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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/167

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159
RUSSIAN VILLAGE COMMUNITIES.

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.