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Life in Village Commune


However, in their glorification of the commune Herzen and his followers often lost sight of the reality which was somewhat less exciting. As later studies of the commune were to show, its origins did not go back into the hoary mists of antiquity but dated back to approximately the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the obshchina began to evolve as an institution that formed part and parcel of the Russian service state. Far from being an example of spontaneous socialism of the Russian peasants, its was created with the active encouragement of the state, if not on its direct initiative. The state charged the commune with the collective responsibility for the orderly payment of taxes by peasants. To cope with this task, the commune gradually gained wide-ranging powers: it distributed the tax obligation among its members, enforced payment, administered punishments to recalcitrant peasants,  prevented members from escaping. Most important, it provided the means to pay tax by assigning each male member a plot of land roughly commensurate with the size of his family. As the size of peasant households, constituting the commune, changed with time, the land was periodically re-apportioned among its members in order to spread  the tax burden  fairly. 

Life in a Russian village

The state-sponsored nature of  the village community has been best summed up by Tibor Szamuely who points out that in  reality the obshchina ‘represented the basic administrative unit of the country, the vital cog on which, in the final analysis, the Russian economic and financial system turned. The village community could lead an existence and play a part independent of the landowner, even though it was composed entirely of his bond slaves, because its principal function was service to the State, the common master of  lord and serf alike...The obshchina  was the agency through which the State could mobilize the energies and resources of the peasant serfs towards the solution of its tasks’. The commune thus existed with the full blessing of the state and acted as a collective guarantor for the payment of taxes.

The communal ownership of the land and the repartitioning of the land among members of the community - the features which particularly fired the imagination of  Russian peasant socialists - were  the properties of the obshchina that stood in the way of agricultural progress and perpetuated  poverty of its members. One of the leading Russian historians of the twentieth century V. Diakin explains why: 


... it was the commune, and not the individual peasant or peasant family, that had control of the arable lands.  The lands under the plough were divided up periodically according to the number of “souls”,  working males.  The striving after a just distribution degenerated into petty leveling. A peasant household would be given a whole number of strips in different places, low-lying and on the hill, on sandy soil and on clay, close to the village and further away. This number sometimes amounted to dozens, while the widths of the strips was measured with a yardstick or even the traditional peasant’s bast shoe.  On such strips only a common rotation of crops was possible: sow the same as everyone else, and at the same time as everyone else.  Otherwise the animals let onto the field will trample your strip.  It makes no sense to fertilize or improve the soil - at redistribution somebody else might be given it.  The commune stands in the way of agricultural progress.  It prevents people dying from hunger, but it leaves no room for the more enterprising and resourceful to get ahead.


The equality of members of the commune was the equality in poverty. The primitive egalitarianism of the obshchina cultivated the type of collectivism that suppressed the individual, fostered a formal equality that enforced equal misery and slavery of its members. This aspect of the commune was not lost on Nicholas Ogarev, Herzen’s closest friend  and lifelong ideological companion. He had spent several years on his estate and had acquired a genuine love and compassion for his peasants whose life he could observe on a daily basis. He, however, did not idealize their way of life: 


Our obshchina  represents the equality of servitude... the commune  is an expression of the envy of all against one, of the community against the individual.  In the West  the idea of equality presumes the equal well-being of all, but the equality of the commune  requires that all be equally miserable.  As a result...the peasant (or rather, the Russian in general), is unable to comprehend the possibility of a man not belonging to something, of a man simply existing by himself.


Thus the actual workings of the communal system bore little resemblance to the idyllic image of harmonious co-operation and dignified egalitarianism conjured up by Herzen and his followers. The commune perpetuated equality in poverty, deprived the peasants of incentives to improve their farming methods, hindered technical progress. The great distance between the ideals of the Narodniks and the reality would have dramatic and even tragic consequences for the nineteenth century revolutionary movement.

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