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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/165

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157
RUSSIAN VILLAGE COMMUNITIES.

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