Page images
PDF
EPUB

an ardour of which only neophytes are capable, that Russia had discovered a new path of progress, by which she would escape the action of those harsh economic laws which weigh so heavily on the working classes of Western Europe, and that she had thereby for ever guaranteed herself against the numerous social evils under which Western Europe is labouring. In securing for the peasants the land they actually enjoyed, and in developing the Communal institutions in the direction of self-government, she laid, it was thought, a firm basis for her future prosperity. Grave doubts might be entertained as to the future fate of the landed proprietors, but there could be none, it was imagined, as to the future of the peasants. They would at once "change from head to foot." Their new position would "loosen their tongue, and break the enchanted circle of their conceptions." to be free, they would strive to better their condition. Agriculture would be improved, waste lands would be reclaimed, the number of cattle would be increased, the old vices that had been created and fostered by serfage would disappear, and the new rural institutions would develop a healthy local public life. In a word, it was expected that the Emancipation would produce instantaneously a complete transformation in the life and character of the rural population, and that the peasant would become at once a sober, industrious, model agriculturist.

As soon as they felt themselves

• These expressions are taken from an unpublished letter written immediately after the Emancipation, by a proprietor who imagined that he already perceived the change.

One year

These expectations were not realised. passed, five years passed, ten years passed, and the expected transformation did not take place. On the contrary, there appeared certain very ugly phenomena which were not at all in the programme. The peasants began to drink more and to work less,* and the public life which the Communal institutions produced was by no means of a desirable kind. The "bawlers" (gorlopány) acquired a prejudicial influence in the Village Assemblies, and in very many Volosts the peasant judges, elected by their fellow-villagers, acquired a bad habit of selling their decisions for vodka. The natural consequence of all this was, that those who had indulged in exaggerated expectations sank into a state of inordinate despondency, and imagined that things were much worse than they really were. This despondency still continues at the present day, and tinges strongly the commonly-received opinions regarding the present condition of the peasantry.

For different reasons, those who did not indulge in exaggerated expectations, and did not sympathise with the Emancipation in the form in which it was effected, are equally inclined to take a pessimistic view of the situation. In every ugly phenomenon they find a confirmation of their opinions. They foresaw it all, predicted it all, explained to all who would listen to them the folly of conferring on the serfs Communal lands and Communal self-government. But the

* I am not at all sure that the peasants really drank more and worked less but such was, and still is, a very general conviction.

Government paid no attention to their warnings, and preferred listening to the seductive suggestions of socialistic dreamers. And the result has been precisely

what they foretold. The peasants have used their liberty and their privileges to their own detriment and to the detriment of others! Such invectives are often heard at the present time, and they are, of course, very much intensified when the speaker has struggled unsuccessfully with the difficulties of farming with free labour, and has suffered from the negligence or bad faith of the peasants whom he employed.

The extreme "Liberals" are also inclined, for reasons of their own, to join in the doleful chorus. They desire that the condition of the peasantry should be further improved by legislative enactments, and accordingly they paint the evils in as dark colours as possible.

Thus, we see, the majority of the educated classes are at present unduly disposed to represent to themselves and to others the actual condition of the peasantry in a very unfavourable light. This is why I believe that the commonly-received opinions on the subject have less value than is commonly attributed to them.

Why then, it may be said, has the question not been submitted to the peasants themselves? Surely they are after all the best judges. They must certainly know whether their condition is better now than before the Emancipation. By questioning a large number of them in various parts of the country, and combining the fragmentary evidence thus collected, we might easily,

it would seem, arrive at a clear and well-founded conclusion.

Such was, I confess, my own opinion at the beginning of my investigations; but when I endeavoured to put this method into practice I very soon perceived that it was by no means so effectual as I had imagined. In the first place it is extremely difficult to discover what the peasants' opinion really is. With all their kindly good-nature and apparent simplicity, the Russian peasantry have a large dose of homely prudence, which easily takes the form of suspicion, and when their suspicions are aroused they have, as I have elsewhere shown, a very meagre veneration for truth.* As they have no conception of disinterested scientific curiosity, they are extremely apt to suspect that a stranger who questions them regarding matters which do not personally concern him has some secret, sinister object in view. It is not difficult to perceive on such occasions that they put themselves at once upon their guard, and intentionally make their answers as vague as possible, in order that their supposed opponent may not overreach them. Even when the traveller does not arouse, or succeeds in allaying, their suspicions, he cannot trust implicitly to their testimony, for they frequently, from a feeling of complacency, give him the answers which they suppose him to desire. This I have frequently proved by putting leading questions and obtaining from one and the same individual the most contradictory replies.

* Vide supra, pp. 31-34.

But it is not always on account of suspicion or complacency that the peasant's replies are vague and unsatisfactory. The chief cause of the vagueness lies, I believe, in the fact that he has generally no clear definite answer to give. Uneducated people rarely make generalisations which have no practical utility, and I feel sure that very few Russian peasants ever put to themselves the question: Am I better off now than I was in the time of serfage? When such a question is put to them they feel taken aback. And in truth it is no easy matter to sum up the two sides of the account and draw an accurate balance, except in those exceptional cases in which the proprietor flagrantly abused his authority. The present money-dues and taxes are often more burdensome than the labour-dues in the time of serfage. If the serfs had a great many ill-defined obligations to fulfil-such as the carting of the master's grain to market, the preparing of his firewood, the supplying him with eggs, chickens, home-made linen, and the like they had, on the other hand, a good many ill-defined privileges. They grazed their cattle during a part of the year on the manor-land; they received firewood and occasionally logs for repairing their huts; sometimes the proprietor lent them or gave them a cow or a horse when they had been visited by the cattleplague or the horse-stealer; and in times of famine they could look to their master for support. All this has now come to an end. Their burdens and their privileges have been swept away together, and been replaced by clearly-defined, unbending, unelastic legal relations.

« PreviousContinue »