This source concerns a case that was brought to a district court in Veisenshtein (now Paide in Estonia) in the late nineteenth century. The complainant, Lena Izup, was an illiterate Estonian-speaking peasant who worked as a domestic servant. Her complaint lay with Mart Tambok, another Estonian-speaking peasant who she claimed was the father of her child. Lena Izup asked Revel’ District Court to ‘make an order’ against Tambok, which meant force him to acknowledge paternity and pay financial maintenance for the child’s upbringing. The case was heard in September 1890 and Mart was ordered by the court to pay Lena a one-off sum of 15 rubles, plus 10 rubles per year of child maintenance until the child turned 13.
Under Russian imperial law, fornication (understood as consensual sexual intercourse between heterosexual unmarried partners) was a crime under article 994. The punishment for fornication for Christians was spiritual penance, but if unlawful fornication resulted in the birth of a child, the father was also required to pay maintenance for both the child and the mother at an amount proportionate to his economic status. Article 994 was interpreted as a tool for ensuring the welfare for unwed mothers, but if a man could prove that the woman claiming maintenance had ‘loose morals’ or had been engaged in prostitution at the time of fornication, he would be exempt from making the maintenance payments. Therefore, this statute served to bolster the patriarchal and honour-based nature of Russian imperial society, as only the children of women who conformed to specific standards of behaviour were deemed worthy of financial support.
The letters below show the different rhetorical strategies used by Lena and Mart to appeal to the courts. This source also provides insight into how ordinary people navigated the judicial system in the Russian Empire. From other documents in the archival file, it is clear that neither Lena and Mart could not write in Russian, but this was not necessarily a barrier for bringing a case to court. Both Lena and Mart sought the help from Russian-speakers and scribes to draft their letters to the court, and their testimony was translated from Estonian to Russian by bilingual court officials.


Child maintenance in the Russian Empire

Rahvusarhiiv (National Archives of Estonia) EAA.105.1.8164.
Original language:

Letter from Lena Izup to Revel District Court, March 1890.

To Your Excellency Judicial Investigator of the Revel District Court of the First Section of  Veisenshtein [German – Weißenstein, Estonian – Paide] District

From Lena Izup, a peasant woman from Estliand province, Kirna parish


In 1888, I worked as a domestic servant in Kirna parish together with Mart Tambok. During this time, he took advantage of me with the promise of marriage. As a result, I received an illegitimate child with Mart Tambok. I have brought up my child for a whole year and have not received anything from him, so I ask Your Excellency to make an order for this case.

26 March 1890.

[She is illiterate so she signs her letter with XXX. Lena Izup likely dictated this letter to a scribe, who wrote it on her behalf].

Letter from Mart Tambok to Revel District Court, September 1890.

To Your Excellency, Prosecutor of the Revel District Court

From Mart Tambok, a peasant


With the permission of your Your Excellency, I will present witnesses to the court for my case, which is scheduled to take place at the Revel District Court in September 1890 in the town of Veisenshtein. I have the honour to make a most humble request to Your Excellency to accept my witnesses, who can in good conscience show that I am not guilty of the offense that Lena Izup accuses of me in vain – that I have made her pregnant. I cannot agree with this claim in any way because Lena Izup has had a secret relationship with many people, including the master of the house, Hans Lutz. She is generally a licentious woman (a whore), and peasant women of the Kirna estate can testify to this, including Anna Pavelts and Anna Nankman. I do not admit that Lena’s child is mine, and maybe the father is Hans Lutz himself. Based on the above, I humbly ask Your Excellency to help me, a poor innocent peasant, and I request that my witnesses Anna Nankman and Anna Pavelts be brought to court.

4 September 1890.

[He signs his name in Latin script, which indicates that he could not write in Russian and had therefore hired a scribe]


Original version (in Russian)

  • Прошение

Высочеству Господину Судебному Следователю Ревельского Окружного Суда 1 участка Вейсенштенского уезда

Крестьянка Лена Изуп из Эстляндской губернии, Кирна волости


В 1888 году я служила в Кирнаской волости вместе с Мартом Тамбоком во время служения от обманул меня с обещанием жениться. Вследствие того я поучила незаконного дитя с Мартом Тамбоком. Но так как я воспитала свое дитя уже целый год и не получила никакой со стороны его, но я поэтому прошу Ваше Высочество сделать распоряжение в этом деле.


26 март 1890г.

  • Прошение

Его Превосходительство Прокурору Ревельского Окружного Суда

Крестьянин Марта Томбак


Получив дозволение Вашего Превосходительство с своей стороны представит свидетелей суду по моему делу, которое назначено для вы слушания Ревельским Окружным Судом в сентября сего текущего 1890 в город Вейсенитейне, я честь имею обратиться с всепокорнейшею просьбою к Вашему Превосходительству принять моих свидетелей, которые могут вполне по совести показать, что я вовсе не виновен в этом проступке, в чем меня только напрасно обвиняет Лена Изуп, будто-был сделал ее беременною. На что я никак не могу согласиться потому что упомянутая Лена Изуп имеет тайную связь с разными люднее как именно с своим хозяином Гансом Луц и вообще непотребная женщина (блудница) что могут засвидетельствовать крестьянки имения Кирна Вейсентейнского уезда, там-же и проживающие Анна Павельц и Анна Нанкман. Из вовсе не признаюсь себе, она от тому ребенку, от которого раздушилась Лена, а может быть этом хозяин он Ганс Луц сам.

На основании вышеизложенного всепокорнейшее прошу Ваше Превосходительство, пособит мне бедному невиновному крестьянину и ходатайствовать о том, чтобы мои свидетелю Анна Найман и Анна Павельц были бы приведены к суду.

4 сентябрь 1890г.


Further reading: Siobhán Hearne, ‘Social Welfare Provision at the Imperial Edge: Single Mothers and Abandoned Children in the Late Russian Empire’, Gender & History, 35:3 (2023): 973-993.

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Siobhán Hearne

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Siobhán Hearne

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