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Pavel Chistyakov (1832 – 1919) – from serfdom to the heights of art in Russia

The turn of the century was in many respects a time of great upheaval for Russia. Pavel Chistyakov is the perfect example of a man, who emancipated himself from serfdom to become a well-known painter and professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg.

Submitted by Olivia Kroth…

Pavel Petrovich Chistyakov was not only a talented artist during the epoch of Russian Realism but also an exceptional art educator. Born in 1832, deceased on the 11th of November 1919, he witnessed the Emancipation Reform of Tsar Alexander II., when all serfs in Russia gained their freedom, in 1861. This was of special importance to him, as he stemmed from a family of serfs. He lived through the Revolution of 1905 and died two years after the October Revolution of 1917. The turn of the century was in many respects a time of great upheaval for Russia. Pavel Chistyakov is the perfect example of a man, who emancipated himself from serfdom to become a well-known painter and professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. With his pedagogical talent, he formed a new generation of great artists in Russia, teaching them at the academy and giving them practical workshops in his beautiful wooden dacha, which is a museum today. Born in poverty, he gained enough money to live comfortably. In November 2019, a hundred years after his death, it is time to reassess what this man contributed to the artistic, educational and social development of Russia.

Pavel Petrovich Chistyakov (Павел Петрович Чистяков) was born in the village of Prudy, province of Tver, on the 5th of July 1832. His father was a serf, who worked for the landowner, General A. Tyutchev. Pavel’s family were lucky because their owner was a friendly, liberal man. He freed Pavel’s father, Pyotr Nikitich, when the child was born. So Pavel was liberated from serfdom, three days after his birth. Pyotr Nikitich was of simple origin but made sure that his son received a good education. Pavel’s first school was the parish school of Red Hill.

After Red Hill, he went to the Bezhetsk district school. It was in Bezhetsk that he first met the girl he later married: Vera Yegorovna Meyer, the daughter of painter Yegor Yegorovich Meyer (1820-1867). Her father was a Russian landscape painter and explorer, who spent parts of his life exporing Siberia.

Pavel Chistyakov wrote about this first meeting: “In Bezhetsk, when I was about 14 years old, I was in the Church of St. John the Evangelist around Christmas time. There I saw a girl. I forever remembered her face. And when I entered her family’s house, 23 years later, I was startled. It was the dream girl I had met in the Bezhetsk church.” Pavel and Vera got married and had three children, two daughters and a son.

In 1849, he entered the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. He lived with distant relatives, far away from the academy. According to his own calculations, he had to walk about 30 kilometres each day for classes and back. He ate sparingly: cucumbers, bread and tea. His relatives were poor people, just like his parents.

At the Academy of Arts Pavel Chistyakov received two small and two large silver medals for his excellent drawings and sketches from life. He was awarded a gold medal for his painting “Patriarch Hermogenes in Prison”, in 1860. In 1861, the artist graduated from the academy and worked as a teacher in Saint Petersburg. In the same year, he painted “Beggar Children”, remembering his humble beginnings in Red Hill as the son of a freed serf.

The canvas “Beggar Children” shows us how poor children lived at that time. We see two sad, hungry children, dressed in rags. The little girl is wearing clothes that are too big for her, maybe an old dress of her mother’s. The boy and his young sister are standing inside the door of a hut, waiting to be given some food. Many poor families sent their children to go begging from house to house, as they were not able to support them.

Pavel Chistyakov created “Beggar Children” in 1861, the year of the Emancipation Reform (Крестьянская реформа). This was one of the first reforms passed by Tsar Alexander II. The reform abolished serfdom in the Russian Empire. By this edict 23 million people received their liberty. Serfs gained the full rights of free citizens, including rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy land from their landlords. Household serfs gained only their freedom and no land.

Despite newly acquired freedom, the life of a serf remained grim in many aspects. The serfs of private estates received less land than they needed to survive, which led to civil unrest. The redemption tax was so high that the serfs had to sell all the grain they produced to pay the tax, which left nothing for their survival. Some of the newly freed serfs were forced to rent their land from wealthy aristocratic landowners, the tsar’s boyars. Pavel Chistyakov created the portrait of such a “boyar”, in 1876. As a renowned painter, he had many clients from the privileged class who paid him well for their portraits.

When the peasants had to work for the same landowners, who freed them, to pay their labour payments, they neglected their own fields. Over the next few years, the yields from the peasants’ crops remained low, and soon famine struck a large portion of Russia. With little food, and finding themselves in a similar condition as when they were serfs, many peasants started to voice their disdain for the new social system.

Psychologists and sociologists argue that 800 years of serfdom in Russia created a historic trauma, which is connected to collective memory and the formation of collective identity.  Serfdom in Russia can be traced back to the 12th century. The view of a unique Russian, later Soviet identity emerged at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, after serfdom had been abolished. However, the collective trauma of forced servitude and of nearly complete subordination to the will and whims of another human being was handed down from one generation to the next. It persisted throughout the 20th century and can still be felt in the 21st century.

Historical trauma is passed down over generations, so that even family members who have not directly experienced the trauma can feel the effects of the events generations later. Thus, individual trauma becomes collective, as it affects a significant part of the population and becomes compounded. Historical trauma is associated with increased stress vulnerability and trauma symptoms like alcohol and drug abuse, depression, infections, promiscuous habits, violence and suicide.

The traumatic effects of serfdom in Russia were transferred to successive generations, undermining their sense of group identity, values, meaning and purpose, manifested in symptoms of hopelessness, despair and anxiety. There was little value or meaning in the lives of Russian serfs. They were callously tied to their capacity for labour or ability to reproduce. They were banned from schools and could not learn either reading or writing.

This accumulated trauma of serfdom erupted in the two Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 with bloodshed and violence. The Tsar’s family was killed, the nobility disowned and driven into exile. Their possessions were nationalized. The liberated serfs took what they thought was rightfully theirs. They had been exploited and received no wages for 800 years. In the 20th century, they seized what was their due.

In October 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power and inaugurated the first communist workers’ state. Everybody who worked got paid. The vast majority of the population of the nascent Soviet state were illiterate peasants, former serfs. The Bolsheviks built schools for the entire population. For the first time in Russian history, every peasant child could acquire higher education.

In the following years, 180 million people learned to read and write, 120 million children received free education, and millions of people studied at universities. In less than 15 years, from 1923 to 1938, the USSR became one of the leading economies in the world. The state embarked on a nationwide enterprise to build decent housing for everybody. For the first time in history, Russians were able to live in solid homes, although the standard Soviet apartment blocks were sometimes a sore to the eyesight.

Would Pavel Chistyakov have approved of them? Maybe not, as he was an aesthete who created beauty and surrounded himself with beauty. In his later years, when the painter acquired fame and money, he was able to live in a comfortable home himself, a beautiful wooden dacha in Tsarskoye Selo. This little town bore the name of ‘the Tsar’s settlement’, until 1918, then Detskoe Selo, the ‘Children’s Village’, from 1918 to 1937,  and finally Pushkin, from 1937 onwards until today.

In 1872, Pavel Chistyakov received the post of associate professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. In 1892, he was appointed a member of the academic council and head of the mosaic workshop. Pavel Chistyakov devoted himself entirely to teaching at the academy in winter, holding workshops for his students in his dacha in summer. He is considered as the teacher of art, who laid the foundation for many famous Russian artists following in his footsteps.

He was actually quite a severe and picky teacher. In particular, he made fun of complacency which he considered to be the main obstacle to creative growth. Pavel Chistyakov had an unmistakable flair for the nature and scale of his students’ abilities. He seemed to foresee what would later become of them. He valued talent but knew that every artist needs, above all, a lot of patience and perseverance.

Hundreds of students passed through his academic classes and workshops. Yet the best evidence of the eminent role he played in the history of Russian art is a galaxy of outstanding students who later became famous masters: Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), Ilya Repin (1844-1930), Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), Yehuda Pen (1854-1937), Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), Valentin Serov (1865-1911), Victor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905).

One of his students described Pavel Chistyakov in this way: “He had a teaching method that yielded brilliant results. He was short and thin, with a haircut like a peasant, a small beard and clever, penetrating eyes. He was always modestly dressed, without the slightest claim to pose.” One of Professor Chistyakov’s mottos was, “Art touches and elevates the soul, but true art does it quietly and unobtrusively” (1881).

Pavel Chistyakov asked his students to research nature: “In the art of painting you should first research nature and only after that learn how to depict it.” He viewed nature as a source of inspiration and knowledge for the creation of art. Being a realistic artist himself, he believed that only art which reflects real life can be a source of knowledge. However, he also demanded from his students a creative reinterpretation of real life according to their own personal ideas.

He believed that artistic professionalism could only be reached through systematic, thoughtful studies. Therefore an artist had to get a good general education. The exchange of thoughts between students and teacher was also important to him. Pavel Chistyakov was always ready to answer his students’ questions and to participate in discussions about art. He was a man of wide knowledge himself. His son recalled: “Pavel Petrovich, besides painting, was interested in many other things: literature, music, philosophy, religion, science, and even sports. All of this fascinated him.” Pavel’s son became a professional singer.

After many years of pedagogical practice, Professor Chistyakov developed helpful
suggestions for the structure of Russian art education and its curriculum. He was convinced that the teaching of art should be included as a mandatory subject in the secondary school programme of Russia. He viewed art as an important tool for young people’s development, since it helps them to learn about the world.

Professor Chistyakov thought that the art curriculum at schools should be systematic and successive. Theory should be connected with practice and a new assignment be given only
after the previous one was fully completed and understood. He formed his own curriculum by setting gradually more difficult artistic and creative goals for his students. Pavel Chistyakov viewed his art and pedagogical activities as a service to his country (Oksana Piviuk, TEACHING METHODS AND PEDAGOGICAL IDEAS OF PAVEL PETROVICH CHISTYAKOV, University of Arizona 2013).

The famous Russian painter Mikhail Nesterov wrote in his memoirs about his former professor, “Every time I visited Saint Petersburg, I tried to visit Pavel Petrovich in his
private studio or in the mosaic studio at the academy. I loved Pavel Petrovich as a
teacher and artist. I extremely valued his system. I loved his original mind, his
unique way of talking and his genuinely Russian soul.”

On the 11th of November 1919, two years after the October Revolution of 1917, Pavel Chistyakov died and was buried in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin). In November 2019, a hundred years after his death, it is time to reevaluate his importance not only as an artist but above all as an outstanding teacher, whose many years of work at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg determined to a large extent the fate of the realistic school of painting in Russia, at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century.

Pavel Chistyakov’s teaching methods and pedagogical approaches were innovative and successful. He was very concerned with the quality of art education in Russian public schools. With his ascent to the heights of Russian art, he was definitely an extraordinary man, who played an important part in the development of Russian art education.

Furthermore, he is an impressive example of the first generation of freed serfs, who made their way to the top of Russian society by making contributions of great value due to their talent, devotion and hard work. Pavel Chistyakov’s success story is worthy to be valued and remembered.

Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.
Her blog:

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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Olivia Kroth
November 10, 2019

Город Красный Холм / Red Hill, Tver – 1900s

Olivia Kroth
November 10, 2019

Дом-музей П.П. Чистякова (Pavel P. Chistyakov House-Museum)

Jane Karlsson
Jane Karlsson
Reply to  Olivia Kroth
November 12, 2019

Is that you being interviewed?

This article was very interesting, like others of yours I have read. Very careful research and yet very readable.

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Jane Karlsson
November 13, 2019

No, Jane, this is not me being interviewed. It is the curator of the home and museum, she is an art historian. Thanks for liking this article. Actually, I find the research part of the whole process the most fascinating of all. So many new things to learn! But of course, I love writing, too. It is my passion.

Jonathan Bethune
Jonathan Bethune
November 10, 2019

I agree. Honor and respect, an acknowledgment of a man turning the corner on a history and finding a future . Those are issues I’m wrestling with , the finding of purpose in this life were given. There are so many philosophers who will espose there points of view on how to conform and become ” complete” in the system. A role model…The thing is ..the more you educate yourself as to the modalities of conduct the more you realize that a wide spectrum of behaviour is expressed as ” optimal” . So who’s right? Surely there has to be… Read more »

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Jonathan Bethune
November 11, 2019

Thank you for your comment, Jonathan. I agree, Pavel Chistyakov deserves honour and respect. He was an exceptional human being. Not everybody has the fortune to master his own life in such a splendid way as he did. I think this point that you mention is especially interesting: Who will do better, a stable or a volatile character? Chistyakov was stable, not volatile. He had great talent and a strong will to succeed. Furthermore, he was healthy. He walked 30 km every day to get his education at the Imperial Academy of Art. Not everybody could do that. He fulfilled… Read more »

Ole C G Olesen
Ole C G Olesen
November 13, 2019

Your Narrative is as usual full of Omissions and even Lies. Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861 and started a very benevolent distribution program of Land to the Peasants. culminating in the so-called STOLYPIN Act of 1906 whereby in 1914 80 % of all arable land in Russia was placed in the hands of normal Peasants . The Peasants State Bank provided loans at very low interest to the peasants establishing themselves as independent Farmers. This was the background for the Fact that Czar Russia became the BREAD BASKET of the WORLD, with Russian production of Cereals EXCEEDING the… Read more »

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Ole C G Olesen
November 13, 2019

My main point of interest in this article is the biography of the painter and pedagogue, Pavel Chistyakov. Of course there is a lot more to be said about the land reform of Tsar Alexander II and what followed in its wake. I did not mean to put down the Tsar in any way, Ole. In fact, I quite like him and admire him. He dared to tackle this most difficult task, thus improving the lives of millions of serfs … However, it remains a fact that serfdom in Russia, from the 12th to the 19th century, created a national… Read more »

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