Russian peasants were a completely separate class from the land owners and nobility, many of whom must have considered their underlings less than human. Most peasants were actually serfs – individuals owned by or legally tied to their masters – before The Peasant Reform of 1861. The first major liberal reform in Russia, it freed serfs to marry without consent and to own businesses and property. About 23 million people were affected.
Yet life was still tough for the peasants. They made their living working the land or were employed in unskilled jobs. The 1905 Russian Revolution may have been on the relatively distant horizon at the time these photographs were taken – in the 1860s and '70s – but the seeds of revolt had surely already been sown by the harsh living conditions in which these people were forced to live.
The character pictured here looks a bit like a butcher – and a scary one at that – or else he brings to mind the popular image of Fagin in Dickens' Oliver Twist. In actual fact, though, the man was a Mordvin, a member of one of two sub-ethnic groups from the middle Volga area of Russia, in the Mordvinian Republic. Carrick and his partner went on expeditions to places like the Simbirsk province, where he took many pictures of Mordovian and Russian peasants.
Chimney sweeps were much needed at a time when almost all houses were heated by fires in hearths. Large houses may have had more than a dozen rooms with fires burning inside them. Cleaning the chimneys was a filthy job, and, as was tradition in many countries, chimney sweeps hired boys who could climb and forced them to go up the often deadly shafts. Getting stuck up a chimney was the kind of occupational hazard few today can conceive of.
William Carrick, who authored these images, was a Scottish-born Russian who pioneered ethno-photography in Russia. W. R. S. Ralston wrote that “whenever a particularly Russian representative passed underneath their windows they [Carrick and his partner John MacGregor] immediately rushed out and secured his portrait for their gallery.” Thus was provided an irreplaceable record of Russian men and women in the late 1800s.
This image shows a peasant having a good time at a fair in the Russian town of Kamenka. It's something people in many cultures and countries have done all through the generations – attending local village fairs. Russia has never been an island, culturally or geographically!
Wearing an ingenious coat to carry all of his tools, this budding capitalist was a walking advertisement for his wares. Tools, of course, were needed in all walks of life, and they were made by hand, not in big factories. Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Russia during the late 1800s, so things were changing – and more and more manufacturing would be carried out in major cities.
Here we see a typical peasant sat on a stool at a rough-hewn table, presumably inside in his hut – a simple place where he could sit, eat and sleep. His clothing might show him to be part of a certain group or from a particular region, but unfortunately the records don't reveal any more.
These wooden huts must have been home to the women in the picture as well as their husbands and children. They're smiling slightly, but domestic violence was doubtless a fact of life among the peasantry in Russia – as everywhere – with abuse meted out to the children as well.
This mother and daughter standing just outside their well-constructed cabin clearly had a little more than most. Notice the head coverings and decorative clothing the women are wearing in the photograph; it's lacy and not rough, home-spun material.
Here, an image of a Russian beauty in her finery, with the puffed sleeves and apron that was the style of the day.
Here, village children gather together, as they do all over the world. Sources state that they are playing around the communal water barrel, but it looks more like they have been forced to get together for the photograph!
Some things never change! Women doing the backbreaking work of washing by hand in an old wooden tub.
This woman was photographed pouring out warming sustenance to those who needed it, while hauling her wares of tea or chocolate to market in her sled.
The next image shows a potato boy taking his goods to market, his baskets filled to overflowing. Potatoes became one of the stables of Russian diet – particularly after the grain failure in 1838–1839 – and the country has many famous dishes based around this now ubiquitous crop.
Here we see two peasant men who are clearly having an interesting conversation – or a minor disagreement! Their footwear is low-cut, and both wear thick socks as protection against the cold.
This young person was dressed in what looks to be their best, while hawking items of food. You'll notice that peasants didn't set up shop anywhere – they didn't have the money for this – but instead carried their goods on their backs.
This is an interesting picture. Although he may well not have been a vagrant, the man looks very much like some of the homeless people we see to this day dressed in old layers of clothes.
A smiling trader with dish cloths or linens, this man would likely have gotten many a customer with his cheerful attitude!
There were no calculators in 19th-century Russia. Arithmetic was done with the help of an abacus, so of course this provided a niche for the peasantry – wood carvers, in particular.
Knife grinders were much needed in Russia. Among the lower classes there was no extra money to just buy a new knife when one went blunt, and even the wealthy would send out their knives for re-sharpening. Notice the stern expression on the man's face. Maybe this was because he was working for a pittance for a landowner. The Emancipation Reform of 1861 resulted in a huge peasantry which, though no longer under the yoke of serfdom, still was not totally free – with heavy taxes a particular burden. According to Spartacus.com: “The arable land which the freed peasantry had to rent or buy was valued at about double its real value (342 million roubles instead of 180 million); yesterday's serfs discovered that, in becoming free, they were now hopelessly in debt.”
The horse and carriage outside the store was another feature of daily life in 19th-century Russia. It was a mode of transport reserved for taking wealthier people on their errands, while the lower classes walked or used carts.
This picture of a man with a spade is another famous picture of Carrick's. Look at his wild hair and the brush behind him. Clearly working outdoors for a living, he was captured in a position he could no doubt be found in every day – clearing out brush, digging, lifting his spade, and probably making very little if anything in terms of money.
This is an iconic photo from William Carrick's 'Russian Types' series, a box boy selling his wares, which he carried on his back. Remember that in those days many items were sold in markets or on street corners. In this image the boy looks like he is trudging home after a long day's work – no doubt having labored for many more hours than most are used to working today.
We have seen a wealth of images of peasants from the late 1800s, but before 1861 there were actually few true, free peasants. Worse, conditions for them after their so-called emancipation did not really change much in their daily lives. They still needed places in which to work and land in which to live, so this newfound freedom was more of a technicality than it was a reality.