Modern Customs and Ancient Laws of Russia :
Lecture VI

Modern Customs and Ancient Laws of Russia
by Maxime Kovalevsky

Lecture V Contents
Economic Treatises

The Origin, Growth, and Abolition of Personal Servitude in Russia

An account of the origin, growth, and abolition of serfdom in Russia might easily be made to fill volumes, so vast and so various are the materials on which the study of it is based. But for the purpose now in view, that of bringing before your notice the general conclusion to which Russian historians and legists have come as to the social development of their country, perhaps a single lecture will suffice. In it I cannot pretend to do more than present to you those aspects of the subject on which the minds of Russian scholars have been specially fixed of late years.

Among the first to be considered is the origin of that system of personal servitude and bondage to the land in which the Russian peasant lived for centuries. An opinion long prevailed that this system was due solely to the action of the State, which, at the end of the sixteenth century, abolished the freedom of migration previously enjoyed by the Russian peasant and bound him for ever to the soil. This opinion, which would have made Russian serfdom an institution quite apart from that of the serfdom of the Western States of Europe, has been happily abandoned, and consequently its development becomes the more interesting, in so far as it discloses the action of those economic and social forces which produced the personal and real servitude of the so-called villein all over Europe.

Whilst stating the most important facts in the history of Russian serfdom, I shall constantly keep in view their analogy with those presented by the history of English or French villenage. By so doing I hope to render the natural evolution of Russian serfdom the more easily understood.

The first point to which I desire to call your attention is the social freedom enjoyed by the Russian peasant in the earlier portion of medieval history. The peasant, then known by the name of smerd -- from the verb smerdet, to have a bad smell -- was as free to dispose of his person and property, as was the Anglo-Saxon ceorl, or the old German markgenosse. He had the right to appear as a witness in Courts of Justice, both in civil and in criminal actions; he enjoyed the right of inheriting -- a right, however, which was somewhat limited by the prevalence of family communism -- and no one could prevent him from engaging his services to any landlord for as many years as he liked, and on terms settled by contract. Lack of means to buy a plough and the cattle which he needed for tilling the ground very often led the free peasant to get them from his landlord on condition that every year he ploughed and harrowed the fields of his creditor. It is in this way that an economic dependence was first established bet ween two persons equally free, equally in possession of the soil, but disposing the one of a larger, the other of a smaller capital. The name under which the voluntary serf is known to the Pravda, the first legal code of Russia, is that of roleini zakoup; this term signifies a person who has borrowed money on condition of performing the work of ploughing (ralo means the plough) so long as his debt remains unpaid.

The frequent want of the simplest agricultural implements, which Magna Charta designates as con tenementum, was also probably the chief cause, which induced more than one Russian peasant to prefer the condition of a sort of French metayer or petty farmer, whose rent, paid in kind, amounts to a fixed proportion of the yearly produce, to that of a free shareholder in the open fields and village common. The almost universal existence of metayage, or farming on the system of half-profits, is now generally recognised. Thorold Rogers has proved its existence in medieval England, and in France and Italy this system is still found. In saying this, I have particularly in view the French champart and the mezzeria of Tuscany.

The prevalence in ancient Russia of the same rude and elementary mode of farming is established by numerous charters and contracts, some of which are as late as the end of the seventeenth century, whilst others go back to the beginning of the sixteenth. It would appear that previous to that date such contracts were not put into writing, apparently on account of the small diffusion of knowledge. We are therefore reduced to the necessity of presuming the existence of these contracts solely because the intrinsic causes which brought them into existence in the sixteenth century had been in operation for hundreds of years before. The peasant, on entering into such a contract, took upon himself the obligation of paying back in the course of time the money which had been lent to him -- the "serebro," silver, according to the expression used in contemporary documents. From the name of the capital intrusted to them (the serebro) arose the surname of serebrenik, which may be translated silver-men, under which peasants settled on a manor were generally known; their other being polovnik, or men paying half of their yearly produce to the lord, although as a rule their payments did not amount to more than a quarter. So long as his debt remained unpaid the metayer was obliged to remunerate the landlord by villein service performed on the demesne lands of the manor. According to the German writer Herberstein, who visited Russia in the seventeenth century, the agricultural labour which the serebrenik performed for the lord very often amounted each week to a sixdays' service, at any rate in summer. Contracts still preserved also speak of other obligations of the serebrenik, very like those of the medieval English socman. Such, for instance, were the obligations of cutting wood and of forwarding it on their own carts to the manor-house, and of paying certain dues on the occasion of the marriage of the peasant's daughter. I need not insist on the similarity which this last custom presents to the medieval English and French maritagium, or formariage, so evident is the likeness between them. Custom also required the peasant to make certain presents to his lord at Christmas and Easter, or at some other yearly festival, such for instance as that of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

The peasant who chose to settle on the land of a manorial lord got the grant of a homestead in addition to that of land, and this was the origin of a sort of house-rent called the projivnoe, which as a rule amounted yearly to the fourth part of the value of the homestead.

As to the land ceded by the landlord to the settler who wished to live on his manor, its use became the origin of another special payment, the obrok, which represented a definite amount of agricultural produce. The obrok was often replied by the obligation of doing certain fixed agricultural labour on the demesne land of the manor.

As soon as the peasant had repaid the money borrowed from the manorial lord, and had discharged all the payments required from him for the use of his land and homestead, he was authorised by custom to remove wherever he liked, of course giving up to the squire his house and his share in the open fields of the manor. At first this right of removal could be exercised at any period of the year, but this being found prejudicial to the agricultural interests of the country certain fixed periods were soon established, at which alone such a removal was allowed. Usually the end of harvest was fixed as the timer when new arrangements could be entered into with regard to future agricultural labour without causing any loss to the interests of the landlord. Not only in autumn, however, but also in spring, soon after Easter, manorial lords were in the habit of permitting the establishment of new settlers on their estates, and the withdrawal of those peasants who expressed a desire to leave.

The first Soudebnik, the legal code published by Ivan III in 1497, speaks of the festival of Saint George, which according to the Russian calendar falls on the 26th of November, as a period at which all removals ought to take place. Those peasants who had not been fortunate enough to free themselves from all obligations to the manor by this period were obliged to remain another year on its lands. He who, was unable to repay the lord the sum borrowed was reduced to the same condition as that of the insolvent farmers of the Roman ager publicus, who, according to Fustel de Coulanges, saw their arrears of debt changed into a perpetual rent called the canon, and their liberty of migration superseded by a state of continual bondage to the land they cultivated. No Russian historian has shown the analogy existing between the origin of the Roman colonatus and that of Russian serfdom so clearly as Mr Kluchevsky, the eminent professor of Russian history in the University of Moscow. It is to him that we are indebted for the discovery of the fact that centuries before the legal and general abolition of the right of free migration a considerable number of peasants had thus ceased to enjoy that liberty. Such was the case of those so-called "silver-men from the oldest times," viz., starinnii serebrenniki, who during the sixteenth century were already deprived of the right of free removal from no other cause but the want of money, so that the only condition on which they could withdraw from the manor on which they were was that of finding some other landlord willing to pay the money they owed, and thereby acquiring the right to remove them to his own manor.

So long as the Russian power was geographically limited to the possession of the central provinces in the immediate neighbourhood of Moscow, and so long as the shores of the Volga and Dnieper suffered from almost periodical invasions of the Tartars, the Russian peasant who might wish to leave a manor gould not easily have procured the land he required; but when the conquests of Ivan III and Ivan the Terrible had reduced to naught the power of the Tartars, and had extended the Russian possessions both to the East and to the South, the peasants were seized with a spirit of migration, and legislation was required to put a stop to the economic insecurity created by their continual withdrawal from the manors of Inner Russia to the Southern and Eastern steppes. It is, therefore, easy to understand why laws to prevent the possibility of a return of peasant migration were first passed, at least on a general scale, at this period. It is no doubt true that, even at the end of the fifteenth century, to certain monasteries were granted, among other privileges, that of being free from the liability of having their peasants removed to the estates of other landlords. A charter of the year 1478 recognises such a privilege as belonging to the monks of the monastery of Troitzko-Sergievsk, which is, according to popular belief, one of the most sacred places in Russia. The financial interests of the State also contributed greatly to the change. The fact that the taxpayer was tied to the soil rendered the collection of taxes both speedier and more exact. These two causes sufficiently explain why, by the end of the sixteenth century, the removal of peasants from manor to manor had become very rare.

The system of land endowments in favour of the higher clergy and monasteries, and also of persons belonging to the knightly class, had increased to such an extent that, according to modern calculation, two-thirds of the cultivated area was already the property either of ecclesiastics or of secular grandees. It is therefore easy to understand why, during the sixteenth century, the migratory state of the Russian agricultural population came to be considered as a real danger to the State by the higher classes of Russian society. The most powerful of the nobles and gentry did their best to retain the peasants on their lands. Some went even farther, and, by alleviating the burdens of villein-service, and securing a more efficient protection for them from administrative oppression, induced the peasants who inhabited the lands of smaller squires to leave their old homes and settle on their manors. It was in order to protect the small landowners from this sort of oppression that Boris Goudonov, the all-powerful ruler of Russia in the reign of Theodor Ivanovitch, promulgated a law, according to which every one was authorised to insist on the return of a peasant who left his abode, and that during the five years next following his departure. This law was promulgated in 1597. As no mention is made in it of the right previously enjoyed by the peasants of removing from one manor to another on St. George's Day, this law of 1597 has been considered by historians as the direct cause of the introduction of the so-called "bondage to the soil" (krepostnoie pravo). Such was certainly not its object. The right of migration on the Day of St. George was openly acknowledged by the laws of 1601 and 1602. The bondage of the peasant to the soil became an established fact only in the year 1648, when the new code of law, the so-called Oulogienie (chap. xi), refused to any one the right to receive on his lands the peasant who should run away from a manor, and abolished that limit of time beyond which the landlord lost the right to reclaim the peasant who had removed from his ancient dwelling.

The number of serfs rapidly increased during the second half of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, owing to the prodigality with which the Czars and Emperors endowed the members of the official class with lands, in disregard often of their previous occupation by free village communities, the members of which were forced to become the serfs of the persons who received the grant. It is in this way that Catherine II, for instance, during the thirty-four years of her reign, increased the number of serfs by 800,000 new ones, and that Paul I, in a period of four years, added 600,000 to the number, which was already enormous.

Before the reign of Catherine, serfdom was almost unknown in Little Russia, where it had been abolished by Bogdan Chmelnitzky, soon after the separation of Little Russia from Poland, and in the Ukraine (the modern Government of Kharkov), where it had never before existed. In 1788 she revoked the right hitherto enjoyed by the peasants of these two provinces to remove from one manor to another. The same right of free removal was abolished a few years later in the "Land of the Don Kossacks" and among the peasants of the Southern Governments, called New Russia (Novorossia).

But if the second part of the eighteenth century saw the territorial extension of serfdom over almost all the Empire, it was also the period in which first began the movement which led to emancipation. From France came the first appeals for the liberation of the serfs. In 1766 the Society of Political Economists founded in Petersburg on the model of the agricultural societies of France was asked by the impress to answer the question: "Whether the State would be benefited by the serf becoming the free owner of his land?" Marmontel and Voltaire considered it to be their duty to express opinions in favour of a partial abolition of serfdom. Marmontel thought that the time was come to supersede villein-service by a sort of hereditary copyhold. Voltaire went a step farther, inviting the impress to liberate immediately the serfs on the Church lands. As to the rest, free contract alone ought to settle the question of their emancipation. Another Frenchman much less known, the legist Bearde de l'Abaye, gave it as his opinion that the Government should maintain a strict neutrality towards the question of serfdom. It ought to be abolished only by free contract between landlords and serfs, the former endowing the latter with small parcels of land. In this way the serf would become a private owner, so that in case he should rent any land from the squire, the squire would be able to seize the peasant's plot in case of non-payment of his rent. Diderot was the only Frenchman who acknowledged the necessity of an immediate abolition of personal servitude; but in his letters to the Empress he does not say a single word about the necessity for securing to the liberated serf at least a small portion of the manorial land.

Although Catherine II was willing to be advised by the Encyclopedists as to the way in which serfdom might be abolished, she took effectual means to prevent the expression of Russian public opinion on the same subject. A memorial presented to the Petersburg Society of Political Economists by a young Russian author called Pelenev was not allowed to appear in print, for no other reason than that it contained a criticism on the existing system of serfdom.(1*) The author of the memorial did not demand the immediate abolition of this old wrong; he only wanted to see it replaced by a sort of perpetual copyhold. The Government was more severe towards another Russian writer, Radischev, who was the first to advocate not only the personal liberty of the serf, but also his endowment with land. The work of Radischev (2*) appeared in 1789, several years after the suppression of the insurrectionary movement of Pougachev, but it was regarded as a sort of commentary on the demand for "liberty and land," which the Russian peasant had addressed to that leader, who had answered it by a solemn promise that he would make the serf free and prosperous. Catherine not only ordered the immediate suppression of the work of Radischev, but brought the author before the Courts of Justice, accusing him of being a traitor to his country. Radischev was condemned to death; but this penalty was commuted to perpetual banishment to Siberia.

It was not till the reign of Alexander the First that the Russian Government began to take effectual measures to ameliorate the social condition of the serf. According to the account given by those immediately around him, and especially by Adam Czartorysky, Alexander was an avowed friend of peasant emancipation. He gave his firm support to the proposed law giving the landlords the right to liberate their serfs, and even to endow them with shares in the open fields if they paid for them. In 1803 this law was passed, and 47,000 serfs were soon after enfranchised, and became a separate class under the name of the "free agriculturists." Sixteen years later (in 1819) the enfranchisement of the serf became an accomplished fact in the three Baltic provinces, the peasant obtaining the free disposal of his person on condition of abandoning to his landlord the parcels of ground previously in his possession. This reform was accomplished in the same manner as that carried out in 1812 by Napoleon in the Kingdom of Poland. In the thoroughly Russian provinces no direct measures were at this time taken to abolish the legal servitude of the peasant, but the question was more than once debated in private circles and by learned bodies. In the year 1812, for instance, the Petersburg Society of Political Economists declared that it would give 2000 roubles to the author of the best treatise on the question of the relative advantages of free and servile labour in agriculture. This question by itself shows the influence which Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," which had been translated into Russian in 1803, was beginning to exercise on Russian thought. Nine treatises were forwarded to the Society, of which three only were in favour of the further maintenance of servile labour. But the greater number expressed the opinion that the enfranchisement of the serf, provided that he was allowed to keep the land he occupied, would be of great advantage to the landlord himself. This idea, in conformity to which serfdom had been abolished in the Baltic provinces, was the expression of a fact quite familiar to the student of economic history. The work of an enslaved labourer is never so productive as that of a free labourer. So long as rent is low, as certainly was the case in Russia in past centuries, the work of the serf is by no means fairly recompensed by the land he owns. But in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when Russia began to be considered as the granary of Europe, on account of the vast exports of wheat from her ports, rent rapidly rose, and this rise produced a complete change in the relative value of servile work and the land which was in the possession of the peasant.

The question put by the Society of Political Economists could not, therefore, possibly have received any other answer than that given to it by the majority of the authors who sent in papers to the Society. Serfdom was rapidly becoming a burden on the manorial lords themselves, as many of them began to be conscious. The barons of the Baltic. shore were the first to understand the advantage which the liberation of the serf, followed by a resumption of the ground he owned, would have on their class interests. The nobility of Toula and Riasan, as well as that of Dinabourg, Petersburg, and Czarskoie Selo, seemed also to become conscious of this fact, for they petitioned the Emperor Nicholas to establish local committees who might prepare the outlines of a new emancipation act. Among the nobles immediately surrounding the Czar, Prince Mentchikov expressed his opinion of the desirability and advantage of freeing the peasant and at the same time of enriching the landlord by leaving in his hands all those shares in the common ground which had been held by the peasants. The interests of the nobility certainly required the establishment of a class similar to that of the English labourers, but the peasants were naturally averse to any change which would lessen their hold on the soil. In 1812 a peasant rising took place in the Government of Pensa, the revolted serfs expressing their wants by the old motto "liberty and Land." In 1826 again the same motto was the watchword of another rising, this time provoked by a rumour that land and liberty would shortly be secured to the serfs.

Under the influence of this clear expression of the people's wants, the Government of Nicholas abandoned all idea of emancipation which was not to be followed by the endowment of the peasant with. land. Not daring, as he openly acknowledged to lay hands on the sacred rights of private property by liberating the serfs and making them free owners of the soil, Nicholas proposed to alter the existing condition of the serf by making him a sort of copyholder or perpetual tenant of small parcels of manorial ground, on condition of the payment of perpetual rent. In the Polish provinces, such copyhold tenures, very like the French censives, were already in existence. The Government, therefore, only extended a system which already existed when, in 1842, they ordered the preparation in each manor of a sort of registry, called "inventory," in which the amount of payments in kind and money, made by the serfs to the landlord, were to be inscribed, in order that in future no other levies might be made.

Neither of these two schemes for amending the untenable position of the serf was good enough to obtain the approbation of those to whom, at this time, actually belonged the guidance of pubic opinion. It will be to the eternal honour of the Russian press that it constantly preached in favour of a reform which would at once liberate the serf and make him legal owner of the shares of manorial ground which were already in his possession. Among the persons directly implicated in the insurrectionary movement of the 24th of December 1825, two, Pestel and Jakoushkine, had already declared themselves to be supporters of such a scheme.

The diffusion of socialist ideas greatly contributed to strengthen among the literary class the persuasion that it would be impossible to liberate the serf otherwise than by endowing him with land. The well-known plot which was organised by Petroschevsky, among its other aims, had that of allotting parcels of ground to the liberated serf. The great exile Herzen, in a Russian newspaper then published in London, openly expressed his opinion that the common ownership of the land should be retained in the hands of the enfranchised peasant; and among the many schemes of emancipation, which circulated in the form of manuscript during the latter part of Nicholas's reign, more than one advocated the necessity of retaining the ancient ties which bound the peasant to the soil by making him the legal owner of his share in the open fields.

The "providential mission" of the Czar Alexander the Second was therefore disclosed in a state of society which was already prepared to accept the general outlines of a social reform, the end of which would be not only to liberate, but also to enrich, the peasant. As soon as Alexander ascended the throne rumours began to be circulated as to the approaching abolition of serfdom. The unexpected death of his father placed him on the throne at a moment of great and general depression, occasioned by the defeat of the Russian military forces under the walls of Sebastopol. The young Emperor made an eloquent appeal to the patriotism of his subjects, inviting them to increase the means of defence by a voluntary levy of a kind of militia, known under the name of Opolchenie. This measure strengthened the belief in the nearness of social and political reforms. The peasants, enrolled in the self-raised regiments of the militia, began to think that their more or less voluntary sacrifice of life and fortune would he rewarded by a complete liberation from the ignominious bonds of personal servitude. Crowds of serfs asked to be admitted into the militia, expecting to attain freedom in this way.

When the Peace of Paris was signed, and the peasants of the militia were ordered to return to their daily tasks, they openly expressed their belief that the charters by which the Emperor had liberated them from bondage were concealed by their landlords. These rumours produced great excitement. The years 1854 and 1855 are notorious for a series of local rebellions. These insurrections took place partly on the shores of the Volga, which had already felt, in the time of Catherine the Second, the horrors of a jacquerie, partly in some Central and South-western Governments, such as Vladimir, Riasan, Tambov, Pensa, Voronej, and Kiev. These revolutionary movements, directed exclusively against the feudal aristocracy, produced a great impression on the Czar Alexander. Addressing the chiefs of the Moscovite nobility (the so-called marshals), the Czar showed his appreciation of the wants of the time by the following words: "Gentlemen, you surely understand yourselves the impossibility of retaining, without alteration and change, the existing mode of owning souls [a usual expression, the meaning of which is the right to the unpaid work of the serfs]. It is better to abolish personal servitude by legislative measures than to see it abolished by a movement from below. I ask you to consider such measures as might forward this end." These promising words, although followed by a direct declaration that serfdom was not to be abolished at once, strengthened the expectations of those who thought that the new reign would inaugurate an era of wide social and political reform. Although the Governor-General of Moscow, Zakrevsky, did his best to persuade the nobility that all projects concerning the abolition of serfdom were laid aside, it very soon appeared that such was by no means the intention of the, Czar; for during the coronation the Home Secretary, Lanskoy, by the direct command of Alexander, entered into communication with those noblemen who were present in Moscow, in order to ascertain what were their opinions as to the best means of bringing about an amelioration in the actual condition of the serfs. These negotiations left no doubt as to the animosity with which the nobility of Great Russia considered every plan tending to the emancipation of the peasant. This induced the Minister to turn his eyes to those provinces in which the idea of liberating the serfs had taken root at the time when personal servitude had been abolished by Napoleon I in the neighbouring districts of Poland, particularly the Governments of Vilna, Kovno, and Grodno. The Lithuanian nobles were already favourable to the idea, and were easily induced by the Governor General Nasimov to present to the Czar an address asking for the abolition of bondage, but at the same time demanding exclusive possession of the land for the nobility. You therefore see that the conditions on which the Lithuanian nobles wanted to see the enfranchisement carried out were the same as those on which it had been already carried out in Poland and the Baltic provinces. Seeing the difficulty of preserving for their own profit the unpaid services of the peasant, they were anxious to secure to themselves the monopoly of the soil. The serf was to be allowed to become a free person only on condition of remaining a proletarian, living exclusively on the wages he earned. Carried out on such conditions, the emancipation would hardly have met with the approval of those who were most directly concerned. As far back as the reign of the Empress Catherine the peasant had plainly declared that he wanted not only liberty, but land. He was mindful of his ancient state, previous to that of bondage, which, as we have already shown, was the state of an owner in common of the ground he made fruitful by his work. No power on earth would have been strong enough to break the ties, centuries old, which united him to the soil. It was no doubt in the interests of the nobility to see these ties broken, for who could be the gainers in a scheme which promised enhancement of the mercantile value of the soil and cheap labour, if not those who had secured to themselves the monopoly of the property in land? What, on the other hand, was the liberated proletarian to become if not a labourer, given up to eternal toil on the estates of a land-monopolising nobility, and bound to receive from their hands those bare wages which would cover the expense of his existence? The Emperor and some persons in his confidence, were conscious of the social evils which the execution of such a plan would produce. It will be to the eternal glory of Alexander to have answered the request of the Lithuanian nobility by a decree by which, whilst allowing the establishment of local committees for the elaboration of measures which might achieve the emancipation in view, he plainly declared that the liberated serfs ought to be secured at least in the possession of their homesteads and of the land belonging to these homesteads (the so-called homestead-land -- ousadebnaiia zemlia). This expression was obscure and ambiguous, for it was not easy to establish the limits of the so-called homestead-land. Was it to be considered as a compound of all the various communal privileges of which the peasant was possessed, or to mean only the ground directly surrounding his habitation? This question remained unsettled.

In the winter of 1851 the nobility of Petersburg, not wishing to remain behind that of Lithuania, presented to the Emperor an address very like the one just mentioned. This address and the decree it provoked deserve to be mentioned, for they show, on one hand, the desire of the aristocracy to preserve not only all the advantages of a land-owning class, but also to a certain extent the social dependence under which the peasant had lived towards them during the preceding centuries; and, on the other hand, the firm decision of the Government to secure to the peasant at least his property in the homestead he occupied, and in the land which surrounded it. The decree is curious too as a precise statement of the conditions on which the Government intended at first to accomplish the difficult task of emancipation. They are, as you will soon perceive, very different from those on which the emancipation was actually performed. No question is made of the direct interference of the State in order to buy back from the nobleman the plots of ground occupied by the serfs. This end is to be alone attained by way of free agreement between the parties. As long as this agreement has not taken place the serf is to continue to perform the agricultural labour and make the money payments fixed by law. The nobleman, on the other hand, exercises, as in the past, a kind of feudal justice and police. The ground of the whole manor is declared to be his property; the peasant is to receive no other endowment but that of his homestead.

The nobility of Nijni-Novgorod, that of Moscow, and of several other provinces, soon after this presented demands not very unlike those already mentioned. They were answered in the same way, and local committees, imposed of noblemen, were accordingly formed, in order to elaborate the outlines of the intended reform in accordance with the views of the Government as already stated. These outlines were to be sent for further examination to a central board, which was first appointed on January 8, 1858, and was known under the name of the " Principal Committee on the Peasant Question." They were also to be the subject of careful study on the part of a newly opened section of the Board of Statistics. Men of radical ideas, such as Nicolas Miliutine and Soloviev, were included among its members. The reactionary party, on the other hand, counted more than one member in the "Principal Committee on the Peasant Question", a fact which induced the Government to detach from this Committee two especial sections, the so-called "Committee for the Drawing-up of the Reform Project," and that of "The Elaboration of Financial Measures, needed to secure the Execution of the Plan in View." The guidance of both Committees and the election of their members were entrusted to General Rostovzov, an avowed friend of the intended reform. An important change was introduced into the working of the bureaucratic machinery by the fact that some elected members of the provincial committees were allowed to have a seat at the meetings of the central bodies, and to exercise there the functions of experts. Among the persons so appointed we find several well-known Slavophiles, such as Samarin and Tcherkasky.

The work the central committees had to perform was, first of all, the drawing-up of a concise statement of the results attained by the deliberations of the local committees; next, the discussion of the different opinions which these latter had expressed; and, finally, the drawing-up of the conclusions to which the members of the central committees themselves had arrived. The members of the committees enjoyed the hitherto unknown freedom of expressing their opinion, and of consulting all sorts of papers and books, not excluding even those published by Russian emigrants. One of the members protesting against the idea of drawing information from the Kolokol, a Russian newspaper published in London by the political refugee Herzen, the President said that, according to his opinion, truth was to be taken into account, whoever might have expressed it. The formalism and official subordination so much observed by our bureaucracy were for the first time laid aside, and each member frankly expressed his views, however much they might be opposed to those of the President. The committee even went so far as to accept on certain points decisions which were not in. accordance with the Imperial decrees. The local committee appointed by the nobility of Tver was the first to express the opinion that the peasants ought to be endowed with land beyond that which surrounded their homesteads. This opinion was endorsed by the central committee, which maintained that, although it was contradictory to the letter of the Imperial decrees, it was in perfect correspondence with their spirit.

On another occasion the "Committee for the Drawing-up of the Scheme of Reform" showed the same independence by adopting the view first put forward by members of the press, that it was necessary that the Government should come forward to buy up the land which the nobleman was called upon to surrender to the peasants of his manor. Now this view was quite the reverse of that expressed by the Imperial decrees we have previously cited.

In the whole of the movement the large and important part played by the public press is most striking. No doubt can be entertained that at its beginning the officials to whom was entrusted the elaboration of the plan were profoundly ignorant of the bearings of the question. The President of the Committee, General Rostovzov, frankly acknowledged this ignorance, and in his private correspondence with the Czar betrayed his fears of a national bankruptcy as the certain result of the Government taking on itself the redemption of the lands which were to be ceded to the peasants -- fears which seem almost ludicrous now that this redemption has been effected, and the financial interests of the State have not suffered even for a moment.

A well-known Russian economist, Professor Ivanukoff,(3*) has tried to show to what extent the press shared with the Government the difficult task of elaborating the scheme, according to which the serfs were to obtain "freedom and land." He is quite correct when he says that, with the exception of a single paper called the Journal of Landed Proprietors, the whole Russian Press unanimously declared itself in favour, not only of the abolition of personal servitude, but also of the endowment of the peasants with land. Such writers as Katkof, the well-known editor of the Moscow Gazette, a man who has lately played so prominent a part in the reactionary movement, were then the open friends of Liberalism, and rivalled the most advanced reformers in their defence of civil freedom. The opinions of Katkof were so greatly at variance with those of the Government at the beginning of the movement, that he was obliged to bring to a close a series of articles on the social condition of the serfs which he had begun in his periodical, the Russian Courier. Another eminent publicist, Koschelev, who was the author of one of the numerous private schemes of emancipation (their number amounted to sixty-one), was obliged at the same time to abandon the further publication of a journal called the Welfare of the Country, on account of the strong language in which he advocated the endowment of the liberated serf with those portions of the land already in his possession. A Russian magazine of great renown, the Contemporary, was at the same time on the point of being suppressed on account of an article written by Professor Kavelin, expressing his views as to the opportuneness of redeeming the lands actually possessed by the peasants, and that, too, with the direct help of the State. The Minister of Public instruction, Evgraf Kovalevsky, was even asked to issue a circular, by which the censorship was entrusted with the power of suppressing any article, pamphlet, or book, dealing with the question of enfranchisement, that had not previously been approved by the central committee. This untimely warfare against public opinion and the liberty of the press, fortunately enough, did not last long. The circular was printed in April, 1858, and seven months later the Government relaxed the restrictions imposed; and that because of the complete change in its own views as to the outlines of the reform. The opinions recently suppressed became those of the Government, and the prosecuted writers were considered, for a while at least, its surest allies. I insist on these facts, because I know of no instance which better characterises the ordinary proceedings of the Russian bureaucracy. It begins, as a rule, by suppressing all that lies in its way, and then, finding no other issue, it adopts the line of conduct which it has recently condemned. A foreigner who has no notion of this mode of procedure must find great difficulty in understanding how it happens that in a country where no freedom of the press is recognised, in which generals and high officials seem alone to have the right of professing opinions on public matters, the press, nevertheless, has more than once exercised a decisive influence on the course of politics. The all-powerful bureaucracy is very often but an empty-headed fool, anxious to accept the ideas of the despised and prosecuted journalist. In Russia, as well as everywhere else, the true and lasting power is that of public opinion, and of those who know how to influence it. Periods in which the Government acts contrary to public opinion occur from time to time They are very harmful to those who Dare to remain faithful to their opinions. For a while nothing is heard of but the need of suppression both of opinions and of those who publicly profess them. But time passes and the Government begins to reap the fruits of its own sowing. At every step it takes, it finds on the part of those it governs nothing but ill-will, a hidden but profound mistrust. As soon as it feels that it is losing all hold on the minds and hearts of the people, it is the first to condemn what it has recently praised. Some fine morning everybody is stalled by learning that the very men who had done their best to render impossible the public expression of certain ideas are now drawing their inspiration from these same ideas.

But I feel that I have made perhaps a necessary, but at all events a too long, digression from the direct line of my inquiries. I will therefore return to them at once, and begin by pointing out those points on which the committee appointed to elaborate the law of enfranchisement carried out in their scheme -- the opinions of the press.

It was the press which first advocated the notion that the liberated peasant ought to become the owner of the land actually in his possession. Schemes for realising this idea had been already worked out in the reign of Nicholas by some patriotic scholars and publicists. Among them was Professor Kavelin, whose project was published by the Russian contemporary, at the head of other articles, on the impending reform. It was on Kavelin that first fell the responsibility of expressing ideas in opposition to the views of the Government. His opinion as to the necessity of endowing the peasant with land soon found an echo in the debates of the nobility of Tver, who petitioned the Czar to extend his promise concerning grants of land to the enfranchised serf, not only to his homestead and the ground surrounding it, but also to the shares the peasant possessed in the open fields of the village. In giving an account of the different opinions expressed by the provincial nobility, the central committee referred to this scheme proposed by the nobility of Tver, and recommended it to the Government. Thus we see how prominent a part the press played on this occasion.

Its influence was no less powerful in the question on what principle should be based the future ownership exercised by the peasants. Two schemes, widely differing from each other, were at the same time proposed by the press. The one (chiefly supported by economists such as Vernadsky, and publicists like Katkof) recommended the immediate acceptance of measures favourable to the development of private property; the other (supported by the majority of the Slavophile and Radical press) was in favour of the strict maintenance of the village community system, with its periodical redistribution of land. On this question, Slavophiles such as Samarin and Koschelev went hand in hand with the Socialist Tchernishevsky, the author of the very remarkable essay on the "Prejudices of Political Economists against the Common Ownership in Land," an essay which forms the base of the social creed of the so-called Nihilists.

The project of emancipation elaborated by Government officials is a sort of compromise between these contradictory opinions. It starts with the idea of a temporary maintenance of the common ownership in land, but advocates certain measures favourable to the development of private property. A new redistribution of the shares is allowed only when it is demanded by two-thirds of the persons voting at the village Assembly. Every person paying back to the Government the money advanced to him, in order to remunerate the landlord for the ground he has been obliged to yield, is immediately acknowledged to be the private proprietor of his share. The scheme of the Slavophiles and the Radicals required a simple majority to make legal the village decision concerning a new re-distribution of the land; they were, and are still, opposed to the recognition of private property on the part of the peasant who has bought back his share in the common land.

Very important, too, was the service rendered by the press on the important question of the amount of land which the feudal lord should be required to leave in the hands of his liberated serfs. Most writers were in favour of leaving to the peasants the quantity of land they actually occupied; "for," said they, and not without reason, "this amount must, no doubt, correspond to the necessities of their existence, as the amount has been accorded to them by the landlord for no other purpose but that of merely supporting life." Few advocated the desirability of establishing in each province a certain maximum and minimum of land donation. The members of the central committee were favourable to the first scheme; and if the last prevailed, and found its expression in the law, the explanation is to be found in the opposition which the first plan met with on the part of the nobility and their chief supporters in the higher official circles.

One important question arose, whether the landlord should still keep a certain executive authority within the limits of the township; or whether the inner life of the village was thenceforth to be subject to no other rules than those issued by the village Assembly and put in force by its elected chiefs, the elders or starostas. The press almost unanimously expressed its desire to see the realisation of the latter plan. The country people, said the press, required complete liberty, or, to use the popular expression, "pure liberty." Now this liberty was inconsistent with the maintenance of rights such as those exercised by the German noblemen in the Baltic provinces or the junkers of Eastern Prussia. The only way to render any revival of personal servitude impossible was to establish the system of peasant self-government. Opinions differed on the question as to whether the landlord ought to be a member of the township or not. The Radicals were against it, and the Slavophiles did not attach great importance to it, thinking that the landlord would feel himself quite isolated amid the crowd of his former subjects. The Liberals alone were favourable to the idea of increasing the number of township members by admitting all residents, without distinction of class, to vote in the village Assembly. Their advice did not prevail, and the commune became a class institution, to the great disadvantage both of the peasants and of the whole State.

One of the most difficult points was undoubtedly that of fixing the amount of remuneration which the landlord ought to receive, not for the loss of his right over the person of his former serf, but for that of the land he was obliged to cede in his favour. The question was the more difficult because the land, in more than one part of Russia, had really no market price at all, the nobility and gentry being alone allowed to bid for it. The press, reasonably enough, insisted on the necessity of establishing a correspondence between the revenue the peasant got from his share and the amount of remuneration paid for it to the landlord. But such was not the opinion, either of the central or local committees; and we must lay on. their shoulders the responsibility of the fact, that it was the amount of payments in kind and the quantity of villein-service performed by the peasant, which were selected as the base of valuation. This certainly was against the interests of the peasant, highly overcharged as he was by the manorial lord, who obliged him to pay rents much surpassing the revenue of the land he cultivated. By not adopting on this point the views entertained by the press, the reformers, as you easily see, did a great social injustice.

It was the press also which first agitated the question of the desirability of the direct interference of the Government, in order to facilitate the expropriation of the nobleman in favour of the peasants. The head of the central committee, Rostovzov, as we have already seen, thought the financial difficulties of such a measure insurmountable. Such was not the opinion of the press, which predicted that the issue of "rentes," or Government bonds, securing to the landlord a certain percentage on the capital which he should cede to the peasant in the form of land, would not lower the value of the paper money already in circulation. It was fortunate that in the end this method was adopted, for the prophecy was not only realised, but the interests of agriculture, and consequently of the country generally, were considerably advanced by the capital paid in the form of these bonds to the expropriated landlords. More than one great landowner was deeply in debt at the time emancipation took place; very few had the capital needed for the economic arrangements required for the substitution of the paid work of the free peasant for the unpaid work of the serf. They obtained it by selling or mortgaging the "rentes" or bonds paid to them by the Government.

We therefore find that on all points the press was the guide, the authoritative adviser, the sure ally of the Government. This last character plainly appeared in the struggle which the central committee had to maintain with the delegates of the provincial Committees. These bodies were composed exclusively of members of the local nobility, and were empowered to present their opinions on the impending reform. Unconscious of the alteration which had taken place in the intentions of the Government, they expressed ideas in complete accord with those at first entertained by the Emperor. The majority in each committee, seeing that it was impossible under present circumstances to maintain their old rights over the person of the serf, consented to recognise his freedom, and that without pay. They were anxious about one thing alone -- to retain as far as possible in their own hands the land actually possessed by the peasant. This feeling was the stronger where the soil was rich, as was the case in the Central and Southern Governments, where the black soil prevails. It was less so in the west and north, where the ground yielded but a small rent. We find a complete unanimity between the utterances of the central and southern nobles, both insisting on the necessity of limiting the expropriation of the land in favour of the peasants to that occupied by their homesteads, whilst in the north more than one committee consented to extend this to the arable land and the undivided common.

The provincial committees were almost unanimous (I speak of course only of the majority of their members) in their request that the individual shares of each peasant household should be readjusted according to a certain maximum and minimum fixed for each province. Many a committee insisted on the maintenance of feudal police, if not of feudal justice, and all showed an equal interest in the suppression of the uncontrolled power of the bureaucracy in matters of provincial administration.

The minorities of almost every committee, who were more or less influenced by the press, approached much more nearly in their request to the views entertained by the majority in the central committee. They gave their consent to the plan of expropriating in favour of the peasants a part of the noblemen's lands; they insisted on the participation of the Government in the act of redeeming the area formerly allotted by the landlords to the serfs of their respective manors; they strongly opposed the scheme of a transitory state in which the peasant, unable to buy back the laud he owned, was condemned to continue his villein service and his feudal dues or payments in kind. At the same time they put forward certain general demands which went much beyond the promises already given by the Government. They made requests for a general change in the existing system of provincial administration. According to these bureaucracy should give place to a system of local self-government. They insisted on the necessity of amending the deficient judicial organisation. They demanded trial by jury and liberty of the press. Some of the members went even so far as to draw up a resolution in favour of the general representation of the people and the revival of the ancient system of National Councils, the Sobors.

We must not lose sight of these political requirements if we wish to understand why it was that the Government, as soon as the deputies both of the majority and the minority of provincial committees were assembled in Petersburg, hindered their general meetings. It was but separately that each of the delegates was admitted to put forward his requests, and to give oral advice to the members of the general committee. This mistrust on the part of the Government embittered more than one of the delegates against the members of the central committee, and threw them into the arms of that minority which, in the central committee itself, defended the interests of the nobility. It was chiefly composed of the "Marshal" of the Petersburg nobility. Count Peter Schouvalov, Mr Aprakasin, who occupied the same post in the Government of Orel, and Mr Posen, the delegate of Pultawa. These three gentlemen insisted on the desirability of keeping the land in the hands of the nobility, and of granting to the peasantry only a sort of soccage-tenure, or "censive," on the land they occupied. Whilst the majority of the committee insisted on the direct interference of the Government in the redemption of the noblemen's land, and the propriety of putting an end to villein-service, at any rate after a period of twelve years, these gentlemen were in favour of leaving to a free contract, entered into by the manorial lord and his former serfs, the difficult task of settling their future relations. It was in the house of Schouvalov that the discontented delegates regularly assembled; it was there that they drew up this protest against the action of the central committee and the so-called "encroachments of the bureaucracy." Their appeal, made in the form of a pamphlet, published in Leipsig, and addressed to the new delegates summoned to Petersburg from the provinces not hitherto represented, found a ready hearing, and the Government encountered in these new helpers even a larger amount of mistrust and ill-will than that already shown by their predecessors.

This time the opposition of the nobility was of much greater consequence. General Rostovzov, whose influence over the Czar was very great, died suddenly, before the completion of the work entrusted to his care, and Count Panin, an avowed foe to the action of the committee, became its President. He did his best to induce the members to abandon their former decision; and it is only to the firmness of character shown by men like Nicholas Milutine, that we are indebted for the strict maintenance of the general outlines of the form already elaborated. Finding himself powerless to change the decisions of the committee, Panin tried to arouse some opposition to the scheme published by it, among the ranks of that general committee of which the committee for the elaboration of the law of emancipation was but a section. He tried to achieve the same ends in the Council of State, where the scheme of the new law had finally to be discussed. Happily the time allowed for the debates was very limited, as the Government insisted on the immediate realisation of the long-promised "liberty." They lasted in the general committee but a few months, while in the Council of State they were limited to a fortnight. It is due to this fact that neither of the two boards introduced very extensive amendments in the emancipation law. Those they did make were all in favour of the nobility. The most mischievous consisted in the considerable diminution of the maximum and minimum shares accorded to the peasant, and in the resolution that no rights would be recognised as belonging to the villagers in the common pastures of the manor. The interests of the peasants were also sacrificed in the permission which Was given to the landlords to diminish the shares of the peasants, on the condition of renouncing all remuneration for the ground which they ceded. In all these measures the demands of the nobles were complied with.

But the great ends at which the reformers aimed, the liberation, that is to say, of the peasant from all personal dependence on the manorial lord, and the securing to him the right of possessing land in common, were nevertheless attained. The law of February 19, 1861, was the beginning of a new era -- an era of democratic development, as well as of economic and social growth, for the immense Empire of the Czars. For there is no doubt about the vast influence which the law of 1861 has exercised in all directions. It is that which made more than twenty millions of people at once the free disposers of their own destinies and the communistic owners of the land. Villein services, rents in kind and in money, feudal monopolies, and manorial jurisdiction, ceased to exist, and the peasant became the member of a self-governing body, or the Mir. The ideas of social justice and of equality before the law -- ideas hitherto cherished but by a few dreamers such as Radischev and Herzen, or revolutionists like those so-called "Decembrists," who organised the rebellion of December 24, 1825 -- made their triumphant entry into the Russian world, working a complete change in the organisation of public schools, admitting the son of the peasant to sit side by side with the son of the nobleman and the merchant in the same grammar school and the same university, revolutionising both official circles and the drawing-room, admitting to both persons of low. birth but high education.

The emancipation of the serf certainly was not carried out without some loss to the land-owning gentry, but the squire soon recovered from the state into which he was brought by his inexperience in the management of his estate without the help of unpaid servants. Capital was invested in land; agricultural machines were introduced; the yearly income began to rise rapidly, and with it the value of the land was augmented. It was partly enhanced by the fact that it was thrown open to the free purchase of all classes of society, while previous to the reform the higher class alone was entitled to own it. Instead of abandoning the tillage of the fields, according to the expectation of some pessimists, the liberated serf soon became the regular farmer of the lands possessed by the gentry, and entire village communities have been seen during these last few years renting, under conditions of mutual responsibility, the land of a neighbouring estate.

If we investigate the indirect results of the great reform accomplished by the Emperor Alexander, we are first struck by the fact that it involved the necessity of a complete change in provincial administration. Justice and police had hitherto been in the hands of persons elected by the nobility. This could no longer be tolerated the moment the serf was liberated from his previous subjection to the noble and squire. A system of provincial self-government, based on the principle of representation of the whole land-owning class, both private proprietors and those possessing land in common, was introduced in its stead. The organization of justice was completely changed, learned jurists occupying the place of the ignorant magistrates of old who had been appointed by the provincial gentry. The people, as members of juries, were admitted to a share in the exercise of criminal justice. The transformation of the medieval State into one that answered to the requirements of modern civilisation would have been completed if the Liberator of millions had not been slaughtered on the very day on which he had undertaken to give a constitution to his people.

Years of violent reaction have followed. The feudal party, whose secret designs had been defeated by the mode in which emancipation had been effected, again got the upper hand; and modern Russia now looks back to the period of 1861 as the golden age of Russian Liberalism. It is in the work of the men who were directly engaged in carrying out the great reform that Russian Liberals seek consolation and help; and the Nineteenth of February has become for them a day of general and of grateful commemoration.


1. Compare V. Somevsky, "The Peasant Question in Russia during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century", Petersburg, 1888. Return to the Text

2. "The Village from Petersburg to Novgorod." Return to the Text

3. See his work, entitled "The Fall of Bondage in Russia," Petersburg, 1883. Return to the Text

Lecture V Contents
Economic Treatises

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