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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/162

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cient 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!"