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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/163

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RUSSIAN VILLAGE COMMUNITIES.

(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