- The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom by Tracy Dennison
Between the 1970s and early 1990s, a renaissance in Russian peasant studies occurred because of the impact of the new social history. Influenced by the Annales and Cambridge schools as well as anthropological work on non-Russian agrarian societies, historians used interdisciplinary methods to reconstruct the daily lives of Russian peasant societies in both the pre- and post-emancipation periods. Their goal was to carry out micro- and regional studies that could stand respectfully alongside Pierre Goubert’s magisterial Beauvais and the Beauvaisis (1960) as well as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Peasants of Languedoc (1966) and Montaillou (1975), among others. It was an exceedingly ambitious goal, given the heavy restrictions on access to archival records in what before 1991 was the Soviet Union. Suspensions of cultural agreements between the Soviet Union and Western countries even resulted in complete denial of access to archival materials.
Some of the more persistent and successful scholars, armed with the latest methodological techniques in quantitative and demographic history, were able to comb through pre-emancipation records of single manorial estates in the central archives with the aid of nothing more than paper and ink. Dependent upon the whims of reading room staff who decided what materials they would share with the foreigners, it was no accident that Rodney Dean Bohac, Peter Czap, Jr., and Stephen L. Hoch each viewed records for a different individual estate belonging to the aristocratic Gagarin family. A bit later Edgar Melton received access to materials belonging to an estate owned by Countess Charlotte Lieven. Regional contrasts as well as contrasts among serf populations on the largely agricultural estates owned by the Gagarins as opposed to the Lieven property, which was in the midst of proto-industrialization, quickly became apparent from these studies.
Tracy Dennison’s study of Voshchazhnikovo, a Iaroslavl estate belonging to another magnate family, the Sheremetevs, is a welcome supplement to these earlier micro-histories. Although Dennison acknowledges the latter studies, she may in fact underestimate their value in order to drive home her point that a “peasant myth” wrapped around an idealized repartitional commune, beginning with the observations of August von Haxhausen, has dominated the later nineteenth century and subsequent scholarly discourse. She continually relies on the data and conclusions of the foundational micro-histories to make comparisons between these serf estates and to pinpoint her estate’s distinctiveness. Contrary to her assertions, however, all these earlier historians of Russian serfdom not only [End Page 259] understood the importance of micro-studies in revealing differences among serf communities, but did not suggest that a typical or “’representative’ Russian estate” existed (27).
Dennison’s analyses of the serf economy and daily life on the Voshchazhnikovo estate evince many strengths. Working from astonishingly rich primary sources for the period between 1816 and 1858 from both a central archive and a now accessible regional one, she reconstructs the diverse serf and family economies, household structures, as well as serfs’ participation in land, property, labor, credit, and retail markets. An insignificant 5 to 10 percent (depending on the year) of serf households engaged primarily in agriculture. The vast majority of serfs of Voshchazhnikovo, in fact, were not peasants, but rather artisans, small-scale local manufacturers, as well as servants, traders, and apprentices within various urban environments. Here Dennison might have interrogated the meaning of the term “peasant.” Fully integrated into the regional and, at times, national market economy, serf households exhibited differing economic levels. Many hired laborers to work their land and fulfill their feudal obligations and employed servants in their homes. Many owned land individually, albeit in the landlord’s name, but could bequeath that property to their heirs. They borrowed money, entered into contracts with each other, and a few serfs even owned other serfs. Regardless of their economic standing, all serfs were avid consumers of grain as well as material objects, particularly clothing, silk scarves, and jewelry. Even poor householders purchased consumer goods, often at the expense of paying their feudal obligations. So ubiquitous...