Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

THE EPILOGUE

When the smoke of the civil conflagration lifted and the debris was cleared away, several results of recent political and social turmoil came into view. The persecution of the boyars by Ivan IV and through the years of civil strife had so thinned the ranks of that class as to eliminate their influence. Another outcome of this period was felt by the Ukrainian Cossacks, who, after they were forced to yield to Moscow, unconsciously entered a path that gradually led to the loss of every vestige of independence or freedom they had enjoyed. The structure of Muscovite society witnessed serious alterations: the curbing of boyar power led to the vanishing of that class. The peasantry, though endeavoring to assert itself, in the end also lost out and so did the Cossacks, checked in their pursuit of greater political freedom. The class that kept gaining political and social status in the social order that emerged after 1613 was the new nobility: by sheer numerical weight it took prestige and influence from the old nobility. The same class won in the election of the new dynasty and placed a suitable candidate on the vacant throne. The new nobility exerted appreciable influence in the national assembly, and gradually replaced the old members altogether and thereby changed the entire pattern of the social structure.

Nor was this all: at the apex of the social structure a shift took place which was bound to affect the base upon which it rested. In the first place the institution of slavery, already on the decline, now virtually vanished. The nature of warfare changed and with it changed the status of the war prisoner. War became a national rather than a local engagement. The days of 'land privateering' were over; prisoners of war were held until the end of conflict and then exchanged for prisoners held by the enemy. A new form of bondage appeared: men who were unable to meet financial obligations began to swell the servant class. A person in debt and unable to pay his interest could pay off in form of service agreed upon. The status of such a debtor was known as the kabbala and it could last in some cases for a lifetime; only death lifted the burden of indebtedness. As time went on debt became the inextricable plight of a growing number of peasants.

By the second quarter of the seventeenth century the situation of a goodly portion of the peasantry was this: legally the peasant was still free, that is, he enjoyed the right to go wherever he thought he might find better conditions. In reality, however, this freedom became more and more illusory. There was already a rule in effect which stipulated that the right of a peasant to change his domicile was limited to two weeks during the year--one week before and one after St. George's Day. During this brief period all contracts could be either settled or renewed. The government as well as the landlord found this rule impractical, since it still allowed too

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