Russia's "Peculiar Institution"
The Revolutionary Masses
end of Catherine’s reign Russia had a population of 36 million,
the largest of any state in Europe. It had increased threefold
in the seventy years since the death of Peter the Great, partly
through territorial acquisition but in the main by natural
increase. Of these 36 million, it is estimated that 34 million
were peasants. There were two main groups of peasants -
landlords’ serfs and state peasants. Landlords’ serfs who
belonged to individual members of the nobility and lived on
private estates were the bigger group - nearly 20 million; the
remainder, state peasants, belonged to the government, but their
existence was not far removed from the strict condition of
Agricultural methods almost everywhere were still primitive. Though the
land belonged, in law, to landlords or the state, peasants usually
controlled the way in which it was farmed.
open fields were divided among the peasant households in the village
in the traditional pattern of long, narrow strips, scattered
throughout the village’s arable land, and each household received
strips from different parts of the arable land. In this way the
village commune ensured that each household had a fair share of good
and bad land. The strips were tilled with the use of a light, wooden
plough (sokha) which only scratched the surface of the soil.
On the majority of estates the serfs might number anything from a
hundred to a thousand. But the age was noted for scores of
fabulously rich serf-owners, who possessed tens and even hundreds
of thousands of serfs.
were of two types: in rent (obrok) and labor dues (barshchina).
Obrok commonly consisted of both cash and kind and was the
rule in the less fertile areas of the north, while barshchina
was the norm in the black-earth areas and was most often fixed at
three days in the week. But it was here, where soils were fertile
and farming was profitable, that the landowners had grown most
exacting. Many of them required their serfs to labor on the demesne
lands set aside for the landlord’s own use as much as six days in
the week, leaving the peasant with just one day in the week to look
after his own strips of land that sustained his family.
to the feudal dues in the form of obrok and barshchina,
peasants had to pay state taxes. The main direct monetary tax was
the poll tax, introduced by Peter the Great and levied on all males
from the ‘tax-paying’ classes. Compulsory army recruitment was
another type of direct taxation levied not on property but on human
beings. Army recruits from peasantry had to serve for life (in 1793
their service was reduced to twenty-five years). The death rate in
the army (mainly from disease) was high and few soldiers lived long
enough to return to civilian life.