Theses Doctoral

Spaces of Servitude: Servant, Master, and the Negotiation of Spatial Economies in the Nineteenth-century Russian novel

Kapilevich, Inna

This dissertation examines a marginal group in Russian history and literature, domestic servants (dvorovye liudi)— proprietary peasants taken by their masters into the house to fulfill a variety of service roles. I consider this character group as an artistic device, an ideological signifier that draws upon a cluster of reader’s associations, and as a group deeply connected to the master class, the noblemen (dvoriane). Historically, the two were interconnected for generations, sharing domestic space, blood, history, and mutual interests. I argue that contrary to their historical prototypes, the Russian literary master and servant are interdependent, with both participants acutely aware of each other, allowing the implied author to use each to comment on the other and the wider social context of their relations. As the Emancipation (1861) approached, the literary portrayal of the shifting relations between these two groups began to signal the massive changes that shook Russian society during the long nineteenth century. These shifts were often depicted in spatial terms in literary works, with master and servant perpetually re-negotiating their mutual positions within limited spatial economies, most prominently, in the gentry house.

Domestic space, where masters and servants coexist and which serves as a microcosm of Russian society, is the ideal space in which authors can navigate unstable social relationships and work out potential solutions to their conflicts. The domestic stage can stand in for the political or social one. How servants navigate space in their master’s home gives clues to the broader issues authors address in their narratives.

My dissertation is structured according to the space most significant for the relationship between master and servant: the bedroom or nursery (Introduction), on the road (Chapter 1), private-public space (Chapter 2), and absence of space (Chapter 3). The Conclusion examines the increasing danger of the intimate and often inappropriate proximity of servant and master when combined with irreconcilable class differences and a steadfast resistance from those in power to the redistribution of space. I turn to works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Goncharov, Turgenev, Chekhov, and Bunin to examine these spaces.

Embedded in historical context, my project addresses the ramifications of the Emancipation and gestures forward to the historical events of the twentieth century. When high expectations for radical redistribution of resources and status were frustrated, transgression and then violence became the means for servants’ mobility, social and spatial. Russian literature from the “long nineteenth-century” captured the instability of the renegotiations of rights and resources between masters and servants. My conclusion sees the gentry house collapse as a result of these clashes.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Kapilevich_columbia_0054D_15816.pdf Kapilevich_columbia_0054D_15816.pdf application/pdf 1.58 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Reyfman, Irina
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2020