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A Life Under Russian Serfdom

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Boris B. Gorshkov

Introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1 “Vospominaniia krepostnago, 1800–1868,” Russkii vestnik: Zhurnal literaturnyi i politicheskii 130 (...)
  • 2 During this time the Russian literary journal Russkaia starina (Russian antiquity) published a ser (...)

1Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, a former serf from Yaroslavl’ province, wrote his memoirs shortly before his death in 1868. The literary and political journal Russkii vestnik (Russian messenger) published them in 1877.1 Their publication epitomized the intellectual interest in the life of common people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this era several serf memoirs appeared in Russian literary journals or were published as books.2 But Purlevskii’s memoirs stand somewhat apart. Unlike most ex-serf memoirists, such as the famous Aleksander Vasil’evich Nikitenko who gained freedom from serfdom at the age of eighteen and became a distinguished statesman and academician, Purlevskii never rose to social eminence. He never occupied prominent positions in the government, nor achieved high professional status. For the most part he lived within the peasant and petty bourgeois environment. In his late forties, some twenty years after he had escaped from servitude, he became a merchant and sales manager (kommercheskii agent) of a sugar corporation. This was the extent of his accomplishments. This makes Purlevskii’s memoirs unique and brings his personal experiences in servitude closer to those endured by many millions of Russian serfs.

2Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii was born a serf in 1800 in Velikoe, a serf village in Yaroslavl’ province of central Russia. In 1831, at the age of thirty, Purlevskii escaped from serfdom by fleeing to the south, beyond the Danube river, where he joined the Nekrasovtsy, an Old Believer group. His first thirty years, therefore, he spent in servitude. In his memoirs, Purlevskii tells the story about both his life under serfdom and his experiences in his childhood and youth. He includes recollections about his parents and grandparents and about his family in general. He describes family and communal life in his village. He also comments on the peasants’ economic and social activities and their interactions with local and state officials. Rich in detail, Purlevskii’s narrative provides a valuable snapshot of Russian serf-dom at work, its day-to-day functioning and practice. Much of this story is about his personal perceptions of serfdom and life under it.

  • 3 Unless otherwise indicated, general conceptions in this introduction are drawn from Boris B. Gorsh (...)

3A few words about Russian serfdom may help the reader to situate Purlevskii’s story in its proper historical context.3 In general, serfdom was a system of tangled relations between the landlords who possessed the land and the peasants who populated and worked it. These relations were characterized by a multiplicity of legal, economic, social, socio-psychological, cultural, and political realms, the sum of which made Russian serfdom the remarkably complex societal institution it was. In its fullness, the institution endured for more than two centuries.

4Russian serfdom emerged during the sixteenth century, just when similar forms of servitude had begun to decline in many parts of Western Europe. During earlier centuries, Russian peasants had lived on the land in settlements called communes. The majority of these communes were located on lands belonging either to the state, the church, or individual landlords. Landlords’ lands hosted approximately half of the existing peasant communes. Although before the late sixteenth century peasants worked the landlords' fields or paid them a fee for the land they utilized, they, at the same time, enjoyed considerable freedom of movement and in general could live as they wished. In turn, landlords provided the peasants with certain legal protection and general physical security.

  • 4 On early modern European society and economy, see Carlo M. Cipola, Before the Industrial Revolutio (...)
  • 5 See note 2 in the preface.

5The process of “enserfment,” that is, the step-by-step economic and legal binding of the peasants to the land and to the landlord, resulted from the conjuncture of multiple historical factors both inside and outside Russia. Well-known external and internal economic, social, and political developments all played a role. Among these were the expansion of states and their centralization, the sixteenth-century revolution in prices, the rapid expansion of markets, the growth of cities, warfare, epidemics, and so forth.4 The early modern Russian aristocracy perceived the bondage of the peasantry as the best way to meet the challenges of the period, and pressured the state to respond to its needs. From the late sixteenth century on, a series of edicts seriously restricted the peasants’ territorial mobility and subjugated them to the landlords' authority. The 1649 Law Code (Ulozhenie) definitively fixed millions of peasants on the land, forbidding them to leave their place of residence without proper authorization. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, serfdom matured and approached its apogee and by the early nineteenth century began a gradual decline. The fa-mous 1861 imperial proclamation finally ended the legal bondage of peasants.5

  • 6 In 1795–96, some four or five years before Purlevskii was born, the Fifth Imperial Census recorded (...)
  • 7 A small number of peasants were occupied on church and royal lands, and a few peasants lived on th (...)

6One obvious but nonetheless noteworthy circumstance of Russian serfdom was that it existed in a society where peasants outnumbered all other social segments. The peasants constituted approximately 80 to 85 percent of the population, whereas the landowning nobility made up only about 1 percent. Around half of Russian peasants populated lands owned by individual landlords and thus were serfs, the very category to which Purlevskii belonged.6 Much of the balance of the peasantry inhabited state lands, making up the category of state peasants, a semi-bound category which, by the mid-1800s, outnumbered the serfs.7 An average noble estate accommodated several hundred serfs, with individual holdings running from several dozens to tens of thousands of people. A few noble magnates possessed hundreds of thousands. With a few exceptions serfs and landlords shared common ethnic, cultural, and religious origins.

  • 8 The serfs’ entrepreneurial and commercial activities receive attention in Alfred J. Rieber, Mercha (...)

7Being the overwhelming majority of the population, the peasants were in several senses the essential social group in Russia. For instance, they were the primary source for economy and culture. In the absence of a significant middle class, the peasants’ activities predominated in the Russian economy.8 Their economic, cultural, and social significance enabled peasants, and specifically serfs, to achieve and maintain a balance between the diverse and often opposing interests of the state, the landlords, and themselves. The economic importance of the serfs simultaneously induced the state to regulate lord–peasant relations and permitted peasants to establish limits on the landlords’ and local officials’ prerogatives. The simple fact was that the Russian state economy could not function without a certain degree of more or less free peasant and serf activity.

  • 9 Boris B. Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move: Peasant Seasonal Migration in Pre-Reform Russia, 1800–61,” (...)

8This perhaps helps explain certain legal ambiguities of Russian serfdom, a significant aspect of the institution well worthy of mention. The legislation that established serfdom simultaneously empowered peasants to attain their rudimentary economic and social needs. The very law that attached serfs to the land at one and the same time enabled them to seek temporary employment outside the village, as well as to engage in various trade, commercial, and entrepreneurial activities both within and away from the ascribed place of residence. For example, the above-mentioned 1649 Law Code simultaneously granted serfs the right to leave the village temporarily in order to seek employment or to pursue other economic activities. By the end of the eighteenth century, about a quarter of the peasants (including serfs) of the central Russian provinces temporary migrated each year.9

  • 10 Istoriia krest’ianstva Rossii s drevneishikh vremen do 1917g. 3 vols., I. V. Buganov and I. D. Kov (...)
  • 11 Although serfs’ denunciations of their landlords were generally prohibited, the law permitted serf (...)

9On the one hand, landlords sometimes bought, sold, and punished serfs at their whim; on the other, the state banned the sale and mortgage of serfs without land, outlawed advertisements for such bargains, and protected serfs against “unreasonable” corporal punishment. In any case, Russian serfs were usually bought and sold with the land they populated, a legally sanctioned transaction which signified the transfer of estates or parts of estates to new landlords. During the late eighteenth century, a few landlords were tried for causing the death of their peasants, deprived of their noble status, and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia for life.10 During the first half of the nineteenth century, over a hundred noble estates were under state guardianship because of the landlords’ mistreatment of serfs. In these cases the law limited the authority of land-lords over the estates and serfs. Also worthy of note is the fact that, notwithstanding the initial legal prohibitions on complaining against their landlords, in some cases serfs sued the lords in state courts and succeeded in bringing to trial those who overstepped their rights.11

10Despite its fundamental purpose of preserving hierarchy, serf-dom simultaneously opened the door to a certain societal mobility for serfs. It is important to emphasize that neither the state nor the landlord had an interest in completely binding the peasant. In order to sustain the national economy and the economic needs of the landlords, the state needed to provide the peasantry, Russia’s predominant social group, with certain legal protection and freedom for territorial mobility and economic and social pursuits. All these institutional and legal factors underlay the internal dynamics, developments, and changes in serfdom that Purlevskii describes in his story.

11In addition to the legal restraints on the landlords’ authority, Russian serfs possessed a broad range of extralegal means to curtail the lords’ influence. Serfs created and maintained traditions, customs, values, and institutions that provided for their survival by keeping a balance between external forces and their own individual and communal interests and needs. The family and commune were two such institutions. Purlevskii devoted many pages of his memoir to his family and the village commune to which he belonged.

  • 12 Peasant family structure in the northern provinces is analyzed in E. N. Baklanova, Krest’ianskii d (...)

12Most Russian serfs lived a meaningful part of their lives in extended, usually two-generational families, although nuclear households were not uncommon among serfs in northern Russia.12 The structural complexity of serf households often mirrored a particular stage of family development when a young couple lived with their parents (and even grandparents) under the same roof until they gained enough wealth to separate and start their own households. The state and common law recognized the right of every nuclear couple to establish its own household.

  • 13 T. A. Bernshtam, Molodezh v obriadovoi zhizni Russkoi obshchiny, XIX–nachala XX v. (Leningrad: Nau (...)
  • 14 A 1722 law prohibited landlords from intervening in the marriages of their serfs or from forcing s (...)

13Peasant marriages were performed according to local traditions and also enjoyed full legal and customary sanction. A couple’s parents would negotiate the marriage contract, as illustrated by Purlevskii when he recalls his own marriage, the arrangements for which were carried out by his mother. He married at the age of eighteen, which, in his own words, “was nothing unusual” (part X) since the average marriage age of serfs was lower than that of non-serf peasants. According to an anthropological study, the marriage age of male serfs in the central Russian provinces ranged from eighteen to twenty-five and of female serfs from seventeen to twenty-one, whereas in the southern regions the average marriage age for serfs was even lower.13 Landlords did not usually intervene in marriage contracts and did not separate serf families. In some cases serfs paid the landlord a certain marriage fee that differed from place to place.14

  • 15 M. M. Gromyko, Mir russkoi derevni (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1991), 167–176.

14Regarding family affairs and strategies, as well as actual decision making, the family enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy from the landlord. Grandfathers, known as patriarchs, usually headed the family and had the first say in making decisions about family affairs and daily activities. Even so, important family issues involving the household economy, property, inheritance, and the marriage of children were commonly the subject of meetings of all adult family members. Decisions on such major issues reflected discussion and compromise. Patriarchs represented the family in all communal and estate institutions.15

  • 16 On peasant communes see Jerome Blum, “The Internal Structure and Polity of the European Village Co (...)

15Serf families lived in villages, which were settlements with household and communal buildings, a church, and a cemetery, all of which constituted the peasant commune. The commune was perhaps the most important economic, juridical, social, and cultural institution of the serfs and of all peasants. It had a broad range of functions and responsibilities in village life. The commune was the setting for interactions between the landlord, the state, and the serfs. The communal meetings consisted of all family heads and through them were managed the village economy and re-sources, fiscal issues, as well as various social and cultural affairs. The communes consulted the landlords about financial and labor duties, taxes, various obligations, and military recruitment. The commune authorities redistributed obligations and duties among the households, controlled the redistribution of land and resources, and managed the village economy (whether agricultural, cottage industrial, or commercial). It also made decisions about communal festivals and holidays, often supervised the moral behavior of villagers, and resolved intra- and inter-village conflicts. The commune authorities filed suits in the courts and represented the serfs’ communal interests in state and juridical institutions. In this capacity it sought adjudication and protection when serfs had been deprived of their rights by their landlords or by anyone else.16 Purlevskii described many of these communal activities in his own village commune. In the late 1820s, when Purlevskii was serving as a bailiff, his village commune founded a school for the village serf children and built several other communal buildings. The landlord funded the building of the village school.

  • 17 Fedorov, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie, 48–50.

16In addition to its important economic, social, and juridical functions, the commune, indeed village life as a whole, fostered a collective consciousness among serfs. Through village life—rich in tradition, customs, local celebrations, and holidays—serfs maintained a sense of solidarity and cohesiveness. Solidarity among serfs often helped peasants to launch popular protests when the quality of justice deteriorated. The village commune was a principal element in initiating and carrying out popular protest. Purlevskii describes several outbreaks of popular protest on neighboring estates. He also portrays the ability of the peasants to oppose the landlords’ oppression and restore justice. Throughout Russia serfs most often protested against rises in manorial dues and service demands upon them on the part of the landlords. Between 1800 and 1861, about 50 percent of the 793 peasant riots and disturbances in central Russia, the location of Purlevskii’s village, reflected increases in manorial obligations.17

  • 18 The 1797 law limited serfs’ labor duties to three days a week and prohibited work on Sundays. Svod (...)

17Although Purlevskii frequently complains about his landlord’s attempts to increase rent, his village, in his own words, does not seem to have been exceptionally burdened with manorial obligations in comparison to other estates described in his story. On average, Russian serfs paid between 30 and 50 percent of their annual income in rent. However, this payment could range between 17 and 86 percent, depending on the area and on the economic conditions of individual serf families. In areas where agriculture was the leading part of the economy, serfs performed labor duties (corvée, known in Russian as barshchina), working roughly half of their time (usually three days a week) for the landlord and the rest for themselves.18 In areas where agriculture was combined with nonagricultural pursuits, peasants paid rent. Rent and corvée were the two principal instruments of the serfs’ economic exploitation by the landlords. Serfs who paid rent in money enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy from the landlords, a factor that aided these serfs in their own independent economic pursuits.

  • 19 This area was known as the Central Industrial Region. It included the provinces of Yaroslavl’, Kal (...)
  • 20 For a discussion of peasants’ proto-industrial activities see Richard L. Rudolph, “Agricultural St (...)

18Although often overlooked, regional and local differences in serfdom cannot be overemphasized. Russian serfdom was by no means monolithic. It differed from region to region, and even from one individual estate to another. The nation’s diverse geography, climate, and ecology, not to mention widely differing local conditions and arrangements, lent serfdom a very strong regional and local character, which in turn heavily influenced the serfs’ economic status and their occupational identities. Although, in general, agriculture prevailed throughout Russia, the extent of the nonagricultural economy, especially in Russian central provinces, was quite high.19 The area’s geography and climate stimulated the development of various cottage industries and crafts, which in turn promoted trade and commerce. Studies of the peasant economy in the central provinces suggest that between 65 and 90 percent of the region’s peasant population was engaged, at least part-time, in one or another non-agricultural pursuit.20 In certain villages of the area, such as in Velikoe, Purlevskii’s native village, non-agricultural economic pursuits completely predominated. Although everywhere in Russia serfs were normally multi-occupational, those who engaged exclusively in non-agricultural activities were not a rarity. The theme of the serfs’ independent economic and social activities pervades Purlevskii’s narrative. His story, therefore, provides a good illustration of economic and home life in a non-agricultural village, a matter that has until now drawn too little attention. Purlevskii’s insights are also valid, however, for all serf villages to the extent that their occupants pursued independent economic, cultural, and social activities.

  • 21 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’ikrest’iane, 116.
  • 22 V. A. Fedorov, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie v tsentral’noi Rossii, 1800–1860 (Moscow: Izd. Moskovskogo (...)

19A brief description of Yaroslavl’ province’s geography and economy will help the reader situate Purlevskii’s story. The province lies in the eastern part of Russia’s central-industrial region, so called for its traditional non-agricultural economic orientation. At the time, the area had vast forests divided by large navigable rivers (Volga, Sheksna, Mologa, Unzha and Vetluga). The area’s poor soil fertility and scarce arable lands hampered its agriculture but simultaneously encouraged the development of various crafts, trades, and commerce. A description of Yaroslavl’ province dating from 1794 pointed out that agriculture hardly provided the local peasants with an adequate annual subsistence. The majority of the province’s population already spent most of its time on various nonagricultural activities.21 By the mid-eighteenth century, most serfs of Yaroslavl’ province paid rent in kind or in money, which also stimulated their interest in non-agricultural trades and in commerce. According to some estimates, by 1858, about 88 percent of Yaroslavl’ province serfs paid money rent.22

  • 23 G. S. Isaev, Pol’ tekstil’noi promyshlennosti v genezise i razvitii kapitalizma v Rossii, 1760–186 (...)

20During the first half of the nineteenth century, agriculture lost further ground to local industry and commerce. The province had established broad commercial ties with the port of Archangelsk, the low Volga cities, and Russia’s imperial capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the entire province, only the Rostov district remained primarily agricultural. Non-agricultural trades were particularly well developed in the south-western districts of the province, closely connected to the Volga and therefore to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yaroslavl’ peasants engaged in a broad array of handicraft, trades, and non-agricultural labor activities including seasonal labor migration, (called otkhozhie promysly), river faring, shipbuilding, the production of linen cloth and sheepskin coats, oil production, leather-tanning, and horse-breeding. By far the oldest and most characteristic of local pursuits was the production of linen cloth. In the mid-nineteenth century, the province produced for sale about 10.65 million meters (15 million arshin) of linen fabrics.23

  • 24 Today the village has become a town (poselok gorodskogo tipa) known as Velikoe, with a population (...)
  • 25 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 119.
  • 26 I. D. Koval’chenko, Russkoe krepostnoe krest’ianstvo v pervoi polovine XIX veka (Moscow: Izd. Moso (...)
  • 27 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 120.

21The village of Velikoe, located in Yaroslavl’ province, was known as the center of the province’s linen production.24 Velikoe was first mentioned in primary sources in the sixteenth century as an out-post on the commercial land route between the cities of Yaroslavl’ and Suzdal’. Local historians date the origins of the village to the beginning of the thirteenth century. At the time of this memoir, the village belonged to the Iakovlevs, one of Russia’s big mining entrepreneurial families. In 1780 the Iakovlevs bought the village from I. I. Matveev for 250 thousand rubles25, an episode mentioned by Purlevskii. The village traditionally had scarce arable lands and paid dues in rent. According to the agrarian historian I. D. Koval’chenko, agriculture produced only 6.2 percent of the annual income of the village residents, while the balance was derived from non-agricultural pursuits. The local serfs carried on large-scale trade in flax, yarn, cloth, and canvas.26 By the end of the eighteenth century, Velikoe initiated trade in other products and set up businesses, including metalsmith’s and blacksmith’s works, dyeing, and icon painting. The last, however, did not become a significant local trade. In around 1800, the serfs adopted spinning wheels, which dramatically increased linen production. During the 1820s, when Purlevskii was the estate bailiff, the village developed secondary industries producing tools and equipment for the linen industry, such as reeds and wooden looms. This proto-industrial development continued during the 1830s and 1840.27

  • 28 Ibid., 121.

22According to the Iakovlev family’s estate records, in 1835, four years after Purlevskii fled the estate, the village had 559 houses and 1,494 “male souls.” Of the 559 families, 490 (87 percent) were engaged in a trade or commercial activity. In 1835 the village had 105 shops and stores. In the 1830s there were about 400 looms in the village, which annually produced 117 thousand yards of cloth valued at 50 thousand silver rubles. Spinning and weaving in Velikoe took place in small manufacturing establishments called “attics” (svetelki), where two or three families joined together for work.28

23Textile production became increasingly the realm of the women, which added to the women’s burdens and household duties. According to Purlevskii, during the winter his mother spun fine yarn and in the summer wove cloth and kerchiefs, all of which were destined to be sold at the market (part IV). Their engagement in productive labor provided serf women with cash which they could keep for themselves or spend independently on clothes and luxury items.

  • 29 Ibid., 119–120.

24The village organized annual exhibitions and set up fairs for the display and sale of locally produced linen cloth. In addition, Velikoe serfs sold a large quantity of linen at weekly bazaars. In 1829, at the village fair, the peasants sold goods of all kinds valued at 348 thousand silver rubles (an impressive sum at that time), including linen cloth valued at 280 thousand rubles. Much of the village’s flax and cloth was exported abroad through the port of Arkhangelsk. Velikoe serfs, and Savva Purlevskii among them, were intermediaries in this trade. During the 1850s the peasants of Velikoe and surrounding villages sold flax valued at between 400 and 450 thousand silver rubles, a veritable fortune for this one product alone.29

  • 30 A. Gaksgauzen [August Haxthausen], Issledovanie vnutrenikh ot noshenii narodnoi zhizni i v osobenn (...)
  • 31 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 121; Isaev, 67, 70.
  • 32 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 121.

25By the mid-nineteenth century the village of Velikoe had become famous, astonishing contemporary Russian and foreign travelers with its crafts and fine linen cloth and canvas. Travelers noted the village’s non-agricultural appearance. According to August Haxthausen, a well-known German traveler to Russia, who visited the area in the early 1840s, Velikoe seemed like “a little town” with its open marketplace and houses built in “a new fashion.”30 By the mid-nineteenth century, a good half of the houses had been built of stone. The village marketplace had various shops with many crafts and services.31 Another prominent mid-century traveler, I. S. Aksakov, commented that the village lacked “any rural features” and “astonished by its wealth.” Velikoe’s fine linen even won an award at London’s famous International Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851.32 Purlevskii’s memoirs, which begin with a description of his grandfather, who, in the late eighteenth century, became the estate bailiff and as such helped launch Velikoe’s economic future, serves as an introduction to the village’s and region’s colorful and by no means over-familiar history (part III).

26But how typical was Velikoe’s experience for Russia? For the central provinces, where agriculture was poorly developed, this was in fact a common experience. During the first half of the nineteenth century, dozens of former serf and state peasant villages throughout the region transformed themselves into towns, many of which eventually attained official town status. Perhaps the most famous and frequently cited is Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile city in Vladimir province, where several eighteenth-century serf traders established textile mills. Over time the former village became a bustling textile city, “a Russian Manchester” in the words of Frederick Engels. In 1871 Ivanovo was granted a city charter.

  • 33 Ibid., 121–122, 135; Isaev, 70. The topic of Russian proto-industrial villages is explored in Ia. (...)

27Ivanovo’s example, however, should not obscure the experience of numerous other villages with similar stories. Kostroma, Tver’, Vladimir, Yaroslavl’ and other central provinces encompassed over a hundred large proto-industrial and commercial villages. Shuia, Kokhma, Lezhnevo, Nizhnii Landekhh, Voshchazhnikovo, and Bol’shoe all made their mark as centers of textile manufacturing; Mstera, Palekh, and Kholui were known as centers of grain commerce, icon painting, and shoemaking. Vorsna and Pavlovo became important regional centers for metallurgy.33 These proto-industrial villages, according to contemporaries, surpassed many district capitals in terms of number of inhabitants and the extent of their economic development. They also served as foundations for central Russia’s new cities during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The transformation of these villages into towns and then, in some cases, into veritable cities, underlay much of Russia’s urban development.

  • 34 For a short bibliography on the permanent and seasonal migration of peasants see Gorshkov, “Serfs (...)
  • 35 For data on migrations in various provinces from 1800 to 1861 see Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move,” 6 (...)

28Another theme of Purlevskii’s narrative that deserves attention is the territorial mobility that the serfs so actively exercised. In contrast to many scholarly portrayals, it appears from these memoirs and from other sources that many serfs of this village were constantly on the move. Even as a serf, in his early life Purlevskii himself seemed to spend the majority of his time conducting his business outside his native village and stayed at home only on rare occasions. Recent research suggests a notable nationwide mobility of Russian serfs, both permanent and seasonal, that impressed many contemporary travelers.34 The extent of seasonal migration among serfs depended on their economic needs and on the regional and local setting.35 The peasants of Russia’s central provinces obviously exercised greater mobility than serfs from the southern agricultural provinces. About 25 percent of the central provinces’ male peasants were seasonal migrants in any given year. In 1856, for example, 51,977 (19 percent) of Yaroslavl’s 274,700 male serf peasants received travel documents for temporary migration, which often extended far beyond the given year.

  • 36 Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move,” 634–35.

29The legislation of 1649, which, as mentioned above, completed peasant enserfment, also provided peasants with the possibility of seasonal migration, an opportunity widely utilized by peasants. Later, in order to regulate peasant movement and reduce unsanctioned migration, the state introduced various travel documents, passports, and travel tickets that enabled peasants to stay away from the village as long as they needed. Some lived in cities for as long as fifteen years. Serfs usually acquired their travel documents from bailiffs, or sometimes directly from landlords for a fee. The laws specified the juridical status of peasant migrants. If they lived in cities, they were considered to be “temporary urban dwellers” with virtually complete freedom of economic activity. It should be noted that serf migrants acted within, and in accordance with, the normal network of state laws and institutions.36

30As mentioned, Purlevskii’s story provides a remarkable illustration of how serfdom functioned in a non-agricultural village in a province with a mixed economy. Yet this autobiography also sheds light on why serfdom had declined by the mid-nineteenth century. Most Soviet scholars of serfdom have offered an economic explanation for the decline of serfdom. These historians have traditionally emphasized the “crisis of feudalism” which, they believe, accelerated during the first half of the nineteenth century. In this interpretation, the new “capitalist forms of production” conflicted with the outmoded feudal system and caused peasant resistance. According to this theory, these developments were the major and fatal features that eroded serfdom and finally brought it to an end. Most Soviet scholars have argued that by the 1850s serfdom had become an obstacle to the rapid economic modernization of Russia.

  • 37 David Moon, “Reassessing Russian Serfdom,” European History Quarterly 26:4 (1996), 515; idem, The (...)

31In contrast, the most recent studies question the existence of a general economic “crisis” during serfdom. They suggest serfdom’s flexibility and viability and its startling capacity to stimulate and accommodate economic development. The pioneering scholar of this tendency is the British historian David Moon. In a 1996 article, and in later works, Moon suggested and developed the argument that “Russian serfdom was a viable and enduring institution that met important needs of all the sections of Russian society involved because it was characterized more by coincidence of interests and compromise...than conflict and crisis.”37 Purlevskii’s story, and in particular the part which describes the peasant economy, illuminates the latter approach. It describes the peasants’ profound abilities to exercise various economic and social pursuits with relative freedom from the landlords. This is a story of how the serfs, often portrayed in history as “backward” and “isolated,” proved capable of transforming their “traditional” villages into “modern” urban, industrial areas, as testified to many mid-nineteenth-century travelers.

  • 38 Popular views of serfdom are analyzed in Boris B. Gorshkov, “Democratizing Habermas: Peasant Publi (...)

32Purlevskii’s story nonetheless reveals a crisis, although not an economic one. This crisis signified a deepening cultural conflict between old and new social perceptions and values, a crisis between growing expectations and the abilities of people to achieve these expectations under serfdom. Despite serfdom’s capacity to facilitate economic development and accommodate many of the serfs’ needs, serfdom became increasingly viewed as a social and moral evil. The dominant language of the period, clearly reflected in Purlevskii’s and other writings, denounced serfdom’s oppressions and humiliations.38 People could no longer come to terms with the very idea of serfdom or its existence. Relative economic freedom aside, Purlevskii views serfdom as a harsh bondage, a condition unjust and unacceptable to humankind. Numerous Russian-language studies illustrate that such critical perceptions of serfdom, already widespread among peasants, were greatly magnified before the emancipation. Nor was this attitude limited to the peasantry: most of the enlightened Russian intelligentsia, members of the nobility, and government officials held a negative view of serfdom as well. Even Tsar Nicholas I, usually portrayed as an archconservative, called serfdom an “unmitigated evil.”

33The language of freedom and equality prevailed in Russian society not only among the educated elites who read the Enlightenment philosophers; it also penetrated the minds and discourses of the common folk, most of whom were hardly familiar with Enlightenment literature. One may suggest that the views held by the serfs reflected their everyday experiences and interactions. Purlevskii’s narrative illustrates the author’s personal perceptions but it also reflects the general peasant mood with respect to serfdom. As a literate person who was interested in reading, Purlevskii may have read some of the Enlightenment philosophies. But his discussion of freedom and equality is always concrete. He understands freedom not primarily as the ability to pursue one or another occupation but as liberation from serfdom. He conceives equality as being like people of the “free” social estates. Purlevskii identifies all social grievances and economic problems with the existence of serfdom. One may go so far as to say that for him serfdom is a scapegoat for everything that went wrong. His belief in natural freedom and equality, and his desire to “free [himself] from bondage,” rather than the quest for economic opportunities (part XVI), influenced Purlevskii’s decision to escape serfdom in 1831.

34Serfdom continued to prove its economic and social viability. In the eyes of most nineteenth-century Russians, however, it had become a culturally outmoded and morally unacceptable institution. The new cultural perceptions reflected in Purlevskii’s memoirs finally brought it to an end in 1861.

Notes

1 “Vospominaniia krepostnago, 1800–1868,” Russkii vestnik: Zhurnal literaturnyi i politicheskii 130 (July 1877), 321–47, and ibid. 130 (September 1877), 34–67.

2 During this time the Russian literary journal Russkaia starina (Russian antiquity) published a series of ex-serf memoirs; among them were the diaries of A. V. Nikitenko, recently translated with a fine introduction by Peter Kolchin. See Aleksandr Nikitenko, Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804–1824, transl., Helen Saltz Jakobson, intro. by Peter Kolchin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001). Others were “Istoriia moei zhizni i moikh stranstvii: Rasskaz byvshago krepostnago krest’ianina N. N. Shipova, 1802–1862,” Russkaia starina 30 (1881); “Vospominaniia krepostnago,” Russkii arkhiv 6 (1898); and M. E. Vasilieva, “Zapiski krepostnoi,” Russkaia starina 145 (1911). Vasilieva’s memoirs are also available in English: see “Notes of a Serf Woman,” transl. John MacKay, Slavery and Abolition 22 (April 2000).

3 Unless otherwise indicated, general conceptions in this introduction are drawn from Boris B. Gorshkov, “Serfdom: Eastern Europe,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History, 6 vols., ed. Peter N. Stearns (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001), 2:379–388.

4 On early modern European society and economy, see Carlo M. Cipola, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000– 1700 (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1976).

5 See note 2 in the preface.

6 In 1795–96, some four or five years before Purlevskii was born, the Fifth Imperial Census recorded 57 percent (9,789,676) of the male population as serfs. In 1835, a few years after Purlevskii escaped serfdom, about 37 percent (10,872,229) of the male population was identified as serfs. Before 1861, according to the Tenth Census (1857), serfs constituted about 49 percent (10,694,445) of peasants and 34 percent of the empire’s population. These figures are taken from I. I. Ignatovich, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie v Rossii v pervoi chetverti XIX veka (Moscow: Izd. sotsial’no-ekonomicheskoi literatury, 1963), 16, and V. A. Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane tsentral’nogo promyshlennogo raiona Rossii kontsa XVIII pervoi poloviny XIX veka (Moscow: Izd. Moskovskogo universiteta, 1974), 3. For a general discussion of these and other categories of peasants, see Jerome Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), and David Moon, The Russian Peasantry, 1600–1930: The World the Peasants Made (London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999).

7 A small number of peasants were occupied on church and royal lands, and a few peasants lived on their own lands.

8 The serfs’ entrepreneurial and commercial activities receive attention in Alfred J. Rieber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), and William Blackwell, The Beginnings of Russian Industrialization, 1800–1860 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968). For Russian-language studies, see Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane.

9 Boris B. Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move: Peasant Seasonal Migration in Pre-Reform Russia, 1800–61,” Kritika 1 (Fall 2000), 632, 636.

10 Istoriia krest’ianstva Rossii s drevneishikh vremen do 1917g. 3 vols., I. V. Buganov and I. D. Koval’chenko, editors-in-chief. Volume 3, Krest’ianstvo perioda pozdnego feodalizma, seredina XVII v – 1861g. (Moscow: Nauka, 1993), 273.

11 Although serfs’ denunciations of their landlords were generally prohibited, the law permitted serfs to complain against their landlords in cases when peasants suspected treason or activities against the emperor, and in cases regarding census (revizii) falsifications. In certain cases serfs could seek legal protection or freedom from serfdom in courts and state institutions. Svod zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii. Zakony o sostoianiiakh (St. Petersburg: Tip. Vtorago Otd. Sobstvennoi E. I. V. Kantseliarii, 1842), nos. 952, 1038, and 1039. It is not clear, however, how the state reinforced the restrictions on serfs’ complaints. Studies show that serfs complained against their lords on most occasions when they believed that the land-lords had mistreated them or deprived them of their interests. Many landlords were sued and sanctioned for the abuse of their serfs. For further discussion of serfs’ complaints, see Elise Kimmerling Wirtschafter, Social Identity in Imperial Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997), 118–120, and Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 142–148.

12 Peasant family structure in the northern provinces is analyzed in E. N. Baklanova, Krest’ianskii dvor i obshchina na russkom severe, konets XVII – nachalo XVIII v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1976).

13 T. A. Bernshtam, Molodezh v obriadovoi zhizni Russkoi obshchiny, XIX–nachala XX v. (Leningrad: Nauka, 1988), 43–46.

14 A 1722 law prohibited landlords from intervening in the marriages of their serfs or from forcing serfs to marry against their wishes. Svod Zakonov, 180, no. 949. On the topic of serf marriages see John Bushnell, “Did Serf Owners Control Serf Marriage? Orlov Serfs and their Neighbors, 1773–1861,” Slavic Review 52 (1993): 419–45; Peter Czap, “Marriage and the Peasant Joint Family in the Era of Serfdom,” in David Ransel, ed., The Family in Imperial Russia (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978): 103–123; and Steven Hoch, Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, a Village in Tambov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 93–95, 103–118.

15 M. M. Gromyko, Mir russkoi derevni (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1991), 167–176.

16 On peasant communes see Jerome Blum, “The Internal Structure and Polity of the European Village Community from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Modern History 43 (December 1971): 541–576, and idem, Lord and Peasant.

17 Fedorov, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie, 48–50.

18 The 1797 law limited serfs’ labor duties to three days a week and prohibited work on Sundays. Svod zakonov, 184, no. 965.

19 This area was known as the Central Industrial Region. It included the provinces of Yaroslavl’, Kaluga, Kostroma, Moscow, Nizhnii Novgorod, Tver, and Vladimir. In 1857 serfs constituted the majority (about 55 percent) of the region’s male population and 20.3 percent of the male serf population of Russia. Fedorov, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie, 19.

20 For a discussion of peasants’ proto-industrial activities see Richard L. Rudolph, “Agricultural Structure and Proto-industrialization in Russia: Economic Development with Unfree Labor,” Journal of Economic History 45 (March 1985): 47–69; Rieber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs; Blackwell, The Beginnings; Arcadius Kahan, The Plow, the Hammer and the Knout: An Economic History of Eighteenth-Century Russia. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); and Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia. The figures are taken from N. M. Druzhinin, Gosudarstvennye krestiane i reforma P. D. Kiseleva 2 vols. (Moscow: Izd. Akademii nauk SSSR, 1946–58) 2:296–390 and Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, chapter 3.

21 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’ikrest’iane, 116.

22 V. A. Fedorov, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie v tsentral’noi Rossii, 1800–1860 (Moscow: Izd. Moskovskogo universiteta, 1980), 33.

23 G. S. Isaev, Pol’ tekstil’noi promyshlennosti v genezise i razvitii kapitalizma v Rossii, 1760–1860 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1970), 70.

24 Today the village has become a town (poselok gorodskogo tipa) known as Velikoe, with a population of about 5,000, and is part of the Gavrolov-Yamskoi district of Yaroslavl’ province. Velikoe produces clothing and shoes and has a community college and schools of veterinary medicine and law.

25 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 119.

26 I. D. Koval’chenko, Russkoe krepostnoe krest’ianstvo v pervoi polovine XIX veka (Moscow: Izd. Mosovskogo universiteta, 1967), 240–244.

27 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 120.

28 Ibid., 121.

29 Ibid., 119–120.

30 A. Gaksgauzen [August Haxthausen], Issledovanie vnutrenikh ot noshenii narodnoi zhizni i v osobennosti sel’skikh uchrezhdenii v Rossii (Moscow, 1870) 1:73.

31 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 121; Isaev, 67, 70.

32 Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, 121.

33 Ibid., 121–122, 135; Isaev, 70. The topic of Russian proto-industrial villages is explored in Ia. E. Vodarskii, Promyshlennye Seleniia tsentral’noi Rosii v period genezisa i razvitia kapitalizma (Moscow: Nauka, 1972). Englishlanguage studies on this issue are limited. For a general introduction to Russian proto-industrialization see Edgar Melton, “Proto-Industrialization, Serf Agriculture, and Agrarian Social Structure: Two Estates in Nineteenth-Century Russia,” Past and Present 115 (1987): 69–106; Rudolph, “Agricultural Structure”; Rieber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs; and Blackwell, The Beginnings.

34 For a short bibliography on the permanent and seasonal migration of peasants see Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move.” See also David Moon, “Peasant Migration, the Abolition of Serfdom, and the Internal Passport System in the Russian Empire, c. 1800–1914,” in David Eltis, ed., Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 324–57. Peasant seasonal migration in Yaroslavl’ province receives specific attention in L. B. Genkin, “Nezemledel’cheskii otkhod Yaroslavskoi i Kostromskoi gubernii v pervoi polovine XIX veka,” Uchenye zapiski Yaroslavskogo gosudarstvennogo pedagogicheskogo instituta. Vypusk IX (Yaroslavl, 1947), 103–105.

35 For data on migrations in various provinces from 1800 to 1861 see Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move,” 632, and Fedorov, Pomeshchich’i krest’iane, appendix.

36 Gorshkov, “Serfs on the Move,” 634–35.

37 David Moon, “Reassessing Russian Serfdom,” European History Quarterly 26:4 (1996), 515; idem, The Russian Peasantry; and idem, The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1762–1907 (London: Longman, 2001). For recent treatment of the issue see Roger Bartlett, “Serfdom and State Power in Imperial Russia,” European History Quarterly 33 (2003): 29–64.

38 Popular views of serfdom are analyzed in Boris B. Gorshkov, “Democratizing Habermas: Peasant Public Sphere in Pre-reform Russia,” Russian History 32 (Spring 2005): 5–17; for Russian-language studies see V. A. Fedorov, “Trebovania krest’ianskogo dvizhenia v nachale revoliutsionnoi situatsii, do 19 fevralia 1861 g.,” in Revoliutsionnaia situatsia v Rossii v 1959–1861 gg., M. V. Nechkina, editor-in-chief (Moscow: Izd. Akadenii nauk SSSR, 1960), 133–147, and idem, Krest’ianskoe dvizhenie.

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