Chapter VIII - The Mir, Or Village Community
When I had gained a clear notion of the family-life and occupations of the peasantry, I turned my attention to the constitution of the village. This was a subject which specially interested me, because I was aware that the Mir is the most peculiar of Russian institutions. Long before visiting Russia I had looked into Haxthausen's celebrated work, by which the peculiarities of the Russian village system were first made known to Western Europe, and during my stay in St. Petersburg I had often been informed by intelligent, educated Russians that the rural Commune presented a practical solution of many difficult social problems with which the philosophers and statesmen of the West had long been vainly struggling. "The nations of the West"--such was the substance of innumerable discourses which I had heard--"are at present on the high-road to political and social anarchy, and England has the unenviable distinction of being foremost in the race. The natural increase of population, together with the expropriation of the small landholders by the great landed proprietors, has created a dangerous and ever-increasing Proletariat--a great disorganised mass of human beings, without homes, without permanent domicile, without property of any kind, without any stake in the existing institutions. Part of these gain a miserable pittance as agricultural labourers, and live in a condition infinitely worse than serfage. The others have been forever uprooted from the soil, and have collected in the large towns, where they earn a precarious living in the factories and workshops, or swell the ranks of the criminal classes. In England you have no longer a peasantry in the proper sense of the term, and unless some radical measures be very soon adopted, you will never be able to create such a class, for men who have been long exposed to the unwholesome influences of town life are physically and morally incapable of becoming agriculturists.
"Hitherto," the disquisition proceeded, "England has enjoyed, in consequence of her geographical position, her political freedom, and her vast natural deposits of coal and iron, a wholly exceptional position in the industrial world. Fearing no competition, she has proclaimed the principles of Free Trade, and has inundated the world with her manufactures--using unscrupulously her powerful navy and all the other forces at her command for breaking down every barrier tending to check the flood sent forth from Manchester and Birmingham. In that way her hungry Proletariat has been fed. But the industrial supremacy of England is drawing to a close. The nations have discovered the perfidious fallacy of Free-Trade principles, and are now learning to manufacture for their own wants, instead of paying England enormous sums to manufacture for them. Very soon English goods will no longer find foreign markets, and how will the hungry Proletariat then be fed? Already the grain production of England is far from sufficient for the wants of the population, so that, even when the harvest is exceptionally abundant, enormous quantities of wheat are imported from all quarters of the globe. Hitherto this grain has been paid for by the manufactured goods annually exported, but how will it be procured when these goods are no longer wanted by foreign consumers? And what then will the hungry Proletariat do?"*
* This passage was written, precisely as it stands, long before the fiscal question was raised by Mr. Chamberlain. It will be found in the first edition of this work, published in 1877. (Vol. I., pp. 179-81.)
This sombre picture of England's future had often been presented to me, and on nearly every occasion I had been assured that Russia had been saved from these terrible evils by the rural Commune--an institution which, in spite of its simplicity and incalculable utility, West Europeans seemed utterly incapable of understanding and appreciating.
The reader will now easily conceive with what interest I took to studying this wonderful institution, and with what energy I prosecuted my researches. An institution which professes to solve satisfactorily the most difficult social problems of the future is not to be met with every day, even in Russia, which is specially rich in material for the student of social science.
On my arrival at Ivanofka my knowledge of the institution was of that vague, superficial kind which is commonly derived from men who are fonder of sweeping generalisations and rhetorical declamation than of serious, patient study of phenomena. I knew that the chief personage in a Russian village is the Selski Starosta, or Village Elder, and that all important Communal affairs are regulated by the Selski Skhod, or Village Assembly. Further, I was aware that the land in the vicinity of the village belongs to the Commune, and is distributed periodically among the members in such a way that every able-bodied peasant possesses a share sufficient, or nearly sufficient, for his maintenance. Beyond this elementary information I knew little or nothing.
My first attempt at extending my knowledge was not very successful. Hoping that my friend Ivan might be able to assist me, and knowing that the popular name for the Commune is Mir, which means also "the world," I put to him the direct, simple question, "What is the Mir?"
Ivan was not easily disconcerted, but for once he looked puzzled, and stared at me vacantly. When I endeavoured to explain to him my question, he simply knitted his brows and scratched the back of his head. This latter movement is the Russian peasant's method of accelerating cerebral action; but in the present instance it had no practical result. In spite of his efforts, Ivan could not get much further than the "Kak vam skazat'?" that is to say, "How am I to tell you?"
It was not difficult to perceive that I had adopted an utterly false method of investigation, and a moment's reflection sufficed to show me the absurdity of my question. I had asked from an uneducated man a philosophical definition, instead of extracting from him material in the form of concrete facts, and constructing therefrom a definition for myself. These concrete facts Ivan was both able and willing to supply; and as soon as I adopted a rational mode of questioning, I obtained from him all I wanted. The information he gave me, together with the results of much subsequent conversation and reading, I now propose to present to the reader in my own words.
The peasant family of the old type is, as we have just seen, a kind of primitive association in which the members have nearly all things in common. The village may be roughly described as a primitive association on a larger scale.
Between these two social units there are many points of analogy. In both there are common interests and common responsibilities. In both there is a principal personage, who is in a certain sense ruler within and representative as regards the outside world: in the one case called Khozain, or Head of the Household, and in the other Starosta, or Village Elder. In both the authority of the ruler is limited: in the one case by the adult members of the family, and in the other by the Heads of Households. In both there is a certain amount of common property: in the one case the house and nearly all that it contains, and in the other the arable land and possibly a little pasturage. In both cases there is a certain amount of common responsibility: in the one case for all the debts, and in the other for all the taxes and Communal obligations. And both are protected to a certain extent against the ordinary legal consequences of insolvency, for the family cannot be deprived of its house or necessary agricultural implements, and the Commune cannot be deprived of its land, by importunate creditors.
On the other hand, there are many important points of contrast. The Commune is, of course, much larger than the family, and the mutual relations of its members are by no means so closely interwoven. The members of a family all farm together, and those of them who earn money from other sources are expected to put their savings into the common purse; whilst the households composing a Commune farm independently, and pay into the common treasury only a certain fixed sum.
From these brief remarks the reader will at once perceive that a Russian village is something very different from a village in our sense of the term, and that the villagers are bound together by ties quite unknown to the English rural population. A family living in an English village has little reason to take an interest in the affairs of its neighbours. The isolation of the individual families is never quite perfect, for man, being a social animal, takes necessarily a certain interest in the affairs of those around him, and this social duty is sometimes fulfilled by the weaker sex with more zeal than is absolutely indispensable for the public welfare; but families may live for many years in the same village without ever becoming conscious of common interests. So long as the Jones family do not commit any culpable breach of public order, such as putting obstructions on the highway or habitually setting their house on fire, their neighbour Brown takes probably no interest in their affairs, and has no ground for interfering with their perfect liberty of action. Amongst the families composing a Russian village, such a state of isolation is impossible. The Heads of Households must often meet together and consult in the Village Assembly, and their daily occupation must be influenced by the Communal decrees. They cannot begin to mow the hay or plough the fallow field until the Village Assembly has passed a resolution on the subject. If a peasant becomes a drunkard, or takes some equally efficient means to become insolvent, every family in the village has a right to complain, not merely in the interests of public morality, but from selfish motives, because all the families are collectively responsible for his taxes.* For the same reason no peasant can permanently leave the village without the consent of the Commune, and this consent will not be granted until the applicant gives satisfactory security for the fulfilment of his actual and future liabilities. If a peasant wishes to go away for a short time, in order to work elsewhere, he must obtain a written permission, which serves him as a passport during his absence; and he may be recalled at any moment by a Communal decree. In reality he is rarely recalled so long as he sends home regularly the full amount of his taxes--including the dues which he has to pay for the temporary passport--but sometimes the Commune uses the power of recall for purposes of extortion. If it becomes known, for instance, that an absent member is receiving a good salary or otherwise making money, he may one day receive a formal order to return at once to his native village, but he is probably informed at the same time, unofficially, that his presence will be dispensed with if he will send to the Commune a certain specified sum. The money thus sent is generally used by the Commune for convivial purposes. **
* This common responsibility for the taxes was abolished in 1903 by the Emperor, on the advice of M. Witte, and the other Communal fetters are being gradually relaxed. A peasant may now, if he wishes, cease to be a member of the Commune altogether, as soon as he has defrayed all his outstanding obligations.
** With the recent relaxing of the Communal fetters, referred to in the foregoing note, this abuse should disappear.
In all countries the theory of government and administration differs considerably from the actual practice. Nowhere is this difference greater than in Russia, and in no Russian institution is it greater than in the Village Commune. It is necessary, therefore, to know both theory and practice; and it is well to begin with the former, because it is the simpler of the two. When we have once thoroughly mastered the theory, it is easy to understand the deviations that are made to suit peculiar local conditions.
According, then, to theory, all male peasants in every part of the Empire are inscribed in census-lists, which form the basis of the direct taxation. These lists are revised at irregular intervals, and all males alive at the time of the "revision," from the newborn babe to the centenarian, are duly inscribed. Each Commune has a list of this kind, and pays to the Government an annual sum proportionate to the number of names which the list contains, or, in popular language, according to the number of "revision souls." During the intervals between the revisions the financial authorities take no notice of the births and deaths. A Commune which has a hundred male members at the time of the revision may have in a few years considerably more or considerably less than that number, but it has to pay taxes for a hundred members all the same until a new revision is made for the whole Empire.
Now in Russia, so far at least as the rural population is concerned, the payment of taxes is inseparably connected with the possession of land. Every peasant who pays taxes is supposed to have a share of the land belonging to the Commune. If the Communal revision lists contain a hundred names, the Communal land ought to be divided into a hundred shares, and each "revision soul" should enjoy his share in return for the taxes which he pays.
The reader who has followed my explanations up to this point may naturally conclude that the taxes paid by the peasants are in reality a species of rent for the land which they enjoy. Such a conclusion would not be altogether justified. When a man rents a bit of land he acts according to his own judgment, and makes a voluntary contract with the proprietor; but the Russian peasant is obliged to pay his taxes whether he desires to enjoy land or not. The theory, therefore, that the taxes are simply the rent of the land will not bear even superficial examination. Equally untenable is the theory that they are a species of land-tax. In any reasonable system of land-dues the yearly sum imposed bears some kind of proportion to the quantity and quality of the land enjoyed; but in Russia it may be that the members of one Commune possess six acres of bad land, and the members of the neighbouring Commune seven acres of good land, and yet the taxes in both cases are the same. The truth is that the taxes are personal, and are calculated according to the number of male "souls," and the Government does not take the trouble to inquire how the Communal land is distributed. The Commune has to pay into the Imperial Treasury a fixed yearly sum, according to the number of its "revision souls," and distributes the land among its members as it thinks fit.
How, then, does the Commune distribute the land? To this question it is impossible to reply in brief, general terms, because each Commune acts as it pleases!* Some act strictly according to the theory. These divide their land at the time of the revision into a number of portions or shares corresponding to the number of revision souls, and give to each family a number of shares corresponding to the number of revision souls which it contains. This is from the administrative point of view by far the simplest system. The census-list determines how much land each family will enjoy, and the existing tenures are disturbed only by the revisions which take place at irregular intervals.** But, on the other hand, this system has serious defects. The revision-list represents merely the numerical strength of the families, and the numerical strength is often not at all in proportion to the working power. Let us suppose, for example, two families, each containing at the time of the revision five male members. According to the census- list these two families are equal, and ought to receive equal shares of the land; but in reality it may happen that the one contains a father in the prime of life and four able-bodies sons, whilst the other contains a widow and five little boys. The wants and working power of these two families are of course very different; and if the above system of distribution be applied, the man with four sons and a goodly supply of grandchildren will probably find that he has too little land, whilst the widow with her five little boys will find it difficult to cultivate the five shares alloted to her, and utterly impossible to pay the corresponding amount of taxation--for in all cases, it must be remembered, the Communal burdens are distributed in the same proportion as the land.
* A long list of the various systems of allotment to be found in individual Communes in different parts of the country is given in the opening chapter of a valuable work by Karelin, entitled "Obshtchinnoye Vladyenie v Rossii" (St. Petersburg, 1893). As my object is to convey to the reader merely a general idea of the institution, I refrain from confusing him by an enumeration of the endless divergencies from the original type.
** Since 1719 eleven revisions have been made, the last in 1897. The intervals varied from six to forty-one years.
But why, it may be said, should the widow not accept provisionally the five shares, and let to others the part which she does not require? The balance of rent after payment of the taxes might help her to bring up her young family.
So it seems to one acquainted only with the rural economy of England, where land is scarce, and always gives a revenue more than sufficient to defray the taxes. But in Russia the possession of a share of Communal land is often not a privilege, but a burden. In some Communes the land is so poor and abundant that it cannot be let at any price. In others the soil will repay cultivation, but a fair rent will not suffice to pay the taxes and dues.
To obviate these inconvenient results of the simpler system, many Communes have adopted the expedient of allotting the land, not according to the number of revision souls, but according to the working power of the families. Thus, in the instance above supposed, the widow would receive perhaps two shares, and the large household, containing five workers, would receive perhaps seven or eight. Since the breaking-up of the large families, such inequality as I have supposed is, of course, rare; but inequality of a less extreme kind does still occur, and justifies a departure from the system of allotment according to the revision-lists.
Even if the allotment be fair and equitable at the time of the revision, it may soon become unfair and burdensome by the natural fluctuations of the population. Births and deaths may in the course of a very few years entirely alter the relative working power of the various families. The sons of the widow may grow up to manhood, whilst two or three able-bodied members of the other family may be cut off by an epidemic. Thus, long before a new revision takes place, the distribution of the land may be no longer in accordance with the wants and capacities of the various families composing the Commune. To correct this, various expedients are employed. Some Communes transfer particular lots from one family to another, as circumstances demand; whilst others make from time to time, during the intervals between the revisions, a complete redistribution and reallotment of the land. Of these two systems the former is now more frequently employed.
The system of allotment adopted depends entirely on the will of the particular Commune. In this respect the Communes enjoy the most complete autonomy, and no peasant ever dreams of appealing against a Communal decree.* The higher authorities not only abstain from all interference in the allotment of the Communal lands, but remain in profound ignorance as to which system the Communes habitually adopt. Though the Imperial Administration has a most voracious appetite for symmetrically constructed statistical tables--many of them formed chiefly out of materials supplied by the mysterious inner consciousness of the subordinate officials--no attempt has yet been made, so far as I know, to collect statistical data which might throw light on this important subject. In spite of the systematic and persistent efforts of the centralised bureaucracy to regulate minutely all departments of the national life, the rural Communes, which contain about five-sixths of the population, remain in many respects entirely beyond its influence, and even beyond its sphere of vision! But let not the reader be astonished overmuch. He will learn in time that Russia is the land of paradoxes; and meanwhile he is about to receive a still more startling bit of information. In "the great stronghold of Caesarian despotism and centralised bureaucracy," these Village Communes, containing about five-sixths of the population, are capital specimens of representative Constitutional government of the extreme democratic type!
* This has been somewhat modified by recent legislation. According to the Emancipation Law of 1861, redistribution of the land could take place at any time provided it was voted by a majority of two- thirds at the Village Assembly. By a law of 1893 redistribution cannot take place oftener than once in twelve years, and must receive the sanction of certain local authorities.
When I say that the rural Commune is a good specimen of Constitutional government, I use the phrase in the English, and not in the Continental sense. In the Continental languages a Constitutional regime implies the existence of a long, formal document, in which the functions of the various institutions, the powers of the various authorities, and the methods of procedure are carefully defined. Such a document was never heard of in Russian Village Communes, except those belonging to the Imperial Domains, and the special legislation which formerly regulated their affairs was repealed at the time of the Emancipation. At the present day the Constitution of all the Village Communes is of the English type--a body of unwritten, traditional conceptions, which have grown up and modified themselves under the influence of ever- changing practical necessity. No doubt certain definitions of the functions and mutual relations of the Communal authorities might be extracted from the Emancipation Law and subsequent official documents, but as a rule neither the Village Elder nor the members of the Village Assembly ever heard of such definitions; and yet every peasant knows, as if by instinct, what each of these authorities can do and cannot do. The Commune is, in fact, a living institution, whose spontaneous vitality enables it to dispense with the assistance and guidance of the written law, and its constitution is thoroughly democratic. The Elder represents merely the executive power. The real authority resides in the Assembly, of which all Heads of Households are members.*
* An attempt was made by Alexander III. in 1884 to bring the rural Communes under supervision and control by the appointment of rural officials called Zemskiye Natchalniki. Of this so-called reform I shall have occasion to speak later.
The simple procedure, or rather the absence of all formal procedure, at the Assemblies, illustrates admirably the essentially practical character of the institution. The meetings are held in the open air, because in the village there is no building--except the church, which can be used only for religious purposes--large enough to contain all the members; and they almost always take place on Sundays or holidays, when the peasants have plenty of leisure. Any open space may serve as a Forum. The discussions are occasionally very animated, but there is rarely any attempt at speech-making. If any young member should show an inclination to indulge in oratory, he is sure to be unceremoniously interrupted by some of the older members, who have never any sympathy with fine talking. The assemblage has the appearance of a crowd of people who have accidentally come together and are discussing in little groups subjects of local interest. Gradually some one group, containing two or three peasants who have more moral influence than their fellows, attracts the others, and the discussion becomes general. Two or more peasants may speak at a time, and interrupt each other freely--using plain, unvarnished language, not at all parliamentary--and the discussion may become a confused, unintelligible din; but at the moment when the spectator imagines that the consultation is about to be transformed into a free fight, the tumult spontaneously subsides, or perhaps a general roar of laughter announces that some one has been successfully hit by a strong argumentum ad hominem, or biting personal remark. In any case there is no danger of the disputants coming to blows. No class of men in the world are more good-natured and pacific than the Russian peasantry. When sober they never fight, and even when under the influence of alcohol they are more likely to be violently affectionate than disagreeably quarrelsome. If two of them take to drinking together, the probability is that in a few minutes, though they may never have seen each other before, they will be expressing in very strong terms their mutual regard and affection, confirming their words with an occasional friendly embrace.
Theoretically speaking, the Village Parliament has a Speaker, in the person of the Village Elder. The word Speaker is etymologically less objectionable than the term President, for the personage in question never sits down, but mingles in the crowd like the ordinary members. Objection may be taken to the word on the ground that the Elder speaks much less than many other members, but this may likewise be said of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Whatever we may call him, the Elder is officially the principal personage in the crowd, and wears the insignia of office in the form of a small medal suspended from his neck by a thin brass chain. His duties, however, are extremely light. To call to order those who interrupt the discussion is no part of his functions. If he calls an honourable member "Durak" (blockhead), or interrupts an orator with a laconic "Moltchi!" (hold your tongue!), he does so in virtue of no special prerogative, but simply in accordance with a time-honoured privilege, which is equally enjoyed by all present, and may be employed with impunity against himself. Indeed, it may be said in general that the phraseology and the procedure are not subjected to any strict rules. The Elder comes prominently forward only when it is necessary to take the sense of the meeting. On such occasions he may stand back a little from the crowd and say, "Well, orthodox, have you decided so?" and the crowd will probably shout, "Ladno! ladno!" that is to say, "Agreed! agreed!"
Communal measures are generally carried in this way by acclamation; but it sometimes happens that there is such a diversity of opinion that it is difficult to tell which of the two parties has a majority. In this case the Elder requests the one party to stand to the right and the other to the left. The two groups are then counted, and the minority submits, for no one ever dreams of opposing openly the will of the Mir.
During the reign of Nicholas I. an attempt was made to regulate by the written law the procedure of Village Assemblies amongst the peasantry of the State Domains, and among other reforms voting by ballot was introduced; but the new custom never struck root. The peasants did not regard with favour the new method, and persisted in calling it, contemptuously, "playing at marbles." Here, again, we have one of those wonderful and apparently anomalous facts which frequently meet the student of Russian affairs: the Emperor Nicholas I., the incarnation of autocracy and the champion of the Reactionary Party throughout Europe, forces the ballot-box, the ingenious invention of extreme radicals, on several millions of his subjects!
In the northern provinces, where a considerable portion of the male population is always absent, the Village Assembly generally includes a good many female members. These are women who, on account of the absence or death of their husbands, happen to be for the moment Heads of Households. As such they are entitled to be present, and their right to take part in the deliberations is never called in question. In matters affecting the general welfare of the Commune they rarely speak, and if they do venture to enounce an opinion on such occasions they have little chance of commanding attention, for the Russian peasantry are as yet little imbued with the modern doctrines of female equality, and express their opinion of female intelligence by the homely adage: "The hair is long, but the mind is short." According to one proverb, seven women have collectively but one soul, and, according to a still more ungallant popular saying, women have no souls at all, but only a vapour. Woman, therefore, as woman, is not deserving of much consideration, but a particular woman, as Head of a Household, is entitled to speak on all questions directly affecting the household under her care. If, for instance, it be proposed to increase or diminish her household's share of the land and the burdens, she will be allowed to speak freely on the subject, and even to indulge in personal invective against her male opponents. She thereby exposes herself, it is true, to uncomplimentary remarks; but any which she happens to receive she is pretty sure to repay with interest--referring, perhaps, with pertinent virulence to the domestic affairs of those who attack her. And when argument and invective fail, she can try the effect of pathetic appeal, supported by copious tears.
As the Village Assembly is really a representative institution in the full sense of the term, it reflects faithfully the good and the bad qualities of the rural population. Its decisions are therefore usually characterised by plain, practical common sense, but it is subject to occasional unfortunate aberrations in consequence of pernicious influences, chiefly of an alcoholic kind. An instance of this fact occurred during my sojourn at Ivanofka. The question under discussion was whether a kabak, or gin-shop, should be established in the village. A trader from the district town desired to establish one, and offered to pay to the Commune a yearly sum for the necessary permission. The more industrious, respectable members of the Commune, backed by the whole female population, were strongly opposed to the project, knowing full well that a kabak would certainly lead to the ruin of more than one household; but the enterprising trader had strong arguments wherewith to seduce a large number of the members, and succeeded in obtaining a decision in his favour.
The Assembly discusses all matters affecting the Communal welfare, and, as these matters have never been legally defined, its recognised competence is very wide. It fixes the time for making the hay, and the day for commencing the ploughing of the fallow field; it decrees what measures shall be employed against those who do not punctually pay their taxes; it decides whether a new member shall be admitted into the Commune, and whether an old member shall be allowed to change his domicile; it gives or withholds permission to erect new buildings on the Communal land; it prepares and signs all contracts which the Commune makes with one of its own members or with a stranger; it interferes whenever it thinks necessary in the domestic affairs of its members; it elects the Elder--as well as the Communal tax-collector and watchman, where such offices exist--and the Communal herd-boy; above all, it divides and allots the Communal land among the members as it thinks fit.
Of all these various proceedings the English reader may naturally assume that the elections are the most noisy and exciting. In reality this is a mistake. The elections produce little excitement, for the simple reason that, as a rule, no one desires to be elected. Once, it is said, a peasant who had been guilty of some misdemeanor was informed by an Arbiter of the Peace--a species of official of which I shall have occasion to speak in the sequel-- that he would be no longer capable of filling any Communal office; and instead of regretting this diminution of his civil rights, he bowed very low, and respectfully expressed his thanks for the new privilege which he had acquired. This anecdote may not be true, but it illustrates the undoubted fact that the Russian peasant regards office as a burden rather than as an honour. There is no civic ambition in those little rural commonwealths, whilst the privilege of wearing a bronze medal, which commands no respect, and the reception of a few roubles as salary afford no adequate compensation for the trouble, annoyance, and responsibility which a Village Elder has to bear. The elections are therefore generally very tame and uninteresting. The following description may serve as an illustration:
It is a Sunday afternoon. The peasants, male and female, have turned out in Sunday attire, and the bright costumes of the women help the sunshine to put a little rich colour into the scene, which is at ordinary times monotonously grey. Slowly the crowd collects on the open space at the side of the church. All classes of the population are represented. On the extreme outskirts are a band of fair-haired, merry children--some of them standing or lying on the grass and gazing attentively at the proceedings, and others running about and amusing themselves. Close to these stand a group of young girls, convulsed with half-suppressed laughter. The cause of their merriment is a youth of some seventeen summers, evidently the wag of the village, who stands beside them with an accordion in his hand, and relates to them in a half-whisper how he is about to be elected Elder, and what mad pranks he will play in that capacity. When one of the girls happens to laugh outright, the matrons who are standing near turn round and scowl; and one of them, stepping forward, orders the offender, in a tone of authority, to go home at once if she cannot behave herself. Crestfallen, the culprit retires, and the youth who is the cause of the merriment makes the incident the subject of a new joke. Meanwhile the deliberations have begun. The majority of the members are chatting together, or looking at a little group composed of three peasants and a woman, who are standing a little apart from the others. Here alone the matter in hand is being really discussed. The woman is explaining, with tears in her eyes, and with a vast amount of useless repetition, that her "old man," who is Elder for the time being, is very ill, and cannot fulfil his duties.
"But he has not yet served a year, and he'll get better," remarks one peasant, evidently the youngest of the little group.
"Who knows?" replies the woman, sobbing. "It is the will of God, but I don't believe that he'll ever put his foot to the ground again. The Feldsher has been four times to see him, and the doctor himself came once, and said that he must be brought to the hospital."
"And why has he not been taken there?"
"How could he be taken? Who is to carry him? Do you think he's a baby? The hospital is forty versts off. If you put him in a cart he would die before he had gone a verst. And then, who knows what they do with people in the hospital?" This last question contained probably the true reason why the doctor's orders had been disobeyed.
"Very well, that's enough; hold your tongue," says the grey-beard of the little group to the woman; and then, turning to the other peasants, remarks, "There is nothing to be done. The Stanovoi [officer of rural police] will be here one of these days, and will make a row again if we don't elect a new Elder. Whom shall we choose?"
As soon as this question is asked several peasants look down to the ground, or try in some other way to avoid attracting attention, lest their names should be suggested. When the silence has continued a minute or two, the greybeard says, "There is Alexei Ivanof; he has not served yet!"
"Yes, yes, Alexei Ivanof!" shout half-a-dozen voices, belonging probably to peasants who fear they may be elected.
Alexei protests in the strongest terms. He cannot say that he is ill, because his big ruddy face would give him the lie direct, but he finds half-a-dozen other reasons why he should not be chosen, and accordingly requests to be excused. But his protestations are not listened to, and the proceedings terminate. A new Village Elder has been duly elected.
Far more important than the elections is the redistribution of the Communal land. It can matter but little to the Head of a Household how the elections go, provided he himself is not chosen. He can accept with perfect equanimity Alexei, or Ivan, or Nikolai, because the office-bearers have very little influence in Communal affairs. But he cannot remain a passive, indifferent spectator when the division and allotment of the land come to be discussed, for the material welfare of every household depends to a great extent on the amount of land and of burdens which it receives.
In the southern provinces, where the soil is fertile, and the taxes do not exceed the normal rent, the process of division and allotment is comparatively simple. Here each peasant desires to get as much land as possible, and consequently each household demands all the land to which it is entitled--that is to say, a number of shares equal to the number of its members inscribed in the last revision list. The Assembly has therefore no difficult questions to decide. The Communal revision list determines the number of shares into which the land must be divided, and the number of shares to be allotted to each family. The only difficulty likely to arise is as to which particular shares a particular family shall receive, and this difficulty is commonly obviated by the custom of drawing lots. There may be, it is true, some difference of opinion as to when a redistribution should be made, but this question is easily decided by a vote of the Assembly.
Very different is the process of division and allotment in many Communes of the northern provinces. Here the soil is often very unfertile and the taxes exceed the normal rent, and consequently it may happen that the peasants strive to have as little land as possible. In these cases such scenes as the following may occur:
Ivan is being asked how many shares of the Communal land he will take, and replies in a slow, contemplative way, "I have two sons, and there is myself, so I'll take three shares, or somewhat less, if it is your pleasure."
"Less!" exclaims a middle-aged peasant, who is not the Village Elder, but merely an influential member, and takes the leading part in the proceedings. "You talk nonsense. Your two sons are already old enough to help you, and soon they may get married, and so bring you two new female labourers."
"My eldest son," explains Ivan, "always works in Moscow, and the other often leaves me in summer."
"But they both send or bring home money, and when they get married, the wives will remain with you."
"God knows what will be," replies Ivan, passing over in silence the first part of his opponent's remark. "Who knows if they will marry?"
"You can easily arrange that!"
"That I cannot do. The times are changed now. The young people do as they wish, and when they do get married they all wish to have houses of their own. Three shares will be heavy enough for me!"
"No, no. If they wish to separate from you, they will take some land from you. You must take at least four. The old wives there who have little children cannot take shares according to the number of souls."
"He is a rich muzhik!" says a voice in the crowd. "Lay on him five souls!" (that is to say, give him five shares of the land and of the burdens).
"Five souls I cannot! By God, I cannot!"
"Very well, you shall have four," says the leading spirit to Ivan; and then, turning to the crowd, inquires, "Shall it be so?"
"Four! four!" murmurs the crowd; and the question is settled.
Next comes one of the old wives just referred to. Her husband is a permanent invalid, and she has three little boys, only one of whom is old enough for field labour. If the number of souls were taken as the basis of distribution, she would receive four shares; but she would never be able to pay four shares of the Communal burdens. She must therefore receive less than that amount. When asked how many she will take, she replies with downcast eyes, "As the Mir decides, so be it!"
"Then you must take three."
"What do you say, little father?" cries the woman, throwing off suddenly her air of submissive obedience. "Do you hear that, ye orthodox? They want to lay upon me three souls! Was such a thing ever heard of? Since St. Peter's Day my husband has been bedridden--bewitched, it seems, for nothing does him good. He cannot put a foot to the ground--all the same as if he were dead; only he eats bread!"
"You talk nonsense," says a neighbour; "he was in the kabak [gin- shop] last week."
"And you!" retorts the woman, wandering from the subject in hand; "what did YOU do last parish fete? Was it not you who got drunk and beat your wife till she roused the whole village with her shrieking? And no further gone than last Sunday--pfu!"
"Listen!" says the old man, sternly cutting short the torrent of invective. "You must take at least two shares and a half. If you cannot manage it yourself, you can get some one to help you."
"How can that be? Where am I to get the money to pay a labourer?" asks the woman, with much wailing and a flood of tears. "Have pity, ye orthodox, on the poor orphans! God will reward you!" and so on, and so on.
I need not worry the reader with a further description of these scenes, which are always very long and sometimes violent. All present are deeply interested, for the allotment of the land is by far the most important event in Russian peasant life, and the arrangement cannot be made without endless talking and discussion. After the number of shares for each family has been decided, the distribution of the lots gives rise to new difficulties. The families who have plentifully manured their land strive to get back their old lots, and the Commune respects their claims so far as these are consistent with the new arrangement; but often it happens that it is impossible to conciliate private rights and Communal interests, and in such cases the former are sacrificed in a way that would not be tolerated by men of Anglo-Saxon race. This leads, however, to no serious consequences. The peasants are accustomed to work together in this way, to make concessions for the Communal welfare, and to bow unreservedly to the will of the Mir. I know of many instances where the peasants have set at defiance the authority of the police, of the provincial governor, and of the central Government itself, but I have never heard of any instance where the will of the Mir was openly opposed by one of its members.
In the preceding pages I have repeatedly spoken about "shares of the Communal land." To prevent misconception I must explain carefully what this expression means. A share does not mean simply a plot or parcel of land; on the contrary, it always contains at least four, and may contain a large number of distinct plots. We have here a new point of difference between the Russian village and the villages of Western Europe.
Communal land in Russia is of three kinds: the land on which the village is built, the arable land, and the meadow or hay-field, if the village is fortunate enough to possess one. On the first of these each family possesses a house and garden, which are the hereditary property of the family, and are never affected by the periodical redistributions. The other two kinds are both subject to redistribution, but on somewhat different principles.
The whole of the Communal arable land is first of all divided into three fields, to suit the triennial rotation of crops already described, and each field is divided into a number of long narrow strips--corresponding to the number of male members in the Commune-- as nearly as possible equal to each other in area and quality. Sometimes it is necessary to divide the field into several portions, according to the quality of the soil, and then to subdivide each of these portions into the requisite number of strips. Thus in all cases every household possesses at least one strip in each field; and in those cases where subdivision is necessary, every household possesses a strip in each of the portions into which the field is subdivided. It often happens, therefore, that the strips are very narrow, and the portions belonging to each family very numerous. Strips six feet wide are by no means rare. In 124 villages of the province of Moscow, regarding which I have special information, they varied in width from 3 to 45 yards, with an average of 11 yards. Of these narrow strips a household may possess as many as thirty in a single field! The complicated process of division and subdivision is accomplished by the peasants themselves, with the aid of simple measuring-rods, and the accuracy of the result is truly marvellous.
The meadow, which is reserved for the production of hay, is divided into the same number of shares as the arable land. There, however, the division and distribution take place, not at irregular intervals, but annually. Every year, on a day fixed by the Assembly, the villagers proceed in a body to this part of their property, and divide it into the requisite number of portions. Lots are then cast, and each family at once mows the portion allotted to it. In some Communes the meadow is mown by all the peasants in common, and the hay afterwards distributed by lot among the families; but this system is by no means so frequently used.
As the whole of the Communal land thus resembles to some extent a big farm, it is necessary to make certain rules concerning cultivation. A family may sow what it likes in the land allotted to it, but all families must at least conform to the accepted system of rotation. In like manner, a family cannot begin the autumn ploughing before the appointed time, because it would thereby interfere with the rights of the other families, who use the fallow field as pasturage.
It is not a little strange that this primitive system of land tenure should have succeeded in living into the twentieth century, and still more remarkable that the institution of which it forms an essential part should be regarded by many intelligent people as one of the great institutions of the future, and almost as a panacea for social and political evils. The explanation of these facts will form the subject of the next chapter.