V. I.   Lenin

The Serf-Owners at Work

Published: Iskra, No. 8, September 10, 1901. Published according to the Iskra text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, Moscow, Volume 5, pages 95-100.
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2003). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
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On June 8, 1901, a law was adopted governing the grants of state lands in Siberia to private persons. How this new law will be applied, the future will show; but its character is so instructive, it so strikingly demonstrates the undisguised nature and the real strivings of the tsarist government, that it should be analysed thoroughly and made known as widely as possible among the working class and the peasantry.

Our government has long been granting doles to the noble, aristocratic landlords. It established for them the Nobles’ Bank, it granted them all sorts of privileges in obtaining loans and relief in the payment of arrears, it helped them to arrange a strike of the millionaire sugar-refiners in order to raise prices and increase their profits; it took care to provide the ruined sons of the aristocracy with soft jobs as rural superintendents, and it is now arranging for the government purchase of vodka on very favourable terms for the noble distillers. However, in making grants of state lands, it not only makes gifts to the richest and most aristocratic exploiters, but creates a new class of exploiters and dooms millions of peasants and workers to permanent bondage to new landlords.

Let us examine the principal features of the new law. It must be observed, first of all, that before its introduction in the Council of State by the Minister of Agriculture and State Property, the law was discussed at a special conference on the affairs of the nobility. It is generally known that in Russia today it is not the workers and peasants, but the noble landlords who suffer most from poverty, and so this “special conference” hastened to devise measures by which   their poverty might be relieved. State lands in Siberia will be sold and leased to “private persons” for the purpose of “private enterprise”; but foreigners and non-Russian subjects of the tsar (the Jews included among the latter) are prohibited for ever from acquiring these lands in any way. The lands may be leased (and we shall see that this is the most advantageous transaction for the future landlords) only to nobles, “who”, as the law states, “owing to their economic reliability, are the most desirable landowners to have in Siberia from. the standpoint of the government”. Thus, the standpoint of the government is that the labouring population must be enslaved to the big landed aristocracy. How big can be seen from the fact that salable allotments may not exceed three thousand dessiatines, while no limit at all is placed on the amount of land leased, and the term of the leases may be for a period up to ninety-nine years! According to the government’s calculations, a poor landlord needs two hundred times as much land as a peasant, who is given fifteen dessiatines of land in Siberia for himself and his family.

The easy terms and the exceptions to the rule which the law provides for the landlords are truly astounding. The lessee pays nothing for the first five years. If he purchases the land he has leased (which right the new law gives him), payment is spread over a period of thirty-seven years. With special permission, an area of land exceeding 3,000 dessiatines may be set aside for sale, land may be sold at agreed prices arid not by auction, while arrears may be postponed for one or even three years. It must not be forgotten that generally only the higher dignitaries and persons with court connections, etc., will take advantage of the new law—and such people will obtain these easy terms and the exemptions quite casually, in the course of a drawing-room conversation with a governor or a minister.

But there’s the rub! Of what use are these bits of land, three thousand dessiatines in area, to the landowning generals if there is no “muzhik” forced to work for these generals? However rapidly poverty is increasing among the people in Siberia, the local peasant is nevertheless much more in dependent than the “Russian” peasant and he has not been trained to work under the bludgeon. The new law is intended   to train him. “The lands appointed for private enterprises shall, as far as possible, be divided into lots alternating with areas held by the peasant allotment holders”, says Article 4 of the new law. The tsarist government displays its solicitude for the poor peasants and tries to provide “means of livelihood” for them. Ten years ago, the same Mr. Yermolov who now, as Minister of Agriculture and State Property, has introduced into the Council of State the new Siberian land law providing for the disposal of state lands to private persons, wrote a book (anonymously) entitled The Crop Failure and the Distress of the People. In that work he openly declared that there was no reason for permitting peasants who could obtain “a livelihood” from their local landlords to migrate to Siberia. Russian statesmen do not hesitate to express purely feudal views; peasants were created to work for the landlords, and peasants, therefore, must not be “permitted” to migrate to a place of their choice, if thereby the landlords will be deprived of cheap labour. And when, despite all the difficulties, the red tape, and even the downright prohibition, the peasants still continued to migrate to Siberia in hundreds of thousands, the tsarist government, acting like the steward of an old-time manorial lord, hastened after them to work them to exhaustion in their new habitations. If, however, “alternating” with the puny peasant allotments[1] and peasant lands (the best of which are already occupied), there will be lots of three thousand dessiatines belonging to the noble landlords, then all temptation to migrate to Siberia will disappear very soon. The more cramped the conditions of the surrounding peasants become, the more the new landlords’ land will increase in value; the peasants will be obliged to hire themselves out cheaply, or lease land from the landlords at exorbitant rates—just as in “Russia”. The new law sets out precisely to create as quickly as possible a new paradise for the landlords and a new hell for the peasants; there is a special clause on the leasing of land for a single season. While special permission is required to sublease state lands, it is permitted quite   freely for one season. All that the landlord need trouble about is to engage a steward, who will sublease land by the dessiatine to the peasants living on the allotments “alternating” with the landlord’s land, and send his master the net profit.

Probably many nobles will not care to carry on even such an “enterprise”. In that case, they can make a nice little pile at one stroke by reselling the state land to real farmers. It is no accident that the new law has been timed with the construction of a railroad in Siberia, when banishment to Siberia has been abolished, and when migration to Siberia has increased to an enormous extent; all this will inevitably lead (and is already leading) to a rise in land values. Hence, the granting of state lands to private persons at the present time is nothing more nor less than plunder of the Treasury by the nobles. The state lands are rising in value, but they are being leased or sold on highly advantageous terms to generals and people of that stripe, who will benefit by the rising prices. In Ufa Gubernia, for instance, in one uyezd alone, the nobles and officials made the following transaction in land sold to them (on the basis of a similar law): they paid the government 60,000 rubles for the land and within two years sold it for 580,000 rubles, obtaining for the mere resale more than half a million rubles! From this instance we can imagine the millions of rubles that will pass into the pockets of the poverty-stricken landlords thanks to the land grants throughout Siberia.

With all sorts of lofty arguments the government and its adherents seek to cover up this naked robbery. They talk about the development of culture in Siberia, and of the enormous importance of model farms. As a matter of fact, the large estates, which place the neighbouring peas ants in a hopeless position, can at the present time serve only to develop the most uncultured methods of exploitation. Model farms are not established by robbing the Treasury, and the grant of lands will lead simply to land speculation among the nobles and officials, or to farming methods in which bondage and usury will flourish. The noble aristocrats, in alliance with the government, have prohibited Jews and other non-Russians (whom they try to present to the ignorant people as particularly outrageous exploiters) from acquiring state lands in Siberia, in order   that they may themselves engage in the worst type of exploitation without hindrance.

There is talk also of the political significance of having the social-estate of landed nobility in Siberia; among the intelligentsia, it is said, there is a very large number of former exiles, of unreliable people there, who need to be counterbalanced by the establishment of a reliable support of the state, a reliable “local” element. This talk contains a greater and profounder truth than Grazhdanin[2] and Moskovskiye Vedomosti imagine. The police state is arousing so much hostility against itself among the masses that it finds it necessary artificially to create groups that can serve as pillars of the fatherland. It is essential for the government to create a class of big exploiters, who would be under obligation to it for everything and dependent upon its grace, who would make enormous profits by the most despicable methods (speculation and kulak exploitation), and, consequently, could always be relied upon to support every tyranny and oppression. The Asiatic government must find support in Asiatic large landownership, in a feudal system of “granting lands”. And if it is not possible at present to grant “populated estates”, it is possible at all events to grant estates alternating with the lands of peasants who are becoming more and more destitute. If it is not convenient simply to grant thousands of dessiatines of land gratis to the Court lickspittles, it is possible to cover up this wholesale bestowal of lands by their sale or “leasing” (for 99 years) that is attended by thousands of privileges. When we compare this land policy with that of modern progressive countries like America, for example, can we call it anything else but feudal? In America, no one would dare talk about permitting or not permitting migration; for in that country, every citizen has the right to go where he pleases. In that country every one who desires to engage in farming has the right by law to occupy vacant land in the outlying parts of the country. In America, they are not creating a class of Asiatic satraps, but a class of energetic farmers who have developed the productive forces of the country. Thanks to the abundant free land there, the working class in America enjoys the highest standard of living in the world.

  And what a period our government has chosen for passing this serf-owners’ law! It is a period of the most acute industrial crisis, when tens and hundreds of thousands are unemployed, when millions of peasants are again suffering from famine. The government has exerted all its efforts to prevent the disaster from being given “publicity”. That is why it has sent the unemployed workers back to their village homes; that is why it has transferred food distribution from the Zemstvos to the police officials; that is why it has prohibited private persons from organising food-kitchens for the famine-stricken; and that is why it has gagged the press. But when the famine “publicity”, so unpleasant to the ears of the well-fed, died down, Our Father the Tsar set to work. to assist the poverty-stricken landlords and poor unfortunate courtier generals. We repeat, our task at the present time is simply to bring the contents of this new law to the knowledge of all. As they become acquainted with it, the most undeveloped sections of the workers, and the most backward and downtrodden peasants, will understand whom the present government serves and what kind of government the people must have.


[1] By the terms of the 1861 Reform, peasant allotments, unlike peasant lands, could not be sold.— Tr.

[2] Grazhdanin (The Citizen)—a reactionary newspaper published in St. Petersburg from 1872 to 1914. From the 1880s on, it spoke for the extreme monarchists. The newspaper existed mainly on subsidies from the tsarist government.

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