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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/166

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158
RUSSIAN VILLAGE COMMUNITIES.

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