Peter Kropotkin on serfdom
(from Robinson and Beard)

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Peter Kropotkin on serfdom

Source: Readings in Modern European History, edited by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1909), vol. 2, pp. 345-48, citing Kropotkin, Memoir of a Revolutionist (1899), pp. 28-29, 33-35 and 49-51.

Petr Kropotkin (Пётр Алексеевич Кропоткин, 1842-1921) grew up in a wealthy family in Russia. He later became a revolutionary and one of the main proponents of anarchism in Europe. In this short excerpt he offers some recollections about growing wealthy surrounded by serfs.

Wealth was measured in those times by the number of " souls" that a landed proprietor owned. So many "souls" meant so many male serfs; women did not count.

My father, who owned nearly twelve hundred souls, in three different provinces, and who had, in addition to his peasants' holdings, large tracts of land which were cultivated by these peasants, was accounted a rich man. He lived up to his reputation, which meant that his house was open to any number of visitors, and that he kept a very large household.

We were a family of eight, occasionally of ten or twelve ; but fifty servants at Moscow and half as many more in the country were considered not one too many. Four coachmen to attend a dozen horses, three cooks for the masters and two more for hand, standing behind each person seated at the table), and girls innumerable in the maidservants' room. How could any one do with less than this? Besides, the ambition of every landed proprietor was that everything required for his household should be made at home, by his own men.

To maintain such numbers of servants as were kept in our house in town would have been simply ruinous, if all provisions had to be bought at Moscow; but in those times of serfdom things were managed very simply. When winter came, father sat at his table and wrote the following to the manager of his estate:

"On receipt of this, and as soon as winter communication is established in the city of Moscow, twenty-five peasant sledges, drawn by two horses each, one horse from each house, and one sledge and one man from each second house, are to be loaded with (so many) quarters of oats, (so many) of wheat, and (so many) of rye, as also with all the poultry and geese and ducks, well frozen, which have to be killed this winter, well packed and accompanied by a complete list, under the supervision of a well-chosen man " ; --and so it went on for a couple of pages, till the next full stop was reached. After this there followed an enumeration of the penalties which would be inflicted in case the provisions should not reach the house situated in such a street, number so and so, in due time and in good condition.

Some time before Christmas the twenty-five peasant sledges really entered our gates, and covered the surface of the wide yard…..

Serfdom was then 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.

Uliana, the housekeeper, stands in the passage leading to father's room, and crosses herself ; she dares neither to advance nor to retreat. At last, 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 Uliana 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 Uliana cannot account for several pounds of such and such provisions. Father's voice becomes more and more menacing ; Uliana 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 Makar, 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 Uliana 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 punishment 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 Makar with this note to the police station, and let a hundred lashes with the birch rod be given to him." Terror and absolute silence reign in the house.

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.