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Quitrent and Corvee in Old Russia
May 20, 2014 22:42

Corvee and quitrent were the forms of peasants’ political and economic dependence on their feudal lords in the heyday of feudalism and setting of serfdom in Old Russia.
The main difference of the quitrent from the corvee is that quitrent is monetary or commodity payment of tax or rent, whereas corvee is performing physical work as paying off debts for land lease.
As the feudal system was developing in Russia quite peculiar relations were established between feudal lords (land owners) and peasants living in their lands and thus subordinated to them. Those peasants who could not afford buying land (which was later forbidden by the law) had to rent the land and pay through the nose for it. In order to pay the levy they used revenues from selling the products harvested from the land or products as such. Those in dependence of the owner (a feudal lord or a prince) had to pay the land lease constantly to go on living on this land.
Development of statehood and tax system brought about transformation of quitrent into corvee.
This notion has several definitions. The term “quitrent” was for the first time mentioned in connection with taxing in the earliest period of Kievan Rus’, when princes toured around the lands entrusted to them and raised quitrent from peasants in the form of goods to sell them in the market and leave the money to treasury. Practically any tribute, be it money, products or even people was considered to be quitrent then. Later the concept of quitrent acquired a more certain meaning that is familiar to us today. 
Quitrent came to mean the contribution that peasants were laid under for living in the feudal lords’ lands. The quitrent existed by way of money till 1863, and by way of commodity till 1861, when the serfdom was abolished.
Ancient Slavs took the very concept of quitrent in practically same way as we see the notion of lease nowadays; therefore the quitrent can be referred not only to the peasants-and-feudal lords’ ties. Any person or even community which leased a land plot from a feudal lord or the state had to pay a regular quitrent. Besides, it was a rule among the feudal lords to pay “quitrent” not only with goods and money, but even the whole villages together with people, since peasants were then considered the property of the feudal lord.
From the 16th century the quitrent was a form of the state tax paid by citizens to the state treasury. Peasants paid quitrent to their feudal lord, who paid quitrent to those whose lands he rented (if they were not bought into property) and thus the state treasury was regularly replenished. Over time it ended up in serious economic difficulties, and so the quitrent was decided to be replaced with corvee.

Corvee was the serfs’ work for the feudal lord on account of using the land.
Corvee was widely adopted in the 16th century, when the quitrent proved to be not the best system of levying, since poor peasants who anyway lived from hand to mouth just had no money to pay their feudal lord. If the peasant paid the tribute with food products, it could bring the family to starvation. Thus the authorities decided to allow peasants to work off their levy debts. This contribution could include not only working in the fields of the feudal lord, but fishing, hunting, and general service as well – anything that could be beneficial for the landlord.
Corvee was based on several principles. First of all, corvee toll was taken as physical work only, and often feudal lords did not even care to consider their peasants’ age or physical and health condition. Secondly, the service was not compensated at all: peasants could do agricultural work or hunt all day long and return home empty-handed. Thirdly, nobody was exempted from the corvee, which was actually labor duty that existed along with the quitrent in some cases.
Unlike quitrent, the corvee proved to be more persistent and existed for a long time, in some areas even after the abolition of serfdom. However, before it ceased to exist there was issued a three-day corvee decree in 1797, which limited the corvee toil to three days and prevented the feudal lord from keeping peasants in permanent labor bondage.
End of Corvee and Quitrent
Corvee and quitrent, despite all the horrors of such a system and continuous attempts of fighting it, existed long enough and remained in this or that way till the end of the 19th century in Russia. It can be accounted for by the country’s economic condition, which for so many centuries of feudalism just could not adapt to a new system; feudalism caused such enormous bondage that even when the peasants were allowed to break free, they had no means to make it. Corvee and quitrent, just like feudalism in general, deeply crippled Russian economy and became one of the reasons for this country’s lag behind advanced European countries.

Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian history     

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