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Russia's "Peculiar Institution"

The Revolutionary Masses

At the 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 serfdom.  


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.

Usually, 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. 

Serf dues 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.

In addition 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.

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Catherine the Great


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
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