History of Russia 1812-1945

The economic basis of the nobility was the land. By the beginning of the 19th century private estates were everywhere worked by peasant serfs, who were by far the most numerous class in the State, and who were entirely deprived of political and personal rights. The bonds of serfdom had been strengthened during the 18th century with the intention of compensating the nobility for their lack of political power. But the direction of policy changed with the accession of Alexander I in 1801.

From that date the autocrats, at first timidly and then with desperate courage, attacked serfdom because it was inhumane, because it was inefficient, and because it gave too much social influence to the nobility. Emancipation came in 1861; the long delay perhaps being testimony to the obstinacy of the nobility. The peasant question festered for too long. It helped to set the intelligentsia against the State and prevented Russia from taking steps towards industrialisation at an early date.

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Defeat in 1812 might even have been an advantage; the total victory over Napoleon strengthened the arguments of those who claimed that Russian institutions were not in need for reform. There were widespread fears that Nap. would provoke social war in Russia by declaring emancipation during his march to Moscow. He failed to do so and the peasants fought with courageous patriotism. In spite of the condition to which he had been reduced – in practice little short of slavery – the Russian peasant retained a superstitious veneration for the person of the Tsar, seeing in him the personal representative of God.

Evils were usually blamed upon the landowner and even when the peasant did revolt – an event which had occurred frequently during the 18th century and which was to occur still more frequently during the nineteenth – he frequently ‘discovered’ a ‘true’ Tsar and claimed that the actual occupant of the throne was a usurper. The peasant lived in a world which was touched hardly at all by the concerns and interests of the educated world. His life was ruled by his labour, by ancient myths and customs, and by the liturgical presentation of Christianity.

One of the most important developments of the 19th century was the ‘discovery’ of the peasantry by the intellectuals. For centuries the peasant had been ignored when servile and punished when disobedient, but during the early 19th century the Slavophil writers suddenly perceived that the peasant was, in fact, the true Russian, the sole receptacle of national virtue. No one was more astonished than was the peasant by this belated appreciation of his worth. NB: Slavophils: most active and influential critics during 30s/40s. Owed little to the Decembrists and were horrified by the radicalism of the younger men who followed them.

Before the end of the century their teachings, in a modified and impoverished form, had been transmuted into a base, violent and conservative nationalism. Nevertheless, in the beginning, Slavophilism was a genuine and fundamental criticism of the regime of Nick I; such was the richness (and confusion) of their ideas, the breadth and relevance of the questions, the twist that they gave to the traditional problems of Russian society, that the Slavophils had the peculiar honour of being not only the progenitors of Russian nationalism but also the grandparents of the Russian revolutionary movement.

By 1848 the arguments they had provoked had clarified the issues; their opponents went a different way but carried with them if not the ideology at any rate the attitudes of the Slavophils. Slavophilism was a seedbed of 19th century political and social thought in Russia. Principal Slavophil thinkers/writers: Khomyakov (1804-60), Ivan & Peter Kireyevsky, Ivan & Konstantin Aksakov, and Samarin (1819-76). All from ancient and prosperous gentry families surrounded by numerous serfs and relatives. They lived comfortable lives, well nourished, secure, respected and even liked.

The Slavophil families were interlinked by marriage; several lived as neighbours in the same suburb of Moscow. They were well educated, gifted linguists, travelled much, wrote voluminously and played little part in official life. Their interests were in theology, history, folklore, philology (science of language), and anything which was or which was alleged to be specifically Russian. They wore clothing which they claimed to be the ancient garb of the Russian folk and sported beards of patriarchal length and volume (both of which excited the contempt of their younger contemporaries).

They were nationalists who owed much to the romantic and idealistic German philosophers of the previous generation. Their nationalism was quite different from the brand sported at St Petersburg by the official apologists of Nick I’s government. St Petersburg great blight as far as Slavophils concerned and Peter the Great had been the biggest disaster in Russian history. By creating a ‘German bureaucracy’ he had diverted Russia from her true destiny.

He had torn her away from her cultural roots and, by making her a rational utilitarian State (untilitarianism: doctine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be sole end of public action), he had deprived her of her special and individual personality and had made of her nothing but a pale imitation of a Western State. The feature which most impressed the Slavophils was the Orthodox Church. They freely admitted that, in their own time, their Church had fallen on evil days. They were strongly opposed to the Holy Synod (created by Peter the Great) on the grounds that it made the Church too servile towards the State.

In the Church, they claimed to find the perfect Christian society; a society which combined unity with individual freedom; in which the authority of the hierarchy was balanced by the collectively expressed will of the people; one which was superior to the State but which never tried to express this superiority in political form. It was a society which alone had preserved the spirit of Jesus Christ and the primitive Church. Contrasted with the mystical Christian unity (sobornost) of the Orthodox Church was the divisiveness of Roman Catholicism.

The Catholics ha d created the original schism by altering the creed, replacing Jesus Christ with the Pope, adopted the principles of legalism (preference of Law to the Gospel, doctrine of justification by works; exaltation of law or formula, red tape), authoritarianism (right to enforce obedience) and rationalism (practice of explaining the supernatural in religion in a way consonant with reason, or of treating reason as the ultimate authority in religion as elsewhere; theory that reason is the foundation of certainty in knowledge).

Closely connected with the Christian community of the Orthodox Church was the communal organisation of the Russian people. The Slavophils defended this because they believed that only in the commune could the full personality of man be realised. A peasant commune was not just a group of farmers tilling the soil together, it was in Samarin’s view ‘a union of the people who have renounced their egoism’…. So, in the commune, the individual is not lost but renounces his exclusiveness in favour of the general accord – and there arises the noble phenomenon of harmonious, joint existence of rational being…

The influence of Western capitalism horrified the Slavophils. It was not the technological advances that worried them – many of them were in fact improving landlords – but they hated the idea of a landless proletariat divorced from any prospect of landowning. They consequently advocated the emancipation of the serfs but only if this were accompanied by the retention of the peasant commune. Slavophil opinion was harnessed by Alex II behind emancipation statute of 1861. Enthusiastically received by Slavophils. 61+ Slavophils more definitely aligned with conservatism. Persisted in believing, contrary to all evidence, that reforms of Alex II had created the sort of society which they wanted to see. ‘Populist’ trend of Slavophilism closely linked with distrust of State which bordered upon anarchism. The State was artificial, external, alien; the people must be sheltered from its corrupting influence behind the wall of the commune. They felt the primary job of the State was defence against external enemies.

This low view of the State was combined with an acceptance of the Tsarist autocracy. (Absolute government, controlling influence: autocrat – absolute ruler e. g. , Tsar). This was partly because they believed that it was better to be ruled by one man than by impersonal institutions; partly because they distrusted the Western machinery of election and parliamentary government; partly because they argued that since the power of compulsion inevitably corrupts men, the fewer who exercised this power the fewer would be corrupted.

They thought the Tsar a sort of martyr to the uglier necessities of human society, a ‘sacrificial symbol of self-renouncement’. The naivity of Slavophil political thought is revealed by their hope that it would be possible to combine autocracy with freedom of the press. K Aksakov: memo to Alex II: ‘To the government, the right of action and consequently of law; to the people, the right of opinion and consequently of speech’. This irresponsible attitude towards political power was the most damaging legacy left by the Slavophils to the revolutionary populists.

For at least a generation, populist thinkers continued to assert that the cause of the people could be furthered without paying any attention to the organisation of government. In fact, they alleged it was dangerous to seize political power because its corrupting nature would inevitably divert the revolutionaries from their fundamental economic task. The Slavophils also believed that Russia was fated to renovate the decadent society of Western Europe. In the Slavophil vision, the Russian people had a messianic duty to rescue Western man from the evil effects of rationalism, capitalism, egoism and spiritual pride.

The Slavophils were convinced that the material progress of the West, far from being a sign of a superior civilisation, was in fact merely the result of one-sided specialisation. They considered this development not only created an inhuman society in which competition and individualism had replaced ‘togetherness’, but also made violent and destructive revolution inevitable. The events of 1848 seemed to prove the Slavophil point. The messianic theme in Slavophilism was easily corrupted.

Originally, the Slavophils had been content just to indicate and criticise the evils of Western bourgeois society; their successors, the Panslavs, thought more in terms of conquest than of the peaceful transmission of ideas. The Slavophil attitude towards the Jews which was hostile but tolerant – was also given a sinister twist by their successors. No Slavophil would have approved of the pogroms, but it was impossible to deny the relation between the Slavophil doctrine of the absolute value of the Russian people, and the violent treatment of those who were not Russians.

But the remote and ugly consequences of Slavophilism must be balanced against the fact that some of their ideas and prejudices helped to form the mind of the profoundest thinker of the period – Dostoyevsky. He is not simply to be labelled as a Slavophil: his views were insufficiently optimistic and ‘populist’. He hardly concerned himself with economic and social problems but, through a genius which was entirely his own, he did reflect the Slavophil obsession with moral and religious questions, their belief in autocracy and some of their messianic fervour.

His scope was far wider and deeper than that of the Slavophils, his view of man simultaneously more intense and more universal. He glimpsed the truth about the revolutionary course towards which Russian society was moving and he deplored it. But if he went further than any of the rather cautious Slavophil writers, it was always along a path which was much closer to them than to their opponents. In the end, both Dostoyevsky and the Slavphils were pitted against a revolutionary socialism which rejected the idea of God and replaced it with the prospect of creating Heaven upon earth.

Dostoyevsky showed, with a clarity far beyond the pedestrian capacities of the Slavophils, that such a project would inevitably lead to the diminution of the human image and the creation of the ant-heap society. It may be strange to find Dostoyevsky in the conservative camp, but he considered that the actual alternative open to 19th century Russian was likely to be even more damaging to human personality. Events may have shown that his prognostication was not without accuracy. Condition of Serfs at beginning of 19th Century: structure of serfdom complete – work of Romonov dynasty, the profounder results of which were active until 1917.

The condition of the peasants was a tragedy for themselves, an inspiration for the conscience-stricken intelligentsia, and an increasingly difficult problem to successive governments. The peasantry was Russia. They paid nearly all the taxes, they provided the food, they were the hordes of domestic servants, they died in the wars, they starved frequently and suffered always. In this great sea of village folk the buildings and civilisation of Moscow and St Petersburg reflected perhaps in the glitter of some local manor house seemed an irrelevant intrusion.

The rulers of Russia might be planning war or peace, their attention might be fixed upon Paris, Berlin, London or Manchester, but their living was being earned for them by the ploughman on the stepppes and the peasant craftsman in the forests. It is not surprising that one of the great themes of 19th century Russian literature is the superficiality of town life in an essentially peasant land. Tolstoy is the great master of this contrast and both in his novels and his own life constantly stressed the need for a social conscience which would place the peasant and the countryside at the centre of interest.

It was, however, a part of the tragedy of 19th century Russia that the condition of the peasantry could only be improved by large-scale urbanisation. It may be that those who, like Tolstoy, admired and loved the villager, did much harm by trying to preserve a picturesque way of life which the developments of the century made increasingly productive of poverty. Throughout Russia the land was cultivated on the open-field system. In the forest areas of the centre and the north, the peasants’ wooden houses were grouped together in broad clearings and the village fields were usually conveniently near.

In the open plains of the south and the south-west, the villages of clay and wattle houses straggled along the watercourses and the village fields might be many miles from the peasant’s home. In both areas the arable fields were divided into strips and each peasant household worked many such strips in different parts of each field. The system was inefficient; much time was spent by travel between house and strip, and the whole tempo of agricultural operations had to be adjusted to the capacity of the slowest and most ineffective farmers; improvement was impossible on the unenclosed strip.

The inefficiency of the open field was increased by the generally prevalent custom of periodical repartitition. It was held that only the house and the garden plot belonged to the individual peasant household. The arable strips were the property of the village community which consequently had the right to ensure that they were held by those families which needed them most. Thus, at the time for division (which was not exactly fixed by peasant custom) a family which had decreased in size could expect to lose some strips to other families which had grown larger.

It more often happened, however, that all the families had become more numerous. Then the village would have to create new holdings by reducing the number of strips in some of the old holdings. The process of equalisation was much encouraged by the government during the early 19th century because it prevented the emergence of a class of landless labourers. But it made little headway in White Russia (Belorussia) and the Ukraine where the peasant strips were held in perpetuity. Throughout Russia, the peasants concentrated upon the cultivation of grain.

Rye was the staple food but wheat and barley were grown increasingly as the export market expanded during the century. The climate and soil of the centre and the north made it impossible for the peasants to satisfy even modest needs by agriculture alone. The gap was filled partly by a widespread and intensive peasant handcraft industry and partly by emigration to the new lands of the south and south-west. It was only during the 19th century that these new lands filled up; overpopulation was to be one of the major factors in the peasant problem.

During the centuries when serfdom was growing, the exact contrary had been the case; in fact, the main reason for the growth of serfdom was to prevent the scarce labourers from drifting away towards the frontiers. South of the forest line, the soil was well suited to grain growing. But although this black earth was rich it was so wastefully farmed by hordes of peasants that its yield per acre remained substantially below that of the much poorer land of North America. None of the changes of the 19th century had much effect upon the productiveness of peasant agriculture.

Even in 1917 the primitive sokha – a plough which scratched the surface of the soil rather than turning it over – was still in general use. In 1800 there were about 34 million peasants in a total population of 36 million. Of these, about 19. 5 million were subject to private landlords and the rest were state serfs. In general terms the government, and viz Catherine II, had entered into an unwritten contract with the nobility: in return for giving up their claim to political power the nobles had been allowed to enjoy complete power over their serfs.

A nobleman might own a dozen or a hundred thousand serfs. It made no difference to his power over them. He was a little autocrat within the great autocracy. The State used him as its agent for peasant affairs, it local ‘gratuitous chief of police’. The landlord could make any change he liked in the agricultural arrangements of the village; he could, for example, take for his own use the valuable meadow and forest rights.

He seize the peasant’s moveable goods, order him to marry or not to marry, sell him away from the land without his family, take his sons and daughters into domestic service, send him to the privately owned mines in the Urals, command him to become a musician or actor. The aged and the sick could be turned out of the village; the recalcitrant could be transported to Siberia, sent into the army for twenty-five years, imprisoned or knouted (a scourge or flogging formerly used in Russia, often fatal) – the customary punishment.

The murder of serfs was prohibited by law but, since the peasants were forbidden to complain to the officials about their lords, murder frequently occurred and went unpunished. In the forest regions the landlords forced the payment of rent (obrok) at an arbitrary rate which took into account the earnings of peasant craftsmen. In the steppe lands, however, where the produce of the soil was marketable, the landlords compelled their serfs do forced labour (barshchina). Both Catherine II and Paul II attempted to limit the amount of barshchina which could be legally extracted: in 1797 the maximum of 3 days was declared.

In practice, though, the landlords got as much free labour as they liked. Sine this was usually demanded at harvest time, the peasants’ own crops suffered. The peasant had to provide not only his labour but also the necessary tools and animals. The owner of the soil was thus spared the need to make capital investment. During the 18th century the real value of both obrok and barshchina increased greatly. This meant that the landlords were exploiting their serfs more and more. They could live better by merely applying the laws more strictly.

Unlike English landlords of the same period, they did not have to apply capital, knowledge or skill if they wanted to make more money. Serfdom made life too easy for them; it destroyed their capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Not all landlords benefited equally from serfdom. There was a great gulf between the richest and the poorest. At the beginning of the 19th century about 45% of the total number of serfs belonged to about 2,500 individuals. At one end of the scale was Prince Sheremetyev with 60,000 serfs; at the other were thousands of rural gentry with less than 10.