V. I.   Lenin

The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century


The object of this article is to give a brief outline of the sum total of the social and economic relations in Russian agriculture. A work of this kind cannot bear the character of a special research. It must sum up the results of Marxist research, it must indicate the place of every more or less important feature of our agricultural economy in the general scheme of the Russian national economy, it must trace the general line of development of agrarian relations in Russia and ascertain the class forces which determine that development, one way or another. Therefore we shall examine from this point of view the system of landowner ship in Russia, then the landlord and peasant systems of farming, and lastly draw general conclusions as to what our evolution during the nineteenth century has led to, and what tasks it has bequeathed to the twentieth century.



We are able to outline the system of landownership in European Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century according to the returns of the latest land statistics of 1905 (published by the Central Statistical Committee, St. Petersburg, 1907[7]).

The total area of registered land in European Russia according to this investigation was 395.2 million dessiatines.[1] This area was divided into three main groups as follows:

  Mill. dess.
1st group: Privately-owned land 101.7
2nd group: Allotment land 138.8
3rd group: State lands, etc. 154.7
Total in European Russia 395.2

It should be said that our statistics include among state lands more than one hundred million dessiatines in the Far North, in the Archangel, Olonets and Vologda gubernias.[2] A great part of the state lands must be excluded, once we are dealing with the real area of agricultural lands in European Russia. In my work on the agrarian programme of the Social-Democrats in the Russian revolution (written at the end of 1907, but delayed in publication through circumstances beyond the control of the author), I estimate the actual area of agricultural lands in European Russia at approximately 280 million dessiatines.[3] This figure includes not 150 million but 39.5 million dessiatines of state land. Hence, less than one-seventh of the total land area in European Russia is not in the possession of the land lords and the peasants. Six-sevenths are in the hands of the two antagonistic classes.

Let us examine the way the land is owned by these classes, which differ from each other also as social-estates, since the greater part of the privately-owned lands belongs to the nobility, while the allotment lands are held by the peasants. Out of 101.7 million dessiatines of privately-owned land, 15.8 million dessiatines belong to societies and associations, while the remaining 85.9 million dessiatines belong to private individuals. The following table shows the distribution   of the latter category of land according to social-estates in 1905, and the parallel figures for 1877:

Social-estate of owners 1905 1877 Incr. or decr.
in 1905
% Mill.
% Mill.
Nobility 53.2 61.9 73.1 79.9 —19.9 —1.40
Clergy 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.2 +0.1 +1.74
Merchants and notable citizens 12.9 15.0 9.8 10.7 +3.1 +1.30
Urban petty bourgeois 3.8 4.4 1.9 2.1 +1.9 +1.85
Peasants 13.2 15.4 5.8 6.3 +7.4 +2.21
Other social-estates 2.2 2.5 0.3 0.3 +1.9 +8.07
Foreign subjects 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 —0.1 —1.52
Total belonging to private owners 85.9 100.0 91.5 100.0 —5.6 —1.09

Thus the principal private owners of land in Russia are the nobility. They own an enormous amount of land. But the trend of development is towards a decline in landowner ship by the nobility. Landownership by people irrespective of the social-estate they belong to is increasing, and increasing very rapidly. The speediest increase in the period between 1877 and 1905 was in landownership by “other social-estates” (eightfold in the 28 years), and then by peasants (more than twofold). The peasants are consequently increasingly crystallising out social elements which are turning into private owners of land. This is a general fact. And in our analysis of peasant farming we shall have to ascertain the social and economic mechanism which is carrying out this crystallisation. For the time being, we must definitely establish the fact that private ownership of land in Russia is developing away from social-estate to non-social-estate ownership. At the end of the nineteenth century, feudal landownership of the nobility still embraced the overwhelming majority of all privately-owned lands, but the trend of development is obviously towards the creation of bourgeois private landownership. Private owner ship of land acquired by inheritance from the olden-time   armed retainers, manorial landowners, and tenants by service, etc., is on the decline. Private ownership of land acquired purely and simply with money is on the increase. The power of land is declining, the power of money is growing. Land is being drawn more and more into the stream of commerce; and later on we shall see that this process is going on to a far greater extent than the mere statistics of landownership indicate.

But to what extent the “power of the land”, that is to say, the power of medieval landlordism, was still strong in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century is strikingly shown by the figures of the distribution of privately-owned land according to size of properties. The source from which we quote the figures specifies in particular detail the data concerning private landownership on the biggest scale. The following is the distribution according to size of properties:

Groups of properties Number of
Total area of
land (dess.)
Average dess
per property
10 dess. and less 409,864 1,625,226 3.9
10 to 50 dess. 209,119 4,891,031 23.4
50 to 500 " 106,065 17,326,495 163.3
500 to 2,000 " 21,748 20,590,708 947.0
2,000 to 10,000 " 5,386 20,602,109 3,825.0
Over 10,000 " 699 20,798,504 29,754.0
Total over 500 dess. 27,833 61,991,321 2,227.0
Grand total for European Russia 752,881 85,834,073 114.0

These figures show that small properties represent an insignificant share of the land owned by private individuals. Six-sevenths of all landowners—619,000 out of 753,000—possess 6.5 million dessiatines of land in all. On the other hand enormous latifundia exist: seven hundred owners possess, on the average, 30,000 dessiatines of land each. These seven hundred people possess three times as much land as do 600,000 small owners. And in general the   latifundia represent a distinguishing feature of Russian private landownership. If we take all properties over 500 dessiatines, we get 28,000 owners, possessing 62 million dessiatines, or an average of 2,227 dessiatines each. These 28,000 possess three-fourths of all the privately-owned land.[4] Taken from the angle of the social-estates to which their owners belong, these enormous latifundia are mainly the property of the nobility. Of 27,833 properties, 18,102, i. e., almost two-thirds, belong to members of the nobility, who possess 44.5 million dessiatines of land, i. e., more than 70 per cent of the total latifundia land. Thus it is clear that in Russia, at the end of the, nineteenth century, an enormous amount of land—and the best land at that— was concentrated as before (in the medieval way) in the hands of that privileged social-estate, the nobility, in the hands of the serf-owning landlords of yesterday. Below we shall describe in detail the forms of economy that are taking shape on these latifundia. For the moment we shall merely allude briefly to the well-known fact, strikingly described by Mr. Rubakin, that high-ranking members of the bureaucracy figure, one after another, among these owners of latifundia held by the nobility.[8]

Let us now pass to allotment holdings. Except for 1.9 million dessiatines, not allocated according to size of holding, all the rest of the land, totalling 136.9 million dessiatines, belongs to 12 1/4 million peasant households. On the average this is 11.1 dessiatines per household. But allotment land too is distributed unevenly: almost half, m. e., 64 million out of 137 million dessiatines, belongs to 2.1 million households rich in land, i. e., to one-sixth of the total number.

Here are the returns showing the distribution of allotment land in European Russia:

Groups of households Number of households Total dess. Average dessiatines per household
Up to 5 dess . . . . . . . . 2,857,650 9,030,333 3.1
5 to 8 dess . . . . . . . . 3,317,601 21,706,550 6.5
Total up to 8 dess . . . . 6,175,251 30,736,883 4.9
8 to 15 dess . . . . . . . . 3,932,485 42,182,923 10.7
15 to 30 dess . . . . . . . . 1,551,904 31,271,922 20.1
Over 30 dess . . . . . . . . 617,715 32,695,510 52.9
Total for European Russia 12,277,355 136,887,238 11.1

114.0 Thus more than half of the allotment households, 6.2 million out of 12.3, have up to 8 dessiatines per household. Taken on the average for Russia as a whole, this amount of land is absolutely insufficient to maintain a family. In order to judge the economic condition of these households, let us recall the general returns of the army-horse censuses (the only statistics which periodically and regularly cover the whole of Russia). In 48 gubernias of European Russia, i.e., excluding the Don Region and Archangel Gubernia, a count taken in the years 1896-1900 showed a total of 11,112,287 peasant households. Of these, 3,242,462, i.e., 29.2 per cent, had no horses, and 3,361,778, or 30.3 per cent, had one horse each. We know what a horseless peasant in Russia is (of course we are dealing here with gross figures, and not with exceptional districts specialising in suburban dairy farming or tobacco-growing, etc.). We also know of the poverty and want suffered by the peasant who owns one horse. Six million households stand for a population of from 24 to 30 million. And this whole mass consists of paupers, who have been allotted paltry strips of land which can provide no livelihood, and on which one can only die of starvation. If we assume that in order to make ends meet on a more or less solvent farm not less than 15 dessiatines are required, then we get 10 million peasant households below that standard, possessing 72.9 million dessiatines of land.

To proceed. In regard to allotment holdings, a very important feature must be noted. The unevenness in the distribution of allotment land among the peasants is immeasurably less than that in the distribution of privately-owned land. On the other hand, among the allotment-holding peas ants there is a host of other distinctions, classifications and divisions. These are the distinctions between the various categories of peasants that have arisen historically, in the course of many centuries. In order to give a graphic illustration of these divisions, let us first take the total returns for the whole of European Russia. The statistics for 1905 give the following main categories: peasants who formerly were landlords’ serfs—on the average, 6.7 dessiatines of allotment land per household; peasants who formerly were state serfs—12.5 dessiatines; peasants who formerly were crown-land serf s—9.5 dessiatines; colonists—20.2 dessiatines; Chinsh peasants—3. I dessiatines; Rezeshi—5.3 dessiatines; Bashkirs and Teptyars[9]—28.3 dessiatines; Baltic peasants—36.9 dessiatines; Cossacks— 52.7 dessiatines. From this alone it is clear that peasant allotment landownership is purely medieval. Serfdom still lives on in this multiplicity of divisions which have survived among the peasants. The various categories differ from each other, not only in the amount of land they possess, but also in the size of redemption payments, terms of purchase, character of landownership, etc. Instead of taking all-round figures for the whole of Russia, let us take the figures for a single gubernia, and we shall see what all these divisions mean. Take the Zemstvo Statistical Returns for Saratov Gubernia[10]. Apart from the categories for Russia as a whole, i. e., those already enumerated above, we find that local investigators distinguish the following additional categories: gift-land peasants; full owners; state peasants with communal holdings; state peasants with quarter holding; state peasants who formerly were land lords’ serfs; state-land tenants; colonist freeholders; settlers; manumitted peasants; peasants who do not pay quit- rent; free tillers; former factory-bound peasants, etc.[11] This system of medieval divisions is carried so far that sometimes peasants living in one and the same village are divided into two quite distinct categories, like peasants “formerly owned by Mr. N. N.” and “formerly owned by Madame M. M.". This fact is usually ignored by our writers of the liberal-Narodnik camp, who are incapable of seeing Russian economic relations in development, as the replacement   of the feudal order by the bourgeois order. As a matter of fact, unless the full significance of this is appreciated, one cannot begin to understand the history of Russia in the nineteenth century, and particularly the direct results of that history, the events in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. A country in which exchange is growing and capitalism is developing cannot but undergo crises of all kinds if in the principal branch of the national economy medieval relations constitute an obstacle and hindrance at every step. The notorious village commune[12]—the significance of which we shall have to discuss later—does not save the peasant from turning into a proletarian, yet in practice acts as a medieval barrier dividing the peasants, who are, as it were, chained to small associations and to categories which have lost all “reason for existence”.

Before proceeding to draw our final conclusions about the ownership of land in European Russia, we must refer to yet another aspect of the question. Neither the figures of the amount of land belonging to the “upper 30,000” land lords and to the millions of peasant households, nor the data concerning the medieval divisions in peasant landownership are sufficient to enable us to estimate the actual degree to which our peasant is “hemmed in”, oppressed and crushed by these living survivals of serfdom. In the first place, the lands allotted to the peasants after that expropriation of the peasants for the landlords’ benefit which is called the Great Reform of 1861,[13] are of incomparably inferior quality to the land in the possession of the land lords. This is borne out by all the vast literature describing and investigating local conditions issued by the Zemstvo statisticians. It is supported by a mass of irrefutable evidence showing the lower yield on peasant land as compared with that on the landlords’ land; it is generally admitted that this difference is due primarily to the inferior quality of the allotment lands, and only secondarily to inferior cultivation and the deficiencies of beggarly peasant farming. Moreover, in a host of cases when the peasants were “freed” from the land by the landlords in 1861, the land was allocated in such a way that the peasants found themselves ensnared by “their” landlords. Russian Zemstvo statistical literature has enriched the science of political economy   with descriptions of the remarkably original, truly native method, hardly to be found anywhere else in the world, of conducting landlord economy. This is the method of farming by means of cut-off lands. The peasants were “freed” in 1861 from the watering-places for cattle, from pastures, etc., necessary for their farms. The peasants’ lands were wedged in between those of the landlords in such a way as to provide these gentry with an exceedingly reliable—and exceedingly noble—source of revenue in the shape of fines for damages caused by stray cattle, etc. “There’s no room to turn a chicken out"—this bitter peasant truth, this grim “humour of the gallows-bird” describes better than any long quotations that peculiar feature of peasant land ownership which is beyond the power of statistics to express. Needless to say, this peculiar feature is serfdom pure and simple, both in its origin and in the effect it has upon the method of organisation of landlord economy.

We will now draw our conclusions regarding landowner ship in European Russia. We have shown the conditions of landlord and peasant landownership taken separately. We must now examine them in their interrelation. In order to do so let us take the approximate figure, quoted above, of the size of the land area in European Russia—280 million dessiatines—and see how all this land is distributed among the various types of holdings. We shall describe the various types in detail later on; for the moment, running some what ahead, we will take tentatively the main types. Holdings up to 15 dessiatines per household we shall place in the first group—ruined peasants, crushed by feudal exploitation. The second group will consist of the middle peasantry—holdings ranging from 15 to 20 dessiatines. The third group—well-to-do peasants (peasant bourgeoisie) and capitalist landowners—holdings ranging from 20 to 500 dessiatines. The fourth group consists of feudal latifundia, exceeding 500 dessiatines. By combining in these groups the peasant and landlord holdings, and by rounding off the figures somewhat,[5] and making approximate calculations   (which I have indicated in detail in the work mentioned above), we get the following picture of Russian landownership towards the close of the nineteenth century:

Landownership in European Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century
  Number of holdings Total area dessiatines Average dess. per holding
(a) Ruined peasantry crushed by feudal exploitation . . 10.5 75.0 7.0
(b) Middle peasantry 1.0 15.0 15.0
(c) Peasant bourgeoisie and capitalist landownership . . 1.5 70.0 46.7
(d) Feudal latifundia 0.03 70.0 2,333.0
Total 13.03 230.0 17.6
Not classified according to size of property 50.0
Grand total 13.03 280.0 21.4

We repeat: the correctness of the economic description of the groups taken will be proved later on. And if particular details of this picture (which cannot but be approximate) give rise to criticism, we shall ask the reader to take good care that this criticism of details is not used as a screen for denying the substance of the matter. And the substance of the matter is that at one pole of Russian land ownership we have 10.5 million households (a!out 50 mil lion of the population) with 75 million dessiatines of land, and at the other pole thirty thousand families (about 150,000 of the population) with 70 million dessiatines of land.

To finish with the question of landownership we must now go beyond the confines of European Russia proper and examine, in general outline, the significance of colonisation.. In order to give the reader some idea of the total land area in the Russian Empire (excluding Finland) let us refer to the figures compiled by Mr. Mertvago. For the sake of clarity we give the figures in tabulated form, adding the figures of the population according to the census of 1897.

  Total land area Including Including Population in 1897
  Square versts (thousands) Dessiatines (millions) Lands of which no data are available (mill. dess.) Lands registered (mill. dess.) Arable Meadows Forests Total Total (thousands) Per sq. verst
Mill. dess.
10 gubernias in Kingdom of Poland . . . 111.6 11.6 11.6 7.4 0.9 2.5 10.8 9,402.2 84.3
38 gubernias west of the Volga 1,755.6 183.0 183.0 93.6 18.7 34.0 146.3
12 gubernias north and east of the Volga . 2,474.9 258.0 258.0 22.3 7.1 132.0 161.4
Total for 50 gubernias of European Russia 4,230.5 441.0 441.0 115.9 25.8 166.0 307.7 93,442.9 22.1
Caucasus 411.7 42.9 22.1 20.8 6.5 2.2 2.5 11.2 9,289.4 22.6
Siberia 10,966.1 1,142.6 639.7 502.9 4.3 3.9 121.0 129.2 5,758.8 0.5
Central Asia 3,141.6 327.3 157.4 169.9 0.9 1.6 8.0 10.5 7,746.7 2.5
Total for Asiatic Russia 14,519.4 1,512.8 819.2 693.6 11.7 7.7 131.5 150.9
Total for Russian Empire 18,861.5 1,965.4 819.2 1,146.2 135.0 34.4 300.0 469.4 125,640.0 6.7

These figures clearly show how little we know as yet about the outlying regions of Russia. Of course it would be the height of absurdity to think of “solving” the agrarian question in Russia proper by migration to outlying regions. There is not the slightest doubt that only charlatans could propose such a “solution”, that those contradictions between the old latifundia in European Russia and the new conditions of life and economy in that same European Russia to which we referred above, will have to be “solved” by a radical change of one kind or another within European Russia, and not outside it. The point is not that of delivering the peasants from the survivals of feudalism by means of migration. The fact is that, side by side with the agrarian question of the centre of Russia, we have the agrarian question of colonisation. The point is not that of covering up the crisis in European Russia with the question of colonisation, but of showing the disastrous effects of the feudal latifundia both in the centre and in the outlying districts. Russian colonisation is being hindered by the remnants of serfdom in the centre of Russia. Except by an agrarian revolution in European Russia, except by liberating the peasants from the oppression of the feudal latifundia there can be no clearing the way for, and regulation of, Russian colonisation. This regulation must consist not of bureaucratic “concern” for migration nor of the “organisation of migration”, about which the writers in the liberal-Narodnik camp like to talk, but of eliminating the conditions which condemn the Russian peasant to ignorance, squalor, and backwardness in a state of permanent bondage to the owners of latifundia.

In his pamphlet (flow Much Land There Is in Russia and How We Use It, Moscow, 1907), written in conjunction with Mr. Prokopovich, Mr. Mertvago justly points out that the advance of agriculture turns bad land into good land. Academicians Baer and Helmersen, experts on the subject wrote in 1845 that the Taurida Steppe “owing to the climate, and the scarcity of water will always be one of the poorest and least suitable regions for cultivation!”[14] At that time the population of Taurida Gubernia produced 1.8 million chetverts[6] of grain. Sixty years later the population had doubled,   and produces 17.6 million chetverts, i. e., almost ten times as much.

That is a true and important observation, but Mr. Mertvago forgot one thing: the principal factor making for ’the rapid colonisation of Novorossia was the fall of serfdom in the centre of Russia. Only the upheaval in the centre made it possible to settle and industrialise the South rapidly, extensively, in the American way (a very great deal has been said about the American growth of southern Russia after 1861). And now, too, only a radical change in European Russia, only the complete elimination of the remnants of serfdom there, the deliverance of the peasantry from the grip of the medieval latifundia, can really open a new era of colonisation.

The colonisation question in Russia is a subordinate one in relation to the agrarian question in the centre of the country. The end of the nineteenth century confronts us with the alternative: either the survivals of serfdom are decisively abolished in the “primordial” gubernias of Russia, in which case rapid, extensive, American-style development in the colonisation of our outlying regions is assured; or the agrarian question in the centre drags on, in which case development of the productive forces will necessarily be long delayed, and feudal traditions will be preserved in colonisation as well. In the first case, agriculture will be carried on by a free farmer; in the second case by a debt-bound muzhik and by a gentleman “carrying on” by means of “cut-off” lands,


[1] Dessiatine–2.7 acres.—Tr.

[2] Gubernia, uyezd, volost—Russian administrative-territorial units. The largest of these was the gubernia, which had its subdivisions in uyezds, which in turn were subdivided into volosts. This system of districting continued under the Soviet power until the introduction of the new system of administrative-territorial division of the country in 1929-30.—Ed.

[3] See present edition, Vol. 13, p. 221.—Ed.

[4] In order not to overburden the text with quotations, let us state now that most of our data are taken from the above-mentioned work and from The Development of Capitalism in Russia, 2nd ed., St. Petersburg, 1908. (See present edition, Vol. 3, pp. 21-607.—Ed.) —Lenin

[5] For example, among the latifundia are included, besides the 62 million dessiatines of landlords’ land, 5.1 million dessiatines of demesne lands and 3.6 million dessiatines of land belonging to 272 trading and industrial companies, each owning more than 1,000 dessiatines. —Lenin

[6] Chetvert=5.77 bushels.—Ed.

[7] This refers to the book Statistics of Landownership for 1905. Returns for 50 Gubernias of European Russia. Published by the Central Statistical Committee of the Ministry of the Interior, St. Petersburg, 1907.

[8] This refers to N. A. Rubakin’s article “Our Ruling Bureaucracy in Figures”, published in the newspaper Syn Otechestva (Son of the Fatherland), No. 54, April 20 (May 3), 1905. p. 75

[9] The categories of peasants here listed by Lenin existed in tsarist Russia as survivals of feudal and semi-feudal relations.

Chinsh peasants—peasants who enjoyed the right of chinsh— the right of perpetual inheritance of the land—and paid almost invariable quit-rent, called chinsh. This form of relations existed mainly in Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia, and parts of the Ukraine bordering on the Black Sea.

Rezeshi—small land proprietors in Moldavia and Bessarabia.

Teptyars—neo-Bashkirs, settlers from the Urals and the Volga region.

[10] This refers to The Collection of Statistical Data for Saratov Gubernia. Vol. 1, Saratov, Uyezd. Saratov, published by the Saratov Gubernia Zemstvo, 1883.

[11] Gift-land peasants—former serfs who, at the time of the Reform of 1861, received from their landlords as a gift (without having to pay redemption money) miserable allotments amounting to a quarter of the “top” or “statutory” allotment established by law for the given locality. All the rest of the lands that had constituted the peasant allotments before the Reform were seized by the landlord, who kept his “gift-land peasants”, forcibly dispossessed of their   land in a state of economic bondage even after serfdom was abolished.

Full owners—former landlords’ peasants who had redeemed their allotments before the specified date and had the right to own the land as private property. These were a comparatively small category of the most well-to-do element in the countryside.

State peasants with communal holdings had no private property rights on the land, which they used on the basis of communal landownership.

State peasants with quarter holdings—descendants of former service men (children of the boyars, Cossacks, streltsi, dragoons, soldiers, etc.) who guarded the southern and south-eastern borderlands of Muscovy. The Tsar of Muscovy rewarded them for their services with an endowment of a quarter lot (half a dessiatine) of land on which they settled in “single households” (hence their name odnodvortsi). They enjoyed the right of communal landownership as well as their quarter holdings.

These odnodvortsi, being freemen, for a long time held an intermediate position between the nobles and the peasants, and had the right to acquire serfs. Under Peter the Great they were turned into state peasants and their land became the property of the state. Actually, however, the state peasants with quarter holdings disposed of their lands as their own private property. In this they differed from the state peasants with communal holdings, who had no right to buy, sell or bequeath their land.

State peasants who formerly were landlords’ serfs—a category of peasants purchased by the state from private owners or presented to the state, etc. Although regarded as state peasants, they enjoyed fewer rights. They were given equal rights in 1859, on the eve of the Reform of 1861, but certain distinctions still remained.

Free tillers—a category of peasants freed from serfdom under the law of February 20, 1803, which allowed landlords to give the peasants their freedom with land on the landlords’ own terms.

[12] The village commune in Russia was the communal form of peasant use of the land, characterised by compulsory crop rotation, and undivided woods and pastures. Its principal features were collective liability (compulsory collective responsibility of the peasants for making their payments in full and on time, and the performance of various services to the state and the landlords), the regular reallotment of the land with no right to refuse the allotment given, the prohibition of its purchase and sale.

The landlords and the tsarist government used the village commune to intensify feudal oppression and to squeeze redemption payments and taxes out of the people.

[13] This refers to the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861.

[14] This refers to the book: Beiträge zur Kenntniss des Russischen Reiches und der angränzenden Länder Asiens. Auf Kosten der Kaiserl.   Akademie der Wissenschaften herausgegeben von K. E. Baer und Helmersen, St. Petersburg, 1845.

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