Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Remember When . . . The Serfs Were Artists?

Oh. My. Gracious.

So. As I was debating what servant POV I was going to use in the third installment of my Ladies of the Manor Series, I decided it would be fun to have it be the lady's maid of the villain rather than the heroine. Though of course, she couldn't just be any lady's maid. Each of my servants' POVs in the other two books propelled the story forward pretty spectacularly, so this one had to have a big purpose too.

So naturally, I decided she must be a Russian spy. Because, you know...of course. ;-) No seriously, it fits perfectly. My villains have made some pretty huge promises to "the Russian," but they haven't been able to deliver on said promises. Mr. The Russian might be getting a wee bit impatient, nyet? So obviously, he's going to be looking into this.

Enter Miss Russian Spy. =D

Her name is Kira Belova, and in my mind's eye she looks like this.
Elizaveta Boyarskaya, Russian actress who would be a perfect Kira
I wasn't really sure of her story, or how to write her, so I emailed my friend who has studied Russian history for years to ask for some guidance. She pointed me to a HUGE, hefty, meaty, enthralling book called Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes. I read for hours over the weekend, starting out going through the book chronologically and then jumping around a bit to the different sections so I could get closer to the time period I needed.

And Kira's story started to crystallize.

Kira comes from a family of Russian peasant stock who were, until serfdom was abolished in the 1860s in Russia, serfs. Not just any serfs though--artist serfs. What are they, you might ask? I don't know that I'd ever heard of this practice, or if I had, I'd forgotten. But Mr. Figes wrote a lot about them, all of it so very interesting.

The noble, wealthy families in Russia from the late 1700s through the mid 1800s controlled a lot. All the land, all the people who lived on the land. They had such a huge work force that it sometimes resulted in comical things like a horn band in which, rather than teach anyone to play their horn well, they simply taught scores of them to play one note well...and then to know where in the song to play their one note. (???? LOL)

The leading families created orchestras...operas...theaters...ballets.... They had architects...artists...and often harems from among the serfs. They would select a few of their serfs and send them to academies and Imperial schools in the capital, and then those artists would work for their masters. They could achieve great fame, but only rarely did their masters let them work for anyone else or accept commissions that could earn them fortune as well. It was considered fashionable and Western (it was very desirable to be Western in Russia in that era) to have a slew of serf girls devoted to your personal, intimate pleasure. Masters could treat these girls any way they desired--and when the girls got too old to please them, they'd usually marry them off to their best male serfs and give them a dowry.

As I read about these artist serfs over the weekend, I began to get a feel for Kira's family's story. I decided that her babushka (grandmother) was an artist serf, who ended up wed to her master's huntsman (the elite of the male serfs)...but only after being one of his Girls. She was a singer or actress (haven't decided which) but also--as most Russians were--a woman of great faith. (One famous Russian writer observed that Russians, as a whole, had to have great faith in order to survive life in Russia.) She raised her family to value above all the freedom they were granted. To do what they ought. To understand, as Russian peasants are famous for understanding, the realities of life and death.
Posters for the Ballet Russe, 1911

Kira would have broken her babushka's heart when she ran off to Paris and joined the Ballet Russe--or rather, when she embraced the life of a ballerina in the Ballet Russe, which involved having a "patron" who supported her in high style...for, of course, the cost of being his mistress. The life Babushka had hated, had so valued getting away from, and Kira chose it freely.

But Kira's going to get her redemption story, and it's going to be a lot of fun to write. Because through her uniquely Russian understanding of life, she's going to bring healing to some broken places in the world of her new English mistress. She, who has an intrinsic understanding of life and death (some of Tolstoy's final words were musings about how the peasants die), will have wisdom to offer, though she never anticipated taking on such a role. She, though a spy, will help knit together families long feuding.

Yep. So. Much. Fun. The learning, the writing, the creating. Let's pray I can adequately capture that Russian soul that so many artists and writers made it their life's work to shape and bring to light--a Russian soul in many ways created by those artists struggling to understand their history and cultural identity.


  1. Figes knows his Russian history, culture, etc - I took a class on the revolution, and our sole text was his 850-odd-page tome A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. Exceedingly thorough, but well-written and interesting. I'm glad you've found him for your source material! Per my Russian teachers, you couldn't find better!

    1. Same with this one! Informative, thorough, well-written, and so very interesting. I'm loving it.