Katherine Pickering Antonova

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Katherine Pickering Antonova’s An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2012) investigates the Chikhachevs, members of the middling nobility in the pre-emancipation era. The book’s principal characters are Andrei, a graphomaniacal paterfamilias who (conveniently for historians) enlists his entire family in diary keeping and presides over the education of his son and serfs with love, moral clarity, and despotic meticulousness. And Natalia, the indefatigable khoziaika, who runs the estate, manages the budget, negotiates with serfs, and suffers from numerous hysterical ailments. Andrei and Natalia’s children, the entirely average Aleksei and almost wholly undocumented Aleksandra, round out the family portrait, as does Natalia’s brother and their neighbor, the loquacious Yakov Chernavin (predictably, since no nineteenth-century story of Russian provincial family life is complete without an eccentric and omnipresent bachelor uncle).

Like any well-executed microhistory, An Ordinary Marriage looks intensively in a seemingly narrow place in order to get answers to large questions. Close readings of the diaries, articles, and other personal papers left by the Chikhachevs produce fascinating insights about the world of Russia’s gentry: their division of labor, views on serfdom, attitudes toward children and childhood, models of education, habits and feelings surrounding death and mourning, and approaches to medicine and etiology. We also learn about more pleasantly mundane yet highly instructive aspects of middling noble life: literary and philosophical tastes, home remedies, patronage systems, leisure, and everyday religious practice. While Kate explains that she does not see the Chikhachevs as representative, she nonetheless shows convincingly that their values and domestic arrangements were accepted — viewed as “normal” — by provincial Russia. Neighbors, for example, did not worry that Natalia managed the family estate and villages comprised of hundreds of serfs while her husband raised their son and wrote articles at home. The book’s findings, therefore, constitute a significant contribution not only to the study of imperial Russia but also to European gender history, economic history, the history of emotions, and childhood studies.


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