A Russian Merchant's Tale

A Russian Merchant's Tale

The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov, Based on His Diary
David L. Ransel
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 11/26/2008
Format: Paperback 15 b&w photos, 5 maps
ISBN: 978-0-253-22020-2
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Based on the rare diary of an 18th-century Russian provincial merchant, A Russian Merchant's Tale presents a revealing portrait of Russia's little-known commercial class. By recording his daily contacts with a wide array of individuals from lords to laborers for more than 40 years, Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov opened a window onto the education, work, birth, death, marriage, business, civic, holiday, and religious practices of a social group about which little has been known. Using the tools of microhistory to interpret the diary, David L. Ransel vividly brings to life Tolchënov's self-construction, his relations with family and society, and his entire world of aspirations, achievements, and failures. Challenging prevailing stereotypes of Russian merchants as tradition-bound and narrow-minded, A Russian Merchant's Tale offers important new insights into the social history of imperial Russia.

Author Bio

David L. Ransel is Robert F. Byrnes Professor of History and Director of the Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is author of Village Mothers: Three Generations of Change in Russia and Tataria (IUP, 2005) and editor (with Jane Burbank) of Imperial Russia: New Histories for the Empire (IUP, 1998).


“Based on the rare diary of an 18th-century provincial merchant who recorded his daily contacts with both lords and laborers for more than 40 years, Ransel opens a window into Russia's little-known commercial class and offers new insights into the social history of imperial Russia.”

“A Russian Merchant's Tale will change fundamentally the way we think about imperial Russian society.”
 — Daniel Kaiser, co-editor of Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860–1860s

“David Ransel has teased out of a text largely made up of laconic references to obscure people and places a story that is compelling to read and sheds light on important aspects of imperial Russian social and cultural history. . . . An impressively researched, beautifully constructed book.”
 — Alexander Martin, author of Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries: Russian Conservative Politics in the Age of Alexander

“Ransel's account provides a vivid analysis of educated merchants in provincial Russia . . . His skill in blending narative and analysis and the elegance of his prose make the book a pleasure to read.84.1, Spring 2010”
 — Business History Review

“. . . Ivan Tolchenov's journal, and David Ransel's scrupulous work with it, have produced an insightful portrait of one Russian merchant and of a 'lost' Russian middle class.Vol. 32.3 Summer 2009”
 — Lina Bernstein, BIOGRAPHY

“Russian merchants have never enjoyed a good press. Since the middle of the nineteenth century the spectre of the samodur - the crude grasping domestic tyrant who reigned supreme over 'a dark kingdom' . . . - has exerted a stubborn hold over popular perceptons of the merchant class. . . . The past few decades, however, have witnessed a shift away from these old habits, and David Ransel's book is an important addition to a robust field of research devoted to these middle orders. Oct. 23, 2009”
 — Douglas Smith, TLS - Times Literary Supplement

“Tolchënov's Journal has found a fluid interpreter in David L. Ransel, whose patient, knowing analysis illuminates the many gems the diary has to offer . . . . [This book] portrays with unique breadth the middling, provincial world of Russia's widely scattered townsfolk . . . . Ransel's close study will bear repeated reading and help historians visualize the world of eighteenth-century Russia across many dimensions.Vol. 115 Feb. 2010”
 — John Randolph, University of Illinois, Urbana‐Champaign

“Like an intrepid detective, Ransel grasps these slender clues, and, armed with an inexhaustible inquisitiveness and an imaginative modus operandi, he sets out to provide a detailed and vivid reconstruction of the life of this merchant. . . . The end result is a lively narrative with few antecedents in Russian historiography. . . . This is a book deserving of a wide and appreciative readership. As source study, methodology, argument, and narrative A Merchant's Tale offers rich rewards.Spring 2010”
 — Slavic Review

“Tolchёnov’s diary, available in a Russian edition, is a rich source. Thanks to this fertile encounter between the energetic chronicler and the gifted historian, we have here an edition that reads like a novel while offering a course in Russian history.”
 — Canadian — American Slavic Studies

“David Ransel brought . . . his extensive studies . . . [of] Russian merchants to a dignified conclusion . . . [T]his book in the future will inspire many . . . research questions.”
 — H-Soz-Kult

“. . . [the author] used Tolchenov's detailed diary to produce a revealing book about a segment of Russian society that had been largely ignored by historians . . . .May 3, 2009”
 — Herald Times

“. . . beautifully written . . . a first-rate scholarly work that challenges our perception of a non-elite person's daily life in the provincial Russia of the second half of the eighteenth century . . . . The result is microhistory at its best. Ransel manages to bring a life, turned nothing but dry text, back to life again. . . . a ground-breaking and thought-provoking contribution to the historiography of eighteenth-century Russia.Vol. 68.4 October 2009”
 — Olga E. Glagoleva, Toronto, Canada

“Ransel has long since established his bona fides as a specialist in Russian social history. Here, he deploys his expertise to good effect in deciphering the intricacies of the Tolchënov diaries. Vol. 82.4, December 2010”
 — Journal of Modern History

“Ransel's account serves as an excellent introduction to the complicated development of Russian society in an era of Enlightenment and change. Volume 73, No. 1 2011”

“[F]rom the thin threads of Tolchenov's sketchy diary jottings, Ransel has managed to weave a broad tapestry of a Russian merchant's life. This is expertly done by judicious use of the year-end summaries and supporting archival material.”
 — Slavonic and East European Review

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Table of Contents


1. The Setting, Education, Youth, and Marriage
2. Local Politics during Ivan's Youth
3. Junior Member of the Family Firm: Merchant Life in Dmitrov
4. Young Paterfamilias
5. Leading Citizen
6. Eminent Trickster
7. Moscow Townsman
8. A New Equilibrium

Appendix: Genealogical Table for the Family of Boris Tolchënov