A Look into Peasant Life in Tsarist Russia

After reading Village Life in Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia and edited by David L. Ransel, one has gains new insight into what the world of a peasant in tsarist times looked like.  For instance, as they lived in the countryside and were not a part of urban society, their views on religion were much different than citizens living in cities.  While in the city, people were practiced Russian Orthodoxy quite strictly; however, in the countryside, peasants did not receive formal education when it came to religion, and this led to an odd mixture of paganism and Orthodoxy.  Semyanova recounts that children would learn eventually that the icon in the corner of their huts was God, and would imitate family members in crossing themselves, learning especially to do so upon hearing thunder so “Elijah Thunderbolt” would not strike them dead.  Additionally, as was the norm in peasant society, much of a child’s education was from oral tradition.  They would simultaneously learn about Elijah the prophet and “changelings, witches, house-spirits [known in Russian as domovoi], and wood-goblins.”

Something else that was fascinating in Semyanova’s findings was the medicinal practices of the Russian peasantry.  For instance, because Russian women were almost immediately called back into the fields for hard labor after childbirth, uteral prolapse was quite common.  Midwives in the villages had a few remedies for uteral prolapse, but perhaps the most bizarre remedy for “fixing the stomach,” as it was called, a midwife would soap her hands, manually push the uterus in place, “then [push] a peeled potato into the vagina and [bind] the lower abdomen tightly with a kerchief.”  While some medical advances had made their way to Russia even in the times of Catherine the Great, it seems as though much like other aspects of society, advances in the field of medicine were not reaching the peasants, making quality of life in the villages extremely challenging.  This speaks volumes about the resilience of peasants who survived such harsh conditions.


One thing that struck me in the reading was the language the peasants used to talk about themselves.  They always compared themselves (and especially women) to animals.  Why was that so?  Was it a matter of the peasants not understanding the concept of humanism, or was it that they held such little value to their own lives?

The Catechism of the Revolutionary

The Cathechism of the Revolutionary seems to be contradictory. The prevalent theme is that the primary and single motivator behind all decisions is the consideration of how said decision will benefit or harm the revolution. Any action that will benefit the revolution must be undertaken immediately, regardless of any personal conflicts or entanglements and, likewise, any action or person who could harm the revolution must be destroyed. While the idea that the revolution stands above all else remains constant throughout, there are discrepancies in the teaching that the entire modern world must be hated in order to appropriately embrace a new world embodied by happiness and peace. How could love spawn from hatred, and how could humanity be embraced if all members of the revolutionary organization are considered as nothing more than parts of a machine, as means to an end? If the organization has no other aim that “complete freedom and happiness of the people”, then wouldn’t the happiness and dignity of the people need to be considered throughout the process of the revolution and not just at the end, when the goal has been accomplished? A revolution cannot fulfill its ultimate goal, which is to preserve the dignity of the people, if there is no consideration of the individual struggle throughout the process. If the entire movement revolves around doing whatever possible, no matter the destruction involved, to achieve a goal, there leaves little likelihood for the consideration of the people’s complete happiness to be a top priority in the future. Human beings cannot change their thinking processes at the drop of a hat. The means to this revolution do not match up to the ends, but only add to an already prevalent cycle of destruction and attempted rebuilding which results in a society very different, and far less palatable, from the original aim of revolution.

Grievances and Demands of the Revolutionaries

The “Program of the Narodnaia Volia” in 1879 early on declared that the implementation of socialist principles is the purpose behind their disapproval of the government and subsequent assassination of Tsar Alexander II. They view their socialist principles as the most progressive way to maintain and establish  welfare for the people. Their overall grievances revolve around the autocracy of the government where people do not have expression, and in fact are so enslaved and repressed that they don’t recognize that there is another option. Their demands to combat this are to redistribute land and to establish a new system with a representative body that is voted in by the people. In part A, they state that the current state of Russia is in “absolute slavery” of the people, where they are so deprived that they “cannot even think what is good and what is bad for them.” They recognize the power struggle in the capitalistic power and the excessive exploitation of people stuck and enslaved in the lower class. Part B is where they begin to express their demands: to freeing of people enslaved and the access to power by more in the nation. They want the power of the authoritarian government to be expanded for the people of Russia to have access to their own fate by creating an Organizing Assembly to make decisions (that are voted in by the people). Part C discusses the demands for personal freedoms of the people such as popular representation, self- controlled villages (economic and administrative autonomy), redistribution of land ownership to the people, and personal freedoms of speech. This document is written after Alexander II’s assassination and presented to Alexander III- it represents a warning for what could happen to him if he does not enact change and demonstrates the affect of the masses on Alexander III’s policies.

Looking at Literacy in a Multi-Ethnic Russian Empire

While Kappeller discusses several different aspects of ethnicity in the nineteenth century in the eighth chapter of The Russian Ethnic Empire, the portion discussing the growth of literacy most definitely stands out.  When discussing literacy, Kappeller first explains that the censuses taken in the latter half of the century, he notes that literacy was defined by reading, but not necessarily writing.  Additionally, only the ability to read and write Russian was recorded, making literacy rates among certain ethnic populations lower.  Kappeller notes this could be one of two things: either education in the ethnic school systems were oral and repetition-based (or as Kappeller calls it, “parrot fashion”), or the census may not have taken into account foreign languages such as “Arabic, Tatar, Hebrew, Yiddish, or Mongolian” (Kapeller, pg. 310).  Additionally, he compares literacy between Protestant and Jewish populations with Protestants in Russia having more literacy, primarily because women were more literate in these communities than in Jewish communities.  This can be tied to the differences in educational beliefs, like that in Jewish communities, education was geared toward men.

1. Although Kapeller mentions that had the census recorded the ability to write along with literacy, it would have made the numbers for literacy in Russia as a whole significantly decrease, the bigger question is not why writing was not recorded in the census, but rather why were so many people literate yet not able to write?

2. Why wasn’t literacy still widespread with the general population of Russian women at this point in time, and mostly just in Protestant communities?

Russia as a Multi-Ethnic Empire

In the latter half of the nineteenth century,  Russia experienced a massive shift in population in a number of ways.  From ethnicity, to occupation, Russia became more modern than it had ever been before.

Kaeppler talk about the expansiveness of Russia’s ethnicity.  The vast array of backgrounds was established by the 1897 Russian Empire census, the only official one they had ever taken at that time.  In the census, it was revealed that the Russian ethnicity/ nationality made up only 44.3% of the entire Empire.  The other 55.7% was a large mixture of ethnicities;  This was shocking when the Tsar and government declared that two thirds of the empire was of Russian nationality.  The sheer number of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and languages mentioned in Kappeler’s article is a testament to how diverse the Russian Empire was.

In addition to the ethnic diversity of Russia, there was also an increase in agricultural diversity.  With the freeing of serfs in 1861, Russia was undergoing a large amount of economic change.  Specific regions were beginning to focus on more commercial crops and crops that were more specific the the region they were being grown in.  For example, the Poles focused on cultivating Tobacco, while Middle Asia grew vineyards and rice.  This was only possible as trading was much more expansive and farming was more versatile.

Was this diversity a positive or negative aspect of the Russian Empire?


The Emancipation Manifesto, 1861

The Emancipation Manifesto of March 3, 1861 released serfs from their serfdom. However, this improvement of the peasant condition was emphasized as gradual, leading to the establishment of many temporary measures and statuses to ensure the process of serfdom abolishment went smoothly. For example, the peasants were still required to fulfill obligations to the nobles, so much so that they were “temporarily bound” to their nobles, which hardly seems different from their situation previously. Language regarding the nobility was extremely courteous, praising the nobility for their generous hearts in voluntarily renouncing serfdom, implying that the renouncement may not have been as “voluntary” as it was portrayed to be. Furthermore, the nobles were given the task of much of the reorganization of land, meaning it unlikely that these land allotments would be decided in the benefit of the peasants.  The repetition of words such as “sacrifice”, “greater good”, and “obligation” seek to remind the nobles that their first priority is to the Russian state, and, accordingly, to the abolishment of serfdom as being in the best interests of the Russian state.

How effective was this document in promoting change? Were the peasant’s lives improved within two years or made worse?

Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

While the two systems of human bondage appear significantly different, they are more similar that most realize.  At the basis for both systems was the shortage of labor.  For the Russian system, this was less prominent until the Mongol period.  Mongolian conquest, Mongolian centralization of the state, and plague  caused population shifts, forcing the nobility to largely abandon the indentured servitude systems that had been used for centuries, replacing it with serfdom, where the workers tied to land, rather than an individual.  The United States, in contrast, continued Europe’s tradition of using slaves, primarily from Africa as the main source of labor.  As the British colonies expanded, the need for exported labor grew drastically.  Driven by differences in race and a disconnect between the slave and the master that was not so distinct in Russia, American Slavery tied the slave to the owner, and were not considered human, but only as property.  As slaves were seen as property in the United States, entire businesses for created around the transportation of new Africans to the Western Hemisphere, as well as Europe.  In Russia, since slaves were not owned by an individual, and the importation of humans was not present, the concept of a business surrounding the selling of slaves was unknown to the Russian nobility.

It was not until the mid 1800’s for both nations for their own respective forms of slavery were to be abolished.  In Russia, serfdom was seen as inhumane since the enlightenment, but was unable to find an alternative to nobles’ source of labor for working the land.  This caused serfdom to be practiced for another century after the enlightened ideals became prominent.  Similarly in the United States, the issue of finding alternative labor also proved difficult for plantation owners.  This was in addition to the blacks being seen as inferior to their white masters. This was not seen in Russia’s system.  There was a rapidly expanding abolitionist movement among a wide range of social classes.  The debate on whether or not slavery should continue was one of the main reasons the Civil War occurred.

If Russia also had a shortage of labor, why did they not import slaves from other areas, especially when there was a lot of economic potential in the business?

How significant is the fact that it took much longer for the two nations than Britain and other European countries to abolish slavery/serfdom?

Russian Serfdom

When first coming to the understanding of serfdom in Russia, many draw comparison to slavery in the Americas; however, there are subtle differences between these two institutions.  Although both were instilled for agricultural labor, slavery had always set humans as the property of their owners.  Serfdom, on the other hand, tied serfs to the land, which in turn tied them to the owners of that land, be them nobles, the church, or the tsar, himself.  Slaves were never permitted to leave their masters unless they had been granted freedom, as they were physical property.  As serfs were not property but tied to the land, landowners viewed them as necessary in order to cultivate the land they owned and pay taxes to the state.  As a result, many landowners would try to lure serfs away from their neighbors, especially during times of famine, disease, peasant uprisings, and war, when there was a shortage in the population, and therefore of labor.

Furthermore, over time, regulations around serfdom gradually became stricter.  For example, serfs at one point were essentially free persons, and were initially given the liberty to move at their own will to better land with a better landowner.  However, as previously mentioned, this caused an upset among landowners, complaining they could not pay off taxes without the manpower necessary to work their land. Eventually, serf movement was restricted to a two-week period around St. George’s day.  This restriction proved ineffective to keeping serfs bound to their original land. In 1649 serfs were prohibited from moving totally.  Recovery periods were extended to four years, then to five years, and eventually there was no cut-off for recovering serfs who fled their lands.  Even when serfs could leave, landowners did what they could to keep them in their lands by giving loans for the serfs to pay off over time and even charging exit fees which would increase by the number of years a serf was in a certain land.

While serfdom was not necessarily slavery, it still an institution which oppressed the majority of the Russian population.  Though it ended only four years before the abolition slavery in the United States, it was deemed a necessary evil for many a Russian monarch in order to keep nobles appeased, and had been in existence for centuries longer than American slavery ever was.

Slavery and Serfdom

Both slavery and serfdom developed as a means of labor for agricultural cultivation; however, as time progressed the status of those slaves and serfs became more property oriented with less societal mobility and less of exclusively a labor force (both growing in force as the years went on). The differences stem from how the institutions were created: tied to their “masters” or to the land. Because the serfs were tied to the land their individual liberties declined as the Russian state centralized- more power was given to the tsars who in turn attempted to add loyalties by giving land that contained serfs to nobles (whose power continued to grow over time, so their control of the serfs also broadened). As time progressed it became more obvious that serfs were no longer self- fulfilled through this (as they could be in the past by selling themselves into serfdom for monetary purposes) as they were both tied more harshly to both the land and their owners,

Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

In “The Overcoat”, Gogol ridicules Russia’s ranking system and the emphasis placed on being a “significant person” in society. The flaws in this, system which is based in superficiality and vanity, are most readily evident in Akaky Akakiyevich’s attempts to report the theft of his greatcoat. He begins his efforts with a policeman, who failed to witness the crime even though it happened right in front of him. Akaky then implores the assistance of the next highest level of authority, the district superintendent. The superintendant is asleep the first two times Akaky goes to see him, and then similarly offers no assistance to Akaky. Finally, Akaky goes to see a “certain significant person”, who exhibits no remarkable qualities other than being regarded as significant and important. It is unclear what his job consists of, or if he occupies a role other than boasting of his high rank.

In the character of the “certain significant person”, Gogol’s critique of Russian people’s obsession with rank and high society is most obvious. The ridiculousness of the ranking system is highlighted in the description of how said “significant person” achieved his rank: “It should be noted that this certain significant person had only recently become a significant person, having previously been an insignificant person. Even after this advancement, however, his position was not considered significant in comparison with others of yet greater significance. Still, one can always find a circle of people for whom what is insignificant in the eyes of others is significant.” The repetition of the word “significant” alone implies that Gogol is mocking the depth people give to the word. What makes a person significant? What distinguishes a “significant” person from an “insignificant” person? Akaky is treated by his peers and fellow councilors as insignificant, but what about Akaky constitutes this title? Akaky contributes just as much, if not more, to society through his simple copying of manuscripts, while the “important” people of high society do nothing more than relish in their importance.