Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1675/Russian Village Communities
From Macmillan's Magazine.
RUSSIAN VILLAGE COMMUNITIES.
The Russian mir, or village commune, has in recent years acquired considerable notoriety in Western Europe. Historical investigators have discovered in it a remnant of primitive Indo-European institutions; and a certain school of social philosophers point to it as an ideal towards which we must strive if we would solve successfully the agrarian difficulties of the present and the future. "C'est une institution" said the usually cool-headed Cavour on hearing it described, "qui est destinée à faire le tour du monde!" Political economists, on the contrary — especially those of the good old orthodox school — condemn it as a remnant of barbarism, and as an obstacle to free individual action and untrammelled economic development. It may be well, therefore, that those who have had an opportuntiy of studying the institution, and observing its practical working, should explain clearly and accurately its nature and functions.
In the Russian communal institutions we must carefully distinguish two elements, the one administrative, and the other economic. And first of the administrative functions: —
As an organ of local administration, the rural commune in Russia is very simple and primitive. There is commonly but one office-bearer, the village "elder" (starosta, from stary, old); but in the larger communes there is also a communal tax-gatherer. The office-bearers are simple peasants, chosen by their fellow-villagers for one, two, or three years, according to local custom. Their salaries are fixed by the commune, and are so small that "office" in these village democracies is regarded rather as a burden than as an honor; but a peasant, when once chosen, must serve whether he desires it or not. If he can show good and sufficient reason — such as ill-health or frequent absence — why he should be exempted, the commune will generally free him from the burden on condition that he treats the members present with vodka (rye spirit); but the simple desire to escape trouble and annoyance is not considered a valid ground for exemption. The chief duties of the elder are to preserve order, and to act as a connecting link between the commune and the higher authorities. Beyond this he has very little power, for all the real authority resides in the village assembly.
The village assembly (selski skhod), in the wider sense of the term, comprises all the adult members of the commune. When matters of great importance are under consideration, the heads of houses alone take an active part in the discussion. I say the heads of houses, and not the fathers of families, because the Russian term khozain (head of the household) does not indicate blood relationship; and it frequently happens that the patria potestas is in the hands of the oldest brother or of the mother. Thus, strictly speaking, the assembly is composed of the representatives of families, and when the head of a family happens to be absent from the village, his place is taken by some other member of the household, male or female. In the northern provinces, where a large part of the adult male population annually leaves home in search of work, the female representatives sometimes compose the majority. The meetings are held in the open air by the side of the church, or in front of the elder's house, or in some other convenient place where there is plenty of room and little mud; and, except in the case of matters which will not admit of delay, they take place on Sunday or on a holiday. Towards afternoon, when all have enjoyed their after-dinner siesta — or it may be, immediately after the morning service — the villagers may be seen strolling leisurely towards a common point. Arrived at the village forum, they cluster together in little groups, and talk in homely fashion about the matter they have met to consider. The various groups pay no attention to each other till gradually one particular group, containing some of the more intelligent and influential members, begins to exercise an attractive force, and the others gravitate towards this centre of energy. In this way the meeting is constituted, or, more strictly speaking, spontaneously constitutes itself; and the same absence of formality continues all through the proceedings. Two, three, or more peasants often speak at once, and when the discussion waxes hot, the disputants probably use freely such unparliamentary expressions as "Durák!" (blockhead,) "Boltun!" (babbler,) "Bolván!" (scarecrow) — sometimes even stronger expressions, unsuited to ears polite. Strange to say, these strong terms never ruffle the good-nature of those to whom they are addressed, and at most evoke a retort of the tu quoque kind, which, if well put, produces roars of laughter. If we hear a shrill female voice rising above the general hum, we may be sure it is that of a widow, or a wife whose husband is absent. Some of these female members possess great volubility, and a considerable power of pungent invective; unfortunately their dialectical efforts are in part counteracted by a tendency to wander from the subject, and to make indelicate, irrelevant allusions to the private life and domestic concerns of their opponents. In general there are no attempts at speech-making, but occasionally some young "village Hampden," who has been to Moscow or St. Petersburg, and has brought back with him a jaunty air, and a large dose of self-conceit, makes something like a speeeh, and enjoys the sound of his own voice. Eloquence of this kind is, of course, appreciated only by the younger members, and makes no impression on the bulk of the audience. Very soon it is sure to be interrupted by some older member with a laconic "Moltchi, krasnobai!" (hold your tongue, fine talker,) and the abashed orator hearing the titter of his former applauders, mumbles out a retort, or hides his diminished head behind the broad shoulders of a comrade.
The subjects brought before these meetings are of the most varied kind, for the village assembly has no idea of laws limiting its competence, and is ever ready to discuss any thing affecting directly or indirectly the communal welfare. It may be that an order has been received from the higher authorities, or a recruit has to be given for the conscription, or a herd-boy has to be hired, or a day for the commencement of the ploughing has to be fixed, or the dam across the stream is in need of repairs. Such are a few examples of the matters discussed. The manner of deciding them is quite as informal as the mode of discussion. Rarely, if ever, is it necessary to put the question to the vote. As soon as it has become evident what the general opinion is, the elder says to the crowd: "Well, orthodox! you have decided so?" "Ladno! ladno!" (agreed,) replies the crowd, and the proceedings terminate, unless where the decision refers to some future contingency, in which case it is committed to writing and duly signed by all present. Those who cannot write affix a mark in the place of a signature. It is not a little remarkable that these apparently unanimous decisions do not always represent the will of the numerical majority. The crowd rarely ventures to oppose the will of the influential members.
The commune no longer possesses any criminal jurisdiction over its members; but in the outlying provinces, ancient custom sometimes proves stronger than modern legislation. As one instance out of many which have come to my knowledge, the following may be cited. In a village in the province of Samara, the commune condemned a wife who had been convicted of matrimonial infidelity to be stripped, yoked to a cart, and driven through the village by the injured spouse armed with a whip. This will recall to many a passage in the "Germania" of Tacitus: "Pæna præsens et marito permissa; abscisis crinibus, nudatam, coram propinquis expellit domo maritus ac per omnem vicum verbere agit."
So much for the commune as an organ of local self-government. Let us now consider it as an economic unit In this respect it has certain fundamental peculiarities which distinguish it from the communal institutions of western Europe; and in virtue of these peculiarities it is often believed to be not only a communal but at the same time a communistic organization. How far this belief is well founded will appear presently.
The commune is legally and actually the absolute proprietor of the communal land, and distributes it among its members as it thinks fit, subject to no control except that of custom and traditional conceptions of justice. Further, the members are responsible, collectively and individually, not only for voluntary communal obligations, but also for the taxes of every member. These are the two fundamental characteristics, and the two cohesive forces of the institution: a common proprietorship of the land, and a common responsibility for the taxes and other dues.
The communal land is generally of three kinds: (1) the land in and around the village; (2) the arable land; and (3) the pasturage.
On the first of these each family has a wooden house, an inclosed yard, a cabbage-garden, and sometimes a plot for growing hemp. Here there is no community of ownership. The house and garden are hereditary property, on which there is only one restriction: the owner cannot sell, bequeath, or otherwise alienate them to any one who is not a member of the commune.
The right of property in the arable land and pasturage is of an entirely different kind. Here each family has, strictly speaking, no right of property, but merely a right of terminable usufruct, and enjoys a quantity of land proportionate to the number of males which the household contains. In other words, each member of the commune, as soon as he begins to pay the poll-tax and other dues, receives a share of the communal land. Thus the amount of land which each family enjoys is proportionate to the amount of taxation which it pays; and the taxes, which are nominally personal, are in reality transformed into a kind of land-tax.
To render this system equitable, it would be necessary to revise annually the tax-lists, and to inscribe only the adults. In reality neither of these conditions is fulfilled. The tax-lists are revised at long and irregular intervals — only ten revisions have been made since 1719; and infants, adults, and octogenarians are all inscribed promiscuously. The revenue-officers pay no attention to the increase or decrease of the population during the intervals between the revisions, and exact from each commune a sum corresponding to the number of members inscribed in the last revision-lists.
The evil consequences of this system, when rigorously carried out, are graphically described in an official document of the year 1771, which might have been written at the present day: "In many places," it is there said, "the peasants distribute the land not according to the number of workers in each house, but according to the number of males inscribed in the revision-lists; whence it happens that, instead of the equality which ought to exist, some of the peasants have to bear a ruinous burden in the supporting of their families, and in the payment of their taxes. If, for example, in a family containing five males, there is only one able-bodied laborer, whilst the other four are children or old men incapable of work, the one laborer must not only plough and sow for the whole family, but must also pay the poll-tax and other dues for the four others as well as for himself. He receives, it is true, a proportionately large amount of land; but it is of little use to him, for he has not sufficient working-power to cultivate it. Obliged to let to others the superfluous amount, he receives for it only a small rent, for his neighbors know the position in which he is placed, and do not give him its fair value. Besides this, in some places where land is abundant, there is no one to rent the superfluous portions, so that the unfortunate peasant who receives too much land is obliged to leave his share partly uncultivated, and consequently sinks to ruin."
To prevent these evil consequences, many communes have adopted an expedient at once simple and effective: in the allotment of the land and of the burdens, each family receives a share not in proportion to the number of males which it contains, but in proportion to its working-power.
This expedient has for the moment the desired effect, but the natural course of events in the form of births and deaths renders it necessary to modify from time to time the existing arrangements, so as to restore the equilibrium between land and working-power. First, there is the natural increase of population. To provide for this some communes keep a number of reserve-lots, which the young members receive as soon as they become capable of bearing their share of the communal burdens. Other communes make no such arrangements. Whether such a provision is made or not, it inevitably happens that in the course of a few years the old evils reappear. Some families increase, whilst others diminish or die out, and a general redistribution of the land and taxes becomes necessary. In the Steppe region, where the soil is even in quality, and possessed of such natural fertility that it requires no manure — where consequently it is easy to divide the land into any number of portions equal to each other in size and quality, and no one has a special interest in particular lots, for the simple reason that one lot is as good as another — the general redistributions are frequent. Under such conditions, annual redistribution is by no means uncommon. In the north and west, on the contrary, where the inequalities of the soil render it difficult to divide the land into lots of equal quality, and where the practice of manuring gives to each family a special interest in the lot which it actually possesses, general redistributions produce an economic revolution in the commune, and are consequently made at much longer intervals.
As these periodical redistributions of the land form the essential peculiarity of the Russian communal system, and tend to illustrate its real nature, I shall endeavor to convey to the reader an idea of the way in which they are affected. Let us take first a case in which the operation is comparatively simple.
All over European Russia, except in the outlying provinces, which may for the present be left out of consideration, the arable land of the communes is divided into three fields, to suit the triennial rotation or three-field system of agriculture universally practised by the peasantry. The first field is for the winter grain (rye or winter wheat); the second for the summer grain (oats, buckwheat, millet, etc.); and the third lies fallow. When a redistribution has been resolved upon, each of the three fields is divided into an indefinite number of plots, according to the quality of the soil, and each plot or each category of plots — if there are several plots of equal quality — is then subdivided into a number of long, narrow strips, corresponding to the number of "revision-souls" (males inscribed in the revision or census lists) in the commune. Thus each family receives at least one strip — and perhaps several strips of different quality — in each field. This complicated bit of land-surveying, in which both the quality and quantity of the soil have to be considered, is performed by the peasants themselves, with the help merely of simple measuring-poles, and is accomplished with an accuracy which seems to the stranger truly marvellous. The shares are distributed among the members either by general consent or by casting lots.
This is the method commonly employed in the fertile and more densely populated regions where each family desires to have as much land as possible, and demands a number of shares corresponding to the number of "revision-souls " which it contains. In districts, on the contrary, where the land is barren and the population scant, considerable modifications have to be introduced, in order to obviate the evil consequences above described. Here the chief question is, not as to how much land each family shall receive, but as to what share of the communal burdens each family ought to bear; and for the deciding of this question the revision-lists supply only very imperfect data. It may be, for instance, that a family appears in the revision-list as containing four males, and consequently as entitled to four shares of the land and burdens, but on examination it is found that the household consists of a widow and four little boys. To impose four shares on this family would be at once unjust and inexpedient, for the widow could not possibly pay a corresponding amount of taxation; and the commune, being responsible for the taxes of the individual members, would have to make up the deficit. Before assigning the lots, therefore, the commune has to decide how many shares each particular family shall receive. In this difficult operation, it is guided, not by any definite norm, but by an approximate calculation of the working-force or tax-paying power of each individual household. When we have said that the calculation is made not by one or two dictators, but by the communal assembly, the reader may readily imagine the disputes and scenes of confusion that inevitably take place. If the communal land is merely sufficient for the wants of the members, the heads of families easily come to a satisfactory arrangement as to how many shares each one shall take; but if the land is superabundant or very poor in quality, each one naturally strives to get as little of it as possible, so that he may have less to pay. In the latter case the discussion is sure to wax hot, and a casual spectator may overhear debates of this kind: —
"Come now, Ivan," says an elderly peasant, who has evidently an air of authority, to one of the bystanders; "you are a sturdy fellow, and you have a son there, a fine youth, who can do the work of two; you must take at least three shares."
"No, I cannot," remonstrates Ivan. "By God, I cannot. My son — praise be to God! — is strong and healthy; but I am no longer what I was, and my old woman is quite without force, fit for nothing but to put the cabbage-soup into the oven! By God! I cannot."
"If the old woman is weak your daughter-in-law is strong — stronger than a little horse!"
A giggle in the outskirts of the crowd shows that the damsel referred to is among the spectators.
"In truth, it is not in my power," pleads Ivan.
"There is nothing to be said," replies the old man in an authoritative tone. "Somebody must take the remaining souls (shares). You must take three shares."
"Lay on him three shares and a half!" shouts a voice in the crowd.
This proposal evokes a confused murmur of "ayes" and "noes," till the noes gain a decided majority, and the ayes are silenced. A general shout of "Three! three!" decides the matter.
"It is the will of the mir!" remarks Ivan, scratching the back of his head, and looking down with a look of mingled disappointment and resignation. "And now, Prascovia, how much are you to have?" asks the old man, addressing a woman standing by with a baby in her arms.
"As the mir orders, so be it!" replies Prascovia, turning down her eyes.
"Very well, you ought to have a share and a half."
"What do you say, little father?" cries the woman, throwing off suddenly her air of subservient obedience. "Do you hear that, ye orthodox? They want to lay upon me a soul and a half! Was such a thing ever heard of? Since St. Peter's day my husband has been bedridden — bewitched, it seems, for nothing does him good. He cannot put a foot to the ground — all the same as if he were dead; only he eats bread!"
"You talk nonsense," says a neighbor; "he was in the kabák (gin-shop) last week."
"And you!" retorts Prascovia, wandering from the subject in hand, "what did you do last parish fête? Was it not you who got drunk and beat your wife till she roused the whole village with her shrieking? And no further gone than last Sunday — pfu!"
"Listen!" says the old man sternly, cutting short the torrent of invective. "You must take at least a share and a quarter. If you cannot manage it yourself, you can get some one to help you."
"How can that be? Where am I to get the money to pay a laborer?" asks the woman with much wailing and a flood tears. "Have pity, ye orthodox, on the poor orphans. God will reward you," and so on, and so on.
I need not weary the reader with a further description of these scenes, which are always very long and sometimes violent. All present are deeply interested, for the allotment of the land is by far the most important event in Russian peasant life, and the arrangement cannot be made without endless talking and discussion. After the number of shares for each family has been decided the distribution of the lots gives rise to new difficulties. The families who have plentifully manured their land, strive to get back their old lots, and the commune respects their claims so far as these are consistent with the new arrangement; but it often happens that it is impossible to conciliate private rights and communal interests, and in such cases the former are sacrificed in a way that would not be tolerated by men of Anglo-Saxon race.
In the above remarks I have spoken of the working-power and the tax-paying power of the different families. These two expressions are in the purely agricultural districts practically synonymous, but in the villages where some of the peasants are artisans or traders, a single peasant who is a skilled workman or carries on trade may be more able to pay taxes than a large family which has three times his working-power. This fact has given rise in some communes to a practice which is certainly patriarchal, and seems to an Englishman decidedly communistic. If a member of the commune is known to make by handicraft or by trading a much larger income than his fellows, he is made to pay a larger share of the communal burdens. "Come, now, Sidor," some influential member will say to him in the communal assembly at the time of the periodical redistribution of land, "you make a nice heap of money every year, while we, poor orphans, toil hard and gain little; the land has become barren and the times are hard; you must take a double share."
"Ay! ay!" say a dozen voices, "that you can."
"I am not rich," replies Sidor, knowing that it is useless to oppose the will of the mir, and feeling at the same time a certain pleasure in the consciousness of his own importance; "I am not rich, but I can do that. So be it."
And Sidor takes a double share, vowing probably in his heart to take it out of the commune in some indirect way.
Another method of applying this same principle is as follows. If a peasant is known to be making a good income as an artisan or shopkeeper in Moscow or St. Petersburg, his commune may elect him village elder, and then let him know unofficially that if he will kindly send ten or twenty roubles the election will be cancelled and he will be allowed to remain where he is. The elder elect probably finds it more profitable to sacrifice a considerable sum than to give up his occupation and return to his village. Of course there is an appearance of trickery and injustice in such a proceeding, and such cases are often used as texts for discourses on communal tyranny; but if we examine the matter carefully we shall find that the expedient is in reality merely a rude application of the principle of the income-tax. Unfortunately this charitable interpretation is not always applicable, for it sometimes happens that the money sent, instead of being paid into the communal treasury, is used for a communal drinking-bout.
We may pass now to the third kind of communal land, the meadow. As the cultivation of so-called artificial grasses, such as rye-grass and timothy-grass, has no place in the primitive system of agriculture practised by the Russian peasantry, the communes reserve, if possible, a moist part of the communal land for the production of hay. This part of the communal property is annually distributed in the same proportion as the arable land among the families constituting the commune, in one of two ways. The simplest method is to mow all the hay and then to distribute it among the families in the required proportions. But this mode has practical disadvantages, for the hay is often better in some parts of the meadow than in others, and therefore a mere quantitative distribution would be unjust. To obviate this injustice most communes adopt the second method, which consists in dividing the meadow into an indefinite number of plots according to the quality of the hay, and subdividing these plots into family portions. Where this method is adopted each family mows its own portion, but all the families are obliged to mow it on a day fixed by the village assembly.
Besides these three kinds of communal property, some communes possess a certain amount of forest, but the modes of enjoying it are so varied that I do not venture to lay down any general rule on the subject.
The ordinary Russian name for the rural commune, mir, means also "the world;" and it must be said that there is a certain appropriateness in the term, for each commune forms in many respects a little world apart, and resists as far as possible all interference from without. Complete communal autonomy was of course impossible after the creation of the centralized administration and the introduction of serfage. The communes of the demesnes had to submit to the regulative interference of the government, and the others to the irregular and arbitrary interference of the landed proprietors. But neither on the demesnes nor on the private estates did the mir ever lose its primitive character. Even in the worst days of serfage the proprietors never habitually interfered with the fundamental right of the commune, that of distributing the land among its members as it thought fit; and never obliterated the distinction, though they often shifted the landmarks, between the manorial and the commune property. Amidst all the storms and struggles through which Russia has passed, the peasantry have ever clung with marvellous tenacity to their land and to their ancient communal institutions; and all attempts to rob them of the one or the other have been met and frustrated by that dogged passive resistance which the Russian peasant possesses in such a pre-eminent degree. So far as the land is concerned that struggle is now at an end, for the famous emancipation law of 1861 secured to the communes, under certain conditions and subject to certain modifications, the land which they actually enjoyed. The communal institutions were likewise spared by that law, so that in Russia at the present moment the village communities still closely resemble those of western Europe before the feudal period. It is scarcely necessary to point out the use which historical investigators might make of this important fact.
The old notion, that communal institutions based on periodical redistributions of the land are peculiar to the Russians or the Slavonic race, is now completely exploded. Already they have been found in a more or less complete state of preservation, not only among non-Slavonic but also among non-Aryan races, and there is a strong tendency among historical investigators to regard them as a necessary stage in the economic development through which a nation must pass in order to attain a certain stage of civilization. "Aujourd'hui," says M. de Laveleye, the latest exponent of the theory, "on peut démontrer que ces communautés ont existé chez les peuples les plus divers: chez les Germains et dans l'antique Italie, au Pérou et en Chine, au Mexique et dans l'Inde, chez les Scandinaves et chez les Arabes, exactement avec les mêmes caractères. Retrouvant ainsi cette institution sous tous les climats et chez toutes les races, on y peut voir une phase nécessaire du développement des sociétes, et une sorte de loi universelle présidant à l'évolution de toutes les formes de la propriété foncière." The more cautious conclusions of Sir Henry Maine tend in the same direction.
I have no intention of entering here upon an examination of this general theory; but I desire to say a few words on the part which the Russian mir is made to play in the induction. It is always tacitly assumed that the Russian communal system, as it at present exists, is a very ancient institution, which has come down to us almost unchanged from prehistoric times. Now this assumption, if not unjustifiable, requires at least explanation. The essential peculiarity of the Russian commune in its present form is the periodical redistribution of the arable land according to the number of males, or according to the number of able-bodied laborers, and we have no satisfactory proof that this custom existed in any part of Russia before the seventeenth century. I know one district where the system is only now being introduced, though the land has been held by Russians for three centuries. The district referred to is the country of the Don Cossacks. It may be well to describe briefly the change which is there taking place, for it tends to throw light on the origin of the periodical redistribution.In many of the Cossack communes, or stanitsi as they are called, it was customary down to a very recent period for each Cossack to cultivate as much land as he pleased, and wherever he pleased, within the communal boundaries, provided he did not thereby infringe on the vested rights of others. The jus primæ possessonis was the only recognized tenure. When the possessor found that the soil was becoming exhausted — a phenomenon which generally appeared after three or four years' occupation — he relinquished the lot he held and took possession of some part of the communal land which happened to be unoccupied. As the population increased this operation became more and more difficult, till at last in many communes the whole of the communal land was occupied, and each cultivator was forced to content himself with the portion of the soil which he actually possessed. Thus a direct transition was effected from unregulated communal property to something very like personal property without any intermediate stage of regulated periodical distribution. The principle of private property, however, has not become consolidated. On the contrary, the old communal principle has revived with new force, and the system of periodical redistribution above described is at present being introduced. In the causes of this phenomenon, which seems a return to primitive institutions, is to be found, I believe, the explanation of much that is peculiar in the Russian communal system.
The causes of the phenomenon were briefly these. As the population increased and no new land was obtained there was naturally formed a class of Cossacks without land. In a young British colony there would be nothing abnormal or inconvenient in the existence of a class of men possessing no landed property, for such men could act as servants to the possessors of the soil, or they could remove to some other district where land could be obtained. But neither of these alternatives could be adopted by the Cossack. Agricultural laborers are to be found only in conjunction with regularly organized farming, and are rarely used by small peasant proprietors; and even if the Cossack could find employment as a laborer he could not in that capacity fulfil his obligations to the State. On the other hand he could not remove to another district, for the military organization attached him to the locality in which he was born, and was practically almost tantamount to the glebæ adscriptio. Thus, we see, the periodical redistributions of the land were the result of conditions which do not exist in a primitive state of society.
In a short article like the present, I cannot attempt to describe the analogous phenomena which I have observed in other districts; but I may say briefly that a prolonged study of communal institutions in this and other outlying provinces of Russia, and a careful examination of the documents relating to the mir in former times, have led me to the following general conclusions: —
1. Where land is very plentiful the enjoyment of the communal land may be left entirely unregulated.
2. From this unregulated enjoyment of the communal land two transitions are possible: (a) a direct transition to private or family property; (b) a transition to the system of periodical redistribution.
3. The chief causes which tend to produce the latter transition in preference to the former are: (a) restrictions on migration; (b) a system of direct taxation imposed not on property but on persons; and (c) mutual responsibility among all the members for the taxes of each.
That the latter transition has taken place in Great Russia — in Little Russia the principle of hereditary personal property prevails — is to be explained, I believe, by the glebæ adscriptio, by the adoption of the poll-tax system of taxation and by the introduction of communal responsibility in taxation. If this explanation be correct then it must be admitted that the periodical redistributions are a relatively modern institution — a view that is strongly supported by all the older documentary evidence which we possess.
Thus we see that what may be called the communal epoch in the history of landed property comprises two distinct periods: the primary period, in which the usufruct of the land rests on the unregulated jus primæ possessionis; and the secondary, in which regulated terminable usufruct is created by communal decrees. It does not, however, necessarily follow that all tribes and nations have passed through this secondary period. Indeed we know of many instances where a direct transition has been made from unregulated communal usufruct to complete personal property. All that we can venture to say in general is, that where the two periods have successively existed the primary is the older of the two. In this, as in many other instances, there is a strong analogy between social development and geological structure. Strata always occur in a certain fixed order, but it rarely happens that all the members of the series are actually present.
It is sometimes supposed that these periodical distributions of the land indicate a tendency in the Russian peasantry towards communism in the socialistic sense; and it must be confessed that the resignation with which the peasant submits to communal infringements on his personal rights and to various restrictions on his personal liberty of action seems at first sight to confirm this supposition. It would be unsafe however to draw from these facts any sweeping general conclusion. The Russian peasant, so far at least as my observations extend, has very little sympathy with communistic ideas beyond the narrow sphere to which he is accustomed, unless when they take the form of a religious doctrine. His conceptions as to the boundary line for others," the peasant fails to perceive the force of the argument.the meum and the tuum are certainly in some respects extremely vague, but when a confusion occurs it will always be found to result in favor of the meum. Towards his former master, for instance, he is quite ready to adopt the principle: "What is yours is mine but he always accompanies it with the mental reservation, "but what is mine is my own." "You are our father," he will say to the landed proprietor, to whom he was formerly a serf, "and you should let the land to us cheaper than to others." But if the proprietor should reply: "You are my children, and therefore you should work for me cheaper than
A few words now in conclusion regarding the influence of the mir on the material welfare of the peasantry and the probable future of the institution.
In the first place we must say that the mir has rendered an incalculable service to the Russian peasantry in enabling them to resist those manorial encroachments which in other countries have forced the agricultural population to emigrate or have transformed them into a landless, homeless proletariat. It must be admitted, however, that the question as to whether it ought not to be now abolished, as an institution that has served its time, is fairly open to discussion.
Those who advocate the abolition of the present system maintain that it is practically a modified form of serfage. Formerly the peasant was the serf of the landed proprietor; now he is the serf of the commune. He is still attached to the land, and cannot leave his home even for a short period, without receiving from the commune a formal permission for which he has often to pay an exorbitant sum; and when he has found profitable employment in the towns or in some other part of the country the commune may at any moment, and on the most futile pretext, compel him to return home.
All this is no doubt true, but it is in reality the result not of the communal principle but of the existing financial system. The commune has not everywhere the same nature and functions. In the southern half of the country, where the annual dues are less than the normal rent of the land, to belong to a commune is a privilege; in the northern provinces, on the contrary, where the annual dues exceed the normal rent of the land, to belong to a commune is a burden. In these latter the commune has really taken the place of the serf-proprietor, and holds its members in a state of semi-serfage, but it must be added that for this it is not to blame. As it is held responsible for the dues of all its members, and as these dues exceed the value of the benefits which it has to confer, it is obliged to retain its members whether they desire to possess land or not. In short the commune in this part of the country has been transformed against its will into a tax-gatherer; and it is obliged to use stringent measures, for the taxes are inordinately heavy, and it is held responsible for their payment. In the southern regions, where the dues do not exceed the normal rent of the land, and where the commune has more the character of a voluntary association, we hear few or no complaints of communal tyranny.
There still remains, however, the difficult question as to how far the communal right of property in the land and the periodical redistributions to which it gives rise, impose hurtful restrictions on the peasant's liberty of action in the cultivation of his fields, and deprive him of the natural inducements to improve his land. This is one of the grand quæstiones vexatæ at present agitated in Russia and is much too complex and delicate to be dismissed with a few sentences. My own opinion is, that the mir if retained in its present form may have at some future time an obstructive tendency; but I believe that this pernicious influence might be removed by means of partial modifications — preserving intact the fundamental principle of the institution — that of securing for each peasant family a house, a garden, and a share of the land. These modifications should not, however, be imposed from above. The institution has vitality enough to be in no need of extraneous guidance, and is quite capable of making in its constitution and mode of action any modification that circumstances may demand. Peasant affairs are thoroughly understood only by the peasants themselves. Reforms undertaken spontaneously by the communes will be much less sudden, less symmetrical, less formally perfect than those which might be devised by a bureaucratic commission, but they are sure to be more practically useful. Indeed it may be said in general that the friends of self-government in Russia should be very cautious in meddling with the mir, for it is the only institution which has genuine, spontaneous, independent life in it, and does not require to draw galvanic vitality from the central authority. All the other organs of self-government in Russia are more or less artificial and ornamental, and might, without any social perturbation, be demolished by the power which created them. The mir alone has deep roots in the traditions, the habits, and the everyday interests of the people, and any essential modification introduced into it suddenly by legislative enactment would be sure to influence deeply the whole social organization.
In the opinion that the mir is an institution which will one day be introduced into other countries — destinée à faire le tour du monde, as Cavour phrased it — I cannot concur. It is a useful institution where it has been preserved, but it is incapable of being transplanted to a foreign soil. Even those who maintain that the ultimate solution of those agrarian difficulties which we may ere long have to face is to be found in the principle of agricultural co-operative association, must admit that the mir is a rude, primitive instrument for the exercise of co-operative effort. In this, as in all other social questions, each nation must work out for itself a solution in accordance with its social organization and with the traditions, the habits, and the spirit of the people. Russia has, however, in preserving her communal institutions, perhaps stolen a march on western Europe, for with the commune as a basis, voluntary agricultural or industrial associations may easily be created.