UP FROM SERFDOM by Aleksandr Nikitenko


My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824
Email this review


The memoirs of a former serf from early-19th-century Russia who writes poignantly of his fight for freedom.

Nikitenko provides a touching and lively account of the vicissitudes of his boyhood. A bright and imaginative child who loved learning and nature, Nikitenko was nevertheless (along with his entire family and some 300,000 other serfs) the personal property of one Count Sheremetev, who had the legal authority to dispose of the boy according to his will. The author’s family was unusual in a number of ways, however. First of all, they were descended not from serfs but from free Cossacks who had fallen into bondage—and the ancestral memory of this disgrace served to keep them from accepting their fate. Secondly, they were not peasants. Nikitenko’s father, Vasily, had gone to school and worked as an estate clerk rather than a farmhand. Because his father valued learning so highly, the author was able to receive a rather exceptional education for someone from his circumstances. In spite of his abilities, however, he could not, as a serf, go on to high school—and his resulting bitterness nearly drove him to suicide. Although Nikitenko did manage (at 14) to become a schoolteacher, he never abandoned his dream of entering the university. Eventually he was helped by influential friends to buy his own freedom, and his narrative ends with a description of his 1824 manumission. He later enrolled in St. Petersburg University, eventually becoming a professor there as well as a government censor. In 1841 he finally achieved his family’s release from bondage.

An uplifting saga that offers an engrossing eyewitness view of Russian history and makes a valuable contribution to slave literature. (3 maps; 25 illustrations)

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-300-08414-5
Page count: 220pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2001