The Village Kabak as an Expression of Russian Civil Society,

Alan Kimball
(University of Oregon)

[This is an English version of a presentation made to the conference on "Hierarchy and Power", sponsored by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg in August 2002. A Russian text was published as "Derevenskii kabak kak zarodysh grazhdanskogo obshchestva vo vtoroi polovine XIX v.", in 2004:Obshchestvennye nauki i sovremennost' #6:137-46]

For centuries in various Russian localities, rural drinking establishments and other public houses took many different forms (e.g., kabak, traktir, postoialyi dvor, kharchevnia and korchma). They were objects of suspicion for high-minded officials. They were centers of moral depravity in the minds of the righteous. But they also functioned as centers of village public life. They often provided the only available space within which people of various social classes could mix with local administrators and among themselves, and meet openly with travelers. This space smoothed the edge on those sanctioned varieties of contact elsewhere sharply controlled by tsarist officials. The tsarist social/service hierarchies were challenged by tavern sociability [obshchenie].

Where else might a group of concerned peasants and other local dwellers gather in comfort for frank discussions of everyday issues related to vital community interests? What other public space accommodated the essential need for informal individual or small-group palaver, beyond the control and close monitoring of officials?

The gentry manor house would not do, nor would the church or the office of a local official. These places were not artifacts of village society. As for the village mill, it would be crowded and drafty. The large home [izba] of a wealthy peasant could and often did serve that purpose, but that too would be crowded, and it would be, by definition, less public than private. The village square might do, or the open bazaar and faire [iarmarka], but weather seldom permitted comfortable community association there. In any event, officials frowned on open gatherings of more than a small handful of people. A 1839 law forbade open gatherings, and almost seemed to invite the crowd to move into the kabak. "No gatherings of any sort are allowed in front of the drinking establishment." {+{ Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii, second edition, v. 14, no. 12165, p. 282.}+}

For villagers, the abstraction "public sphere" was made concrete in the local drinking establishment, the characteristic and tangible rural "public place".

Prince Viacheslav Tenishev's "Ankety"

In the late 1880s Prince Tenishev launched an Empire-wide ethnographic project. His goal was to shed unaccustomed and clear light on village life, including the dark interior of the Russian kabak. Here we see illuminated the profile of a fledgling rural civil society. Over a decade and a half, up to the eve of the 1905 Revolution, scores of amateur ethnographers all over the Empire took up Tenishev's extensive and uniform list of questions which were designed to cover all aspects of village life. These reports are part of the rich Tenishev archive held in the Russian Ethnographic Museum in Saint Petersburg.

{+{ Rossiiskoi Etnograficheskii Muzei, fond 7 (Etnograficheskoe biuro Kniazya V. Tenisheva) opis' 1 (Rukopisei korrespondentov ob krest'ianakh tsentral'noi Rossii za 1896-1900 gody) [hereafter, REM].
     Very little of this has been published. E.g., T. Popov, Russkaia narodno-bytovaia meditsina po materialam etnograficheskogo biuro V.N. Tenisheva (SPB:1903). B.M. Firsov and I. G. Kiseleva, Byt velikorusskikh krest'ian-zemlepashtsev: Opisanie materialov etnograficheskogo biuro kniazia V. N. Tenisheva (na primere Vladimirskoi gubernii)| (SPB:1993) [hereafter BVK]. See also Cathy Frierson, "Crime and Punishment in the Russian Village: Rural Concepts of Criminality at the End of the Nineteenth Century", Slavic Review 46,1 (1987 Spring):55-69, and Rose Glickman, "‘Unusual Circumstances' in the Peasant Village", Russian History 23:215-29.}+}

Of the nearly 500 wide-ranging questions on the Tenishev ankety, question number 105 was phrased like this: "The tavern [traktir]. The roadside inn [postoialyi dvor]. The role of these institutions as social gatherings of peasants. How do peasants gather in the tavern or in similar haunts? Particularly, what sorts of conversation are heard there?"

Other questions on the Tenishev anketa positioned the kabak in relationship to a larger set of authorities and institutions. For example, questions 8 through 11 explored the role of peasant assemblies [skhody], from the village level to the township [volost'] level. Here also we learn about peasant relations with village and township elders, police officials and the Land Captain [zemskii nachal'nik]. Questions 44 through 90 probed peasant legal consciousness and relations with various levels of courts. Village economic life saturated nearly every section of the anketa, but question 184 concentrated on the open market [bazar] and faire [iarmarka]. {+{ BVK:366-7, 372-6, and 393.}+}

Nearly 2000 responses to Tenishev's ankety, submitted from scores of rural districts in twenty-three provinces, place the kabak at the heart of rural civil society on the eve of the 1905 Revolution.

For example, in a very popular Vladimir District [uezd] kabak,

the most esteemed people are found: church officials, village and district elders and others. The kabak is not understood by peasants in the narrow sense of this term (a drinking establishment), but in a broader sense -- as a place for community association [obshcheniia]. There one learns all the news, gathers vital information, for example about the price of oats. {+{ BVK:88.}+}

Not everyone could afford to subscribe individually to a daily newspaper, so the kabak subscribed, often to more than one paper, and became something of a reading room. In Yur'ev uezd, the traktir subscribed to the popular and informative daily newspaper Syn otechestva.

The kabak was the regular site of something like a "pre-" and "post-" parliament. The peasant village assembly [mirskoi skhod] in Melenkovskii & Muromskii districts met in front of the village kabak (despite the effort to prevent this in the 1839 law). A regular piece of business was in fact the lease on the kabak.  Here the kabak was under the supervision of the village assembly. In Melenkovskii District the proprietor of the kabak paid 800r a year for the right to run the establishment. The payment was received by the "owner" of the kabak which was the village society as a whole [sel'skoe obshchestvo, the term applied after serf emancipation to various combinations of serf-era native villages]. In that district, "the drinking establishment is the center of life". In Pokrovskii District the village assembly met in the kabak, rather than in front of it. In several neighboring villages, local factions [kruzhki] gathered in taverns to discuss the business of the village assembly. {+{ BVK:47, 48, 50, and 83.}+}

The kabak was in vital relationship to other formal village institutions. Toasts were raised on days when the township court [volostnoi sud] was in session, also on days when the bazaar was open for business. One anketa summarized: "The kabak is its own sort of club in the village Lyakhi" {+{ BVK:88.}+} The use of the word "klub" is unquestionably a conscious, serious but somewhat satirical reference to the most high elite establishment in the imperial capitals, "Angliiskii klub". Villagers here boasted that they had their "own sort of club".

We see here that villagers not only mixed with officials and discussed important issues among themselves, but they also conducted a good deal of local business within the kabak. In this connection, villagers came into vital contact with traveling salesmen and other itinerant professionals who carried with them rich detail about events beyond the village.

The traktir in An'kovo was a local stock exchange [birzha], where all types of trade deals are made, and on Saturdays when the bazaar opens they drink up [to] a whole stream of deals that are concluded at the bazaar. Rowdy drinking-fests are more rare.

Drinking-fests were often accompanied by the most beautiful singing. Several regulars at this establishment had beautiful voices and formed a choir of fifty. {+{ BVK:89.}+} This characteristic feature of the kabak was made famous as early as the 1850s in Ivan Turgenev's tale "The Singers", from his Sportsman's Sketches.

The village Talyzin in Orel Province excelled in all these regards. Villagers claimed that its kabak was the best in the township, and that was why it served as the center of regional rural public life. All the business in the township was settled there. The tavern keeper served as a clearing house for all vital information, a neutral conduit of information between different layers of the local public, state and economy. The brother of the District Elder [starshina] was a regular at the kabak and served as something like a receptionist for his brother, the Elder. The Elder himself frequented the kabak and felt obligated to confide in the keeper what the Land Captain [zemskii nachal'nik (ID)] was up to.

Remember what this Land Captain was. The imperial state created the office of Land Captain in 1889 in order to centralize governmental authority in the countryside, to check the growing independence of zemstvos [ID] and village assemblies. We see here in the kabak that practical accommodations were being made. We witness in the thick of actual events at the most local level a gentle subversion of the 1889 reactionary state act.

It is hard to escape the sense that the Land Captain was himself a partner in these acts of gentle subversion. In Talyzin, the Land Captain himself passed through the kabak on regular intervals to share and to gather information about regional issues of public interest. Township legal officials system used the kabak for the purpose of interrogating witnesses before they made formal appearance in court, just to confirm their testimony. As the township assembly adjourned, the kabak served as a continuance of vigorous discussion. {+{ REM, d. 1148, p. 5.}+}

The kabak appears throughout the Tenishev ankety as the most prominent enclosed public space in the village, after the church. Unlike the official church, the kabak was a this-worldly place that might be called in old-fashioned terminology a "market place of ideas" about everyday life. Here, practical needs and ways of understanding the world were addressed.  The kabak represented the rural face of a new Russian obshchestvo, one facet of a civil society in early stages of formation.

The meaning of the phrase "civil society" is much in dispute. For my purposes here, civil society is a term that labels the experience of distinct self-mobilizing and stable social groups and organizations in complex, mutual, dependent and reciprocal relationship with two other large elements of public life: political power and the economy. The difference between "civil" society and any other sort of society resides in the complexity of the mutual, dependent and reciprocal relationships between and among citizens, government officials and the production and distribution of commodities. [More on civil society]

In the Russian countryside, the kabak was the most important scene of complex, mutual, dependent, reciprocal three-way relations among and between authorities, a rural public, and daily business life. The kabak was a "neutral" space. It drew local authority into a closer and more equal relationship with village folk and their business. Priests, village elders, district elders, tavern keepers, merchants, money-lenders, policemen, tax collectors and dreaded noble Land Captains mixed with a variety of inhabitants, whether rich or poor, young or old. Here administrative, judicial and economic affairs were rehearsed and occasionally settled. Almost all buying and selling, sometimes between individuals and sometimes in the larger setting of the bazaar or faire, were vetted in the kabak. By tradition, all bargaining began with a toast in the kabak, and all finished deals were celebrated in the same way. The kabak embraced village business life. The kabak was the secular soul of rural Russia.

The Era of Great Reforms in the 1860s:
Russian Social/Service hierarchies in Crisis

As the revolutions of the twentieth century approached, Russia experienced a serious crisis within what I would call the traditional imperial social/service hierarchies. I coin the phrase "social/service hierarchies" to signify the confused but formal social structures created by the intermixture of quasi-feudal social estate [soslovie] with post-Petrine official service rank [chin]. In the 18th century, these hierarchies grew to monstrous proportions in Russian life at just the time that les etates in France and die Staende in Germany were losing their grip on social life. By the mid-19th century, the Russian hierarchies were crumbling. {+{ Alan Kimball, "Alexander Herzen and the Native Lineage of the Russian Revolution", in Religious and Secular Forces in Late Tsarist Russia: Essays in Honor of Donald W. Treadgold, edited by Charles E. Timberlake (Seattle:1992), pp. 105-27.}+}

The tsarist state itself sentenced the traditional social/service hierarchies to death when it launched the "Great Reforms" in the 1850s. Serfs were emancipated [ID], and an already bankrupt gentry had half their lands taken away. Peasants and nobles were now ushered into a fundamentally altered world of social relationships. The already dysfunctional social estates [sosloviia] ceased to fit actual experience. This process coincided with another. New measures designed to modernize the imperial economy created the vital need for professions. These professions could not easily be stretched or cut on the Procrustean bedstead of the Petrine Table of Ranks.

The dual deterioration of soslovie (social estate) and chin (service rank) presented a serious problem with immediate political implications. The imperial state made matters worse when it decided to bring the old soslovie/chin hierarchies under increasingly awkward official protection. With emancipation, the state issued the death sentence, but then it mitigated matters with temporary stays of execution. Peasants were freed, but now discovered new forms of confinement. Aristocrats were also freed, but were asked not to stray too far. As the momentum of reform seemed unstoppable, the state made a second fatal decision, to treat the dying class of aristocrats to special favors and protection while leaving all other sosloviia, more or less, to their own devices under conditions of close state constraint and isolation from one another. The Land Captain, for example, had to be the aristocratic head of the district noble assembly. There was no practical reason for this, and the arrangement brought no meaningful advantage to either nobles or peasants as sosloviia. The Land Captain, as designed by the central state, had to be subverted before it could function in the actual village environment, as we saw in the Talyzin kabak [ID].

As with every facet of this larger emerging civil society in Russia, the kabak presented a challenge to the autocratic state and its effort to control and monitor social relations. The challenge is visible at least fifty years prior to Tenishev's informative inquiries.

The village scene harmonized with an Empire-wide crisis. Russia experienced the first great explosion of social volunteerism in its bigger cities. The institutional setting changed within which open community association took place. {+{ Alan Kimball, "Russkoe grazhdanskoe obshchestvo i politicheskii krizis v epokhu Velikikh reform, 1859-1863", in Velikii reformy v Rossii, 1856-1874, edited by L. G. Zakharova et al. (Moscow: 1992), pp. 260-82. }+}

At the same time, the number of kabaks grew dramatically. The reform of the alcohol excise tax system was one of the more effective of the modernizing reforms. Mid-century changes in the vodka excise tax farming system resulted in a dramatic growth in the number of kabaks. {+{ Ivan Pryzhov, "Nasha obshchestvennaia zhizn", in 26 moskovskikh lzheprorokov, lzhe-iurodivykh, dur i durakov i drugie trudy po russkoi istorii i etnografii (Sankt-peterburg-Moskva: 1996), p. 178.}+}.

Volunteer societies and kabaks expanded in number at the moment of greatest crisis in traditional social/service hierarchies. Russians in the kabak (mainly village folk) can be distinguished with ease from Russians in the kruzhok or voluntary society (mainly an aristocratic/bureaucratic elite). But all these responded to the same large crisis of the old regime Russian political economy.

The lives of gentry and serfs were utterly transformed by emancipation. Aristocrats and other elites filled voluntary societies and peasants streamed into new taverns. All were threatened, activated, and inspired by this time of great change. Expansion of intelligentsia from kruzhok into volunteer society was paralleled by the expansion of villagers from izba into kabak. Sometimes we see them all together – intelligentsia and villagers, as well as local officials -- in the kabak. The indefatigable folklorist Pavel Yakushkin "flitted about from kabak to kabak" seeking "those places where the folk gather". {+{ V. G. Bazanov, Russkie revoliutsionnye demokraty i narodoznanie (Leningrad:1974), p. 280.}+}

The state recoiled at the licentious mixing of sosloviia and chin within the kabak, and reported it with some frequency. On December 19,1857, a Petersburg police agent observed the bureaucrat [chinovnik] Ivanov in a local kabak with manual laborers [masterovym] and cabbies [izvozchikam]. They read and discussed the newspaper accounts of impending rural reform. Around the table, discussion concentrated on the natural but dangerous possibility that emancipation would be designed in such a way to favor gentry and to neglect the interests of peasants. {+{ Konets krepostnichestva v Rossii: Dokumenty, pis'ma, memuary, stat'i| (Moskva:1994), p.185 [hereafter KKR].}+}

Officials cringed at the thought of classes mixing, it shivered to see the social estates deliberating together about their own vital interests. The state did invite gentry to form committees to help design emancipation, but it made no such offer to peasants. Public discussion of the natural possibility that gentry views were thus privileged and peasant views ignored was considered seditious.

Within a few days, in a low-life dive [kharchevnia] near the Nikolai railroad station, serious deliberation on impending serf emancipation took place among prosperous villagers who were visiting the big city. Their conversation had universally recognizable political implications, and as such was noted by police informants:

They expressed regret that the committees formed [to deliberate on emancipation] did not designate any peasant deputies. They think that a reform project designed by these committees will be thoroughly unacceptable to peasants since the aristocrats will be concerned about their own interests. Under these circumstances they anticipate feeble representation of their interests. They predict that rumors will be proven correct, that the freedom about to be granted will be worse than serfdom. {+{ KKR:186-7.}+}

On the same day, police reported that in Dement'ev kabak in Petersburg peasants discussed how emancipation would empower the newly designed "village society" [sel'skoe obshchestvo] to elect its own elder. The immediate implication thus was that peasants must not accept an elder forced on the village by local gentry or officials. Villagers must take control of this process. A lively group of peasant drinkers, apparently all from the same village, said,

We must send a letter to our village to explain that peasants living there need not obey the current elder selected by the gentry landowner. His authority over them has already been terminated, and they have already chosen a new elder who resides among them. {+{ KKR:186.}+}

Politically mobilized drinkers were not altogether wrong about the opportunities and dangers of planned emancipation, but their open discussion of them in the kabak was thought to represent conspiracy.

At about the same time, agents submitted a refreshingly upbeat report about wide public discussion of reskripty, the detailed instruments of reform implementation:

The rescripts now constitute the universal and most significant and curious subject of conversation and judgment, not only in every open gathering of private and family circles among higher and middle classes, but also among the simple folk. The folk have greatest reason to be interested in this most significant question of their future welfare. At the present time, it would appear that there is no place in Petersburg where these documents are not read with vital engagement, particularly in clubs and taverns. In fact, as noted, it is in restaurants and drinking joints of the simple folk that one gets the strongest impression watching how circles of attentive listeners are always gathered around readers, hanging on every word with hungry attention.... {+{ KKR:185-6.}+}

The kabak was the location of conversations on the most important questions of peasant life and the cauldron of informed opposition to policies thought to be harmful to the folk themselves.

The Temperance Movement

In 1859 the peasantry with its temperance movement was the first soslovie to organize itself extensively for action against objectionable state policy. In this case the ostensible issue was temperance, and thus the kabak was for two reasons the institutional center of attention. First, village society gathered in the kabak. Second, village society drank vodka in the kabak. Therefore peasants took the lead in a movement that quickly opened its ranks to all sosloviia. The movement arose from the organized resistance of the "drinking public" to exploitative increases in the cost of vodka.

Chief Gendarme Dolgorukov reported to tsar Alexander II about the empire-wide temperance movement. Dolgorukov refused to acknowledge any possibility that the movement might express the factional interests of rural drinkers. He preferred to see chimeras of conspiracy and evildoing. He placed emphasis on the mixed soslovie of the main activists in this movement, not just peasants but gentry, clergy, merchants, middling urbanites [meshchan'e], and bureaucrats [chinovniki]. {+{ GARF (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii), Moskva, f. 109, "Otchet deistviia IIIgo [variation:"3ogo," etc.] Otdeleniia Sobstvennoi Vashego Imperatorskogo Velichestva Kantseliarii i Korpusa Zhandarmov za 1859, op. 85, ed. khr. 24, p. 200.}+}

In other words, an empire-wide movement was taking on a "public" character, providing an easy mix of soslovie and chin, and focusing attention on the political-economic role of the kabak in rural society. That distressed Dolgorukov as much as the threat to state tax revenues.

Saratov Province was a main center of the temperance movement. One eyewitness caught a telling detail in the town Balashov. There the activists in the movement took over the church to celebrate their pledge against drinking the expensive vodka. It might be said that "obshchestvo" co-opted the official church to their voluntary cause. Furthermore, they formed their own patrols to guard the doors to the drinking houses and make sure no one went in. Any who insisted were detained, fined or otherwise punished on local community authority. Here, the movement ("the public") co-opted the functions of law-enforcement officers, converted the church into a civic institution, and established its own control over the business of the kabak.

Dolgorukov and other high officials were infuriated. The Russian state could not tolerate complex, mutual, dependent and reciprocal relationships to develop between public, officials and the rural economy. Not only was state income threatened, but the movement was also taking away the jealously guarded, exclusive and unidirectional powers of the centralized autocracy. Furthermore, people holding positions up and down social/service hierarchies were participating, as if there were no hierarchies. An Interior Ministry circular of March 22, 1859, warned officials on the scene that the vigilante behavior of the temperance movement "does not have the force of law". {+{ Krest'ianskoe dvizhenie v Rossii v 1857-mae 1861 gg.: Sbornik dokumentov (Moskva:1963), p. 213 and 533-4 [hereafter KDR4; the following volume, "... v 1861-1869 gg." hereafter is KDR5].}+}

It needs to be said that the temperance movement was only partially concerned about temperance. It touched on a wide range of issues connected with local control over local life. Furthermore, it was not sustained by a desire to destroy kabaks, only those that sold vodka at the elevated price. {+{ KDR4:212.}+} Nor was it sustained by an opposition to drinking, only drinking the expensive stuff. Many reports describe tipsy activists in this movement. Finally, we must say that it was in no way a "revolutionary movement". It simply asserted local independence and the right to self-defense against exploitative state fiscal policy. It did, indeed, have revolutionary implications in this utterly statist environment, but the goal was not revolution. The goal was to resist state actions that had direct and negative economic implications in the villages, actions taken with no concern for village interests. The goal then was also to behave like a civil society [grazhdanskoe obshchestvo] with a mutually dependent and reciprocal relationship to state and economy.

Officials reported on huge gatherings, but they seldom described the action in terms of precise motivations and goals. They saw no reason to bring the action to life in this way on the pages of their reports. One report pulled back the veil for just a moment and revealed the importance of the drinking establishment as "public space". A Minsk Province military commander reported that when a police official [zemskii izpravnik] called a meeting of villagers, they refused. They met on their own, first in the church then on the grounds of the local drinking joint [korchma]. {+{ KDR4:216.}+}

A gathering like that was not always a simple, traditional mirskoi skhod of a single peasant village. These meetings were frequently spontaneous regional assemblies of a new and politically threatening sort. This is seen in the significant rise in open conflict between village starosta and regional officers of state power, e.g., policemen, township elders, city officials and peace arbitrators. Often representatives of other social estates [sosloviia] got involved in these "peasant" assemblies.

Reaction to Serf Emancipation

None of the "Great Reforms" arose from a broad public or inter-soslovie discussion. The invitation to gentry to form committees, the very invitation which upset those peasants we overheard in a tavern earlier, proved soon to be merely ceremonial. Emancipation did not arise out of a process of mutually dependent and reciprocal deliberation between and among officials and the public most directly affected. Nonetheless, a potential public, urban and rural, was ready for such deliberation and tried to engage in it. Yet, emancipation and other reforms were ordered from on high with little authentic effort to meet the needs of a diverse "constituency", with little effort to "represent" the interests of any public whether aristocratic or commoner. And the state took vigorous action to make sure the sosloviia did not mix, did not collaborate, did not forge mutual and reciprocal relations among themselves.

An October, 1859, issue of Moskovskie vedomosti (#247:1781) carried an article by Aleksei Zabelin, writing from Tver. Moskovskie vedomosti was one of the two most widely read daily newspapers of the era. Zabelin would soon become the Tver region commissioner of the biggest new volunteer society, Obshchestvo dlia posobiia nuzhdaiushchimsia literatoram i uchenym [Litfond, for short]. Litfond represented the interests of a learned, professional elite in major cities. Zabelin strove to bring his province into association with the national organization centered in Petersburg. And he was interested in the growth of a non-soslovie public.

Zabelin criticized traditional institutions of state-manipulated community association. He drew attention to the fact that the Tver Noble Assembly maintained its own club, but that this club excluded women and representatives of other sosloviia, whatever their gender. Aside from noble men, only chinovniki were admitted. Traditional institutions were havens for an isolated, insider elite. Zabelin lamented this pitiful and systemic isolation or disconnection [razobshchenie] of sosloviia. Zabelin emphasized that social disintegration was not simply a characteristic of Tver. It was a blight on the whole Russian land.

On a more positive note, he described a counter-development. Cheap journals and newspapers circulated "in every public place" [vo vsekh obshchestvennykh mestakh]. For example, various sorts of public drinking establishments subscribed to leading publications. Literacy was no longer a church dominated feature of village life, he asserted. Now lively public issues discussed on the pages of Russian newspapers and journals educated the people in a more "civilian" grasp of the written word. Literate lumpen urbanites [meshchan'e], clergy [dukhovenstvo], aristocrats [dvorianstvo], craftsmen [remeslennye] and peasants gathered in the tavern. They turned with enthusiasm to those lively articles that touched on their daily interests. Here is what Zabelin wrote for a daily newspaper with national circulation:

Characteristically some local orator reads, reads with commentary, with feeling, with pauses in order to concentrate on noteworthy thoughts and to analyze them for a listening public in a state of attentive silence.

First the folk read [chitali] together, then they deliberated [tolkovali] together in the kabak.

We are tantalized by a brief and narrow opening of a kabak door. We see inside and feel the energy there. This was not simply a dark hell-hole of alcoholic abuse and disorderly behavior. We notice how Zabelin characterized this complex collective of soslovie and chin as a "public". And we find many confirmations of his insight. The lively digest, Knizhnyi vestnik, summarized a growing number of articles in the Russian press dealing with newly founded public libraries, clubs and taverns where a "reading public" gathered. These public places filled a vital need in this time of transformation; they had become an appropriate home "for various strata of Moscow society". {+{ "Ewwe o qtenii v Moskve", Knizhnyi vestnik #22 (1860). }+}

Russian journals reported the lively discussions of public issues as a positive development. Police reported them as a sign of growing threat to the reform process. In August, 1861, Tambov Province was the site of a characteristic report about how "readers" [chital'shchiki] in kabaks read and interpreted newspapers and other documents in distorted ways. {+{ KDR5:107.}+} Notice the formula "read and interpreted" [chitali i tolkovali, something very close to a standard formula in police reports]. And notice in this formula the essential and standard expression "in distorted ways".

The report would have been more accurate if it read like this: "Villagers gathered often in taverns with designated readers chosen carefully from their own midst, not priests, not landlords, not local officials, not officers in front of armed troops. They chitali i tolkovali state acts together with their own perceived interests first in mind". Tsarist statist culture made this sort of accuracy impossible.

Peasants got the message, not in church or in the fields, nor on the open village squares, not even in the extended family at home, but in village "public spaces", first among which was the kabak. Together they interpreted the message to suit them, much as any large group of readers with shared interests might be expected to do. Russian officials equated this with rebellion. So have many subsequent historians. They all missed the more profound meaning of these public gatherings.

Within a few days of the formal announcement of serf emancipation, Aleksandr Koshelev wrote to Yurii Samarin about peasant reaction to purported emancipation. Peasants grasped instantly and nearly universally that there would be two more years of bound labor. That did not suit them at all. Koshelev explained to Samarin how he knew this.

This evening one of my acquaintances, having changed his clothes, set off for the tavern. At midnight he returned with the news that nearly everyone is dissatisfied with the manifesto [of serf liberation]. Everyone interprets it with only his own interests in mind [tolkuet ego po svoemu]. {+{ KKR:333.}+}

Koshelev was a great landowner. As such, he was disappointed that peasants did not "interpret it with gentry interests in mind", much as the state was disappointed that they refused to "interpret it with state interests in mind". Many, whose interests varied from those of the peasants, were uneasy with mounting evidence that the folk tolkuet ego po svoemu.

Intelligentsia radicals rushed to compose proclamations designed to influence all this free-wheeling interpretation in directions pleasing to them. We might not be surprised if we remember that factionalized valuation of public issues is the experience of every complex civil society. Manifestos and other political tracts circulated in the reform era signal the emergence of a civil society, not a utopia. {+{ Alan Kimball, "The Russian Peasant Obshchina in the Political Culture of the Era of Great Reforms: A Contribution to Begriffsgeschichte", Russian History/Histoire Russe 17, no. 3 (1990 Fall), pp. 1-21.}+}

But the state didn't like independent interpretation of emancipation plans, whether it be that of peasant, gentry, or intelligentsia. It equally despised peasant, aristocratic and urban intelligentsia self-expression, and it was horrified by efforts of "the educated classes" to open conversation with villagers. At first it knew no other response than violent action against and suppression of those who openly expressed opinions with their own interests in mind.

Koshelev and his friends went to the source to learn what peasants thought; they went to the kabak. They could not go as "public", however. Even though Catherine the Great had designated the kabak as a non-soslovie institution, they had to disguise themselves in peasant/worker dress, an outward sign of compliance with the traditional social/service hierarchies. Koshelev's friend observed the deliberations of a naturally factionalized human society, not a peaceable kingdom. Given the traditions of the social/service hierarchies, given the working of a self-serving official censorship, it was impossible to adjudicate differences by means of mutually dependent and reciprocal tolkovanie among factions. This may be the most important, historically tragic feature of Imperial Russian life.

In 1862 Interior Minister Petr Valuev introduced a measure to supplement standard policies of violence and suppression. He began to issue official newspapers and other publications with sanctioned information. He launched a counter-attack on spontaneous "reading and interpreting" out in public places frequented by a young civil society. In other words, he interpreted things with the interests of the state in mind, and he ordered that his publications be circulated in all kabaks at state expense. {+{ Yu. I. Gerasimova, Iz istorii russkoi pechati v period revoliutsionnoi situatsii kontsa 1850-kh--nachala 1860-kh gg. (Moskva:1974), p. 90.}+}

Valuev knew where the action was -- in the kabak. He co-opted the gentry nobility, he crushed spontaneous voluntary societies, he drove fledgling civil society back into conspiratorial kruzhoks, and he sent out the good word to the tavern orators and readers.


It is too often forgotten that civil society has both a refined or intellectual side and an everyday or workaday side. The famous coffee houses of London and the other high-society social establishments have long been acknowledged as important centers of sociability and sources of the wider European civil society. [W] It is the workaday side that needs most attention right now. [W]

We know a lot about the intelligentsia in their kruzhki. We need to learn more about villagers in their drinking establishments.

In the kabak, villagers drank vodka, but they also met and discussed ways to secure and protect a better life, to escape the disintegrating social/service hierarchies, and to avoid confinement in new hierarchies designed to meet the needs of others than themselves. Both kabak and kruzhok represented an escape from the shaping power of dysfunctional, traditional social/service categories.

In the 18th century, Catherine the Great ruled that the kabak was a "non-soslovie" institution. From the beginning it was granted the possibility to develop outside traditional social/service hierarchies. Old hierarchies melted down and flowed along natural drainages, one of which was into the intelligentsia kruzhok, and another direction was into the village kabak.

Yet the kabak was unlike the kruzhok in one most significant regard. While the kruzhok represented an isolated haven for harassed intelligenty, the kabak opened itself to a wide variety of folk, officials, priests, and businessmen. The kabak in the post-emancipation era moved toward formal relationship with the most important village institutions: the mirskoi skhod, the church, tsarist authorities. If the kruzhok represented a certain shrinking back from the state and the marketplace, the kabak tended to pull them all together in mutually dependent and reciprocal relationship. In that role it modeled civil society more closely than the kruzhok. The kruzhok nurtured Lenin and his statist political party, while the kabak nurtured an increasingly self-conscious and democratic rural society.

The kabak was a place for frivolous and very serious sociability, ritual calendar festivals, business deals, reinforcement of public identity, coping with everyday life problems, schmoozing with local officials, debating the eternal verities, having fun. And it had its dark side, as everywhere. There are zealots of piety who have kept us well informed about the drunkenness and riot in the kabak, but few indeed are those who sing its praise. The picture of the kabak needs to be hung evenly.

*1877:German painter Wilhelm Leibl's "Die Dorfpolitiker"

Leibl (1844-1900) wrote to his mother, "My painting shows five peasants who have huddled together in a small rustic room, apparently to discuss some matter of village politics because one of them holds in his hand a piece of paper that looks like an old land-registry notice. They are real peasants, whom I paint as true to nature as I can; the room is real too, because I paint the picture while I am in it." (Götz Czymmek and Christian Lenz, eds., Wilhelm Leibl zum 150. Geburtstag. Heidelberg: Edition Braus, 1994, p. 67.) Leibl later titled his work Peasants in Conversation [Bauern im Gespräch], but it is best known under the name given to it by the contemporary art trade: The Village Politicians [Die Dorfpolitiker]. It was painted while Leibl was living in rural Bavaria – in Unterschondorf am Ammersee.


Some "bone-yard" bibliography =

*1872:| Barry,Herbert. Ivan at Home