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The Russian nobility was mostly impoverished, with a few very rich families. It lacked strong corporate spirit and could not prevent the government from implementing hostile policies like the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. The peasant emancipation accelerated the process of the economic decline of the nobility as it deprived them of the basic privilege of serf ownership and a guaranteed income gained through the exploitation of serf labor. Many nobles found it hard to adapt and to learn businesslike habits of mind. Some preferred to sell more of their land than to economize. By 1911 nobles owned only half of the land that was theirs in 1862.  

 
Peasants. By Z. Serebiakova

The overwhelming majority of the Russian population were peasants. They were held in the condition of economic slavery by means of coercion, arbitrary punishment, and sheer brutality. There were two main groups of peasants—landlords’ serfs and state peasants. The bigger group was landlords’ serfs: they belonged to individual members of the nobility and lived on private estates. The remainder, state peasants, belonged to the government, but their existence was not far removed from the strict condition of serfdom. The serfs did not have legally recognized personal rights. They were a medieval and strongly anticapitalist element surviving into the modern era.

The peasant emancipation of 1861 gave Russian peasants their personal freedom. But the peasants were still kept socially segregated from the rest of the population: they were subject to corporal punishment, military conscription, payment of the poll tax, and certain other obligations from which other social classes were exempt. Most importantly, the land that they received at emancipation was granted not on an individual but on a collective basis—to the village commune. The commune had extensive powers over its members: taxes were communally collected and paid; the land was periodically redivided among the members in the commune; no peasant was free to leave the commune without the permission of the village elders. In other words, although the peasants had been freed from their bondage to the serf owner’s, they remained in bondage to the commune.

The retention of the commune was arguably the chief stumbling block that hindered the modernization of the agrarian sector and prevented capitalist development in rural areas. The practice of periodical equalization of landholdings between peasant households made it difficult for successful peasants to accumulate land and become small entrepreneurial farmers. The agrarian sector of the Russian economy more or less stagnated for the next forty years following the emancipation.

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