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An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia.

An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia. By Katherine Pickering Antonova. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 304. $74.00.)

This study of a gentry family from Vladimir Province during the middle decades of the nineteenth century draws from a rich archival collection of family papers that had languished unnoticed by scholars until the 1990s. The author's findings present intriguing contrasts both with gender roles prevalent in the West and with such iconic Russian historiographical motifs as the uncaring absentee landlord and the powerless, dependent wife.

Katherine Antonova convincingly shows that separate-sphere ideology was more rhetorical than real in the Russian provinces (1). Although Western ideas of domesticity were widely disseminated, the realities of estate management for the Russian gentry meant that women often took charge of the day-to-day running of the business, including managing the labor of hundreds of serfs. In this regard, Antonova's microhistory reinforces Michelle Marrese's wider findings about noblewomen's property ownership in A Woman's Kingdom. Both works argue that the Russian context allowed for a broader definition of the domestic sphere to include the varied duties of estate management.

Perhaps even more surprising than Natalia Chikhacheva's activities beyond the home was her husband Andrei's intense involvement with the upbringing of their children, particularly their son, Aleksei. Seeing the moral education of a son as a public role, Andrei spent more time with the child than did Natalia. Unlike in the West, claims Antonova, motherhood was not seen as a woman's central function.

Andrei publicly abhorred absentee landlords; his commitment to sustaining the symbiosis between serfs and lords was motivated by a "deeply felt paternalism" that justified, in his mind, "his ownership of human beings" (48). Antonova describes Andrei's stance as a "progressive conservatism" (215). Neither Westernizer nor Slavophile, he viewed the village as "the source of moral purity"--without romanticizing the commune--while also promoting literacy and founding the first public library for serfs in his province (218). Antonova's nuanced portrayal of Andrei's intellectual influences and pursuits is just one of many threads in her stated goal to understand the lesser-known landowners who consumed rather than produced the "cultural imagery of the day" (xiii). She makes clear that they were far from passive in this consumption, making their own use of social and cultural ideas. This study thus helps to undermine generalizations about mid-nineteenth-century Russian gentry lives and attitudes.

Antonova depicts the "everydayness" of Russian provincial life with thematic chapters on subjects such as "Illness, Grief and Death," "Sociability, Charity and Leisure," and "Domesticity and Motherhood." Choice passages that bring provincial existence to life for a modern reader include a vivid description of the time needed to travel even short distances, a portrayal of the importance of reading as the central family entertainment, and a gendered discussion of family illnesses and their treatments. Such nuggets open an intriguing window into the Russian experience, albeit of a single family whose prolific letters and diaries constitute "the most elaborate and extensive archive of gentry family papers preserved in provincial Russia" (xi). This book will be of interest to Russian historians and gender scholars and is accessible for undergraduate students, including those without an extensive knowledge of Russian history.

Sally West

Truman State University
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Author:West, Sally
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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