The Sphinx of Russia

Turgenev described the feverish atmosphere in St. Petersburg just after the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861, when the intelligentsia debated the future of the traditional peasant communes: Should they be abolished as the remnants of a primitive economy, or preserved as the repositories of the Russian soul? Slavophiles and Westernizers, radicals and conservatives, Turgenev wrote, “whirl before one’s eyes like figures in a danse macabre, while below them, in the dark background of the picture, lurks a sphinx—the Russian people.”

One hundred and thirty years later a similar ideological clamor attended the liberation of the peasants from the serfdom of the Communist collective farms set up after the Revolution. Reformers urged them to seize the chance to become independent farmers, while old Communists and neo-Slavophiles lamented the destruction of the Russian communitarian spirit by the poison of selfish Western individualism. The arguments of both sides have met with a deafening silence from the Russian villages, whose sullen resistance to the reforms fits no ideological stereotype. As at earlier points of crisis in its history, Russia seems divided into two mutually hostile and uncomprehending worlds.

The westernization that Peter the Great forced on his country in the early eighteenth century sundered Russian society in a way that had no parallel in Europe. The old Muscovite hierarchies were replaced by a Table of Ranks in the army, the state service, and the court. The culture of this new meritocracy had no impact on the peasantry who made up most of the population. They showed their displeasure with landlords and officials by killing them in periodic rampages (the fearsome Russian bunt), looting and burning estates. The more intensely religious among them were drawn to the sects and the Old Believers, who saw Peter’s cutting off of beards and his other innovations as a sign that Antichrist had taken charge of the world. Most continued to live peaceably within their mir (the word means both “commune” and “world”).

The commune, the universal form of peasant land tenure in central Russia until the early twentieth century, ensured its members’ security by allotting each adult one strip of arable land on which to support himself while meeting his obligations to the landlord. Peasant dress—a long linen shirt tied at the waist, linen trousers, boots of bark or felt, and a sheepskin coat—was a relatively rare sight outside the communes; when the Slavophile Konstantin Aksakov took to wearing an antiquated version of it in Moscow in the 1840s in order to parade his national roots, he was reportedly taken for a Persian. It became recognized as a badge of true Russianness only when adopted (also for ideological reasons) by Tolstoy.

The peasants bore the cost of Peter’s reforms while reaping none of the rewards. Attainment of a certain rank in the Table automatically conferred noble status, including the right to own land worked by serf labor. When in the mid-eighteenth century the nobility were freed from the obligation to serve …

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