FREDERICK the Great wrote, about 1776: “Of all the neighbors of Prussia, Russia merits most attention, as being the most dangerous; it is powerful and near. Those who in the future will govern Prussia will, like me, be forced to cultivate the friendship of these barbarians.”1
Always, in thinking of Russia, we must remember its size. Under Catherine II it included Esthonia, Livonia, Finland (in part), European Russia, the northern Caucasus, and Siberia. Its area expanded from 687,000 to 913,-000 square kilometers in the eighteenth century; its population grew from thirteen millions in 1722 to thirty-six millions in 1790.2 Voltaire in 1747 estimated the population of France or Germany to be slightly greater than that of Russia, but he noted that Russia was three times larger than either of those states. Time and Russian loins would fill those vast spaces.
In 1722, 97.7 per cent of the Russian population was rural; in 1790, still 96.4 per cent; so slow was industrialization. In 1762 all but ten per cent of the people were peasants, and 52.4 per cent of these were serfs.3 Half of the land was owned by some 100,000 nobles, most of the rest by the state or the Russian Orthodox Church, some by semifree peasants still owing services and obedience to local lords. A landlord’s wealth was reckoned by the number of his serfs; so Count Peter Cheremetyev was 140,000 serfs rich.4The 992,000 serfs of the Church were a main part of her wealth, and 2,800,000 serfs tilled the lands of the Crown in 1762.5
The noble provided military leadership and economic organization; he was usually exempt from military service, but often offered it in hopes of favors from the government. He had judiciary rights over his serfs, he could punish them, sell them, or banish them to Siberia; normally, however, he allowed his peasants to govern their internal affairs through their village assembly, or mir. He was obliged by law to provide seed for his serfs, and to maintain them through periods of dearth. A serf might achieve freedom by buying it from his owner or by enlisting in the army; but this required his owner’s consent. Free peasants could buy and own serfs; some of these freemen, called kulaki (fists), dominated village affairs, lent money at usurious rates, and exceeded the lords in exploitation and severity.6 Master and man alike were a tough breed, strong in frame and arm and hand; they were engaged together in the conquest of the soil, and the discipline of the seasons lay heavy upon them both. Sometimes the hardships were beyond bearing. Repeatedly we hear of serfs in great number deserting their farms and losing themselves in Poland or the Urals or the Caucasus; thousands of them died on the way, thousands were hunted and captured by soldiery. Every now and then peasants rose in armed revolt against masters and government, and gave desperate battle to the troops. Always they were defeated, and the survivors crept back to their tasks of fertilizing the women with their seed and the soil with their blood.
Some serfs were trained to arts and crafts, and supplied nearly all the needs of their masters. At a feast given to Catherine II (the Comte de Ségur tells us) the poet and the composer of the opera, the architect who had built the auditorium, the painter who decorated it, the actors and actresses in the drama, the dancers in the ballet, and the musicians in the orchestra were all serfs of Count Cheremetyev.7 In the long winter the peasants made the clothing and the tools they would need in the coming year. Town industry was slow in developing, partly because every home was a shop, and partly because difficulties of transportation usually limited the market to the producer’s vicinity. The government encouraged industrial enterprises by offering monopolies to favorites, sometimes by providing capital, and it approved participation by nobles in industry and trade. An incipient capitalism appeared in mining, metallurgy, and munitions, and in factory production of textiles, lumber, sugar, and glass. Entrepreneurs were permitted to buy serfs to man their factories; such “possessional peasants,” however, were bound not to the owner but to the enterprise; a governmental decree of 1736 required them, and their descendants, to remain in their respective factories until officially permitted to leave. In many cases they lived in barracks, often isolated from their families.8 Hours of labor ran from eleven to fifteen per day for men, with an hour for lunch. Wages ranged from four to eight rubles per day for men, from two to three rubles for women; but some employers gave their workers food and lodging, and paid their taxes for them. After 1734 “free”—non-serf—labor increased in the factories, as giving more stimulus to the workers and more profits to the employer. Labor was too cheap to favor the invention or application of machinery; but in 1748 Pulzunov used a steam engine in his ironworks in the Urals.9
Between the nobles and the peasants a small and politically powerless middle class slowly took form. In 1725 some three per cent of the population were merchants: tradesmen in the villages and towns and at the fairs; importers of tea and silk from China, of sugar, coffee, spices, and drugs from overseas, and of the finer textiles, pottery, and paper from Western Europe; exporters of timber, turpentine, pitch, tallow, flax, and hemp. Caravans moved to China via Siberian or Caspian routes; ships went out from Riga, Revel, Narva, and St. Petersburg. Probably more traffic went on the rivers and canals than on the roads or the sea.
At the center of that internal commerce was Moscow. Physically it was the largest city in Europe, with long, broad streets, 484 churches, a hundred palaces, thousands of hovels, and a population of 277,535 in 1780;10 here Russians, Frenchmen, Germans, Greeks, Italians, English, Dutch, and Asiatics talked their own languages and freely worshiped their own gods. St. Petersburg was the citadel of government, of a Frenchified aristocracy, of literature and art; Moscow was the hub of religion and commerce, of a half-Oriental, still-medieval life, and of a jealously and conscientiously Slavic patriotism. These were the rival foci around which Russian civilization revolved, sometimes tearing the nation in two like a dividing cell, sometimes making it the tense complexity that would, before the end of the century, become the terror and arbiter of Europe.
It was impossible that a people so used up and brutalized by the conflict with nature, so lacking in facilities of communication or in security of life, with so little opportunity for education and so little time for thought, should enjoy, except in the isolated villages, the privileges and perils of democracy. Some form of feudalism was inevitable in the economy, some mode of monarchy in central rule. It was to be expected that the monarchy would be subject to frequent overturns by noble factions controlling their own military support; that the monarchy should seek to make itself absolute; and that it should depend upon religion to help its soldiery, police, and judiciary to maintain social stability and internal peace.
Corruption clogged every avenue of administration. Even the wealthy nobles who surrounded the throne were amenable to “gifts.” “If there be a Russian proof against flattery,” said the almost contemporary Castéra, “there is not one who can resist the temptation of gold.”11 Nobles controlled the palace guard that made and unmade “sovereigns”; they formed a caste of officers in the army; they manned the Senate which, under Elizabeth, made the laws; they headed the collegia, or ministries, that ruled over foreign relations, the courts, industry, commerce, and finance; they appointed the clerks who carried on the bureaucracy; they guided the ruler’s choice of the governors who managed the “guberniyas” into which the empire was divided, and (after 1761) they chose thevoevodi who governed the provinces. Over all branches of the government loomed the mostly middle-class Fiscal, a federal bureau of intelligence, authorized to discover and punish peculation; but, despite its large use of informers, it found itself foiled, for if the monarch had dismissed every official guilty of venality the machinery of the state would have stopped. The tax collectors had such sticky fingers that scarcely a third of their gleanings reached the treasury.12