Memoirs of a Revolutionist

Date: 1899

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Russia Before the Revolution





Serfdom was then2 in the last years of its existence. It is recent history, — it seems to be only of yesterday; and yet, even in Russia, few realize what serfdom was in reality. There is a dim conception that the conditions which it created were very bad; but those conditions, as they affected human beings bodily and mentally, are not generally understood. It is amazing, indeed, to see how quickly an institution and its social consequences are forgotten when the institution has ceased to exist, and with what rapidity men and things change. I will try to recall the conditions of serfdom by telling, not what I heard, but what I saw.

Uliána, the housekeeper, stands in the passage leading to father’s room, and crosses herself; she dares neither to advance nor to retreat. At last, after having recited a prayer, she enters the room and reports, in a hardly audible voice, that the store of tea is nearly at an end, that there are only twenty pounds of sugar left, and that the other provisions will soon be exhausted.

"Thieves, robbers"! shouts my father. "And you, you are in league with them"! His voice thunders throughout the house. Our stepmother leaves Uliána to face the storm. But father cries, "Frol, call the princess! Where is she?" And when she enters, he receives her with the same reproaches.

"You also are in league with this progeny of Ham; you are standing up for them"; and so on, for half an hour or more.

Then he commences to verify the accounts. At the same time, he thinks about the hay. Frol is sent to weigh what is left of that, and our stepmother is sent to be present during the weighing, while father calculates how much of it ought to be in the barn. A considerable quantity of hay appears to be missing, and Uliána cannot account for several pounds of such and such provisions. Father’s voice becomes more and more menacing; Uliána is trembling; but it is the coachman who now enters the room, and is stormed at by his master. Father springs at him, strikes him, but he keeps repeating, "Your Highness must have made a mistake."

Father repeats his calculations, and this time it appears that there is more hay in the barn than there ought to be. The shouting continues; he now reproaches the coachman with not having given the horses their daily rations in full; but the coachman calls on all the saints to witness that he gave the animals their due, and Frol invokes the Virgin to confirm the coachman’s appeal.

But father will not be appeased. He calls in Maker, the piano-tuner and sub-butler, and reminds him of all his recent sins. He was drunk last week, and must have been drunk yesterday, for he broke half a dozen plates. In fact, the breaking of these plates was the real cause of all the disturbance; our stepmother had reported the fact to father in the morning, and that was why Uliána was received with more scolding than was usually the case, why the verification of the hay was undertaken, and why father now continues to shout that "this progeny of Ham" deserve all the punishments on earth.

Of a sudden there is a lull in the storm. My father takes his seat at the table and writes a note. "Take Maker with this note to the police station, and let a hundred lashes with the birch rod be given to him."

Terror and absolute muteness reign in the house.

The clock strikes four, and we all go down to dinner; but no one has any appetite, and the soup remains in the plates untouched. We are ten at table, and behind each of us a violinist or a trombone-player stands, with a clean plate in his left hand; but Makár is not among them.

"Where is Maker?" our stepmother asks. "Call him in."

Maker does not appear, and the order is repeated. He enters at last, pale, with a distorted face, ashamed, his eyes cast down. Father looks into his plate, while our stepmother, seeing that no one has touched the soup, tries to encourage us.

"Don’t you find, children," she says, "that the soup is delicious?"

Tears suffocate me, and immediately after dinner is over I run out, catch Maker in a dark passage, and try to kiss his hand; but he tears it away, and says, either as a reproach or as a question, "Let me alone; you, too, when you are grown up, will you not be just the same?"

"No, no, never"!

Yet father was not among the worst of landowners. On the contrary, the servants and the peasants considered him one of the best. What we saw in our house was going on everywhere, often in much more cruel forms. The flogging of the serfs was a regular part of the duties of the police and of the fire brigade.

A landowner once made the remark to another, "Why is it that the number of souls on your estate increases so slowly? You probably do not look after their marriages."

A few days later the general returned to his estate. He had a list of all the inhabitants of his village brought him, and picked out from it the names of the boys who had attained the age of eighteen, and the girls just past sixteen, — these are the legal ages for marriage in Russia. Then he wrote, "John to marry Anna, Paul to marry Paráshka," and so on with five couples. "The five weddings," he added, "must take place in ten days, the next Sunday but one."

A general cry of despair rose from the village. Women, young and old, wept in every house. Anna had hoped to marry Gregory; Paul’s parents had already had a talk with the Fedótovs about their girl, who would soon be of age. Moreover, it was the season for ploughing, not for weddings; and what wedding can be prepared in ten days? Dozens of peasants came to see the landowner; peasant women stood in groups at the back entrance of the estate, with pieces of fine linen for the landowner’s spouse, to secure her intervention. All in vain. The master had said that the weddings should take place at such a date, and so it must be.

At the appointed time, the nuptial processions, in this case more like burial processions, went to the church. The women cried with loud voices, as they are wont to cry during burials. One of the house valets was sent to the church, to report to the master as soon as the wedding ceremonies were over; but soon he came running back, cap in hand, pale and distressed.

"Paráshka," he said, "makes a stand; she refuses to be married to Paul. Father" (that is, the priest) "asked her, ’Do you agree?’ but she replied in a loud voice, ’No, I don’t.’"

The landowner grew furious. "Go and tell that long-maned drunkard" (meaning the priest; the Russian clergy wear their hair long) "that if Paráshka is not married at once, I will report him as a drunkard to the archbishop. How dares he, clerical dirt, disobey me? Tell him he shall be sent to rot in a monastery, and I shall exile Paráshka’s family to the steppes."

The valet transmitted the message. Paráshka’s relatives and the priest surrounded the girl; her mother, weeping, fell on her knees before her, entreating her not to ruin the whole family. The girl continued to say "I won’t," but in a weaker and weaker voice, then in a whisper, until at last she stood silent. The nuptial crown was put on her head; she made no resistance, and the valet ran full speed to the mansion to announce, "They are married."

Half an hour later, the small bells of the nuptial processions resounded at the gate of the mansion. The five couples alighted from the cars, crossed the yard, and entered the hall. The landlord received them, offering them glasses of wine, while the parents, standing behind the crying daughters, ordered them to bow to the earth before their lord.

Marriages by order were so common that amongst our servants, each time a young couple foresaw that they might be ordered to marry, although they had no mutual inclination for each other, they took the precaution of standing together as godfather and godmother at the christening of a child in one of the peasant families. This rendered marriage impossible, according to Russian Church law. The stratagem was usually successful, but once it ended in a tragedy. Andréi, the tailor, fell in love with a girl belonging to one of our neighbors. He hoped that my father would permit him to go free, as a tailor, in exchange for a certain yearly payment, and that by working hard at his trade he could manage to lay aside some money and to buy freedom for the girl. Otherwise, in marrying one of my father’s serfs she would have become the serf of her husband’s master. However, as Andréi and one of the maids of our household foresaw that they might be ordered to marry, they agreed to unite as god-parents in the christening of a child. What they had feared happened: one day they were called to the master, and the dreaded order was given.

"We are always obedient to your will," they replied. "But a few weeks ago we acted as godfather and godmother at a christening." Andréi also explained his wishes and intentions. The result was that he was sent to the recruiting board to become a soldier.

Under Nicholas I1 there was no obligatory military service for all, such as now exists. Nobles and merchants were exempt, and when a new levy of recruits was ordered, the landowners had to supply a certain number of men from their serfs. As a rule, the peasants, within their village communities, kept a roll amongst themselves; but the house servants were entirely at the mercy of their lord, and if he was dissatisfied with one of them, he sent him to the recruiting board and took a recruit acquittance, which had a considerable money value, as it could be sold to any one whose turn it was to become a soldier.

Military service in those times was terrible. A man was required to serve twenty-five years under the colors, and the life of a soldier was hard in the extreme. . . . Blows from the officers, flogging with birch rods and with sticks, for the slightest fault, were normal affairs. The cruelty that was displayed surpasses all imagination. Even in the corps of cadets, where only noblemen’s sons were educated, a thousand blows with birch rods were sometimes administered, in the presence of all the corps, . . . the doctor standing by the tortured boy, and ordering the punishment to end only when he ascertained that the pulse was about to stop beating. The bleeding victim was carried away unconscious to the hospital. The commander of the military schools, the Grand Duke Michael, would quickly have removed the director of a corps who had not had one or two such cases every year. "No discipline," he would have said.

With common soldiers it was far worse. When one of them appeared before a court-martial, the sentence was that a thousand men should be placed in two ranks facing each other, every soldier armed with a stick of the thickness of the little finger (these sticks were known under their German name of Spitzruthen), and that the condemned man should be dragged three, four, five, and seven times between these two rows, each soldier administering a blow. Sergeants followed to see that full force was used. After one or two thousand blows had been given, the victim, spitting blood, was taken to the hospital and attended to, in order that the punishment might be finished as soon as he had more or less recovered from the effects of the first part of it. If he died under the torture, the execution of the sentence was completed upon the corpse. Nicholas I and his brother Michael were pitiless; no remittance of the punishment was ever possible. "I will send you through the ranks; you shall be skinned under the sticks," were threats which made part of the current language.

A gloomy terror used to spread through our house when it became known that one of the servants was to be sent to the recruiting board. The man was chained and placed under guard in the office, to prevent suicide. A peasant cart was brought to the office door, and the doomed man was taken out between watchmen. All the servants surrounded him. He made a deep bow, asking every one to pardon him his willing or unwilling offenses. If his father and mother lived in our village, they came to see him off. He bowed to the ground before them, and his mother and his other female relatives began loudly to sing out their lamentations, — a sort of half-song and half-recitative: "To whom do you abandon us? Who will take care of you in the strange lands? Who will protect you from cruel men?" — exactly in the same way in which they sang their lamentations at a burial and with the same words.

Thus Andréi had now to face for twenty-five years the terrible fate of a soldier: all his schemes of happiness had come to a violent end. . . .

These were things which I myself saw in my childhood. If, however, I were to relate what I heard of in those years, it would be a much more gruesome narrative: stories of men and women torn from their families and their villages, and sold, or lost in gambling, or exchanged for a couple of hunting dogs, and then transported to some remote part of Russia for the sake of creating a new estate; of children taken from their parents and sold to cruel or dissolute masters; of flogging "in the stables," which occurred every day with unheard-of cruelty; of a girl who found her only salvation in drowning herself; of an old man who had grown gray-haired in his master’s service, and at last hanged himself under his master’s window; and of revolt of serfs, which was suppressed by Nicholas I’s generals by flogging to death each tenth or fifth man taken out of the ranks, and laying waste the village, whose inhabitants, after a military execution, went begging for bread in the neighboring provinces. As to the poverty which I saw during our journeys in certain villages, especially in those which belonged to the imperial family, no words would be adequate to describe the misery to readers who have not seen it.

1 P. Kropótkin, . Boston, 1899. Houghton Mifflin Company.

1 Kropótkin, , pp. 49–60.

2 The late ’fifties of the nineteenth century.

1 Tsar between 1825–1855.


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Chicago: "Serfdom," Memoirs of a Revolutionist in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 392–398. Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: . "Serfdom." Memoirs of a Revolutionist, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 392–398. Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Serfdom' in Memoirs of a Revolutionist. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.392–398. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from