"Up from Serfdom" by Aleksandr Nikitenko

Up from Serfdom My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824 Aleksandr Nikitenko, Helen Saltz Jacobson

Publication date:
11 Aug 2002
Yale University Press
256 pages: 203 x 127mm
25 b-w illus. + 3 maps


“It was the arbitrary nature of the serfholder’s power that weighed on serfs like Nikitenko, for as they discovered, even the most benevolent patron could turn overnight into an overbearing tyrant. In that respect, serfdom and slavery were the same.” —Peter Kolchin, from the foreword

Aleksandr Nikitenko, descended from once-free Cossacks, was born into serfdom in provincial Russia in 1804. One of 300,000 serfs owned by Count Sheremetev, Nikitenko as a teenager became fiercely determined to gain his freedom. In this memorable and moving book, here translated into English for the first time, Nikitenko recollects the details of his childhood and youth in servitude as well as the six-year struggle that at last delivered him into freedom in 1824. Among the very few autobiographies ever written by an ex-serf, Up from Serfdom providesa unique portrait of serfdom in nineteenth-century Russia and a profoundly clear sense of what such bondage meant to the people, the culture, and the nation.

Rising to eminence as a professor at St. Petersburg University, former serf Nikitenko set about writing his autobiography in 1851, relying on his own diaries (begun at the age of fourteen and maintained throughout his life), his father’s correspondence and documents, and the stories that his parents and grandparents told as he was growing up. He recalls his town, his schooling, his masters and mistresses, and the utter capriciousness of a serf’s existence, illustrated most vividly by his father’s lurching path from comfort to destitution to prison to rehabilitation. Nikitenko’s description of the tragedy, despair, unpredictability, and astounding luck of his youth is a compelling human story that brings to life as never before the experiences of the serf in Russia in the early 1800s.

Helen Saltz Jacobson is a freelance writer and translator living in New Jersey.

Chosen as an "Outstanding" title in the 2001 Association of American University Presses (AAUP) University Press Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries

"The appearance of Nikitenko?s memoir in translation is very timely. As the most comprehensive autobiography by a Russian serf if provides a basis for a long overdue comparison between serf and slave narratives which would illuminate our appreciation of both."?Katerina Clark, Comparative Literature and Slavic, Yale University

?This book is an excellent addition to the literature on serfdom, pre-reform provincial society, Russian history in the early nineteenth century, and the development of sociopolitical thought among non-elite groups during that period. The translation is smooth and idiomatic, the illustrations concerning rural society are highly evocative, and the maps are also helpful. For the non-specialist, Peter Kolchin?s foreword and the explanatory endnotes provide useful background. We can only hope that a paperback version is in the works as well for use as a course text.??Alexander M. Martin, H-Net Review 

?An intriguing account, with a most useful introduction by Peter Kolchin, contrasting contemporary Russian serfdom and black slavery in the United States. For academic and specialized libraries.??Library Journal

?One of the best surviving accounts of Russian serfdom.??Blake Eskin, Lingua Franca

?An important historical account that reveals a great deal about the realities of serfdom.??Juliet Wittman, Washington Post Book World

"A rare and powerful document. Nikitenko?s memoir should take its place next to the very best ex-slave narratives and those of untouchables in India."?James C. Scott