Peasant Women after Emancipation





The Emancipation Statute of 1861 established procedures for making the peasants independent farmers and incorporating them into the political system as free people. State and crown peasants–those in bondage to the government or royal family–received title to the acreages they had tilled before Emancipation. The division of farmland between landlords and peasants proved more difficult. Negotiations mediated by government agents resulted in most Russian villages of seigniorial peasants–those in bondage to landlords–receiving a little less than half the landlords’ land. Ukrainian peasants received still less. In Belarusian and Polish provinces, where most nobles were Polish, the government, angry over the Polish uprising of 1863–64, granted the peasants a larger share. The government paid the landlords for the land they had lost, then required the peasants to reimburse the government with what were called “redemption dues,” essentially a publicly financed, forty‑nine‑year mortgage.

In central Russia, land ownership was transferred to the village commune, not to individual households. Families continued to farm collectively and to repartition the fields periodically. In areas without communal traditions–Ukraine, parts of Siberia, the Urals, and the northwestern borderlands–individual families owned their own fields. Taxes were still assessed by household, and if a man went to work in the city, he remained on village tax rolls and had to contribute his share to his family’s payment. Everywhere, the tasks of tax collecting and governance that had fallen to the landlords under serfdom were assigned to village assemblies composed of senior men. Elected peasant courts were established to resolve disputes that could not be handled within the community.

The Emancipation, so long dreamed of by Russia’s serfs, did not end poverty in the countryside. Agricultural productivity rose; by the turn of the twentieth century, 20 percent of the wheat on the world market and 43 percent of the barley came from Ukraine.18 But this growth did not lift most peasants out of poverty, because the government had burdened them with high taxes, and the landlords, many of whom were also hard‑pressed, paid them as little as possible for their labor and charged them as much as possible for the land they leased. At the same time, an expanding peasant population meant more mouths to feed. And so, in 1900, Russia’s rural people were still coping with grueling labor, periodic food shortages, and epidemic diseases.

For women, this meant the old ways of doing things continued little changed. Across the empire in the early twentieth century, peasant women were still stooping over the land in the fall to gather the dropped grain. Wife‑beating was still an everyday occurrence. The poverty and the patriarchy endured even as the sort of work women did expanded, schooling became available, and ideas and products made in the industrializing cities showed up in the villages. These changes marked the beginning of a long transformation in the lives of peasant women that would continue into the second half of the twentieth century.


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