The Prince, the Bailiff, and the Mir: Power, Politics, and Agency on a Russian Serf Estate, 1810-1858 argues that Russian serfs practiced economic agency even before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This agency was possible, despite serfs’ legal status as the property of others and place in the soslovie, social estate, hierarchy, because of local social dynamics. Although landlords had authority over their serfs, large magnates such as Prince Sergei Mikhailovich Golitsyn did not live on their provincial estates. Consequently, they relied on local institutions – namely the mir, or peasant commune, and estate bailiff – to fulfil their directives and inform them of estate affairs. The unique intermediary position between serf and landlord empowered the mir and bailiff, giving them their own authority on the estate. These groups did not necessarily share the interests of the landlord, being part and parcel of the peasant community themselves. And yet, within the larger social system of serfdom, they needed each other to operate. The landlord, bailiff, and mir, therefore, negotiated their interests.
Within this arena of competing interests, serfs found the space to pursue their own interests. They used the administrative apparatus created by the landlord and local institutions to secure their private transactions, including extending credit, renting, and buying property. Moreover, they used one or another interest group to advance their goals and minimize risks. When they wanted to build counter to Prince Sergei’s estate designs, they turned to the bailiff or mir for permission. When they opposed the actions of the bailiff, they appeared before the mir or petitioned Prince Sergei himself. When the mir conscripted their sons, they appealed once more to Prince Sergei.
The case studies presented in this project demonstrate the importance of social dynamics in the functioning of institutions on the ground. Moreover, they help us understand how unfree people could exhibit economic agency. This project begins by investigating Prince Sergei’s designs on an estate in Iaroslavl’ province, Rostov district, showing that planning did not succeed without local cooperation. Intermediaries are added to the dynamic in the following chapters. Case studies examining foresting and army conscription delineate the extent and limits of the bailiff and mir’s authority while also illustrating how the landlord, bailiff, and mir interrelated. The final two chapters consider peasant economic agency within this social system, examining how serfs interacted with estate authorities to secure their own private transactions as well as household divisions. The Economic Agency of Russian Peasants Under Serfdom closes by acknowledging the importance of local processes when evaluating macro social structures such as the Russian soslovie system and serfdom.