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One of the enduring images of Russian historiography is that of the "backward peasant" isolated from the outside world and immersed in ageless village mores. For example, a recent study described peasant "isolation … from the rest of society … at almost every level – legal, political, economic, cultural, social, and geographic …. They rarely came across anything beyond the narrow confines of their own village and its fields …."1 Although this picture of an isolated, agrarian peasantry has recently come under criticism in a few specialized studies, it retains considerable currency in general portrayals of pre-revolutionary Russian society, especially in regard to the pre-emancipation peasantry. Many scholars remain unaware that observers of the late 18th and early 19th century often portrayed Russia's peasants as habitually on the move. "One meets peasants from Iaroslavl' province," wrote an inhabitant of that province, "in every city and town of Russia carrying out every possible economic activity."2 A provincial government statistician observed that "Vladimir province serf and state peasant traders purchase their goods at the Nizhnii and Kholui fairs and in Moscow … and set out from their homes for Little Russia, Poland, the Western provinces, the Caucasus, and the furthest districts of Siberia." Other observers, Russian and foreign, described roads jammed at various times of the year with peasants heading in all directions for trade and work.3 [End Page 627]
This paper is about peasants of the central industrial provinces,4 millions of men and women who between 1800 and 1860 conducted temporary non-agricultural work – trade, commerce, services, artisanry, handicrafts, and factory labor – away from their villages. They were known as peasant-migrants (otkhodniki or otluchnye promysloviki). In the mid-19th century, at any given time, about a quarter of the adult male peasants of the region and numerous women and children engaged in temporary migration. Peasant-migrants performed a wide array of social and economic activities. They were serfs or state peasants5 juridically bound to a prescribed locale. At the same time, they engaged in factory work or ran small workshops in trade or cottage industry. They also possessed manufacturing enterprises that used the hired labor of other people, sometimes even those from "higher" social estates. With their diverse and complex social and economic roles, peasant-migrants were important and numerous agents in society rather than the passive ciphers often portrayed in histories. As the market economy accelerated after 1800, the role of migrants in the economy and society likewise expanded. This activism stimulated notable changes in imperial laws regarding the peasant estate. The legislation of the first half of the 19th century, in turn, further promoted peasant mobility, granted peasants some immunity from landlords and, as a whole, weakened feudal bonds. All this underlay the laws of 1861–64, which finally abolished legal serfdom in Russia. Although this paper will not exhaust the various questions it raises, it will contribute to the more nuanced picture of peasants' often complex lives and work drawn in several very recent histories of the Russian peasantry. It will do this by examining geographic, economic, legal, and social aspects of peasant migration in pre-reform central Russia.
The past two decades have witnessed a proliferation of research about the history of the Russian peasantry, particularly during the post-reform decades. Initially inspired by the promising ideas of the "new social history," historians have attempted to reconstruct the experiences of Russia's commoners "from below" by exploring various social, economic, and cultural issues. They have begun to notice that Russian peasants, traditionally portrayed as amorphously homogeneous, "backward," "isolated," "insulated," and so forth,6 were, in fact, a diversified and versatile collection of groups and individuals. Elise Wirtschafter has recently [End Page 628] argued that a thorough...