"my brother would have had to go as a soldier"

 At this time, serfs were conscripted into military service at the age of 20, for the cruelly long period of 25 years. In return for this the serf would be made a free man after his service ended, although in practice the period they were forced to serve was often extended, and even after this they were settled in distant military colonies. Families would hold funerals for the living men before they entered the army, as it would probably be the last time they saw them.