Hard Times -A Novel of Liberals and Radicals in 1860s Russia



Review by g emil reutter


Hard Times by Vasily Sleptsov is set in the summer of 1863, two years after the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II. The Imperial Proclamation coupled with emancipation permitted landowners to mortgage portions of land to the serfs, the mortgages would be financed 80% by the government and 20% by the landowners. The proclamation was set into motion partly due to the Tsar believing the system of slavery in the United States was inhumane. Although the serfs were not slaves they were subject to the same degradation of the slaves. The government set up arbitration committees in each local community to settle any disputes. The United States is embroiled in a bitter and costly civil war over slavery.


Translator Michael R. Katz does a wonderful job in bringing this novel into the English language. Unlike other writers of his era, Sleptsov is not weighted down but wrote of social and political realities of his time set in a rural community with a triangle of main characters supported by numerous supporting characters.


Shehetnin is a liberal elitist landowner married to Mar’ia Nikolavana. Shehetnin believes in a gradual reform and is dismayed by the liberated serfs who take advantage of him. He treats them in a condescending manner yet refuses to use the courts to correct their stealing and failure to complete work he provides to them. Nikolavana is treated as a house maid instead of a wife by Shehetnin and is beginning to fight for her rights. In steps the radical Riazanov. He arrives as an acquaintance of Shehetin and quickly engages him in arguments over the treatment of the serfs and the slow progress Shehetin is making. Riazanov believes in radical change not gradual reform. He uses biting humor in his arguments with Shehetin and Nikolavana is taking with him. Like the serfs who take advantage of Shehetin, Riazanov also uses Shehetin, not paying room and board during his stay. Nikolavna decides to start a school for the children of serfs, but both men belittle her efforts. Riazanov rejects Nikolavna’s advances even as she displays a new found coldness and rejection of Shehetin. The book is well rounded with supporting characters such as the local arbitrator and various colorful local characters in the community.


Hard Times foreshadows the Russian revolution that will take place in the next century. Sleptsov notes the violence and wars encompassing the globe as he writes of the change in this small community and the strife in the marriage of Shehetin and Nikolavna who he uses to champion woman’s rights.


You can find the book here:   https://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36684


g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter






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