Donald Mackenzie Wallace

Part 10 out of 15

Nicholas was no more.

The public, anxiously seeking after a sign, readily took these
symptoms of change as a complete confirmation of their ardent
hopes, and leaped at once to the conclusion that a vast, all-
embracing system of radical reform was about to be undertaken--not
secretly by the Administration, as had been the custom in the
preceding reign when any little changes had to be made, but
publicly, by the Government and the people in common. "The heart
trembles with joy," said one of the leading organs of the Press,
"in expectation of the great social reforms that are about to be
effected--reforms that are thoroughly in accordance with the
spirit, the wishes, and the expectations of the public." "The old
harmony and community of feeling," said another, "which has always
existed between the government and the people, save during short
exceptional periods, has been fully re-established. The absence of
all sentiment of caste, and the feeling of common origin and
brotherhood which binds all classes of the Russian people into a
homogeneous whole, will enable Russia to accomplish peacefully and
without effort not only those great reforms which cost Europe
centuries of struggle and bloodshed, but also many which the
nations of the West are still unable to accomplish, in consequence
of feudal traditions and caste prejudices." The past was depicted
in the blackest colours, and the nation was called upon to begin a
new and glorious epoch of its history. "We have to struggle," it
was said, "in the name of the highest truth against egotism and the
puny interests of the moment; and we ought to prepare our children
from their infancy to take part in that struggle which awaits every
honest man. We have to thank the war for opening our eyes to the
dark sides of our political and social organisation, and it is now
our duty to profit by the lesson. But it must not be supposed that
the Government can, single-handed, remedy the defects. The
destinies of Russia are, as it were, a stranded vessel which the
captain and crew cannot move, and which nothing, indeed, but the
rising tide of the national life can raise and float."

Hearts beat quicker at the sound of these calls to action. Many
heard this new teaching, if we may believe a contemporary
authority, "with tears in their eyes"; then, "raising boldly their
heads, they made a solemn vow that they would act honourably,
perseveringly, fearlessly." Some of those who had formerly yielded
to the force of circumstances now confessed their misdemeanours
with bitterness of heart. "Tears of repentance," said a popular
poet, "give relief, and call us to new exploits." Russia was
compared to a strong giant who awakes from sleep, stretches his
brawny limbs, collects his thoughts, and prepares to atone for his
long inactivity by feats of untold prowess. All believed, or at
least assumed, that the recognition of defects would necessarily
entail their removal. When an actor in one of the St. Petersburg
theatres shouted from the stage, "Let us proclaim throughout all
Russia that the time has come for tearing up evil by the roots!"
the audience gave way to the most frantic enthusiasm. "Altogether
a joyful time," says one who took part in the excitement, "as when,
after the long winter, the genial breath of spring glides over the
cold, petrified earth, and nature awakens from her deathlike sleep.
Speech, long restrained by police and censorial regulations, now
flows smoothly, majestically, like a mighty river that has just
been freed from ice."

Under these influences a multitude of newspapers and periodicals
were founded, and the current literature entirely changed its
character. The purely literary and historical questions which had
hitherto engaged the attention of the reading public were thrown
aside and forgotten, unless they could be made to illustrate some
principle of political or social science. Criticisms on style and
diction, explanations of aesthetic principles, metaphysical
discussions--all this seemed miserable trifling to men who wished
to devote themselves to gigantic practical interests. "Science,"
it was said, "has now descended from the heights of philosophic
abstraction into the arena of real life." The periodicals were
accordingly filled with articles on railways, banks, free-trade,
education, agriculture, communal institutions, local self-
government, joint-stock companies, and with crushing philippics
against personal and national vanity, inordinate luxury,
administrative tyranny, and the habitual peculation of the
officials. This last-named subject received special attention.
During the preceding reign any attempt to criticise publicly the
character or acts of an official was regarded as a very heinous
offence; now there was a deluge of sketches, tales, comedies, and
monologues, describing the corruption of the Administration, and
explaining the ingenious devices by which the tchinovniks increased
their scanty salaries. The public would read nothing that had not
a direct or indirect bearing on the questions of the day, and
whatever had such a bearing was read with interest. It did not
seem at all strange that a drama should be written in defence of
free-trade, or a poem in advocacy of some peculiar mode of
taxation; that an author should expound his political ideas in a
tale, and his antagonist reply by a comedy. A few men of the old
school protested feebly against this "prostitution of art," but
they received little attention, and the doctrine that art should be
cultivated for its own sake was scouted as an invention of
aristocratic indolence. Here is an ipsa pinxit of the literature
of the time: "Literature has come to look at Russia with her own
eyes, and sees that the idyllic romantic personages which the poets
formerly loved to describe have no objective existence. Having
taken off her French glove, she offers her hand to the rude, hard-
working labourer, and observing lovingly Russian village life, she
feels herself in her native land. The writers of the present have
analysed the past, and, having separated themselves from
aristocratic litterateurs and aristocratic society, have demolished
their former idols."

By far the most influential periodical at the commencement of the
movement was the Kolokol, or Bell, a fortnightly journal published
in London by Herzen, who was at that time an important personage
among the political refugees. Herzen was a man of education and
culture, with ultra-radical opinions, and not averse to using
revolutionary methods of reform when he considered them necessary.
His intimate relations with many of the leading men in Russia
enabled him to obtain secret information of the most important and
varied kind, and his sparkling wit, biting satire, and clear,
terse, brilliant style secured him a large number of readers. He
seemed to know everything that was done in the ministries and even
in the Cabinet of the Emperor,* and he exposed most mercilessly
every abuse that came to his knowledge. We who are accustomed to
free political discussion can hardly form a conception of the
avidity with which his articles were read, and the effect which
they produced. Though strictly prohibited by the Press censure,
the Kolokol found its way across the frontier in thousands of
copies, and was eagerly perused and commented on by all ranks of
the educated classes. The Emperor himself received it regularly,
and high-priced delinquents examined it with fear and trembling.
In this way Herzen was for some years, though an exile, an
important political personage, and did much to awaken and keep up
the reform enthusiasm.

* As an illustration of this, the following anecdote is told: One
number of the Kolokol contained a violent attack on an important
personage of the court, and the accused, or some one of his
friends, considered it advisable to have a copy specially printed
for the Emperor without the objectionable article. The Emperor did
not at first discover the trick, but shortly afterwards he received
from London a polite note containing the article which had been
omitted, and informing him how he had been deceived.

But where were the Conservatives all this time? How came it that
for two or three years no voice was raised and no protest made even
against the rhetorical exaggerations of the new-born liberalism?
Where were the representatives of the old regime, who had been so
thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Nicholas? Where were those
ministers who had systematically extinguished the least indication
of private initiative, those "satraps" who had stamped out the
least symptom of insubordination or discontent, those Press censors
who had diligently suppressed the mildest expression of liberal
opinion, those thousands of well-intentioned proprietors who had
regarded as dangerous free-thinkers and treasonable republicans all
who ventured to express dissatisfaction with the existing state of
things? A short time before, the Conservatives composed at least
nine-tenths of the upper classes, and now they had suddenly and
mysteriously disappeared.

It is scarcely necessary to say that in a country accustomed to
political life, such a sudden, unopposed revolution in public
opinion could not possibly take place. The key to the mystery lies
in the fact that for centuries Russia had known nothing of
political life or political parties. Those who were sometimes
called Conservatives were in reality not at all Conservatives in
our sense of the term. If we say that they had a certain amount of
conservatism, we must add that it was of the latent, passive,
unreasoned kind--the fruit of indolence and apathy. Their
political creed had but one article: Thou shalt love the Tsar with
all thy might, and carefully abstain from all resistance to his
will--especially when it happens that the Tsar is a man of the
Nicholas type. So long as Nicholas lived they had passively
acquiesced in his system--active acquiescence had been neither
demanded nor desired--but when he died, the system of which he was
the soul died with him. What then could they seek to defend? They
were told that the system which they had been taught to regard as
the sheet-anchor of the State was in reality the chief cause of the
national disasters; and to this they could make no reply, because
they had no better explanation of their own to offer. They were
convinced that the Russian soldier was the best soldier in the
world, and they knew that in the recent war the army had not been
victorious; the system, therefore, must be to blame. They were
told that a series of gigantic reforms was necessary in order to
restore Russia to her proper place among the nations; and to this
they could make no answer, for they had never studied such abstract
questions. And one thing they did know: that those who hesitated
to admit the necessity of gigantic reforms were branded by the
Press as ignorant, narrow-minded, prejudiced, and egotistical, and
were held up to derision as men who did not know the most
elementary principles of political and economic science. Freely
expressed public opinion was such a new phenomenon in Russia that
the Press was able for some time to exercise a "Liberal" tyranny
scarcely less severe than the "Conservative" tyranny of the censors
in the preceding reign. Men who would have stood fire gallantly on
the field of battle quailed before the poisoned darts of Herzen in
the Kolokol. Under such circumstances, even the few who possessed
some vague Conservative convictions refrained from publicly
expressing them.

The men who had played a more or less active part during the
preceding reign, and who might therefore be expected to have
clearer and deeper convictions, were specially incapable of
offering opposition to the prevailing Liberal enthusiasm. Their
Conservatism was of quite as limp a kind as that of the landed
proprietors who were not in the public service, for under Nicholas
the higher a man was placed the less likely was he to have
political convictions of any kind outside the simple political
creed above referred to. Besides this, they belonged to that class
which was for the moment under the anathema of public opinion, and
they had drawn direct personal advantage from the system which was
now recognised as the chief cause of the national disasters.

For a time the name of tchinovnik became a term of reproach and
derision, and the position of those who bore it was comically
painful. They strove to prove that, though they held a post in the
public service, they were entirely free from the tchinovnik spirit--
that there was nothing of the genuine tchinovnik about them.
Those who had formerly paraded their tchin (official rank) on all
occasions, in season and out of season, became half ashamed to
admit that they had the rank of General; for the title no longer
commanded respect, and had become associated with all that was
antiquated, formal, and stupid. Among the young generation it was
used most disrespectfully as equivalent to "pompous blockhead."
Zealous officials who had lately regarded the acquisition of Stars
and Orders as among the chief ends of man, were fain to conceal
those hard-won trophies, lest some cynical "Liberal" might notice
them and make them the butt of his satire. "Look at the depth of
humiliation to which you have brought the country"--such was the
chorus of reproach that was ever ringing in their ears--"with your
red tape, your Chinese formalism, and your principle of lifeless,
unreasoning, mechanical obedience! You asserted constantly that
you were the only true patriots, and branded with the name of
traitor those who warned you of the insane folly of your conduct.
You see now what it has all come to. The men whom you helped to
send to the mines turn out to have been the true patriots."*

* It was a common saying at that time that nearly all the best men
in Russia had spent a part of their lives in Siberia, and it was
proposed to publish a biographical dictionary of remarkable men, in
which every article was to end thus: "Exiled to ---- in 18--." I
am not aware how far the project was seriously entertained, but, of
course, the book was never published.

And to these reproaches what could they reply? Like a child who
has in his frolics inadvertently set the house on fire, they could
only look contrite, and say they did not mean it. They had simply
accepted without criticism the existing order of things, and ranged
themselves among those who were officially recognised as "the well-
intentioned." If they had always avoided the Liberals, and perhaps
helped to persecute them, it was simply because all "well-
intentioned" people said that Liberals were "restless" and
dangerous to the State. Those who were not convinced of their
errors simply kept silence, but the great majority passed over to
the ranks of the Progressists, and many endeavoured to redeem their
past by showing extreme zeal for the Liberal cause.

In explanation of this extraordinary outburst of reform enthusiasm,
we must further remember that the Russian educated classes, in
spite of the severe northern climate which is supposed to make the
blood circulate slowly, are extremely impulsive. They are fettered
by no venerable historical prejudices, and are wonderfully
sensitive to the seductive influence of grandiose projects,
especially when these excite the patriotic feelings. Then there
was the simple force of reaction--the rebound which naturally
followed the terrific compression of the preceding reign. Without
disrespect, the Russians of that time may be compared to schoolboys
who have just escaped from the rigorous discipline of a severe
schoolmaster. In the first moments of freedom it was supposed that
there would be no more discipline or compulsion. The utmost
respect was to be shown to "human dignity," and every Russian was
to act spontaneously and zealously at the great work of national
regeneration. All thirsted for reforming activity. The men in
authority were inundated with projects of reform--some of them
anonymous, and others from obscure individuals; some of them
practical, and very many wildly fantastic. Even the grammarians
showed their sympathy with the spirit of the time by proposing to
expel summarily all redundant letters from the Russian alphabet!

The fact that very few people had clear, precise ideas as to what
was to be done did not prevent, but rather tended to increase, the
reform enthusiasm. All had at least one common feeling--dislike to
what had previously existed. It was only when it became necessary
to forsake pure negation, and to create something, that the
conceptions became clearer, and a variety of opinions appeared. At
the first moment there was merely unanimity in negation, and an
impulsive enthusiasm for beneficent reforms in general.

The first specific proposals were direct deductions from the
lessons taught by the war. The war had shown in a terrible way the
disastrous consequences of having merely primitive means of
communication; the Press and the public began, accordingly, to
speak about the necessity of constructing railways, roads and
river-steamers. The war had shown that a country which has not
developed its natural resources very soon becomes exhausted if it
has to make a great national effort; accordingly the public and the
Press talked about the necessity of developing the natural
resources, and about the means by which this desirable end might be
attained. It had been shown by the war that a system of education
which tends to make men mere apathetic automata cannot produce even
a good army; accordingly the public and the Press began to discuss
the different systems of education and the numerous questions of
pedagogical science. It had been shown by the war that the best
intentions of a Government will necessarily be frustrated if the
majority of the officials are dishonest or incapable; accordingly
the public and the Press began to speak about the paramount
necessity of reforming the Administration in all its branches.

It must not, however, be supposed that in thus laying to heart the
lessons taught by the war and endeavouring to profit by them, the
Russians were actuated by warlike feelings, and desired to avenge
themselves as soon as possible on their victorious enemies. On the
contrary, the whole movement and the spirit which animated it were
eminently pacific. Prince Gortchakof's saying, "La Russie ne boude
pas, elle se recueille," was more than a diplomatic repartee--it
was a true and graphic statement of the case. Though the Russians
are very inflammable, and can be very violent when their patriotic
feelings are aroused, they are, individually and as a nation,
singularly free from rancour and the spirit of revenge. After the
termination of hostilities they really bore little malice towards
the Western Powers, except towards Austria, which was believed to
have been treacherous and ungrateful to the country that had saved
her in 1849. Their patriotism now took the form, not of revenge,
but of a desire to raise their country to the level of the Western
nations. If they thought of military matters at all, they assumed
that military power would be obtained as a natural and inevitable
result of high civilisation and good government.

As a first step towards the realisation of the vast schemes
contemplated, voluntary associations began to be formed for
industrial and commercial purposes, and a law was issued for the
creation of limited liability companies. In the space of two years
forty-seven companies of this kind were founded, with a combined
capital of 358 millions of roubles. To understand the full
significance of these figures, we must know that from the founding
of the first joint-stock company in 1799 down to 1853 only twenty-
six companies had been formed, and their united capital amounted
only to thirty-two millions of roubles. Thus in the space of two
years (1857-58) eleven times as much capital was subscribed to
joint-stock companies as had been subscribed during half a century
previous to the war. The most exaggerated expectations were
entertained as to the national and private advantages which must
necessarily result from these undertakings, and it became a
patriotic duty to subscribe liberally. The periodical literature
depicted in glowing terms the marvellous results that had been
obtained in other countries by the principle of co-operation, and
sanguine readers believed that they had discovered a patriotic way
of speedily becoming rich.

These were, however, mere secondary matters, and the public were
anxiously waiting for the Government to begin the grand reforming
campaign. When the educated classes awoke to the necessity of
great reforms, there was no clear conception as to how the great
work should be undertaken. There was so much to be done that it
was no easy matter to decide what should be done first.
Administrative, judicial, social, economical, financial, and
political reforms seemed all equally pressing. Gradually, however,
it became evident that precedence must be given to the question of
serfage. It was absurd to speak about progress, humanitarianism,
education, self-government, equality in the eye of the law, and
similar matters, so long as one half of the population was excluded
from the enjoyment of ordinary civil rights. So long as serfage
existed it was mere mockery to talk about re-organising Russia
according to the latest results of political and social science.
How could a system of even-handed justice be introduced when twenty
millions of the peasantry were subject to the arbitrary will of the
landed proprietors? How could agricultural or industrial progress
be made without free labour? How could the Government take active
measures for the spread of national education when it had no direct
control over one-half of the peasantry? Above all, how could it be
hoped that a great moral regeneration could take place, so long as
the nation voluntarily retained the stigma of serfage and slavery?

All this was very generally felt by the educated classes, but no
one ventured to raise the question until it should be known what
were the views of the Emperor on the subject. How the question was
gradually raised, how it was treated by the nobles, and how it was
ultimately solved by the famous law of February 19th (March 3d),
1861,* I now propose to relate.

* February 19th according to the old style, which is still used in
Russia, and March 3d according to our method of reckoning.



The Rural Population in Ancient Times--The Peasantry in the
Eighteenth Century--How Was This Change Effected?--The Common
Explanation Inaccurate--Serfage the Result of Permanent Economic
and Political Causes--Origin of the Adscriptio Glebae--Its
Consequences--Serf Insurrection--Turning-point in the History of
Serfage--Serfage in Russia and in Western Europe--State Peasants--
Numbers and Geographical Distribution of the Serf Population--Serf
Dues--Legal and Actual Power of the Proprietors--The Serfs' Means
of Defence--Fugitives--Domestic Serfs--Strange Advertisements in
the Moscow Gazette--Moral Influence of Serfage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Ukaz of June 2d, 1742.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* See ukaz of October 7th, 1792.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of these latter there were--

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Question Raised--Chief Committee--The Nobles of the Lithuanian
Provinces--The Tsar's Broad Hint to the Noblesse--Enthusiasm in the
Press--The Proprietors--Political Aspirations--No Opposition--The
Government--Public Opinion--Fear of the Proletariat--The Provincial
Committees--The Elaboration Commission--The Question Ripens--
Provincial Deputies--Discontent and Demonstrations--The Manifesto--
Fundamental Principles of the Law--Illusions and Disappointment of
the Serfs--Arbiters of the Peace--A Characteristic Incident--
Redemption--Who Effected the Emancipation?

It is a fundamental principle of Russian political organisation
that all initiative in public affairs proceeds from the Autocratic
Power. The widespread desire, therefore, for the Emancipation of
the serfs did not find free expression so long as the Emperor kept
silence regarding his intentions. The educated classes watched
anxiously for some sign, and soon a sign was given to them. In
March, 1856--a few days after the publication of the manifesto
announcing the conclusion of peace with the Western Powers--his
Majesty said to the Marshals of Noblesse in Moscow: "For the
removal of certain unfounded reports I consider it necessary to
declare to you that I have not at present the intention of
annihilating serfage; but certainly, as you yourselves know, the
existing manner of possessing serfs cannot remain unchanged. It is
better to abolish serfage from above than to await the time when it
will begin to abolish itself from below. I request you, gentlemen,
to consider how this can be put into execution, and to submit my
words to the Noblesse for their consideration."

These words were intended to sound the Noblesse and induce them to
make a voluntary proposal, but they had not the desired effect.
Abolitionist enthusiasm was rare among the great nobles, and those
who really wished to see serfage abolished considered the Imperial
utterance too vague and oracular to justify them in taking the
initiative. As no further steps were taken for some time, the
excitement caused by the incident soon subsided, and many people
assumed that the consideration of the problem had been indefinitely
postponed. "The Government," it was said, "evidently intended to
raise the question, but on perceiving the indifference or hostility
of the landed proprietors, it became frightened and drew back."

The Emperor was in reality disappointed. He had expected that his
"faithful Moscow Noblesse," of which he was wont to say he was
himself a member, would at once respond to his call, and that the
ancient capital would have the honour of beginning the work. And
if the example were thus given by Moscow, he had no doubt that it
would soon be followed by the other provinces. He now perceived
that the fundamental principles on which the Emancipation should be
effected must be laid down by the Government, and for this purpose
he created a secret committee composed of several great officers of

This "Chief Committee for Peasant Affairs," as it was afterwards
called, devoted six months to studying the history of the question.
Emancipation schemes were by no means a new phenomenon in Russia.
Ever since the time of Catherine II. the Government had thought of
improving the condition of the serfs, and on more than one occasion
a general emancipation had been contemplated. In this way the
question had slowly ripened, and certain fundamental principles had
come to be pretty generally recognised. Of these principles the
most important was that the State should not consent to any project
which would uproot the peasant from the soil and allow him to
wander about at will; for such a measure would render the
collection of the taxes impossible, and in all probability produce
the most frightful agrarian disorders. And to this general
principle there was an important corollary: if severe restrictions
were to be placed on free migration, it would be necessary to
provide the peasantry with land in the immediate vicinity of the
villages; otherwise they must inevitably fall back under the power
of the proprietors, and a new and worse kind of serfage would thus
be created. But in order to give land to the peasantry it would be
necessary to take it from the proprietors; and this expropriation
seemed to many a most unjustifiable infringement of the sacred
rights of property. It was this consideration that had restrained
Nicholas from taking any decisive measures with regard to serfage;
and it had now considerable weight with the members of the
committee, who were nearly all great land-owners.

Notwithstanding the strenuous exertions of the Grand Duke
Constantine, who had been appointed a member for the express
purpose of accelerating the proceedings, the committee did not show
as much zeal and energy as was desired, and orders were given to
take some decided step. At that moment a convenient opportunity
presented itself.

In the Lithuanian Provinces, where the nobles were Polish by origin
and sympathies, the miserable condition of the peasantry had
induced the Government in the preceding reign to limit the
arbitrary power of the serf-owners by so-called Inventories, in
which the mutual obligations of masters and serfs were regulated
and defined. These Inventories had caused great dissatisfaction,
and the proprietors now proposed that they should be revised. Of
this the Government determined to take advantage. On the somewhat
violent assumption that these proprietors wished to emancipate
their serfs, an Imperial rescript was prepared approving of their
supposed desire, and empowering them to form committees for the
preparation of definite projects.* In the rescript itself the word
emancipation was studiously avoided, but there could be no doubt as
to the implied meaning, for it was expressly stated in the
supplementary considerations that "the abolition of serfage must be
effected not suddenly, but gradually." Four days later the
Minister of the Interior, in accordance with a secret order from
the Emperor, sent a circular to the Governors and Marshals of
Noblesse all over Russia proper, informing them that the nobles of
the Lithuanian Provinces "had recognised the necessity of
liberating the peasants," and that "this noble intention" had
afforded peculiar satisfaction to his Majesty. A copy of the
rescript and the fundamental principles to be observed accompanied
the circular, "in case the nobles of other provinces should express
a similar desire."

* This celebrated document is known as "The Rescript to Nazimof."
More than once in the course of conversation I did all in my power,
within the limits of politeness and discretion, to extract from
General Nazimof a detailed account of this important episode, but
my efforts were unsuccessful.

This circular produced an immense sensation throughout the country.
No one could for a moment misunderstand the suggestion that the
nobles of other provinces MIGHT POSSIBLY express a desire to
liberate their serfs. Such vague words, when spoken by an
autocrat, have a very definite and unmistakable meaning, which
prudent loyal subjects have no difficulty in understanding. If any
doubted, their doubts were soon dispelled, for the Emperor, a few
weeks later, publicly expressed a hope that, with the help of God
and the co-operation of the nobles, the work would be successfully

The die was cast, and the Government looked anxiously to see the

The periodical Press--which was at once the product and the
fomenter of the liberal aspirations--hailed the raising of the
question with boundless enthusiasm. The Emancipation, it was said,
would certainly open a new and glorious epoch in the national
history. Serfage was described as an ulcer that had long been
poisoning the national blood; as an enormous weight under which the
whole nation groaned; as an insurmountable obstacle, preventing all
material and moral progress; as a cumbrous load which rendered all
free, vigorous action impossible, and prevented Russia from rising
to the level of the Western nations. If Russia had succeeded in
stemming the flood of adverse fortune in spite of this millstone
round her neck, what might she not accomplish when free and
untrammelled? All sections of the literary world had arguments to
offer in support of the foregone conclusion. The moralists
declared that all the prevailing vices were the product of serfage,
and that moral progress was impossible in an atmosphere of slavery;
the lawyers held that the arbitrary authority of the proprietors
over the peasants had no legal basis; the economists explained that
free labour was an indispensable condition of industrial and
commercial prosperity; the philosophical historians showed that the
normal historical development of the country demanded the immediate
abolition of this superannuated remnant of barbarism; and the
writers of the sentimental, gushing type poured forth endless
effusions about brotherly love to the weak and the oppressed. In a
word, the Press was for the moment unanimous, and displayed a
feverish excitement which demanded a liberal use of superlatives.

This enthusiastic tone accorded perfectly with the feelings of a
large section of the nobles. Nearly the whole of the Noblesse was
more or less affected by the newborn enthusiasm for everything
just, humanitarian, and liberal. The aspirations found, of course,
their most ardent representatives among the educated youth; but
they were by no means confined to the younger men, who had passed
through the universities and had always regarded serfage as a stain
on the national honour. Many a Saul was found among the prophets.
Many an old man, with grey hairs and grandchildren, who had all his
life placidly enjoyed the fruits of serf labour, was now heard to
speak of serfage as an antiquated institution which could not be
reconciled with modern humanitarian ideas; and not a few of all
ages, who had formerly never thought of reading books or
newspapers, now perused assiduously the periodical literature, and
picked up the liberal and humanitarian phrases with which it was

This Abolitionist fervour was considerably augmented by certain
political aspirations which did not appear in the newspapers, but
which were at that time very generally entertained. In spite of
the Press-censure a large section of the educated classes had
become acquainted with the political literature of France and
Germany, and had imbibed therefrom an unbounded admiration for
Constitutional government. A Constitution, it was thought, would
necessarily remove all political evils and create something like a
political Millennium. And it was not to be a Constitution of the
ordinary sort--the fruit of compromise between hostile political
parties--but an institution designed calmly according to the latest
results of political science, and so constructed that all classes
would voluntarily contribute to the general welfare. The necessary
prelude to this happy era of political liberty was, of course, the
abolition of serfage. When the nobles had given up their power
over their serfs they would receive a Constitution as an
indemnification and reward.

There were, however, many nobles of the old school who remained
impervious to all these new feelings and ideas. On them the
raising of the Emancipation question had a very different effect.
They had no source of revenue but their estates, and they could not
conceive the possibility of working their estates without serf
labour. If the peasant was indolent and careless even under strict
supervision, what would he become when no longer under the
authority of a master? If the profits from farming were already
small, what would they be when no one would work without wages?
And this was not the worst, for it was quite evident from the
circular that the land question was to be raised, and that a
considerable portion of each estate would be transferred, at least
for a time, to the emancipated peasants.

To the proprietors who looked at the question in this way the
prospect of Emancipation was certainly not at all agreeable, but we
must not imagine that they felt as English land-owners would feel
if threatened by a similar danger. In England a hereditary estate
has for the family a value far beyond what it would bring in the
market. It is regarded as one and indivisible, and any
dismemberment of it would be looked upon as a grave family
misfortune. In Russia, on the contrary, estates have nothing of
this semi-sacred character, and may be at any time dismembered
without outraging family feeling or traditional associations.
Indeed, it is not uncommon that when a proprietor dies, leaving
only one estate and several children, the property is broken up
into fractions and divided among the heirs. Even the prospect of
pecuniary sacrifice did not alarm the Russians so much as it would
alarm Englishmen. Men who keep no accounts and take little thought
for the morrow are much less averse to making pecuniary sacrifices--
whether for a wise or a foolish purpose--than those who carefully
arrange their mode of life according to their income.

Still, after due allowance has been made for these peculiarities,
it must be admitted that the feeling of dissatisfaction and alarm
was very widespread. Even Russians do not like the prospect of
losing a part of their land and income. No protest, however, was
entered, and no opposition was made. Those who were hostile to the
measure were ashamed to show themselves selfish and unpatriotic.
At the same time they knew very well that the Emperor, if he
wished, could effect the Emancipation in spite of them, and that
resistance on their part would draw down upon them the Imperial
displeasure, without affording any compensating advantage. They
knew, too, that there was a danger from below, so that any useless
show of opposition would be like playing with matches in a powder-
magazine. The serfs would soon hear that the Tsar desired to set
them free, and they might, if they suspected that the proprietors
were trying to frustrate the Tsar's benevolent intentions, use
violent measures to get rid of the opposition. The idea of
agrarian massacres had already taken possession of many timid
minds. Besides this, all classes of the proprietors felt that if
the work was to be done, it should be done by the Noblesse and not
by the bureaucracy. If it were effected by the nobles the
interests of the land-owners would be duly considered, but if it
were effected by the Administration without their concurrence and
co-operation their interests would be neglected, and there would
inevitably be an enormous amount of jobbery and corruption. In
accordance with this view, the Noblesse corporations of the various
provinces successively requested permission to form committees for
the consideration of the question, and during the year 1858 a
committee was opened in almost every province in which serfage

In this way the question was apparently handed over for solution to
the nobles, but in reality the Noblesse was called upon merely to
advise, and not to legislate. The Government had not only laid
down the fundamental principles of the scheme; it continually
supervised the work of construction, and it reserved to itself the
right of modifying or rejecting the projects proposed by the

According to these fundamental principles the serfs should be
emancipated gradually, so that for some time they would remain
attached to the glebe and subject to the authority of the
proprietors. During this transition period they should redeem by
money payments or labour their houses and gardens, and enjoy in
usufruct a certain quantity of land, sufficient to enable them to
support themselves and to fulfil their obligations to the State as
well as to the proprietor. In return for this land they should pay
a yearly rent in money, produce or labour over and above the yearly
sum paid for the redemption of their houses and gardens. As to
what should be done after the expiry of the transition period, the
Government seems to have had no clearly conceived intentions.
Probably it hoped that by that time the proprietors and their
emancipated serfs would have invented some convenient modus
vivendi, and that nothing but a little legislative regulation would
be necessary. But radical legislation is like the letting-out of
water. These fundamental principles, adopted at first with a view
to mere immediate practical necessity, soon acquired a very
different significance. To understand this we must return to the
periodical literature.

Until the serf question came to be discussed, the reform
aspirations were very vague, and consequently there was a
remarkable unanimity among their representatives. The great
majority of the educated classes were unanimously of opinion that
Russia should at once adopt from the West all those liberal
principles and institutions the exclusion of which had prevented
the country from rising to the level of the Western nations. But
very soon symptoms of a schism became apparent. Whilst the
literature in general was still preaching the doctrine that Russia
should adopt everything that was "liberal," a few voices began to
be heard warning the unwary that much which bore the name of
liberal was in reality already antiquated and worthless--that
Russia ought not to follow blindly in the footsteps of other
nations, but ought rather to profit by their experience, and avoid
the errors into which they had fallen. The chief of these errors
was, according to these new teachers, the abnormal development of
individualism--the adoption of that principle of laissez faire
which forms the basis of what may be called the Orthodox School of
Political Economists. Individualism and unrestricted competition,
it was said, have now reached in the West an abnormal and monstrous
development. Supported by the laissez faire principle, they have
led--and must always lead--to the oppression of the weak, the
tyranny of capital, the impoverishment of the masses for the
benefit of the few, and the formation of a hungry, dangerous
Proletariat! This has already been recognised by the most advanced
thinkers of France and Germany. If the older countries cannot at
once cure those evils, that is no reason for Russia to inoculate
herself with them. She is still at the commencement of her career,
and it would be folly for her to wander voluntarily for ages in the
Desert, when a direct route to the Promised Land has been already

In order to convey some idea of the influence which this teaching
exercised, I must here recall, at the risk of repeating myself,
what I said in a former chapter. The Russians, as I have there
pointed out, have a peculiar way of treating political and social
questions. Having received their political education from books,
they naturally attribute to theoretical considerations an
importance which seems to us exaggerated. When any important or
trivial question arises, they at once launch into a sea of
philosophical principles, and pay less attention to the little
objects close at hand than to the big ones that appear on the
distant horizon of the future. And when they set to work at any
political reform they begin ab ovo. As they have no traditional
prejudices to fetter them, and no traditional principles to lead
them, they naturally take for their guidance the latest conclusions
of political philosophy.

Bearing this in mind, let us see how it affected the Emancipation
question. The Proletariat--described as a dangerous monster which
was about to swallow up society in Western Europe, and which might
at any moment cross the frontier unless kept out by vigorous
measures--took possession of the popular imagination, and aroused
the fears of the reading public. To many it seemed that the best
means of preventing the formation of a Proletariat in Russia was
the securing of land for the emancipated serfs and the careful
preservation of the rural Commune. "Now is the moment," it was
said, "for deciding the important question whether Russia is to
fall a prey, like the Western nations, to this terrible evil, or
whether she is to protect herself for ever against it. In the
decision of this question lies the future destiny of the country.
If the peasants be emancipated without land, or if those Communal
institutions which give to every man a share of the soil and secure
this inestimable boon for the generations still unborn be now
abolished, a Proletariat will be rapidly formed, and the peasantry
will become a disorganised mass of homeless wanderers like the
English agricultural labourers. If, on the contrary, a fair share
of land be granted to them, and if the Commune be made proprietor
of the land ceded, the danger of a Proletariat is for ever removed,
and Russia will thereby set an example to the civilised world!
Never has a nation had such an opportunity of making an enormous
leap forward on the road of progress, and never again will the
opportunity occur. The Western nations have discovered their error
when it is too late--when the peasantry have been already deprived
of their land, and the labouring classes of the towns have already
fallen a prey to the insatiable cupidity of the capitalists. In
vain their most eminent thinkers warn and exhort. Ordinary
remedies are no longer of any avail. But Russia may avoid these
dangers, if she but act wisely and prudently in this great matter.
The peasants are still in actual, if not legal, possession of the
land, and there is as yet no Proletariat in the towns. All that is
necessary, therefore, is to abolish the arbitrary authority of the
proprietors without expropriating the peasants, and without
disturbing the existing Communal institutions, which form the best
barrier against pauperism."

These ideas were warmly espoused by many proprietors, and exercised
a very great influence on the deliberations of the Provincial
Committees. In these committees there were generally two groups.
The majorities, whilst making large concessions to the claims of
justice and expediency, endeavoured to defend, as far as possible,
the interests of their class; the minorities, though by no means
indifferent to the interests of the class to which they belonged,
allowed the more abstract theoretical considerations to be
predominant. At first the majorities did all in their power to
evade the fundamental principles laid down by the Government as
much too favourable to the peasantry; but when they perceived that
public opinion, as represented by the Press, went much further than
the Government, they clung to these fundamental principles--which
secured at least the fee simple of the estate to the landlord--as
their anchor of safety. Between the two parties arose naturally a
strong spirit of hostility, and the Government, which wished to
have the support of the minorities, found it advisable that both
should present their projects for consideration.

As the Provincial Committees worked independently, there was
considerable diversity in the conclusions at which they arrived.
The task of codifying these conclusions, and elaborating out of
them a general scheme of Emancipation, was entrusted to a special
Imperial Commission, composed partly of officials and partly of
landed proprietors named by the Emperor.* Those who believed that
the question had really been handed over to the Noblesse assumed
that this Commission would merely arrange the materials presented
by the Provincial Committees, and that the Emancipation Law would
thereafter be elaborated by a National Assembly of deputies elected
by the nobles. In reality the Commission, working in St.
Petersburg under the direct guidance and control of the Government,
fulfilled a very different and much more important function. Using
the combined projects merely as a storehouse from which it could
draw the proposals it desired, it formed a new project of its own,
which ultimately received, after undergoing modification in detail,
the Imperial assent. Instead of being a mere chancellerie, as many
expected, it became in a certain sense the author of the
Emancipation Law.

* Known as the Redaktsionnaya Komissiya, or Elaboration Commission.
Strictly speaking, there were two, but they are commonly spoken of
as one.

There was, as we have seen, in nearly all the Provincial Committees
a majority and a minority, the former of which strove to defend the
interests of the proprietors, whilst the latter paid more attention
to theoretical considerations, and endeavoured to secure for the
peasantry a large amount of land and Communal self-government. In
the Commission there were the same two parties, but their relative
strength was very different. Here the men of theory, instead of
forming a minority, were more numerous than their opponents, and
enjoyed the support of the Government, which regulated the
proceedings. In its instructions we see how much the question had
ripened under the influence of the theoretical considerations.
There is no longer any trace of the idea that the Emancipation
should be gradual; on the contrary, it is expressly declared that
the immediate effect of the law should be the complete abolition of
the proprietor's authority. There is even evidence of a clear
intention of preventing the proprietor as far as possible from
exercising any influence over his former serfs. The sharp
distinction between the land occupied by the village and the arable
land to be ceded in usufruct likewise disappears, and it is merely
said that efforts should be made to enable the peasants to become
proprietors of the land they required.

The aim of the Government had thus become clear and well defined.
The task to be performed was to transform the serfs at once, and
with the least possible disturbance of the existing economic
conditions, into a class of small Communal proprietors--that is to
say, a class of free peasants possessing a house and garden and a
share of the Communal land. To effect this it was merely necessary
to declare the serf personally free, to draw a clear line of
demarcation between the Communal land and the rest of the estate,
and to determine the price or rent which should be paid for this
Communal property, inclusive of the land on which the village was

The law was prepared in strict accordance with these principles.
As to the amount of land to be ceded, it was decided that the
existing arrangements, founded on experience, should, as a general
rule, be preserved--in other words, the land actually enjoyed by
the peasants should be retained by them; and in order to prevent
extreme cases of injustice, a maximum and a minimum were fixed for
each district. In like manner, as to the dues, it was decided that
the existing arrangements should be taken as the basis of the
calculation, but that the sum should be modified according to the
amount of land ceded. At the same time facilities were to be given
for the transforming of the labour dues into yearly money payments,
and for enabling the peasants to redeem them, with the assistance
of the Government, in the form of credit.

This idea of redemption created, at first, a feeling of alarm among
the proprietors. It was bad enough to be obliged to cede a large
part of the estates in usufruct, but it seemed to be much worse to
have to sell it. Redemption appeared to be a species of wholesale
confiscation. But very soon it became evident that the redeeming
of the land was profitable for both parties. Cession in perpetual
usufruct was felt to be in reality tantamount to alienation of the
land, whilst the immediate redemption would enable the proprietors,
who had generally little or no ready money to pay their debts, to
clear their estates from mortgages, and to make the outlays
necessary for the transition to free labour. The majority of the
proprietors, therefore, said openly: "Let the Government give us a
suitable compensation in money for the land that is taken from us,
so that we may be at once freed from all further trouble and

When it became known that the Commission was not merely arranging
and codifying the materials, but elaborating a law of its own and
regularly submitting its decisions for Imperial confirmation, a
feeling of dissatisfaction appeared all over the country. The
nobles perceived that the question was being taken out of their
hands, and was being solved by a small body composed of bureaucrats
and nominees of the Government. After having made a voluntary
sacrifice of their rights, they were being unceremoniously pushed
aside. They had still, however, the means of correcting this. The
Emperor had publicly promised that before the project should become
law deputies from the Provincial Committees should be summoned to
St. Petersburg to make objections and propose amendments.

The Commission and the Government would have willingly dispensed
with all further advice from the nobles, but it was necessary to
redeem the Imperial promise. Deputies were therefore summoned to
the capital, but they were not allowed to form, as they hoped, a
public assembly for the discussion of the question. All their
efforts to hold meetings were frustrated, and they were required
merely to answer in writing a list of printed questions regarding
matters of detail. The fundamental principles, they were told, had
already received the Imperial sanction, and were consequently


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