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Why Peasants Were Against the 'Wager on the Strong'?

EXTRACT: Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Pimlico, 1997), p. 236.

There were profound cultural reasons for the peasants to oppose the break-up of the commune, which had been the focus of their lives for centuries. The basic worry was that giving some peasants the right own part of the communal land, or to hold it privately in perpetuity, would deprive others of their rights of access to this land as their basic means of livelihood. This fear was strongest amongst the junior members of the family, especially the women, for once a household consolidated its land as private property, family ownership ceased to function and the land became the legal property of the household elder. He could bequeath it to one or more of his sons, or sell it altogether, thus depriving the other household members of their inheritance...Many peasants were afraid that allowing the communal land to become private property would enable the richest members to buy it all up. There was also a widespread fear that the government surveyors, who had been instructed to encourage the process of enclosure, would reward the separators with more than their fair share of the best land.

And indeed the peasants had real cause to wonder just how the old patchwork of strips, which were often intermingled within the commune, could be disentangled at all. One what terms was a good bit of land in one place to be exchanged for a poor one in another? How were they to divide the meadows, the woods and the rivers, which had always been held in common? And if the new enclosed farms were to build their own roads, wouldn't these cut across existing boundaries and private rights of way? The peasants were attached to their land in a very particular sense. Most of them had farmed the same strips for many years, knew their peculiar traits and would not easily be parted from them. No one had ever taught them how to calculate the area of a piece of land by multiplying its width by its length, so they had no reliable means of satisfying themselves that two equal plots were in fact the same size. Their fields were divided 'by eye' or by pacing out the width of the strips and making rough adjustments where their length or the quality of their soil was uneven. They had no doubt that this primitive method, used by their grandfathers, was a good deal more accurate than the complex scientific methods of the government's land surveyors, with their suits, their rulers and their tripods...

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