1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Russian Serfdom. Mohammedan Slavery.

(Part 22)


Russian Serfdom

We have seen that the last vestiges of the monstrous anomaly of modern colonial slavery are disappearing from all civilized states and their foreign possessions. It now remains to consider the slavery of primitive origin which has existed within recent times, or continues to exist, outside of the Western world.

In Russia, a country which had not the same historical antecedents with the Western nations, properly so called, and which is in fact more correctly classed as Eastern, whilst slavery had disappeared, serfdom was in force down to our own days. The rural population of that country, at the earliest period accessible to our inwairies, consisted of (1) slaves, (2) free agricultural labourers, and (3) peasants proper, who were small farmers or cottiers and members of a commune. The sources of slavery were there, as elsewhere, capture in war, voluntary sale by poor freemen of themselves, sale of insolvent debtors, and the action of the law in certain criminal cases. In the 18th century we find the distinction between the three classes named above effaced, and all of them merged in the class of serfs, who were the property either of the landed proprietors or of the state. They were not even adscripti glebae, though forbidden to migrate; an imperial ukase of 1721 says, "the proprietors sell their peasants ans domestic servants, not even in families, but one by one, like cattle." This practice, at first tacitly sanctioned by the Government, which received dues on the sales, was at length formally recognized by several imperial ukases. Peter the Great imposed a poll-tax on all the members of the rural population, making the proprietors responsible for the tax charged on their serfs ; and the "free wandering people" who were not willing to enter the army were required to settle on the land either as members of a commune or as serfs of some proprietor. The system of serfdom attained its fullest development in the reign of Catherine Il. The serfs were bought, sold, and given in presents, sometimes with the land, sometimes without it, sometime. in families and sometimes individually, sale by public auction being alone forbidden as "unbecoming in a European state." The proprietors could transport without trial their unruly serfs to Siberia or send them to the mines for life, and those who presented complaints against their masters were punished with the knout and condemned to the mines. The first symptoms of a reaction appear in the reign of Paul (1796-1801). He issued an ukase that the serfs should not be forced to work for their masters more than three days in each week. There were several feeble attempts at further reform, and even abortive projects of emancipation, from the commencement of the present century. But no decisive measures were taken before the accession of Alexander 11. (1855). That emperor, after the Crimean War, created a secret committee composed of the great officers of state, called the chief committee for peasant affairs, to study the subject of serf-emancipation. Of this body the grand-duke Constantine was an energetic member. To accelerate the proceedings of the committee advantage was taken of the following incident. In the Lithuanian provinces the relations of the inasters and serfs were regulated in the time of Nicholas by what were called inventories. The nobles, dissatisfied with these, now sought to have them revised. The Government interpreted the application as implying a wish for the abolition of serfdom, and issued a rescript authorizing the formation of committees to prepare definite proposals for a gradual emancipation. A circular was soon after sent to the governors and marshals of the nobility all over Russia proper, informing them of this desire of the Lithuanian nobles, and setting out the fundamental principles which should be observed "if the nobles of the provinces should express a similar desire." Public opinion strongly favoured the projected reform; and even the masters who were opposed to it saw that, if the operation became necessary, it would be more safely for their interests intrusted to the nobles than to the bureaucracy. Accordingly during the year 1858 a committee was created in nearly every province which serfdom existed. From the schemes prepared y these committees, a general plan had to be elaborated, and the Government apumted a special imperial commission for this purpose. The plan was formed, and, in spite of some opposition from the nobles, which was suppressed, it became law, and serfdom was abolished (19th February = 3rd March 1861). Its nature and results have been indicated in RUSSIA, vol. xxi. p. 82. The total number of serfs belonging to proprietors at the time of the emancipation was 21,625,609, of wbom 20,158,231 were peasant serfs and 1,467,378 domestic serfs. This number does not include the state serfs, who formed about one-half of the rnral population. Their position had been better, as a rule, than that of the serfs on private estates ; it might indeed, Mr Wallace says, be regarded as "an intermediate position between serfage and freedom." Amongst them were the serfs on the lands formerl y belonging to the church, which had been secularized and transformed into state demesnes by Catherine II. There were also serfs on the apanages affected to the use of the imperial family; these amounted to nearly three and a half millions. Thus by the law of 1861 more than forty millions of serfs were emancipated.

Mohammedan Slavery

The slavery of the Mohammedan East is usually not the slavery of the field but of the household. The slave is a member of the family, and is treated with tenderness and affection. The Koran breathes a considerate and kindly spirit towards the class, and encourafes manumission. The child of a slave girl by her master is born free, and the mother is usually raised to be a free wife But behind this slavery, however mild in itself, stands the slave trade, with its systematic man-hunting, which has been, and still is, the curse of Africa. The traffic in slaves has been repeatedly declared by the Ottoman Porte to be illegal throughout its dominions, and there have been several conventions between Great Britain and the khedive for its suppression in Egypt; but it is still largely carried on both in the latter country and in Turkey, owing to the laxity and too often the complicity of the Government officials.

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