The story I’ve set up so far has three elements: first, a huge fire that caused massive damage to the village, and perhaps particularly to the merchant entrepreneurs and their economic interests; second, a lingering issue over land tenure based in the terms of most of the local merchants’ manumission; and third, the specific ways one particular merchant, Ivan Baburin, interacted with his former owner and his former fellow serfs.
At first, in the aftermath of the fire, Baburin tried to use the good relationship he had built with the larger village community to his advantage. In early 1840 (so, the year after the fire), he petitioned Sheremetev asking to have his rental agreement renegotiated. As he put it, ever since his manumission he had been faithfully paying 1,000 rubles each year for use of the factories he had built. Now, though, after the fire, he was faced with a problem: he had to rebuild, and this was going to be extremely expensive. Given that he had even gone beyond the requirements of his manumission agreement, acting in the best interests of the local community by doing things like building a bridge for general use, he asked, could Sheremetev and the estate management see fit to reduce his yearly dues until he had rebuilt and was once again manufacturing at full capacity.
Baburin hoped that the good relationship he had built with the local peasants would stand him in good stead, and lead them to recommend leniency. He was soon disappointed. The peasants of Ivanovo met at a skhod to discuss his case, but although they claimed to sympathize with Baburin, they argued that the fire hadn’t hurt his trade enough to warrant a reduction in his annual payments to the estate. As a result, they reported to the Sheremetev administration that Baburin ought to be held to the terms of his original agreement, and the administration agreed.
If that had been where the matter ended, this wouldn’t be much of a story. But instead, a couple of things happened that make this case interesting: first, how Baburin reacted, and second, what the Sheremetev estate was then able to do in response. First, Baburin engaged in what was essentially an act of civil disobedience: he stopped paying his dues. And second, despite the vaunted power of Russia’s serf-owners over their own serfs, the Sheremetev estate found itself unable to do anything about it.
This story appears first of all in a series of letters sent between the Ivanovo estate administration and the main Sheremetev administrative offices. Baburin’s original request for reduced dues was from mid-1840; the decision that the dues would not be reduced came at the end of that year. On July 1, 1841, the Ivanovo administration wrote to the Main administration for advice on how to deal with a new problem: Baburin was refusing to pay his dues on the grounds that he shouldn’t have to pay them after the fire. Apparently the administration had told him to leave the estate if he refused to pay, but Baburin refused to do that, too. What, the Ivanovo administration asked, were they to do?
When the Main administration responded a month later, it recommended that Ivanovo turn to the district police, based in Shuia, to force Baburin out. But this turned out not to work, either, because of peculiarities of the world of serfdom: the Shuia district police had no authority on a serf estate without explicit instructions from not just the local peasant administration, but from Sheremetev himself. This is the flip side of the fact that the Sheremetev estates were, “self-contained state[s] within Russia,” as indeed most serf estates were. In his Lord and Peasant in Russia, Jerome Blum defined three different ways of thinking about serfdom: in his vision, peasants are serfs if they are bound to the land, bound to a lord, or had no direct relationship with an overarching state, instead having any interactions filtered through their landlords. And, indeed, in the early nineteenth century Russia’s serf owners had great authority over their own lands and the people who lived on them, perhaps most famously expressed in the decree of 1760 that allowed serf owners to exile their serfs to Siberia without recourse to official legal channels. This is a version of serfdom in which serfs experienced the world only through the mandates of their lord.
This version, however, broke down in Ivanovo for the basic reason that it had come to be home to both serfs and non-serfs. Sheremetev and the peasant administration had authority over the local serfs, but not over former serfs and merchants like Baburin. If a serf had refused to pay his rent, the administration could have threatened him with exile to Siberia or being sent into the military on behalf of the village. It had no such leverage over the non-serfs living in the village. Reading this later, it’s hard not to think that the locals had to be overlooking some option to compel Baburin to pay up or to get out—perhaps send a mass of serfs over to his residence at night? But that seems never to have happened, whether because the serfs weren’t so interested in doing that, or because the administration never thought of it, never having had to deal with anything like this before.
In fact, when the Ivanovo administration wrote back to the main administration in July of 1842, it seems that words were the only tools they felt they had at their disposal. The administrator of the estate reported that he had gone to Baburin’s house to tell him to pay his outstanding dues or to get out. Again, though, Baburin refused. Or rather, the administration reported, he said that he planned to go to St. Petersburg to petition Sheremetev in person, rather than relying on the estate administration to forward his requests—but also noted that he wouldn’t be able to do that for at least three weeks, as he had to go to the great Makar’ev market in the meantime. Once that was done, he claimed, he’d go to Sheremetev to explain his situation and ask for leniency.
The estate administrator seems not to have words to deal with this additional request. Instead of arguing with Baburin, he simply forwarded the message on to St. Petersburg. So at this point, Baburin had been refusing to pay for a couple of years, and the estate hadn’t been able to do anything about it. As a result, they (and Sheremetev) found themselves needing to turn to other institutions of the Russian state. And the results of those actions turn out to be less predictable than traditional visions of serfdom might suggest.