Chekhov the census enumerator

Sakhalin island, in the Russian Far East, north of Japan, was of interest to the Tsarist Empire for a multitude of reasons: its proximity to the mouth of the Amur River, its mineral reserves, its strategic location in the push and shove of its relations with Japan, its potential value as a hub in the development of a navigable northern sea route which would join the sea ports of European Russia, such as Archangel and Murmansk, over the top of Siberia, to Manchuria. Russia was keen to colonise the island but it was not a natural destination for settlers – even discounting its utter remoteness, its climate and landscape were not exactly hospitable. Russia therefore pursued its traditional policy of establishing a penal colony, which it did from 1857.  

Chekhov visited Sakhalin in July 1890 and, fascinatingly, in order to understand the human geography of the island, conducted his own personal, unofficial census of the population. He printed his own census forms on which to record the place of residence, the name, the status of the individual (convict, exile or “settler”, peasant formerly exiled, or free person), relationship to head of household, age, religion, place of birth, year of arrival on Sakhalin, occupation, literacy and marital status. He covered the island singlehandedly over three months. The Island of Sakhalin, the fine book that resulted from his stay, was published in Russia in 1895 and is available in an English language translation by Luba and Michael Terpak. 

The Russian presence in Sakhalin was barely 30 years old when Chekhov visited and the writer found a frontier society with all the usual trimmings (drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, boredom etc). A distinction was maintained between convicts and exiles, the former being criminals (including army deserters) and the latter politicals or casualties of class conflicts (often peasants). The exiles were also termed “settlers”, as if they had come of their own free will. After 10 or six years, an exile was freed and legally acquired the status of a “peasant formerly exiled”. A “free person” was an individual who had voluntarily arrived in Sakhalin, often as wives or family of a convict or exile, but also including traders, seafarers and the civil and prison service administration. 

The political exiles came from all across the Russian Empire. Chekhov mentions Finns, Polish Catholics, Ukrainians and Armenians from Yerevan guberniya, for instance. Many of the other types of resident were vague or evasive about such details as their places of birth, their age or their date of arrival on Sakhalin. Not a few were unsure of their names, or had acquired new names. Chekhov lists the following surnames: 

  • Besprozvaniya – “Nameless”
  • Bezbozhny – “Godless”
  • Bezotechestva – “Countryless”
  • Boganov – “Godgiven”
  • Koloda – “Fetter”
  • Nepomnyashchy – “Unremembered”
  • Neizvestnovo Zvaniya – “Man With No Name”
  • Zamozdrya – “Behind Walls” 

Note that these are the actual surnames in use, not the answers to Chekhov’s questions.     

Chekhov also notes that marriage was not in favour anywhere on the island:

“Nowhere else in Russia is illicit marriage so widely and notoriously prevalent, and nowhere else does it take the peculiar form it does on Sakhalin. Illicit marriage or, as it is called here, free cohabitation, does not find objectors among either the officials or the priesthood but, on the contrary, it receives encouragement and is sanctioned. There are settlements where not even one legal marriage is encountered… Free couples… beget children for the colony and therefore there are no reasons to pass separate laws for them at registration”.

The origins of Lithuanians in Scotland

John Millar’s The Lithuanians in Scotland (House of Lochar, 1998) provides a very readable account of the lives of first and second generation Lithuanian immigrants in Scotland, covering their geographic distribution, their working and living conditions, their customs and traditions. It is fascinating on the name changes and how most immigrants took Scottish surnames (usually seemingly assigned to them rather than chosen voluntarily). 

The book was written before the recent great explosion of interest in family history and, of course, was not written with the family historian in mind. Unfortunately, while it should prove essential reading to anyone trying to understand their Lithuanian roots in Scotland, it is less helpful for anyone wishing to extend their genealogical research back to Lithuania. The book is light on the places of origin of the Lithuanians who came to Scotland. Various places are mentioned in passing – “Vladislavovskiy district” (today known in Lithuanian as the border town of Kudirkos Naumiestis), “the valley of the Nemunas River”, “Mikolines dvaras near Mariampolė” (a dvaras is a farm or manor estate), “Sukalupio dvaras in the Naumiestis area” and Kaunas itself. If these places are plotted on a map of Lithuania, it does appear that Millar’s general statement that “the majority… came… from the Suvalkija area in the south-west of the country and from the Kaunas district” is probably true. This is the region south of the Nemunas and east of the Šešupė River, extending east to Kaunas. 

However, it is important to understand that vital records in Lithuania – the Roman Catholic parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial – are held by specific locality. There is no centralised or regional indexing, and no computerised database. Therefore, it is vital to know or to be able to find out exactly where an ancestor came from to have good prospects of finding their birth or baptism in Lithuania and being able to research their family tree back from there. 

One also needs to be mindful of not confusing a regional place name with a town or village name. For instance, Kaunas is both the town and the region – in Imperial Russian times, Kovno (Kaunas) gubernia covered the majority of what is today Lithuania. Similarly, Suwałki gubernia covered the Suvalkija region mentioned above plus adjoining territory in what is today Poland, including the Polish town of Suwałki itself. 

The historical geography is especially important to grasp as, with the exception of Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in Scotland as Displaced Persons immediately after WW2, the Lithuanians in Scotland arrived in the country from the Russian Empire before the start of WW1. In historical documents, therefore, including Scottish census returns, Russian terminology is to be expected, as the Lithuanians were Russian subjects, who prior to their emigration had resided in the Russian Empire (“Poland” is often seen too, as Suwałki gubernia was part of Congress Poland, that part of partitioned Poland belonging to Russia). 

If you are interested in taking your Lithuanian genealogy further, Bluebird Research is always happy to receive enquiries and provide a professional opinion on the prospects for family history research in Lithuania.

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Russian serfs, peasants and military service

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.

The 1918 Albanian census

Albania was never part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but one of the most useful genealogical sources for Albanian family history is a census conducted and preserved by the Austrians. This took place in March 1918, during the Austrian military occupation of the country in WW1. 

Not all of the country was under Austrian control at that time; areas to the south of the river Vjosë were under Italian occupation and the census was not extended to such parts of the country. This means that towns such as Gjirokastër, Sarandë and Vlorë were excluded. Unfortunately, also, census returns for some districts of the Austrian-controlled area of Albania have been lost: this mostly affects the vicinity of Berat, Fier and Lushnjë. All that survives for these areas is statistical information. 

However, censuses survive for the majority of the northern and central regions of Albania, including such key communities as the port of Durrës, Elbasan, the predominantly Roman Catholic town of Shkodër and the capital Tiranë. A total of 435,075 individuals are enumerated in these bilingual (Albanian and German language) surviving census enumeration books. 

The census is superbly detailed. As well as the usual census data such as administrative geography and address, the information captured for each individual in every household included their name, relation to head, sex, age, place of birth, usual abode, occupation, religion, nationality, literacy in the Latin and Turkish alphabets, and so on. 

An especially interesting feature of the census is the evidence of polygyny. Monogamous marriage was enforced by the state in 1928; or, rather, future polygamous unions were made illegal, as existing marriages were not affected. Until then, it was not unusual for Albanian men to take two or very rarely three concurrent wives. It should be stressed that this was culturally acceptable in both Christian and Muslim societies in Albania, albeit far more common in Muslim. It was predominantly a feature of rural villages (especially in the northern mountains) and was only very rarely encountered in towns. Academics working with the data contained within the 1918 Albanian census have calculated that 4.9% of Albanian marriages extant in March 1918 were polygamous. This figure is recognised as an under-estimate of the total proportion of polygynous marriages, as it excludes those marriages in which either the man or the woman had died before 1918 (and it should be noted that the percentage of widows in the census is very high). 

Where a man has two wives, these are marked in the census as Frau I and Frau II and ordered by seniority. Invariably, the first wife was the elder of the two: the average age difference between the two women or co-wives (known as shemra in Albanian) was seven years but sometimes it was as great as 35 years.  Second wives were taken for various reasons. The usually accepted reason was the childlessness of the first wife; or, given the widespread cultural son preference, the “sonlessness” of that marriage. However, another reason for a householder to take a younger second wife was to secure extra household labour, especially where the first wife was in declining health or the couple had no live-in daughter-in-law. Two other reasons have been offered, namely the levirate (where a widow marries a brother of her late husband) and the sororate (where a woman marries the widower of her late sister, for instance to look after young children) but of course both of these practices would require the man to already have a first wife and therefore probably contribute only slightly to the overall proportion of polygynous marriages. Finally, a head of a household may simply have taken a second younger wife simply because he could. 

The feature of polygyny in Albanian society can have repercussions for a family historian working with the 1918 census, as it can lead to uncertainty as to the true maternity of a child: even if only one wife is named in the census, the possibility of one or more of the children in the household being the issue of a now deceased wife cannot always be eliminated.  

Occasionally in the 1918 census you will come across a head of household with two mothers, Mutter I and Mutter II. This points to a scenario in which the head’s father died at some date before 1918 but was survived by two co-wives. Of course, only one is the actual birth mother of the late head’s son, now in 1918 the new head of household. However, once again, it is not necessarily apparent which Mutter is the true mother and which a kind of step-mother. 

The Albanian census also confirms the reports of 19th century travellers and anthropologists in the region regarding age at marriage. These reports speak of child betrothal and of grooms being 15 years and brides as young as 12 or 13 years old. Although it is clear that these ages were not the averages but those at the lowest end of a range, very young brides were not unusual and a 13-year old co-wife in a polygynous marriage has been noted. However, Albanian society was already changing, more typical ages for groom and bride were 29 and 18 years respectively, and perhaps a more notable feature is the disparity in age between bride and groom – averaging at 11 years for a first marriage. The communists banned what they regarded as under-age marriage after WW2 and it is unlikely that Albania today displays ages at marriage much different from those anywhere else in Europe.

Marriage in Hungary

Civil registration – mandatory official secular registering of vital events of birth, marriage and death – was implemented by different states at different times. 

In Hungary before 1895, registration was the responsibility of church not state. What this means is that the different faiths recorded the baptisms, marriages and burials of members of their congregations in different ways. 

This also means, of course, that baptism was not compulsory. While in the 19th century baptism was probably near universal for those of Christian faith in Hungary, equally it is clearly the case that there may be no record of birth or baptism for some individuals born before 1895 (for example, if one or both parents were not religious, or resented the charge for baptism, or were travelling, or were of no fixed abode). 

Marriageable age, before the 1895 Civil Marriage Act in Hungary, was set by the customs and traditions of the various faiths. For example, the age of marriage for Roman Catholics was 14 for males and 12 for females (although of course such ages are absolute minima and were presumably very rare in the 19th century). Similarly, for the Calvinists, the marriageable ages were 18 for males and 15 for females. Under Jewish law, the minimum age for marriage was traditionally 13 years for boys and 12 years for girls. Of course, marriages at such young ages were uncommon. Before WW1, the average age at marriage for both sexes spanned a couple of years either side of 20, with the groom usually two to four years older than his bride. This of course is in respect of first marriages. In the second half of the 19th century, up to 1 in 5 marriages related to remarriage of the widowed. Interestingly, demographers have reported that Hungarian widowers tended to remarry more quickly and more frequently than widows. 

Marriage (and divorce) in Hungary became a civil institution from 1st October 1895. Henceforth, civil registration of marriages was compulsory; religious celebration was optional and a matter of personal conviction. 

For genealogists, it is worth knowing the marriageable ages in different jurisdictions at different times. While, of course, some brides and grooms might be economical with the truth when declaring their ages, either adding or subtracting years to suit the occasion and the need, in theory when searching speculatively for the known, expected or possible marriage of a particular individual it makes sense to search from the marriage age onwards, rather than covering years when a marriage should not have taken place. Only if a marriage is not found in such years should you backtrack to the years in which, strictly speaking, marriage was not permitted. 

In this regard, it is important to note that Hungary had a surprisingly high marriageable age regulation between the Wars. In the 1930s, the legal age for marriage was 24 years. This was reduced to 20 years in 1952, then to 18 years, and finally, in 1973, to 16 years for females conditional upon parental consent. 

Bluebird Research provides professional family history research assistance to genealogists researching their Hungarian roots and would be pleased to help or advise you as you investigate your family tree.  Contact us for a free assessment.

Revision lists

Revision lists are the nearest Imperial Russian equivalent to the censuses conducted in places such as Canada, USA and Britain which are so familiar and indispensable to family historians in those regions. While those censuses were intended as a count of the population at a particular point in time and were conducted over a single night or weekend every 10 years, the Russian revision lists were generated for taxation purposes and were more irregular, with each one tending to take up to a year or more to be completed. 

The revision lists, also known as revision of souls, are extremely useful to those genealogists with ancestral roots in the Russian Empire, which of course covered great swathes of territory outside its current borders, for instance in the Baltic and in the modern states of Belarus and Ukraine.  The term “revision” derives from the detailed comparison which is being made by the census-takers between the census being undertaken and its immediate predecessor. 

Although revision lists evolved and therefore vary over time, essentially each revision list enumerates all residents of a particular place. In the Baltic, land was in the hands of a small number of the usually Baltic German elite. Their estates were divided into the demesne (the manor or farm – hof – and it surrounding estate lands) and the peasant farmsteads or smallholdings, all of which were named, and of which there could be a hundred or more on any one single estate. Agricultural labourers lived both on the estate lands and on the smallholdings of other peasants. Those smallholding peasants did not have an opportunity to own their farmsteads until this was made possible by the land reform measures implemented first in 1849 and then ratified in 1860 in Livland (Livonia) and in 1863 in Kurland (Courland). Thereafter, peasant ownership expanded rapidly until by the 1880s most smallholdings were owned by their occupiers. 

What the revision lists provide, among other things, for the family historian is evidence of movement. This is because each revision records not just where an individual is resident at that time but also where he or she was resident at the time of the previous revision. For example, the 1850 revision gives where a person was living in the 1833 revision. This of course makes it possible to track a person across time. 

It is important to understand that migration in early and mid-19th century European Russia, for instance in the Baltic provinces, was generally local. Usually, we are not talking about emigration beyond Russia or beyond the province, but about small-scale movements of only 2 or 3 km in most cases.  

Movement between estates was minimal. Those peasants making such movements were usually young men and women in their twenties getting married. Military conscripts were the only other major group of individuals who moved outside the estate. 

Movements within an estate were common.  Some smallholders moved to another farmstead, while many agricultural labourers were mobile, even moving annually between different farms on the estate. 

A revision list such as the 9th revision in 1850 records departures and arrivals. For those individuals who were present at the time of the previous revision in 1833 and have left since, it records when they left and their destination. For those who were living elsewhere in 1833 and have since arrived, the place of origin is recorded. Just as the 1840 and 1850 American censuses, or the 1841 and 1851 English censuses, show only where individuals were living at those two dates, and are silent on any movements in between, so the 1833 and 1850 revision lists only plot where a person was at these two dates, not any interim places of residence. For instance, an agricultural labourer could quite conceivably have moved every year between the two revisions but will only be recorded on them at the two qualifying dates of 1833 and 1850. This also means that a person who is at the same place in 1833 and 1850 may of course have lived elsewhere in between but returned. The family historian must therefore accept that they are only being presented with snapshots in time and not with an unbroken seamless record of movement. Nevertheless, the significance of the revision lists cannot be under-estimated for those researchers investigating their ancestors and the structure and composition of family trees in the 19th century.

British community in Russia

One question I’ve been asked in the past, at family history shows or in emails, is about the British community in Russia in the 18th and 19th century. The usual question is: what would my ancestors have been doing out there? 

It’s a good question and admits of no simple answer. As was the case with the British Empire, a disproportionate number of the Brits in Russia were Scottish and, to a lesser degree, Irish, even though at the time “English” tended to be used instead of “British” irrespective of actual nationality. The community was centred on the consulate and the merchant community, originally called the Russia Company’s British Factory, in St Petersburg. The merchants were essentially in the import/export business – exporting to Britain raw materials, such as flax, hemp, pitch and timber, and importing to Russia all kinds of the often fashionable British merchandise, ranging from tableware and fancy goods to race horses and carriages. 

In addition to the merchants, however, there were all sorts of technical experts, especially in the 18th century, when naval officers and shipbuilders played a key role in developing the Russian navy. Other experts included landscape gardeners on Russian estates, engravers and clockmakers, and doctors. 

However, it should not be thought that there were no lower middle class or working class Brits in the Russian Empire. For instance, the Russian aristocracy’s and gentry’s love of horses and horse racing created all sorts of opportunities for British grooms, ostlers, saddlers, blacksmiths, jockeys, horse trainers  and of course horse dealers. Similarly, among the retainers of the Russian upper classes were many British governesses, nannies, nurses, tutors and housekeepers.  

Some of the British settled in Russia and remained there for generations, occasionally marrying into Russian families but just as often intermarrying within the community or seeking spouses from the British Isles. However, others stayed only a few years, on contract or assignment, and the only indication of a Russian connection may be, for example, a single child in the family with place of birth Russia on a census return or other document.

Seasonality in marriage

A family historian in the English-speaking world searching speculatively for the marriage of an ancestor on an unknown date does not usually consider seasonality; that is, they have no preconceptions as to whether a wedding would or would not have taken place at any particular time of year. Furthermore, one rarely comes across any especially noticeable peaks or troughs in the frequency of marriages across the calendar year.  Couples get married all year round, perhaps in the post-WW2 world showing a preference for summer weddings. 

In contrast, in most rural societies across Eastern Europe before WW2 and certainly before WW1 when traditional ways of life were still very much intact, there was marked seasonality of marriage. This is reflected in the pages of any volume of a parish marriage register. 

One of the two chief factors was the agricultural year. Throughout the growing season and especially during the harvest, farmers, smallholders and peasants were joined in the fields and in the processing of harvested crops by just about every available hand – villagers of both sexes and all ages would be involved and frequently laboured both long days and by moonlight.  During this period, there was generally no time for marriage. 

The second factor was the religious calendar. In particular, fasting created marriage seasonality. Especially in Eastern Orthodox communities, marriage was an occasion of extended feasting and therefore incompatible with the fasts, during which meat, dairy produce, rich oils and so on were eschewed. There are various individual feast days during the Orthodox calendar, upon which it would be unthinkable for a wedding to be celebrated. But more to the point there were two fasts of great length. 

The first fast was the great or holy fast of the seven weeks of Lent. For instance, in the Serbian Orthodox calendar, traditionally the Church celebrated no marriages between Bele Poklade (a moveable feast, “white Shrovetide”, the last Sunday before Lent) and Đurđevdan (St George’s Day, 6th May). 

The second fast took place over the 40 days leading up to Christmas. Again, for the Serbian Orthodox calendar, this is the Božićni Post period from 28th November up to Božić, the Orthodox Christmas itself, on 7th January. 

Marriages therefore tended to cluster between these two extended feasts. Factoring in the principal months of agricultural activity, this produced a spate of weddings from mid-January to early March, and again from October to late November. 

Of course, for other Orthodox societies, the harvest might move a few weeks according to latitude, altitude, climate and other factors. Similarly, fasting at Lent might well take place over fewer weeks. However, the pattern itself remains largely true and produces the same seasonal peaks in marriage.

Many of the towns on the coast of Istria had Italian populations, but the rural population was predominantly Croatian. Here the traditional peasant society survived until about 1930. By “peasant society” is meant a largely self-sufficient farming or smallholding community, with a relatively limited cash economy, still living close to the land and according to cultural and religious norms which had evolved relatively little over the centuries. This is not to say that outlooks and experience were necessarily narrow, as we shall see in a moment when we look at emigration. 

For a family historian with ancestral roots in Istria, it is important to remind oneself regularly of the larger political context, as this affected many of the events in even the smallest communities. Istria was part of Austro-Hungary from 1814 until the outbreak of WW1; Italian from 1918 until 1943; and of course Yugoslav thereafter. The Austro-Hungarian era in Istria is sometimes regarded with some nostalgia. Croatia was subject to Hungarian rule, it is true, but in the villages of Istria there was peace and no interference in daily life. This was not the case during the Italian occupation, when the peninsula was subject to increasing attempts at Italianisation – for example, Italian was made the sole language of government, the courts and business, while from 1930 there was pressure upon Croatians to Italianise their names.   

These political changes affected emigration from Istria too. In general, there was restricted cultivable land, poor soil and limited opportunity. Accordingly, many peasants became part-time fishermen or sailors – often becoming cabin boys at a very young age (11 or 12) and working at sea until land was made available in the village by inheritance upon the death of the father. Others migrated elsewhere in Europe or to USA to find work and earn money – this could be temporary, during which they remitted money home before returning themselves, or permanent if they decided to settle. 

During the Austrian era, the ports of Trieste and Rijeka (Fiume in Italian) attracted many migrants from across Istria. When these ports became Italian, they were cut off from their former natural hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and started to stagnate. This meant that, although Istrian villagers were still residing in the same country as the ports, their opportunities beyond the village began to narrow. This problem was compounded by the Italians making emigration more difficult and the US imposing post-War immigration quotas. In consequence, the long slow decline of Istrian villages can be traced to the 1920s. 

The Catholic parish of Sveta Lucija na Skitači is situated south of Labin (also known as Albona in Italian) on the eastern side of the Istrian peninsula. Three small Croatian villages within the parish – Drenje, Ravni and Škvaranska – were the focus of a detailed demographic study by Rudolph Bell*. 

The parishioners in Sveta Lucija belonged to a relatively small number of extended families. Rudolph Bell calculated that the more than 500 individuals born in the parish between 1852 and 1914 carried only 15 surnames between them. The commonest names in each settlement were Blažina in Drenje, Škopac in Ravni, and Tomičić in Škvaranska. It should be noted that in the parish registers and status animarum the local surnames were often given in Italianised form, even prior to the Italian occupation: for example, Škopac may appear as Scopaz and even as Scopazzi. 

Bell’s microhistory of this small society, using family reconstruction methodologies based on the same records which a genealogist would use when researching their family tree, produced some very interesting outcomes.  

From birth and baptism records, he discovered a mid-summer dip in births, lasting from mid-June to mid-August. The annual peak was in April, with a lesser spike in September.   

In a previous blog I wrote about seasonality in marriage, focusing on Eastern Orthodox communities in the Balkans. It is interesting that in a Roman Catholic country like Croatia the same basic patterns prevailed. Bell found the same influences – ecclesiastical and agricultural – producing the same peaks and troughs. In Sveta Lucija, marriages were rare both during Lent and Advent and during the high intensity workload on the land from April to September. Marriages tended to be celebrated after Martinje (St Martin’s Day) on 11th November, with a lesser peak in February before Lent. 

Bell calculated that the mean age at marriage was 27 for men and 24 for women; that what demographers call premarital conception was responsible for between 20% and 25% of all first-born children of marriages; that women traditionally nursed their children for between 12 and 24 months as a form of contraception, and thereby were able to space their children by about three years; and that the average number of children per marriage fell from 6.25 in 1870 to 4.5 circa 1900 to 2.7 in 1930. 

Family historians tend to concentrate on the particular, what is individual and specific to their own family. However, it is illuminating to place and understand one’s one family in a larger context and the work of demographers, anthropologists, local and social historians, and others is a great aid in this respect. Nor should the general reader be deterred – not all such works are academic and abstruse.  Demographers may be statisticians but they illustrate their work with specific examples and also with anecdotal evidence gathered from personal interviews (oral history). For example, Rudolph Bell comments in passing that the unmarried couples of Sveta Lucija na Skitači sometimes used premarital conception to overcome parental disapproval of marriage – in other words, by presenting the parents with the fait accompli of the young woman’s pregnancy, they could precipitate a marriage which their parents had wanted to delay or prevent. 

*See “The Transformation of a Rural Village: Istria 1870-1972”, published in Journal of Social History, vol 7 no 3 (1974).

Who was recruited?

In the early 18th century, the expectation was that one man would be enlisted into the army from every 20 families within a community each year. All social estates, high and low, were liable for military service. However, over the decades many privileges and exemptions were granted so that by 1858 an estimated 20% of the otherwise eligible male population of the Empire was in fact exempt – this included landowners, members of merchant guilds, those with a higher education and the like, but also all those living in specific regions of empire such as Bessarabia. The burden of “other ranks” military service therefore fell heaviest on the peasantry and the urban poor. 

How were recruits selected?

In rural Russia, the peasant community itself – the mir – was responsible for putting forward a list of candidates. While the mir or commune probably knew who among its members was eligible for the draft, the undertaking of the Russian censuses, producing the periodic but somewhat irregular revision lists (now of great value to family historians with roots in the former Russian Empire), formalised the process by identifying and recording the population. Unlike censuses in Britain, for example, which were used solely for social planning, the Russian revisions were used explicitly for taxation and conscription purposes.

Each year, the commune produced a shortlist of potential recruits which was then submitted to an army induction centre set up temporarily for the purpose in the nearest town in the volost or uezd (or district). The requisite number of men would then be conscripted into the army, while those not selected could expect to be put forward again the following year. Of course, some men were rejected by the army for not meeting its physical criteria and would unlikely to be conscripted in any year. Others, such those with disabilities, were deselected by the commune itself and never made the list.  To a certain extent, both the commune and the army were sensitive to the fact that each conscript was a lost worker and a lost taxpayer, with the peasants knowing that someone else would have to make up the deficit in labour and money. This meant that there was usually a conscious effort to spare only sons, or only working males in families. In a household of many brothers or sons, it was almost inevitable that one or more would be drafted. However, it was also possible for wealthier farmers to use influence or to purchase a surrogate from a different community to take the place of their brother or son who had been placed on the shortlist. Finally, commune members perceived to be unproductive, or exhibiting anti-social behaviour or committing petty crimes, would be sure to top the shortlist.

While therefore the commune exercised a measure of influence over who was recruited and who not, it is easy to see that the whole process of conscription was a source of stress and tension within each community. This was particularly the case as army service was neither short nor sweet…

How long did a soldier serve in the army?

  • Before 1793, a soldier could expect to serve in the Russian army for life.
  • From 1793, this was reduced to 25 years.
  • From 1834, military service was reduced to 20 years.
  • From 1874, the term of service was reduced to 18 years, of which initially the first 5 years were to be spent in the regular standing army and the subsequent 13 years in the reserves. However, later this was changed to 3 years in the army and 15 years in the reserves.

 What happened to a new recruit?

Enlistment into the army was a transformational experience. Not only would the recruit very probably leave the vicinity of his native village for the first time but he would be unlikely to return for many years, if at all. Instead, he would be swallowed up into the army corpus, be billeted upon unwilling householders and endure all the hardships of army life which were severe even during peacetime. 

However, something else rather peculiar immediately happened to a new recruit. His legal status in Russian society changed. That change was a form of emancipation, albeit deferred until such time as he was discharged from the army. Upon joining the army he ceased to be exposed to any of his former tax or labour obligations, whether to state, church or landowner. Effectively, he was now a free man, just a free man conscripted into the unfreedom of army life. 

What about soldiers’ wives and children?

If a recruit was already married, with or without children, the usual scenario was long term separation. There was no easy mechanism for wives and children to go upon the strength, although some managed to continue to cohabit with their men when they were stationed in garrisons or fortresses. Instead, the recruit’s family was subject to great uncertainty and potential hardship. Wives, too, became legally free when the soldier attested. This meant also that they were entitled to an internal passport granting freedom of movement and employment. However, a disproportionate number of wives either drifted into prostitution in towns, or had illegitimate children; some remarried bigamously. 

Soldiers’ children were a subcategory in the system of social estates. Sons, including until 1856 the illegitimate children of soldiers’ wives (where the soldier was not himself the father), were registered and expected to enter military service when they came of age. 

In Imperial Russia, the status of women and children was determined by that of their husbands or fathers. This is why a soldier’s wife became free when he was recruited. However, this also meant that a soldier’s widow who remarried could become a serf or a peasant owing normal dues once again, and similarly a soldier’s daughter who married a serf lost her free status and became herself enserfed (until emancipation). 

Unmarried recruits were of course strongly discouraged from marrying. 

What happened to a soldier once discharged from the army?

If a soldier survived the hardships of a full term in the army, he would be discharged to enjoy for the first time and as best he could the freedoms he had acquired when he was recruited.  Now he had theoretical freedom of movement; he was exempt from taxation; he did not have to labour for the landlord. However, at the same time he received only a small lump sum and had no immediate means of support. Therefore he was also free to become jobless and hungry and poor. In these circumstances, it was not unusual for a discharged soldier to have to live upon charity, or to become a hawker or a casual labourer, or to struggle to ply a trade. Other old soldiers entered state service as messengers or guards, or in the police or fire services. Additionally, until reforms in 1867, significant numbers of retired soldiers were settled in so-called veterans’ towns or on virgin lands owned or claimed by the state, often in frontier situations.   

Others where they could returned to their native village to farm the family plot if it still existed, or to buy a new plot if they had the money. In fact, the 1867 returns henceforth required discharged soldiers to return to the community from which they had been recruited, at least partly to prevent the social problems associated with ex-soldiers which were a growing cause for concern in cities and towns.

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