Appropriating Blackness: Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Autobiographical Writings of Russian Serfs

The writings of eighteenth-century Russian so-called “serf intelligentsia” have received surprisingly little academic attention both at home (that is, in pre-, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia) and abroad. Russian, as well as West European or American scholars of eighteenth-century Russian culture and literature, have been almost unanimous in their decision to ignore the literary achievements of the few boldly writing krepostniki on the grounds of insufficient materials and/or the little aesthetic value of the serfs’ texts. The situation is highly reminiscent of the state that Afro-American Studies was in only some twenty years ago. Fortunately for the student of Black Slave narratives, the “discoveries” of people like Marion Wilson Starling, Henry Luis Gates, Jr., Angelo Constanzo, and many others, recently opened up a whole new world of writings that since then have not only become a “legitimate” subject for numerous scholarly dissertations and various publications, but also have managed to change irreversibly the way we perceive the colonial history of the last two centuries. Unfortunately for the student of eighteenth-century Russian literature, the highly original work of writing serfs like Locmanov, Trevogin, Čemerovcov, and Smirnov (to mention but a few) is still waiting to be saved from almost total obscurity.

Realizing the impossibility of a thorough study or classification of the texts by serf-authors within the context of a comparatively short paper, the purpose of the present essay will be to focus only on a particular characteristic of some of the narratives of eighteenth-century krepostnye volnodumcy (serf freespeakers): namely, the metaphorical appropriation of the theme of the black slaves’ struggle for freedom in America and Britain, for the needs of the local proponents of the abolition of serfdom. In my account of the peculiar interconnectedness and similarities between nineteenth- century slave narratives and Russian serfs’ (autobiographical) writings, I have borrowed three of Mary Luise Pratt’s terms—contact zone, transculturation and autoethnographic writing—because I believe that the language created by present day theoreticians of the colonial experience will be highly valuable for the discussion of, and can be easily transplanted to, the context of my proposed area of study. Thus, it is important to uncover the interrelations between the language of the underprivileged authors (krepostniki) and the dictum of the dominant class (the aristocracy), as well as to attempt to illustrate how the ensuing transculturation appropriates the signifying practices of the oppressors only to subvert their power and turn it against themselves. The use of the “black slave” theme in the autoethnographic texts of both the upper classes and the serf-authors (for very different ends in the latter case) in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Russia is a good case in point.