Authority in a serf village: peasants, managers, and the role of writing in early nineteenth century Russia.
Abstract: Based on numerous letters sent between a number of peasants from a small Russian serf village and the Moscow-based office that managed them for their owner, this article examines one particular disruption of normal village life--in this case a demand for an army recruit from a village with fewer than twenty men--and its larger repercussions. In particular, it examines the ways that individual peasant men and women used the written word in order to try to disrupt normal estate authority structure (between managers and the village, and between village elders and the larger peasant community). It focuses on one woman who was initially able to use writing to the advantage of her family, but whose actions in the long run, once her fellow villagers adapted their own use of writing to fit the demands of their managers, came to isolate her from the larger estate authorities.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Country life (Analysis)
Farm life (Analysis)
Peasantry (Analysis)
Recruiting and enlistment (Social aspects)
Authority (Analysis)
Writing (Usage)
Village communities (Social aspects)
Village communities (Political aspects)
Author: Smith, Alison K.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Russia Geographic Code: 4EXRU Russia
Accession Number: 209577953
Full Text: On March 26, 1820, the Moscow Office that administered Nikolai Borisovich Iusupov's properties sent a letter to the village elder of Chmutovo, a small village in northern Kostroma province. A recruit levy had recently caused significant internal discord within the village, and in its aftermath the elder and other individual peasants had sent the Office many letters containing complaints and petitions. "Your report without year, month, or date was received by this Office, in which it is reported that the soldier's wife Pelageia Iakovleva unjustly complains about you in regard to her oppression and demands for dues," the letter began. "Although the Office is truly much burdened by her petitions, it all the same concludes that they are not without merit," it continued. In part, the Office simply found the petitions believable based on its prior experience with the case, but "above all," the letter went on, "the petitions received from her are always written solidly, and with attention to necessary order; on the other hand, yours are so stupid, that it is barely possible for something to be stupider than them."

As the letter went on, its author identified a series of ways in which peasants of the village had violated the norms of village and estate authority structures. The first major issue was the substance of the soldier's wife Pelageia Iakovleva's complaints, which called into question the ways in which authority was expressed within the village when a particularly troublesome issue--like a recruit levy--occurred. She claimed that the village elder, "having taken from her house a horse, wanted to sell it to pay for the dues accruing to her family." When other people intervened, telling the elder that he was acting unjustly, the elder gave it back, but with an ultimatum: "if she herself did not give [money for] quitrent payments, then in that case, not only [would the elder] sell her horse, but also take away her land and send her herself away from the village, and make her children survive on handouts from the commune." If true, this was totally unacceptable according to earlier commands, as the Office let the village elder know in no uncertain terms. "The Office, being shocked by your so inhumane intention, in disgust about it, commands that you see reason: ... do not put your intention into action, and instead in every way try to maintain the house of soldier's wife Iakovleva in orderly condition, and for that do not demand any kind of dues from her, but pay them via the commune instead, for her husband went into service for all of you; for that reason you are obliged to give the rest of his family not oppression and offenses, but all possible aid."

A second set of issues focused on the relationship between the village and the Iusupov estate offices. On a superficial level, the village elder failed to understand where power resided within the Iusupov estate administration, a fact demonstrated by his letter addressed not to the management Office's overseer, Andrei Alekseevich, but to two minor Office clerks. The elder seemed to believe "that they may have a role in the administration," but according to the Office, they were in reality "nothing more than office help, who fulfill the orders of the Overseer, [and who] are themselves not capable of doing anything." This misunderstanding showed that the village elder had "completely forgotten what [he was] writing and to whom," and so the letter admonished him to "refrain from such idiocy in the future." More fundamentally, however, the Office feared that it had lost control of Chmutovo, that the written instructions on which it depended were either misunderstood or ignored. As a result, it demanded that the village elder pay more attention to the acts of writing and reading, even at the cost of his own standing within the village: "because you yourself are not able to understand and to attend to the contents of orders received from this Office in their literal sense, therefore it is also ordered that you, having found a scribe or clerk who knows well the art of writing, ask him to explain to you in front of the village the essence of this order."

Finally, the Office tried to recast the issue in terms not of specific authorities, but of abstract conceptions of justice and common sense. Not only was the "scribe or clerk who knows well the art of writing" to interpret specific orders properly, but he was "also to explain to [the village elder], that [he was] acting truly unjustly toward the soldier's wife Iakovleva, demanding from her dues, just when she, having been burdened with a young family, uses all her efforts to find means to feed them. And finally, [your efforts] for the upkeep of her household, which, as her children grow up, may be restored to top condition, may then comfortably reward you for all your aid given to it." (1) In other words, the estate Office had not decided matters based on whim, but on both abstract reasons of justice, and also economically rational reasons for supporting this soldier's wife. The peasants should therefore take the Offices prescriptions not as intrusive, but instead as in their own best interests.

Chmutovo was a tiny village, and its peasants were hardly representative of the mass of Russian peasants. However, as micro as this microhistory might be, the story of these few peasants at this specific time shows well the complications of authority in the Russian countryside in the early nineteenth century, and in particular the ways that the extreme costs of military duties exacerbated those complications. On its most obvious level, the story of Chmutovo is about military recruiting in the Russian countryside and its influence on village life. The Imperial state's calls for recruits were frequent and heavy: between 1705 and 1825, 90 levies collected soldiers for the tsar's military. During Alexander I's reign alone (1801-1825), around two million soldiers entered the army. (2) Because these levies called for a certain proportion of recruits (generally one or two soldiers per several hundred souls, although the rates varied widely over the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), individual smaller villages might only have to send a recruit infrequently, but even then the demand could be a significant burden. (3) Irregular demands might even be a greater burden than regular ones, because villages subject to them could neither plan ahead, nor institute a regular system. Steven Hoch calls the choice of who to send to the army a "highly divisive issue," because although most villages could agree that people with bad behavior ought to be sent away, not every village had someone who fit that bill, while also meeting the state's age and height standards. (4) In some cases, villagers themselves decided whom to send; in others, estate owners played a more important role. Although eventually a "line system" regularized recruiting structures, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries more ad hoc systems negotiated between the demands of village social order, household economies, and individual desires to avoid service. (5)

This tale has possibly even more to say about another issue in Russian serf life: authority and control. Although as Jerome Blum put it, "the serf lived always at the mercy of the whims, appetites, and temper of his owner," for a large serf-owner those whims were filtered by a sometimes extensive administrative apparatus. (6) Individual large villages might be subject to a local bailiff, but in other cases the written word, mediated not only by estate managers but also by local officials and scribes, had to suffice. The estates of the Vorontsov family, for example, were governed by an administrative hierarchy that included two major management offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow, multiple regional offices, and individual village leaders. (7) In some cases, these structures sought to focus authority in one direction. According to E. I. Indova, the Vorontsov structure was a purely top down system: although the managers were ideally supposed to govern with the consent of village authorities, they could act dictatorially if desired. If serfs sent complaints up the hierarchy, they were subject to punishment and their complaints ignored. (8) But in most, there was some degree of back and forth communication and complaint. Estate owners or managers, particularly those without live-in bailiffs, had to rely on the words of their peasants in order to have any sense of what went on in their villages. And they had to weigh peasant words carefully, seeking out some truth from within the mass of rhetorical flourishes or customary phrases that might obscure it. (9)

In the case of Chmutovo, a call for recruits led to disruptions in the power structures of the village in a way that highlights two further issues: the after effects of recruiting in the village, and the position of women. The process of choosing a recruit demonstrated the weakness of both the estate management Office and the village elder when faced with determined individuals. In this case, however, the disruption increased after a recruit was finally chosen and sent to the army. In part this disruption was due to the simple fact that removing a working man from a small village could not but affect the economic life of the commune and therefore have a lasting impact. (10) But also, because in this case the recruit sent was the only adult male in a household, the women he left behind came to play particularly important roles in the disruption. Although women's work in peasant households has long been recognized as centrally important, their say in the patriarchal structures of the household and the village was significantly more limited. There were domestic and family spaces in which women expressed their authority, ways in which they sought justice or amelioration of their position, but for the most part the structure of village control gave women little agency. Later, in the post-Reform period, as courts and other arms of the state began to intervene in peasant life, peasant women gained new outlets to improve their position within the village. (11) Even earlier, however, the Iusupov estate management Office, guided as it was by certain principles of logic and justice, was able to serve a similar role for several women of Chmutovo, giving them an outlet to express their frustration with the current social order. For them, writing was indeed a "weapon of the weak," but in this case one that supported challenges to authority within peasant society, not simply to authority over peasant society. (12)

The tale of Pelageia Iakovleva and her fellow peasants, then, is a tale of the conflict between authorities within and outside the village, and of individuals' attempts to bolster their own positions vis-a-vis one or the other sources of control by means of the written word. The tale is also unavoidably incomplete. The records of the Iusupov estates are extensive, and contain thousands of letters sent between Moscow and the villages controlled by that management office. But aside from the fact that some individual letters have been damaged over time, or were nearly illegible to begin with, the collection cannot tell the whole story of the people living in these villages. (13) Even the correspondence quoted at length below, which provides many details about this specific incident, leaves out motivations, or specific events. In particular, the names of the actual writers of the various letters are almost never mentioned. Still, the story that remains is both a compelling and a telling one, providing a window, if a blurry one, into the lives of serfs in the early nineteenth century.

Chmutovo was a small village in the northern reaches of Kostroma province, part of the Iusupov family's larger landholdings in the region. In 1817, the village contained seven households, made up of 19 men and 25 women. Between them, the households owned 13 horses, 25 cows, 22 sheep, and 6 pigs. (14) The peasants worked their lands, but like much of the land in Kostroma province, theirs gave limited returns for their labor. As the village elder reported in 1821, "for reason of hills and wilderness, that means little land, and people live unequally; where land is fertilized, there you get grain, on unfertilized it is much worse, flax seed we sow very little, linen too and that is for clothing, which, if it is dry in summer, grows very badly, just like all grain. Currently because of frequent rains somewhat better returns compared to other years are noticeable." (15)

Because of such limits, the peasants of the village lived on a combination of their agricultural products and on income from men working outside the village. In February 1826 the village elder petitioned the estate Office to cancel the previous year's quitrent demands. He asked for this "patriarchal great mercy" because "we have such a shortage; for three years grain has not grown; we have a great scarcity and we all buy necessary foodstuffs and there is nowhere to get quitrent payments and those people who were in Petersburg worked very little and barely had enough for bread and we do not have other benefits either from the hay making or from the forest." (16) The estate Office was generally reluctant to give any ground in its quitrent demands. At times, it simply did not believe the peasants. At others, it gave advice on the best time to collect quitrent (fall: "at the present time field work is already complete and peasants have begun to sell their wares, and those who live elsewhere at work are either sending money or are themselves returning home, and consequently this is the most convenient time to collect quitrent"). (17) Or it suggested that delays were a bad idea: "with more time, the outstanding debts grow and the bigger they become, the harder it will be to pay them." (18) The Iusupovs also had a mighty threat to hold over their peasants: removal from the village to work in the family's factory. An early letter to all the regional village elders put this clearly: "if the peasants of some estate do not pay their quitrent then take the responsible village elders and their children to Moscow and give the fit ones as recruits, the unfit ones [give] to the factory." (19)

Into this situation--neither particularly bad nor particularly good--came a specific problem: one of the regular demands for army recruits that plagued the Russian village. The process of deciding which peasant to send, and then the aftermath of that decision, showed the limits of authority when contested by particularly canny individuals. The cast of characters in this drama includes figures from both Chmutovo and the capitals. In the village, roles were played by two village elders: Dmitri Dmitriev in 1819, and Larion Mart'ianov in 1820; by two recruits (or would-be recruits): Mikhail Ivanov, and Mikhail Ul'ianov; and by the wives of these two men: Dar'ia Vakhrameeva and Pelageia Iakovleva. Scribes, priests, and bystanders also played roles, but these were for the most part unnamed extras in the larger drama. On the other side, Nikolai Boriso-vich Iusupov (almost always referred to as His Excellency) played the role of the distant authority, great but far away, whose pronouncements occasionally came down to the village via his management office. That Moscow office was headed by Andrei Alekseevich Ageev, the usual recipient of peasant letters and petitions. He was aided by various clerks and scribes, including the clerk Ivan Luk'ianov, who came to play a specific role in the drama of Chmutovo.

Our story begins in 1819, when a demand for recruits brought trouble to Chmutovo. Initially, the village tried to send one peasant, Mikhail Ivanov, to meet its obligation. In a March letter to the estate Office, the village elder, Dmitri Dmitriev, listed the many misdeeds of Ivanov: he was inclined to "every violence and especially to thievery;" he had definitely stolen a horse, and "in his vicinity some livestock went missing, a sheep;" he was "always drunk and disorderly;" and his bad behavior was so problematic that people from outside the village came to complain about him, and to demand that the commune deal with him appropriately. The commune decided to respond by sending him as a recruit. Their mistake seems to have been telling Ivanov of their plans, which allowed him first "to boast that [the village elder] would never be able to send him away," next to damage his leg, and finally to flee. (20) A month later, Dmitriev reported that Ivanov "has not yet by this date appeared on the estate, he has already been on the lam for five weeks. His wife was interrogated by the commune: 'where is your husband?' She declared, 'my husband went to Moscow to the Lord,' so we ask you to let us know about him ... did he appear himself to your face, if he appeared then we ask you to hold on to him and inform us." Ivanov was so important, Dmitriev claimed, because they had been told to give a recruit, and to give "a man negligent in social life." According to Dmitriev, "we have on the estate no such dissolute man other than [Ivanov]. How can we ruin a good man?" (21) A month later, after Ivanov still proved elusive, Dmitriev again repeated "we all most humbly ask you, take pity on your estate. Don't ruin us. Send us a household serf to give as a recruit or we will be extremely ruined by the demand of the local court to send as a recruit a peasant with a family, and that would be really bad for us." (22)

The case was complicated by an alternative account of recent events, this one provided by the "villain" of the village elder's story. Mikhail Ivanov and his wife both petitioned the Office, proclaiming Ivanov's innocence and their own ill treatment by the commune. Ivanov's wife, Dar'ia Vakhrameeva, first wrote the office just after her husband disappeared. She noted that only her "most desperate needs have forced [her] to bother [Andrei Aleksecvich] with these characters," but that wrongdoing by Dmitri Dmitriev and another peasant, Mikhail Ul'ianov, had brought her to extremity. She claimed that the village had tried to send her husband before--that "there has not been one draft for which they have not taken him"--but, to her mind "God always protected and guarded and freed him from this," protecting her, her "little children," and Ivanov's "decrepit parents." Further, she reported that during this latest recruit drive, after her husband had run away to avoid it, the commune took extreme measures to find him. "They called his mother who is already very ancient and weak in health and so brutally flogged her, so it was unknown whether she would survive this beating for a whole week and me his wife [they treated] in the same manner, so that I could not even walk--they have wronged [us], they do wrong [us], and now they have already ruined us completely, having taken from us the key to the storeroom, [they] stole and sold all the grain acquired for food." And finally, she defended her husband, claiming that "there have been no petitions from anyone against him for any official business to your mercifulness, and he is not a drunk, but always ready from his pious labors to pay his master without any delay every duty." (23)

A few months later Ivanov himself sent a petition that hit on many of the same notes. He claimed that he had attempted to travel to Moscow to present his case in person, "to justify myself before you without guilt as one suffering from the blood suckers, but not having a passport given by the village elder, I was stopped in our district town and turned back home." He referred to himself as "wronged and forever persecuted by my fellow villagers," and gave specific examples of this persecution. A horse had been taken from his property and sold for far less than it was worth, his "winter and summer clothes" had been taken away, and "at the village assembly, not even just with birch rods but even with lashes they flogged my wife and mother without the least mercy so that my mother, not able to endure such punishment, for the length of several days was deprived of consciousness, being from birth more than ninety years old." He further blamed his fellow villagers for not allowing him to buy his way out of serving, by not lending him the money to do so. Ivanov also used language creatively. He punctuated his complaint with vivid comments on his fellows: "there's your love of man and justice! O, blood suckers!" And he used heightened language to address the estate manager, at one point turning first to God ("more pious than the lords of the earth") and second to "your highness Aleksei Andreich." (24) (Of course, the Overseer's name was Andrei Alekseevich.)

When it came time for the Office to adjudicate this matter, it initially found its sympathies with Ivanov and, particularly, Dar'ia. In part this was because her claims against the commune were so shocking that if they proved to be true, they represented what the Office considered to be a huge breach in decency.

But the Office was also prejudiced against the village leadership because of a breach not of decency, but of etiquette. Mikhail Ul'ianov, the peasant who had been charged with delivering quitrent payments and the village elder's petition to the Moscow Office, had done so without incident. However, "the Office, having accepted this petition, ordered him, Ul'ianov, to wait for an answering command; but he, not waiting for it and not receiving permission from the Office, that same day headed back to the estate." This was an affront to the dignity of the Office, and one that required correction. The village elder was instructed: "to the peasant Ul'ianov, for his absence from Moscow without the permission of this Office, give a most strong dressing down in front of the community." (26)

After additional reports from the village elder, the Office shifted its position. Although he did not address the allegations of corporal punishment, Dmitri Dmitriev sought to defend himself from Dar'ia Varkhrameeva's other charges against him. He declared that Dar'ia Vakhrameeva had written falsely at least about the seizure of grain, claiming that the commune had indeed taken some grain from her stores, but only enough to pay her family's outstanding dues. In addition, the elder described dealings with district (uezd) level officials; he went so far as to make a report to them, in hopes of finding the missing man. (27) Apparently, these efforts were taken as expressions of Dmitriev's good faith, or at least as reason to take seriously the worries of the village. Eventually, due to the Office's continued insistence that the village send a recruit, and the village's insistence that they had no one else to send, the Office sent a clerk from the Moscow office, Ivan Luk'ianov, to investigate the situation in person. Luk'ianov reported news that agreed with many of the peasant complaints, that Ivanov had been sent "due to his bad behavior, his running away, and his inclination to steal from his neighboring peasants horses and lambs." Furthermore, he had sought additional corroboration from a local landowner, who "said that she knows about him, and generally bad things; and that he truly deserves to be sent as a recruit--there is not the least doubt." (28)

In principle this should have finished the matter--but the tricky matter of Ivanov's self-mutilation created a new set of problems. In a very well written petition (perhaps Luk'ianov had impressed upon local scribes the value of legibility), the peasants reported that they still lacked a recruit. The Office had decreed that Ivanov be sent with Luk'ianov back to the village. However, Ivanov,

One local peasant, Larion Mart'ianov, agreed essentially to serve as a bondsman for Ivanov: he guaranteed Ivanov's good behavior, and promised to bring him to Moscow for inspection should the need arise. (29) Here, Ivanov disappears from the story. Mart'ianov's guarantee solved the problem of Ivanov's bad behavior, and the management office cared less that any particular individual was sent as a recruit than that someone was sent.

This first attempt to send a recruit ended with no clear winner (except, perhaps Mikhail Ivanov). The authority of the Office had been challenged (or so it believed) at the start of the affair. It may have been: throughout late spring and summer, the Office's continued demands that the village send a recruit without delay were not satisfied by the peasants. They were not ignored--the village elder responded to the demands, begging for some alternative solution--but they were nonetheless not fulfilled. Even moving beyond the written word, and sending an actual emissary from the Office had not solved matters. The peasants liked Luk'ianov, later writing that he was "a most reasonable man who put all our affairs in order and lived with us honestly and wronged no one in any way, [who] not only didn't beat or strike anyone but didn't even yell at anyone, and [who] didn't bother us with excessive [demands for] drink and food but drank and ate all with us." (30) But that did not mean he upheld the standard of respect the Office desired. Mikhail Ivanov had also shown possible weaknesses in the local village elder's control over his own village. First Ivanov ran off, later he directly challenged the village elder in front of other peasants ("Ivanov boasts before the whole commune 'and you won't take me as a recruit, you won't be able to give me in any way'" (31)). And, in the end, Dmitriev could not force his will (and apparently the will of the other peasants, if the account of Luk'ianov was true) on Ivanov, instead having to accept him as part of the society, even if under the control of another peasant.

As a result, the village had to send someone else. They chose Mikhail Ul'ianov, the peasant who had annoyed the Office with his willful (or oblivious?) decision to leave Moscow without permission. On the one hand, this solved the village's problem: Ul'ianov went, and their recruit obligation was met. On the other, the wife he left behind, Pelageia Iakovleva, soon proved not simply to be a persistent irritant to the commune's leaders, to its other peasants, and to the estate Office itself--although she was certainly that--but a figure who for a while succeeded in using the existing peasant administrative structure to her own advantage. Pelageia Iakovleva was not the first woman to petition on behalf of Ul'ianov. In July, Ul'ianov's mother sent a petition addressed to "Nikolai Borisych," skipping over the established order of things. She told Iusupov of Ul'ianov's "indigent family," listing its members: "1 his mother am eighty and an aunt is sixty and there are young children who can't help around the house. In all there are four children." She asked that Iusupov command another peasant to go in her son's place, and begged his Excellency to "take pity on [her] poor family." (32)

According to the response sent to the village by the estate Office, Iusupov himself "was pleased to answer this request." Iusupov's response sought to reaffirm the authority of the local commune over its own members, while also giving some mercy to a family in admittedly difficult circumstances. First, he noted, "because he Ul'ianov was sent through the agreement of the commune, then there is no need to return him." The commune had decided, and so the commune's will, in this case, ought to be law. However, since the village elder had spent much of the last year reporting that any recruit other than Mikhail Ivanov would bring destruction to the village in general, and some individual family in particular, the recruit's mother's petition had a ring of truth about it. Therefore, Iusupov (via Andrei Alekseevich) also admonished the village elder to make things as easy as possible for the family left behind: ''so that [Ul'ianov's] household does not fall into disarray and his family does not suffer from any shortages, you, village elder, and all peasants are ordered [to give] all possible aid in working time, such as: during the plowing of the land, the harvesting of grain, and hay-mowing, help [should] be given on the part of the commune." (33)

Although Iusupov had taken a moderate line in mediating this dispute, combining support of the existing peasant administration with an appeal to economic rationality to the benefit of Ul'ianov's family, the village remained fractured. Soon after Iusupov's response, Pelageia Iakovleva (Ul'ianov's wife) wrote two petitions in quick succession in which she begged for the return of her husband (a request the Office ignored), and also laid out a series of complaints against Dmitri Dmitriev and the other peasants of the village (which it took quite seriously). First, she complained that "from [the Office] are sent letters which they do not tell me about, whether you write mercy or not." (34) Next, she reiterated her sorry state: she had four young children, "and the very oldest son has just reached his seventh year;" furthermore "my own mother is already in her eighth decade, and my aunt has more than seven decades, and they are themselves not in the condition to leave the cottage, and they, all these poor folk, are now located under my care." As a result of this, Pelageia Iakovleva begged that her family be freed from quitrent duties she was simply unable to meet. She also wrote in scathing terms of her fellow peasants: "the people are rude and uneducated; these days the village elder Dmitri Dmitriev comes and says give me money--where am 1 to get money ... he says if you don't give me [money], then we will sell all your cattle and grain." And she defended herself from another charge. The village elder had claimed that Pelageia Iakovleva had threatened him, or cursed him. Her response? "And how could I! Days I am always at work with my helpless [family], and nights I fall into deep sleep." In a last minute addendum, she added that her sister in law had been called before the village assembly and treated roughly. And, in a postscript, she made what might be a threat: "If I do not receive any kind of news, then there will be nothing to do but for me myself to come to you." (35)

The estate Office responded with two separate letters written to Chmutovo's village elder and peasants on the same day. In the first, the Office dealt primarily with Pelageia's allegation that the Office's letters and orders were not being properly circulated. The Office admonished the village elder in the future to read orders aloud at gatherings of all the peasants, and on top of that, to be sure that Pelageia was called to listen. Elsewhere in the letters, the Office berated the village elder for his improper actions. Contrary to Iusupov's orders, the village elder had not helped but hindered Pelageia and her family; the Office now asked him to consult his own conscience, to "think in all your affairs of your life hereafter, where for every offence made by you to your neighbor you will suffer in conscience." Furthermore, just as the Office had chastised the village elder for alleged violence against Dar'ia Vakhrameeva earlier in the year, now it brought special attention to the alleged violence against Pelageia's sister in law: "you, having yourself corporally punished the sister in law ... have acted in this case so very improperly, that it is impossible to act more improperly." Not only had he committed violence where no violence ought to be (against this woman), hut he had taken matters into his own hands, instead of consulting with other elders and the priest. And finally, the Office made one additional plea: Pelageia should be told that "in order that she does not come to Moscow--and that she not be burdened by excessive expense--in case of any sort of offence she should denounce [whomever] through the post." (36)

Over the next several months the Office continued to be a reliable, if in some ways reluctant, ally of Pelageia in her struggles within the commune, despite dire counteraccusations made by the village elder and what had to be its own increasing level of annoyance with Pelageia's demands. At one point Dmitri Dmitriev traveled to Moscow to make his case in person. He claimed that Pelageia had "come many times into his house, demanded that he exchange her husband for another as a recruit, and otherwise threatened to take revenge." Furthermore, he blamed her for the fact that "at the end of last August, during his absence from home, [someone] stole from his, Dmitriev's, storeroom a box with four hundred rubles, seventy of which belonged to the commune, and the rest to him." He reported that he had blamed Pelageia and her sister-in-law, but that they had not confessed despite "all these exhortations." (37) In further petitions, Pelageia defended herself against these accusations and continued to describe her ill treatment. According to Pelageia, Dmitriev had threatened her, saying "I want to drive you out of the village," had seized grain for no good reason, and had ignored prior instructions by failing to tell her or anyone else the contents of letters received from the Moscow Office. Furthermore, she claimed that she had been working hard ("I have not a single day not worked") and that she had gone to the Galich district court to prove her innocence. (38)

The Office responded to this by taking Pelageia's side, for the most part, at least. The village elder was instructed to use proper legal channels to investigate the theft, and not to baselessly accuse Pelageia and her sister in law, "because she was not caught doing it, and there is no clear proof." These instructions, however, were only partially followed, again according to Pelageia:

Dmitri Dmitriev followed part of the Office's orders--not bothering Pelageia herself--but his actions toward her sister-in-law were clearly against the spirit of those instructions. Furthermore, Dmitriev continued not to share written instructions with the other peasants. Pelageia even asked that the estate Office direct its written response to one petition to a peasant living in a nearby village, because the village elder "rarely reads out letters in front of the commune but more often alone." (40) Both of these were unacceptable actions in the eyes of the estate Office, and in a final letter of 1819, the Office continued to support Pelageia: "in the future by no means give her any sort of oppression; as for the extraction of dues from her, because she really is in no condition to pay them, in that case, they should be supplemented by the society until her children are of age." And "because up to know [the village elder] has not been able to convict [Iakovleva] of anything," the matter of theft ought to be dropped. (41)

There was one matter in which the estate Office did not support Pelageia. "Her demand for the exchange of her husband is completely reckless; for he was given with the agreement of the society and with the command of the Office and so to exchange him is no longer possible." (42) By making this distinction, the Office sought to preserve a particular social order. On the one hand, communal decisions, like that to send Ul'ianov as a recruit, once confirmed by the Office, could not be challenged. This was in keeping with their earlier decisions about Mikhail Ivanov. Despite Ivanov's protests, the Office ended by confirming the general peasant desire to send the man as a recruit. Only Ivanov's self-mutilation, and resulting delays, freed him from this duty. On the other hand, the Office sought to limit, in some ways, power structures within the village. The village elder was not supposed to be a petty autocrat, but instead was supposed to be bound not simply by existing legal structures, but by rules of common decency as well. Again, this echoes letters in which the village elder was chastised for corporally punishing women, and told to look for outside evidence, or to outside institutions, to support his decisions.

In 1820, another peasant, Larion Mart'ianov, succeeded Dmitri Dmitriev as village elder, but otherwise, over the first few months of the year, the situation persisted in much the same way. According to Pelageia's petitions, Mart'ianov and Dmitriev continued to demand she pay dues, despite the orders of the Office. She reported that she had been forced to sell off livestock to pay some of the dues, and that Mart'ianov had threatened to seize more livestock or to deprive her of land. Mart'ianov also petitioned the Office about the case, and tried to point out the unfairness of the Office's decision: Pelageia was "now the full proprietor of her land after her husband, both in fields and meadows ... [but] does not pay dues." Furthermore, he claimed, she "offends everyone with inhuman and abusive words," while the village as a whole had "not burdened her with anything, and by no one with slanders has she been burdened." (43)

These petitions prompted two responses from the Office, responses that completely took Pelageia's side. One letter expressed amazement at what the Office viewed as not a lapse of authority, but of logic:

The second, written in what seems to be extreme frustration, was the letter quoted at the start of this article. It listed all the problems with Chmutovo's governance it could: lack of logic, lack of understanding, failure to communicate. For all that the Office expressed some frustration with Pelageia's stream of petitions, particularly with her continued demands for the return of her husband, it nonetheless took out most of its wrath against the village government that caused the petitions with their had actions.

This letter, plus a follow up a month or so later, finally caused the peasants of Chmutovo to act in the way the Office expected. Petitions sent by the village elder were suddenly better written and more polite. They still complained a bit, and the office had to send a few more chastising letters warning the peasants not to take away Pelageia's lands. (45) For the most part, however, the Office's desires were finally met, as the village elder used communal funds to pay her quitrent dues: in May, 36 rubles, 20 kopeks of communal funds paid her dues for the first half of the year. (46)

More importantly for the future life of Chmutovo's peasants, they also learned another lesson: how best to write to the estate Office in order to get desired changes. In a follow-up petition, the village elder and all the peasants requested a major change. They did so politely, in a properly formatted petition, using logic to make their case, and after having behaved as the Office wanted them to behave. The peasants told the Office that Pelageia's hold on her lands had been confirmed, and that as a result of those "benefits," "her house is kept quite well and she provides for herself and her family completely without harm." In other words, she lived as well as other peasants. However, they pointed out, her refusal to pay dues, backed up by the Office's dicta, was unjust: "others like her, not having any kind of other benefit from the society, other than the appropriate amount of land, without trouble pay for themselves all their dues in the given time, and the society is not burdened by them with excessive expenses." This was a logical argument, one that appealed to the ideal of abstract justice that the Office had earlier sought to disperse in other dealings with these peasants. As a result, the Office sent a new order. According to the revision lists, Pelageia lakovleva's family contained three souls: her husband and her two sons. The Office proposed that the commune take on responsibility for her husband's quitrent dues; after all, he had "gone into service for the whole society." However, Pelageia would now be expected to keep up with the dues for her two sons, since she had control over enough land to do so. The Office instructed the village elder to call a meeting, to invite Pelageia specifically, and to tell her of this order, and "to make her see that her children, and especially her oldest son, who is already 11, may give some help in household chores."

Even as it made this about face, the Office defended its earlier position, and tried to make the village elder and villagers understand what it saw as a basic point of logic.

The Office showed that it was willing to respond to logic, but also maintained that it had not been mistaken in the past, and, indeed, that its earlier decisions had been grounded in economic rationality.

This letter marked a final shift in the Office's attitude toward the village in general, and to Pelageia lakovleva in particular. Pelageia, the letter suggested, had been unreasonable to say that her children could not work. This was not a new interpretation of her behavior. The Office had already warned her not to challenge general communal decisions (like that to send her husband off), and not to come to Moscow as she had once threatened. And it had suggested that it found her frequent petitions a burden. Now that that the village leadership was behaving itself, and corresponding appropriately, Pelageia's behavior stood out as the problem in the village, something to be corrected, not rewarded. Her willingness to challenge her fellows had brought her sympathy and advantages against a backdrop of shadiness and violence; against a quieter scene, those challenges became themselves disruptive. The village elder continued to send now very well-written letters reporting on Pelageia's behavior, now focusing on the reception of the Office's previous orders both on his part and on Pelageia's part.

The village elder did as he was told: he called gatherings to announce the Office's orders, but Pelageia would not hear them. Nor would she stop demanding that her husband be returned, something the Office had long ago warned her not to do.

From this point on, Pelageia's behavior was more often chastened than not. Here and there over the next almost decade, village elders reported on her refusal to meet the demands of the village, now with the force of the Office behind them. Or, they reported her "offensiveness," and that she continued to complain about the fact that her husband had gone into the army. (49) Pelageia herself petitioned several more times begging to be released from paying quitrent or other dues, perpetually referring to herself as "wronged and always insulted." (50) Although the estate Office responded to one of these petitions with the order to call a village assembly presided over by a priest in order to determine "whoever turns out to be guilty," it more often either directly or indirectly instructed Pelageia lakovleva to stop making a fuss. In one letter, the Office announced that it was "most strictly confirmed that all peasants should live peacefully, and not wrong each other in any way." (51) Less than two months later, its directive was more targeted: "If [Pelageia lakovleva] cannot live in society peacefully, then her children will be ordered to Moscow and will be sent to the factory." (52)

In the end, this drama, though involving only a few peasants, demonstrates some of the complexities of control within Russian serf society. First, it shows the long-lasting effects of recruit levies on Russian village society. Not only was the process of identifying a possible recruit difficult, but the eventual loss of a man had far-reaching economic and social consequences for his family and his village. Furthermore, the drama of Pelageia lakovleva demonstrates the limits of authority. Although much authority was in principle absolute--the landlord over his serf, the patriarch over his family and the elder over the village--in this case individuals, he they unruly and unresponsive peasants, or women who expressed their own authority, even if that authority was couched in terms of weakness, attempted to subvert that official order. Individual peasants defied not only their fellows, but their owners, and two women sought special privilege outside the normal bounds of their society. Nearly all these attempts eventually failed; that is, for all that they managed some change in their status or position, most of these changes were short-lived. Pelageia Iakovleva, in particular, ended up having further marginalized herself.

Her failure to create lasting change also demonstrates how peasants used words to manipulate power--and, moreover, how they learned to adapt those words to their audience. In some ways, virtually all of the letters in this exchange dealt with some conception of injustice. Dar'ia Vakhrameeva and Pelageia Iakovleva both believed that their husbands had been treated unjustly by the commune, and that those initial instances of injustice had been compounded by later actions by village officials. The elders, meanwhile, believed that these women had received benefits that were an injustice to the rest of the village. Initially, all wrote about these injustices with highly emotional terms: the women described their lowly states, lamenting their orphaned children, and the offenses committed against them. The ciders were just as outraged at the unfairness of the Office's demands, referring to the women crudely, even possibly slandering Pelageia Iakovleva with charges of theft and (implied) witchcraft. Against such a background, and given the seriousness of the offenses committed against Pelageia, her emotional language was granted a significant degree of power, influencing the Office in its decisions. However, the village administration learned to adjust its style to fit the demands of the Office--addressing it in terms not of outrage and emotion, but of logic and clarity. And thus, the balance of power shifted. Where once the village administration had seemed too mired in personal animosity to function properly, now its skillfully written petitions suggested a resurrection of real authority within the village. And too, where once the emotional words of a woman wronged by her fellows seemed not simply justified but worthy of support, now the words of that same woman were dismissed as the complaints of a trouble maker within a functioning village society.

Department of History

Toronto Ontario M5S 3G3



(1.) Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA) f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4684, II. 6-6ob (letter to Chmutovo, March 26, 1820).

(2.) John L. Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar: Army and Society in Russia, 1462-1874 (Oxford, 1985), 145. Keep notes that through the 18th century, 2.25 million peasants entered the army. Other sources give slightly different numbers. Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter reports that there were 18 levies between 1796 and 1815, collecting 1,606,199 recruits. Between 1816 and 1854, an additional 40 levies collected 3,158, 199 recruits. See Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, From Serf to Russian Soldier (Princeton, 1990), 3.

(3.) On rates of recruiting, see Jerome Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1961), 466. On the mishmash of ownership that made determining which village owed a recruit at a given time difficult, see Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar, 150-1.

(4.) Steven L. Hoch, Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, a Village in Tambov (Chicago, 1986), 151-8.

(5.) On variations in decision-making, see V. A. Aleksandrov, Sel'skaia obshchina v Rossii (XVII-nachalo XIX v.) (Moscow, 1976), 245-7, 271-3. On one much larger village's practices, see Rodney D. Bohac, "The Mir and the Military Draft," Slavic Review 47, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 652-66. On the line system, including its supposed effect on household economies, see Wirtschafter, From Serf, 20-2. On ways that peasants avoided service, see ibid., 5-9; Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar, 148-9, 154-5; and Blum, Lord and Peasant, 467-8. On recruitment as a particular source of disorder within the village, see Edgar Melton, "Household Economies and Communal Conflicts on a Russian Serf Estate, 1800-1817," Journal of Social History 26, no. 3 (Spring 199.3): 569-77.

(6.) Blum, Lord and Peasant, 437. In 1834, the richest landowners--those who owned over 1000 serfs apiece--owned 33 percent of Russian serfs. Blum, Lord and Peasant, 368.

(7.) E. I. Indova, Krepostone khoziaistvo v nachale XIX veka: po materialam votchinnogo arkhiva Vorontsovykh (Moscow, 1955), 48, 54-5. Aleksandrov discusses many other variations of the structure of control over serf villages. Aleksandrov, .Sel'skaia obshchina, 55-116. Even when a bailiff oversaw a village, his own administrative apparatus could be significant. Hoch, Serfdom and Social Control, 134-5.

(8.) Indova, Krepostnoe khoziaistvo, 56-57.

(9.) For a brief discussion of the importance of the written word and peasant authority in the pre-reform period, see Michelle Lamarche Marrese, A Woman's Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 1700-1801 (Ithaca, 2002), 190-1 and in the context of state peasants and their management, Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, 1985), 5. On bureaucracy and its challenges in a largely pre-literate society, see Melton, "Household Economies," 561.

(10.) For a brief discussion of possible after effects, see Melton, "Household Economies," 569.

(11.) Even much earlier, peasants generally understood the possible benefits of using legal apparatuses whenever possible. See Valerie Kivelson, Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia (Ithaca, 2006). On limitations and opportunities in later periods, see Christine D. Worobec, Peasant Russia: Family and Community in the Post-Emancipation Period (Princeton, 1991), 175-7, 184-5 and Barbara Engel, "The Woman's Side: Male Outmigration and the Family Economy in Kostroma Province," in The World of the Russia Peasant: Post-Emancipation Culture and Society, edited by Ben Eklof and Stephen P. Frank (Boston, 1990), 71-77. On work, see also Hoch, Serfdom and Social Control, 91-5.

(12.) James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, 1985).

(13.) For example, most peasant letters consisted of single long, run-on sentences. Therefore, throughout this article, I have freely added punctuation in my translations to make them more comprehensible.

(14.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4679, 1. 15ob. By 18.34 the village had grown to nine households. See d. 471 5, 11. 7-9 (Revizskie skazki po Kostromskim vochinam).

(15.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4687, II. 8-80b (letter from Chmutovo, June 19, 1821).

(16.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4695, 1. 2 (letter from Chmutovo, February 18, 1826).

(17.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4691, 1. 15 (letter to Chmutovo, September 26, 1825).

(18.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4710, 11. 18-190b (draft notes appended to letter from Chmutovo, June 3, 1833).

(19.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4570, 1. 3 (letter to Galich village elders, 1813).

(20.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 10-10ob (letter from Chmutovo, received March 21, 1819).

(21.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 11-12 (letter from Chmutovo, April 12, 1819).

(22.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 468.3, II. 15-16ob (letter from Chmutovo, May 9, 1819).

(23.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 8-9ob (letter from Dar'ia Vakhrameeva, received March 21, 1819).

(24.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 17-18ob (letter from Mikhail Ivanov, received June 8, 1819).

(25.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, 11. 4-5 (letter to Chmutovo, March 22, 1819). The Iusupov estate authorities were in sync with official attitudes against the corporal punishment of women, which were just developing during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. See Abby M. Schrader, Languages of the Lash: Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia (DeKalb, 2002), 125-6.

(26.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, 11. 4-5.

(27.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 11-12.

(28.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 19-20ob (letter from Ivan Luk'ianov, June 17, 1819).

(29.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 468.3, 11. 25-6 (letter from Chmutovo, July 9, 1819).

(30.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, 11. 33-33ob (letter from Chmutovo, received August 16, 1819).

(31.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 468.3, 11. 15-16ob.

(32.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, ll. 32-32ob (letter from Chmutovo, received August 1,1819).

(33.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, ll. 11-11ob (letter to Chmutovo, August 16, 1819).

(34.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 4683, d. 3, ll. 37-37ob (letter from Pelageia Iakovleva, received August 30, 1819).

(35.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, ll. 38-40ob (letter from Pelageia Iakovleva, August 24, 1819; received September 8, 1819).

(36.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, ll. 15-16 (two letters to Chmutovo, September 13, 1819).

(37.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, 11. 16ob-17 (letter to Chmutovo, October 12, 1819).

(38.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, ll. 41-4 lob (letter from Pelageia Iakovleva, received October 12, 1819).

(39.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4683, ll. 53-54ob (letter from Pelageia Iakovleva, December 12, 1819).

(40.) Ibid.

(41.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, ll. 20ob-21 (letter to Chmutovo, December 27, 1819).

(42.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4682, ll. 16ob-17.

(43.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4685, ll. 11-12 (letter from Chmutovo, March 20, 1820).

(44.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4684, ll. 4ob-5 (letter to Chmutovo, March 20, 1820).

(45.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4684, ll. 7ob-8 (letter to Chmutovo, May 1, 1820).

(46.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4684, ll. 8ob (letter to Chmutovo, May 22, 1820).

(47.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4684, ll. 12-13ob (letter to Chmutovo, June 19, 1820).

(48.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4685, ll. 32-33 (letter from Chmutovo, August 27, 1820).

(49.) RGADA f, 1290, op. 3, d. 4689, ll. 10-10ob (letter from Chmutovo, March 23, 1822). For other mentions of her refusal, or simply her general tardiness in paying dues, see also d. 4685, 1. 39ob (letter from Chmutovo, December 10, 1820); d. 4689, 11. 2-2ob (letter from Chmutovo, early 1822); d. 4689, 11. 10-10ob (letter from Chmutovo, March 23, 1823).

(50.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4689, ll. 3-4 (letter from Pelageia Iakovleva, February 1, 1822); d. 4697, 11. 9-9ob (letter from Pelageia Iakovleva, March 10, 1827).

(51.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4688, ll. 2-2ob (letter to Chmutovo, February 25, 1822).

(52.) RGADA f. 1290, op. 3, d. 4688, ll. 4-4ob (letter to Chmutovo, April 15, 1822).

By Alison K. Smith

University of Toronto
The Office is most surprised that in such a little village, the
  inhabitants of which could just about be one family, such
  extraordinary disturbances are occurring, and concludes that all of
  this happens because of the imprudence of the village elder--for how
  can it be, to use corporal punishment on the family left behind by
  someone's flight, and especially on the female sex? You are strongly
  prohibited from using such prejudiced punishments in the future, and
  are ordered to let the Office know when you have received this,
  whether the complaint of this peasant woman is legitimate, and if it
  is legitimate, then give her hack everything taken from her. (25)

having been in the Kostroma infirmary for the healing of the wound on
  his leg for seventeen days, was brought to extreme weakness, and his
  wound was made much bigger; and therefore for him transport of such a
  far distance turned out to he not at all indicated; if we are to send
  another peasant for inspection in his place, then that, because of
  the present approach of the working season, would cause the village
  extraordinarily heavy losses.

the village elder has been injuring us in recent days, avoiding me,
  but [not] my unmarried sister-in-law. [He], having taken [her] to his
  house, having frightened her in every way possible, scolding her with
  filth and profane and uncommon words--held her in his house more than
  a week, not allowing anyone to see, although the village people,
  seeing our innocence in his loss, took her from him and gave her to
  me, but he even now does not stop threatening and oppressing us and
  he threatens everyone with court, says I'll put you in prison--what
  kind of justice is that! (39)

She also writes, that the society intends to take away from her land
  with already sown grain. The Office is extremely surprised by this
  (one may say) groundless general decision, for if you deprive her of
  these means, then how is she to support herself and her young
  children? And therefore, you and all the peasants are strictly
  ordered not to take away this land from her lakovleva, and instead of
  oppression, to give her every assistance to support her household,
  and to allow her children to reach adulthood and to be good men. (44)

About the fact that the Office in its previous commands ordered that
  all dues for soldier's wife Pelageia Iakovleva were to be paid for by
  the commune: this was not to the end, that your money was [brown
  away, but solely as an exchange through the condition of that
  soldier's wife, for when her children come of age, you would receive
  from them all that you spent, in fulfillment of which on their side
  there is no doubt; for if in four years her oldest son is sent to
  Moscow, then will earn not just one person's quitrent, but even 2 and
  3 persons' worth in one year, consequently the money you spent paying
  the soldier's wife Iakovleva's dues would not be lost capital, but
  rather given as a loan for only some time. (47)

More than once the village assembly of our His Excellency's whole
  estate has been gathered, and [as] is ordered in your directives,
  well and truly, the letter was attested to by outsiders. [But
  Pelageia Iakovleva] resisted and continues to resist us and by her
  own judgment least of all pays attention, and is alone by herself,
  endangering her future circumstances ... and soldier's wife Pelageia
  talks about her husband, and of exchanging him. (48)
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