During the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Russia in 1812, the British liaison to the Russians described in his journal what he saw take place in a rural village. To paraphrase General Sir Robert Wilson, the peasants had laid some fifty refugees out naked in the snow. Village women commenced dancing around and singing while bashing their prisoners’ brains out with clubs. Other eye witnesses reported captured refugees being roasted on spits, being stripped and made to freeze to death, being drowned, and being battered and used as target practice. Peasants didn’t withhold the most unfathomable tortures from women or children let alone soldiers. So who were these people who were so unfeeling and so over-the-top violent—acting not only as individuals but as whole communities? There is no simple answer to that.
The condition of Russian peasantry in 1812 was as appalling and as hopeless as any existence at the time. The livelihood of the nobility was dependent on the free labor that serfdom provided, and the odds of that changing were essentially zero. Each estate was its own world with its own rules set down by the individual master or mistress. The difference between serfs and peasants was essentially that serfs were owned by private landowners, where peasants were the property of the Russian state. Human beings were bought and sold at auction or by way of a contract between private parties; they were sold along with mules, carts, or any other material goods. Russian newspapers carried ads describing a slave’s attributes and skills for interested buyers. For example, this ad was posted in the Moscow News in 1797: For sale: a waiter, 25 years old, with his wife and a minor son. A very good weaver; can also shave and draw blood. The wife can look after the mistress and is capable of any work. Also for sale in the same place: a…carriage, not much used, of the best workmanship.
Families were sold together by and large, but not always; they could be permanently torn apart. In general, the more serfs a master—or pomeshchik—owned, the better off the serfs would be. If several thousand serfs were owned, they would commonly be on obrok, in which the serf paid quitrent in cash or kind. Serfs owned by lesser pomeshchiks in many cases labored under the system of barshchina, similar to the pre-Revolution corvee in France, where the master was compensated in labor. This type of existence was conducive to short, tormented lives for the workers. It should be noted that life was not horrible for every serf; many actually became wealthy through personal skills, education, and entrepreneurship, and even purchased their own serfs and property. The serf was not legally allowed to own property, however, and such purchases were necessarily made in the name of the master. Envy and resentment of a neighbor’s success was firmly embedded in the Russian character, and the industrious peasant was often a lonely peasant. Peasants could not marry without the consent of their masters, and female serfs who turned up pregnant without being married were punished severely.
Serfs were subject to the whims of the master or those of the stewards and bailiffs in his employ. The treatment they received at times was inhuman. By law, owners weren’t allowed to kill their slaves, but they could and did beat them near to death. (Limits on lash strokes applied to minors.) Some landowners cultivated virtual harems out of their serf populations, in which young girls were required to satisfy their masters’ sexual demands under threat of torture. No laws existed to stop these things, and such behavior was not necessarily imbued with any social repugnance. House serfs, being in the close proximity of the pomeshchik or pomeshchitsa, seemed to bear the brunt of the caprice and cruelty dished out from above relative to their brothers and sisters who worked the land. Good masters did exist, it would be fair to say, and the lot of certain serfs was not so bleak. Some masters provided schools—although laws prohibited serfs from entering high school—and hospitals, and even allowed their slaves to buy or otherwise earn their freedom. On a rare occasion, a serf would actually become wealthy or attain high levels of employment in government service. Stories also abound of the sadistic behavior of serfs in charge of other serfs.
For all the torment the peasant population of Russia endured, these servants could be inconceivably brutal in their own rite. Alcoholism was prevalent in lower-class Russian families and villages, which paved the way for physical abuse at home. Peasant husbands and even grandparents beat their wives and children as severely and as often as they liked. But such violence was not limited to the cottage. School teachers used birch rods on bare legs to discipline students for such egregious behavior as not earning acceptable grades or talking. Pets that got into mischief were sometimes put on trial and hanged. But the most unfathomable reports of peasant behavior came during the retreat of the French military and civilians from Moscow. Throughout the advance of Napoleon’s army in the summer of 1812, soldiers became marauders, putting whole Russian villages to the torch, raping and murdering females, wreaking gratuitous destruction without restraint. The villagers paid Cossacks and partisans for captives during the winter exodus in order to exact retribution for those outrages, whether those captives were French soldiers or private citizens of other nationalities who had nothing to do with any past injustices. Villagers herded prisoners into barns before setting the structures on fire; they forced people into deep pits and buried them alive; they drove spikes through people’s heads; they pushed even children through holes they’d chopped in iced-over ponds. In “Beyond the Berezina,” such scenes of horror play out time and again for the principals, all based on extant reports from survivors of the era.
It should be mentioned that the Russians—and particularly the provincials—were extremely religious. The belief that Napoleon was the antichrist referred to in the Bible permeated the rural mind. Every occurrence was due to the direct actions of God or Satan; and the savage treatment of prisoners was divinely sanctioned. Superstition governed the lives of the lower classes; peasants looked for omens and avoided behavior that brought on retribution from unseen forces. Beliefs varied regionally, but every home had an icon corner, and around almost every neck hung the image of a saint—usually Nicholas. Great processions of humanity annually followed statues of the Virgin or some other relic, which may have been assigned supernatural attributes, from one location to another and back. The dominant religion was Russian Orthodox Christianity, which varied in many aspects from its Latin and Greek cousins. Regional pagan customs often survived from the pre-Christian era to be included in the established orthodoxy.
In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm Ussher owns several serfs that he’d bought at auction, slaves from an area close to the Ukraine then known as Little Russia. The Little Russians had different beliefs and practices from those of the peasants reared nearer to Moscow or St. Petersburg, or those from Siberia. Many of them were Cossacks from the vicinity of the Don or Kuban Rivers, and were referred to as Don or Kuban Cossacks. They were not nearly as patriotic or concerned with the fate of Mother Russia as their northern cousins. Overall, Napoleon’s invasion was important to the civilian population in those regions only as it related to their own well-being. In regions farther north, too, along the lines of the French advance, some serfs used the opportunity of the invasion to talk the invaders into murdering their masters. No single peasant mindset could be counted on in those days.