The situation of the peasantry in the 19th century Russian Empire is much more complex than generally thought, and a genealogist with ancestors in the territories of rural Russia should be aware of this complexity so as to better understand the likely circumstances under which their ancestors may have lived.
Firstly, it is not true to think of the peasantry as being a single undifferentiated mass, or to say that all peasants were serfs. The Russian Empire was expanding in all directions at the start of the 19th century. The Poles in the Partition were not enserfed when they came under Tsarist jurisdiction; nor were the Finns after 1809 or the Bessarabians after 1812. Furthermore, where serfdom had previously existed in the Baltic, it began to be modified, first in Livonia (or Livland – roughly the north of modern day Latvia and the south of Estonia), where there were reforms in 1804, and then in Estland (today’s northern Estonia) and Courland (or Kurland, western and southern Latvia) where there was landless emancipation of the serfs during the years 1816 to 1819. This introduces another point worth emphasising: emancipation did not necessarily lead to increased prosperity and, in fact, the opposite was true in these Baltic regions – the serfs were freed without being gifted or sold land and therefore became more destitute than they had been before the reforms.
Elsewhere in the empire, most minorities, such as the free agriculturalists, were not subject to serfdom, something that the Russian peasantry did not understand and which could cause resentment – why should German colonists, for example, be free when native Russians were not?
Secondly, there were different types of peasant in the lands of Imperial Russia.
There were state peasants, who were literally owned by the state and worked upon state lands. They were the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance and later, from 1837, the Ministry of State Properties. Although state peasants enjoyed some rights and freedoms (for example, they could acquire smallholdings of their own and even become civil servants), they had to pay taxes, maintain roads and supply recruits to the army. Moreover, the state was a largely indifferent owner and did not invest in its properties.
Then there were privately-owned serfs, who were the property of the landowning aristocracy and gentry. Absentee landowners often left an estate manager in charge, not infrequently to exploit the serfs on the estate. Some landowners permitted their serfs to remit in cash not labour dues – in other words, instead of working upon the landowner’s estate, they could leave the land and go to work in a town or city, and pay their owner in lieu. Of course, while some serfs made a substantial amount of money and were able to purchase their freedom, the majority remained upon the land in reduced circumstances.
The serfs in Russia were emancipated from 1861. Unlike in the Baltic region of the empire in 1816, the serfs were able to purchase their dwelling and land, so as to become independent smallholders. As redemption prices for the privilege of emancipation were way beyond the means of many serfs, the state lent them monies at 6% annual interest for up to 49 years, thereby creating a generation of peasants perpetually in arrears to the state.
Then there was the issue of military service. By 1815 the Russian Army was 1 million strong and the state, entering peacetime, was apprehensive of demobilisation and its impact upon communities across Russia and its potential for unrest. At this point, it needs to be explained what military service entailed. Men were recruited at aged 20 years for a period of 25 years (reduced to 15 years from 1834). Once enlisted, a serf became a free man in law; hence, once demobbed he would be his own man, with no immediate source of employment but with the experience of handling a weapon. To mitigate the risks that this entailed, the army found ways of making military service mean life service, not releasing men at the end of their term (for instance, by imposing extra service as a penalty for the many disciplinary offences).
Between 1815 and 1858, the state found an ingenious way of dealing with demobilisation and managing the risk to stable civilian life of releasing ex-soldiers into the community. So as not to demobilise troops, agricultural “military colonies” were established. Previously uninhabited state land was colonised by a mixture of soldiers and state-owned peasants commandeered from elsewhere. The soldiers retained the status of soldiers, although in their everyday lives they became agricultural labourers working for the state peasants. The army was therefore kept at full strength and made economically productive and self-supporting. Furthermore, the reserve army was strengthened because of the newly acquired status of the state peasants residing in these military colonies. The head of the household and the eldest son remained state peasants. However, younger sons were classed as military canonists (the term used for sons of soldiers during their minority) and joined the reserve at aged 18 years. It is estimated that by 1825 over 750,000 soldiers and families had been settled on these military colonies in areas such as Mogilev, Novgorod and St Petersburg, as well as in the southern region of Ukraine.
Much has been written about Jewish aversion to military service and, of course, the Jews shared the same reasons as the Russian peasantry for not being keen on being conscripted into the army, plus had plenty more valid religious reasons of their own. In fact, the Jewish population of the Russian Empire was not subject to military service until 1827. However, from then on, the state pursued a russification programme for the Jews and required them to be available for service from aged 12 years. Community elders had to select the recruits whenever demanded each year and of course this led to tension and frequent flight to evade the draft.
It is interesting to note that the infantry divisions of the Russian Army tended to be garrisoned around the periphery of the empire, especially in the west. While therefore there might be a solitary division in the Caucasus, or one in Orenburg towards the restless Kazakhstan, the vast majority were stationed in occupied Congress Poland and the westernmost gubernia of Russia (areas now in Belarus’ and Ukraine) where there was a perceived and sometimes a very real threat of politically or economically driven internal unrest.