feudal landlords in Russia from the late 15th century to the early 20th. The term pomeshchiki is derived from the old Russian ispomeshchat’, to settle on a particular area of land, later called the pomest’e (fief). In Russia from the late 15th century to the early 18th, the pomest’e system was a form of land tenure conditional on service to the state. In the 19th and early 20th centuries members of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) who owned land were usually called pomeshchiki.
Beginning with the decree on primogeniture (1714), the pomest’e and the votchina (patrimonial estate) were classified as a single type of gentry property called immovable property (estates). The term pomest’e was still used in the 18th–19th centuries as a synonym for “estate.” Because the possession of an estate was originally conditional on government service, until the early 18th century virtually all the pomeshchiki were absentee landlords. The gentry’s monopoly on the possession of populated lands was legally established in the Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility (1762).
In the second half of the 18th century the number of pomeshchiki who lived on and developed their estates increased considerably, resulting in the extension of the corvée, an increase in the land area tilled under the corvée system, and the intensification of serfdom. Production for the market gradually increased. Some pomeshchiki became entrepreneurs and founded votchina industries. As a result of the General Land Survey undertaken in 1766, the landholdings of the pomeshchiki were confirmed and increased. The geography of pomest’e land tenure stabilized in the late 18th century and remained essentially the same until 1917. Most pomest’e lands were located in the central provinces of European Russia and in the Ukraine. There were almost no pomest’ia in Siberia.
The pomeshchiki differed greatly in wealth, which, during the first half of the 19th century, was measured primarily in terms of the number of male serfs owned. According to the tenth census (1859–60), there were 103,200 pomeshchiki who owned 10.7 million male serfs. Members of the gentry who had a maximum of 100 male serfs accounted for 41.6 percent of all the pomeshchiki and owned 3.2 percent of the total number of serfs. The wealthiest landlords (those with more than 1,000 male serfs) constituted only 3.8 percent of the pomeshchiki but controlled 43.7 percent of all pomest’e peasants.
One of the indications of the crisis of the system of feudal serfdom was the indebtedness of the pomeshchiki. By the eve of the Peasant Reform of 1861, 62 percent of all the serfs had been mortgaged to pay their landlords’ debts. The debt on pomeshchik estates was almost 400 million rubles, and pomeshchik indebtedness to various credit institutions totaled 425 million rubles. Of the 543 million rubles set aside by the government in 1871 to compensate the pomeshchiki for the loss of their serfs, 248 million rubles were deducted to pay debts incurred by the pomeshchiki before the Reform of 1861. Between 1836 and 1858, the number of pomeshchiki (that is, landowning gentry) declined by 8.3 percent.
After the abolition of serfdom the principal indicator of the wealth of the pomeshchiki was the extent of their landed property, which declined steadily. In 1862 the pomeshchiki owned a total of 87.2 million desiatinas (95.05 million ha [hectares]). By 1877, this figure had dropped to 73.1 million desiatinas (79.68 million ha), and by 1905, to 53.2 million desiatinas (57.99 million ha), even though the government tried in every possible way to halt this trend. The decline in gentry landholdings was particularly sharp in the central industrial and northern zones. It was much less noticeable in the western provinces. Increasingly, the pomeshchiki put their land up for sale. Between 1863 and 1904, 80.4 million desiatinas (87.64 million ha) of land were sold, but during the same period the pomeshchiki acquired 45.8 million desiatinas (49.92 million ha), including more than 1 million desiatinas (1.09 million ha) purchased on particularly favorable terms with the aid of the government. Most of the pomeshchiki who found themselves in dire financial straits resorted to mortgaging their estates. In the 31 provinces of European Russia, a total of 14,300 estates with an area of 12.7 million desiatinas (13.84 million ha) had been mortgaged for a total of 440 million rubles by Nov. 1, 1896. The pomeshchiki also leased a considerable portion of their lands. The number of gentry who actually owned pomest’ia declined. Thus, in 1877, 56 percent of all gentry families were pomeshchiki; in 1895, 40 percent; and in 1905, 30 percent.
The distribution of land among various categories of pomeshchiki was extremely uneven: 9–10 percent of all estate owners controlled 70–73 percent of all gentry land. These figures remained roughly the same until 1917. In 1905, 155 pomeshchik families owned more than 50,000 desiatinas (54,500 ha) each; as a group, they controlled 16.1 million desiatinas (17.55 million ha), or approximately 30 percent of all gentry lands. This wealthiest group of pomeshchiki included some of the most prominent gentry families: the Volkonskiis, the Gagarins, the Golitsyns, the Pototskiis, the Sheremetevs, the Shcherbatovs, and the Iusupovs, for example. In 1905, 30,000 pomeshchik families owned 70 million desiatinas (76.3 million ha); 10.5 million peasant households had only 75 million desiatinas (81.75 million ha).
Tsarism tried in every possible way to maintain both the privileges of the dvorianstvo and the landholdings of the pomeshchiki, the existence of which impeded the development of capitalist agriculture. Most of the pomeshchiki worked their land with peasant labor, as well as with implements and animals owned by the peasants. As a rule, they were incapable of switching to a capitalist mode of production, because, as V. I. Lenin observed, “agriculture had to be organized on the same lines as any other commercial and industrial enterprise and not as the business of the lord” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 3, p. 186). Only an insignificant proportion of the pomeshchiki succeeded in switching to a capitalist economy. In 1906, Lenin wrote: “Taken as a whole, the landed estate in Russia today rests on a system of feudal bondage rather than on the capitalist system” (ibid., vol. 12, p. 249). Even the largest latifundia never became the basis for the capitalist mode of production in agriculture.
Throughout their history, the pomeshchiki were the bulwark of the autocracy. As a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 the class of gentry-pomeshchiki was abolished. Gentry land was nationalized by the decree on land.
The term pomeshchiki sometimes refers to large-scale landowners of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century, regardless of their class. These were the “new” pomeshchiki—merchants and wealthy peasants who had acquired gentry land.
The term pomeshchik may also refer to large-scale owners of feudal or semifeudal estates in other countries (for example, in Central and Eastern Europe), where the pomest’e system (in the narrow sense of the term) prevailed in the late Middle Ages.
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L. V. BELOVINSKII