Russia eText - Chapter XXX - The Landed Proprietors Since The Emancipation

Chapter XXX - The Landed Proprietors Since The Emancipation

When the Emancipation question was raised there was a considerable diversity of opinion as to the effect which the abolition of serfage would have on the material interests of the two classes directly concerned. The Press and "the young generation" took an optimistic view, and endeavoured to prove that the proposed change would be beneficial alike to proprietors and to peasants. Science, it was said, has long since decided that free labour is immensely more productive than slavery or serfage, and the principle has been already proved to demonstration in the countries of Western Europe. In all those countries modern agricultural progress began with the emancipation of the serfs, and increased productivity was everywhere the immediate result of improvements in the method of culture. Thus the poor light soils of Germany, France, and Holland have been made to produce more than the vaunted "black earth" of Russia. And from these ameliorations the land-owning class has everywhere derived the chief advantages. Are not the landed proprietors of England--the country in which serfage was first abolished--the richest in the world? And is not the proprietor of a few hundred morgen in Germany often richer than the Russian noble who has thousands of dessyatins? By these and similar plausible arguments the Press endeavoured to prove to the proprietors that they ought, even in their own interest, to undertake the emancipation of the serfs. Many proprietors, however, showed little faith in the abstract principles of political economy and the vague teachings of history as interpreted by the contemporary periodical literature. They could not always refute the ingenious arguments adduced by the men of more sanguine temperament, but they felt convinced that their prospects were not nearly so bright as these men represented them to be. They believed that Russia was a peculiar country, and the Russians a peculiar people. The lower classes in England, France, Holland, and Germany were well known to be laborious and enterprising, while the Russian peasant was notoriously lazy, and would certainly, if left to himself, not do more work than was absolutely necessary to keep him from starving. Free labour might be more profitable than serfage in countries where the upper classes possessed traditional practical knowledge and abundance of capital, but in Russia the proprietors had neither the practical knowledge nor the ready money necessary to make the proposed ameliorations in the system of agriculture. To all this it was added that a system of emancipation by which the peasants should receive land and be made completely independent of the landed proprietors had nowhere been tried on such a large scale.

There were thus two diametrically opposite opinions regarding the economic results of the abolition of serfage, and we have now to examine which of these two opinions has been confirmed by experience.

Let us look at the question first from the point of view of the land-owners.

The reader who has never attempted to make investigations of this kind may naturally imagine that the question can be easily decided by simply consulting a large number of individual proprietors, and drawing a general conclusion from their evidence. In reality I found the task much more difficult. After roaming about the country for five years (1870-75), collecting information from the best available sources, I hesitated to draw any sweeping conclusions, and my state of mind at that time was naturally reflected in the early editions of this work. As a rule the proprietors could not state clearly how much they had lost or gained, and when definite information was obtained from them it was not always trustworthy. In the time of serfage very few of them had been in the habit of keeping accurate accounts, or accounts of any kind, and when they lived on their estates there were a very large number of items which could not possibly be reduced to figures. Of course, each proprietor had a general idea as to whether his position was better or worse than it had been in the old times, but the vague statements made by individuals regarding their former and their actual revenues had little or no scientific value. So many considerations which had nothing to do with purely agrarian relations entered into the calculations that the conclusions did not help me much to estimate the economic results of the Emancipation as a whole. Nor, it must be confessed, was the testimony by any means always unbiassed. Not a few spoke of the great reform in an epic or dithyrambic tone, and among these I easily distinguished two categories: the one desired to prove that the measure was a complete success in every way, and that all classes were benefited by it, not only morally, but also materially; whilst the others strove to represent the proprietors in general, and themselves in particular, as the self-sacrificing victims of a great and necessary patriotic reform--as martyrs in the cause of liberty and progress. I do not for a moment suppose that these two groups of witnesses had a clearly conceived intention of deceiving or misleading, but as a cautious investigator I had to make allowance for their idealising and sentimental tendencies.

Since that time the situation has become much clearer, and during recent visits to Russia I have been able to arrive at much more definite conclusions. These I now proceed to communicate to the reader.

The Emancipation caused the proprietors of all classes to pass through a severe economic crisis. Periods of transition always involve much suffering, and the amount of suffering is generally in the inverse ratio of the precautions taken beforehand. In Russia the precautions had been neglected. Not one proprietor in a hundred had made any serious preparations for the inevitable change. On the eve of the Emancipation there were about ten millions of male serfs on private properties, and of these nearly seven millions remained under the old system of paying their dues in labour. Of course, everybody knew that Emancipation must come sooner or later, but fore-thought, prudence, and readiness to take time by the forelock are not among the prominent traits of the Russian character. Hence most of the land-owners were taken unawares. But while all suffered, there were differences of degree. Some were completely shipwrecked. So long as serfage existed all the relations of life were ill-defined and extremely elastic, so that a man who was hopelessly insolvent might contrive, with very little effort, to keep his bead above water for half a lifetime. For such men the Emancipation, like a crisis in the commercial world, brought a day of reckoning. It did not really ruin them, but it showed them and the world at large that they were ruined, and they could no longer continue their old mode of life. For others the crisis was merely temporary. These emerged with a larger income than they ever had before, but I am not prepared to say that their material condition has improved, because the social habits have changed, the cost of living has become much greater, and the work of administering estates is incomparably more complicated and laborious than in the old patriarchal times.

We may greatly simplify the problem by reducing it to two definite questions:

1. How far were the proprietors directly indemnified for the loss of serf labour and for the transfer in perpetual usufruct of a large part of their estates to the peasantry?

2. What have the proprietors done with the remainder of their estates, and how far have they been indirectly indemnified by the economic changes which have taken place since the Emancipation?

With the first of these questions I shall deal very briefly, because it is a controversial subject involving very complicated calculations which only a specialist can understand. The conclusion at which I have arrived, after much patient research, is that in most provinces the compensation was inadequate, and this conclusion is confirmed by excellent native authorities. M. Bekhteyev, for example, one of the most laborious and conscientious investigators in this field of research, and the author of an admirable work on the economic results of the Emancipation,* told me recently, in course of conversation, that in his opinion the peasant dues fixed by the Emancipation Law represented, throughout the Black-earth Zone, only about a half of the value of the labour previously supplied by the serfs. To this I must add that the compensation was in reality not nearly so great as it seemed to be according to the terms of the law. As the proprietors found it extremely difficult to collect the dues from the emancipated serfs, and as they required a certain amount of capital to reorganise the estate on the new basis of free labour, most of them were practically compelled to demand the obligatory redemption of the land (obiazatelny vuikup), and in adopting this expedient they had to make considerable sacrifices. Not only had they to accept as full payment four-fifths of the normal sum, but of this amount the greater portion was paid in Treasury bonds, which fell at once to 80 per cent. of their nominal value.

* "Khozaistvenniye Itogi istekshago Sorokoletiya." St. Petersburg, 1902.

Let us now pass to the second part of the problem: What have the proprietors done with the part of their estates which remained to them after ceding the required amount of land to the Communes? Have they been indirectly indemnified for the loss of serf labour by subsequent economic changes? How far have they succeeded in making the transition from serfage to free labour, and what revenues do they now derive from their estates? The answer to these questions will necessarily contain some account of the present economic position of the proprietors.

On all proprietors the Emancipation had at least one good effect: it dragged them forcibly from the old path of indolence and routine and compelled them to think and calculate regarding their affairs. The hereditary listlessness and apathy, the traditional habit of looking on the estate with its serfs as a kind of self-acting machine which must always spontaneously supply the owner with the means of living, the inveterate practice of spending all ready money and of taking little heed for the morrow--all this, with much that resulted from it, was rudely swept away and became a thing of the past.

The broad, easy road on which the proprietors had hitherto let themselves be borne along by the force of circumstances suddenly split up into a number of narrow, arduous, thorny paths. Each one had to use his judgement to determine which of the paths he should adopt, and, having made his choice, he had to struggle along as he best could. I remember once asking a proprietor what effect the Emancipation had had on the class to which he belonged, and he gave me an answer which is worth recording. "Formerly," he said, "we kept no accounts and drank champagne; now we keep accounts and content ourselves with kvass." Like all epigrammatic sayings, this laconic reply is far from giving a complete description of reality, but it indicates in a graphic way a change that has unquestionably taken place. As soon as serfage was abolished it was no longer possible to live like "the flowers of the field." Many a proprietor who had formerly vegetated in apathetic ease had to ask himself the question: How am I to gain a living? All had to consider what was the most profitable way of employing the land that remained to them.

The ideal solution of the problem was that as soon as the peasant- land had been demarcated, the proprietor should take to farming the remainder of his estate by means of hired labour and agricultural machines in West European or American fashion. Unfortunately, this solution could not be generally adopted, because the great majority of the landlords, even when they had the requisite practical knowledge of agriculture, had not the requisite capital, and could not easily obtain it. Where were they to find money for buying cattle, horses, and agricultural implements, for building stables and cattle-sheds, and for defraying all the other initial expenses? And supposing they succeeded in starting the new system, where was the working capital to come from? The old Government institution in which estates could be mortgaged according to the number of serfs was permanently closed, and the new land-credit associations had not yet come into existence. To borrow from private capitalists was not to be thought of, for money was so scarce than ten per cent. was considered a "friendly" rate of interest. Recourse might be had, it is true, to the redemption operation, but in that case the Government would deduct the unpaid portion of any outstanding mortgage, and would pay the balance in depreciated Treasury bonds. In these circumstances the proprietors could not, as a rule, adopt what I have called the ideal solution, and had to content themselves with some simpler and more primitive arrangement. They could employ the peasants of the neighbouring villages to prepare the land and reap the crops either for a fixed sum per acre or on the metayage system, or they could let their land to the peasants for one, three or six years at a moderate rent.

In the northern agricultural zone, where the soil is poor and primitive farming with free labour can hardly be made to pay, the proprietors had to let their land at a small rent, and those of them who could not find places in the rural administration migrated to the towns and sought employment in the public service or in the numerous commercial and industrial enterprises which were springing up at that time. There they have since remained. Their country- houses, if inhabited at all, are occupied only for a few months in summer, and too often present a melancholy spectacle of neglect and dilapidation. In the Black-earth Zone, on the contrary, where the soil still possesses enough of its natural fertility to make farming on a large scale profitable, the estates are in a very different condition. The owners cultivate at least a part of their property, and can easily let to the peasants at a fair rent the land which they do not wish to farm themselves. Some have adopted the metayage system; others get the field-work done by the peasants at so much per acre. The more energetic, who have capital enough at their disposal, organise farms with hired labourers on the European model. If they are not so well off as formerly, it is because they have adopted a less patriarchal and more expensive style of living. Their land has doubled and trebled in value during the last thirty years, and their revenues have increased, if not in proportion, at least considerably. In 1903 I visited a number of estates in this region and found them in a very prosperous condition, with agricultural machines of the English or American types, an increasing variety in the rotation of crops, greatly improved breeds of cattle and horses, and all the other symptoms of a gradual transition to a more intensive and more rational system of agriculture.

It must be admitted, however, that even in the Black-earth Zone the proprietors have formidable difficulties to contend with, the chief of which are the scarcity of good farm-labourers, the frequent droughts, the low price of cereals, and the delay in getting the grain conveyed to the seaports. On each of these difficulties and the remedies that might be applied I could write a separate chapter, but I fear to overtax the reader's patience, and shall therefore confine myself to a few remarks about the labour question. On this subject the complaints are loud and frequent all over the country. The peasants, it is said, have become lazy, careless, addicted to drunkenness, and shamelessly dishonest with regard to their obligations, so that it is difficult to farm even in the old primitive fashion and impossible to introduce radical improvements in the methods of culture. In these sweeping accusations there is a certain amount of truth. That the muzhik, when working for others, exerts himself as little as possible; that he pays little attention to the quality of the work done; that he shows a reckless carelessness with regard to his employer's property; that he is capable of taking money in advance and failing to fulfil his contract; that he occasionally gets drunk; and that he is apt to commit certain acts of petty larceny when he gets the chance--all this is undoubtedly true, whatever biassed theorists and sentimental peasant-worshippers may say to the contrary.* It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the fault is entirely on the side of the peasants, and equally erroneous to believe that the evils might be remedied, as is often suggested, by greater severity on the part of the tribunals, or by an improved system of passports. Farming with free labour, like every other department of human activity, requires a fair amount of knowledge, judgment, prudence, and tact, which cannot be replaced by ingenious legislation or judicial severity. In engaging labourers or servants it is necessary to select them carefully and make such conditions that they feel it to be to their interest to fulfil their contract loyally. This is too often overlooked by the Russian land-owners. From false views of economy they are inclined to choose the cheapest labourer without examining closely his other qualifications, or they take advantage of the peasant's pecuniary embarrassments and make with him a contract which it is hardly possible for him to fulfil. In spring, for instance, when his store of provisions is exhausted and he is being hard pressed by the tax-collector, they supply him with rye-meal or advance him a small sum of money on condition of his undertaking to do a relatively large amount of summer work. He knows that the contract is unfair to him, but what is he to do? He must get food for himself and his family and a little ready money for his taxes, for the Communal authorities will probably sell his cow if he does not pay his arrears.** In desperation he accepts the conditions and puts off the evil day--consoling himself with the reflection that perhaps (avos') something may turn up in the meantime--but when the time comes for fulfilling his engagements the dilemma revives. According to the contract he ought to work nearly the whole summer for the proprietor; but he has his own land to attend to, and he has to make provision for the winter. In such circumstances the temptation to evade the terms of the contract is probably too strong to be resisted.

* Amongst themselves the peasants are not addicted to thieving, as is proved by the fact that they habitually leave their doors unlocked when the inmates of the house are working in the fields; but if the muzhik finds in the proprietor's farmyard a piece of iron or a bit of rope, or any of those little things that he constantly requires and has difficulty in obtaining, he is very apt to pick it up and carry it home. Gathering firewood in the landlord's forest he does not consider as theft, because "God planted the trees and watered them," and in the time of serfage he was allowed to supply himself with firewood in this way.

** Until last year (1904) they could use also corporal punishment as a means of pressure, and I am not sure that they do not occasionally use it still, though it is no longer permitted by law.

In Russia, as in other countries, the principle holds true that for good labour a fair price must be paid. Several large proprietors of my acquaintance who habitually act on this principle assure me that they always obtain as much good labour as they require. I must add, however, that these fortunate proprietors have the advantage of possessing a comfortable amount of working capital, and are therefore not compelled, as so many of their less fortunate neighbours are, to manage their estates on the hand-to-mouth principle.

It is only, I fear, a minority of the landed proprietors that have grappled successfully with these and other difficulties of their position. As a class they are impoverished and indebted, but this state of things is not due entirely to serf-emancipation. The indebtedness of the Noblesse is a hereditary peculiarity of much older date. By some authorities it is attributed to the laws of Peter the Great, by which all nobles were obliged to spend the best part of their lives in the military or civil service, and to leave the management of their estates to incompetent stewards. However that may be, it is certain that from the middle of the eighteenth century downwards the fact has frequently occupied the attention of the Government, and repeated attempts have been made to alleviate the evil. The Empress Elizabeth, Catherine II., Paul, Alexander I., Nicholas I., Alexander II., and Alexander III. tried successively, as one of the older ukazes expressed it, "to free the Noblesse from debt and from greedy money-lenders, and to prevent hereditary estates from passing into the hands of strangers." The means commonly adopted was the creation of mortgage banks founded and controlled by the Government for the purpose of advancing money to landed proprietors at a comparatively low rate of interest.

These institutions may have been useful to the few who desired to improve their estates, but they certainly did not cure, and rather tended to foster, the inveterate improvidence of the many. On the eve of the Emancipation the proprietors were indebted to the Government for the sum of 425 millions of roubles, and 69 per cent. of their serfs were mortgaged. A portion of this debt was gradually extinguished by the redemption operation, so that in 1880 over 300 millions had been paid off, but in the meantime new debts were being contracted. In 1873-74 nine private land-mortgage banks were created, and there was such a rush to obtain money from them that their paper was a glut in the market, and became seriously depreciated. When the prices of grain rose in 1875-80 the mortgage debt was diminished, but when they began to fall in 1880 it again increased, and in 1881 it stood at 396 millions. As the rate of interest was felt to be very burdensome there was a strong feeling among the landed proprietors at that time that the Government ought to help them, and in 1883 the nobles of the province of Orel ventured to address the Emperor on the subject. In reply to the address, Alexander III., who had strong Conservative leanings, was graciously pleased to declare in an ukaz that "it was really time to do something to help the Noblesse," and accordingly a new land- mortgage bank for the Noblesse was created. The favourable terms offered by it were taken advantage of to such an extent that in the first four years of its activity (1886-90) it advanced to the proprietors over 200 million roubles. Then came two famine years, and in 1894 the mortgage debt of the Noblesse in that and other credit establishments was estimated at 994 millions. It has since probably increased rather than diminished, for in that year the prices of grain began to fall steadily on all the corn-exchanges of the world, and they have never since recovered.

By means of mortgages some proprietors succeeded in weathering the storm, but many gave up the struggle altogether, and settled in the towns. In the space of thirty years 20,000 of them sold their estates, and thus, between 1861 and 1892, the area of land possessed by the Noblesse diminished 30 per cent.--from 77,804,000 to 55,500,000 dessyatins.

This expropriation of the Noblesse, as it is called, was evidently not the result merely of the temporary economic disturbance caused by the abolition of serfage, for as time went on it became more rapid. During the first twenty years the average annual amount of Noblesse land sold was 517,000 dessyatins, and it rose steadily until 1892-96, when it reached the amount of 785,000. As I have already stated, the townward movement of the proprietors was strongest in the barren Northern provinces. In the province of Olonetz, for example, they have already parted with 87 per cent. of their land. In the black-soil region, on the contrary, there is no province in which more than 27 per cent. of the Noblesse land has been alienated, and in one province (Tula) the amount is only 19 per cent.

The habit of mortgaging and selling estates does not necessarily mean the impoverishment of the landlords as a class. If the capital raised in that way is devoted to agricultural improvements, the result may be an increase of wealth. Unfortunately, in Russia the realised capital was usually not so employed. A very large proportion of it was spent unproductively, partly in luxuries and living abroad, and partly in unprofitable commercial and industrial speculations. The industrial and railway fever which raged at the time induced many to risk and lose their capital, and it had indirectly an injurious effect on all by making money plentiful in the towns and creating a more expensive style of living, from which the landed gentry could not hold entirely aloof.

So far I have dwelt on the dark shadows of the picture, but it is not all shadow. In the last forty years the production and export of grain, which constitute the chief source of revenue for the Noblesse, have increased enormously, thanks mainly to the improved means of transport. In the first decade after the Emancipation (1860-70) the average annual export did not exceed 88 million puds; in the second decade (1870-80) it leapt up to 218 millions; and so it went up steadily until in the last decade of the century it had reached 388 millions--i.e., over six million tons. At the same time the home trade had increased likewise in consequence of the rapidly growing population of the towns. All this must have enriched the land-proprietors. Not to such an extent, it is true, as the figures seem to indicate, because the old prices could not be maintained. Rye, for example, which in 1868 stood at 129 kopeks per pud, fell as low as 56, and during the rest of the century, except during a short time in 1881-82 and the famine years of 1891- 92, when there was very little surplus to sell, it never rose above 80. Still, the increase in quantity more than counterbalanced the fall in price. For example: in 1881 the average price of grain per pud was 119, and in 1894 it had sunk to 59; but the amount exported during that time rose from 203 to 617 million puds, and the sum received for it had risen from 242 to 369 millions of roubles. Surely the whole of that enormous sum was not squandered on luxuries and unprofitable speculation!

The pessimists, however--and in Russia their name is legion--will not admit that any permanent advantage has been derived from this enormous increase in exports. On the contrary, they maintain that it is a national misfortune, because it is leading rapidly to a state of permanent impoverishment. It quickly exhausted, they say, the large reserves of grain in the village, so that as soon as there was a very bad harvest the Government had to come to the rescue and feed the starving peasantry. Worse than this, it compromised the future prosperity of the country. Being in pecuniary difficulties, and consequently impatient to make money, the proprietors increased inordinately the area of grain-producing land at the expense of pasturage and forests, with the result that the live stock and the manuring of the land were diminished, the fertility of the soil impaired, and the necessary quantity of moisture in the atmosphere greatly lessened. There is some truth in this contention; but it would seem that the soil and climate have not been affected so much as the pessimists suppose, because in recent years there have been some very good harvests.

On the whole, then, I think it may be justly said that the efforts of the landed proprietors to work their estates without serf labour have not as yet been brilliantly successful. Those who have failed are in the habit of complaining that they have not received sufficient support from the Government, which is accused of having systematically sacrificed the interests of agriculture, the mainstay of the national resources, to the creation of artificial and unnecessary manufacturing industries. How far such complaints and accusations are well founded I shall not attempt to decide. It is a complicated polemical question, into which the reader would probably decline to accompany me. Let us examine rather what influence the above-mentioned changes have had on the peasantry.