Serfdom, which appeared on the Belarusian lands during the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had the peculiarity that here between the masters and serfs there existed not only class, but also ethno-confessional strife.
The landowners were, as a rule, Catholics, Poles and noblemen of Belarusian or Lithuanian origin who became polite. The peasants were Belarusians, Orthodox Christians and Uniates. Serfdom, based on class inequality, in itself created social tension, which periodically led to peasant riots. Belarusian historian, professor at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy Mikhail Osipovich Koyalovich (1828–1891) gave the following assessment of the situation of the common people: “Slavery, the awful slavery that can only be in democratic societies, fell on him with the same weight with which it lay on the negroes of the southern states of America.”…
After the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Belarusian lands became part of the Russian Empire. The position of the landlords was thereby strengthened. The same historian Koyalovich wrote that serfdom under Polish rule was worse than serfdom in Russia. However, if in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the peasantry threatened the landowners with their uprisings, then after the partition of Poland a strong centralized state stood up to defend the gentry: “Russia with its state organization, full of strength and always capable of restoring order, relieved the Polish nobles of this fear. They could calmly crush the clap (that is, the peasant), deprived of any opportunity and hope to curb the pan. “…
One of the most egregious examples of mockery of Belarusian peasants in the 1840s. became the case of the Mozyr landowner Honorata Stotskaya. The rumor about the despotism and pathological cruelty of this woman once spread throughout the Minsk province, the trial was reported to the Senate.
The Stotsky family came from the Polish gentry. One of the branches of this clan was represented by Bernard and Honorata Stotsky (husband and wife), who held the former Jesuit estate of Remezy in the Mozyr district of the Minsk province. Back in 1835, the local tax authority (treasury) drew attention to the stupid management of their estate by the Stotskys. Members of the Mozyr Zemsky Court were instructed to take control of the behavior of these landowners. Two months later, the peasant Stepan Stepanenok appealed to the Zemsky Court of the Mozyr District with a complaint about Stotsky’s cruelty. The court made an unspoken inquiry about the likelihood of Stepan’s testimony and after that sent its assessor Zablotsky for an official investigation. Confirmation was found for the harsh treatment of the Stotskys (especially the Honorata) with their peasants, as well as the excessive burden of their work and generally inept management of the estate. However, Bernard Stotsky appealed against the actions of assessor Zablotsky (allegedly biased) and got him replaced for a new investigation, which took place a year later. The new trial presented the case in a favorable light for the Stotskys. Since the assessors of the zemstvo court were elected by local noblemen-gentry, among them there were always people who put class and selfish interests above considerations of duty and conscience. Despite the new ideas of the Minsk Treasury Chamber, it was not possible to make a sensible investigation and take the Stotskys’ estate into the noble guardianship, it was not possible to change the situation. The case dragged on until 1843, when the Minsk Criminal Chamber found the Stotskys free from responsibility. The first stage of the proceedings ended according to the proverb “a hand washes a hand”.
However, in the fall of 1846, the case was started from the other side. A priest from the Orthodox Church in Remezy, Yakov Rodevich, told the Mozyr Zemsky Court that her servant, a thirteen-year-old boy Ivan Koval, had died from the cruel treatment of Honorata Stotskaya. His body was secretly (at night) buried without a proper Christian rite. A new investigation revealed details of Stotskaya’s bullying. The boy suffered daily beatings for two years. “For not bringing water soon, serving dishes unsuccessfully, dozing off, and if they send them for anything, he will not return soon”… The punishment with a whip (up to 30 blows) was carried out with her own hand by Stotskaya or her courtyard people. Finally, because of the broken plate and the slow (in the opinion of the landowner) water supply, the servant was so beaten by the hostess that he died at night. His body was hidden for three days and then secretly buried.
The proceedings also revealed other facts of the outrageous cruelty of Honorata Stotskaya. Investigator Turski’s report says: “This landowner, having a strong addiction to punishing people, in some cases for completely unconscious (through negligence even occurring) guilt, and in others innocently or through her invented guilt, such as: for an internecine meeting with relatives, starting a conversation with one another and for laughter, she subjected them to punishment up to a hundred or more blows with rods and whips; and these punishments were carried out even in this way: she, having arranged in her room one iron breakdown in the ceiling, and the other, in contrast to it on the floor, hung the person on the upper breakdown by both hands with belt reins and tied his legs to the breakdown driven into the floor, stripping naked , ordered to punish. This measure of punishment was carried out to the point that those who experienced it became deprived of their senses; besides this, she very often inflicted beatings with a stick, a steelyard and whatever hard tool caught her in the eye, even with a knife on the head, back, arms and legs; not content with this, she bit the body with her teeth, choked the throat with her hands, and squeezed her chest and stomach with her legs and knees; at the same time she subjected to torture this: she put an iron chain on her neck and closed it on a breakdown, driven into the wall, poured boiling water around the neck, dragged the legs with a hooked rope on the ice-covered ground on the bare back of the body, from which the skin was torn to blood, ordered to eat dead leeches, burned the body with a red-hot iron, ordered them to dance in her room, uttering these words incessantly: gallop to the enemy, yak pan kazhe “…
Stotskaya’s husband was completely suppressed by his wife’s despotism and, to please her, helped in all the atrocities. The landowners refused to answer the questions of the gendarme officer conducting the investigation. The peasants were so scared and downtrodden that they were afraid to testify against their masters. In addition to general stories about beatings, it was not possible to find specific information about the names and condition of the victims, about the time and circumstances of the crimes committed. But the case had already been taken over by the governor-general of Vilna. An entire commission of inquiry arrived in Remezy. The circumstances of the brutal murder of the servant Avdotya Timoshenkova, whom the mistress decided to finally torture only because one of the servants had heartfelt feelings for the unfortunate, were discovered. During the punishment with the whip, Honorata still managed to speak affectionate words to the victim. The beaten girl died in a tightly closed room. Honorata’s husband took her body deep into the forest with a coachman, where the remains were burned. The commission managed to persuade the coachman who participated in these actions to give a confession. Then Honorata’s husband, Bernard Stotsky, could not resist and confessed. The landlords were placed in custody in Mozyr pending trial. At the beginning of 1847, the estate was given to the nobility. This eliminated any influence of the Stotskys and their relatives on their former peasants. Sentenced to hard labor, Honorata was poisoned and died in prison.
This is how the case ended. It is not known how many lives Stotskaya ruined with her cruelties, but even the crimes discovered by the investigation and proven in court are striking in their sophistication. There were also many other cases when landowners, taking advantage of their estate status, mocked Belarusian peasants. And they most often got away with it, since the local noble (gentry) assemblies found ways to avert suspicions, allegedly “for lack of factual evidence.”
However, in the memory of ordinary people, numerous examples of the cruelty of the masters towards their serfs are imprinted. Here are some extracts from the memoirs of a peasant from the Mogilev province Yakov Chebodko about the life of the nobles and their slaves in the first half of the 19th century.
“Knowing well the life of the Polish gentry of that time, I always saw in them a desire for gross arbitrariness, for unbridled luxury, for an idle, cheerful life, for bragging and humiliation of their serfs.”
“In the life of the Polish gentry in Belarus, the then dominant Polish debauchery attracted special attention. At that time, it was difficult to find a Polish lord among the lords who would not deprive the innocence of the daughters of his serfs. […] Moreover, arranging evenings at his estate and inviting guests, the pan sent his authorized persons to the villages and villages with orders to collect and bring to him a certain number of peasant girls, not excluding married women. The brought girls and wives of the peasants were given at the full disposal of the guests for the entire period of their stay with the Pan. “
“Often the pan, and more often his wife, before subjecting them to a serf slaughter, personally inflicted all sorts of beatings on them, even for all sorts of trifles, for example: for a small amount of berries or mushrooms collected, for salting or not salting some soup or roast for the pan table, for uneven yarn, for unclean washing of floors and linen, for poor ironing of the gentlemen’s shirts, for being late for work, and the like. In such cases, pan or pani, especially drunken ones, beat their servants and other serfs with anything and everything: with their fists, feet, knocking them to the ground, with a stick, whip, shoe or shoe, dragged by the hair, slapped in the face, knocking out teeth and the like. “
Against this background, the cruelty of Honorata Stotskaya does not seem to be an isolated case. The bullying mentioned by Yakov Chebodko, the resettlement of peasants from place to place, hard work, being in poverty, drunkenness, dulled all other feelings except for righteous anger – the murder of gentlemen, the burning of estates were a response from the oppressed. The cruelty of the masters gave rise to the reciprocal cruelty of the serfs, driven to extremes. The liberation of the peasants from serfdom in 1861 became for them the liberation from the class despotism of the Polish landowners. Grateful inhabitants of Minsk, on their own initiative, in 1901 erected a monument to the Tsar-Liberator Alexander II. This was the first monument to a statesman in Minsk. Unfortunately, it has not survived.
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