Understanding the Process of Russian Serf Emancipation

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Understanding the Process of Russian Serf Emancipation

Paper prepared for the Economic History Society meetings, University of Warwick, March 2014

Please do not quote or cite without permission

Steven Nafziger, Williams College

March 2014

The emancipation of the Russian serfs was accompanied by a complex set of land and institutional reforms that changed the organizational structure of local governance, the allocation of property rights, and the working of rural factor markets. These measures were not all initiated immediately, and it took over twenty years for the new institutional structure to be fully enacted. While the main parameters of these changes are explored elsewhere (Nafziger, 2011 and 2013b), this paper highlights five relatively unexplored aspects of the reforms that affected the nature of growth and structural transformation in the countryside. We summarize available data on each of these five components of the reforms, especially as to their timing. We speculate as to their potential effects in subsequent decades, and propose several additional empirical and theoretical directions we intend to take in future work.

Note: This “thought piece” is part of my broader project on the economics of serf emancipation and institutional change in late-Imperial Russia. As a result, some of the contextual material is left out and certain blank spots remain. This paper supersedes an earlier working paper, “Bargaining, Buying In, and Opting Out: New Evidence on Russian Serf Emancipation and Land Reform.” Additional updates may be made as the conference approaches Helpful assistance and useful comments were provided by Quamrul Ashraf, Marika Aleksieieva, Scott Gehlbach, participants at the conference “Russian, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Economic History: New Frontiers,” sponsored by Yale’s Program in Economic History, and archivists and librarians in Russia, Finland, and the United States.

Alexander II’s manifesto of February 19, 1861 initiated emancipation of the Russian serfs and began a sequence of complimentary rural reforms. These measures not only granted new legal freedoms to the rural population, but they also transferred formal land rights to the peasantry in a mortgage-like process referred to as “redemption.”1 In comparison to other cases of rural reform in 19th-century Europe or slave emancipation in the Americas, Russian peasants received substantial land rights, albeit generally in the form of communal allotments with associated collective liabilities for the mortgage-like payments. Rather than simply expropriating the peasants or the landlords, the state constructed the reforms to include a series of steps that gradually transferred land rights to different types of peasants while (partially) compensating the nobility for their losses. There was substantial heterogeneity built into this process, particularly as the price and amount of land allowed to each community was locally differentiated, and the reforms treated serf and non-serf peasants differently. Although the broad features of the reforms are widely known, neither the details, nor the repercussions of
The heterogeneity in the subsequent size of holdings, the resulting payment levels, and the nature of communal property rights has been discussed in depth elsewhere (e.g. Nafziger, 2013b). In this paper, we focus on a number of lesser-known or little studied characteristics of emancipation and redemption, all of which likely played important roles in how the set of reforms impacted the rural Russian economy. We consider five such elements, summarizing them in turn, and present initial empirical information on their magnitudes, geography, and timing. These five features are the slow pace of the transition to peasant property ownership (extending into the 1880s), the extent to which redemption deals were the result of peasant-landlord bargaining rather than dictated by the former serf owners, the possibility that former serfs could accept limited land holdings (so-called gift allotments) in exchange for no further obligations, the onset of mandated redemption and a lowering of redemption payments in the early 1880s, and, finally, the existence of surprisingly low levels of redemption payment arrears into the 20th century. Although other authors have touched upon these components of the reform process (e.g. Moon, 2001; Robinson, 1972 [1932]), their quantitative dimensions have remained obscure. As such, the primary goal of this paper is descriptive, with just a touch of speculation as to the conclusions that we might draw from the evidence or through further analysis. Given the ongoing nature of this research, the empirical facts we present should be interpreted cautiously, as information is still being collected.
1. Serf Emancipation and Redemption: The Nuts and Bolts of Institutional Change
As a first step, the Emancipation Statutes – the Main Statutes and Local Statutes for different regions of the Empire – called for the formulation of ustavnye gramoty, or regulatory charters, between the former serf communities and their previous landlords. These charters were to be proposed by the landowners within one year from receipt of the proclamation (Clause 20-21). Based on guidelines laid out in the Main and Local Statutes, the charters summarized previous rights and obligations of the serfs and translated them into new collective land endowments and sets of labor duties or cash payments that were to apply until the final property transfer was resolved. The charters were to be approved by both sides, with hundreds of newly named mirovye posredniki (peace mediators) aiding in their writing and ratification (Easley, 2008; Tolstoy famously worked as a mediator). The resulting number of obligated souls (dushi – a tax unit roughly equivalent to one working-age male) subject to each charter was set on the basis of the tax census of 1857-58.2 If the amount of land per soul (a soul “allotment,” or nadel) exceeded the local maximum norm as defined in the relevant Local Statute, the excess could be “cut-off” and retained by the landlord. If soul allotments fell below one-third of this maximum norm, land was to be added to the new endowment to top it up.3 At a minimum, landlords had the right to keep at least one-third of the estate’s land, and until 1870 they could reduce peasant allotments to the minimum norm at will.
These rules pertained only to the arable land on the serf estate. Distinct conditions held for garden plots (passed entirely to the former serfs without charge) and for other types of land. Significantly, the former serf-owner kept all claims to forests and meadows, which were often vital inputs into farming (via livestock) and peasant non-agricultural livelihoods. Even in the case of arable land, the landlords had the right to pick and choose the specific property they retained as long as the amount available to the peasants followed the statutes. A Soviet literature emphasized how land “cut-offs” (otrezki) from peasant holdings under the Local Statutes often reached significant levels, even on top of the already relatively small land holdings granted under serfdom. According to studies of land charters, the former serfs of Simbirsk province lost access to over 30% of the land they previously utilized (Kanatov, 1964). In Moscow province, they lost 14.2% of their land (Zaionchkovskii, 1958, p. 182). Soviet and other scholars have long emphasized that first-order effects on the economic conditions of the former serfs stemmed more from their substantially worsened property endowments after emancipation.4
For most of European Russia, the emancipation statutes framed the peasant property rights under consideration as collective, where the relevant party was a newly formalized version of the traditional peasant commune known as the sel’skoe obshchestvo, or rural society.5 Some immediate mechanisms for “individualizing” these rights were available under the statutes, and some resources (especially garden plots) were generally considered to be private (household) property, but for most communities in European Russia, the land described in the charters was legally defined to be communal allotment land (obshchestvennaia nadel’naia zemlia), within which the community could redistribute specific plots among member households. The property rights of individual households were heavily circumscribed on such land. However, for western and southwestern provinces, and if specifically desired by communities elsewhere, the property and associated obligations were collectively denoted in the charters but the rights were to be granted as household allotment land (podvornnaia nadel’naia zemlia). This specification of peasant property rights was meant to reflect conditions on the ground in those regions where the commune was absent of simply less involved in agricultural decision-making. Such household allotments were not subject to communal redistributions, although the exact legal status (for mortgaging, etc.) of plots under podvornoe tenure was not well defined in the law, and joint liability for payments apparently remained in practice. For both types of allotment land, statutes limited the alienability of the property until at least 1870.
By the beginning of 1864, almost all of the regulatory charters were certified by the state authorities and former serf communities entered into “temporary obligations.”6 During this stage, the households assigned to a commune were collectively liable for the revised cash or labor obligations outlined by the charters (even if the allotment land was under podvornnoe tenure). In this stage, the maximum allotment norm corresponded to either an amount of labor (in days per year) or a fixed payment, and labor services were to be converted to cash as soon as possible.7 Households could only exit with the unanimous approval of the rest of the members (and, in general, not before 1870). Those wishing to leave had to give up all rights to a share of the commune’s land, and the commune had to agree to take up their outstanding debts and shares of obligations.
Temporary obligations were intended to last until the financial arrangements were made to legally transfer the land to the peasant commune. This generally involved the formulation of a vykupnaia sdelka, or a redemption deal. These deals, which came to resemble mortgage transactions for most peasants, documented the boundaries and value of the land to be formally transferred, which could entail some adjustments from the specifications laid out in the land charters.8 The yearly payments, including the monetary equivalent of any labor services, to former serf-owners under temporary obligations were capitalized at a 6% interest rate to establish the aggregate redemption value of the (possibly revised) collective land allotment to be transferred.9 According to the Redemption Statutes, deals could be initiated through mutual agreement between the community and the former serf-owner (requiring a 2/3 vote in the communal assembly) or at the demand of the former seignior. Within many of the mutual agreements, supplementary payments or contracted labor arrangements were included to provide the peasants with access to additional land or resources and the former serf owners with labor. Although almost entirely unacknowledged in the literature, such additional contracted elements of the deals possibly did much in reconstituting many elements of serfdom under something like a form of debt peonage.10
Regardless of whether redemption deals were mutually agreed upon or not, the newly reconstituted State Bank typically financed the transfer through 49-year loans made to the communes.11 From the former serf owner’s perspective, the amount they finally received depended on whether or not the deal was mutual and on the amount of existing debt owed by the estate (Gerschenkron, 1965; and Zaionchkovskii, 1960).12 In aggregate, the total value of redemption loans made to the former serfs amounted to over 860 million nominal rubles, which was roughly one third of best-guess estimates of Russian national income in 1861 (Lositskii, 1906, p.39). This corresponded to approximately 26.8 rubles per redeemed desiatina (about 10 rubles per acre) or 95 rubles per male former non-household serf, at a time when mean per capita incomes were likely less than 50 rubles. Out of this aggregate liability, at least 320 million rubles (37 percent) were deducted from what former estate owners received due to outstanding mortgage debt to various financial institutions (ibid, p. 44).
A key feature of the redemption program was that the commune was collectively responsible for making payments on the outstanding redemption debt (in practice, even under podvornnaia tenure it appears). To enforce household contributions under this joint liability, the communal assembly was granted legal authority over the immovable property and labor allocation decisions of those in arrears, supported if necessary by local police actions (Burds, 1998; and Nafziger, 2013a). The statutes stated that renewals of passports for work outside the village were only possible if arrears were paid off. If a commune failed to make one of the twice-yearly redemption payments, local state officials could sell assets or punish communal officers. After the community began redemption, households could only legally alienate their share of communal land by paying off their portion of the loan in its entirety. These de jure restrictions lasted into the 20th century and have led many historians – most prominently Alexander Gerschenkron – to see the emancipation and redemption reforms as re-imposing many of the same constraints on mobility as existed under serfdom. In this interpretation, these restrictions lowered the supply of labor into industry, forced manufacturing to be overly capital-intensive, and slowed industrialization, thereby generating a “considerable obstacle” for economic growth that lasted until the Stolypin reforms of the 1900s (1965, p. 121).13 And because these constraints appeared to bind tighter on the former seigniorial peasants, the implication is that the adverse development effects would have been greater in areas of higher serf prevalence. What is missing from this account is a consideration of the role played by contracted obligations outside redemption and delays in exiting from temporary obligation.
Before emancipation, seigniorial obligations were not exclusively based on the productivity of the land but were extracted from the total income of serf labor in both agricultural and non-agricultural activities. As a result, post-1861 redemption payments in provinces such as Moscow, where regular and seasonal non-agricultural employment was prevalent before emancipation, probably continued to exceed the agricultural (rental) value of the land (Hourwich, 1891; and Ianson, 1881).14 According to some accounts, the loss in allotment land from the pre-1861 period was matched by a rise in its “price” under redemption. Considering data from 9 of the 13 districts of Moscow province, Boris Litvak found that average payments per soul decreased from 9.36 to 8.44 rubles, while the average per desiatina left to the former serfs increased by 8.3%.15 Soviet scholars went on to argue that these higher cash demands caused previously autarkic agricultural households to look off the farm for income sources to pay their obligations, thereby leading to a “proletariatization” of the countryside.16
Peasants residing on privately owned land were not the only ones affected by reform in the 1860s. Serf emancipation was followed by similar acts for the former appanage (Romanov family-owned, i.e. court) and state peasants.17 Regarding the latter, the state initiated a process to fully document the holdings of the state peasants under an 1866 measure, with land allotments defined collectively at the commune-level and described in “ownership notes” (vladennye zapiski). These were compiled in a similar manner to the regulatory charters of the former serfs, but they were based on the officially conducted cadastres of state property in the 1840s and 1850s, rather than any mediated bargaining process at the estate level.18 As a result, these settlements typically granted state peasant communes the land that they already held usufruct rights over.19 In return for this property, communities were made collectively liable for 20 years of payments (obrochnye podati) that corresponded to their current land rental obligations to the state. Initially, these communal endowments did not entail full ownership rights, as the property was intended for the “perpetual use” of the communities (Zaionchkovskii, 1960, p. 274). However, following legislation in 1886, these payments were converted into redemption obligations, and the former state peasant communities gained the same property rights that the former serfs held over redemption land (PSZ, Ser. 3, No. 3807).
Limited evidence on ownership notes and final land holdings does suggest that the state peasants experienced some changes in their land endowments during their reform process, likely due to statute caps on allotments per soul. State peasants in Moscow province lost some arable land and access rights to a substantial amount of forested area (Druzhinin, 1978, p. 108). In Simbirsk, state peasants lost 14.8% of their land, although this was less than half of the percentage lost by the former serfs (Kanatov, 1964). Even with these losses, the final amount of land was likely more favorable than what was received by the former serfs (Nafziger, 2013b). Rough calculations have shown that the total obligations (including various property-based state and local tax assessments) on the state peasantry were substantially lower than the payments made by the former serfs and were very close to what they paid before the reforms (Ianson, 1881; and Ivanov, 1945, pp. 112-121).20
Therefore, most of the land held by the peasantry was the direct result of the land reform process and was essentially fixed after redemption began. By 1905, across European Russia, allotment land amounted to approximately 124 million desiatina, while individual peasants, peasant partnerships, and the communes themselves owned roughly 24.6 million desiatina in total under private property rights (Russia, Tsentral’nyi, 1906).21 Within the peasantry, the analysis in Nafziger (2013b) indicates that serfs had access to less property than state (or court) peasants by the late 1850s. This is true even if only districts with both state peasants and serfs are considered. Our work also shows that the average allotment per household was considerably smaller among former serfs in 1905 (this holds if the same set of districts are considered for each type of peasants). The statistical evidence is consistent with the former legal status of the peasant population leading to long-run differences in land endowment levels, but our work also shows that inequality in land holdings was considerably higher in districts characterized by relatively more former serfs. These and other statistics on land holdings presented in Nafziger (2013b) were compiled from the full set of published returns to two official land surveys in 1877 and 1905 (Russia, Tsentral’nyi, 1880-1885 and 1906).22
Overall, serfs may have lost more land and remained responsible for greater obligations than other types of peasants as a result of the land settlement process. Other aspects of the economic and institutional conditions of the state peasants were likely better (or at least less onerous) than those of the serfs before the reforms, and these may have translated into better outcomes afterwards.23 Some of the differences between these two types of villages – endowments and obligation levels – are measureable, while others – e.g. the quality of self-government or the amount of communal restrictions on labor mobility – are unobservable. At the same time, state policies increasingly treated the various types of peasants in the same way. Statutes in 1886 and 1893 reinforced state and communal control over inheritance practices, land allocation, and the possibility of household exit from the burdens of redemption for both state peasants and former serfs.24 As a result, Gerschenkron and others argue that the two types of peasants really faced similar constraints through the communal structure of land rights and collective obligations, at least after 1866.25 Other reforms resulted in more equality of obligation levels within the peasantry, as discussed further below.
2. Five Little Known Features of the Emancipation and Redemption Reforms
In ongoing research (Nafziger, 2013), we rely on a variety of newly collected district-level data to document and explore the geographic variation in the conditions of serfdom, the amount of land transferred to the peasantry and associated redemption price, and various socio-economic outcomes. We assess the work of Gerschenkron and others by paying particular attention to the differences between former serfs and the rest of the peasantry, arguing that comparing the two provides some indirect evidence on the long-run impact of serfdom and serf emancipation. In the context of that research, it quickly became apparent that understanding the economic implications of emancipation and redemption required a more complete empirical accounting of the various components of these reforms beyond the most well known features. It is not enough to simply compare the observable land and obligation levels between serfs and non-serfs, before and after 1861. Rather, the complexity of the end of serfdom, as manifested in a number of other lesser-known features of the accompanying reforms, generated short and medium term variation in institutional conditions across European Russia. Instead of rehashing our work on the (land) endowment effects of emancipation and redemption, we feel that it is important to unpack these other dimensions by which the reforms likely affected Russian economic development.
2.1 Bargaining over the Settlements and the Pace of the Reforms
The actual emancipation decree in 1861 did not lead to an immediate change in the organization of rural life. Rather, it was the beginning of what was a fairly lengthy reform process that was only fully executed by the 1880s (even then, redemption payments for the land extended into the 20th century). Each stage – the writing of the land charters, temporary obligations, and the settling of the actual property transfer – entailed significant obstacles, especially from the bargaining processes that underlay the construction of the land charters and redemption deals. The initial determination of the land holdings that the former serfs previously had access to, and what they then could utilize under temporary obligation, often involved conflict and the direct intervention of the peace mediator. Peasant communities could refuse to sign the resulting charters, although they were to be put into effect by the end of 1863. In Column 3 of Table 1, we provide some summary evidence across provinces as to the willingness for peasants to sign land charters by the end of 1862. Not quite 50 percent of the charters proposed (by the landowner before spring 1862) were agreed to by that point. Easterly (2008, pp. 104-118) describes a large number of scenarios, including outright conflict, that resulted in delayed agreements to the charters. This fits with the findings of Finkel et al. (2013), who show that there was a surge in former serf unrest in 1861-63.
Less is known about the process of setting up the new institutions of peasant self-government: the rural society and the township (volost’). These institutions already existed among the state peasantry, and the organizational structure for the former serfs and other peasants closely followed the earlier model. The setting up of new institutions was supposed to be the first obligation of the peace mediator, so that a formal organization (the rural societies) would be party to the land charters. According to Easterly (2008, p. 101), the establishment of new township level institutions posed more difficulties, especially with the creation of an electoral system from scratch. However, there are considerable archival records of township and rural society activities from 1861 and 1862 (e.g. GANO: 864.1578a.1, on the fall 1861 activities of Romenovskoe township council in Nizhegorod province), suggesting that these institutions did begin functioning relatively quickly to provide basic administrative services.

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