering Antonova 2012

Holly: It really is. So Natalia dies in 1866, does she just die of illness or the sheer level of work that she’s gone through over the past 30 years?

Kate: I think the hard work contributed. What they say when Andrei notes it down, he notes about her death and it’s very touching he calls her his little treasure box – which sounds cuter in russian!

Holly: No it’s very sweet, I mean a little sickly but very sweet.

Kate: It’s sweet yeah. But the way he describes it, he said it was at the end of a long illness but there’s a suggestion in the way he words it that it was reproductive related. And so, there’s no way of knowing exactly what that might have been. Even if she’d suffered, it seems to explain the kind of pains she had for much of her life – something like a prolapse uterus – that wouldn’t necessarily lead to death. And at the point that she dies, she’s 67 I think. That’s a good long life at the time, particularly for a woman who’s had so many children. So, it’s not really unexpected or unusual, what’s odd is that it’s referred to as something reproductive. That might have just been their guess, particularly because she’d had so much pain for some time. But it’s not like she could be pregnant she was 67 – so it’s nothing like that.

Holly: That train had gone a long time ago!

Kate: Exactly. It might have been uterine cancer or something like that. They didn’t necessarily understand very well but they knew where the pain was, something along those lines probably which may, who knows, be related to what was happening earlier. But she also really worked herself to death for that long life and complained of illness almost constantly for much of that time. So it is hard to say.

Holly: A level of sheer exhaustion I’m sure just through everything as well.

Kate:  Yeah absolutely just sheer exhaustion. And it’s very touching because endless diary entries where Andrei will be writing to her brother at the other estate where they correspond almost daily and he’d be saying ‘sorry Natalia can’t write she’s busy’, ‘sorry Natalia can’t write she’s busy.’ And then she’ll write a quick flying note that’s like half about the harvest and then she’ll say ‘sorry I’ve got to go work.’ She’s just constantly busy. Her own diaries are mostly a work record and on the one hand she seems to have been working way to hard and on the other hand she seems to have been very self-driven and again, looking at it through modern eyes, she was in a situation where she had to do this. It was a situation where she was expected to do this and she would have been looked down on for not holding up her end if she hadn’t done it. But, reading between the lines, I suspect that she got a certain satisfaction. And there are passages that I quote in the book where I think she’s showing satisfaction in work well done. That she, I wouldn’t say, enjoyed working herself to death but she got a certain what I would now call professional satisfaction at being good at it. And that is beautiful to see in the 19th Century for a woman even though there’s so many ways that this is just another version of the woman taking the less important job for less credit. That’s certainly the case. But she did find personal satisfaction in it and she was the one that saved this family and kept them together and Andrei respected that and gave her the credit for that which is something for the 19th Century.

Holly: No it really is. It’s a level of respect and equal living that is unique to at least what we think life was like and I think that’s the beauty of this documentation of this relationship is that we are able to see a different type of relationship that eases our expectations of what we think is a traditional marriage.

Kate: Yeah. The main value for it outside just Russian historians, you know, wanting to know more about the middling gentry, is just expanding our notions of what marriage and family could look like in any time and place. What they were doing was not considered strange by their family, there were certainly other families like this. It’s not exactly the typical family arrangement but it was not breaking norms right? It didn’t cause alarm for any of them or their family and that traditional marriage so called could mean a lot of things and took a lot of forms. That’s what history can teach us about most things and I think the main value of history is to look at the breadth and depth of the world as it was actually lived.

Holly: And so I guess that is their happy ending. They have a legacy that they left that we are now able to go over and see value in.

Kate: Yeah. In fact, one of my favourite bits in all of the papers was written by Natalia’s brother Jacob. He was just kind of noodling around in his notebook and he was writing out there’s a big village feast day where they have a big meal for the serfs on a holiday that was just a kind of local thing. He was writing out the dates that it would fall on and he wrote it all the way up to the 1980s – I think it was 1985 was the last year he wrote it up to – and he wrote some kind of note like what it would be like for people at that time to be reading these papers. And he’s writing this and Andrei respondes ‘maybe we’ll be rich.’ And I’m reading it going, ‘well nobody’s going to be getting rich over this.’ And they never could never in a million years have imagined what happened between the 1830s and the 1980s. I mean wow, in Russia in particular, if I could go back in time and tell them I’d probably give them both heart attacks. But, also, the thought was in their heads. They were leaving a legacy for generations – they assumed for generations of their own family. 

Holly: But the house that Andrei and Natalia built in 1835 that still stands doesn’t it?

Kate: Yes

Holly: It’s beautiful.

Kate: Yes it still stands and you can actually buy it. Last time I checked it was for sale and I’m a little tempted to be honest.

Holly: I looked at the pictures, it’s gorgeous. It needs a little work…

Kate: It needs a lot of work. It essentially needs to be rebuilt which is why it can be bought for a few thousand dollars. It’s really cheap but for a reason.

Holly: Well I just love the idea that the home they built, that there’s some tangible evidence of that relationship.

what was life like in provinicial russia
Rear facade of house, showing balcony | © Katherine Pickering Antonova 2012

Kate: Yes you can see there’s a balcony at the back and Andrei writes standing on that balcony watching his children play below. That’s when he calls them ‘chikhachati’ which is this sweet nickname, the little ‘chikhachati’ and to stand there looking at that balcony a hundred and so years later is pretty amazing.

Holly: Yes it’s incredible. I mean, they were an ordinary couple but quite incredible in what they give us today and I am so grateful that you have gone and found this story.

Kate: Absolutely, absolutely. And you know that life happens and struggles happen and there’s still attachment behind it that helps us all get through it and that I find comforting.

Holly: It is. Those family bonds showing to be the most important part of their lives which was really their wealth at the end of the day.

Kate: Exactly.

Holly: Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I have enjoyed this immensely.

Kate: Ah thank you so much for having me I’ve been wanting someone to ask about this since I first read these diaries.

Holly: Well I’m so pleased I was the one.

Kate: I can talk about the historiographical contribution. I’ve done that a lot but it’s really loving to talk about the human aspects of it.

Holly: I loved that conversation so much. Kate was so wonderful and I think my favourite thing about Natalia and Andrei is just that insight that they give us into a life that we would consider unconventional, nontraditional but was actually rather normal in its own way. I love looking at this as an ordinary marriage. It was a marriage that was filled with the trauma of life but they spent it together and clearly loved it forever. I fell in love with Andrei a bit, and Natalia actually. I think Natalia was an incredibly strong woman and Andrei has just this sweetness that is so lovely to be able to still see. That’s what’s incredible. We are seeing a story of a couple in provincial Russia that, unless they had documented their lives, we never have known about. That is incredibly, incredibly special. So, Kate’s book An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia is available now on Amazon and well I think you can tell how much I love their story. I also wanted to ask, do you know a love story that is not royal or renowned but that is still precious? If you do email me at pastlovespodcast@gmail.com. Otherwise, if you have enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe and then I would love to be able to speak to you further so come follow me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast. I really hope you enjoyed this episode – until soon.

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One thought on “Love and An Ordinary Marriage in 19th-century Russia

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