Russian Serfdom

Figure 1.--This illustration pictures a Russian peasnt boy about 1880 a couple decaded after serfdom was abolished in Russia.

Serfdom, the Russian form of feudalism, played a major role in Russian life through the 19th century when it was abolished. Serfdom was more humane than American race-based chattel slavery, but serfdom as also a brutal system which tied millions of Russians to the land. Even freed slaves were discriminated against. The influence continued into the 20th century. An assessment of Russian boys' clothing would thus be incomplete without an assessment of serfdom. Some Russian boys even in the 19th century look much like European boys. Other Russian boys, especially serf boys and rural village boys dressed very distinctly.


The term "serf" is derived from the Latin "servus" meaning servant or slave. Serfdom was the fundamental institution of feudal Russia. It involved a class of peasants known as serfs worked on and were legally bound to the land owned by manorial lords. In some cases the land holdings were enormous.


After the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe the lack of a central authority gave rise to local lords exercising control. In return for protection the peasants gave their allegiance to the local lords giving rise to the feudal system. The feudal system was not slavery. Peasants were not owned by the lord and had legal rights. They could, for example, own property. Serfdom is the Russian form of feudalism. The feudal system was still widespread in Europe as late as the 17th century, but seriously declined in the 18th century, except in Russia. Russian nobles demanded ever increasing shares of the crops. This ever increasing exploitation of the serfs reduced them by the end of the 17th century had so impoverished Russian serfs that they were forced to relinquish many of their former rights, reducing them to a situation scarcely different from slavery. Feudalism was dealt a death blow in Western Europe by French Revolution and Napoleon. Russia was, however, one of the few areas of Europe not conquered by Napoleon. In fact, Russia's defeat of the invading French Grand Army allowed serfdom to continue in Russia. Serfdom was finally abolished by Alexander II in 1861. For many serfs, however, exploitation by land lords continued until the Russian Revolution.

Rural Russia

Russia until the 20th century was the least urbanized country in Europe. The vast proportion of the population lived and worked on farms or in rural communities. Russia today has several very large cities, but very substantial numbers of Russians still live in rural areas and small villages. Many young village boys in Russia still work on farm. Many of the boys commonly work barefoot, both in sheds with the cows, pigs, and horses, and also while working as shepherds.

Serfdom in the 19th Century

Serfdom dominated rural Russia through the late 19th century. The rich landowners still had as part of their land holdings millions of serfs who continued to be tied to the land. Serfdom was hereditary. The children of serfs, boys and girls, automatically became serfs themselves. Manumission was possible, but required the landowners approval. There were of course extreme cases, but Russian serfdom was theoretically much more humane than American slavery. Landowners were legally obliged to care about serfs, the excessively cruelty was punished by the law. Of course in actuality, many serfs were treated brutally, especially as the economic condition of the serfs declined in Russia during the 17th century. Despite the legal provisions, few landlords were punished for mistreating their serfs. Another difference with American slavery was the serfs were not racially different than the Russian population. The system was still brutal. Serfs at their masters discression could be moved, chained beaten, disgraced, separated from family, and worked mercillesly. many died at realtively young ages from overwork and abuse. Serfs had to have their master's permission to leave the estate or to seek any kind of education.

Serf Boys

Serf boys like their fathers were primarily employed for agricultural work in fields and farms. Serfs were not exclusively agricultural workers, but the great majority were so employed. From May through October serfs commonly worked barefoot. Serfs during the winter were given shoes. The serfs had rough shirts and canvas trousers. The Russian serf boys were divided into two categories - ordinary serf boys (krepostnye) and yard boys (dvorovye). Landowners varied greatly as to how they treated their serfs. This varied with both the landlord and the type of serf boy involved. Some brutal landowners would put boys into iron collars both as punishment and for discipline. At night some serfs slept in special sheds, all together on straw. Frequently in these sheds stood heavy wooden fetters to ensure that they would not escape. When serf boys lay down to sleep, they put bare feet into these fetters. These iron collars and wooden fetters were not the general phenomenon in old Russia, but they were used by some landowners.

Serf Girls

We know less about serf girls. They presumably were assigned a variety of domestic chores. There was also agricultural jobs assigned them. Here we suspect that the type of jobs were quite simlar to those assigned slve women in America. Differences probably reflected the crops grown more than any basis difference in appeoach or status. Russian landowners often focused on grains while American plantations focused on cotton. We do know that girls were usually not shepherds. This was probably because boy shepherds were out in areas where seep or cattle were grazing by themselves which was probably seen as unsafe for girls. Attractive serf girls were commonly chose as house servants. The same occured in America, although here light skin was a factor. A problem that serf girls faced was the ability of male landowners to abuse them.

Popular Image

As result of heavy work and going barefoot, the serf boys who survived were very healthy and are hardy. Their bare feet developed strong soles and the boys were normally brown from working outdoors in the sun. The barefoot serf boy always was a positive image in Russian literature. Compare this to the very different inmage of black slaves in the American South. A Russian reader reports that at school he remembers reading stories about the boys of old Russia. He writes, "To you this may seem strange, but we frequently envied them. Certainly, serf boys lived in terrible conditions. But these barefoot Russian serfs did not knowing of evil of drugs and terrorism, they lived in many respects happier than boys of our new 'democratic' Russia."

Personal Experiences

Serfs like slaves were generally uneducated and illiterate. As a result there are few personal accounts of serf boys that have passed down to history. HBC knows of only one such account. There is also an interesting account from a non-serf boy from a working-class family.

Aleksandr Nikitenko--1804-24

Aleksandr Nikitenko wrote a fascinating personal account in the 19th century, Up From Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824, translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson with foreword by Peter Kolchin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 228 pp [ISBN 0-300-08414-5]. Often such personal accounts come from the middle class or wealthier classes. This is one of the rarer accounts of a serf boyhood. The book originally published in Russian in 1888 deals with Aleksandr's life up to the time when he was emancipated from serfdom in 1824, at the 19 or 20 years. The title that the translator gave the book, Up From Serfdom , is designed as an obvious allusion to Booker T. Washington's 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery .

Semen Kanatchikov -- late 19th century

There is a interesting account of a working class boyhood in the autobiography of Semen Kanatchikov [ A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia: The Autobiography of Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov , translated by Reginald E. Zelnik (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986)]. It is an interesting companion piece to the above account by Aleksandr Nikitenko. Both feel a sense of nostalgia for the lost, innocent rural world of their childhood. Even so, both aspire to improve their social status by adopting the manners, clothing, and attitudes of middle class life. In both cases, any desire that might exist to join the upper classes is offset by a deep suspiciousness toward the elite's values and morals.

Paintings and Illustrations

Paintings and illustrations provide us some idea of Russian serfdom. Genre paintings of Russian daily life became popular in the 19th century. Photography appeared just as the Tsar abolished serfdom. There are few contemporary views of Russian serfs before the 19th century. Just as American slave olders saw no need to spend money to preserve images of their slaves, Russian aristocrats saw not need to leave images of serfs. This changed in the 19h century. There are numerous paintings made during the 19th century. Some are highly relaistic providing an invaluable record of serfdom. Others are more sentimental, idealized views made after emancipation showing a degree of nostalgia for the older less complcated rural life style during serfdom.


Tsar Nicholas I refused to act on the issue of serfdom. Russia was an esentially feudal state. The country was largely agricultural and the population motly lived in the country side. It was clear to many Russians that the country needed to change. Some saw the need for change in moral terms. Others saw Russia's declining military power as a reason for reform. Russia had emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the dominant power in Europe. The Industrial Revolution substantially changed the power balance. These changes were reflected in the poor performance of the Russian Army in the Crimean War. It exposed how backard the Russian economy was and the need for economic reforms. Russian officials increasingly began to consider ending serfdom. Alexander II in contrast to his father was amenable to reform. Alexander's advisers argued that Russia's feudal serf-based economy could not compete with modern industrialized nations such as Britain, France, and Prussia. The Tsar began to consider the end of serfdom in Russia. The Russian nobility feeling their livelihood jeopardized, objected strenuously. Alexander responded, saying "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below." The Tsar received a petition from the Lithuanian provinces and decided to form a committee "for ameliorating the condition of the peasants". The primary issue that had to be faced was the status of the freed serfs. They could become landless rural workers or share cropers dependent on the landlords. The other option was creating a class of independent communal proprietors. The land-owners were generally willing to accept empancipation. but did not want to give up their land. Tsar Alexander had lived through the 1849 Revolutions when the Russian Army had been used to supress the liberal revolutions of urban workers and bourgeoise in Europe. He saw a danger in creating a landless peasantry. But a comprehensive land reform would undermine the aristocracy which were an important support for the Tsarist state. Alexander in 1861, issued his Emancipation Manifesto. There were 17 legislative acts designed to free the serfs in Russia. Personal serfdom would be abolished and all peasants would be able to buy land. The State would advance the the money to the landlords and would recover it from the peasants in 49 annual sums known as redemption payments. This was necessary because the Crimean War had bankrupted the national treasury while confiscating land from the nobility would have been untenable politically. The action earned him the title of "The Liberator".

Russian Peasantry

Emancipation was a major step in Russia. Emancipation didn't in fact bring immediate changes in the condition of the peasants. Emancipation neither freed the peasants from substantial obligations or radically reordered the social and economic constraints placed upon them. The legislative measures accompanying Emancipation delayed the process. Three measures in particular impaired the potential economic self-sufficiency of the peasants. A transition period of 9 years continued peasant obligations to the old land-owners. Large areas of common land were conveyed to important land-owners as otrezki. This made many forests, roads and rivers the property of the land owners and gave them the right to charge access fees. The serfs also were required to pay the land-owner for their parcel of land in a series of redemption payments. These fees were used to compensate the landowners who had been issued bonds. The peasants would repay the funds plus interest to the government over 49 years. The Tsar finally canceled the redemption payments in 1907. Emancipation thus disappointed many peasants. Often in took years to get title to the land. Many serfs were cheated by exorbitant land prices. Historians significantly differ in their assessment of emancipation. Many are very critical. One historian claims that the ukase emancipating the serfs was motivated by "cowardice and by caprice" and for those reasons was not effective. [Ludwig, p.167.] The goal was to the abolition of serfdom would shift the rural economy to individual peasant land owners and the development of a market economy. This goal was also impaired because the serfs were not educated and the land process poorly administered by the reluctant nobility. The uneven application of the legislation also caused problens. The serfs in Congress Poland and northern Russia were left largely landless. Emancipation was more successful in other areas where they became the majority land owners.

The Road to Serfdom

Serdom was abolished by Tsar Alexander II (1861). In effect serfdom continued in practical terms for many into the 20th century. The overthrow of the Tsar during World War I finally put an end to serdom. Many soldiers simply slipped away from their units and returned to their village to claim their piece of the desintegrating estates. The Soviet Union claimed that Communism finally put an end to serfdom by brining education and economic opportunity to the descendents of the serfs. The Communist system did promote education. It also seized the land from the peasants and the state became the new landowner. After Stalin's collectivization, the members of the collective had to work for only a smll share of harvest. Friedrich Hayek published a thought provoking book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Condensed versions were later published by Look and Readers Digest. Hayek argued that collectivist, totalitarian societies lead to the same tyranny that sefs endured. Serfs were tied to the land. They owed service to the land owner and in exchange they were secure on their small plots. Hayek that central planning is in effect a form of serfdom. Like serfs, workers in a system of state centralmplanning, are generally secure in their jobs. Like serfs, however, they are not at liberty to freely chose their occupations and move from job to job--in essence a modern form of serfdom. Hayek argued that this process was obvious in the Soviet Union and NAZI Germany. He cautioned that the same process could occur in democratic states. [Hayek]


Hayek, Friedrich. The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little Brown, Boston, 1927), 661p.


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Created: January 9, 2002
Spell checked: November 26, 2002
Last updated: 5:14 PM 2/21/2009