Serfdom in Early Nineteenth Century Russia

by Beryl Williams

Reader in History at Sussex


This story is set 'in the time of the masters' i.e. under serfdom. Serfdom, although it started later in Russia than in western Europe and was only formalised in the mid- seventeenth century, lasted much longer. It was only abolished in Russia in 1861, just over twenty years before the time Tolstoy was writing. Before then serfdom as an institution dominated the life of the peasantry and determined how the Russian countryside was governed. It reached its height at the end of the eighteenth century. By then 34 out of 36 million peasant families were either landlord serfs or state peasants. State peasants were mainly in the less fertile lands of the north and suffered less restrictions, although if they were required to work in industry, the iron ore works of the Urals for example, their lot could be harder. The greatest peasant revolt of the eighteenth century, under Pugachev, found its early supporters in the state workers of the Ural mines. Serfdom essentially prohibited peasant movement and tied the peasantry to the land, guaranteeing that land would be cultivated to the benefit of the nobility or the state and that peasants were easily available for taxation through a poll tax on landlords and military service. After 1649 peasants were completely prohibited from moving from their estates without the permission of their landlord and owed him service, either labour service, barshchina, most common in the fertile black earth land, or in the form of money or goods, obrok. Despite the professed distaste of serfdom by Catherine the Great and her enlightenment ideas, the institution expanded considerably under her reign. Landlords had considerable, but not absolute control over their serfs. Serfs were not slaves, although the dividing line could be hazy. Legally a landlord could not allow a serf to starve and had to provide food if the harvest failed. He could not kill or maim a serf, although corporal punishment was normal and, as in this story, a serf could die under the whip. However complaints against a master were forbidden and petition to the crown was banned under Catherine. There were laws regulating treatment of serfs however. In 1797 the law defined the amount of service due; barshchina was fixed at three days work on the lord's land a week, although four days was common by the early nineteenth century, a sign that laws were not enforced. At some times of the year, at haymaking or harvest, this could rise still further, leaving peasants very little time to cultivate their own land. The landlord could still sell his serfs, but advertisements in the newspapers were banned and serfs could not be sold without land. In 1833 the sale of a serf without his family was prohibited.

Most serfs worked on the land. Under barshchina the normal arrangement was for the lord's land to be divided with an area set aside as demesne or landlord area to be farmed by the peasants, but under whatever orders the landlord laid down. This could mean if, like Tolstoy himself, the landlord was a progressive farmer, that the land was enclosed and machinery could be brought in and new seeds developed. Such a landlord might also introduce schools and other facilities on the estate and try to educate the peasantry in western farming methods. Levin in Anna Karenina is based on Tolstoy's own experience and shows how difficult such projects could be. The rest of the farm would be handed over to the peasants for their own use. This land was divided by the peasant commune (obshchina or mir), into three large fields worked on a rotation crop system. Each field was divided into strips and each family given so many strips in each field according either to the number of male workers in the family or the number of mouths to feed. It was this control of 'their' land which led to the mistaken, but deep-rooted peasant belief that 'we belong to the masters but the land is ours'. It was common folk belief that land was like air or water and 'belonged' to those who worked it. Strips were redistributed by the commune every five or seven years. If the landlord did not insist on special arrangements demesne land was farmed by the peasants in the same way. There were also domestic peasants, servants round the house, cooks, maids etc. In some ways domestic servants had a better life and if skilled, as musicians or ladies' maids or craftsmen, could change hands for considerable sums, or, as here, be promoted to an overseer. Some noblity ran opera houses and theatres on their estates with serf labour. As in this story where the wife of a labouring peasant is taken as a cook, this could cause resentment. Her labour power has been lost to her husband by this arrangement. Moreover house serfs were more vulnerable to the bad temper or sexual attacks of their masters and more likely to be sold or sent for military service, at that time 25 years.

As we have seen some serfs were used as industrial labourers. Here the hated bailiff or steward has started a brickworks on the estate and such small manorial industries were common. But some noblemen also invested more heavily in industries like textiles, food processing, distilleries or mining, using serf labour. A serf on obrok would be given permission to go to the towns and work in industry or road or canal building and would merely pay his master an annual tax. Some did very well. There were serf industrialists by the early years of the nineteenth century and some areas specialised in specific industries with serf labour, samovars in Tula for example. The serf system had its critics by the first half of the nineteenth century but mainly on moral grounds. Some did argue that free labour would be more productive and Soviet historians argued that rising capitalism made serfdom impossible to preserve, but economically the reign of Nicholas 1 was a success story and serfdom did not hinder the growth of industry or prevent rising agricultural production, especially on peasant- farmed land. However increasing productivity often meant greater demands on the peasantry as landlords tried to increase their income. 60% of serfs were mortgaged to the state by 1861. The reasons for the abolition of serfdom were political and military more than economic, and defeat in the Crimean War heightened fears in government circles of peasant unrest, which rose sharply in the 1840s and 1850s. 144 pomeshchiki were killed by peasants between 1834 and 1854, but those chiefly at risk in peasant revolts or disturbances were the middlemen - bailiffs, tax collectors or petty officials. The cruel bailiff who has risen above the peasants around him and has to justify his dominance is a standard character in fiction and appears in Turgenev and Chekhov, and is more often blamed for oppression than the master himself. The master here is shown as thoughtless and absentee rather than evil. At the beginning of the story before the bailiff appears, the estate is portrayed as content.

Apart from the landlord and the bailiff the institutions of most importance to the peasantry were the village commune (obshchina or mir) and the household (dvor). The commune was responsible for dividing the land, but also for tax collection, for selection for military service and for keeping order and settling civil disputes. It was run by the heads of families, normally the oldest male, who met regularly, and an elected elder (starosta) who would represent the village. After emancipation it was preserved by the government to take over responsibilities previously held by the landlord and, hopefully, to ensure order in the villages. Another institution established after emancipation to run rural life was the zemstvo, or local government organization, which at first had both peasant and noble representation and was responsible for such issues as schools, roads and clinics. Land given to the peasantry at emancipation, which had to be paid for, was given to the commune as a unit not to individual families and the repartitional system of strip holdings continued as before. The household was normally still a three generational one with sons bringing their wives at marriage into the parental home. Being a daughter-in-law (snokha) was one of the most vulnerable and difficult roles in peasant society. The peasantry had a culture of its own, often very different to the French speaking and western educated one of their masters. This culture was based round village life, the seasons of the agricultural year, folklore and the church. Many historians, following commentators like Belinsky or Stepniak (Kravchinsky), have argued that the Orthodox church had little real impact on peasant life, apart from their carrying out the fasts and rituals, and that peasants were superstitious and illiterate and not genuinely religious. Exceptions have been made for the Old Believers who had widespread peasant support in certain areas. However this story, presumably in an Orthodox village, does not bear this out. The peasants resent being made to work on a church holiday and Petr has real faith and performs what appears to be a miracle at the end of the story leading to the downfall of evil, here in the person of the bailiff. Petr is in a long tradition of 'good, long suffering, simple Christian peasants' in Russian literature from Radishchev through Turgenev and Grigorevich and the populist writers to Tolstoy himself. Platon Karataev in War and Peace is the best know example of the breed. His message, spelt out in the biblical text which heads the story, is to submit to misfortune and rely on God, not to resist by violence.