Austerity for the Poor, Then and Now

The “grandmother of the Russian Revolution,” Yekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, who spent half a century fighting for justice for Russia’s poor or in jail, came of age as Russian nobles were manipulating the landmark 1861 decision to free the serfs by transforming them from starving slaves into starving “free men,” a process that any “free black” in the U.S. South in the 1870’s would have found very familiar, not to mention the people of Detroit, Greece, Puerto Rico in the current era. After liberation in 1917 (her personal liberation from the Tsarist gulag, that is), Breshko described in her oral memoirs the shock of the newly freed serfs at the betrayal of the rich:

The peasant was free. No longer bound to the land, his landlord ordered him off. He was shown a little strip of the poorest soil, there to be free and starve. He was bewildered; he could not imagine himself without his old plot of land. For centuries past, an estate had always been described as containing so many ‘souls.’ It was sold for so much per ‘soul.’ The ‘soul’ and the plot had always gone together. So the peasant had thought that his soul and his plot would be freed together. In dull but growing rage, he refused to leave his plot of land for the wretched strip. ‘Masters,’ he cried, ‘how can I nourish my little ones through a Russian winter.’^ Such land means death.’ This cry rose all over Russia.

The government appointed in every district an ‘arbiter’ to persuade the peasants. The arbiter failed. Then troops were quartered in their huts, families were starved, old people were beaten by drunkards, daughters were raped. The peasants grew more wild, and then began the flogging. In a village near ours, where they refused to leave their plots, they were driven into line on the village street; every tenth man was called out and flogged with the knout; some died. Two weeks later, as they still held out, every fifth man was flogged. The poor ignorant creatures still held desperately to what they thought their rights; again the line, and now every man was dragged forward to the flogging. This process went on for five years all over Russia, until at last, bleeding and exhausted, the peasants gave in. [Breshko-Breshkovskaia, Ekaterina Konstantinovna Verigo, 1844-1934. [from old catalog]; Blackwell, Alice Stone, 1857-1950; Catt, Carrie Chapman, 1859-1947, former owner. DLC [from old catalog]; National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection (Library of Congress) DLC [from old catalog]. The little grandmother of the Russian revolution; reminiscences and letters of Catherine Breshkovsky (Kindle Locations 254-259). Boston, Little, Brown, and company.]

Of course, there is a difference between austerity for the poor in the 1860s and in the second decade of our highly civilized 21st century. In that time long past, the poor and the sympathetic intellectual had an answer for oppression by the rich: revolution.


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