Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries

Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries

by John Bushnell


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John Bushnell’s analysis of previously unstudied church records and provincial archives reveals surprising marriage patterns in Russian peasant villages in the 18th and 19th centuries. For some villages the rate of unmarried women reached as high as 70 percent. The religious group most closely identified with female peasant marriage aversion was the Old Believer Spasovite covenant, and Bushnell argues that some of these women might have had more agency in the decision to marry than more common peasant tradition ordinarily allowed. Bushnell explores the cataclysmic social and economic impacts these decisions had on the villages, sometimes dragging entire households into poverty and ultimate dissolution. In this act of defiance, this group of socially, politically, and economically subordinated peasants went beyond traditional acts of resistance and reaction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253029652
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/09/2017
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

John Bushnell is Professor of History at Northwestern University. He is author of Mutiny Amid Repression: Russian Soldiers in the Revolution of 1905-1906 (Indiana University Press, 1985) and co-editor of Russia’s Great Reforms, 1855–1881 (Indiana University Press, 1994).

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The Moral Economy of Russian Serf Marriage, 1580s-1750s: Serf Marriage Unregulated

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Russian serfs' marriages were embedded in a moral economy. For example, in 1706, Peter the Great granted his field marshal Boris Sheremetev (1652-1719) a crown estate centered on Voshchazhnikovo, in the Rostov district, roughly two hundred kilometers north of Moscow. As crown peasants, the villagers had paid dues supporting the ruler, his kin, and his government. Among the occasional charges levied was a ten- or twenty-five-kopek bridal departure fee (vyvodnye den'gi, or vyvod) when their daughters married peasants not subject to the crown administration, such as serfs owned by nobles or monasteries. Generally, the groom's family was responsible for the payment. Sheremetev continued to collect the departure fee, probably at roughly the crown administration rate. In January 1712, he sent management rules to Voshchazhnikovo, perhaps for the first time; they included no directive on the departure fee or on any other aspect of his serfs' marriages.

Probably in late 1717, however, he announced that henceforth, the bridal departure fee would be five rubles. His peasants protested against that increase as well as against an increase in quitrent and other imposts. About the departure fee specifically, they claimed that neighboring peasants refused to pay so much, that they themselves didn't have the money, "and among us orphans, those maidens, because of so great a departure fee, have increased in no small number and can't make matches on our estate." They asked that the departure fee be levied at the same rate local nobles charged. On May 4, 1718, Sheremetev responded that he had bought the estate with his blood, that it had been given to him to enjoy as he saw fit, that his serfs would do as they were told, and they would submit no more petitions. Nevertheless, he immediately agreed to reduce the bridal departure fee to whatever the local customary rate was.

Neither Sheremetev nor any Russian noble would have believed that what his serfs told him was literally true, yet he conceded that he was wrong to impose what was, as of that date, an exceptionally high charge for women marrying away from the estate (at the time, five rubles was likely twice or more the market price of a marriageable serf woman in the Voshchazhnikovo area) and that he really did not know what a reasonable departure fee in that district might be. His immediate and complete capitulation on that point suggests that he understood he had crossed a moral line. His sons Petr and Sergei followed his example. In 1733, they charged a woman who married off the estate a fifteen-kopek departure fee, which was close to the average charge in the Rostov district that year. At least down to 1772, Petr occasionally collected a one-ruble departure fee but more often let women from Voshchazhnikovo marry away without collecting any fee at all.

His serfs' successful remonstrance demonstrates that, in the matter of serf marriage if on nothing else, Sheremetev and his serfs were in agreement: a serf-owner should place no financial impediment in the way of his serf women marrying. As E. P. Thompson has shown in "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," a similar consensus shared by the poor and the local political and social elite in eighteenth-century Great Britain — that high bread prices should not deny the laboring poor access to food — was why in years of dearth laborers could often compel farmers, millers, and bakers to reduce the prices of grain, flour, and bread to customary levels. The Voshchazhnikovo incident is not the only basis for my assertion that serf marriage was embedded in a moral economy until roughly the middle of the eighteenth century. There were strikingly similar conflicts over the departure fee elsewhere in the early eighteenth century, with identical outcomes, and I take them up at the end of this chapter.

However, I want to introduce at the outset the idea that there was a moral economy to serf marriage that persisted to the 1760s or thereabouts, when a good part of the nobility rejected the consensus. The evidence from the seventeenth century only hints at the moral economy illuminated by Field Marshall Sheremetev's surrender at Voshchazhnikovo, but the hints are clear enough. I am going to demonstrate that between the 1580s, when the Russian government began to ban peasant movement, and the 1750s, serf-owners seldom intervened in or sought to control serf marriage.

Since over the course of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries serf-owners' coercion and intrusions into serf lives steadily increased, why did they not try, at the very least, to profit from serf marriage? Why did they ignore the obvious opportunity to turn the nominal bridal departure fee into something like a sale, as Sheremetev must have meant to do in 1717? If seventeenth-century nobles had been asked to explain themselves, they would probably have said they were observing tradition. Probably few of them gave any thought to their serfs' marriages and simply allowed serfs to follow local custom. Peasants themselves articulated their understanding of the moral economy of marriage only when custom was attacked. I use the concept of moral economy here to emphasize that for a long time, Russian serf-owners acknowledged their serfs' right to marry as they wished and the wrong that they themselves would do if they tried to control or profit from serf marriage.

I do not use "economy" as a metaphor. Russian peasant marriage in the eighteenth century, as in earlier and later centuries, involved a set of economic transactions. The groom's family paid a bride price. Groom and bride families negotiated how much would be spent on meals, drink, and gifts during the celebratory feast. A marriage license had to be bought from the bishop, and the priest had to be paid for celebrating the marriage. Into the first half of the eighteenth century, most marriages involved payment of a small fee, or comestibles, to whomever managed the village, be it a noble, his steward, a monastery's village manager, or the local government official in charge of peasants who weren't serfs. The additional fee paid when a bride moved from one jurisdiction to another ordinarily accounted for only a small portion of wedding expenditures. Sheremetev's serfs did not protest the departure fee itself, only the sudden twenty-fold increase from twenty-five kopeks to five rubles. Like eighteenth-century British laborers during years of dearth, they asked only that the price be reduced to what they were used to paying.

Serf Women's Mobility in Marriage

Setting aside the web of rules imposed by the Orthodox Church, serf marriage in Russia was taxed but almost entirely unregulated prior to the second half of the eighteenth century. In the conventional story, with the definitive imposition of serfdom in 1649, peasants who lived on noble estates — serfs — lost the right to move away from those estates. In fact, only male serfs lost the right to move; women could leave through marriage. According to chapter 11, article 19, of the Law Code of 1649, "should a votchinik or pomeshchik (proprietor of a hereditary estate or of property held on service tenure, respectively) or his stewards or elders, undertake to release maiden daughters of peasants, or widows, in marriage to others' slaves or peasants," the women were to be given manumission papers, signed by their owners or priests. These documents were to be kept on hand in the event of a dispute over who actually owned the women. An agreed upon bridal departure fee was to be collected, and the amount was to be recorded in the manumission document. This provision not only afforded women mobility denied men; it was also in principle at variance with a number of provisions in the code that were meant to prevent the depopulation of service estates, such as a ban on manumitting (male) serfs from those estates. The 1649 Law Code presumed that women moved about freely through marriage and endorsed the practice.

Of course, serfdom was merely codified, not instituted, in 1649. Beginning in 1582 intermittently and then continuously from 1603, Russian rulers had decreed "forbidden years" during which peasants were not allowed to leave the property on which they were living. During those years, peasant women crossed property lines when they married. They were taxed when they left — a bridal departure fee was paid — but forbidden year or not, they did leave.

The departure fee itself predated serfdom; it was a tax collected by grand and lesser princes from at least the mid-fifteenth century and is sometimes mentioned in immunity charters that exempted the inhabitants of properties from taxes of various sorts. What may be the earliest of the surviving immunity charters mentioning the departure fee — a five-year exemption from that and other taxes granted by Prince Iurii Vasilevich of Iaroslavl to the Novinsk Monastery — dates from 1464; the departure fee must have been in effect for some time before that. Not surprisingly, most of the charters that have survived were granted to monasteries and other ecclesiastical domains, but immunities were, at least on some occasions, granted to lay proprietors. For example, in 1487, Ivan III exempted half of the village of Gliadiashchii (and extensive land and lakes around it) in the Murom district from that fee and other minor levies when he deeded it as hereditary estate to Ivashka Gliadiashchii.

Although these charters did not usually say so, in most cases the grantees must have continued to collect the departure fee for their own benefit. When Ivan IV gave property in the Rzhev area to Metropolitan Afanasii in 1564, he explicitly assigned Afanasii the right to collect the departure fee. In 1590, when Patriarch Iov transferred patriarchal land to the Novinsk Monastery, he specified that the departure tax previously paid to the patriarch was henceforth to be paid to the father superior of the monastery. Since the grand prince must have granted both land and immunity to the patriarch (or before him, the metropolitan), the right to collect the fee had arrived at the Novinsk Monastery through secondary reassignment. More generally, when the tsar began to grant land as service estates in the late fifteenth century, the holder of the estate received the right "to collect the grain and income" — apparently including the bridal exit fee, which would have been included in the "petty income" (mel'kii dokhod) sometimes included in the grant formula — that had previously gone to the tsar, to his local administrator, or to the former owner of a confiscated estate. By the seventeenth century, owners of both hereditary and service estates, as well as clerical proprietors, collected what was by then a private tax for off-estate marriages. On large estates, the departure tax was generally assigned as income to the steward.

The evidence that even during the forbidden years serf women married away from the estates on which they lived is robust, if not plentiful. While there is no evidence at all that serf women were prevented from marrying away, it must have been the case sometimes. In 1591, the Iosifo-Volokolamsk Monastery instructed one of its stewards to collect six kopeks (up from the four kopeks charged earlier) when a father gave his daughter in marriage off the estate. In 1607, Patriarch Germogen ordered peasants belonging to the Annunciation Monastery in Nizhnii Novgorod to pay their stewards ten kopeks when they married away from the monastery's properties. In 1619, Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich reconfirmed to the patriarch a grant of land in the Rzhev district that had originally been deeded to the metropolitan of Moscow in 1564 and that explicitly gave the right to the metropolitan, and now the patriarch, to collect the bridal departure fee, among others. In 1620 and 1621, he conferred the same privilege on other patriarchal properties. Sometime around 1620, Tsar Mikhail decreed that those who lived at state postal settlements (iamskie slobody) and in the surrounding territory, thus including peasants, must pay the tsar three kopeks when daughters married into other jurisdictions. In the 1620s and the 1630s, the archbishop of Riazan and the Intercession Nunnery in Suzdal set departure fees on their properties at ten to twenty kopeks.

Evidence from the first half of the seventeenth century that lay proprietors released their serf women for marriage is scant, but in 1631, Voin Karsakov ordered the elder on his Vysheslavskoe estate in the Suzdal district to collect a departure fee when women married away. In 1643, the steward of an estate owned by the widow Feodosiia Volynskaia in what would later be Vologda province charged a bridal departure fee of two rubles for a woman who turned out to be already married and ordered the local priest to celebrate the wedding. The steward no doubt demanded an exorbitant two rubles for facilitating an illegal marriage.

In any case, the abundant evidence from the second half of the seventeenth century is decisive. The reason we have little evidence of how nobles dealt with serf marriage in the first half of the century is that few private documents of any sort have survived from that era. The practice of releasing women from estates was so broadly assumed at the beginning of the seventeenth century that in 1607, in a decree on the forbidden years, Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii declared that the freedom to move for purposes of marriage extended even to slaves: if the slave's master had not arranged for a woman's marriage by her eighteenth year, or for a man's by age twenty, then a government official would issue manumission papers so they could seek spouses on their own.

The wording of chapter 11, article 19, of the 1649 Law Code — "should" a noble decide to release a peasant woman in marriage — suggests release was optional, and Vasilii Semevskii postulated that the formal requirement that nobles had to provide a manumission document must have encouraged them to refuse to do so, thereby preventing serfwomen from marrying away from their estates. However, I have found only one bit of evidence that confirms that a few proprietors balked at releasing serfwomen: sometime in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Resurrection Monastery in Cherepovets forbade widows and maidens on its Belozersk district properties to marry anyone who didn't inhabit a village belonging to the monastery. Aleksei Novoselskii has argued that Andrei Bezobrazov (1621-1690, executed for employing sorcerers to win the favor ofthe young Peter I) intervened energetically in his serfs' marriages, paving the way for full serf-owner control of marriage in the eighteenth century. Novoselskii's assumption that such must have been the case led him to misread the evidence. One of Bezobrazov's stewards did report that some serf women had married off the estate without asking Bezobrazov's permission, as required, but there is no evidence in the correspondence that Bezobrazov ever refused permission (he may only have been trying to ensure that the required manumission documents were provided) and much evidence his serf women married away from his estates without hindrance. Bezobrazov did respond to serfs' pleas that they were so poor that no one would accept their sons' suits by ordering stewards to find brides for the unfortunate lads, using compulsion if necessary (but was sometimes unavailing). From a groom's point of view, at least, Bezobrazov thus rendered a marital service.

All the other evidence points to a conclusion that almost universally, proprietors permitted their serf women to marry across estate boundaries. The Pafnutev-Borovsk, Spaso-Prilutsk, Kirillo-Belozersk, and Trinity-St. Sergius Monasteries and the Nizhnii Novgorod Bishopric permitted marriage off the estate in the second half of the seventeenth century, for example. The thousands of marital manumission papers that have survived from the second half of the seventeenth century are prima facie evidence that property boundaries were not marital boundaries. And while the 1649 Law Code appeared to apply only to serf women marrying serf (or slave) men — in which case their freedom was fleeting, ending when they married and reverted to serfdom — in fact, serf women sometimes married peasants who were not serfs, or townsmen, and upon marriage they, too, assumed their husbands' legal statuses.

The overwhelming majority of the surviving seventeenth-century manumission papers failed to meet the 1649 Law Code's requirement that they state the amount of the bridal departure fee. Some say nothing at all about the fee, which may mean that in fact no money was collected when the girl left the estate; some manumission papers state explicitly that no departure fee was taken (bezvyvodno). Some say the fee was collected "by agreement," others that it was collected "according to the [owner's] instructions," yet others that the fee had been "paid in full." Manumission papers that specify the charge suggest that departure fees were low at mid-century, rose slowly into the 1680s, and then in the late 1680s and 1690s rose on some but not all properties by an order of magnitude or more.


Excerpted from "Russian Peasant Women Who Refused To Marry"
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Copyright © 2017 John Bushnell.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: What is the Opposite of Eureka?
1. The Moral Economy of Russian Serf Marriage, 1580s-1750s: Serf Marriage Unregulated
2. Nobles Discover Peasant Women’s Marriage Aversion
3. The Outer Limits of Female Marriage Aversion: Kuplia Parish in the 18th Century
4. Kuplia Parish, 1830-1850: Separation, Collapse, Resumption of Marriage
5. Spasovites: the Covenant of Despair
6. Baki: Resistance to Marriage on a Forest Frontier
7. Steksovo and Sergei Mikhailovich Golitsyn: Marriage Aversion in a Context of Prosperity

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