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Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009

IU professor's book examines life for Russia's merchant class, 200 years ago

April 28, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Ivan Alekseevich TolchŽnov lived the life of a typical Russian merchant of the late 1700s and early 1800s, but with a major difference -- he wrote it all down.

David L. Ransel, the Robert F. Byrnes Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, has used TolchŽnov's detailed diary to produce a revealing book about a segment of Russian society that had been largely ignored by historians.

A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich TolchŽnov, Based on His Diary, has been published by Indiana University Press.

The diary, which sat neglected for more than 100 years, recorded TolchŽnov's daily comings and goings, his contacts with lords and laborers, and information about the education, work, business, civic and religious practices of the Russian merchant class of 200 years ago.

"We really didn't know anything about the daily life of commercial people in Russia, and this diary has opened the door to that," Ransel said.

Ransel, the author of several books on Russian history, combined the diary with extensive research on documentary and printed sources in Russia. The picture that emerges of TolchŽnov reveals continuous financial uncertainty, social striving and concern for appearances.

"Life for a merchant was extremely precarious," Ransel said. "Who you were and what you could achieve depended on this front that you created."

Ivan Alekseevich TolchŽnov was born in 1754 into a family of grain traders in the city of Dmitrov, 50 miles north of Moscow. While he had little formal education, he enjoyed reading and the theater and valued his contacts with nobles. He was a prosperous merchant, engaging in philanthropy and civic life, building a grand masonry house, and developing impressive gardens and orangeries.

But TolchŽnov's life was marked by personal and financial setbacks. Only four of his 16 children survived to adulthood. He lived beyond his means and ignored details of his business, and eventually he went through complex machinations to conceal his massive and growing debts.

His front collapsed around 1800. Aided by political connections, he avoided serious legal trouble and moved to Moscow, where he reinvented himself as a playing card manufacturer. His diary ends in 1812 with the social disruption that came from Napoleon's invasion of Russia. TolchŽnov died in 1825.

Sometime in the 19th century, the 1,000-page diary was deposited in the archives of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Someone inventoried it in the 1930s, Ransel said, but an excerpt first became available to historians in the 1970s. Ransel eventually got the entire document on microfilm, then spent several summers doing research in Russia to provide the context for TolchŽnov's fascinating and instructive life story.

"It's a moral tale," he said. "The question is, what propelled him along this line of rise and collapse?"