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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/169

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161
RUSSIAN VILLAGE COMMUNITIES.

for others," the peasant fails to perceive the force of the argument.

A few words now in conclusion regarding the influence of the mir on the material welfare of the peasantry and the probable future of the institution.

In the first place we must say that the mir has rendered an incalculable service to the Russian peasantry in enabling them to resist those manorial encroachments which in other countries have forced the agricultural population to emigrate or have transformed them into a landless, homeless proletariat. It must be admitted, however, that the question as to whether it ought not to be now abolished, as an institution that has served its time, is fairly open to discussion.

Those who advocate the abolition of the present system maintain that it is practically a modified form of serfage. Formerly the peasant was the serf of the landed proprietor; now he is the serf of the commune. He is still attached to the land, and cannot leave his home even for a short period, without receiving from the commune a formal permission for which he has often to pay an exorbitant sum; and when he has found profitable employment in the towns or in some other part of the country the commune may at any moment, and on the most futile pretext, compel him to return home.

All this is no doubt true, but it is in reality the result not of the communal principle but of the existing financial system. The commune has not everywhere the same nature and functions. In the southern half of the country, where the annual dues are less than the normal rent of the land, to belong to a commune is a privilege; in the northern provinces, on the contrary, where the annual dues exceed the normal rent of the land, to belong to a commune is a burden. In these latter the commune has really taken the place of the serf-proprietor, and holds its members in a state of semi-serfage, but it must be added that for this it is not to blame. As it is held responsible for the dues of all its members, and as these dues exceed the value of the benefits which it has to confer, it is obliged to retain its members whether they desire to possess land or not. In short the commune in this part of the country has been transformed against its will into a tax-gatherer; and it is obliged to use stringent measures, for the taxes are inordinately heavy, and it is held responsible for their payment. In the southern regions, where the dues do not exceed the normal rent of the land, and where the commune has more the character of a voluntary association, we hear few or no complaints of communal tyranny.

There still remains, however, the difficult question as to how far the communal right of property in the land and the periodical redistributions to which it gives rise, impose hurtful restrictions on the peasant's liberty of action in the cultivation of his fields, and deprive him of the natural inducements to improve his land. This is one of the grand quæstiones vexatæ at present agitated in Russia and is much too complex and delicate to be dismissed with a few sentences. My own opinion is, that the mir if retained in its present form may have at some future time an obstructive tendency; but I believe that this pernicious influence might be removed by means of partial modifications — preserving intact the fundamental principle of the institution — that of securing for each peasant family a house, a garden, and a share of the land. These modifications should not, however, be imposed from above. The institution has vitality enough to be in no need of extraneous guidance, and is quite capable of making in its constitution and mode of action any modification that circumstances may demand. Peasant affairs are thoroughly understood only by the peasants themselves. Reforms undertaken spontaneously by the communes will be much less sudden, less symmetrical, less formally perfect than those which might be devised by a bureaucratic commission, but they are sure to be more practically useful. Indeed it may be said in general that the friends of self-government in Russia should be very cautious in meddling with the mir, for it is the only institution which has genuine, spontaneous, independent life in it, and does not require to draw galvanic vitality from the central authority. All the other organs of self-government in Russia are more or less artificial and ornamental, and might, without any social perturbation, be demolished by the power which created them. The mir alone has deep roots in the traditions, the habits, and the everyday interests of the people, and any essential modification introduced into it suddenly by legislative enactment would be sure to influence deeply the whole social organization.

In the opinion that the mir is an institution which will one day be introduced into other countries — destinée à faire le tour du monde, as Cavour phrased it — I cannot concur. It is a useful institution