Russia eText - Chapter XXVIII - The Serfs

Chapter XXVIII - The Serfs

Before proceeding to describe the Emancipation, it may be well to explain briefly how the Russian peasants became serfs, and what serfage in Russia really was.

In the earliest period of Russian history the rural population was composed of three distinct classes. At the bottom of the scale stood the slaves, who were very numerous. Their numbers were continually augmented by prisoners of war, by freemen who voluntarily sold themselves as slaves, by insolvent debtors, and by certain categories of criminals. Immediately above the slaves were the free agricultural labourers, who had no permanent domicile, but wandered about the country and settled temporarily where they happened to find work and satisfactory remuneration. In the third place, distinct from these two classes, and in some respects higher in the social scale, were the peasants properly so called.*

* My chief authority for the early history of the peasantry has been Belaef, "Krestyanye na Rusi," Moscow, 1860; a most able and conscientious work.

These peasants proper, who may be roughly described as small farmers or cottiers, were distinguished from the free agricultural labourers in two respects: they were possessors of land in property or usufruct, and they were members of a rural Commune. The Communes were free primitive corporations which elected their office-bearers from among the heads of families, and sent delegates to act as judges or assessors in the Prince's Court. Some of the Communes possessed land of their own, whilst others were settled on the estates of the landed proprietors or on the extensive domains of the monasteries. In the latter case the peasant paid a fixed yearly rent in money, in produce, or in labour, according to the terms of his contract with the proprietor or the monastery; but he did not thereby sacrifice in any way his personal liberty. As soon as he had fulfilled the engagements stipulated in the contract and had settled accounts with the owner of the land, he was free to change his domicile as he pleased.

If we turn now from these early times to the eighteenth century, we find that the position of the rural population has entirely changed in the interval. The distinction between slaves, agricultural labourers, and peasants has completely disappeared. All three categories have melted together into a common class, called serfs, who are regarded as the property of the landed proprietors or of the State. "The proprietors sell their peasants and domestic servants not even in families, but one by one, like cattle, as is done nowhere else in the whole world, from which practice there is not a little wailing."* And yet the Government, whilst professing to regret the existence of the practice, takes no energetic measures to prevent it. On the contrary, it deprives the serfs of all legal protection, and expressly commands that if any serf shall dare to present a petition against his master, he shall be punished with the knout and transported for life to the mines of Nertchinsk. (Ukaz of August 22d, 1767.**)

* These words are taken from an Imperial ukaz of April 15th, 1721. Polnoye Sobranye Zakonov, No. 3,770.

** This is an ukaz of the liberal and tolerant Catherine! How she reconciled it with her respect and admiration for Beccaria's humane views on criminal law she does not explain.

How did this important change take place, and how is it to be explained?

If we ask any educated Russian who has never specially occupied himself with historical investigations regarding the origin of serfage in Russia, he will probably reply somewhat in this fashion:

"In Russia slavery has never existed (!), and even serfage in the West-European sense has never been recognised by law! In ancient times the rural population was completely free, and every peasant might change his domicile on St. George's Day--that is to say, at the end of the agricultural year. This right of migration was abolished by Tsar Boris Godunof--who, by the way, was half a Tartar and more than half a usurper--and herein lies the essence of serfage in the Russian sense. The peasants have never been the property of the landed proprietors, but have always been personally free; and the only legal restriction on their liberty was that they were not allowed to change their domicile without the permission of the proprietor. If so-called serfs were sometimes sold, the practice was simply an abuse not justified by legislation."

This simple explanation, in which may be detected a note of patriotic pride, is almost universally accepted in Russia; but it contains, like most popular conceptions of the distant past, a curious mixture of fact and fiction. Serious historical investigation tends to show that the power of the proprietors over the peasants came into existence, not suddenly, as the result of an ukaz, but gradually, as a consequence of permanent economic and political causes, and that Boris Godunof was not more to blame than many of his predecessors and successors.*

* See especially Pobedonostsef, in the Russki Vestnik, 1858, No. 11, and "Istoritcheskiya izsledovaniya i statyi" (St. Petersburg, 1876), by the same author; also Pogodin, in the Russkaya Beseda, 1858, No. 4.

Although the peasants in ancient Russia were free to wander about as they chose, there appeared at a very early period--long before the reign of Boris Godunof--a decided tendency in the Princes, in the proprietors, and in the Communes, to prevent migration. This tendency will be easily understood if we remember that land without labourers is useless, and that in Russia at that time the population was small in comparison with the amount of reclaimed and easily reclaimable land. The Prince desired to have as many inhabitants as possible in his principality, because the amount of his regular revenues depended on the number of the population. The landed proprietor desired to have as many peasants as possible on his estate, to till for him the land which he reserved for his own use, and to pay him for the remainder a yearly rent in money, produce, or labour. The free Communes desired to have a number of members sufficient to keep the whole of the Communal land under cultivation, because each Commune had to pay yearly to the Prince a fixed sum in money or agricultural produce, and the greater the number of able-bodied members, the less each individual had to pay. To use the language of political economy, the Princes, the landed proprietors, and the free Communes all appeared as buyers in the labour market; and the demand was far in excess of the supply. Nowadays when young colonies or landed proprietors in an outlying corner of the world are similarly in need of labour, they seek to supply the want by organising a regular system of importing labourers--using illegal violent means, such as kidnapping expeditions, merely as an exceptional expedient. In old Russia any such regularly organised system was impossible, and consequently illegal or violent measures were not the exception, but the rule. The chief practical advantage of the frequent military expeditions for those who took part in them was the acquisition of prisoners of war, who were commonly transformed into slaves by their captors. If it be true, as some assert, that only unbaptised prisoners were legally considered lawful booty, it is certain that in practice, before the unification of the principalities under the Tsars of Moscow, little distinction was made in this respect between unbaptised foreigners and Orthodox Russians.* A similar method was sometimes employed for the acquisition of free peasants: the more powerful proprietors organised kidnapping expeditions, and carried off by force the peasants settled on the land of their weaker neighbours.

* On this subject see Tchitcherin, "Opyty po istorii Russkago prava," Moscow, 1858, p. 162 et seq.; and Lokhvitski, "O plennykh po drevnemu Russkomu pravu," Moscow, 1855.

Under these circumstances it was only natural that those who possessed this valuable commodity should do all in their power to keep it. Many, if not all, of the free Communes adopted the simple measure of refusing to allow a member to depart until he had found some one to take his place. The proprietors never, so far as we know, laid down formally such a principle, but in practice they did all in their power to retain the peasants actually settled on their estates. For this purpose some simply employed force, whilst others acted under cover of legal formalities. The peasant who accepted land from a proprietor rarely brought with him the necessary implements, cattle, and capital to begin at once his occupations, and to feed himself and his family till the ensuing harvest. He was obliged, therefore, to borrow from his landlord, and the debt thus contracted was easily converted into a means of preventing his departure if he wished to change his domicile. We need not enter into further details. The proprietors were the capitalists of the time. Frequent bad harvests, plagues, fires, military raids, and similar misfortunes often reduced even prosperous peasants to beggary. The muzhik was probably then, as now, only too ready to accept a loan without taking the necessary precautions for repaying it. The laws relating to debt were terribly severe, and there was no powerful judicial organisation to protect the weak. If we remember all this, we shall not be surprised to learn that a considerable part of the peasantry were practically serfs before serfage was recognised by law.

So long as the country was broken up into independent principalities, and each land-owner was almost an independent Prince on his estate, the peasants easily found a remedy for these abuses in flight. They fled to a neighbouring proprietor who could protect them from their former landlord and his claims, or they took refuge in a neighbouring principality, where they were, of course, still safer. All this was changed when the independent principalities were transformed into the Tsardom of Muscovy. The Tsars had new reasons for opposing the migration of the peasants and new means for preventing it. The old Princes had simply given grants of land to those who served them, and left the grantee to do with his land what seemed good to him; the Tsars, on the contrary, gave to those who served them merely the usufruct of a certain quantity of land, and carefully proportioned the quantity to the rank and the obligations of the receiver. In this change there was plainly a new reason for fixing the peasants to the soil. The real value of a grant depended not so much on the amount of land as on the number of peasants settled on it, and hence any migration of the population was tantamount to a removal of the ancient landmarks--that is to say, to a disturbance of the arrangements made by the Tsar. Suppose, for instance, that the Tsar granted to a Boyar or some lesser dignitary an estate on which were settled twenty peasant families, and that afterwards ten of these emigrated to neighbouring proprietors. In this case the recipient might justly complain that he had lost half of his estate--though the amount of land was in no way diminished--and that he was consequently unable to fulfil his obligations. Such complaints would be rarely, if ever, made by the great dignitaries, for they had the means of attracting peasants to their estates;* but the small proprietors had good reason to complain, and the Tsar was bound to remove their grievances. The attaching of the peasants to the soil was, in fact, the natural consequence of feudal tenures-- an integral part of the Muscovite political system. The Tsar compelled the nobles to serve him, and was unable to pay them in money. He was obliged, therefore, to procure for them some other means of livelihood. Evidently the simplest method of solving the difficulty was to give them land, with a certain number of labourers, and to prevent the labourers from migrating.

* There are plain indications in the documents of the time that the great dignitaries were at first hostile to the adscriptio glebae. We find a similar phenomenon at a much more recent date in Little Russia. Long after serfage had been legalised in that region by Catherine II., the great proprietors, such as Rumyantsef, Razumofski, Bezborodko, continued to attract to their estates the peasants of the smaller proprietors. See the article of Pogodin in the Russkaya Beseda, 1858, No. 4, p. 154.

Towards the free Communes the Tsar had to act in the same way for similar reasons. The Communes, like the nobles, had obligations to the Sovereign, and could not fulfil them if the peasants were allowed to migrate from one locality to another. They were, in a certain sense, the property of the Tsar, and it was only natural that the Tsar should do for himself what he had done for his nobles.

With these new reasons for fixing the peasants to the soil came, as has been said, new means of preventing migration. Formerly it was an easy matter to flee to a neighbouring principality, but now all the principalities were combined under one ruler, and the foundations of a centralised administration were laid. Severe fugitive laws were issued against those who attempted to change their domicile and against the proprietors who should harbour the runaways. Unless the peasant chose to face the difficulties of "squatting" in the inhospitable northern forests, or resolved to brave the dangers of the steppe, he could nowhere escape the heavy hand of Moscow.*

* The above account of the origin of serfage in Russia is founded on a careful examination of the evidence which we possess on the subject, but I must not conceal the fact that some of the statements are founded on inference rather than on direct, unequivocal documentary evidence. The whole question is one of great difficulty, and will in all probability not be satisfactorily solved until a large number of the old local Land-Registers (Pistsoviya Knigi) have been published and carefully studied.

The indirect consequences of thus attaching the peasants to the soil did not at once become apparent. The serf retained all the civil rights he had hitherto enjoyed, except that of changing his domicile. He could still appear before the courts of law as a free man, freely engage in trade or industry, enter into all manner of contracts, and rent land for cultivation.

But as time wore on, the change in the legal relation between the two classes became apparent in real life. In attaching the peasantry to the soil, the Government had been so thoroughly engrossed with the direct financial aim that it entirely overlooked, or wilfully shut its eyes to, the ulterior consequences which must necessarily flow from the policy it adopted. It was evident that as soon as the relation between proprietor and peasant was removed from the region of voluntary contract by being rendered indissoluble, the weaker of the two parties legally tied together must fall completely under the power of the stronger, unless energetically protected by the law and the Administration. To this inevitable consequence the Government paid no attention. So far from endeavouring to protect the peasantry from the oppression of the proprietors, it did not even determine by law the mutual obligations which ought to exist between the two classes. Taking advantage of this omission, the proprietors soon began to impose whatever obligations they thought fit; and as they had no legal means of enforcing fulfilment, they gradually introduced a patriarchal jurisdiction similar to that which they exercised over their slaves, with fines and corporal punishment as means of coercion. From this they ere long proceeded a step further, and began to sell their peasants without the land on which they were settled. At first this was merely a flagrant abuse unsanctioned by law, for the peasant had never been declared the private property of the landed proprietor; but the Government tacitly sanctioned the practice, and even exacted dues on such sales, as on the sale of slaves. Finally the right to sell peasants without land was formally recognised by various Imperial ukazes.*

* For instance, the ukazes of October 13th, 1675, and June 25th, 1682. See Belaef, pp. 203-209.

The old Communal organisation still existed on the estates of the proprietors, and had never been legally deprived of its authority, but it was now powerless to protect the members. The proprietor could easily overcome any active resistance by selling or converting into domestic servants the peasants who dared to oppose his will.

The peasantry had thus sunk to the condition of serfs, practically deprived of legal protection and subject to the arbitrary will of the proprietors; but they were still in some respects legally and actually distinguished from the slaves on the one hand and the "free wandering people" on the other. These distinctions were obliterated by Peter the Great and his immediate successors.

To effect his great civil and military reforms, Peter required an annual revenue such as his predecessors had never dreamed of, and he was consequently always on the look-out for some new object of taxation. When looking about for this purpose, his eye naturally fell on the slaves, the domestic servants, and the free agricultural labourers. None of these classes paid taxes--a fact which stood in flagrant contradiction with his fundamental principle of polity, that every subject should in some way serve the State. He caused, therefore, a national census to be taken, in which all the various classes of the rural population--slaves, domestic servants, agricultural labourers, peasants--should be inscribed in one category; and he imposed equally on all the members of this category a poll-tax, in lieu of the former land- tax, which had lain exclusively on the peasants. To facilitate the collection of this tax the proprietors were made responsible for their serfs; and the "free wandering people" who did not wish to enter the army were ordered, under pain of being sent to the galleys, to inscribe themselves as members of a Commune or as serfs to some proprietor.

These measures had a considerable influence, if not on the actual position of the peasantry, at least on the legal conceptions regarding them. By making the proprietor pay the poll-tax for his serfs, as if they were slaves or cattle, the law seemed to sanction the idea that they were part of his goods and chattels. Besides this, it introduced the entirely new principle that any member of the rural population not legally attached to the land or to a proprietor should be regarded as a vagrant, and treated accordingly. Thus the principle that every subject should in some way serve the State had found its complete realisation. There was no longer any room in Russia for free men.

The change in the position of the peasantry, together with the hardships and oppression by which it was accompanied, naturally increased fugitivism and vagrancy. Thousands of serfs ran away from their masters and fled to the steppe or sought enrolment in the army. To prevent this the Government considered it necessary to take severe and energetic measures. The serfs were forbidden to enlist without the permission of their masters, and those who persisted in presenting themselves for enrolment were to be beaten "cruelly" (zhestoko) with the knout, and sent to the mines.* The proprietors, on the other hand, received the right to transport without trial their unruly serfs to Siberia, and even to send them to the mines for life.**

* Ukaz of June 2d, 1742.

** See ukaz of January 17th, 1765, and of January 28th, 1766.

If these stringent measures had any effect it was not of long duration, for there soon appeared among the serfs a still stronger spirit of discontent and insubordination, which threatened to produce a general agrarian rising, and actually did create a movement resembling in many respects the Jacquerie in France and the Peasant War in Germany. A glance at the causes of this movement will help us to understand the real nature of serfage in Russia.

Up to this point serfage had, in spite of its flagrant abuses, a certain theoretical justification. It was, as we have seen, merely a part of a general political system in which obligatory service was imposed on all classes of the population. The serfs served the nobles in order that the nobles might serve the Tsar. In 1762 this theory was entirely overturned by a manifesto of Peter III. abolishing the obligatory service of the Noblesse. According to strict justice this act ought to have been followed by the liberation of the serfs, for if the nobles were no longer obliged to serve the State they had no just claim to the service of the peasants. The Government had so completely forgotten the original meaning of serfage that it never thought of carrying out the measure to its logical consequences, but the peasantry held tenaciously to the ancient conceptions, and looked impatiently for a second manifesto liberating them from the power of the proprietors. Reports were spread that such a manifesto really existed, and was being concealed by the nobles. A spirit of insubordination accordingly appeared among the rural population, and local insurrections broke out in several parts of the Empire.

At this critical moment Peter III. was dethroned and assassinated by a Court conspiracy. The peasants, who, of course, knew nothing of the real motives of the conspirators, supposed that the Tsar had been assassinated by those who wished to preserve serfage, and believed him to be a martyr in the cause of Emancipation. At the news of the catastrophe their hopes of Emancipation fell, but soon they were revived by new rumours. The Tsar, it was said, had escaped from the conspirators and was in hiding. Soon he would appear among his faithful peasants, and with their aid would regain his throne and punish the wicked oppressors. Anxiously he was awaited, and at last the glad tidings came that he had appeared in the Don country, that thousands of Cossacks had joined his standard, that he was everywhere putting the proprietors to death without mercy, and that he would soon arrive in the ancient capital!

Peter III. was in reality in his grave, but there was a terrible element of truth in these reports. A pretender, a Cossack called Pugatchef, had really appeared on the Don, and had assumed the role which the peasants expected the late Tsar to play. Advancing through the country of the Lower Volga, he took several places of importance, put to death all the proprietors he could find, defeated on more than one occasion the troops sent against him, and threatened to advance into the heart of the Empire. It seemed as if the old troublous times were about to be renewed--as if the country was once more to be pillaged by those wild Cossacks of the southern steppe. But the pretender showed himself incapable of playing the part he had assumed. His inhuman cruelty estranged many who would otherwise have followed him, and he was too deficient in decision and energy to take advantage of favourable circumstances. If it be true that he conceived the idea of creating a peasant empire (muzhitskoe tsarstvo), he was not the man to realise such a scheme. After a series of mistakes and defeats he was taken prisoner, and the insurrection was quelled.*

*Whilst living among the Bashkirs of the province of Samara in 1872 I found some interesting traditions regarding this pretender. Though nearly a century had elapsed since his death (1775), his name, his personal appearance, and his exploits were well known even to the younger generation. My informants firmly believed that he was not an impostor, but the genuine Tsar, dethroned by his ambitious consort, and that he never was taken prisoner, but "went away into foreign lands." When I asked whether he was still alive, and whether he might not one day return, they replied that they did not know.

Meanwhile Peter III. had been succeeded by his consort, Catherine II. As she had no legal right to the throne, and was by birth a foreigner, she could not gain the affections of the people, and was obliged to court the favour of the Noblesse. In such a difficult position she could not venture to apply her humane principles to the question of serfage. Even during the first years of her reign, when she had no reason to fear agrarian disturbances, she increased rather than diminished the power of the proprietors over their serfs, and the Pugatchef affair confirmed her in this line of policy. During her reign serfage may be said to have reached its climax. The serfs were regarded by the law as part of the master's immovable property*--as part of the working capital of the estate-- and as such they were bought, sold, and given as presents** in hundreds and thousands, sometimes with the land, and sometimes without it, sometimes in families, and sometimes individually. The only legal restriction was that they should not be offered for sale at the time of the conscription, and that they should at no time be sold publicly by auction, because such a custom was considered as "unbecoming in a European State." In all other respects the serfs might be treated as private property; and this view is to be found not only in the legislation, but also in the popular conceptions. It became customary--a custom that continued down to the year 1861-- to compute a noble's fortune, not by his yearly revenue or the extent of his estate, but by the number of his serfs. Instead of saying that a man had so many hundreds or thousands a year, or so many acres, it was commonly said that he had so many hundreds or thousands of "souls." And over these "souls" he exercised the most unlimited authority. The serfs had no legal means of self-defence. The Government feared that the granting to them of judicial or administrative protection would inevitably awaken in them a spirit of insubordination, and hence it was ordered that those who presented complaints should be punished with the knout and sent to the mines.*** It was only in extreme cases, when some instance of atrocious cruelty happened to reach the ears of the Sovereign, that the authorities interfered with the proprietor's jurisdiction, and these cases had not the slightest influence on the proprietors in general.****

* See ukaz of October 7th, 1792.

** As an example of making presents of serfs, the following may be cited. Count Panin presented some of his subordinates for an Imperial recompense, and on receiving a refusal, made them a present of 4000 serfs from his own estates.--Belaef, p. 320.

*** See the ukazes of August 22d, 1767, and March 30th, 1781.

**** Perhaps the most horrible case on record is that of a certain lady called Saltykof, who was brought to justice in 1768. According to the ukaz regarding her crimes, she had killed by inhuman tortures in the course of ten or eleven years about a hundred of her serfs, chiefly of the female sex, and among them several young girls of eleven and twelve years of age. According to popular belief her cruelty proceeded from cannibal propensities, but this was not confirmed by the judicial investigation. Details in the Russki Arkhiv, 1865, pp. 644-652. The atrocities practised on the estate of Count Araktcheyef, the favourite of Alexander I. at the commencement of last century, have been frequently described, and are scarcely less revolting.

The last years of the eighteenth century may be regarded as the turning-point in the history of serfage. Up till that time the power of the proprietors had steadily increased, and the area of serfage had rapidly expanded. Under the Emperor Paul (1796-1801) we find the first decided symptoms of a reaction. He regarded the proprietors as his most efficient officers of police, but he desired to limit their authority, and for this purpose issued an ukaz to the effect that the serfs should not be forced to work for their masters more than three days in the week. With the accession of Alexander I., in 1801, commenced a long series of abortive projects for a general emancipation, and endless attempts to correct the more glaring abuses; and during the reign of Nicholas no less than six committees were formed at different times to consider the question. But the practical result of these efforts was extremely small. The custom of giving grants of land with peasants was abolished; certain slight restrictions were placed on the authority of the proprietors; a number of the worst specimens of the class were removed from the administration of their estates; a few who were convicted of atrocious cruelty were exiled to Siberia;* and some thousands of serfs were actually emancipated; but no decisive radical measures were attempted, and the serfs did not receive even the right of making formal complaints. Serfage had, in fact, come to be regarded as a vital part of the State organisation, and the only sure basis for autocracy. It was therefore treated tenderly, and the rights and protection accorded by various ukazes were almost entirely illusory.

*Speranski, for instance, when Governor of the province of Penza, brought to justice, among others, a proprietor who had caused one of his serfs to be flogged to death, and a lady who had murdered a serf boy by pricking him with a pen-knife because he had neglected to take proper care of a tame rabbit committed to his charge!-- Korff, "Zhizn Speranskago," II., p. 127, note.

If we compare the development of serfage in Russia and in Western Europe, we find very many points in common, but in Russia the movement had certain peculiarities. One of the most important of these was caused by the rapid development of the Autocratic Power. In feudal Europe, where there was no strong central authority to control the Noblesse, the free rural Communes entirely, or almost entirely, disappeared. They were either appropriated by the nobles or voluntarily submitted to powerful landed proprietors or to monasteries, and in this way the whole of the reclaimed land, with a few rare exceptions, became the property of the nobles or of the Church. In Russia we find the same movement, but it was arrested by the Imperial power before all the land had been appropriated. The nobles could reduce to serfage the peasants settled on their estates, but they could not take possession of the free Communes, because such an appropriation would have infringed the rights and diminished the revenues of the Tsar. Down to the commencement of the last century, it is true, large grants of land with serfs were made to favoured individuals among the Noblesse, and in the reign of Paul (1796-1801) a considerable number of estates were affected to the use of the Imperial family under the name of appanages (Udyelniya imteniya); but on the other hand, the extensive Church lands, when secularised by Catherine II., were not distributed among the nobles, as in many other countries, but were transformed into State Domains. Thus, at the date of the Emancipation (1861), by far the greater part of the territory belonged to the State, and one-half of the rural population were so-called State Peasants (Gosudarstvenniye krestyanye).

Regarding the condition of these State Peasants, or Peasants of the Domains, as they are sometimes called, I may say briefly that they were, in a certain sense, serfs, being attached to the soil like the others; but their condition was, as a rule, somewhat better than the serfs in the narrower acceptation of the term. They had to suffer much from the tyranny and extortion of the special administration under which they lived, but they had more land and more liberty than was commonly enjoyed on the estates of resident proprietors, and their position was much less precarious. It is often asserted that the officials of the Domains were worse than the serf-owners, because they had not the same interest in the prosperity of the peasantry; but this a priori reasoning does not stand the test of experience.

It is not a little interesting to observe the numerical proportion and geographical distribution of these two rural classes. In European Russia, as a whole, about three-eighths of the population were composed of serfs belonging to the nobles;* but if we take the provinces separately we find great variations from this average. In five provinces the serfs were less than three per cent., while in others they formed more than seventy per cent. of the population! This is not an accidental phenomenon. In the geographical distribution of serfage we can see reflected the origin and history of the institution.

* The exact numbers, according to official data, were--

Entire Population 60,909,309 Peasantry of all Classes 49,486,665

Of these latter there were--

State Peasants 23,138,191 Peasants on the Lands of Proprietors 23,022,390 Peasants of the Appanages and other Departments 3,326,084 ---------- 49,486,665

If we were to construct a map showing the geographical distribution of the serf population, we should at once perceive that serfage radiated from Moscow. Starting from that city as a centre and travelling in any direction towards the confines of the Empire, we find that, after making allowance for a few disturbing local influences, the proportion of serfs regularly declines in the successive provinces traversed. In the region representing the old Muscovite Tsardom they form considerably more than a half of the rural population. Immediately to the south and east of this, in the territory that was gradually annexed during the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century, the proportion varies from twenty-five to fifty per cent., and in the more recently annexed provinces it steadily decreases till it almost reaches zero.

We may perceive, too, that the percentage of serfs decreases towards the north much more rapidly than towards the east and south. This points to the essentially agricultural nature of serfage in its infancy. In the south and east there was abundance of rich "black earth" celebrated for its fertility, and the nobles in quest of estates naturally preferred this region to the inhospitable north, with its poor soil and severe climate.

A more careful examination of the supposed map* would bring out other interesting facts. Let me notice one by way of illustration. Had serfage been the result of conquest we should have found the Slavonic race settled on the State Domains, and the Finnish and Tartar tribes supplying the serfs of the nobles. In reality we find quite the reverse; the Finns and Tartars were nearly all State Peasants, and the serfs of the proprietors were nearly all of Slavonic race. This is to be accounted for by the fact that the Finnish and Tartar tribes inhabit chiefly the outlying regions, in which serfage never attained such dimensions as in the centre of the Empire.

* Such a map was actually constructed by Troinitski ("Krepostnoe Naseleniye v Rossii," St. Petersburg, 1861), but it is not nearly so graphic as is might have been.

The dues paid by the serfs were of three kinds: labour, money, and farm produce. The last-named is so unimportant that it may be dismissed in a few words. It consisted chiefly of eggs, chickens, lambs, mushrooms, wild berries, and linen cloth. The amount of these various products depended entirely on the will of the master. The other two kinds of dues, as more important, we must examine more closely.

When a proprietor had abundance of fertile land and wished to farm on his own account, he commonly demanded from his serfs as much labour as possible. Under such a master the serfs were probably free from money dues, and fulfilled their obligations to him by labouring in his fields in summer and transporting his grain to market in winter. When, on the contrary, a land-owner had more serf labour at his disposal than he required for the cultivation of his fields, he put the superfluous serfs "on obrok,"--that is to say, he allowed them to go and work where they pleased on condition of paying him a fixed yearly sum. Sometimes the proprietor did not farm at all on his own account, in which case he put all the serfs "on obrok," and generally gave to the Commune in usufruct the whole of the arable land and pasturage. In this way the Mir played the part of a tenant.

We have here the basis for a simple and important classification of estates in the time of serfage: (1) Estates on which the dues were exclusively in labour; (2) estates on which the dues were partly in labour and partly in money; and (3) estates on which the dues were exclusively in money.

In the manner of exacting the labour dues there was considerable variety. According to the famous manifesto of Paul I., the peasant could not be compelled to work more than three days in the week; but this law was by no means universally observed, and those who did observe it had various methods of applying it. A few took it literally and laid down a rule that the serfs should work for them three definite days in the week--for example, every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday--but this was an extremely inconvenient method, for it prevented the field labour from being carried on regularly. A much more rational system was that according to which one-half of the serfs worked the first three days of the week, and the other half the remaining three. In this way there was, without any contravention of the law, a regular and constant supply of labour. It seems, however, that the great majority of the proprietors followed no strict method, and paid no attention whatever to Paul's manifesto, which gave to the peasants no legal means of making formal complaints. They simply summoned daily as many labourers as they required. The evil consequences of this for the peasants' crops were in part counteracted by making the peasants sow their own grain a little later than that of the proprietor, so that the master's harvest work was finished, or nearly finished, before their grain was ripe. This combination did not, however, always succeed, and in cases where there was a conflict of interests, the serf was, of course, the losing party. All that remained for him to do in such cases was to work a little in his own fields before six o'clock in the morning and after nine o'clock at night, and in order to render this possible he economised his strength, and worked as little as possible in his master's fields during the day.

It has frequently been remarked, and with much truth--though the indiscriminate application of the principle has often led to unjustifiable legislative inactivity--that the practical result of institutions depends less on the intrinsic abstract nature of the institutions themselves than on the character of those who work them. So it was with serfage. When a proprietor habitually acted towards his serfs in an enlightened, rational, humane way, they had little reason to complain of their position, and their life was much easier than that of many men who live in a state of complete individual freedom and unlimited, unrestricted competition. However paradoxical the statement may seem to those who are in the habit of regarding all forms of slavery from the sentimental point of view, it is unquestionable that the condition of serfs under such a proprietor as I have supposed was more enviable than that of the majority of English agricultural labourers. Each family had a house of its own, with a cabbage-garden, one or more horses, one or two cows, several sheep, poultry, agricultural implements, a share of the Communal land, and everything else necessary for carrying on its small farming operations; and in return for this it had to supply the proprietor with an amount of labour which was by no means oppressive. If, for instance, a serf had three adult sons-- and the households, as I have said, were at that time generally numerous--two of them might work for the proprietor whilst he himself and the remaining son could attend exclusively to the family affairs. By the events which used to be called "the visitations of God" he had no fear of being permanently ruined. If his house was burnt, or his cattle died from the plague, or a series of "bad years" left him without seed for his fields, he could always count upon temporary assistance from his master. He was protected, too, against all oppression and exactions on the part of the officials; for the police, when there was any call for its interference, applied to the proprietor, who was to a certain extent responsible for his serfs. Thus the serf might live a tranquil, contented life, and die at a ripe old age, without ever having been conscious that serfage was a grievous burden.

If all the serfs had lived in this way we might, perhaps, regret that the Emancipation was ever undertaken. In reality there was, as the French say, le revers de la medaille, and serfage generally appeared under a form very different from that which I have just depicted. The proprietors were, unfortunately, not all of the enlightened, humane type. Amongst them were many who demanded from their serfs an inordinate amount of labour, and treated them in a very inhuman fashion.

These oppressors of their serfs may be divided into four categories. First, there were the proprietors who managed their own estates, and oppressed simply for the purpose of increasing their revenues. Secondly, there were a number of retired officers who wished to establish a certain order and discipline on their estates, and who employed for this purpose the barbarous measures which were at that time used in the army, believing that merciless corporal punishment was the only means of curing laziness, disorderliness and other vices. Thirdly, there were the absentees who lived beyond their means, and demanded from their steward, under pain of giving him or his son as a recruit, a much greater yearly sum than the estate could be reasonably expected to yield. Lastly, in the latter years of serfage, there were a number of men who bought estates as a mercantile speculation, and made as much money out of them as they could in the shortest possible space of time.

Of all hard masters, the last-named were the most terrible. Utterly indifferent to the welfare of the serfs and the ultimate fate of the property, they cut down the timber, sold the cattle, exacted heavy money dues under threats of giving the serfs or their children as recruits, presented to the military authorities a number of conscripts greater than was required by law--selling the conscription receipts (zatchetniya kvitantsii) to the merchants and burghers who were liable to the conscription but did not wish to serve--compelled some of the richer serfs to buy their liberty at an enormous price, and, in a word, used every means, legal and illegal, for extracting money. By this system of management they ruined the estate completely in the course of a few years; but by that time they had realised probably the whole sum paid, with a very fair profit from the operation; and this profit could be considerably augmented by selling a number of the peasant families for transportation to another estate (na svoz), or by mortgaging the property in the Opekunski Sovet--a Government institution which lent money on landed property without examining carefully the nature of the security.

As to the means which the proprietors possessed of oppressing their peasants, we must distinguish between the legal and the actual. The legal were almost as complete as any one could desire. "The proprietor," it is said in the Laws (Vol. IX, p. 1045, ed. an. 1857), "may impose on his serfs every kind of labour, may take from them money dues (obrok) and demand from them personal service, with this one restriction, that they should not be thereby ruined, and that the number of days fixed by law should be left to them for their own work."* Besides this, he had the right to transform peasants into domestic servants, and might, instead of employing them in his own service, hire them out to others who had the rights and privileges of Noblesse (pp. 1047-48). For all offences committed against himself or against any one under his jurisdiction he could subject the guilty ones to corporal punishment not exceeding forty lashes with the birch or fifteen blows with the stick (p. 1052); and if he considered any of his serfs as incorrigible, he could present them to the authorities to be drafted into the army or transported to Siberia as he might desire (pp. 1053-55). In cases of insubordination, where the ordinary domestic means of discipline did not suffice, he could call in the police and the military to support his authority.

* I give here the references to the Code, because Russians commonly believe and assert that the hiring out of serfs, the infliction of corporal punishment, and similar practices were merely abuses unauthorised by law.

Such were the legal means by which the proprietor might oppress his peasants, and it will be readily understood that they were very considerable and very elastic. By law he had the power to impose any dues in labour or money which he might think fit, and in all cases the serfs were ordered to be docile and obedient (p. 1027). Corporal punishment, though restricted by law, he could in reality apply to any extent. Certainly none of the serfs, and very few of the proprietors, were aware that the law placed any restriction on this right. All the proprietors were in the habit of using corporal punishment as they thought proper, and unless a proprietor became notorious for inhuman cruelty the authorities never thought of interfering. But in the eyes of the peasants corporal punishment was not the worst. What they feared infinitely more than the birch or the stick was the proprietor's power of giving them or their sons as recruits. The law assumed that this extreme means would be employed only against those serfs who showed themselves incorrigibly vicious or insubordinate; but the authorities accepted those presented without making any investigations, and consequently the proprietor might use this power as an effective means of extortion.

Against these means of extortion and oppression the serfs had no legal protection. The law provided them with no means of resisting any injustice to which they might be subjected, or of bringing to punishment the master who oppressed and ruined them. The Government, notwithstanding its sincere desire to protect them from inordinate burdens and cruel treatment, rarely interfered between the master and his serfs, being afraid of thereby undermining the authority of the proprietors, and awakening among the peasantry a spirit of insubordination. The serfs were left, therefore, to their own resources, and had to defend themselves as best they could. The simplest way was open mutiny; but this was rarely employed, for they knew by experience that any attempt of the kind would be at once put down by the military and mercilessly punished. Much more favourite and efficient methods were passive resistance, flight, and fire-raising or murder.

We might naturally suppose that an unscrupulous proprietor, armed with the enormous legal and actual power which I have just described, could very easily extort from his peasants anything he desired. In reality, however, the process of extortion, when it exceeded a certain measure, was a very difficult operation. The Russian peasant has a capacity of patient endurance that would do honour to a martyr, and a power of continued, dogged, passive resistance such as is possessed, I believe, by no other class of men in Europe; and these qualities formed a very powerful barrier against the rapacity of unconscientious proprietors. As soon as the serfs remarked in their master a tendency to rapacity and extortion, they at once took measures to defend themselves. Their first step was to sell secretly the live stock they did not actually require, and all their movable property except the few articles necessary for everyday use; then the little capital realised was carefully hidden.

When this had been effected, the proprietor might threaten and punish as he liked, but he rarely succeeded in unearthing the treasure. Many a peasant, under such circumstances, bore patiently the most cruel punishment, and saw his sons taken away as recruits, and yet he persisted in declaring that he had no money to ransom himself and his children. A spectator in such a case would probably have advised him to give up his little store of money, and thereby liberate himself from persecution; but the peasants reasoned otherwise. They were convinced, and not without reason, that the sacrifice of their little capital would merely put off the evil day, and that the persecution would very soon recommence. In this way they would have to suffer as before, and have the additional mortification of feeling that they had spent to no purpose the little that they possessed. Their fatalistic belief in the "perhaps" (avos') came here to their aid. Perhaps the proprietor might become weary of his efforts when he saw that they led to no result, or perhaps something might occur which would remove the persecutor.

It always happened, however, that when a proprietor treated his serfs with extreme injustice and cruelty, some of them lost patience, and sought refuge in flight. As the estates lay perfectly open on all sides, and it was utterly impossible to exercise a strict supervision, nothing was easier than to run away, and the fugitive might be a hundred miles off before his absence was noticed. But the oppressed serf was reluctant to adopt such an extreme measure. He had almost always a wife and family, and he could not possibly take them with him; flight, therefore, was expatriation for life in its most terrible form. Besides this, the life of a fugitive was by no means enviable. He was liable at any moment to fall into the hands of the police, and to be put into prison or sent back to his master. So little charm, indeed, did this life present that not infrequently after a few months or a few years the fugitive returned of his own accord to his former domicile.

Regarding fugitives or passportless wanderers in general, I may here remark parenthetically that there were two kinds. In the first place, there was the young, able-bodied peasant, who fled from the oppression of his master or from the conscription. Such a fugitive almost always sought out for himself a new domicile-- generally in the southern provinces, where there was a great scarcity of labourers, and where many proprietors habitually welcomed all peasants who presented themselves, without making any inquiries as to passports. In the second place, there were those who chose fugitivism as a permanent mode of life. These were, for the most part, men or women of a certain age--widowers or widows-- who had no close family ties, and who were too infirm or too lazy to work. The majority of these assumed the character of pilgrims. As such they could always find enough to eat, and could generally even collect a few roubles with which to grease the palm of any zealous police-officer who should arrest them. For a life of this kind Russia presented peculiar facilities. There was abundance of monasteries, where all comers could live for three days without questions being asked, and where those who were willing to do a little work for the patron saint might live for a much longer period. Then there were the towns, where the rich merchants considered almsgiving as very profitable for salvation. And, lastly, there were the villages, where a professing pilgrim was sure to be hospitably received and entertained so long as he refrained from stealing and other acts too grossly inconsistent with his assumed character. For those who contented themselves with simple fare, and did not seek to avoid the usual privations of a wanderer's life, these ordinary means of subsistence were amply sufficient. Those who were more ambitious and more cunning often employed their talents with great success in the world of the Old Ritualists and Sectarians.

The last and most desperate means of defense which the serfs possessed were fire-raising and murder. With regard to the amount of fire-raising there are no trustworthy statistics. With regard to the number of agrarian murders I once obtained some interesting statistical data, but unfortunately lost them. I may say, however, that these cases were not very numerous. This is to be explained in part by the patient, long-suffering character of the peasantry, and in part by the fact that the great majority of the proprietors were by no means such inhuman taskmasters as is sometimes supposed. When a case did occur, the Administration always made a strict investigation--punishing the guilty with exemplary severity, and taking no account of the provocation to which they had been subjected. The peasantry, on the contrary--at least, when the act was not the result of mere personal vengeance--secretly sympathised with "the unfortunates," and long cherished their memory as that of men who had suffered for the Mir.

In speaking of the serfs I have hitherto confined my attention to the members of the Mir, or rural Commune--that is to say, the peasants in the narrower sense of the term; but besides these there were the Dvorovuye, or domestic servants, and of these I must add a word or two.

The Dvorovuye were domestic slaves rather than serfs in the proper sense of the term. Let us, however, avoid wounding unnecessarily Russian sensibilities by the use of the ill-sounding word. We may call the class in question "domestics"--remembering, of course, that they were not quite domestic servants in the ordinary sense. They received no wages, were not at liberty to change masters, possessed almost no legal rights, and might be punished, hired out, or sold by their owners without any infraction of the written law.

These "domestics" were very numerous--out of all proportion to the work to be performed--and could consequently lead a very lazy life;* but the peasant considered it a great misfortune to be transferred to their ranks, for he thereby lost his share of the Communal land and the little independence which he enjoyed. It very rarely happened, however, that the proprietor took an able- bodied peasant as domestic. The class generally kept up its numbers by the legitimate and illegitimate method of natural increase; and involuntary additions were occasionally made when orphans were left without near relatives, and no other family wished to adopt them. To this class belonged the lackeys, servant- girls, cooks, coachmen, stable-boys, gardeners, and a large number of nondescript old men and women who had no very clearly defined functions. If the proprietor had a private theatre or orchestra, it was from this class that the actors and musicians were drawn. Those of them who were married and had children occupied a position intermediate between the ordinary domestic servant and the peasant. On the one hand, they received from the master a monthly allowance of food and a yearly allowance of clothes, and they were obliged to live in the immediate vicinity of the mansion-house; but, on the other hand, they had each a separate house or apartment, with a little cabbage-garden, and commonly a small plot of flax. The unmarried ones lived in all respects like ordinary domestic servants.

* Those proprietors who kept orchestras, large packs of hounds, &c., had sometimes several hundred domestic serfs.

The number of these domestic serfs being generally out of all proportion to the amount of work they had to perform, they were imbued with a hereditary spirit of indolence, and they performed lazily and carelessly what they had to do. On the other hand, they were often sincerely attached to the family they served, and occasionally proved by acts their fidelity and attachment. Here is an instance out of many for which I can vouch. An old nurse, whose mistress was dangerously ill, vowed that, in the event of the patient's recovery, she would make a pilgrimage, first to Kief, the Holy City on the Dnieper, and afterwards to Solovetsk, a much revered monastery on an island in the White Sea. The patient recovered, and the old woman, in fulfilment of her vow, walked more than two thousand miles!

This class of serfs might well be called domestic slaves, but I must warn the reader that he ought not to use the expression when speaking with Russians, because they are extremely sensitive on the point. Serfage, they say, was something quite different from slavery, and slavery never existed in Russia.

The first part of this assertion is perfectly true, and the second part perfectly false. In old times, as I have said above, slavery was a recognised institution in Russia as in other countries. One can hardly read a few pages of the old chronicles without stumbling on references to slaves; and I distinctly remember--though I cannot at this moment give chapter and verse--that one of the old Russian Princes was so valiant and so successful in his wars that during his reign a slave might be bought for a few coppers. As late as the beginning of last century the domestic serfs were sold very much as domestic slaves used to be sold in countries where slavery was recognised as a legal institution. Here is an example of the customary advertisement; I take it almost at random from the Moscow Gazette of 1801:--

"TO BE SOLD: three coachmen, well trained and handsome; and two girls, the one eighteen, and the other fifteen years of age, both of them good-looking, and well acquainted with various kinds of handiwork. In the same house there are for sale two hairdressers; the one, twenty-one years of age, can read, write, play on a musical instrument, and act as huntsman; the other can dress ladies' and gentlemen's hair. In the same house are sold pianos and organs."

A little farther on in the same number of the paper, a first-rate clerk, a carver, and a lackey are offered for sale, and the reason assigned is a superabundance of the articles in question (za izlishestvom). In some instances it seems as if the serfs and the cattle were intentionally put in the same category, as in the following announcement: "In this house one can buy a coachman and a Dutch cow about to calve." The style of these advertisements, and the frequent recurrence of the same addresses, show that there was at this time in Moscow a regular class of slave-dealers. The humane Alexander I. prohibited advertisements of this kind, but he did not put down the custom which they represented, and his successor, Nicholas I., took no effective measures for its repression.

Of the whole number of serfs belonging to the proprietors, the domestics formed, according to the census of 1857, no less than 6 3/4 per cent. (6.79), and their numbers were evidently rapidly increasing, for in the preceding census they represented only 4.79 per cent. of the whole. This fact seems all the more significant when we observe that during this period the number of peasant serfs had diminished.

I must now bring this long chapter to an end. My aim has been to represent serfage in its normal, ordinary forms rather than in its occasional monstrous manifestations. Of these latter I have a collection containing ample materials for a whole series of sensation novels, but I refrain from quoting them, because I do not believe that the criminal annals of a country give a fair representation of its real condition. On the other hand, I do not wish to whitewash serfage or attenuate its evil consequences. No great body of men could long wield such enormous uncontrolled power without abusing it,* and no large body of men could long live under such power without suffering morally and materially from its pernicious influence. If serfage did not create that moral apathy and intellectual lethargy which formed, as it were, the atmosphere of Russian provincial life, it did much at least to preserve it. In short, serfage was the chief barrier to all material and moral progress, and in a time of moral awakening such as that which I have described in the preceding chapter, the question of Emancipation naturally came at once to the front.

* The number of deposed proprietors--or rather the number of estates placed under curators in consequence of the abuse of authority on the part of their owners--amounted in 1859 to 215. So at least I found in an official MS. document shown to me by the late Nicholas Milutin.