Peasant patterns of resistance - Peter Kolchin

Extracts from a chapter of historian Peter Kolchin’s book Unfree Labor, describing a few instances of a type of serf-resistance in Imperial Russia known as a "volnenie."

Submitted by adri on January 25, 2022

Rebellion was by no means the only form of physical conflict between the bondsmen and authorities; far more common were smaller confrontations that pitted the slaves and serfs against their owners, stewards, and overseers. Similarly, silent sabotage was not the only type of passive protest shown by the slaves and serfs; hundreds of thousands ran away from their masters, either temporarily or for good. Flight and small-scale confrontations offer exceptional opportunities for exploring the bondsmen's mentality, because unlike rebellion they occurred often enough to be representative forms of behavior subject to generalization and unlike silent sabotage they clearly involved deliberate, conscious acts of defiance on the part of the bondsmen.

The basic Russian confrontation was a volnenie, a term without a precise English equivalent that has been used by both contemporaries and historians to denote something smaller than a rebellion. Dictionary translations include "agitation," "unrest," "disturbance," and "commotion," but none of these quite captures the spirit of the word. Consequently, although I shall sometimes refer to unrest or disturbances, when trying to be more specific I shall use the term volnenie (pl.: volneniia). Since these volneniia are unfamiliar to most American readers, it is worthwhile first to outline their archetypal pattern and then to present concrete examples. My focus is on the period from the 1790s through the 1850s. Volneniia existed before then, but they were most common during the two-thirds of a century before emancipation; equally important, documentary material is far more abundant for this period than for earlier.

The typical volnenie began when a group of serfs, dissatisfied for some reason, decided on collective protest. They might number from a handful to thousands, but groups in the hundreds were most common: the usual unit of action was either a village or several villages belonging to the same estate. The initial cause of the serfs' discontent (explored in depth in Chapter 6) might be anything from an increase in the burdens imposed on them to oppressive treatment by a steward or sale to a new owner, but it most frequently involved either a change in their actual condition or a dashing of somehow aroused hopes.

Often the serfs began their protest by sending a petition to their owner, a local official, the governor, or even the tsar. These petitions constituted an important type of passive resistance in their own right and will receive treatment later in this chapter. Here it is sufficient to note that the results of their efforts were usually disappointing to those who were convinced that they had legitimate grievances that only had to be revealed in order to be remedied.

The next step was for the serfs to refuse to recognize their owner's authority over them or to stop working for him—in short, to go on strike. The serfs were usually careful to refrain from major violence against their owners or their owners' highest representatives, although peasants who remained loyal to their masters sometimes received beatings and loyal starosty were sometimes replaced. Most serfs must have realized, however, that assaulting authorities would bring down upon themselves certain retribution. The volneniia, although containing elements of spontaneity, were less expressions of wild fury by serfs seeking vengeance on their owners than organized collective endeavors by peasants who retained some hope that in the end their efforts would be successful.

In response to such disobedience, the pomeshchik or steward invariably sent for the ispravnik, a minor official who in every provincial district (uezd) served as a combination of sheriff and magistrate and headed a three-man board known as the lower land court (nizhnii zemskii sud). He would come to the estate, either alone or with other members of the court, and talk to the recalcitrant peasants, typically alternating between dire threats of punishment should the serfs continue their disobedience and promises that if they relented they would be spared serious harm and their complaints would be investigated. No doubt such urgings were sometimes sufficient to restore order, but in most cases for which records have survived—which naturally tend to be the most serious cases—the peasants ignored the ispravnik's pleas, sometimes threatening him with bodily harm if he did not leave the estate. The frightened official would then return to the district capital and write a report to the provincial governor, who in turn reported to authorities in St. Petersburg.

The governor, upon receiving the ispravnik's report, usually ordered other officials to the scene. These could range, depending on the seriousness of the situation, from the district marshal of nobility to the provincial marshal of nobility and even the governor himself. Sometimes special officials from St. Petersburg and officers of the Corps of Gendarmes (who were under the control of the Third Department) were also sent. These officials, usually accompanied by a small military guard, would repeat in succession the efforts of the ispravnik, striving through threats and promises to put down the volnenie with a minimum of force. Frequently, officials tried to divide the peasants against each other or secretly arrest one or more of their leaders, but such efforts sometimes backfired and led to greater peasant unity, and more than once enraged serfs forced the release of their captured leaders. In some volneniia peasant determination gradually faded as the weeks wore on or as their representatives were arrested and promises given that their complaints would be investigated.

Ultimately, soldiers were needed to crush the most stubborn volneniia. Occasionally, such clashes led to substantial casualties, although the poorly armed and untrained peasants almost always suffered a far higher toll than the military. After the volnenie its ringleaders usually received harsh punishments: savage beatings with birch switches, whips, and worst of all the knout, followed by exile to penal servitude, were routine inflictions, and under Nicholas I running the gauntlet became a common sentence imposed by military courts set up to deal with leaders of the worst volneniia. Often the bulk of peasants suffered little or no immediate hardship, however, and in some cases the serfs won real gains in their defeat.

Three specific examples should make clearer many of the points suggested in the above schematization. None of the three conforms in all details to the model presented, but together they illustrate the broad range of possible actions and responses that characterized the volneniia.

The first example is a protest that began with a petition from twenty-five serfs in Moscow province to the provincial governor, on behalf of themselves and thousands of other peasants living in eight villages and forty-eight hamlets. Dated 1823 and written for the illiterate serfs by a servant of a neighboring nobleman, the petition related that before their owner E. A. Golovkina died in 1821 they had been managed by her steward Petr Ivanovich Lapirev. The peasants complained that even though Golovkina had been dead for two years, Lapirev continued to collect twenty-six rubles obrok [rent obligations] from each of 3,840 male souls [i.e. serfs]; they begged for government intervention against the steward's gathering money for a nonexistent owner. Meanwhile, the district ispravnik reported his version of the story to the governor. He wrote that Lapirev had told him that more than 4,300 souls, led by starosta Timofei Fedorov and three other peasants, were refusing to pay their obrok obligations. According to the ispravnik, the peasants were told that they had two new owners, the underaged Counts Shuvalov, and had to obey their noble guardian as well as Lapirev and the head starosta of the area; at this they "announced in one voice that not personally seeing these pomeshchiki, they would not obey the steward and starosta or pay the obrok."

In an effort to restore order the ispravnik went to the village of Vishegorod, where Lapirev kept his headquarters, together with a noble assessor and four invalid soldiers, and called for representatives from each village to assemble and hear that they must obey their owners. Instead, more than two thousand serfs descended on the seigneurial house and shouted to the ispravnik that they wanted to replace Lapirev with a burmistr (bailiff, manager) of their own choosing and to elect new starosty. They then proceeded to choose one of their leaders as burmistr, selected two starosty to assist him, and sent for two local priests to administer oaths to the new peasant officials. The ispravnik, however, sent the priests away and, unable to persuade the serfs to desist, returned to the district capital. Soon thereafter, he received a letter from the steward that the new burmistr had gone to the neighboring district to collect peasant reinforcements for a new gathering. The ispravnik summoned a guard to protect the seigneurial house and requested assistance from the Moscow governor.

It was not until a month later, however, that a punitive expedition headed by a major arrived to suppress the volnenie. After futile efforts by the ispravnik, a noble assessor, and an adjutant to the governor-general of Moscow province to convince the serfs to yield, the soldiers went into action. In each village in succession they assembled the peasants, quartered some troops, and arrested the ringleaders; despite threats of resistance, the remaining serfs submitted without a struggle. Nine of their leaders were jailed for a year and then transported to Siberia.

This case demonstrates several features common in serfs' volneniia—confusion about their status resulting from absentee ownership, resentment against a steward's administration, desire to run their own affairs as much as possible, and a substantial degree of communal solidarity. The second example shows many of the same qualities but with a different resolution. In October 1851 R. S. Kozitsyn, steward on Count P. D. Kiselev's estate of 350 souls in Penza province, reported to the nobleman that his serfs, in response to an ordered administrative reorganization of the estate, were disorderly and insisted on sending walkers to Kiselev with a petition. The petition, written for the peasants by the estate kontorshchik (office clerk, a serf himself), complained bitterly of the steward, whom the peasants accused of overworking them—even on holidays—subjecting them to cruel punishments, taking away their livestock, and worst of all seducing many young girls. The petitioners begged Kiselev to protect them from his tyrannical steward.

A month later the provincial governor wrote to Kiselev, portraying the kontorshchik Fedor Maksimov as the chief culprit. According to the governor, Maksimov incited the serfs against Kozitsyn, claiming that he had for three years concealed a seigneurial directive to put all the serfs on obrok, and got them to agree "that they would stand together." When the frightened steward tried to flee the estate, the serfs apprehended him, together with three loyal peasants—including a clerk and a coachman who received beatings for trying to help Kozitsyn escape—and placed the four under guard. They also replaced the old starosta with a new one whom the steward recognized under duress, beat the deposed starosta, stole the office chest and trunk, and forced Kozitsyn to issue a pass for three of them to carry a petition to St. Petersburg. When the ispravnik arrived with other members of the lower land court, an angry mob prevented them from arresting the new starosta.

After a few days the commotion died down, the serfs apparently resumed obedience of their own accord, and the governor appointed a special official to investigate the disturbance. He reported that kontorshchik Maksimov was chiefly to blame for the trouble, because he "lyingly assured the peasants" of the nonexistent seigneurial order, but that others were also guilty, including the rebel starosta, a gardener who "shouted loudest and most rudely of all" and threatened the life of a priest, and two peasants who tried to grab the ispravnik. All but the gardener, who was one of the three walkers who had left for St. Petersburg, were promptly arrested; the district court sentenced Maksimov to thirty lashes and resettlement in Siberia, the starosta to sixty blows with birch switches, and two other peasants to military conscription. The investigating official found that the charges of sexual abuse leveled against the steward "hardly could be proven." The incident seemed to be over.

More than a year later, however, a house servant in the estate's seigneurial mansion wrote to Kiselev on behalf of the other peasants, corroborating their accusations against Kozitsyn. The servant noted that in addition to committing other "illegal acts," the steward "demands young girls for himself and has deprived many of their maidenhood"; he also ran the estate as his own, without regard to Kiselev's instructions, driving the serfs to "extreme misery and poverty." As a result of this complaint—and no doubt of the unrest before it—Kiselev replaced Kozitsyn as steward and made some administrative changes similar to those demanded by the serfs. Thus, although the leaders of the volnenie were made to suffer grievously, the bulk of the peasants not only went unpunished but succeeded in winning their original demand.

The third volnenie involved a far more protracted struggle of serfs for what they considered their rights. Whereas in the preceding episode an apparent peasant defeat turned into a partial victory, in this case what at first seemed likely to result in a quick redress of grievances led in the end only to bloody repression. Early in 1852 Savelii Matveev, chosen representative of 576 souls in Tver province, petitioned Nicholas I on their behalf. He explained that until 1840 they had belonged to Admiral A. S. Shishkov, whose will leaving them to his wife stipulated that the estate could not be mortgaged, sold, or rented out and that the peasants should not be charged more than 12,000 rubles obrok per year. Madame Shishkova observed these conditions, but in 1848 she died, leaving the estate to her niece, N. D. Shishkova, who immediately increased the serfs' obrok dues and was now planning to impose on them barshchina [labor/corvée] obligations as well. Matveev implored the "merciful sovereign" to order that the owner not impose barshchina or excessive obrok levies, refrain from cutting down the peasants' timber, and "in general adhere to the will of her deceased uncle." The tsar forwarded the petition to the governor of Tver province for consideration.

The governor reported back one-half year later that before seeing the petition he had received a complaint from the new owner that her serfs, "for an unknown reason," were seeking their freedom and refusing to pay their obrok. He ordered the district ispravnik "to take measures to restore peace to the estate of pomeshchitsa Shishkova, and also make an investigation of the causes of the disorders," but learned from him that the peasants' complaints were well founded. The serfs were not seeking their freedom, the ispravnik reported, and insisted they were not being disobedient; they merely objected to paying 21,275 rubles obrok rather than the prescribed maximum of 12,000 and to the refusal of two agents sent by Shishkova to count the money in front of priests and other witnesses or give the peasants receipts for it. The governor concluded that the owner's behavior "aroused the dissatisfaction of the peasants and gave them cause to make complaints about her actions." Moreover, in a private meeting with the governor she "showed an extremely resistant character." Nevertheless, he decided to pursue a cautious policy. Unwilling flatly to take the side of serfs in a dispute with their owner, he decreed their petition "unfounded" and ordered the marshal of nobility to explain to them that "it is much more advantageous" to have their obrok payments increased once than to have other obligations—namely barshchina—introduced as well. At the same time he instructed the ispravnik to be on the lookout for abuses of power by Shishkova and to report any misbehavior to the marshal of nobility.

The peasants, however, were not satisfied with this arrangement and insisted on a response to their petition before accepting any obligations not stipulated in the will. "One should not suppose," noted the ispravnik, "that without special severe measures they will be obedient to the pomeshchitsa and carry out her demands." Despairing of a voluntary return to order, provincial authorities jailed the original petitioner, Matveev, together with two other troublesome serfs, and in July 1853 the governor reported that a punitive expedition had brought the peasants back into obedience. In August and December, however, another serf presented petitions to Nicholas I and to the head of the Third Department. The minister of internal affairs ordered the governor to determine whether outsiders were inciting the peasants, and the ispravnik informed the governor that they were once again refusing to pay the increased obrok, having promised to do so earlier only out of fear. The exasperated governor told Shishkova not to make excessive demands on her serfs and instructed the ispravnik to take down the names of unruly peasants.

The tsar, too, was annoyed with this long-festering unrest and sent aide-de-camp N. T. Baranov to Tver province to handle the matter. Although he personally told the peasants that Nicholas deemed their complaint unfounded, they remained skeptical and still refused to pay more than 12,000 rubles obrok. When Baranov ordered a military command to the scene, the two hundred soldiers proved insufficient to keep the serfs from the nine villages comprising the estate from hiding in the woods, and three hundred more soldiers had to be sent. The infuriated tsar's order that the volnenie's ringleaders be forced to run a gauntlet of a thousand men three times and then be sent to penal servitude in Siberia proved easier to give than to execute. The two chief culprits underwent the prescribed treatment and many others received public chastisement with birch switches, but 157 of the 576 males disappeared into the woods, and Baranov had to be content with leaving a list of names with an adjutant-general with instructions that upon capture they be sent to the governor for punishment.

Although the volnenie seemed to be over, as soon as the troops were removed the serfs resumed their objections to the excessive obrok levy. Soldiers were once again needed to restore order—in the process seventy-eight peasants were jailed—but this action led to renewed protest. In December 1854 another peasant representative, Aleksei Vasil'ev, petitioned the head of the Corps of Gendarmes, repeating the whole story of the unjust obrok and complaining of cruel treatment by police and soldiers. Fifty-four peasants remained in jail, he asserted, nine had been drafted into the army, two—including Kuz'ma Mikhailov, a church starosta and "an honest and sober person"—had run the gauntlet of 3,003 blows and been resettled in Siberia, others had died in irons, and six more awaited exile in Siberia. "And we must now spend our lives worse than unthinking cattle," he asserted poetically, "and suffer frost and hardship, cold and hunger."

This petition was forwarded to the minister of internal affairs, who pronounced it "undeserving of any consideration," but the unrest continued. In August 1856 he ordered the governor to take "the most stringent measures for the restoration of order on the estate." Having determined that Osip Fedorov was now one of the peasant leaders, the ispravnik recruited a retired soldier to make friends with Fedorov in order to capture him by stealth. The ensuing ambush proved successful despite the efforts of other serfs to rescue the prisoner, and the exultant governor assured a new minister of internal affairs that calm would now return to the estate. Almost a year later, however, the governor's successor had to order 250 soldiers to the scene to catch fugitives. Finally, only one serf remained missing, but the ispravnik was ·certain he would soon return. The volnenie was at last over, five-and-a-half years after it had begun.

Taken from a chapter in Kolchin's Unfree Labor, which is titled "Patterns of Resistance."