In Russia, the word peasant was used to describe all the people who lived and worked off the land. Peasants constituted the largest social class in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Before 1861, most peasants were serfs and, as such, the personal property of the landowner, monastery or the state. They could be bought and sold by their owners. Peasant families were sometimes broken up when such sales took place. The husband went to one owner, the wife to another, and the children to a third.

The peasantry belonging to landowners was divided into two categories – barschenny peasants and obrochny peasants. The barschenny peasants performed agricultural services for the landowner. The work that they performed was called corvée (barschina).

The obrochny peasants were allowed to go to the towns in search of work. They discharged their obligations to their owner by paying an annual quit rent (obrok). Many of them successfully engaged in commercial trade and traditional crafts. Some managed to save up the money to buy their freedom, going on to become merchants, industrialists or entrepreneurs.

A third class of peasants belonging to the landowners was called the dvorovy peasantry, after the Russian word for yard (dvor). They performed household tasks for the landowner and his family.

Serfdom was abolished in Russia by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Although the peasants were emancipated, they often did not receive enough land to work on. Many joined the village commune (mir) – a prototype of the Soviet collective farms. Landowners lost a source of free labour, often falling into poverty in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The wretched position of the Russian peasantry was one of the reasons for the revolution in 1917 and the eventual victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War.

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