Chapter XXXI - The Emancipated Peasantry
At the commencement of last chapter I pointed out in general terms the difficulty of describing clearly the immediate consequences of the Emancipation. In beginning now to speak of the influence which the great reform has had on the peasantry, I feel that the difficulty has reached its climax. The foreigner who desires merely to gain a general idea of the subject cannot be expected to take an interest in details, and even if he took the trouble to examine them attentively, he would derive from the labour little real information. What he wishes is a clear, concise, and dogmatic statement of general results. Has the material and moral condition of the peasantry improved since the Emancipation? That is the simple question which he has to put, and he naturally expects a simple, categorical answer.
In beginning my researches in this interesting field of inquiry, I had no adequate conception of the difficulties awaiting me. I imagined that I had merely to question intelligent, competent men who had had abundant opportunities of observation, and to criticise and boil down the information collected; but when I put this method of investigation to the test of experience it proved unsatisfactory. Very soon I came to perceive that my authorities were very far from being impartial observers. Most of them were evidently suffering from shattered illusions. They had expected that the Emancipation would produce instantaneously a wonderful improvement in the life and character of the rural population, and that the peasant would become at once a sober, industrious, model agriculturist.
These expectations were not realised. One year passed, five years passed, ten years passed, and the expected transformation did not take place. On the contrary, there appeared certain very ugly phenomena which were not at all in the programme. The peasants began to drink more and to work less,* and the public life which the Communal institutions produced was by no means of a desirable kind. The "bawlers" (gorlopany) acquired a prejudicial influence in the Village Assemblies, and in very many Volosts the peasant judges, elected by their fellow-villagers, acquired a bad habit of selling their decisions for vodka. The natural consequence of all this was that those who had indulged in exaggerated expectations sank into a state of inordinate despondency, and imagined things to be much worse than they really were.
* I am not at all sure that the peasants really drank more, but such was, and still is, a very general conviction.
For different reasons, those who had not indulged in exaggerated expectations, and had not sympathised with the Emancipation in the form in which it was effected, were equally inclined to take a pessimistic view of the situation. In every ugly phenomenon they found a confirmation of their opinions. The result was precisely what they had foretold. The peasants had used their liberty and their privileges to their own detriment and to the detriment of others!
The extreme "Liberals" were also inclined, for reasons of their own, to join in the doleful chorus. They desired that the condition of the peasantry should be further improved by legislative enactments, and accordingly they painted the evils in as dark colours as possible.
Thus, from various reasons, the majority of the educated classes were unduly disposed to represent to themselves and to others the actual condition of the peasantry in a very unfavourable light, and I felt that from them there was no hope of obtaining the lumen siccum which I desired. I determined, therefore, to try the method of questioning the peasants themselves. Surely they must know whether their condition was better or worse than it had been before their Emancipation.
Again I was doomed to disappointment. A few months' experience sufficed to convince me that my new method was by no means so effectual as I had imagined. Uneducated people rarely make generalisations which have no practical utility, and I feel sure that very few Russian peasants ever put to themselves the question: Am I better off now than I was in the time of serfage? When such a question is put to them they feel taken aback. And in truth it is no easy matter to sum up the two sides of the account and draw an accurate balance, save in those exceptional cases in which the proprietor flagrantly abused his authority. The present money-dues and taxes are often more burdensome than the labour-dues in the old times. If the serfs had a great many ill-defined obligations to fulfil--such as the carting of the master's grain to market, the preparing of his firewood, the supplying him with eggs, chickens, home-made linen, and the like--they had, on the other hand, a good many ill-defined privileges. They grazed their cattle during a part of the year on the manor-land; they received firewood and occasionally logs for repairing their huts; sometimes the proprietor lent them or gave them a cow or a horse when they had been visited by the cattle-plague or the horse-stealer; and in times of famine they could look to their master for support. All this has now come to an end. Their burdens and their privileges have been swept away together, and been replaced by clearly defined, unbending, unelastic legal relations. They have now to pay the market-price for every stick of firewood which they burn, for every log which they require for repairing their houses, and for every rood of land on which to graze their cattle. Nothing is now to be had gratis. The demand to pay is encountered at every step. If a cow dies or a horse is stolen, the owner can no longer go to the proprietor with the hope of receiving a present, or at least a loan without interest, but must, if he has no ready money, apply to the village usurer, who probably considers twenty or thirty per cent, as a by no means exorbitant rate of interest.
Besides this, from the economic point of view village life has been completely revolutionised. Formerly the members of a peasant family obtained from their ordinary domestic resources nearly all they required. Their food came from their fields, cabbage-garden, and farmyard. Materials for clothing were supplied by their plots of flax and their sheep, and were worked up into linen and cloth by the female members of the household. Fuel, as I have said, and torches wherewith to light the izba--for oil was too expensive and petroleum was unknown--were obtained gratis. Their sheep, cattle, and horses were bred at home, and their agricultural implements, except in so far as a little iron was required, could be made by themselves without any pecuniary expenditure. Money was required only for the purchase of a few cheap domestic utensils, such as pots, pans, knives, hatchets, wooden dishes, and spoons, and for the payment of taxes, which were small in amount and often paid by the proprietor. In these circumstances the quantity of money in circulation among the peasants was infinitesimally small, the few exchanges which took place in a village being generally effected by barter. The taxes, and the vodka required for village festivals, weddings, or funerals, were the only large items of expenditure for the year, and they were generally covered by the sums brought home by the members of the family who went to work in the towns.
Very different is the present condition of affairs. The spinning, weaving, and other home industries have been killed by the big factories, and the flax and wool have to be sold to raise a little ready money for the numerous new items of expenditure. Everything has to be bought--clothes, firewood, petroleum, improved agricultural implements, and many other articles which are now regarded as necessaries of life, whilst comparatively little is earned by working in the towns, because the big families have been broken up, and a household now consists usually of husband and wife, who must both remain at home, and children who are not yet bread-winners. Recalling to mind all these things and the other drawbacks and advantages of his actual position, the old muzhik has naturally much difficulty in striking a balance, and he may well be quite sincere when, on being asked whether things now are on the whole better or worse than in the time of serfage, he scratches the back of his head and replies hesitatingly, with a mystified expression on his wrinkled face: "How shall I say to you? They are both better and worse!" ("Kak vam skazat'? I lûtche i khûdzhe!") If, however, you press him further and ask whether he would himself like to return to the old state of things, he is pretty sure to answer, with a slow shake of the head and a twinkle in his eye, as if some forgotten item in the account had suddenly recurred to him: "Oh, no!"
What materially increases the difficulty of this general computation is that great changes have taken place in the well- being of the particular households. Some have greatly prospered, while others have become impoverished. That is one of the most characteristic consequences of the Emancipation. In the old times the general economic stagnation and the uncontrolled authority of the proprietor tended to keep all the households of a village on the same level. There was little opportunity for an intelligent, enterprising serf to become rich, and if he contrived to increase his revenue he had probably to give a considerable share of it to the proprietor, unless he had the good fortune to belong to a grand seigneur like Count Sheremetief, who was proud of having rich men among his serfs. On the other hand, the proprietor, for evident reasons of self-interest, as well as from benevolent motives, prevented the less intelligent and less enterprising members of the Commune from becoming bankrupt. The Communal equality thus artificially maintained has now disappeared, the restrictions on individual freedom of action have been removed, the struggle for life has become intensified, and, as always happens in such circumstances, the strong men go up in the world while the weak ones go to the wall. All over the country we find on the one hand the beginnings of a village aristocracy--or perhaps we should call it a plutocracy, for it is based on money--and on the other hand an ever-increasing pauperism. Some peasants possess capital, with which they buy land outside the Commune or embark in trade, while others have to sell their live stock, and have sometimes to cede to neighbours their share of the Communal property. This change in rural life is so often referred to that, in order to express it a new, barbarous word, differentsiatsia (differentiation) has been invented.
Hoping to obtain fuller information with the aid of official protection, I attached myself to one of the travelling sections of an agricultural Commission appointed by the Government, and during a whole summer I helped to collect materials in the provinces bordering on the Volga. The inquiry resulted in a gigantic report of nearly 2,500 folio pages, but the general conclusions were extremely vague. The peasantry, it was said, were passing, like the landed proprietors, through a period of transition, in which the main features of their future normal life had not yet become clearly defined. In some localities their condition had decidedly improved, whereas in others it had improved little or not at all. Then followed a long list of recommendations in favour of Government assistance, better agronomic education, competitive exhibitions, more varied rotation of crops, and greater zeal on the part of the clergy in disseminating among the people moral principles in general and love of work in particular.
Not greatly enlightened by this official activity, I returned to my private studies, and at the end of six years I published my impressions and conclusions in the first edition of this work. While recognising that there was much uncertainty as to the future, I was inclined, on the whole, to take a hopeful view of the situation. I was unable, however, to maintain permanently that comfortable frame of mind. After my departure from Russia in 1878, the accounts which reached me from various parts of the country became blacker and blacker, and were partly confirmed by short tours which I made in 1889-1896. At last, in the summer of 1903, I determined to return to some of my old haunts and look at things with my own eyes. At that moment some hospitable friends invited me to pay them a visit at their country-house in the province of Smolensk, and I gladly accepted the invitation, because Smolensk, when I knew it formerly, was one of the poorest provinces, and I thought it well to begin my new studies by examining the impoverishment, of which I had heard so much, at its maximum.
From the railway station at Viazma, where I arrived one morning at sunrise, I had some twenty miles to drive, and as soon as I got clear of the little town I began my observations. What I saw around me seemed to contradict the sombre accounts I had received. The villages through which I passed had not at all the look of dilapidation and misery which I expected. On the contrary, the houses were larger and better constructed than they used to be, and each of them had a chimney! That latter fact was important because formerly a large proportion of the peasants of this region had no such luxury, and allowed the smoke to find its exit by the open door. In vain I looked for a hut of the old type, and my yamstchik assured me I should have to go a long way to find one. Then I noticed a good many iron ploughs of the European model, and my yamstchik informed me that their predecessor, the sokha with which I had been so familiar, had entirely disappeared from the district. Next I noticed that in the neighbourhood of the villages flax was grown in large quantities. That was certainly not an indication of poverty, because flax is a valuable product which requires to be well manured, and plentiful manure implies a considerable quantity of live stock. Lastly, before arriving at my destination, I noticed clover being grown in the fields. This made me open my eyes with astonishment, because the introduction of artificial grasses into the traditional rotation of crops indicates the transition to a higher and more intensive system of agriculture. As I had never seen clover in Russia except on the estates of very advanced proprietors, I said to my yamstchik:
"Listen, little brother! That field belongs to the landlord?"
"Not at all, Master; it is muzhik-land."
On arriving at the country-house I told my friends what I had seen, and they explained it to me. Smolensk is no longer one of the poorer provinces; it has become comparatively prosperous. In two or three districts large quantities of flax are produced and give the cultivators a big revenue; in other districts plenty of remunerative work is supplied by the forests. Everywhere a considerable proportion of the younger men go regularly to the towns and bring home savings enough to pay the taxes and make a little surplus in the domestic budget. A few days afterwards the village secretary brought me his books, and showed me that there were practically no arrears of taxation.
Passing on to other provinces I found similar proofs of progress and prosperity, but at the same time not a few indications of impoverishment; and I was rapidly relapsing into my previous state of uncertainty as to whether any general conclusions could be drawn, when an old friend, himself a first-rate authority with many years of practical experience, came to my assistance.* He informed me that a number of specialists had recently made detailed investigations into the present economic conditions of the rural population, and he kindly placed at my disposal, in his charming country-house near Moscow, the voluminous researches of these investigators. Here, during a good many weeks, I revelled in the statistical materials collected, and to the best of my ability I tested the conclusions drawn from them. Many of these conclusions I had to dismiss with the Scotch verdict of "not proven," whilst others seemed to me worthy of acceptance. Of these latter the most important were those drawn from the arrears of taxation.
* I hope I am committing no indiscretion when I say that the old friend in question was Prince Alexander Stcherbatof of Vasilefskoe.
The arrears in the payment of taxes may be regarded as a pretty safe barometer for testing the condition of the rural population, because the peasant habitually pays his rates and taxes when he has the means of doing so; when he falls seriously and permanently into arrears it may be assumed that he is becoming impoverished. If the arrears fluctuate from year to year, the causes of the impoverishment may be regarded as accidental and perhaps temporary, but if they steadily accumulate, we must conclude that there is something radically wrong. Bearing these facts in mind, let us hear what the statistics say.
During the first twenty years after the Emancipation (1861-81) things went on in their old grooves. The poor provinces remained poor, and the fertile provinces showed no signs of distress. During the next twenty years (1881-1901) the arrears of the whole of European Russia rose, roughly speaking, from 27 to 144 millions of roubles, and the increase, strange to say, took place in the fertile provinces. In 1890, for example, out of 52 millions, nearly 41 millions, or 78 per cent., fell to the share of the provinces of the Black-earth Zone. In seven of these the average arrears per male, which had been in 1882 only 90 kopeks, rose in 1893 to 600, and in 1899 to 2,200! And this accumulation had taken place in spite of reductions of taxation to the extent of 37 million roubles in 1881-83, and successive famine grants from the Treasury in 1891-99 to the amount of 203 millions.* On the other hand, in the provinces with a poor soil the arrears had greatly decreased. In Smolensk, for example, they had sunk from 202 per cent, to 13 per cent. of the annual sum to be paid, and in nearly all the other provinces of the west and north a similar change for the better had taken place.
These and many other figures which I might quote show that a great and very curious economic revolution has been gradually effected. The Black-earth Zone, which was formerly regarded as the inexhaustible granary of the Empire, has become impoverished, whilst the provinces which were formerly regarded as hopelessly poor are now in a comparatively flourishing condition. This fact has been officially recognised. In a classification of the provinces according to their degree of prosperity, drawn up by a special commission of experts in 1903, those with a poor light soil appear at the top, and those with the famous black earth are at the bottom of the list. In the deliberations of the commission many reasons for this extraordinary state of things are adduced. Most of them have merely a local significance. The big fact, taken as a whole, seems to me to show that, in consequence of certain changes of which I shall speak presently, the peasantry of European Russia can no longer live by the traditional modes of agriculture, even in the most fertile districts, and require for their support some subsidiary occupations such as are practised in the less fertile provinces.
* In 1901 an additional famine grant of 33 1/2 million roubles had to be made by the Government.
Another sign of impoverishment is the decrease in the quantity of live stock. According to the very imperfect statistics available, for every hundred inhabitants the number of horses has decreased from 26 to 17, the number of cattle from 36 to 25, and the number of sheep from 73 to 40. This is a serious matter, because it means that the land is not so well manured and cultivated as formerly, and is consequently not so productive. Several economists have attempted to fix precisely to what extent the productivity has decreased, but I confess I have little faith in the accuracy of their conclusions. M. Polenof, for example, a most able and conscientious investigator, calculates that between 1861 and 1895, all over Russia, the amount of food produced, in relation to the number of the population, has decreased by seven per cent. His methods of calculation are ingenious, but the statistical data with which he operates are so far from accurate that his conclusions on this point have, in my opinion, little or no scientific value. With all due deference to Russian economists, I may say parenthetically that they are very found of juggling with carelessly collected statistics, as if their data were mathematical quantities.
Several of the Zemstvos have grappled with this question of peasant impoverishment, and the data which they have collected make a very doleful impression. In the province of Moscow, for example, a careful investigation gave the following results: Forty per cent. of the peasant households had no longer any horses, 15 per cent. had given up agriculture altogether, and about 10 per cent. had no longer any land. We must not, however, assume, as is often done, that the peasant families who have no live stock and no longer till the land are utterly ruined. In reality many of them are better off than their neighbours who appear as prosperous in the official statistics, having found profitable occupation in the home industries, in the towns, in the factories, or on the estates of the landed proprietors. It must be remembered that Moscow is the centre of one of the regions in which manufacturing industry has progressed with gigantic strides during the last half-century, and it would be strange indeed if, in such a region, the peasantry who supply the labour to the towns and factories remained thriving agriculturists. That many Russians are surprised and horrified at the actual state of things shows to what an extent the educated classes are still under the illusion that Russia can create for herself a manufacturing industry capable of competing with that of Western Europe without uprooting from the soil a portion of her rural population.
It is only in the purely agricultural regions that families officially classed as belonging to the peasantry may be regarded as on the brink of pauperism because they have no live stock, and even with regard to them I should hesitate to make such an assumption, because the muzhiks, as I have already had occasion to remark, have strange nomadic habits unknown to the rural population of other countries. It is a mistake, therefore, to calculate the Russian peasant's budget exclusively on the basis of local resources.
To the pessimists who assure me that according to their calculations the peasantry in general must be on the brink of starvation, I reply that there are many facts, even in the statistical tables on which they rely, which run counter to their deductions. Let me quote one by way of illustration. The total amount of deposits in savings banks, about one-fourth of which is believed to belong to the rural population, rose in the course of six years (1894-1900) from 347 to 680 millions of roubles. Besides the savings banks, there existed in the rural districts on 1st December, 1902, no less than 1,614 small-credit institutions, with a total capital (1st January, 1901) of 69 million roubles, of which only 4,653,000 had been advanced by the State Bank and the Zemstvo, the remainder coming in from private sources. This is not much for a big country like Russia, but it is a beginning, and it suggests that the impoverishment is not so severe and so universal as the pessimists would have us believe.
There is thus room for differences of opinion as to how far the peasantry have become impoverished, but there is no doubt that their condition is far from satisfactory, and we have to face the important problem why the abolition of serfage has not produced the beneficent consequences which even moderate men so confidently predicted, and how the present unsatisfactory state of things is to be remedied.
The most common explanation among those who have never seriously studied the subject is that it all comes from the demoralisation of the common people. In this view there is a modicum of truth. That the peasantry injure their material welfare by drunkenness and improvidence there can be no reasonable doubt, as is shown by the comparatively flourishing state of certain villages of Old Ritualists and Molokanye in which there is no drunkenness, and in which the community exercises a strong moral control over the individual members. If the Orthodox Church could make the peasantry refrain from the inordinate use of strong drink as effectually as it makes them refrain during a great part of the year from animal food, and if it could instil into their minds a few simple moral principles as successfully as it has inspired them with a belief in the efficacy of the Sacraments, it would certainly confer on them an inestimable benefit. But this is not to be expected. The great majority of the parish priests are quite unfit for such a task, and the few who have aspirations in that direction rarely acquire a perceptible moral influence over their parishioners. Perhaps more is to be expected from the schoolmaster than from the priest, but it will be long before the schools can produce even a partial moral regeneration. Their first influence, strange as the assertion may seem, is often in a diametrically opposite direction. When only a few peasants in a village can read and write they have such facilities for overreaching their "dark" neighbours that they are apt to employ their knowledge for dishonest purposes; and thus it occasionally happens that the man who has the most education is the greatest scoundrel in the Mir. Such facts are often used by the opponents of popular education, but in reality they supply a good reason for disseminating primary education as rapidly as possible. When all the peasants have learned to read and write they will present a less inviting field for swindling, and the temptations to dishonesty will be proportionately diminished. Meanwhile, it is only fair to state that the common assertions about drunkenness being greatly on the increase are not borne out by the official statistics concerning the consumption of spirituous liquors.
After drunkenness, the besetting sin which is supposed to explain the impoverishment of the peasantry is incorrigible laziness. On that subject I feel inclined to put in a plea of extenuating circumstances in favour of the muzhik. Certainly he is very slow in his movements--slower perhaps than the English rustic--and he has a marvellous capacity for wasting valuable time without any perceptible qualms of conscience; but he is in this respect, if I may use a favourite phrase of the Social Scientists, "the product of environment." To the proprietors who habitually reproach him with time-wasting he might reply with a very strong tu quoque argument, and to all the other classes the argument might likewise be addressed. The St. Petersburg official, for example, who writes edifying disquisitions about peasant indolence, considers that for himself attendance at his office for four hours, a large portion of which is devoted to the unproductive labour of cigarette smoking, constitutes a very fair day's work. The truth is that in Russia the struggle for life is not nearly so intense as in more densely populated countries, and society is so constituted that all can live without very strenuous exertion. The Russians seem, therefore, to the traveller who comes from the West an indolent, apathetic race. If the traveller happens to come from the East-- especially if he has been living among pastoral races--the Russians will appear to him energetic and laborious. Their character in this respect corresponds to their geographical position: they stand midway between the laborious, painstaking, industrious population of Western Europe and the indolent, undisciplined, spasmodically energetic populations of Central Asia. They are capable of effecting much by vigorous, intermittent effort--witness the peasant at harvest-time, or the St. Petersburg official when some big legislative project has to be submitted to the Emperor within a given time--but they have not yet learned regular laborious habits. In short, the Russians might move the world if it could be done by a jerk, but they are still deficient in that calm perseverance and dogged tenacity which characterise the Teutonic race.
Without seeking further to determine how far the moral defects of the peasantry have a deleterious influence on their material welfare, I proceed to examine the external causes which are generally supposed to contribute largely to their impoverishment, and will deal first with the evils of peasant self-government.
That the peasant self-government is very far from being in a satisfactory condition must be admitted by any impartial observer. The more laborious and well-to-do peasants, unless they wish to abuse their position directly or indirectly for their own advantage, try to escape election as office-bearers, and leave the administration in the hands of the less respectable members. Not unfrequently a Volost Elder trades with the money he collects as dues or taxes; and sometimes, when he becomes insolvent, the peasants have to pay their taxes and dues a second time. The Village Assemblies, too, have become worse than they were in the days of serfage. At that time the Heads of Households--who, it must be remembered, have alone a voice in the decisions--were few in number, laborious, and well-to-do, and they kept the lazy, unruly members under strict control. Now that the large families have been broken up and almost every adult peasant is Head of a Household, the Communal affairs are sometimes decided by a noisy majority; and certain Communal decisions may be obtained by "treating the Mir"--that is to say, by supplying a certain amount of vodka. Often I have heard old peasants speak of these things, and finish their recital by some such remark as this: "There is no order now; the people have been spoiled; it was better in the time of the masters."
These evils are very real, and I have no desire to extenuate them, but I believe they are by no means so great as is commonly supposed. If the lazy, worthless members of the Commune had really the direction of Communal affairs we should find that in the Northern Agricultural Zone, where it is necessary to manure the soil, the periodical redistributions of the Communal land would be very frequent; for in a new distribution the lazy peasant has a good chance of getting a well-manured lot in exchange for the lot which he has exhausted. In reality, so far as my observations extend, these general distributions of the land are not more frequent than they were before.
Of the various functions of the peasant self-government the judicial are perhaps the most frequently and the most severely criticised. And certainly not without reason, for the Volost Courts are too often accessible to the influence of alcohol, and in some districts the peasants say that he who becomes a judge takes a sin on his soul. I am not at all sure, however, that it would be well to abolish these courts altogether, as some people propose. In many respects they are better suited to peasant requirements than the ordinary tribunals. Their procedure is infinitely simpler, more expeditious, and incomparably less expensive, and they are guided by traditional custom and plain common-sense, whereas the ordinary tribunals have to judge according to the civil law, which is unknown to the peasantry and not always applicable to their affairs.
Few ordinary judges have a sufficiently intimate knowledge of the minute details of peasant life to be able to decide fairly the cases that are brought before the Volost Courts; and even if a Justice had sufficient knowledge he could not adopt the moral and juridical notions of the peasantry. These are often very different from those of the upper classes. In cases of matrimonial separation, for instance, the educated man naturally assumes that, if there is any question of aliment, it should be paid by the husband to the wife. The peasant, on the contrary, assumes as naturally that it should be paid by the wife to the husband--or rather to the Head of the Household--as a compensation for the loss of labour which her desertion involves. In like manner, according to traditional peasant-law, if an unmarried son is working away from home, his earnings do not belong to himself, but to the family, and in Volost Court they could be claimed by the Head of the Household.
Occasionally, it is true, the peasant judges allow their respect for old traditional conceptions in general and for the authority of parents in particular, to carry them a little too far. I was told lately of one affair which took place not long ago, within a hundred miles of Moscow, in which the judge decided that a respectable young peasant should be flogged because he refused to give his father the money he earned as groom in the service of a neighbouring proprietor, though it was notorious in the district that the father was a disreputable old drunkard who carried to the kabak (gin-shop) all the money he could obtain by fair means and foul. When I remarked to my informant, who was not an admirer of peasant institutions, that the incident reminded me of the respect for the patria potestas in old Roman times, he stared at me with a look of surprise and indignation, and exclaimed laconically, "Patria potestas? . . . Vodka!" He was evidently convinced that the disreputable father had got his respectable son flogged by "treating" the judges. In such cases flogging can no longer be used, for the Volost Courts, as we have seen, were recently deprived of the right to inflict corporal punishment.
These administrative and judicial abuses gradually reached the ears of the Government, and in 1889 it attempted to remove them by creating a body of Rural Supervisors (Zemskiye Natchalniki). Under their supervision and control some abuses may have been occasionally prevented or corrected, and some rascally Volost secretaries may have been punished or dismissed, but the peasant self-government as a whole has not been perceptibly improved.
Let us glance now at the opinions of those who hold that the material progress of the peasantry is prevented chiefly, not by the mere abuses of the Communal administration, but by the essential principles of the Communal institutions, and especially by the practice of periodically redistributing the Communal land. From the theoretical point of view this question is one of great interest, and it may acquire in the future an immense practical significance; but for the present it has not, in my opinion, the importance which is usually attributed to it. There can be no doubt that it is much more difficult to farm well on a large number of narrow strips of land, many of which are at a great distance from the farmyard, than on a compact piece of land which the farmer may divide and cultivate as he pleases; and there can be as little doubt that the husbandman is more likely to improve his land if his tenure is secure. All this and much more of the same kind must be accepted as indisputable truth, but it has little direct bearing on the practical question under consideration. We are not considering in the abstract whether it would be better that the peasant should be a farmer with abundant capital and all the modern scientific appliances, but simply the practical question, What are the obstructions which at present prevent the peasant from ameliorating his actual condition?
That the Commune prevents its members from adopting various systems of high farming is a supposition which scarcely requires serious consideration. The peasants do not yet think of any such radical innovations; and if they did, they have neither the knowledge nor the capital necessary to effect them. In many villages a few of the richer and more intelligent peasants have bought land outside of the Commune and cultivate it as they please, free from all Communal restraints; and I have always found that they cultivate this property precisely in the same way as their share of the Communal land. As to minor changes, we know by experience that the Mir opposes to them no serious obstacles.
The cultivation of beet for the production of sugar has greatly increased in the central and southwestern provinces, and flax is now largely produced in Communes in northern districts where it was formerly cultivated merely for domestic use. The Communal system is, in fact, extremely elastic, and may be modified as soon as the majority of the members consider modifications profitable. When the peasants begin to think of permanent improvements, such as drainage, irrigation, and the like, they will find the Communal institutions a help rather than an obstruction; for such improvements, if undertaken at all, must be undertaken on a larger scale, and the Mir is an already existing association. The only permanent improvements which can be for the present profitably undertaken consist in the reclaiming of waste land; and such improvements are already sometimes attempted. I know at least of one case in which a Commune in the province of Yaroslavl has reclaimed a considerable tract of waste land by means of hired labourers. Nor does the Mir prevent in this respect individual initiative. In many Communes of the northern provinces it is a received principle of customary law that if any member reclaims waste land he is allowed to retain possession of it for a number of years proportionate to the amount of labour expended.
But does not the Commune, as it exists, prevent good cultivation according to the mode of agriculture actually in use?
Except in the far north and the steppe region, where the agriculture is of a peculiar kind, adapted to the local conditions, the peasants invariably till their land according to the ordinary three-field system, in which good cultivation means, practically speaking, the plentiful use of manure. Does, then, the existence of the Mir prevent the peasants from manuring their fields well?
Many people who speak on this subject in an authoritative tone seem to imagine that the peasants in general do not manure their fields at all. This idea is an utter mistake. In those regions, it is true, where the rich black soil still retains a large part of its virgin fertility, the manure is used as fuel, or simply thrown away, because the peasants believe that it would not be profitable to put it on their fields, and their conviction is, at least to some extent, well founded;* but in the Northern Agricultural Zone, where unmanured soil gives almost no harvest, the peasants put upon their fields all the manure they possess. If they do not put enough it is simply because they have not sufficient live stock.
* As recently as two years ago (1903) I found that one of the most intelligent and energetic landlords of the province of Voronezh followed in this respect the example of the peasants, and he assured me that he had proved by experience the advantage of doing so.
It is only in the southern provinces, where no manure is required, that periodical re-distributions take place frequently. As we travel northward we find the term lengthens; and in the Northern Agricultural Zone, where manure is indispensable, general re- distributions are extremely rare. In the province of Yaroslavl, for example, the Communal land is generally divided into two parts: the manured land lying near the village, and the unmanured land lying beyond. The latter alone is subject to frequent re- distribution. On the former the existing tenures are rarely disturbed, and when it becomes necessary to give a share to a new household, the change is effected with the least possible prejudice to vested rights.
The policy of the Government has always been to admit redistributions in principle, but to prevent their too frequent recurrence. For this purpose the Emancipation Law stipulated that they could be decreed only by a three-fourths majority of the Village Assembly, and in 1893 a further obstacle was created by a law providing that the minimum term between two re-distributions should be twelve years, and that they should never be undertaken without the sanction of the Rural Supervisor.
A certain number of Communes have made the experiment of transforming the Communal tenure into hereditary allotments, and its only visible effect has been that the allotments accumulate in the hands of the richer and more enterprising peasants, and the poorer members of the Commune become landless, while the primitive system of agriculture remains unimproved.
Up to this point I have dealt with the so-called causes of peasant impoverishment which are much talked of, but which are, in my opinion, only of secondary importance. I pass now to those which are more tangible and which have exerted on the condition of the peasantry a more palpable influence. And, first, inordinate taxation.
This is a very big subject, on which a bulky volume might be written, but I shall cut it very short, because I know that the ordinary reader does not like to be bothered with voluminous financial statistics. Briefly, then, the peasant has to pay three kinds of direct taxation: Imperial to the Central Government, local to the Zemstvo, and Commune to the Mir and the Volost; and besides these he has to pay a yearly sum for the redemption of the land- allotment which he received at the time of the Emancipation. Taken together, these form a heavy burden, but for ten or twelve years the emancipated peasantry bore it patiently, without falling very deeply into arrears. Then began to appear symptoms of distress, especially in the provinces with a poor soil, and in 1872 the Government appointed a Commission of Inquiry, in which I had the privilege of taking part unofficially. The inquiry showed that something ought to be done, but at that moment the Government was so busy with administrative reforms and with trying to develop industry and commerce that it had little time to devote to studying and improving the economic position of the silent, long-suffering muzhik. It was not till nearly ten years later, when the Government began to feel the pinch of the ever-increasing arrears, that it recognised the necessity of relieving the rural population. For this purpose it abolished the salt-tax and the poll-tax and repeatedly lessened the burden of the redemption-payments. At a later period (1899) it afforded further relief by an important reform in the mode of collecting the direct taxes. From the police, who often ruined peasant householders by applying distraint indiscriminately, the collection of taxes was transferred to special authorities who took into consideration the temporary pecuniary embarrassments of the tax-payers. Another benefit conferred on the peasantry by this reform is that an individual member of the Commune is no longer responsible for the fiscal obligations of the Commune as a whole.
Since these alleviations have been granted the annual total demanded from the peasantry for direct taxation and land-redemption payments is 173 million roubles, and the average annual sum to be paid by each peasant household varies, according to the locality, from 11 1/2 to 20 roubles (21s. 6d. to 40s.). In addition to this annuity there is a heavy burden of accumulated arrears, especially in the central and eastern provinces, which amounted in 1899 to 143 millions. Of the indirect taxes I can say nothing definite, because it is impossible to calculate, even approximately, the share of them which falls on the rural population, but they must not be left out of account. During the ten years of M. Witte's term of office the revenue of the Imperial Treasury was nearly doubled, and though the increase was due partly to improvements in the financial administration, we can hardly believe that the peasantry did not in some measure contribute to it. In any case, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for them, under actual conditions, to improve their economic position. On that point all Russian economists are agreed. One of the most competent and sober-minded of them, M. Schwanebach, calculates that the head of a peasant household, after deducting the grain required to feed his family, has to pay into the Imperial Treasury, according to the district in which he resides, from 25 to 100 per cent, of his agricultural revenue. If that ingenious calculation is even approximately correct, we must conclude that further financial reforms are urgently required, especially in those provinces where the population live exclusively by agriculture.
Heavy as the burden of taxation undoubtedly is, it might perhaps be borne without very serious inconvenience if the peasant families could utilise productively all their time and strength. Unfortunately in the existing economic organisation a great deal of their time and energy is necessarily wasted. Their economic life was radically dislocated by the Emancipation, and they have not yet succeeded in reorganising it according to the new conditions.
In the time of serfage an estate formed, from the economic point of view, a co-operative agricultural association, under a manager who possessed unlimited authority, and sometimes abused it, but who was generally worldly-wise enough to understand that the prosperity of the whole required the prosperity of the component parts. By the abolition of serfage the association was dissolved and liquidated, and the strong, compact whole fell into a heap of independent units, with separate and often mutually hostile interests. Some of the disadvantages of this change for the peasantry I have already enumerated above. The most important I have now to mention. In virtue of the Emancipation Law each family received an amount of land which tempted it to continue farming on its own account, but which did not enable it to earn a living and pay its rates and taxes. The peasant thus became a kind of amphibious creature--half farmer and half something else--cultivating his allotment for a portion of his daily bread, and obliged to have some other occupation wherewith to cover the inevitable deficit in his domestic budget. If he was fortunate enough to find near his home a bit of land to be let at a reasonable rent, he might cultivate it in addition to his own and thereby gain a livelihood; but if he had not the good luck to find such a piece of land in the immediate neighbourhood, he had to look for some subsidiary occupation in which to employ his leisure time; and where was such occupation to be found in an ordinary Russian village? In former years he might have employed himself perhaps in carting the proprietor's grain to distant markets or still more distant seaports, but that means of making a little money has been destroyed by the extension of railways. Practically, then, he is now obliged to choose between two alternatives: either to farm his allotment and spend a great part of the year in idleness, or to leave the cultivation of his allotment to his wife and children and to seek employment elsewhere--often at such a distance that his earnings hardly cover the expenses of the journey. In either case much time and energy are wasted.
The evil results of this state of things were intensified by another change which was brought about by the Emancipation. In the time of serfage the peasant families, as I have already remarked, were usually very large. They remained undivided, partly from the influence of patriarchal conceptions, but chiefly because the proprietors, recognising the advantage of large units, prevented them from breaking up. As soon as the proprietor's authority was removed, the process of disintegration began and spread rapidly. Every one wished to be independent, and in a very short time nearly every able-bodied married peasant had a house of his own. The economic consequences were disastrous. A large amount of money had to be expended in constructing new houses and farmsteadings; and the old habit of one male member remaining at home to cultivate the land allotment with the female members of the family whilst the others went to earn wages elsewhere had to be abandoned. Many large families, which had been prosperous and comfortable--rich according to peasant conceptions--dissolved into three or four small ones, all on the brink of pauperism.
The last cause of peasant impoverishment that I have to mention is perhaps the most important of all: I mean the natural increase of population without a corresponding increase in the means of subsistence. Since the Emancipation in 1861 the population has nearly doubled, whilst the amount of Communal land has remained the same. It is not surprising, therefore, that when talking with peasants about their actual condition, one constantly hears the despairing cry, "Zemli malo!" ("There is not enough land"); and one notices that those who look a little ahead ask anxiously: "What is to become of our children? Already the Communal allotment is too small for our wants, and the land outside is doubling and trebling in price! What will it be in the future?" At the same time, not a few Russian economists tell us--and their apprehensions are shared by foreign observers--that millions of peasants are in danger of starvation in the near future.
Must we, then, accept for Russia the Malthus doctrine that population increases more rapidly than the means of subsistence, and that starvation can be avoided only by plague, pestilence, war, and other destructive forces? I think not. It is quite true that, if the amount of land actually possessed by the peasantry and the present system of cultivating it remained unchanged, semi- starvation would be the inevitable result within a comparatively short space of time; but the danger can be averted, and the proper remedies are not far to seek. If Russia is suffering from over- population, it must be her own fault, for she is, with the exception of Norway and Sweden, the most thinly populated country in Europe, and she has more than her share of fertile soil and mineral resources.
A glance at the map showing the density of population in the various provinces suggests an obvious remedy, and I am happy to say it is already being applied. The population of the congested districts of the centre is gradually spreading out, like a drop of oil on a sheet of soft paper, towards the more thinly populated regions of the south and east. In this way the vast region containing millions and millions of acres which lies to the north of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian, and Central Asia is yearly becoming more densely peopled, and agriculture is steadily encroaching on the pastoral area. Breeders of sheep and cattle, who formerly lived and throve in the western portion of that great expanse, are being pushed eastwards by the rapid increase in the value of land, and their place is being taken by enterprising tillers of the soil. Further north another stream of emigration is flowing into Central Siberia. It does not flow so rapidly, because in that part of the Empire, unlike the bare, fertile steppes of the south, the land has to be cleared before the seed can be sown, and the pioneer colonists have to work hard for a year or two before they get any return for their labour; but the Government and private societies come to their assistance, and for the last twenty years their numbers have been steadily increasing. During the ten years 1886-96 the annual contingent rose from 25,000 to 200,000, and the total number amounted to nearly 800,000. For the subsequent period I have not been able to obtain the official statistics, but a friend who has access to the official sources of information on this subject assures me that during the last twelve years about four millions of peasants from European Russia have been successfully settled in Siberia.
Even in the European portion of the Empire millions of acres which are at present unproductive might be utilised. Any one who has travelled by rail from Berlin to St. Petersburg must have noticed how the landscape suddenly changes its character as soon as he has crossed the frontier. Leaving a prosperous agricultural country, he traverses for many weary hours a region in which there is hardly a sign of human habitation, though the soil and climate of that region resembles closely the soil and climate of East Prussia. The difference lies in the amount of labour and capital expended. According to official statistics the area of European Russia contains, roughly speaking, 406 millions of dessyatins, of which 78 millions, or 19 per cent., are classified as neudobniya, unfit for cultivation; 157 millions, or 39 per cent., as forest; 106 millions, or 26 per cent., as arable land; and 65 millions, or 16 per cent., as pasturage. Thus the arable and pasture land compose only 42 per cent., or considerably less than half the area.
Of the land classed as unfit for cultivation--19 per cent. of the whole--a large portion, including the perennially frozen tundri of the far north, must ever remain unproductive, but in latitudes with a milder climate this category of land is for the most part ordinary morass or swamp, which can be transformed into pasturage, or even into arable land, by drainage at a moderate cost. As a proof of this statement I may cite the draining of the great Pinsk swamps, which was begun by the Government in 1872. If we may trust an official report of the progress of the works in 1897, an area of 2,855,000 dessyatins (more than seven and a half million acres) had been drained at an average cost of about three shillings an acre, and the price of land had risen from four to twenty-eight roubles per dessyatin.
Reclamation of marshes might be undertaken elsewhere on a much more moderate scale. The observant traveller on the highways and byways of the northern provinces must have noticed on the banks of almost every stream many acres of marshy land producing merely reeds or coarse rank grass that no well-brought-up animal would look at. With a little elementary knowledge of engineering and the expenditure of a moderate amount of manual labour these marshes might be converted into excellent pasture or even into highly productive kitchen-gardens; but the peasants have not yet learned to take advantage of such opportunities, and the reformers, who deal only in large projects and scientific panaceas for the cure of impoverishment, consider such trifles as unworthy of their attention. The Scotch proverb that if the pennies be well looked after, the pounds will look after themselves, contains a bit of homely wisdom totally unknown to the Russian educated classes.
After the morasses, swamps, and marshes come the forests, constituting 39 per cent. of the whole area, and the question naturally arises whether some portions of them might not be advantageously transformed into pasturage or arable land. In the south and east they have been diminished to such an extent as to affect the climate injuriously, so that the area of them should be increased rather than lessened; but in the northern provinces the vast expanses of forest, covering millions of acres, might perhaps be curtailed with advantage. The proprietors prefer, however, to keep them in their present condition because they give a modest revenue without any expenditure of capital.
Therein lies the great obstacle to land-reclamation in Russia: it requires an outlay of capital, and capital is extremely scarce in the Empire of the Tsars. Until it becomes more plentiful, the area of arable land and pasturage is not likely to be largely increased, and other means of checking the impoverishment of the peasantry must be adopted.
A less expensive means is suggested by the statistics of foreign trade. In the preceding chapter we have seen that from 1860 to 1900 the average annual export of grain rose steadily from under 1 1/2 millions to over 6 millions of tons. It is evident, therefore, that in the food supply, so far from there being a deficiency, there has been a large and constantly increasing surplus. If the peasantry have been on short rations, it is not because the quantity of food produced has fallen short of the requirements of the population, but because it has been unequally distributed. The truth is that the large landed proprietors produce more and the peasants less than they consume, and it has naturally occurred to many people that the present state of things might be improved if a portion of the arable land passed, without any socialistic, revolutionary measures, from the one class to the other. This operation began spontaneously soon after the Emancipation. Well- to-do peasants who had saved a little money bought from the proprietors bits of land near their villages and cultivated them in addition to their allotments. At first this extension of peasant land was confined within very narrow limits, because the peasants had very little capital at their disposal, but in 1882 the Government came to their aid by creating the Peasant Land Bank, the object of which was to advance money to purchasers of the peasant class on the security of the land purchased, at the rate of 7 1/2 per cent., including sinking fund.* From that moment the purchases increased rapidly. They were made by individual peasants, by rural Communes, and, most of all, by small voluntary associations composed of three, four, or more members. In the course of twenty years (1883-1903) the Bank made 47,791 advances, and in this way were purchased about eighteen million acres. This sounds a very big acquisition, but it will not do much to relieve the pressure on the peasantry as a whole, because it adds only about 6 per cent. to the amount they already possessed in virtue of the Emancipation Law.
* This arrangement extinguishes the debt in 34 1/2 years; an additional 1 per cent, extinguishes it in 24 1/2 years. By recent legislation other arrangements are permitted.
Nearly all of this land purchased by the peasantry comes directly or indirectly from the Noblesse, and much more will doubtless pass from the one class to the other if the Government continues to encourage the operation; but already symptoms of a change of policy are apparent. In the higher official regions it is whispered that the existing policy is objectionable from the political point of view, and one sometimes hears the question asked: Is it right and desirable that the Noblesse, who have ever done their duty in serving faithfully the Tsar and Fatherland, and who have ever been the representatives of civilisation and culture in Russian country life, should be gradually expropriated in favour of other and less cultivated social classes? Not a few influential personages are of opinion that such a change is unjust and undesirable, and they argue that it is not advantageous to the peasants themselves, because the price of land has risen much more than the rents. It is not at all uncommon, for example, to find that land can be rented at five roubles per dessyatin, whereas it cannot be bought under 200 roubles. In that case the peasant can enjoy the use of the land at the moderate rate of 2 1/2 per cent. of the capital value, whereas by purchasing the land with the assistance of the bank he would have to pay, without sinking fund, more than double that rate. The muzhik, however, prefers to be owner of the land, even at a considerable sacrifice. When he can be induced to give his reasons, they are usually formulated thus: "With my own land I can do as I like; if I hire land from the neighbouring proprietor, who knows whether, at the end of the term, he may not raise the rent or refuse to renew the contract at any price?"
Even if the Government should continue to encourage the purchase of land by the peasantry, the process is too slow to meet all the requirements of the situation. Some additional expedient must be found, and we naturally look for it in the experience of older countries with a denser population.
In the more densely populated countries of Western Europe a safety- valve for the inordinate increase of the rural population has been provided by the development of manufacturing industry. High wages and the attractions of town life draw the rural population to the industrial centres, and the movement has increased to such an extent that already complaints are heard of the rural districts becoming depopulated. In Russia a similar movement is taking place on a smaller scale. During the last forty years, under the fostering influence of a protective tariff, the manufacturing industry has made gigantic strides, as we shall see in a future chapter, and it has already absorbed about two millions of the redundant hands in the villages; but it cannot keep pace with the rapid increasing surplus. Two millions are less than two per cent. of the population. The great mass of the people has always been, and must long continue to be, purely agricultural; and it is to their fields that they must look for the means of subsistence. If the fields do not supply enough for their support under the existing primitive methods of cultivation, better methods must be adopted. To use a favourite semi-scientific phrase, Russia has now reached the point in her economic development at which she must abandon her traditional extensive system of agriculture and adopt a more intensive system. So far all competent authorities are agreed. But how is the transition, which requires technical knowledge, a spirit of enterprise, an enormous capital, and a dozen other things which the peasantry do not at present possess, to be effected? Here begin the well-marked differences of opinion.
Hitherto the momentous problem has been dealt with chiefly by the theorists and doctrinaires who delight in radical solutions by means of panaceas, and who have little taste for detailed local investigation and gradual improvement. I do not refer to the so- called "Saviours of the Fatherland" (Spasiteli Otetchestva), well- meaning cranks and visionaries who discover ingenious devices for making their native country at once prosperous and happy. I speak of the great majority of reasonable, educated men who devote some attention to the problem. Their favourite method of dealing with it is this: The intensive system of agriculture requires scientific knowledge and a higher level of intellectual culture. What has to be done, therefore, is to create agricultural colleges supplied with all the newest appliances of agronomic research and to educate the peasantry to such an extent that they may be able to use the means which science recommends.
For many years this doctrine prevailed in the Press, among the reading public, and even in the official world. The Government was accordingly urged to improve and multiply the agronomic colleges and the schools of all grades and descriptions. Learned dissertations were published on the chemical constitution of the various soils, the action of the atmosphere on the different ingredients, the necessity of making careful meteorological observations, and numerous other topics of a similar kind; and would-be reformers who had no taste for such highly technical researches could console themselves with the idea that they were advancing the vital interests of the country by discussing the relative merits of Communal and personal land-tenure--deciding generally in favour of the former as more in accordance with the peculiarities of Russian, as contrasted with West European, principles of economic and social development.
While much valuable time and energy were thus being expended to little purpose, on the assumption that the old system might be left untouched until the preparations for a radical solution had been completed, disagreeable facts which could not be entirely overlooked gradually produced in influential quarters the conviction that the question was much more urgent than was commonly supposed. A sensitive chord in the heart of the Government was struck by the steadily increasing arrears of taxation, and spasmodic attempts have since been made to cure the evil.
In the local administration, too, the urgency of the question has come to be recognised, and measures are now being taken by the Zemstvo to help the peasantry in making gradually the transition to that higher system of agriculture which is the only means of permanently saving them from starvation. For this purpose, in many districts well-trained specialists have been appointed to study the local conditions and to recommend to the villagers such simple improvements as are within their means. These improvements may be classified under the following heads:
(1) Increase of the cereal crops by better seed and improved implements.
(2) Change in the rotation of crops by the introduction of certain grasses and roots which improve the soil and supply food for live stock.
(3) Improvement and increase of live stock, so as to get more labour-power, more manure, more dairy-produce, and more meat.
(4) Increased cultivation of vegetables and fruit.
With these objects in view the Zemstvo is establishing depots in which improved implements and better seed are sold at moderate prices, and the payments are made in installments, so that even the poorer members of the community can take advantage of the facilities offered. Bulls and stallions are kept at central points for the purpose of improving the breed of cattle and horses, and the good results are already visible. Elementary instruction in farming and gardening is being introduced into the primary schools. In some districts the exertions of the Zemstvo are supplemented by small agricultural societies, mutual credit associations, and village banks, and these are to some extent assisted by the Central Government. But the beneficent action in this direction is not all official. Many proprietors deserve great praise for the good influence which they exercise on the peasants of their neighbourhood and the assistance they give them; and it must be admitted that their patience is often sorely tried, for the peasants have the obstinacy of ignorance, and possess other qualities which are not sympathetic. I know one excellent proprietor who began his civilising efforts by giving to the Mir of the nearest village an iron plough as a model and a fine pedigree ram as a producer, and who found, on returning from a tour abroad, that during his absence the plough had been sold for vodka, and the pedigree ram had been eaten before it had time to produce any descendants! In spite of this he continues his efforts, and not altogether without success.
It need hardly be said that the progress of the peasantry is not so rapid as could be wished. The muzhik is naturally conservative, and is ever inclined to regard novelties with suspicion. Even when he is half convinced of the utility of some change, he has still to think about it for a long time and talk it over again and again with his friends and neighbours, and this preparatory stage of progress may last for years. Unless he happens to be a man of unusual intelligence and energy, it is only when he sees with his own eyes that some humble individual of his own condition in life has actually gained by abandoning the old routine and taking to new courses, that he makes up his mind to take the plunge himself. Still, he is beginning to jog on. E pur si muove! A spirit of progress is beginning to move on the face of the long-stagnant waters, and progress once begun is pretty sure to continue with increasing rapidity. With starvation hovering in the rear, even the most conservative are not likely to stop or turn back.