It is a fundamental principle of Russian political organisation that all initiative in public affairs proceeds from the Autocratic Power. The widespread desire, therefore, for the Emancipation of the serfs did not find free expression so long as the Emperor kept silence regarding his intentions. The educated classes watched anxiously for some sign, and soon a sign was given to them. In March, 1856--a few days after the publication of the manifesto announcing the conclusion of peace with the Western Powers--his Majesty said to the Marshals of Noblesse in Moscow: "For the removal of certain unfounded reports I consider it necessary to declare to you that I have not at present the intention of annihilating serfage; but certainly, as you yourselves know, the existing manner of possessing serfs cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfage from above than to await the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below. I request you, gentlemen, to consider how this can be put into execution, and to submit my words to the Noblesse for their consideration."
These words were intended to sound the Noblesse and induce them to make a voluntary proposal, but they had not the desired effect. Abolitionist enthusiasm was rare among the great nobles, and those who really wished to see serfage abolished considered the Imperial utterance too vague and oracular to justify them in taking the initiative. As no further steps were taken for some time, the excitement caused by the incident soon subsided, and many people assumed that the consideration of the problem had been indefinitely postponed. "The Government," it was said, "evidently intended to raise the question, but on perceiving the indifference or hostility of the landed proprietors, it became frightened and drew back."
The Emperor was in reality disappointed. He had expected that his "faithful Moscow Noblesse," of which he was wont to say he was himself a member, would at once respond to his call, and that the ancient capital would have the honour of beginning the work. And if the example were thus given by Moscow, he had no doubt that it would soon be followed by the other provinces. He now perceived that the fundamental principles on which the Emancipation should be effected must be laid down by the Government, and for this purpose he created a secret committee composed of several great officers of State.
This "Chief Committee for Peasant Affairs," as it was afterwards called, devoted six months to studying the history of the question. Emancipation schemes were by no means a new phenomenon in Russia. Ever since the time of Catherine II. the Government had thought of improving the condition of the serfs, and on more than one occasion a general emancipation had been contemplated. In this way the question had slowly ripened, and certain fundamental principles had come to be pretty generally recognised. Of these principles the most important was that the State should not consent to any project which would uproot the peasant from the soil and allow him to wander about at will; for such a measure would render the collection of the taxes impossible, and in all probability produce the most frightful agrarian disorders. And to this general principle there was an important corollary: if severe restrictions were to be placed on free migration, it would be necessary to provide the peasantry with land in the immediate vicinity of the villages; otherwise they must inevitably fall back under the power of the proprietors, and a new and worse kind of serfage would thus be created. But in order to give land to the peasantry it would be necessary to take it from the proprietors; and this expropriation seemed to many a most unjustifiable infringement of the sacred rights of property. It was this consideration that had restrained Nicholas from taking any decisive measures with regard to serfage; and it had now considerable weight with the members of the committee, who were nearly all great land-owners.
Notwithstanding the strenuous exertions of the Grand Duke Constantine, who had been appointed a member for the express purpose of accelerating the proceedings, the committee did not show as much zeal and energy as was desired, and orders were given to take some decided step. At that moment a convenient opportunity presented itself.
In the Lithuanian Provinces, where the nobles were Polish by origin and sympathies, the miserable condition of the peasantry had induced the Government in the preceding reign to limit the arbitrary power of the serf-owners by so-called Inventories, in which the mutual obligations of masters and serfs were regulated and defined. These Inventories had caused great dissatisfaction, and the proprietors now proposed that they should be revised. Of this the Government determined to take advantage. On the somewhat violent assumption that these proprietors wished to emancipate their serfs, an Imperial rescript was prepared approving of their supposed desire, and empowering them to form committees for the preparation of definite projects.* In the rescript itself the word emancipation was studiously avoided, but there could be no doubt as to the implied meaning, for it was expressly stated in the supplementary considerations that "the abolition of serfage must be effected not suddenly, but gradually." Four days later the Minister of the Interior, in accordance with a secret order from the Emperor, sent a circular to the Governors and Marshals of Noblesse all over Russia proper, informing them that the nobles of the Lithuanian Provinces "had recognised the necessity of liberating the peasants," and that "this noble intention" had afforded peculiar satisfaction to his Majesty. A copy of the rescript and the fundamental principles to be observed accompanied the circular, "in case the nobles of other provinces should express a similar desire."
* This celebrated document is known as "The Rescript to Nazimof." More than once in the course of conversation I did all in my power, within the limits of politeness and discretion, to extract from General Nazimof a detailed account of this important episode, but my efforts were unsuccessful.
This circular produced an immense sensation throughout the country. No one could for a moment misunderstand the suggestion that the nobles of other provinces MIGHT POSSIBLY express a desire to liberate their serfs. Such vague words, when spoken by an autocrat, have a very definite and unmistakable meaning, which prudent loyal subjects have no difficulty in understanding. If any doubted, their doubts were soon dispelled, for the Emperor, a few weeks later, publicly expressed a hope that, with the help of God and the co-operation of the nobles, the work would be successfully accomplished.
The die was cast, and the Government looked anxiously to see the result.
The periodical Press--which was at once the product and the fomenter of the liberal aspirations--hailed the raising of the question with boundless enthusiasm. The Emancipation, it was said, would certainly open a new and glorious epoch in the national history. Serfage was described as an ulcer that had long been poisoning the national blood; as an enormous weight under which the whole nation groaned; as an insurmountable obstacle, preventing all material and moral progress; as a cumbrous load which rendered all free, vigorous action impossible, and prevented Russia from rising to the level of the Western nations. If Russia had succeeded in stemming the flood of adverse fortune in spite of this millstone round her neck, what might she not accomplish when free and untrammelled? All sections of the literary world had arguments to offer in support of the foregone conclusion. The moralists declared that all the prevailing vices were the product of serfage, and that moral progress was impossible in an atmosphere of slavery; the lawyers held that the arbitrary authority of the proprietors over the peasants had no legal basis; the economists explained that free labour was an indispensable condition of industrial and commercial prosperity; the philosophical historians showed that the normal historical development of the country demanded the immediate abolition of this superannuated remnant of barbarism; and the writers of the sentimental, gushing type poured forth endless effusions about brotherly love to the weak and the oppressed. In a word, the Press was for the moment unanimous, and displayed a feverish excitement which demanded a liberal use of superlatives.
This enthusiastic tone accorded perfectly with the feelings of a large section of the nobles. Nearly the whole of the Noblesse was more or less affected by the newborn enthusiasm for everything just, humanitarian, and liberal. The aspirations found, of course, their most ardent representatives among the educated youth; but they were by no means confined to the younger men, who had passed through the universities and had always regarded serfage as a stain on the national honour. Many a Saul was found among the prophets. Many an old man, with grey hairs and grandchildren, who had all his life placidly enjoyed the fruits of serf labour, was now heard to speak of serfage as an antiquated institution which could not be reconciled with modern humanitarian ideas; and not a few of all ages, who had formerly never thought of reading books or newspapers, now perused assiduously the periodical literature, and picked up the liberal and humanitarian phrases with which it was filled.
This Abolitionist fervour was considerably augmented by certain political aspirations which did not appear in the newspapers, but which were at that time very generally entertained. In spite of the Press-censure a large section of the educated classes had become acquainted with the political literature of France and Germany, and had imbibed therefrom an unbounded admiration for Constitutional government. A Constitution, it was thought, would necessarily remove all political evils and create something like a political Millennium. And it was not to be a Constitution of the ordinary sort--the fruit of compromise between hostile political parties--but an institution designed calmly according to the latest results of political science, and so constructed that all classes would voluntarily contribute to the general welfare. The necessary prelude to this happy era of political liberty was, of course, the abolition of serfage. When the nobles had given up their power over their serfs they would receive a Constitution as an indemnification and reward.
There were, however, many nobles of the old school who remained impervious to all these new feelings and ideas. On them the raising of the Emancipation question had a very different effect. They had no source of revenue but their estates, and they could not conceive the possibility of working their estates without serf labour. If the peasant was indolent and careless even under strict supervision, what would he become when no longer under the authority of a master? If the profits from farming were already small, what would they be when no one would work without wages? And this was not the worst, for it was quite evident from the circular that the land question was to be raised, and that a considerable portion of each estate would be transferred, at least for a time, to the emancipated peasants.
To the proprietors who looked at the question in this way the prospect of Emancipation was certainly not at all agreeable, but we must not imagine that they felt as English land-owners would feel if threatened by a similar danger. In England a hereditary estate has for the family a value far beyond what it would bring in the market. It is regarded as one and indivisible, and any dismemberment of it would be looked upon as a grave family misfortune. In Russia, on the contrary, estates have nothing of this semi-sacred character, and may be at any time dismembered without outraging family feeling or traditional associations. Indeed, it is not uncommon that when a proprietor dies, leaving only one estate and several children, the property is broken up into fractions and divided among the heirs. Even the prospect of pecuniary sacrifice did not alarm the Russians so much as it would alarm Englishmen. Men who keep no accounts and take little thought for the morrow are much less averse to making pecuniary sacrifices-- whether for a wise or a foolish purpose--than those who carefully arrange their mode of life according to their income.
Still, after due allowance has been made for these peculiarities, it must be admitted that the feeling of dissatisfaction and alarm was very widespread. Even Russians do not like the prospect of losing a part of their land and income. No protest, however, was entered, and no opposition was made. Those who were hostile to the measure were ashamed to show themselves selfish and unpatriotic. At the same time they knew very well that the Emperor, if he wished, could effect the Emancipation in spite of them, and that resistance on their part would draw down upon them the Imperial displeasure, without affording any compensating advantage. They knew, too, that there was a danger from below, so that any useless show of opposition would be like playing with matches in a powder- magazine. The serfs would soon hear that the Tsar desired to set them free, and they might, if they suspected that the proprietors were trying to frustrate the Tsar's benevolent intentions, use violent measures to get rid of the opposition. The idea of agrarian massacres had already taken possession of many timid minds. Besides this, all classes of the proprietors felt that if the work was to be done, it should be done by the Noblesse and not by the bureaucracy. If it were effected by the nobles the interests of the land-owners would be duly considered, but if it were effected by the Administration without their concurrence and co-operation their interests would be neglected, and there would inevitably be an enormous amount of jobbery and corruption. In accordance with this view, the Noblesse corporations of the various provinces successively requested permission to form committees for the consideration of the question, and during the year 1858 a committee was opened in almost every province in which serfage existed.
In this way the question was apparently handed over for solution to the nobles, but in reality the Noblesse was called upon merely to advise, and not to legislate. The Government had not only laid down the fundamental principles of the scheme; it continually supervised the work of construction, and it reserved to itself the right of modifying or rejecting the projects proposed by the committees.
According to these fundamental principles the serfs should be emancipated gradually, so that for some time they would remain attached to the glebe and subject to the authority of the proprietors. During this transition period they should redeem by money payments or labour their houses and gardens, and enjoy in usufruct a certain quantity of land, sufficient to enable them to support themselves and to fulfil their obligations to the State as well as to the proprietor. In return for this land they should pay a yearly rent in money, produce or labour over and above the yearly sum paid for the redemption of their houses and gardens. As to what should be done after the expiry of the transition period, the Government seems to have had no clearly conceived intentions. Probably it hoped that by that time the proprietors and their emancipated serfs would have invented some convenient modus vivendi, and that nothing but a little legislative regulation would be necessary. But radical legislation is like the letting-out of water. These fundamental principles, adopted at first with a view to mere immediate practical necessity, soon acquired a very different significance. To understand this we must return to the periodical literature.
Until the serf question came to be discussed, the reform aspirations were very vague, and consequently there was a remarkable unanimity among their representatives. The great majority of the educated classes were unanimously of opinion that Russia should at once adopt from the West all those liberal principles and institutions the exclusion of which had prevented the country from rising to the level of the Western nations. But very soon symptoms of a schism became apparent. Whilst the literature in general was still preaching the doctrine that Russia should adopt everything that was "liberal," a few voices began to be heard warning the unwary that much which bore the name of liberal was in reality already antiquated and worthless--that Russia ought not to follow blindly in the footsteps of other nations, but ought rather to profit by their experience, and avoid the errors into which they had fallen. The chief of these errors was, according to these new teachers, the abnormal development of individualism--the adoption of that principle of laissez faire which forms the basis of what may be called the Orthodox School of Political Economists. Individualism and unrestricted competition, it was said, have now reached in the West an abnormal and monstrous development. Supported by the laissez faire principle, they have led--and must always lead--to the oppression of the weak, the tyranny of capital, the impoverishment of the masses for the benefit of the few, and the formation of a hungry, dangerous Proletariat! This has already been recognised by the most advanced thinkers of France and Germany. If the older countries cannot at once cure those evils, that is no reason for Russia to inoculate herself with them. She is still at the commencement of her career, and it would be folly for her to wander voluntarily for ages in the Desert, when a direct route to the Promised Land has been already discovered.
In order to convey some idea of the influence which this teaching exercised, I must here recall, at the risk of repeating myself, what I said in a former chapter. The Russians, as I have there pointed out, have a peculiar way of treating political and social questions. Having received their political education from books, they naturally attribute to theoretical considerations an importance which seems to us exaggerated. When any important or trivial question arises, they at once launch into a sea of philosophical principles, and pay less attention to the little objects close at hand than to the big ones that appear on the distant horizon of the future. And when they set to work at any political reform they begin ab ovo. As they have no traditional prejudices to fetter them, and no traditional principles to lead them, they naturally take for their guidance the latest conclusions of political philosophy.
Bearing this in mind, let us see how it affected the Emancipation question. The Proletariat--described as a dangerous monster which was about to swallow up society in Western Europe, and which might at any moment cross the frontier unless kept out by vigorous measures--took possession of the popular imagination, and aroused the fears of the reading public. To many it seemed that the best means of preventing the formation of a Proletariat in Russia was the securing of land for the emancipated serfs and the careful preservation of the rural Commune. "Now is the moment," it was said, "for deciding the important question whether Russia is to fall a prey, like the Western nations, to this terrible evil, or whether she is to protect herself for ever against it. In the decision of this question lies the future destiny of the country. If the peasants be emancipated without land, or if those Communal institutions which give to every man a share of the soil and secure this inestimable boon for the generations still unborn be now abolished, a Proletariat will be rapidly formed, and the peasantry will become a disorganised mass of homeless wanderers like the English agricultural labourers. If, on the contrary, a fair share of land be granted to them, and if the Commune be made proprietor of the land ceded, the danger of a Proletariat is for ever removed, and Russia will thereby set an example to the civilised world! Never has a nation had such an opportunity of making an enormous leap forward on the road of progress, and never again will the opportunity occur. The Western nations have discovered their error when it is too late--when the peasantry have been already deprived of their land, and the labouring classes of the towns have already fallen a prey to the insatiable cupidity of the capitalists. In vain their most eminent thinkers warn and exhort. Ordinary remedies are no longer of any avail. But Russia may avoid these dangers, if she but act wisely and prudently in this great matter. The peasants are still in actual, if not legal, possession of the land, and there is as yet no Proletariat in the towns. All that is necessary, therefore, is to abolish the arbitrary authority of the proprietors without expropriating the peasants, and without disturbing the existing Communal institutions, which form the best barrier against pauperism."
These ideas were warmly espoused by many proprietors, and exercised a very great influence on the deliberations of the Provincial Committees. In these committees there were generally two groups. The majorities, whilst making large concessions to the claims of justice and expediency, endeavoured to defend, as far as possible, the interests of their class; the minorities, though by no means indifferent to the interests of the class to which they belonged, allowed the more abstract theoretical considerations to be predominant. At first the majorities did all in their power to evade the fundamental principles laid down by the Government as much too favourable to the peasantry; but when they perceived that public opinion, as represented by the Press, went much further than the Government, they clung to these fundamental principles--which secured at least the fee simple of the estate to the landlord--as their anchor of safety. Between the two parties arose naturally a strong spirit of hostility, and the Government, which wished to have the support of the minorities, found it advisable that both should present their projects for consideration.
As the Provincial Committees worked independently, there was considerable diversity in the conclusions at which they arrived. The task of codifying these conclusions, and elaborating out of them a general scheme of Emancipation, was entrusted to a special Imperial Commission, composed partly of officials and partly of landed proprietors named by the Emperor.* Those who believed that the question had really been handed over to the Noblesse assumed that this Commission would merely arrange the materials presented by the Provincial Committees, and that the Emancipation Law would thereafter be elaborated by a National Assembly of deputies elected by the nobles. In reality the Commission, working in St. Petersburg under the direct guidance and control of the Government, fulfilled a very different and much more important function. Using the combined projects merely as a storehouse from which it could draw the proposals it desired, it formed a new project of its own, which ultimately received, after undergoing modification in detail, the Imperial assent. Instead of being a mere chancellerie, as many expected, it became in a certain sense the author of the Emancipation Law.
* Known as the Redaktsionnaya Komissiya, or Elaboration Commission. Strictly speaking, there were two, but they are commonly spoken of as one.
There was, as we have seen, in nearly all the Provincial Committees a majority and a minority, the former of which strove to defend the interests of the proprietors, whilst the latter paid more attention to theoretical considerations, and endeavoured to secure for the peasantry a large amount of land and Communal self-government. In the Commission there were the same two parties, but their relative strength was very different. Here the men of theory, instead of forming a minority, were more numerous than their opponents, and enjoyed the support of the Government, which regulated the proceedings. In its instructions we see how much the question had ripened under the influence of the theoretical considerations. There is no longer any trace of the idea that the Emancipation should be gradual; on the contrary, it is expressly declared that the immediate effect of the law should be the complete abolition of the proprietor's authority. There is even evidence of a clear intention of preventing the proprietor as far as possible from exercising any influence over his former serfs. The sharp distinction between the land occupied by the village and the arable land to be ceded in usufruct likewise disappears, and it is merely said that efforts should be made to enable the peasants to become proprietors of the land they required.
The aim of the Government had thus become clear and well defined. The task to be performed was to transform the serfs at once, and with the least possible disturbance of the existing economic conditions, into a class of small Communal proprietors--that is to say, a class of free peasants possessing a house and garden and a share of the Communal land. To effect this it was merely necessary to declare the serf personally free, to draw a clear line of demarcation between the Communal land and the rest of the estate, and to determine the price or rent which should be paid for this Communal property, inclusive of the land on which the village was built.
The law was prepared in strict accordance with these principles. As to the amount of land to be ceded, it was decided that the existing arrangements, founded on experience, should, as a general rule, be preserved--in other words, the land actually enjoyed by the peasants should be retained by them; and in order to prevent extreme cases of injustice, a maximum and a minimum were fixed for each district. In like manner, as to the dues, it was decided that the existing arrangements should be taken as the basis of the calculation, but that the sum should be modified according to the amount of land ceded. At the same time facilities were to be given for the transforming of the labour dues into yearly money payments, and for enabling the peasants to redeem them, with the assistance of the Government, in the form of credit.
This idea of redemption created, at first, a feeling of alarm among the proprietors. It was bad enough to be obliged to cede a large part of the estates in usufruct, but it seemed to be much worse to have to sell it. Redemption appeared to be a species of wholesale confiscation. But very soon it became evident that the redeeming of the land was profitable for both parties. Cession in perpetual usufruct was felt to be in reality tantamount to alienation of the land, whilst the immediate redemption would enable the proprietors, who had generally little or no ready money to pay their debts, to clear their estates from mortgages, and to make the outlays necessary for the transition to free labour. The majority of the proprietors, therefore, said openly: "Let the Government give us a suitable compensation in money for the land that is taken from us, so that we may be at once freed from all further trouble and annoyance."
When it became known that the Commission was not merely arranging and codifying the materials, but elaborating a law of its own and regularly submitting its decisions for Imperial confirmation, a feeling of dissatisfaction appeared all over the country. The nobles perceived that the question was being taken out of their hands, and was being solved by a small body composed of bureaucrats and nominees of the Government. After having made a voluntary sacrifice of their rights, they were being unceremoniously pushed aside. They had still, however, the means of correcting this. The Emperor had publicly promised that before the project should become law deputies from the Provincial Committees should be summoned to St. Petersburg to make objections and propose amendments.
The Commission and the Government would have willingly dispensed with all further advice from the nobles, but it was necessary to redeem the Imperial promise. Deputies were therefore summoned to the capital, but they were not allowed to form, as they hoped, a public assembly for the discussion of the question. All their efforts to hold meetings were frustrated, and they were required merely to answer in writing a list of printed questions regarding matters of detail. The fundamental principles, they were told, had already received the Imperial sanction, and were consequently removed from discussion. Those who desired to discuss details were invited individually to attend meetings of the Commission, where they found one or two members ready to engage with them in a little dialectical fencing. This, of course, did not give much satisfaction. Indeed, the ironical tone in which the fencing was too often conducted served to increase the existing irritation. It was only too evident that the Commission had triumphed, and some of the members could justly boast that they had drowned the deputies in ink and buried them under reams of paper.
Believing, or at least professing to believe, that the Emperor was being deceived in this matter by the Administration, several groups of deputies presented petitions to his Majesty containing a respectful protest against the manner in which they had been treated. But by this act they simply laid themselves open to "the most unkindest cut of all." Those who had signed the petitions received a formal reprimand through the police.
This treatment of the deputies, and, above all, this gratuitous insult, produced among the nobles a storm of indignation. They felt that they had been entrapped. The Government had artfully induced them to form projects for the emancipation of their serfs, and now, after having been used as a cat's-paw in the work of their own spoliation, they were being unceremoniously pushed aside as no longer necessary. Those who had indulged in the hope of gaining political rights felt the blow most keenly. A first gentle and respectful attempt at remonstrance had been answered by a dictatorial reprimand through the police! Instead of being called to take an active part in home and foreign politics, they were being treated as naughty schoolboys. In view of this insult all differences of opinion were for the moment forgotten, and all parties resolved to join in a vigorous protest against the insolence and arbitrary conduct of the bureaucracy.
A convenient opportunity of making this protest in a legal way was offered by the triennial Provincial Assemblies of the Noblesse about to be held in several provinces. So at least it was thought, but here again the Noblesse was checkmated by the Administration.
Before the opening of the Assemblies a circular was issued excluding the Emancipation question from their deliberations. Some Assemblies evaded this order, and succeeded in making a little demonstration by submitting to his Majesty that the time had arrived for other reforms, such as the separation of the administrative and judicial powers, and the creation of local self- government, public judicial procedure, and trial by jury.
All these reforms were voluntarily effected by the Emperor a few years later, but the manner in which they were suggested seemed to savour of insubordination, and was a flagrant infraction of the principle that all initiative in public affairs should proceed from the central Government. New measures of repression were accordingly used. Some Marshals of Noblesse were reprimanded and others deposed. Of the conspicuous leaders, two were exiled to distant provinces and others placed under the supervision of the police. Worst of all, the whole agitation strengthened the Commission by convincing the Emperor that the majority of the nobles were hostile to his benevolent plans.*
* This was a misinterpretation of the facts. Very many of those who joined in the protest sincerely sympathised with the idea of Emancipation, and were ready to be even more "liberal" than the Government.
When the Commission had finished its labours, its proposals passed to the two higher instances--the Committee for Peasant Affairs and the Council of State--and in both of these the Emperor declared plainly that he could allow no fundamental changes. From all the members he demanded a complete forgetfulness of former differences and a conscientious execution of his orders; "For you must remember," he significantly added, "that in Russia laws are made by the Autocratic Power." From an historical review of the question he drew the conclusion that "the Autocratic Power created serfage, and the Autocratic Power ought to abolish it." On March 3d (February 19th, old style), 1861, the law was signed, and by that act more than twenty millions of serfs were liberated.* A Manifesto containing the fundamental principles of the law was at once sent all over the country, and an order was given that it should be read in all the churches.
* It is sometimes said that forty millions of serfs have been emancipated. The statement is true, if we regard the State peasants as serfs. They held, as I have already explained, an intermediate position between serfage and freedom. The peculiar administration under which they lived was partly abolished by Imperial Orders of September 7th, 1859, and October 23d, 1861. In 1866 they were placed, as regards administration, on a level with the emancipated serfs of the proprietors. As a general rule, they received rather more land and had to pay somewhat lighter dues than the emancipated serfs in the narrower sense of the term.
The three fundamental principles laid down by the law were:--
1. That the serfs should at once receive the civil rights of the free rural classes, and that the authority of the proprietor should be replaced by Communal self-government.
2. That the rural Communes should as far as possible retain the land they actually held, and should in return pay to the proprietor certain yearly dues in money or labour.
3. That the Government should by means of credit assist the Communes to redeem these dues, or, in other words, to purchase the lands ceded to them in usufruct.
With regard to the domestic serfs, it was enacted that they should continue to serve their masters during two years, and that thereafter they should be completely free, but they should have no claim to a share of the land.
It might be reasonably supposed that the serfs received with boundless gratitude and delight the Manifesto proclaiming these principles. Here at last was the realisation of their long- cherished hopes. Liberty was accorded to them; and not only liberty, but a goodly portion of the soil--about half of all the arable land possessed by the proprietors.
In reality the Manifesto created among the peasantry a feeling of disappointment rather than delight. To understand this strange fact we must endeavour to place ourselves at the peasant's point of view.
In the first place it must be remarked that all vague, rhetorical phrases about free labour, human dignity, national progress, and the like, which may readily produce among educated men a certain amount of temporary enthusiasm, fall on the ears of the Russian peasant like drops of rain on a granite rock. The fashionable rhetoric of philosophical liberalism is as incomprehensible to him as the flowery circumlocutionary style of an Oriental scribe would be to a keen city merchant. The idea of liberty in the abstract and the mention of rights which lie beyond the sphere of his ordinary everyday life awaken no enthusiasm in his breast. And for mere names he has a profound indifference. What matters it to him that he is officially called, not a "serf," but a "free village- inhabitant," if the change in official terminology is not accompanied by some immediate material advantage? What he wants is a house to live in, food to eat, and raiment wherewithal to be clothed, and to gain these first necessaries of life with as little labour as possible. He looked at the question exclusively from two points of view--that of historical right and that of material advantage; and from both of these the Emancipation Law seemed to him very unsatisfactory.
On the subject of historical right the peasantry had their own traditional conceptions, which were completely at variance with the written law. According to the positive legislation the Communal land formed part of the estate, and consequently belonged to the proprietor; but according to the conceptions of the peasantry it belonged to the Commune, and the right of the proprietor consisted merely in that personal authority over the serfs which had been conferred on him by the Tsar. The peasants could not, of course, put these conceptions into a strict legal form, but they often expressed them in their own homely laconic way by saying to their master, "Mui vashi no zemlya nasha"--that is to say. "We are yours, but the land is ours." And it must be admitted that this view, though legally untenable, had a certain historical justification.*
* See preceding chapter.
In olden times the Noblesse had held their land by feudal tenure, and were liable to be ejected as soon as they did not fulfil their obligations to the State. These obligations had been long since abolished, and the feudal tenure transformed into an unconditional right of property, but the peasants clung to the old ideas in a way that strikingly illustrates the vitality of deep-rooted popular conceptions. In their minds the proprietors were merely temporary occupants, who were allowed by the Tsar to exact labour and dues from the serfs. What, then, was Emancipation? Certainly the abolition of all obligatory labour and money dues, and perhaps the complete ejectment of the proprietors. On this latter point there was a difference of opinion. All assumed, as a matter of course, that the Communal land would remain the property of the Commune, but it was not so clear what would be done with the rest of the estate. Some thought that it would be retained by the proprietor, but very many believed that all the land would be given to the Communes. In this way the Emancipation would be in accordance with historical right and with the material advantage of the peasantry, for whose exclusive benefit, it was assumed, the reform had been undertaken.
Instead of this the peasants found that they were still to pay dues, even for the Communal land which they regarded as unquestionably their own. So at least said the expounders of the law. But the thing was incredible. Either the proprietors must be concealing or misinterpreting the law, or this was merely a preparatory measure, which would be followed by the real Emancipation. Thus were awakened among the peasantry a spirit of mistrust and suspicion and a widespread belief that there would be a second Imperial Manifesto, by which all the land would be divided and all the dues abolished.
On the nobles the Manifesto made a very different impression. The fact that they were to be entrusted with the putting of the law into execution, and the flattering allusions made to the spirit of generous self-sacrifice which they had exhibited, kindled amongst them enthusiasm enough to make them forget for a time their just grievances and their hostility towards the bureaucracy. They found that the conditions on which the Emancipation was effected were by no means so ruinous as they had anticipated; and the Emperor's appeal to their generosity and patriotism made many of them throw themselves with ardour into the important task confided to them.
Unfortunately they could not at once begin the work. The law had been so hurried through the last stages that the preparations for putting it into execution were by no means complete when the Manifesto was published. The task of regulating the future relations between the proprietors and the peasantry was entrusted to local proprietors in each district, who were to be called Arbiters of the Peace (Mirovuiye Posredniki); but three months elapsed before these Arbiters could be appointed. During that time there was no one to explain the law to the peasants and settle the disputes between them and the proprietors; and the consequence of this was that many cases of insubordination and disorder occurred. The muzhik naturally imagined that, as soon as the Tsar said he was free, he was no longer obliged to work for his old master--that all obligatory labour ceased as soon as the Manifesto was read. In vain the proprietor endeavoured to convince him that, in regard to labour, the old relations must continue, as the law enjoined, until a new arrangement had been made. To all explanations and exhortations he turned a deaf ear, and to the efforts of the rural police he too often opposed a dogged, passive resistance.
In many cases the simple appearance of the higher authorities sufficed to restore order, for the presence of one of the Tsar's servants convinced many that the order to work for the present as formerly was not a mere invention of the proprietors. But not infrequently the birch had to be applied. Indeed, I am inclined to believe, from the numerous descriptions of this time which I received from eye-witnesses, that rarely, if ever, had the serfs seen and experienced so much flogging as during these first three months after their liberation. Sometimes even the troops had to be called out, and on three occasions they fired on the peasants with ball cartridge. In the most serious case, where a young peasant had set up for a prophet and declared that the Emancipation Law was a forgery, fifty-one peasants were killed and seventy-seven were more or less seriously wounded. In spite of these lamentable incidents, there was nothing which even the most violent alarmist could dignify with the name of an insurrection. Nowhere was there anything that could be called organised resistance. Even in the case above alluded to, the three thousand peasants on whom the troops fired were entirely unarmed, made no attempt to resist, and dispersed in the utmost haste as soon as they discovered that they were being shot down. Had the military authorities shown a little more judgment, tact, and patience, the history of the Emancipation would not have been stained even with those three solitary cases of unnecessary bloodshed.
This interregnum between the eras of serfage and liberty was brought to an end by the appointment of the Arbiters of the Peace. Their first duty was to explain the law, and to organise the new peasant self-government. The lowest instance, or primary organ of this self-government, the rural Commune, already existed, and at once recovered much of its ancient vitality as soon as the authority and interference of the proprietors were removed. The second instance, the Volost--a territorial administrative unit comprising several contiguous Communes--had to be created, for nothing of the kind had previously existed on the estates of the nobles. It had existed, however, for nearly a quarter of a century among the peasants of the Domains, and it was therefore necessary merely to copy an existing model.
As soon as all the Volosts in his district had been thus organised the Arbiter had to undertake the much more arduous task of regulating the agrarian relations between the proprietors and the Communes--with the individual peasants, be it remembered, the proprietors had no direct relations whatever. It had been enacted by the law that the future agrarian relations between the two parties should be left, as far as possible, to voluntary contract; and accordingly each proprietor was invited to come to an agreement with the Commune or Communes on his estate. On the ground of this agreement a statute-charter (ustavnaya gramota) was prepared, specifying the number of male serfs, the quantity of land actually enjoyed by them, any proposed changes in this amount, the dues proposed to be levied, and other details. If the Arbiter found that the conditions were in accordance with the law and clearly understood by the peasants, he confirmed the charter, and the arrangement was complete. When the two parties could not come to an agreement within a year, he prepared a charter according to his own judgment, and presented it for confirmation to the higher authorities.
The dissolution of partnership, if it be allowable to use such a term, between the proprietor and his serfs was sometimes very easy and sometimes very difficult. On many estates the charter did little more than legalise the existing arrangements, but in many instances it was necessary to add to, or subtract from, the amount of Communal land, and sometimes it was even necessary to remove the village to another part of the estate. In all cases there were, of course, conflicting interests and complicated questions, so that the Arbiter had always abundance of difficult work. Besides this, he had to act as mediator in those differences which naturally arose during the transition period, when the authority of the proprietor had been abolished but the separation of the two classes had not yet been effected. The unlimited patriarchal authority which had been formerly wielded by the proprietor or his steward now passed with certain restriction into the hands of the Arbiter, and these peacemakers had to spend a great part of their time in driving about from one estate to another to put an end to alleged cases of insubordination--some of which, it must be admitted, existed only in the imagination of the proprietors.
At first the work of amicable settlement proceeded slowly. The proprietors generally showed a conciliatory spirit, and some of them generously proposed conditions much more favourable to the peasants than the law demanded; but the peasants were filled with vague suspicions, and feared to commit themselves by "putting pen to paper." Even the highly respected proprietors, who imagined that they possessed the unbounded confidence of the peasantry, were suspected like the others, and their generous offers were regarded as well-baited traps. Often I have heard old men, sometimes with tears in their eyes, describe the distrust and ingratitude of the muzhik at this time. Many peasants still believed that the proprietors were hiding the real Emancipation Law, and imaginative or ill-intentioned persons fostered this belief by professing to know what the real law contained. The most absurd rumours were afloat, and whole villages sometimes acted upon them.
In the province of Moscow, for instance, one Commune sent a deputation to the proprietor to inform him that, as he had always been a good master, the Mir would allow him to retain his house and garden during his lifetime. In another locality it was rumoured that the Tsar sat daily on a golden throne in the Crimea, receiving all peasants who came to him, and giving them as much land as they desired; and in order to take advantage of the Imperial liberality a large body of peasants set out for the place indicated, and had to he stopped by the military.
As an illustration of the illusions in which the peasantry indulged at this time, I may mention here one of the many characteristic incidents related to me by gentlemen who had served as Arbiters of the Peace.
In the province of Riazan there was one Commune which had acquired a certain local notoriety for the obstinacy with which it refused all arrangements with the proprietor. My informant, who was Arbiter for the locality, was at last obliged to make a statute- charter for it without its consent. He wished, however, that the peasants should voluntarily accept the arrangement he proposed, and accordingly called them together to talk with them on the subject. After explaining fully the part of the law which related to their case, he asked them what objection they had to make a fair contract with their old master. For some time he received no answer, but gradually by questioning individuals he discovered the cause of their obstinacy: they were firmly convinced that not only the Communal land, but also the rest of the estate, belonged to them. To eradicate this false idea he set himself to reason with them, and the following characteristic dialogue ensued:--
Arbiter: "If the Tsar gave all the land to the peasantry, what compensation could he give to the proprietors to whom the land belongs?"
Peasant: "The Tsar will give them salaries according to their service."
Arbiter: "In order to pay these salaries he would require a great deal more money. Where could he get that money? He would have to increase the taxes, and in that way you would have to pay all the same."
Peasant: "The Tsar can make as much money as he likes."
Arbiter: "If the Tsar can make as much money as he likes, why does he make you pay the poll-tax every year?"
Peasant: "It is not the Tsar that receives the taxes we pay."
Arbiter: "Who, then, receives them?"
Peasant (after a little hesitation, and with a knowing smite): "The officials, of course!"
Gradually, through the efforts of the Arbiters, the peasants came to know better their real position, and the work began to advance more rapidly. But soon it was checked by another influence. By the end of the first year the "liberal," patriotic enthusiasm of the nobles had cooled. The sentimental, idyllic tendencies had melted away at the first touch of reality, and those who had imagined that liberty would have an immediately salutary effect on the moral character of the serfs confessed themselves disappointed. Many complained that the peasants showed themselves greedy and obstinate, stole wood from the forest, allowed their cattle to wander on the proprietor's fields, failed to fulfil their legal obligations, and broke their voluntary engagements. At the same time the fears of an agrarian rising subsided, so that even the timid were tranquillised. From these causes the conciliatory spirit of the proprietors decreased.
The work of conciliating and regulating became consequently more difficult, but the great majority of the Arbiters showed themselves equal to the task, and displayed an impartiality, tact and patience beyond all praise. To them Russia is in great part indebted for the peaceful character of the Emancipation. Had they sacrificed the general good to the interests of their class, or had they habitually acted in that stern, administrative, military spirit which caused the instances of bloodshed above referred to, the prophecies of the alarmists would, in all probability, have been realised, and the historian of the Emancipation would have had a terrible list of judicial massacres to record. Fortunately they played the part of mediators, as their name signified, rather than that of administrators in the bureaucratic sense of the term, and they were animated with a just and humane rather than a merely legal spirit. Instead of simply laying down the law, and ordering their decisions to be immediately executed, they were ever ready to spend hours in trying to conquer, by patient and laborious reasoning, the unjust claims of proprietors or the false conceptions and ignorant obstinacy of the peasants. It was a new spectacle for Russia to see a public function fulfilled by conscientious men who had their heart in their work, who sought neither promotion nor decorations, and who paid less attention to the punctilious observance of prescribed formalities than to the real objects in view.
There were, it is true, a few men to whom this description does not apply. Some of these were unduly under the influence of the feelings and conceptions created by serfage. Some, on the contrary, erred on the other side. Desirous of securing the future welfare of the peasantry and of gaining for themselves a certain kind of popularity, and at the same time animated with a violent spirit of pseudo-liberalism, these latter occasionally forgot that their duty was to be, not generous, but just, and that they had no right to practise generosity at other people's expense. All this I am quite aware of--I could even name one or two Arbiters who were guilty of positive dishonesty--but I hold that these were rare exceptions. The great majority did their duty faithfully and well.
The work of concluding contracts for the redemption of the dues, or, in other words, for the purchase of the land ceded in perpetual usufruct, proceeded slowly. The arrangement was as follows:--
The dues were capitalised at six per cent., and the Government paid at once to the proprietors four-fifths of the whole sum. The peasants were to pay to the proprietor the remaining fifth, either at once or in installments, and to the Government six per cent. for forty-nine years on the sum advanced. The proprietors willingly adopted this arrangement, for it provided them with a sum of ready money, and freed them from the difficult task of collecting the dues. But the peasants did not show much desire to undertake the operation. Some of them still expected a second Emancipation, and those who did not take this possibility into their calculations were little disposed to make present sacrifices for distant prospective advantages which would not be realised for half a century. In most cases the proprietor was obliged to remit, in whole or in part, the fifth to be paid by the peasants. Many Communes refused to undertake the operation on any conditions and in consequence of this not a few proprietors demanded the so-called obligatory redemption, according to which they accepted the four- fifths from the Government as full payment, and the operation was thus effected without the peasants being consulted. The total number of male serfs emancipated was about nine millions and three- quarters,* and of these, only about seven millions and a quarter had, at the beginning of 1875, made redemption contracts. Of the contracts signed at that time, about sixty-three per cent, were "obligatory." In 1887 the redemption was made obligatory for both parties, so that all Communes are now proprietors of the land previously held in perpetual usufruct; and in 1932 the debt will have been extinguished by the sinking fund, and all redemption payments will have ceased.
* This does not include the domestic serfs who did not receive land.
The serfs were thus not only liberated, but also made possessors of land and put on the road to becoming Communal proprietors, and the old Communal institutions were preserved and developed. In answer to the question, Who effected this gigantic reform? we may say that the chief merit undoubtedly belongs to Alexander II. Had he not possessed a very great amount of courage he would neither have raised the question nor allowed it to be raised by others, and had he not shown a great deal more decision and energy than was expected, the solution would have been indefinitely postponed. Among the members of his own family he found an able and energetic assistant in his brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, and a warm sympathiser with the cause in the Grand Duchess Helena, a German Princess thoroughly devoted to the welfare of her adopted country. But we must not overlook the important part played by the nobles. Their conduct was very characteristic. As soon as the question was raised a large number of them adopted the liberal ideas with enthusiasm; and as soon as it became evident that Emancipation was inevitable, all made a holocaust of their ancient rights and demanded to be liberated at once from all relations with their serfs. Moreover, when the law was passed it was the proprietors who faithfully put it into execution. Lastly, we should remember that praise is due to the peasantry for their patience under disappointment and for their orderly conduct as soon as they understood the law and recognised it to be the will of the Tsar. Thus it may justly be said that the Emancipation was not the work of one man, or one party, or one class, but of the nation as a whole.*
* The names most commonly associated with the Emancipation are General Rostoftsef, Lanskoi (Minister of the Interior), Nicholas Milutin, Prince Tchererkassky, G. Samarin, Koshelef. Many others, such as I. A. Solovief, Zhukofski, Domontovitch, Giers--brother of M. Giers, afterwards Minister for Foreign Affairs--are less known, but did valuable work. To all of these, with the exception of the first two, who died before my arrival in Russia, I have to confess my obligations. The late Nicholas Milutin rendered me special service by putting at my disposal not only all the official papers in his possession, but also many documents of a more private kind. By his early and lamented death Russia lost one of the greatest statesmen she has yet produced.