Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

The footing on which the agricultural serf practically stands towards his master, is, in most respects, that of a small tenant; the principal difference being that he cannot change his employment, or move from home without his master's leave, which is sometimes obtained for a certain annual sum called obrok, in lieu of service.* As a general rule, he has a house and a portion of land, for which he pays rent in labour, instead of money.

He works three days in the week for his master, and has the remainder of his time at his own disposal. A day's labour of a man includes that of his wife and his horse when requisite.

The peasants are under the immediate authority of one of their own number elected by themselves, and called the Starosta, or Elder, of the village. This person acts as a bailiff, receiving the orders of the master or his steward, and superintending the people when at work, as well as maintaining order in the village.

These peasants, who are for the most part in a state of the grossest ignorance, are perfect predestinarians or fatalists; and this doctrine serves as an excuse on all occasions for their habitual improvidence and want of forethought. If a child dies from neglect, or a colt is destroyed by the wolves because it was left in the field at night, the peasant says it

* For this subject more at large, see “ Details of Russian Husbandry," &c,

was the will of God. Sometimes he examines his colt's teeth, and judges by certain signs whether he is fated to become food for wolves. This plan at once shifts all trouble and responsibility off his own shoulders; since if the animal is born to be devoured, of course, no precautions can avert his destiny; while, in the contrary case, they would be obviously superfluous.

The respect for religion which prevails strongly with this people, degenerates, as might be expected from their unenlightened state, into the grossest superstition. They pin their faith on images, and on the strict observance of the severe fasts of the Greek church, which occupy more than half the year, including every Wednesday and Friday, and the eve of every feast. During these fasts, neither meat nor milk, butter, eggs, nor cheese, may be tasted, and on some occasions even the use of fish is forbidden.

Among the upper classes these fasts are almost entirely neglected by the gentlemen, as not agreeing with their health. The ladies for the most part observe some of the fasts, which they consider more sacred than the others, and some few of them scrupulously obey the rule of the church throughout. Among the peasants, however, the domestic servants, and the trading class, the rule is, I believe, universally obeyed in its utmost rigour; and it is the poor peasant who chiefly feels the suffering and privation which it en

tails, since he has none of the luxurious substitutes for his ordinary diet which his richer neighbour enjoys.

Yet, though ignorant, superstitious, and a slave, he seems, in general, happy and contented, and bears about him no signs of oppression; his desires are few and easily satisfied; though his fare is coarse and poor, he seldom suffers from cold or hunger, and he is naturally gay, good-humoured, and light-hearted. With domestic servants the case is totally different; they feel the yoke of their bondage in the caprice and ill-humour which they occasionally endure, in the restraint and confinement to which they are subject, and in the constant presence before their eyes of their master's authority and power, which is in every way more galling and vexatious to them than to the village peasant. The conscription is the great evil which the latter has to dread, and a most severe affliction it is when it visits him ; but of this I shall take an opportunity of speaking in a future letter. The peasant cannot legally be sold or transferred from one master to another, excepting with the whole of his family; but this law is often broken or evaded, and I have heard of an excellent cook to be disposed of for forty pounds; and in another case, of a man who was to be had for half the

money;

in fact, although this trade in human flesh is, perhaps, not very common, the sale of an individual is looked upon as nothing extraordinary.

There are few landed proprietors, as I have re

marked in a former letter, who do not carry on a manufactory of some kind or other, and this practice arises naturally out of the circumstances of the case. The riches of the Russian gentleman lie in the labour of his serfs, which it is his study to turn to good account,* and he is the more urged to this, since the law which compels the peasant to work for him, requires him to maintain the peasant: if the latter is found begging, the former is liable to a fine. He is therefore a master who must always keep a certain number of workmen, whether they are useful to him or not; and as every kind of agricultural and out-doors employment is at a stand-still during the winter, he naturally turns to the establishment of a manufactory as a means of employing his peasants, and as a source of profit to himself. In some cases the manufactory is at work only during the winter, and the people are employed in the summer in agriculture; though beyond what is necessary for home consumption, this is but an unprofitable trade in most parts of this empire, from the badness of roads, the paucity and distance of markets, and the consequent difficulty in selling produce.

* Of course, the income derived from an estate depends upon the system of management, and upon the profit from the labour of the peasants. I believe, however, that an annual revenue to the proprietor of thirty-three or thirty-four shillings per head, reckoning all the male serfs, young and old, may be taken as a fair average.

The largest landed proprietor in Russia is Count Cheremetieff, the pumber of his souls being computed at a hundred and ten thousand,

The alternate employment of the same man in the field and in the factory, which would be attempted in most countries with little success, is here rendered practicable and easy by the versatile genius of the Russian peasants, one of whose leading national characteristics is a general capability of turning his hand to any kind of work which he may be required to undertake. He will plough to-day, weave to-morrow, help to build a house the third day, and the fourth, if his master needs an extra coachman, he will mount the box and drive four horses abreast, as though it were his daily occupation. It is probable that none of these operations, except, perhaps, the last, will be as well performed as in a country where the division of labour is more thoroughly understood. They will all, however, be sufficiently well done to serve the turn, a favourite phrase in Russia. These people are a very ingenious race, but perseverance is wanting; and though they will carry many arts to a high degree of excellence, they will generally stop short of the point of perfection, and it will be long before their manufactures can rival the finish and durability of English goods.

Where the manufactory is established on a considerable scale, and is constantly at work, the peasants are usually put on the footing of hired labourers, and instead of having an allotment of land, are paid for their work, and left to provide themselves with the necessaries of life. Their master, it is true,

« ForrigeFortsett »