Ekaterina Svirina | National Research University Higher School of Economics (NRU Higher school of Economics) – Money of the poor in the Russian Empire: study of the official documents and travel notes dated back to 19th c.

Usually the study of money is based on official mintage documents and bank statistics, eventually travel journals. The idea at this preliminary stage is to start with the social structure of the European part of Russian Empire (Mironov, 2003). It was dominated by the high percentage of peasants, while urban citizens represented a growing share.

  Mironov and Yanin distinguished among rich, middle and poor peasants using horses, since before serfdom abolition, it was not possible to classify them by income. What was a peasant before the reform? Poor and rich were linked to crop cycles: rich when the harvest was good, poor if not. Peasants were not only serving the landlord but also constrained by the community, which set the rules. These rules said you could not be rich if young or old and they valued income less than status and authority. The community also acted as a redistributive device: systematic redistribution of the land occurred among peasants, erasing any incitation to improve productivity. Taxes and duties were also redistributed: one considered rich had to pay for the poor. Besides, it was not allowed to work on (religious) holidays, with 95 of them during the year. These rules limited the difference between more productive and less productive peasants. Besides a common share value was to despise rich people and organize so as to limit enrichment of the most successful. The military draft could also be used to let poor people improve their social status. Thus, from childhood, peasants lived in a context where the community was more important than the individual.

  In that context, money allowed you to act individualistically. Was there a perception of possible profit? Profit and money were a sin. Usurers were not peasants – considered as people being enriched at the expense of communities. And interest rates were also a sin. This was still true in the 1880s – even on a saving account.

  But how did the peasants exchange between themselves: through credit relationships, mostly between richer and poorer people, in the form of products that obliged to give something back, usually in the form of work by the poor, their labour being underestimated (the rate is thus included into the labour price).

  In Siberia, there was another strata: nomads, living by hunting, fishing and selling their catches. These activities were also highly seasonal, and thus nomads lived on the credit extended by merchants to survive even during low season (Kushnareva, 2015), while merchants highly underestimated the value of the pelts.

  Another social strata of the Empire were citizens, most of them being poor but free. As such they used money, and for example as a merchant, you had to buy your freedom everywhere. Many historical descriptions show the use of credit and money.

 Mint production in small change shows clearly the boost in minting that came with emancipation. It seems in fact that the state did not know how to combine the denominations in most of the 19th c. Small silver minting shows more clearly the impact of the end of serfdom. It was also during this period that small change coins lost their silver component. In parallel, the quantity of coins minted from a same amount of metal increased over the 19th c.

  The community mind dominated in Russia until 1913 – it was thus the perfect place to use and apply communist conceptions.


Georgina Gomez – what about women peasants?

A. : The community decided who you marry and women and men lived in separate places within the house –a woman could not be single except a widow. And if a widow, she supported by the community.

Anders – Nomads were underpaid, and still they did come back?

A. : No competition in Siberia where just a few merchants operated. If you were in debt, where would you go? So no need for enforceability. And merchants sold addictive products (tobacco, alcohol). Nomads also got used to bread they’d never used before. Later on, state shops appeared to buy pelts, and merchants were driven out.

Jan Lucassen – stressing the we against the I, you may get a bit too far: where does stand the household that had extra sources of income (temporary labour in towns) that played a role in inequality; and seasonal work (10 million people). It makes the traditional idea much more full of tensions. And that may explain the success of the small copper and silver coins after 1861. In the 18th century you also had periods of relaxation to allow peasants to go to cities and then copper coins minting went up. Thus, more households were included in the monetarized society (Tracy Dennison, more important after 1861).

A. : The community allowed or forbid a person to go. The villages close to towns had less rights on villagers and temporary labour workers came mainly from these villages.


Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

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