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(FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO HERALD.)
One of the most important measures of the 19th century is the liberation of the serfs of Russia. We have already expatiated somewhat on this subject, and now give a short history of the system which has proved the great clog to the progress of Russia. It will, undoubtedly, be read with interest, as Russia is destined, from the step take in
this matter, to shortly become the arbitress of Eu
ropean destinies. The peasant was not only liable to the villein-tax, and to base service, but he was deprived of all protection against the abuse of
the seignorial authority, which was exercised
without restraint from the borders of the Gulf of Finland to the confines of Lithuania. The serf could hold no property; the results of his labor belonged to his master, under the name of "accessorium;" he could not sell the product of his own industry, or buy that of others; and he could not even frequent the markets without the permission of the seigneur. This permission was equally neces- sary to enable him to marry, and he might be sold away from his wife, even Into another country, at the will of his master. The seig- neur was the executive of civil and criminal justice in his own domains, and he main- tained his right over the life of his vassals, even after it had been formally abolished by law. The condition of the slave population of the United,States, the West Indies, and Brazil, has ever been infinitely superior to that of the Russian serfs, as may be gathered from the following fact:-The serf who sought to escape from his master by flight was con- demned, upon a repetition of the offence, to have his foot struck off. There is no proof that this statute was ever enforced, but the fact that it was approved by the Diet (1638) is sufficient to characterise the legislative principles and customs of that epoch.
This exceedingly debased condition of the peasantry was, however, unendurable even to their masters, and we consequently find an amelioration in their condition.
In 1597, Sigismund III., the successor of Batory, sent a committee of inquiry into Livonia, which interdicted the farmers and stewards of the royal domain from laying any new taxes upon the serfs, or from selling the surplus of their products. The Diet of Cour- land took a similar step in the following year: the nobles pledged themselves upon their honor to abstain from the traffic which they practised in their own domains, and to permit their vassals to sell the surplus of their harvests, and to buy in the cities what- ever would supply their other wants. In 1601, when the Swedes occupied Livonia, the Duke of Sudermauia, afterwards Charles IX, called a deputation of the nobility to Beval, and proposed to them the enfranchisement of the peasants, and the admission of their
children to the schools. Still later, when Li- vonia passed into the hands of the Swedes (1629), Guatavus Adolphus opened the gymna- sium, which he founded at Riga, to the children of the serfs, and instituted a commission of inquiry into the condition of the lands granted to the peasantry. In 1682, he de- prived the nobility of the right of civil and criminal jurisdiction In their domains, allow- ing them only to exercise a disciplinary au- thority called Hauszucht. These measures were, however, interrupted by the death of the king, and were very imperfectly executed. Charles XI, in 1681, repented the proposition, for abolishing slavery made by Charles IX, but without success: and in 1687 undertook a survey of the lands (cadastre) occupied by the peasants, The principles of this cadastre remained in force during two centuries, and, with some modifications, form the basis
cf the present agrarian institutions of Li-
Charles XI. instituted many other reform measures, calculated to relieve the serfs of most of the intolerable tyranny to which they had been subjected.
Tbe proprietors reserved the right of dis- tributing and redistributing, at will, the lands leased to the,peasants, as well as to increase the rents by new estimations, which were, however, regulated by law. Charles XI did not stop here. He published a special edict for the administration of the demesne lands, and declared in the Livonian Diet of 1697 that he considered the relations between landholders and serfs as regulated by its provisions. The accession of Charles XII. to the Swedish Throne interrupted the re- forms undertaken by his predecessor. But his war with Russia intervened, and in 1710 Esthonia and Livonia became incorporated with Russia. Under Russian rule, in 1716, an imperial edict enabled the serf to many ac- cording to his own inclination, and another edict, some years later, forbade the farmers of, the demesne lands to dis- pose arbitrarily of the labor of the serfs, to compel them into domestic service, or to hire them to other masters. These orders were repeated, with increased penalties for their infraction, in 1728 and 1733; but it appears that this solicitude on the part of the Government did not counterbalance the effect of the retrograde movement to which the general welfare of the peasantry had been subjected since the death of Charles XI.
When the Empress Catherine II. visited Livonia in 1761, she was so struck by the unhappy condition of the agricultural popu- lation, that she ordered the Governor-Gene- ral, Count Browne, to take immediate mea- sures for their relief. Through his influence, the Diet of the next year passed, without difficulty, laws regulating the sale of serfs, and the separating of husband and wife, and even accepted the proposition for establishing rural schools; but the nobles showed such unwillingness to take any decisive measures in regard to the re- gulation of rents, the limitation of disci- plinary punishment, and the rights of legal redress to be granted to the serfs, that the Governor-General declared he did not con- sider himself authorised to carry such vague and insufficient conclusions to the Empress, and if the Diet would not resolve to take the initiative in these most needed reforms, he would make the reforms descend to them from the throne, notwithstanding all the in- fluence they could bring to bear upon the question. This declaration compelled the nobility to take a derided stand, and they finally adopted all the propositions urged by Count Browne. The Diet, in its opposition to the Governor-General, assumed the posi- tion taken by the Baron de Bosen. and pro- posed, as an amendment to the existing laws, that the seigneurs should be made liable to a judicial accusation for the misdemeanor of prodigality-any gentleman guilty of exac- tions in regard, to his serfs should be con- demned to lose the administration of his own estates, not as a man unworthy of such a position, but as a person incapable of manag-
ing his financial concerns.
The nobles contrived to evade the require- ments of the laws they had been compelled to accept, and the condition of the Livonian peasantry was not really improved by the legislation of 1765. Nine years after, we find the Senate of the Empire again interfering in their behalf; and in 1777, the Govemor-Ge- ral instituted, on the estate granted to him by the Empress, a tribunal where the peasantry were themselves the judges of certain com- munal affairs. During all this period, these were frequent outbreaks among the peasantry ; and an armed, force was sometimes necessary
to quell the insurrections.
The wise and humane edicts of Catherine were annulled by Paul immediately after his accession; and he re-established almost all the ancient privileges to the seigneurs. This act of the Emperor was received by many of the Esthonian and Latvian nobility as an especial mark of favor, and in the return of the Diet of Livonia (1797) they drew of a series of "agrarian regulations" ameliorating the condition of the peasantry, and this document was presented to the Emperor "as a homage of gratitude, and an immediate consequence of the re establishment of the ancient order." This, however, did not prevent the minority of the nobility from protesting against the new regulations; and no imperial action was had upon them. More than two centuries of royal interference had failed to afford any protection to the unhappy Lives and Esthes:
the country was opposed to innovation, and the
scattered instance of reformatory spirit among the
nobles themselves had produced no lasting effect upon that body. But towards the close of the 18th century, new thoughts upon the rights and duties of humanity were spreading throughout all classes.
The more intimate relations between the landholders and the population of the villages led to an exchange of ideas that shook the prejudices of the caste. Lastly, the press devoted itself to the subject, and vehemently denounced the abuses of the seignorial power, and, above all, the
writing of Dr. Merkel produced a profound impression. In 1802, still further improvements were made in the condition of the peasants, growing out of a diversion of opinion on the part of the nobles, and the Emperor Alexander I. approved statute having for its objects: 1st. The rights of property of the peasant were recognized and guaranteed in all such personal property as he possessed or should acquire. 2nd. He could be dispossessed of his land only by a full and entire indeminication, the amount of which should be decided by an impartial tribunal. 3rd. The right of possession was assured to the farmers for life, with hereditary transmission to their children or widows, except in case of incapa- city or manifest negligence, and such inca-
pacity or negligence must be authenticated in judicial proof, with the concurrence of a tribunal, which every proprietor must esta- blish on each of his estates, and which should be composed of members of the agricultural class. 4th. Misdemeanors and infractions of the law were referred to the same tribunal, except such cases as came under the jurisdic- tion of courts already established. 5th. The right of selling slaves apart from the land
which they cultivated was submitted to cer- tain restrictions, and could only be exercised with the consent of the rural tribunal. 6th. In each parish certain new authorities were constituted, to consider complaints brought by servants against their masters, with the additional power of reducing excessive rents. Various changes occurred, and many im- provements were made in the condition of the servant in various provinces, since that period, with varying success. In Courland
the gradual emancipation scheme, which was adopted, worked favorably, the peasants steadily advancing to prosperity and wealth; while in Livonia and Esthonia the reverse was the case. Discontent spread among the agricultural class in Livonia to such an ex- tent that in 1841 an edict was published, permitting all peasants who would join the Greek Church to establish themselves in other provinces of the Empire, and the whole popu- lation of many cantons abjured their religion and abandoned their homes. In 1845 the same plan was again adopted, and nearly one-hundred thousand peasants entered the Greek Church in 18 months. In 1848 the Diet took the subject under serious consider- ation, and in 1849 a law was passed, granting to the peasant the exclusive right over the Bauerland, substituting a rent in money for base service, with some additional measures for assisting the husbandman to become I owner of the land which he cultivated. In Esthonia the changes have been very similar to those in Livonia; the peasantry were mutinous and the nobles divided, and a law similar to the Livonian statute of 1840 was enacted in this province in 1856. In Courland the results have been not only relatively but positively happy. The serfs had always been in a more prosperous con- dition, while the landholders had fortunately
never been subjected to the system of 1804. This province was the only one which imme- diately foresaw the dangerous consequences that might be expected from the legislative reform, and sought for the means of ob- viating them. The proprietors recognised the necessity of attaching the peasant to the soil by personal interest, and by opening new sources of wealth for his advantage. This the nobles strove to accomplish by abolishing tenure on base of service; by increasing the number of farms; by a proportionate decrease of lands cultivated by the seigneurs; and, by thin judicious legislation, they have been able to avoid the difficulties that have almost de- stroyed their neighbors. The Livonian and Esthonian nobility, on the other hand, have attempted to change the law, rather than protect themselves against its evil consequences. When
experience showed that liberty was no safeguard against misery, they revived the ancient book of roles for the protection of the peasant, but the cadastre had neither the precision or the adaptability requisite for the new state of affairs. It only served to complicate the rela- tions subsisting between the two classes; and, while its prohibitory ordinances prevented the free play of the new system. It did not in any way increase the sources of the wealth of which it disposed. Fifteen years of legislation have not succeeded in adapting the system of 1804 to that of 1810 and 1819, and Livonia and Esthonia are still struggling against the consequences of
the enfranchisement of an agricultural population, effected without the establishment of any solid ties between the population and the soil. The general result of the abolition of slavery in the Baltic provinces is encouraging. Notwithstanding the different systems and the dissimilar consequences which have ensued, there has been a general improvement in the
condition of the lower
classes throughout the three districts, and the ob- stacles that will arise hereafter will certainly to overcome, if wise measures are used in the encounter. The above facts are principally compiled from a series of articles published in Le Nord, a Brüssels paper, by a well-informed Russian gentleman.