Soul Tax

views updated


The soul tax (podushnaya podat ) was a capitation or poll tax levied on peasant communes and some urban inhabitants according to the number of males of all ages, as estimated by the periodic censuses (revizy ) that began in 1718. Enacted by Peter the Great by decree on January 11, 1722, the poll tax was intended to maintain the armed forces in the peasants' vicinity. For example, the support of an infantry soldier required payments from about thirty-six "souls." During the Muscovite and early Petrine period there were numerous exemptions to the land and household (dvor ) taxes, but by the mid-eighteenth century all peasants, whether private, state, or church, were supposed to pay around eighty kopeks. The latter two categories of enserfed peasants also paid rent (obrok ) of 1.5 (later, 2) rubles, as well as some dues in kind. They could be drafted for work on roads and canals, for example.

The rates of money taxation differed considerably depending on the class of taxpayer. Court, ecclesiastical, and state peasants, including free settlers (odnodvortsy ), were supposed to pay about four times the rate for private serfs; merchants and burghers paid somewhat lessabout triple the rate for private serfs. Nobles, officials, and clergy were exempt from the poll tax.

At first the soul tax was collected by military units directly. Subsequently the serf owners had to collect the tax for their private serfs, and district administrators collected it for state or church serfs in their jurisdiction. Landowners collected the soul tax even though it would have been more in their interest to raise rents instead. Since some males were either too young or too old to have income, the head of household had to pay for everyone. While the soul tax appeared to be per head, the village commune often distributed the burden on an ability-to-pay basis. The rate of tax per male soul, however, was fixed, as increases were considered politically dangerous, so higher yields came mainly from population growth. Efforts were made at each census, or revisia, to reduce the tax-exempt population. All "idling" and "free" persons were included, as well as peasants of many kinds, including bondsmen (kholopi ). The revenue from tax and rents, however, failed to cover the cost of the standing army during peacetime, not to mention the great expenditures of the Northern War, which may have actually reduced the taxable population. Owing to the tax and labor burdens imposed on them, then as well as later on, many peasants fled to the borderlands and across the frontier.

The soul tax had obvious administrative advantages over the previous household tax. Under the new system, young men could not avoid paying tax simply by postponing their departure from the ancestral home, as they could under the household tax. Nor could peasants combine nuclear families into one extended household for the purpose of avoiding tax.

Russian historians of an earlier era considered the poll tax an increased burden on peasant households, but this seems unlikely, since the apex of war expenses and innovative kinds of taxes was reached in the years 1705 to 1715. For most serfs the monetary liability (as distinct from taxes in kind) under the poll tax appears to have been slightly lower than under the household tax. Furthermore, because the poll tax was the same regardless of the amount of land cultivated, there was an incentive to increase arable land at the expense of waste, and, in fact, the amount of cultivated land did increase during this period. That the poll tax is remembered as harsh is explained by the poor grain harvests of the time, which required peasants to buy food at high prices. After Peter's death in 1725 the poll tax rate was lowered to seventy-four, then seventy kopeks, but during Catherine II's reign it was raised to one ruble. The highly destructive Napoleonic Wars saw a further increase to two, then three rubles. The poll tax was eliminated between 1883 and 1886, but land taxes and redemption payments continued to the end of the empire.

See also: catherine ii; great northern war; peasantry; peter i; taxes


Kahan, Arcadius. (1985). The Plow, the Hammer, and the Knout: An Economic History of Eighteenth-Century Russia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lyashchenko, Peter I. (1949). History of the National Economy of Russia to the 1917 Revolution, tr. Leon M. Herman. New York: Macmillan.

Martin C. Spechler