Rascoala the Last Peasants' Revolt: In Early 1907 the Peasants of Romania Rose Up against Feudal Laws, Wealthy Landowners and the Agents Who Kept Them Living in Penury and Servitude. Markus Bauer Discusses the Legacy of an 'Unbelievable Bloodbath'

Article excerpt

On February 21st, 1907 around 200 peasants gathered in front of the town hall in Flaminzi in the district of Botosani, northeastern Romania. The farming season had begun and they were due to start cultivation. They had come to negotiate their leasing contracts with local official, Gheorghe Constantinescu, who administered the land of Mochi Fischer, one of the tenant agents (arendasi) and intermediaries of the Romanian landowner Prince Mihalache Dimitrie Sturdza, a relative of the later prime minister Sturdza. Like a large proportion of the arendasi in Moldavia, Fischer was a well-off Jewish immigrant, a factor which would later play a part in the full-scale revolt this incident ignited.

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When Constantinescu failed to turn up for the meeting, the peasants searched until they found him at the home of his brother-in-law. The official's rather unwise reaction was to suggest even harsher terms to the peasants and to beat one of them, a man named Dolhescu. Other peasants, Dumitrache Grosu, Grigore and Trifan Roman and Gheorge Zamfirescu retaliated, seriously injuring Constantinescu, who was lucky to escape with his life.

In the weeks that followed, similar outbreaks of aggression occurred throughout the region and in the neighbouring district of Dorohoi near the borders of Austro-Hungarian Bucovina and Russian Bessarabia. By March the unrest had escalated, sweeping across the south of the country. It was remarkable in the unhindered excess of violence on the part of both the peasants and military and it shook to the core the weak government of King Carol I. When peace was restored at the end of April, aided by a force of 120,000 troops, an estimated 10,000 peasants had been killed.

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Romania had won its independence in several stages from 1859 onwards: after the Crimean War, while still part of the Ottoman Empire, a common ruler was elected by the Moldovan and Wallachian nobles for the two Romanian principalities. Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza took several measures to unite the principalities, some of which aimed at improving the agricultural situation. However, a coup led to his dethronement in 1866. He was replaced by the German noble Prince Karl von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, who after full independence was established at the Berlin Congress of 1878, was made King Carol I in 1881. Heading the country until his death in 1914, he tried to reconcile the two main political movements, the National-Liberals and the Conservatives.

The great Romanian peasant revolt--or rascoala--of 1907 was the last large-scale rural uprising of its kind in Europe. During the Communist era a simplistic Marxist interpretation presented the revolt as the beginning of a proletarian union of urban workers and peasants. Today it is works of literature and art that keep alive the memory of a dramatic era of unrest, such as the poem by Gheorghe Cosbuc, Noi vrem pamint! ('We want land!'), which articulated the peasants' disaffection as early as 1895, or the 1932 novel Rascoala by Liviu Rebreanu.

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In early medieval times the peasants had been joint holders of the village lands and were required to give the headman one tenth of their produce and three days' labour each year. However, with the emergence of a feudal hierarchy in the 13th and 14th centuries, the status of peasants had altered considerably. By the turn of the 20th century subsistence farming was the norm for about 80 per cent of the population. In contrast, over half the agricultural land was in the ownership of a handful of wealthy landowners (boyars), most of whom lived in cities or abroad and were largely absent from their estates. Their land was administered for them by the arendasi, a class of wealthy tenants who paid a fixed rent (arenda) to the landlords. The arendasi made a good living for themselves, profiting in the process from leasing the land to peasants. …