Russian Peasant


Nineteenth-century moral opinion condemned serfdom. Russian government commissions wrestled over how to implement the tsar’s desire to emancipate the peasants. Finally, in February 1861, against much opposition from the nobility and the landlords, Alexander II promulgated the long statute ending serfdom. The actual emancipation statue proved to be a disappointment because freedom was not accompanied by land. They had to pay the landlords over a period of forty-nine years for allotments of land that were frequently too small to support them.


The system had many holes in it. In 1891, there were a series of famines that made peasant life even harder. By 1900, the pleas for help by the peasants to the tsar had become much more desperate. The systems problems could be seen from the very beginning. Even though the serfs were given land, they were not the ones choosing the land that they would receive. A petition from peasants to Tsar Alexander II made in 1863 states that the serf owners chose the best land for themselves, leaving the poor peasant the worst lands. The petition asked that the tsar order the meadows and haylands be left to their community without restriction to enable them to feed their livestock, which was essential to their existence. The serf owners were outraged by the loss of their workers, so they sought revenge and benefited themselves by taking all the arable land. Conditions worsened as time progressed. Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, writes of the conditions for the peasants in 1885. One-third of the Russian peasant population was dying of diphtheria, typhus, and hunger as the grain they harvested was being sold abroad. Land is being taken from the peasants in order to raise cattle to feed the nobility. In addition, land taken by the nobility and former serf owners was being neglected rather than being restored and given to the peasants who desperately needed it for survival. These corrupt events occurred because of the inadequate reform of local government. The nobility were permitted a larger role in local administration through a system of provincial and county zemstvos, or councils, organized in 1864. The year 1891 started the first of a series of famines that would greatly wound the Russian peasants. A Russian government report in 1891 describes the devastation. There was a complete absence of any kinds of reserves or surplus for sale. It reported that the peasant economy had come to a full collapse from which it would not recover in several years even with good harvests. This devastation was the lack of foresight from the nobility. The nobility sold off the surplus and reserves for money to other countries. By 1906, the famine had completely destroyed the peasantry. Sakhno, a peasant representative was sent to Duma to petition. His plea asks why peasants must die from hunger while the landlords own most of the arable land. To make matters worse, the monarchy, he said, was siding with the landlords. He believed that his basic human needs forced him to demand want he wanted from Duma.


Social disorder and rebellions were frequent after the emancipation. During serfdom, a serf village was united by the awareness of common misfortunes, for all were bound to obey the landlord. The Russian Ministry of the Interior recorded the amount of Provinces affected by peasant rebellions from 1861 to 1907. The great reduction in amount of rebellions after 1861 is due to the emancipation. Then, from 1866 to 1891, the number remained relatively the same. After 1891, however, the famines started, and the effects can be seen. From 1891 to 1907, the number of rebellions greatly increases. Gleb Uspensky, a non-Marxist socialist, states his reasons of the cause of the social disorder in the newly freed serfs. His idea is a very socialistic one. He blamed that the cause of disorder was the placing of very little value on another’s existence, and no sympathy or concern for another’s private interests. His reasoning can be explained through his ideology as a socialist, which advocates equality and prosperity for all. Conditions were terrible in the midst of the famine. Anton Chekhov, wrote a short story title “Peasants,” describing peasant social behavior. He describes them as living is discord, always fearing one