Illustrated Description Of Russia

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The crown or free peasants, whatever maybe the nature of their tenure, have no other special master than the sovereign or the government, and never can have another. Once the czars granted to individuals vast territories of lands, with crown peasants or serfs on them. This is the origin of many great fortunes in Russia, consisting in large estates, and hundreds of thousands of souls, as that of Scheremeteff, Naryschkin, the Orloffs, and the Branickis, the last of which rose out of the ruins of ancient Poland. Peter the Great rewarded real services, as in the case of Scheremeteff; Catherine II. was verylavish to her favorites of every kind, and she thus laid the foundations of numerous large fortunes still existing in Russia; and Paul was most indiscriminate in bestowing his favors.

For the glory of Alexander it must be recorded that in his youth, when under the influence of a generous and humane inspiration, he published a ukase by which it was henceforth and for ever prohibited to any sovereign to make donations of crown-peasants to any private individual whatever, or to sell them, or render them liable to any statute for husbandry servitude. The emperor Nicholas has thus far religiously maintained this ukase. Even in Poland, since the revolution of 1831, the emperor, in dividing the numerous estates of the crown, called starostwa, among the Russian generals and others of his servants, by a special clause in every grant directed that the statute labor existing until that time should ultimately become extinguished, and the peasant on such lands become the free and independent owner of a suitable homestead. It must be mentioned here that, in the actual kingdom of Poland, slavery was abolished by the late king of Prussia in the year 1800, when this part of Poland formed one of the Prussian provinces. This was confirmed by the code of Napoleon, introduced after the treaty of Tilsit in 1807, and is still maintained. But neither of these governments secured for the peasantry any homestead on crown or private lands.

Russian Peasant and his Family.

Russian Peasant and his Family.
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The free peasantry in Russia enjoy some rights and privileges, rendering their position by far more supportable than that of the private serfs. It has been already shown that a free peasant can freely engage in any mercantile, manufacturing, mechanical, or other industrial pursuit, and establish his domicil in any city of the empire, if he possesses a permission of his commune, which permission can no wise be refused as long as the individual pays the obrok and the taxes in the commune to which he belongs, and fulfils through any hand all other communal duties. Provided with such a permission or certificate, the movements and actions of a peasant are perfectly free. He can make proposals for all kinds of public jobs contracted with the government. In such cases, other contractors are obliged to give securities; but a crown-peasant presents only the authorization of his commune. He can enter into the class of burghers by abandoning his commune with its consent, passing thus into what is considered a higher social corporation.

The chains of serfdom do not hang on him; but if he has no special master, he, like the burgher, has still to deal with rapacious officials. What is true of the one is still and even more largely to be applied to the other. Entering the superior corporation, the peasant can meliorate his position; but this melioration is very limited. All openings for education are absolutely shut before him; all that he can learn is to read and write wretchedly. If there are exceptions, they are very rare, and, so to speak, rather the work of a miracle.

Free agriculturists (wolnye chlebopaschtsy) are principally manumitted serfs, with soil or without; and, in this last case, they can buy land from anybody. The manumissions with soil must be made by the owner during his lifetime, and not by will. If they are numerous enough, they form rural communes on the general principle; if not, they are incorporated in the existent ones. They can sell and buy lands, and divide them among their children, but in lots not under sixteen acres. They can contract for public jobs (podriad), enter guilds, erect manufactories, carry on trade, and enjoy all the privileges of free peasantry. There are still some few other kinds,of privileged peasantry, but their number is small and wholly insignificant.

As previously remarked, about one half of the Russian peasantry are serfs or bondsmen, attached to the soil (glebe adscripti), rather than to the person of the nobleman, and thus they are at least not chattels. The power of the master is not wholly arbitrary and unlimited; but the servitude is reduced to a certain method, regulated as follows by the civil law:

By usage, the serfs are of two kinds — agriculturists and house-serfs— but the law does not recognise these distinctions. A ukase, published by Catherine II. in 1781, prohibited, for the future, the enslaving of the peasantry. The ownership of a serf or serfs is proved by the census. The first census was made by Peter the Great in 1714; the next in 1744. In the present century the census is made every ten years. In the government of Bessarabia, neither Russian nor Moldavian nobility can own serfs from among the Russian peasantry, and other races can not be enslaved. This law was published to prevent the introduction of serfdom in a newly conquered and annexed territory. It is a kind of " Wilmot proviso." The children of a male serf remain in the condition of the father, even if the mother belongs to a better class.

If any nobleman sends, for punishment, his serf to Siberia, and the serf receives there lands from the crown as a colonist, his children, the males under seven years of age and the girls under ten, follow the father to the new condition. Colonized exiles in Siberia form successively communities of free peasantry.

A woman from a free class, marrying a serf, becomes free again as a widow; a woman from bondage, marrying a free peasant, becomes likewise free. When the husband becomes free by law or by manumission, or by contract, his wife shares his freedom ipso facto, but not the children; they must be emancipated by a special act.

If a master demands from his serfs anything contrary to law, as revolt, murder, or stealing, and they accomplish it, they are punished as his accomplices. The serfs pay the expenses of the administration in each district. This is the only direct tax levied on the property of the nobility. In criminal matters, the serfs are judged by common criminal tribunals, before whom they likewise can appear in the character of accusers and witnesses. The law makes it obligatory on the serf to resist any attack made on the property of the master, as well as upon the honor of his wife and daughter. The owner can not force his serfs to marry against their will, or point out whom they shall marry; this provision of the law is very generally evaded. If a serf makes an unjust complaint against his master, or if he dares to present such a petition to the emperor, the petitioner and the writer of the petition are both most severely punished.

In case of insubordination, disobedience to the master or the overseer, the serfs are punished by a military commission, and pay the expenses thereof. All civil or police and military functionaries are prohibited to receive any denunciation made by the serf against his master, with the exception of a conspiracy against the person of the sovereign; or when the master tries to make a misstatement as to the census; or when, if a Roman catholic, he tries to convert his orthodox serfs.

A serf can not change his master, leave him, or enter any corporation. For all these the consent of the owner is necessary. Without such a consent, serfs can not be received as volunteers into the army. Runaway serfs are returned to the owners at the cost of those who had kept or secreted them. After ten years, a master forfeits the right to claim a runaway. Such claims, supported by proofs, must be made during the first year after the escape, if the master is in Russia, and in the course of two years if the master is abroad. If a servant is killed by accident, his owner receives from the culprit the sum of three hundred and thirty dollars; but if it is a murder, then the murderer suffers the same as if the crime was committed on any one else. In such a case, the owner of the murdered man does not receive any compensation.

A serf, who is not a house-servant, must work for his master three days a week. He can not be forced to do any work on Sundays or any other church and parish holydays, or on the day of the patron-saints of the reigning sovereigns. The master can, at his pleasure, transform the house-serf (dworowoi) into a soil-tiller, and vice versa. He can hire his serfs to mechanics, manufacturers, and to any other labor whatever. He is the supreme judge in all civil contests between his serfs. He can punish them corporeally, but not cripple them, or put life in jeopardy. He can require the assistance of the government for the coercion of his serfs. In case of a criminal offence, the master must abstain from any punishment, but deliver the offender to the law. He can send serfs to Siberia or to any other penitentiary establishment.

No serf can live in any city, or serve any person whatever, without the consent of the master, .and the authorities are to see that this provision be not transgressed—and are severely responsible. The master gives to the serf a passport, and, furnished with this, he can move freely in the whole empire. The master has the power to transfer the serfs individually or by whole communities from one village, district, or circle, into another. Any nobleman owning serfs of any kind must have for every one at least twenty acres of land. Only a nobleman can receive a power of attorney for the buying or selling of serfs. The master can not hire his serfs to individuals whom the law prohibits to own serfs, nor let them learn any profession anywhere else than from masters inscribed in a guild. Serfs, either servants or agriculturists, held by those who have no right to own them, become free; that is, they become incorporated into the free crown-peasantry, and the unlawful owners pay a fine into the treasury.

Families can not be separated by sale. The family consists of the parents and the unmarried children, even if of age. The children form a family after the death of the parents. Serfs can not be brought to market, but are to be sold only together with the estate. If sold separately, the crown takes them as its peasants, and the transgressors of the law are fined. Serfs acquiring their liberty in such a way can make the choice of a mode of life, and of a corporation into which they will become inscribed.

In cases of scarcity or famine, the owner can not send away his serfs, but is obliged to take care of them. He is likewise obliged to take care of the aged and the invalids.

If there be any abuse of power by the master, any cruelty or rape, the law takes from the owner the administration of the estate, and puts it in the hands of guardians, or of a board selected for this purpose in each district from among the nobility. Such masters can not acquire new estates by purchase, and in aggravated cases can be given up to the criminal courts. For this the special decision of the sovereign is required. Likewise the owners can not live on the estates whose administration is thus taken out of their hands. The villages or estates are responsible for governmental taxes. If a serf has a lawsuit, his master must prosecute it; and the master is answerable for the results whenever the serf has had his permission to enter into a civil liability. In criminal matters concerning a serf, the interference of the master is optional.

Serfs can not be sold separate from the soil, or at any public auction in execution of the debts of the master. If one or more serfs sue, on legal grounds, their master for emancipation, having been brought into serfdom contrary to the provisions of the law—while the legal proceedings are pending, the master can not inflict on them any corporeal punishment under the penalty of a criminal prosecution; nor can he mortgage or let them out by lease; and if the first court decide in their favor, and the affair goes to the court of appeal, the master can not give them to the military service pending the final decision.

Serfs carrying on a legal trade, with the consent of the master, can not be given up by him as recruits, or for the colonization of Siberia. Serfs can not own immoveable property; all houses and lands possessed by them are the property of the master. Should a serf inherit such property, it must be sold, and the money handed over to him. Serfs erecting shops and manufactories, must have a special permission of the master, likewise for entering the guild of artisans, and for selling the produce of their industry in cities and markets. For taking public jobs (podriad), or keeping post-horses on public roads, they must have the consent and the guaranty of the master.

The serf can lend out money on legal terms, but not take mortgages on land in villages or estates. Only with the consent of the master can they buy on credit goods for traffic—otherwise they can not be prosecuted, and any bargain or stipulation is void by itself.

The master has the right to manumit his serfs individually, or by whole hamlets and villages, with or without giving them lands. A permission given by the master to his serf to marry a girl who is a pupil and educated in a public establishment for the children of burghers, is equivalent to manumission. A manumitted serf can not be brought again into serfdom. A serf can obtain his liberty by a legal juridical decision: 1. If he proves an antecedent right to liberty. 2. If his master does not belong to any Christian confession. 3. If the master has made a forcible attack on the virtue of his wife or daughter, or committed any other impropriety. 4. If the serf was made a prisoner by the enemy and carried beyond the frontiers of the empire — on returning, he does not return into serfdom. 5. If by the master he is given up to the disposition of the government. The serf obtains his liberty if he proves against his master the crime of treason, or a conspiracy against the life of the sovereign. A serf condemned legally to exile to Siberia ceases to be owned by the master; his wife, following him into exile, becomes free. A serf also becomes free if sold without lands, or if the buyer does not possess the quantity of land required by law, or if his family is separated from him by sale.

These are the principal features of the legal organization of serfdom. As before remarked, part of the serfs are agriculturists, called pachatnaia duscha; the others house-serfs, or dworowaia. The agricultural serfs are settled in hamlets and villages, till their own soil and that of the manor-farm, fulfilling there all the labors of husbandry. In more populous villages, and above all in large estates, they are organized in communes on nearly the same principles as are the free peasants. But such an organization depends absolutely upon the will of the owner. It is mostly the case, where the arable land is not extensive enough, or for some other reason is wholly abandoned to the peasants, and they pay for its use to the landlord a redevance or obrok, and in such case they are called obrotschnye duschy (renting souls) ; or the master receives from his farm-lands a certain quantity of the produce of the soil: but all such arrangements depend absolutely upon the master.

The house-serfs live on the manor and its immediate dependencies: they are often very numerous, and thus a heavy burden to the owner, sometimes even his ruin. They generally refuse to be settled as agriculturists, looking upon it as altogether below their condition. They constitute the male and female servants of the household, stewards, private overseers, household artisans, mechanics, and workmen—sometimes even personal attorneys when by choice or whim the master has given to such one a suitable education. Generally the master takes care to make the males.learn some handicraft; and when they are able to earn their living, he gives them a permission or passport, and they go over the country in search of suitable employment. They, as well as all other serfs who are furnished with such a passport, can be called home by the master at any time. These wandering serfs are obliged to report to him their whereabouts; and they pay him a rent proportioned to their earnings, or the cost of their education. Others establish themselves as tradesmen, &c. The serfs compose, to a great extent, the floating population of cities. In the largest of them, as St. Petersburg, Moscow, Nijnei-Novgorod, &c., serfs can be found who are wealthy tradesmen. The obrok paid by them to their owner is generally the customary one, and at a rate not at all proportioned to their fortune. But they are completely dependent on the will of the master, who can recall and transplant them to any of his villages and hamlets. There are cases where masters are comparatively, nay, even positively poorer than their serfs, and still refuse to sell them their liberty, even for a large sum. Such a refusal is generally the result of an inveterate pride, and of a repulsive feeling concerning emancipation.

To a certain degree, the law watches, in a more or less tutelary manner, over the fate of the serfs. Its provisions have been enumerated. But abuse, or evasion of the law, can not be prevented. Its handling, its execution, as well as the framing of public opinion, is in the hands of the nobility. Only very tyrannical abuses of power come to daylight. They are corrected either by the law, or by the interference of the sovereign, or, in the last and supreme appeal, by the sufferers themselves. The owners of large estates do not live on them, and sometimes do not visit many of them at all. The task of ruling the serfs is given up totally to overseers, who are generally severe enough, whatever may be their nationality, German or native. The small nobility commonly want more than their fortune yields, and, to get it, squeeze as much as possible the laboring serf; and, without being inhuman, they will not sacrifice their own well-being to that of the peasantry.

In large estates—the prescriptions of the law to the contrary notwithstanding—the marriages.of the serfs are always made with the interference of the master or the overseer, but on such estates the choice of the serf is generally regarded. As the wife follows the husband, a maiden is seldom taken from a neighboring estate, except where the bridegroom is rich enough to buy his bride. In smaller estates, where the choice is more limited, generally after the field-labors are over, in the fall season, the master calls the families together and inquires about their mutual inclinations, pays attention to them, and endeavors to arrange things by mutual agreement; but when all is of no avail, then he decides arbitrarily—points out the pairs, and then the ceremony is fulfilled by the parish-priest.

Previously to the reign of Peter the Great, it was customary for the Russians, of all ranks, to marry their children very early, even before the age of puberty. Though restrained by Peter and Catherine II., this custom of early marriage still prevails, and is said to be fraught with many pernicious consequences. A ukase, issued in 1801, prohibits priests from solemnizing marriages unless the man be eighteen and the woman sixteen years old.

The Russian peasants generally are of a sound constitution, stout and firmly built, and mostly of a middle stature. They live in cottages, formed of logs piled upon each other, and built singly or together in villages, the gables to the road. Sometimes they consist of two stories, but more frequently only of one. They are heated with stoves, and, though dirty, are not uncomfortable nor ill suited to the climate. Their furniture consists generally of wooden articles, and a pan or two. Beds are little used, the family generally sleeping on the ground, on benches, or on the stove.

Russian Peasants building a Cottage.

Russian Peasants building a Cottage.
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The dress of the peasant consists of a long, coarse drugget coat, fastened by a belt round the waist, but in winter they wear a sheepskin with the woolly side inward. Their trousers are of coarse linen ; instead of stockings (when not barefoot), woollen cloth is wrapped round the legs, and shoes of matted linden-bark are frequently substituted for those of leather. The neck, even in winter, is bare (a fact which, according to a French traveller, is a decisive criterion by which to distinguish the genuine Russian), and the head is covered by a peaked round hat or cap.

The Russian peasant considers himself well fed if he have rye-bread, which is the staple article of food throughout the empire, and sour-cabbage soup, with a lump of fat, or hog's lard, boiled in it, by way of relish. He uses butchers' meat on holydays, and at other times eggs, salt fish, bacon, lard, and mushrooms, which, at the proper season, are extremely abundant, onions, &c. His favorite dish is a hodge-podge of salt or fresh meat, groats, and rye-flour, highly seasoned with onions and garlic. Salted cucumbers are a constant dish at the peasant's table all the year round. These and salted cabbages form an important article of national commerce. They are brought in large vats from the southern provinces, where the climate favors their production, to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large towns, and here they are constantly on sale in the public markets; the preparation, in autumn, of a sufficient supply of these pickled vegetables forming, in every family, an important part of domestic economy. This dependence of the Russian peasant on vegetable diet is, no doubt, a consequence of the extraordinary number of fasts and fast-days, of which he is a careful observer, and which are multiplied to such an absurd extreme, that it is said there are only from sixty to seventy days in the year on which it is permitted to use butchers' meat! Quas, a fermented liquor, made by pouring boiling water on rye or barley meal, is the common beverage of the peasant. But he is also very fond of mead, and still more so of brandy distilled from grain, and other spirituous liquors. The consump' tion of the latter is immense, amounting to about one hundred millions of gallons a year, and furnishing annually, as before remarked, a large revenue to the government. The use of tea, however, is becoming more and more extended. A substitute for it, called izbitzen, consisting of herbs, honey, &c., boiled together, is also extensively used by the peasantry.

The peasants are exceedingly superstitious. A vessel of " holy water" hangs from the ceiling of every room, and a lamp lighted on particular occasions. Every house is provided with a sacred corner, supplied with one or more pictures of their tutelary saints, coarsely daubed on wood, frequently resembling rather a Calmuck idol than a human head; but some times they are of a better quality, and neatly framed. To these they pay the highest marks of veneration. All the members of the family, the moment they rise in the morning, and before they retire to sleep in the evening, never omit their adoration to the saints : they cross themselves during several minutes, upon the sides and forehead, bow very low, and sometimes even prostrate themselves on the ground. Every person, also, on entering the room, pays his obeisance to these objects before addressing the family.

The Russian peasantry have the vices incident to their situation. With a great capacity of endurance, and the most extraordinary talent for instruction, they have but little active vigor or steadiness of purpose. In accosting a person of consequence, or from whom they expect any favor or advantage, they prostrate themselves, touch the ground with their hands, and kiss the fringe of his garments ! Their insecure position makes them anxious to enjoy the present moment; and their masters being obliged to provide for their support when they are old and infirm, they have little motive to providence or forethought. When they accumulate money, they most frequently bury it in the ground—a practice common to all countries where property is comparatively insecure.

The use of the vapor-bath is universal in Russia, not being reckoned a luxury but a necessary; and public baths are met with in all parts of the country. They are resorted to by the peasantry, at least, once a week. In St. Petersburg, the baths for the lower orders, which are in the suburbs, are very numerous, and the happiest account of them is that given by Kohl, the most accurate and the best descriptive writer upon Russian life. He thus remarks: "On Saturday evening an unusual movement may be seen among the lower classes in the capital. Companies of poor soldiers who have got a temporary furlough, troops of mechanics and laborers, whole families of men, women, and children, are seen eagerly traversing the streets, with towels under their arms, and birch-twigs in their hands. . . . They are going to the public baths, to forget, in the enjoyment of its vapors, the sufferings of the past week; to make supple the limbs stiffened with past toil, and invigorate them for that which is to come. Before the door, the words ' Entrance to the baths,' in large letters, attract the eye, and invite the body to enter. Within the doorway, so narrow that only one at a time can work his way in, sits the money-taker, who exchanges the ticket for the bath for a few copecks, and has generally a whole sackful of large copper coins by his side. Near him are a couple of women, selling 'schnaps and kalatshi;' while the people are thronging in and out as at a theatre. We first enter an open space, in which a number of men are sitting in a state of nudity on benches, all dripping with water and perspiration, and as red as lobsters, breathing deep, sighing, puffing, and gossiping, and busily employed in drying and dressing themselves. These have already bathed, and now, in a glow of pleasurable excitement, are puffing and blowing like tritons in the sea. Even in the winter I have seen these people drying and dressing in the open air, or, at most, in a sort of booth forming an outhouse to the baths. Round it are the doors leading to the bathing-rooms, large wooden apartments, in which a heat of forty to fifty degrees of Reaumur [one hundred and twenty-two to one one hundred and forty-five of Fahrenheit] is maintained. A thick cloud of vapor conceals at first what is going on within; for nothing is at first visible but the feeble glimmer of the lamps breaking through a thick atmosphere, and the flame of the heated ovens. To remain here clothed is evidently impossible ; neither would it be advisable for a well-dressed person to risk an appearance here as a mere spectator. I entered, therefore, in a state of nature, in which we are as much alike as one egg is like another. In any other costume the naked people would infallibly have ejected me speedily. Under this disguise I pursued my observations unmolested, the bath being by no means my object."

There are three platforms, one above another, in these baths, and in the form of an amphitheatre, similar to those in the concamerata sudatio of the Roman baths, as shown in the paintings found in the baths of Titus. These steps are of different degrees of heat, and on them the bathers lie generally on their backs or stomachs, while the attendants are employed in scourging them with birchen rods steeped in cold water; and here and there may be seen a papa holding his little boy between his knees, diligently occupied in improving the circulation of his rear; others stand near the glowing stoves, as if to increase the perspiration, which already runs at every pore; and others, again, descending from the upper platforms, have iced water poured over them by pailfuls.

In the provinces, the baths are very indifferently, not to say badly conducted : there is no hot linen, and the temperature of them is very irregularly kept up by throwing cold water on large stones heated in an oven. At St. Petersburg they make use of cannon-shot. Excessive use of the bath injures the complexions of the Russian women; and it is said some ladies become so habituated to the leafy branches of the birch, that, by way of exciting a skin thickened by years of flagellation, they make their attendants flog them with bunches of nettles!

Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855