Discordant Marriage Under the Tsars



by Barbara Alpern Engel

I have always been fascinated by the personal dimensions of social and historical change, but never have been able to explore them as broadly, deeply and intimately as I am able to do in Breaking the Ties that Bound. The project began with a stroke of sheer luck: In 1991 an archivist at the Russian State Historical Archive introduced me to an extraordinary collection of documents that provided a window onto the intimate lives and expectations of a highly diverse group of ordinary people. The documentary collection was the indirect result of Russia’s rigid family laws, which required unlimited obedience of wives to husbands, severely limited divorce, strictly forbade couples to separate, and made wives’ mobility dependent on their husbands’ permission. Lacking legal recourse, tens of thousands of unhappy wives turned to the ruler himself, petitioning the tsar for relief. He, or more precisely, the bureaucrats in the Imperial Chancellery for Receipt of Petitions who acted in his name, held the authority to bestow His Majesty’s mercy on the women, releasing them from the authority of their husbands and granting them the right to live on their own. 

The women who submitted these appeals came from widely varied backgrounds. The vast majority were peasants, Russia’s largest population group, although the women who appealed were far less likely than ordinary peasants to live in their native villages. Most had found employment somewhere else.  Others derived from Russia’s urban middling classes, whose lives historians have just begun to investigate, while still others were married to nobles, officers, civil servants, even clergymen. The women’s geographic location varied as well. While some two-thirds lived in either Moscow or St. Petersburg at the time of petitioning, the remainder dwelled in the towns and villages scattered over Russia’s vast expanses.  

Appeals from these diverse women were just the beginning of an elaborate process. Interesting as many appeals were, what made the documentary collection remarkable were the products of the investigations that followed.   They were launched by an imperial administration that held the authority to gather whatever information it considered necessary for discovering the “real reason” for marital breakdown and deciding whether the petitioner merited the tsar’s mercy. Witnesses named by both spouses were summoned and questioned, and local authorities were invited to report on the outcome of inquiries and to share what they already knew.  If the “real reason” proved especially elusive, undercover investigations were launched, in which a policeman or gendarme would query neighbors and others in a position to shed light on the source of the couple’s disputes. Sometimes, these investigators even subjected a husband or wife suspected of sexual misconduct to secret surveillance. These investigations left a copious paper trail. Officials’ deliberations occurred behind closed doors and without the presence of the contending parties or their representatives, and were based exclusively on written statements and reports rather than oral testimony. This documentation is preserved in chancellery dossiers, or at least the fully documented dossiers that have been preserved (a fraction of the total).  The dossiers I read—260 in all– also offer a wealth of other documentation that was originally generated for purposes quite unrelated to a particular appeal—personal letters, property settlements, records of proceedings in civil courts, and much, much more.

The dossiers were at one and the same time fascinating to read and initially at least, overwhelming to think and write about. They were replete with the kind of personal information historians rarely encounter outside of diaries or the correspondence of particular individuals. They might contain intimate sexual revelations (“I kiss you in the place that only I can kiss” reads one letter from a lover, which her husband had somehow managed to purloin, to a discontented wife) as well as stories of courtship, marital relations and marital breakdown. Spouses, husbands especially, elaborated the sources of marital conflict in revealing detail. Educated men often produced written accounts of their own and their wives’ conduct that might be dozens of pages long, sometimes with chapter titles (“How my wife ruined our marriage”), aimed at gaining the sympathy of chancellery officials and defending their marital prerogatives against the challenges posed by their wives’ appeals. The dossiers were also highly individual, no two quite alike. They seemed to offer vivid proof of Leo Tolstoy’s famous statement in his novel, Anna Karenina that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. What initially made these materials even harder to think about was that very little had been written about intimate life and expectations in Russia during this time period. In order to make sense of what I was reading, I had to explore a lot of other contemporary sources, including the popular press and prescriptive literature, as well as published memoirs, diaries, and the like. 


These helped me to see the significance of the archival documents, which, I came to realize, offered the raw materials for a portrait of the profound economic, social and cultural changes that occurred in Russia in the decades before World War I from the unique perspective of intimate life. Historians have long known that these years were a time of dramatic change in some areas, and of enormous stasis in others. Even as Tsars Alexander II (1855-1881), Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1894-1917) preserved their monopoly on political power and, until 1905, denied their subjects fundamental civil rights, they promoted other, destabilizing changes in the aftermath of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and other “Great Reforms.” My subjects’ words and actions illustrated how state policies of economic modernization and rapid industrialization affected not just public life, but personal life as well.

Most importantly, my documents highlighted the impact on ordinary individuals of the burgeoning marketplace and new consumer culture. They encouraged more individualistic values and greater attentiveness to feeling and the self, which posed challenges to older and more family-centered ways of being in the world. One sign of change—and one that surprised me–was complaints by a substantial minority of discontented wives about how their husband was selected. Although arranged marriages had long been the norm among most social groups in Russia, discontented wives nevertheless complained of marriage made at parents’ volition and not the women’s own, and their critiques were echoed by a diverse range of others. Another sign of change was that love became more important to women, reflected in the willingness of some women not only to engage in extra-marital affairs but also to defend their own right to happiness, even to officials, despite the opprobrium with which many of these officials still regarded infidelity.   

Economic changes also affected the ways that some men thought about, or at least wrote and spoke about, themselves. Generating new opportunities for employment, industrialization greatly increased social mobility in a society that had, at least until mid-century, been relatively static. Individual comportment gained importance as a measure of social worth, especially for men with aspirations to a genteel status. This was evident in their response to allegations that they had beaten their wives. Whereas once even noblemen were quite prepared to acknowledge such violence (“It’s my right” declared one nobleman so accused in 1836), by the 1880s, this had changed. Confronted with their wives’ accusations, noblemen as well as professionals and members of the commercial middling classes invoked new ideals of masculine self-command even in the face of what they presented as extreme female provocation (“I would never permit myself to strike her”; “I never even raised my voice”), whereas working class and peasant men proved quite ready to acknowledge resorting to violence, which they invariably blamed on their wife’s misbehavior (“Of course I beat her. She wasted the money.”)  

Thus, while Tolstoy may be right that unhappy marriages are all different, people nevertheless enter marriage with expectations drawn from their social milieu and they express their unhappiness in the language that their culture made available them. Others, commenting on unhappy marriages, do the same. I found that over the thirty-year period that I studied, many Russians began to imagine their lives and options differently and to act accordingly, while others grew more tolerant of female behavior they might once have considered unacceptable. Among these others were not only the relatives, friends, neighbors, employers and employees who spoke with investigators about discordant marriages, but also policemen, gendarmes and imperial officials, up to and including the chancellery officials who spoke in the name of the tsar. Almost all of them grew more respectful of women’s personal rights. The evolution of chancellery officials’ attitudes was perhaps most striking of all. In the course of their thirty years of resolving marital disputes, they became more tolerant of female aspirations, more respectful of the female person, and less wedded to administrative constraints on female mobility and the authoritarian family structure still upheld by imperial law.

About the Author:

Barbara Engel is Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and specializes in Russian and Soviet history, with a particular focus on women. Her published works include Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth Century Russia (Cambridge), Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work and Family in Russia (Cambridge), and Women in Russia: 1700-2000 (Cambridge).