Russia eText - Chapter VI - A Peasant Family Of The Old Type

Chapter VI - A Peasant Family Of The Old Type

My illness had at least one good result. It brought me into contact with the feldsher, and through him, after my recovery, I made the acquaintance of several peasants living in the village. Of these by far the most interesting was an old man called Ivan Petroff.

Ivan must have been about sixty years of age, but was still robust and strong, and had the reputation of being able to mow more hay in a given time than any other peasant in the village. His head would have made a line study for a portrait-painter. Like Russian peasants in genera], he wore his hair parted in the middle--a custom which perhaps owes its origin to the religious pictures. The reverend appearance given to his face by his long fair beard, slightly tinged with grey, was in part counteracted by his eyes, which had a strange twinkle in them--whether of humour or of roguery, it was difficult to say. Under all circumstances--whether in his light, nondescript summer costume, or in his warm sheep- skin, or in the long, glossy, dark-blue, double-breasted coat which he put on occasionally on Sundays and holidays--he always looked a well-fed, respectable, prosperous member of society; whilst his imperturbable composure, and the entire absence of obsequiousness or truculence in his manner, indicated plainly that he possessed no small amount of calm, deep-rooted self-respect. A stranger, on seeing him, might readily have leaped to the conclusion that he must be the Village Elder, but in reality he was a simple member of the Commune, like his neighbour, poor Zakhar Leshkof, who never let slip an opportunity of getting drunk, was always in debt, and, on the whole, possessed a more than dubious reputation.

Ivan had, it is true, been Village Elder some years before. When elected by the Village Assembly, against his own wishes, he had said quietly, "Very well, children; I will serve my three years"; and at the end of that period, when the Assembly wished to re-elect him, he had answered firmly, "No, children; I have served my term. It is now the turn of some one who is younger, and has more time. There's Peter Alekseyef, a good fellow, and an honest; you may choose him." And the Assembly chose the peasant indicated; for Ivan, though a simple member of the Commune, had more influence in Communal affairs than any other half-dozen members put together. No grave matter was decided without his being consulted, and there was at least one instance on record of the Village Assembly postponing deliberations for a week because he happened to be absent in St. Petersburg.

No stranger casually meeting Ivan would ever for a moment have suspected that that big man, of calm, commanding aspect, had been during a great part of his life a serf. And yet a serf he had been from his birth till he was about thirty years of age--not merely a serf of the State, but the serf of a proprietor who had lived habitually on his property. For thirty years of his life he had been dependent on the arbitrary will of a master who had the legal power to flog him as often and as severely as he considered desirable. In reality he had never been subjected to corporal punishment, for the proprietor to whom he had belonged had been, though in some respects severe, a just and intelligent master.

Ivan's bright, sympathetic face had early attracted the master's attention, and it was decided that he should learn a trade. For this purpose he was sent to Moscow, and apprenticed there to a carpenter. After four years of apprenticeship he was able not only to earn his own bread, but to help the household in the payment of their taxes, and to pay annually to his master a fixed yearly sum-- first ten, then twenty, then thirty, and ultimately, for some years immediately before the Emancipation, seventy roubles. In return for this annual sum he was free to work and wander about as he pleased, and for some years he had made ample use of his conditional liberty. I never succeeded in extracting from him a chronological account of his travels, but I could gather from his occasional remarks that he had wandered over a great part of European Russia. Evidently he had been in his youth what is colloquially termed "a roving blade," and had by no means confined himself to the trade which he had learned during his four years of apprenticeship. Once he had helped to navigate a raft from Vetluga to Astrakhan, a distance of about two thousand miles. At another time he had been at Archangel and Onega, on the shores of the White Sea. St. Petersburg and Moscow were both well known to him, and he had visited Odessa.

The precise nature of Ivan's occupations during these wanderings I could not ascertain; for, with all his openness of manner, he was extremely reticent regarding his commercial affairs. To all my inquiries on this topic he was wont to reply vaguely, "Lesnoe dyelo"--that is to say, "Timber business"; and from this I concluded that his chief occupation had been that of a timber merchant. Indeed, when I knew him, though he was no longer a regular trader, he was always ready to buy any bit of forest that could be bought in the vicinity for a reasonable price.

During all this nomadic period of his life Ivan had never entirely severed his connection with his native village or with agricultural life. When about the age of twenty he had spent several months at home, taking part in the field labour, and had married a wife--a strong, healthy young woman, who had been selected for him by his mother, and strongly recommended to him on account of her good character and her physical strength. In the opinion of Ivan's mother, beauty was a kind of luxury which only nobles and rich merchants could afford, and ordinary comeliness was a very secondary consideration--so secondary as to be left almost entirely out of sight. This was likewise the opinion of Ivan's wife. She had never been comely herself, she used to say, but she had been a good wife to her husband. He had never complained about her want of good looks, and had never gone after those who were considered good-looking. In expressing this opinion she always first bent forward, then drew herself up to her full length, and finally gave a little jerky nod sideways, so as to clench the statement. Then Ivan's bright eye would twinkle more brightly than usual, and he would ask her how she knew that--reminding her that he was not always at home. This was Ivan's stereotyped mode of teasing his wife, and every time he employed it he was called an "old scarecrow," or something of the kind.

Perhaps, however, Ivan's jocular remark had more significance in it than his wife cared to admit, for during the first years of their married life they had seen very little of each other. A few days after the marriage, when according to our notions the honeymoon should be at its height, Ivan had gone to Moscow for several months, leaving his young bride to the care of his father and mother. The young bride did not consider this an extraordinary hardship, for many of her companions had been treated in the same way, and according to public opinion in that part of the country there was nothing abnormal in the proceeding. Indeed, it may be said in general that there is very little romance or sentimentality about Russian peasant marriages. In this as in other respects the Russian peasantry are, as a class, extremely practical and matter- of-fact in their conceptions and habits, and are not at all prone to indulge in sublime, ethereal sentiments of any kind. They have little or nothing of what may be termed the Hermann and Dorothea element in their composition, and consequently know very little about those sentimental, romantic ideas which we habitually associate with the preliminary steps to matrimony. Even those authors who endeavour to idealise peasant life have rarely ventured to make their story turn on a sentimental love affair. Certainly in real life the wife is taken as a helpmate, or in plain language a worker, rather than as a companion, and the mother-in-law leaves her very little time to indulge in fruitless dreaming.

As time wore on, and his father became older and frailer, Ivan's visits to his native place became longer and more frequent, and when the old man was at last incapable of work, Ivan settled down permanently and undertook the direction of the household. In the meantime his own children had been growing up. When I knew the family it comprised--besides two daughters who had married early and gone to live with their parents-in-law--Ivan and his wife, two sons, three daughters-in-law, and an indefinite and frequently varying number of grandchildren. The fact that there were three daughters-in-law and only two sons was the result of the Conscription, which had taken away the youngest son shortly after his marriage. The two who remained spent only a small part of the year at home. The one was a carpenter and the other a bricklayer, and both wandered about the country in search of employment, as their father had done in his younger days. There was, however, one difference. The father had always shown a leaning towards commercial transactions, rather than the simple practice of his handicraft, and consequently he had usually lived and travelled alone. The sons, on the contrary, confined themselves to their handicrafts, and were always during the working season members of an artel.

The artel in its various forms is a curious institution. Those to which Ivan's sons belonged were simply temporary, itinerant associations of workmen, who during the summer lived together, fed together, worked together, and periodically divided amongst themselves the profits. This is the primitive form of the institution, and is now not very often met with. Here, as elsewhere, capital has made itself felt, and destroyed that equality which exists among the members of an artel in the above sense of the word. Instead of forming themselves into a temporary association, the workmen now generally make an engagement with a contractor who has a little capital, and receive from him fixed monthly wages. The only association which exists in this case is for the purchase and preparation of provisions, and even these duties are very often left to the contractor.

In some of the larger towns there are artels of a much more complex kind--permanent associations, possessing a large capital, and pecuniarily responsible for the acts of the individual members. Of these, by far the most celebrated is that of the Bank Porters. These men have unlimited opportunities of stealing, and are often entrusted with the guarding or transporting of enormous sums; but the banker has no cause for anxiety, because he knows that if any defalcations occur they will be made good to him by the artel. Such accidents very rarely happen, and the fact is by no means so extraordinary as many people suppose. The artel, being responsible for the individuals of which it is composed, is very careful in admitting new members, and a man when admitted is closely watched, not only by the regularly constituted office-bearers, but also by all his fellow-members who have an opportunity of observing him. If he begins to spend money too freely or to neglect his duties, though his employer may know nothing of the fact, suspicions are at once aroused among his fellow-members, and an investigation ensues-- ending in summary expulsion if the suspicions prove to have been well founded. Mutual responsibility, in short, creates a very effective system of mutual supervision.

Of Ivan's sons, the one who was a carpenter visited his family only occasionally, and at irregular intervals; the bricklayer, on the contrary, as building is impossible in Russia during the cold weather, spent the greater part of the winter at home. Both of them paid a large part of their earnings into the family treasury, over which their father exercised uncontrolled authority. If he wished to make any considerable outlay, he consulted his sons on the subject; but as he was a prudent, intelligent man, and enjoyed the respect and confidence of the family, he never met with any strong opposition. All the field work was performed by him with the assistance of his daughters-in-law; only at harvest time he hired one or two labourers to help him.

Ivan's household was a good specimen of the Russian peasant family of the old type. Previous to the Emancipation in 1861 there were many households of this kind, containing the representatives of three generations. All the members, young and old, lived together in patriarchal fashion under the direction and authority of the Head of the House, called usually the Khozain--that is to say, the Administrator; or, in some districts, the Bolshak, which means literally "the Big One." Generally speaking, this important position was occupied by the grandfather, or, if he was dead, by the eldest brother, but the rule was not very strictly observed. If, for instance, the grandfather became infirm, or if the eldest brother was incapacitated by disorderly habits or other cause, the place of authority was taken by some other member--it might be by a woman--who was a good manager, and possessed the greatest moral influence.

The relations between the Head of the Household and the other members depended on custom and personal character, and they consequently varied greatly in different families. If the Big One was an intelligent man, of decided, energetic character, like my friend Ivan, there was probably perfect discipline in the household, except perhaps in the matter of female tongues, which do not readily submit to the authority even of their owners; but very often it happened that the Big One was not thoroughly well fitted for his post, and in that case endless quarrels and bickerings inevitably took place. Those quarrels were generally caused and fomented by the female members of the family--a fact which will not seem strange if we try to realise how difficult it must be for several sisters-in-law to live together, with their children and a mother-in-law, within the narrow limits of a peasant's household. The complaints of the young bride, who finds that her mother-in-law puts all the hard work on her shoulders, form a favourite motive in the popular poetry.

The house, with its appurtenances, the cattle, the agricultural implements, the grain and other products, the money gained from the sale of these products--in a word, the house and nearly everything it contained--were the joint property of the family. Hence nothing was bought or sold by any member--not even by the Big One himself, unless he possessed an unusual amount of authority--without the express or tacit consent of the other grown-up males, and all the money that was earned was put into the common purse. When one of the sons left home to work elsewhere, he was expected to bring or send home all his earnings, except what he required for food, lodgings, and other necessary expenses; and if he understood the word "necessary" in too lax a sense, he had to listen to very plain-spoken reproaches when he returned. During his absence, which might last for a whole year or several years, his wife and children remained in the house as before, and the money which he earned could be devoted to the payment of the family taxes.

The peasant household of the old type is thus a primitive labour association, of which the members have all things in common, and it is not a little remarkable that the peasant conceives it as such rather than as a family. This is shown by the customary terminology, for the Head of the Household is not called by any word corresponding to Paterfamilias, but is termed, as I have said, Khozain, or Administrator--a word that is applied equally to a farmer, a shopkeeper or the head of an industrial undertaking, and does not at all convey the idea of blood-relationship. It is likewise shown by what takes place when a household is broken up. On such occasions the degree of blood-relationship is not taken into consideration in the distribution of the property. All the adult male members share equally. Illegitimate and adopted sons, if they have contributed their share of labour, have the same rights as the sons born in lawful wedlock. The married daughter, on the contrary--being regarded as belonging to her husband's family--and the son who has previously separated himself from the household, are excluded from the succession. Strictly speaking, the succession or inheritance is confined to the wearing apparel and any little personal effects of a deceased member. The house and all that it contains belong to the little household community; and, consequently, when it is broken up, by the death of the Khozain or other cause, the members do not inherit, but merely appropriate individually what they had hitherto possessed collectively. Thus there is properly no inheritance or succession, but simply liquidation and distribution of the property among the members. The written law of inheritance founded on the conception of personal property, is quite unknown to the peasantry, and quite inapplicable to their mode of life. In this way a large and most important section of the Code remains a dead letter for about four- fifths of the population.

This predominance of practical economic considerations is exemplified also by the way in which marriages are arranged in these large families. In the primitive system of agriculture usually practised in Russia, the natural labour-unit--if I may use such a term--comprises a man, a woman, and a horse. As soon, therefore, as a boy becomes an able-bodied labourer he ought to be provided with the two accessories necessary for the completion of the labour-unit. To procure a horse, either by purchase or by rearing a foal, is the duty of the Head of the House; to procure a wife for the youth is the duty of "the female Big One" (Bolshukha). And the chief consideration in determining the choice is in both cases the same. Prudent domestic administrators are not to be tempted by showy horses or beautiful brides; what they seek is not beauty, but physical strength and capacity for work. When the youth reaches the age of eighteen he is informed that he ought to marry at once, and as soon as he gives his consent negotiations are opened with the parents of some eligible young person. In the larger villages the negotiations are sometimes facilitated by certain old women called svakhi, who occupy themselves specially with this kind of mediation; but very often the affair is arranged directly by, or through the agency of, some common friend of the two houses.

Care must of course be taken that there is no legal obstacle, and these obstacles are not always easily avoided in a small village, the inhabitants of which have been long in the habit of intermarrying. According to Russian ecclesiastical law, not only is marriage between first-cousins illegal, but affinity is considered as equivalent to consanguinity--that is to say a mother- in-law and a sister-in-law are regarded as a mother and a sister-- and even the fictitious relationship created by standing together at the baptismal font as godfather and godmother is legally recognised, and may constitute a bar to matrimony. If all the preliminary negotiations are successful, the marriage takes place, and the bridegroom brings his bride home to the house of which he is a member. She brings nothing with her as a dowry except her trousseau, but she brings a pair of good strong arms, and thereby enriches her adopted family. Of course it happens occasionally-- for human nature is everywhere essentially the same--that a young peasant falls in love with one of his former playmates, and brings his little romance to a happy conclusion at the altar; but such cases are very rare, and as a rule it may be said that the marriages of the Russian peasantry are arranged under the influence of economic rather than sentimental considerations.

The custom of living in large families has many economic advantages. We all know the edifying fable of the dying man who showed to his sons by means of a piece of wicker-work the advantages of living together and assisting each other. In ordinary times the necessary expenses of a large household of ten members are considerably less than the combined expenses of two households comprising five members each, and when a "black day" comes a large family can bear temporary adversity much more successfully than a small one. These are principles of world-wide application, but in the life of the Russian peasantry they have a peculiar force. Each adult peasant possesses, as I shall hereafter explain, a share of the Communal land, but this share is not sufficient to occupy all his time and working power. One married pair can easily cultivate two shares--at least in all provinces where the peasant allotments are not very large. Now, if a family is composed of two married couples, one of the men can go elsewhere and earn money, whilst the other, with his wife and sister-in-law, can cultivate the two combined shares of land. If, on the contrary a family consists merely of one pair with their children, the man must either remain at home--in which case he may have difficulty in finding work for the whole of his time--or he must leave home, and entrust the cultivation of his share of the land to his wife, whose time must be in great part devoted to domestic affairs.

In the time of serfage the proprietors clearly perceived these and similar advantages, and compelled their serfs to live together in large families. No family could be broken up without the proprietor's consent, and this consent was not easily obtained unless the family had assumed quite abnormal proportions and was permanently disturbed by domestic dissension. In the matrimonial affairs of the serfs, too, the majority of the proprietors systematically exercised a certain supervision, not necessarily from any paltry meddling spirit, but because their own material interests were thereby affected. A proprietor would not, for instance, allow the daughter of one of his serfs to marry a serf belonging to another proprietor--because he would thereby lose a female labourer--unless some compensation were offered. The compensation might be a sum of money, or the affair might be arranged on the principle of reciprocity by the master of the bridegroom allowing one of his female serfs to marry a serf belonging to the master of the bride.

However advantageous the custom of living in large families may appear when regarded from the economic point of view, it has very serious defects, both theoretical and practical.

That families connected by the ties of blood-relationship and marriage can easily live together in harmony is one of those social axioms which are accepted universally and believed by nobody. We all know by our own experience, or by that of others, that the friendly relations of two such families are greatly endangered by proximity of habitation. To live in the same street is not advisable; to occupy adjoining houses is positively dangerous; and to live under the same roof is certainly fatal to prolonged amity. There may be the very best intentions on both sides, and the arrangement may be inaugurated by the most gushing expressions of undying affection and by the discovery of innumerable secret affinities, but neither affinities, affection, nor good intentions can withstand the constant friction and occasional jerks which inevitably ensue.

Now the reader must endeavour to realise that Russian peasants, even when clad in sheep-skins, are human beings like ourselves. Though they are often represented as abstract entities--as figures in a table of statistics or dots on a diagram--they have in reality "organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions." If not exactly "fed with the same food," they are at least "hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means," and liable to be irritated by the same annoyances as we are. And those of them who live in large families are subjected to a kind of probation that most of us have never dreamed of. The families comprising a large household not only live together, but have nearly all things in common. Each member works, not for himself, but for the household, and all that he earns is expected to go into the family treasury. The arrangement almost inevitably leads to one of two results--either there are continual dissensions, or order is preserved by a powerful domestic tyranny.

It is quite natural, therefore, that when the authority of the landed proprietors was abolished in 1861, the large peasant families almost all crumbled to pieces. The arbitrary rule of the Khozain was based on, and maintained by, the arbitrary rule of the proprietor, and both naturally fell together. Households like that of our friend Ivan were preserved only in exceptional cases, where the Head of the House happened to possess an unusual amount of moral influence over the other members.

This change has unquestionably had a prejudicial influence on the material welfare of the peasantry, but it must have added considerably to their domestic comfort, and may perhaps produce good moral results. For the present, however, the evil consequences are by far the most prominent. Every married peasant strives to have a house of his own, and many of them, in order to defray the necessary expenses, have been obliged to contract debts. This is a very serious matter. Even if the peasants could obtain money at five or six per cent., the position of the debtors would be bad enough, but it is in reality much worse, for the village usurers consider twenty or twenty-five per cent. a by no means exorbitant rate of interest. A laudable attempt has been made to remedy this state of things by village banks, but these have proved successful only in certain exceptional localities. As a rule the peasant who contracts debts has a hard struggle to pay the interest in ordinary times, and when some misfortune overtakes him--when, for instance, the harvest is bad or his horse is stolen--he probably falls hopelessly into pecuniary embarrassments. I have seen peasants not specially addicted to drunkenness or other ruinous habits sink to a helpless state of insolvency. Fortunately for such insolvent debtors, they are treated by the law with extreme leniency. Their house, their share of the common land, their agricultural implements, their horse--in a word, all that is necessary for their subsistence, is exempt from sequestration. The Commune, however, may bring strong pressure to bear on those who do not pay their taxes. When I lived among the peasantry in the seventies, corporal punishment inflicted by order of the Commune was among the means usually employed; and though the custom was recently prohibited by an Imperial decree of Nicholas II, I am not at all sure that it has entirely disappeared.