Serfdom, the Russian form of feudalism, played a major role in Russian life through the 19th century when it was abolished and the aftermath into the 20th century. Serfdom as in the West, was not the original status of the Russian and Ukranian peasantry. Serfdom developed in Western Europe after the demise of the Roman Empire. In areas east of the Rhine, the history of serfdom was different, especially areas as far east as Russia. In Russia and the Ukraine, enserfment was one of the results Mongol invasions (13th century). The Russians commonly refer to the Mongols as the Tartars because it was the Tartars that ruled what is now Russian and Ukraine in the wake of the Mongol invasions. The ruthless Mongols left large numbers of peasants homeless. Many gravitated to the lands of powerful Russian nobels which offered them land and protection. At this time the feudal system and serfdom was well established in Western Europe with a legal basis and the coersive power of the state. This was not the situation in he East. But the peasantry had few of the economic opportunities developing in the West as a result of the quickening of the economy as the mediveal era and fedualim began to transition to the modern world. It is at this time that the Tsarist regime and lanbdlords began to develop the same legal system that has enfirced serfdom in the West. As a result, the Russian peasantry gradually came to be controlled by landowner suported by the coersive power of the Tsarist state (16th century). It was vital for the landowner to bind the peasant to the land and turn him into a serf. The landowner's land had no value without workers. And once legally bound to the land, the landowner was in a position to exploit the peasantry because the serf had lost any barganing power. This allowed the landowner to exctract a greater proportion of the wealth created. Eventualy serf status became hereditary (mid-17th century). Their situation in the Tsarist Empire began to approach slavery. Landowners could even sell serfs to other landowners. This could be individuls or whole fasmilies. Historins believe that about half the 40 million Russian and Ukranian peasantry had been reduced to serf status (19th century). Most worked the greet estates, mostly owned by the aristocracy. The Tsar and religious orders also owned estates.
Serfdom may have been somewhat more humane than American race-based chattel slavery, but serfdom was 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. The usual Russian term for serf, meaning a bounded or unfree peasant, is 'krepostnoi krestyanin' (крепостной крестьянин). There are oither terms because thethere were various degress of serfdom.
Another Russian term is 'muzhik' or 'moujik' (мужи́к) meaning rural resident or peasant. Serfs were the most oppressed status of the peasantry. Other peasants were relatively well off and owned land. And there were peasant staus between the free peasantry and the serfs. One such term fot this intermidiry sttus was was 'smerd' (смердъ). TYhe term was used didderently over time and in different areas.
Early sources mention the smerd in Kievan Rus and Poland (11th-12th century). The Polish term was 'smardones'. They appear to have been free peasanhts who were losing their freedom or certain rights.
They still had property and had were required to to pay fines for their delinquencies.
Serfdom was not unufoirimly speard thriughout the Tsarist Empire. It was most pronounced in the central and southern areas of the Russian Empire, meaning the area ariund Mosciw and Kiev. Serfdom in the east beyond this area (the Urals and Siberia) was rekatively rare. This did not chsnge until during the reign of Empperess Catherine the Great when entrepreneurs began sending serfs east to commercially exploit the natural resources there.
Serfdom, the Russian form of feudalism, played a major role in Russian life through the 19th century when it was abolished and the aftermath into the 20th century. Serfdom as in the West, was not the original status of the Russian and Ukranian peasantry. Serfdom developed in Western Europe after the demise of the Roman Empire.
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 Western Europe as late as the 16th century, but was seriously declining by the 17th century, except in Eastern Europe, especially the absolutist Tsarist Empire. .
In areas east of the Rhine, the history of serfdom was different, especially areas as far east as Russia. In Russia and the Ukraine, enserfment was one of the results Mongol invasions (13th century). The Russians commonly refer to the Mongols as the Tartars because it was the artars tghat ruled what is now Russian and Ukraine in the wake of the Mongol invasions. The ruthless Mongols left large numbers of peasants homeless. Many gravitated to the lands of powerful Russian nobels which offered them land and protection. At this time the feudal system and serfdom was well established in Western Europe with a legal bsis and the coersive power of the state. This was not the situation in he East. But the peasantry had few of the economic opportunities developing in the West as a result of the quickening of the economy as the mediveal era and fedualim began to transition to the modern world. It is at this time that the Tsarist regime and landlords began to develop the same legal system that has enfirced serfdom in the West. As a result, the Russian peasantry geadually came to be controlled by landowner suported by the coersive power of the Tsarist state (16th century). It was vital for the landowner to bind the peasant to the land and turn him into a serf. His land had no value with out workers. And once legally bound to the land, the landowner was in a position to exploit the peasantry because the serf had lost any barganing power. This allowed the land owner to exctract a greater proportion of the wealth created. Eventualy serf status became hereditary (mid-17th century). 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.
Landowners could even sell serfs to other landowners. This could be individuls or whole fasmilies. Historins believe that about half the 40 million Russian and Ukranian peasantry had been reduced to serf status (19th century). Most worked the greet estates, mostly owned by the aristocracy. The Tsar and religious orders also owned estates. Feudalism was dealt a death blow in Western Europe by French Revolution and Napoleon. The conservstive reaction thst followed Napoleon's defeat allow vesiges of serfdom ro continue in The Austrian Empre. Russia was 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 force throughout the Tsarist Empire. Russia in the Napoleonic Wars proved to be the dominsnt power in Europe (1812). The Crimean War (1844-46) sg=hocked mahny Russians. It was clear that a bckward serf-bassed agricultural power could not compete with the rising industrial powers. Tsar Alexander II finally abolished serfdom (1861). Tghe serfs were not, however, granted land. For many serfs exploitation by land lords continued until the Russian Revolution.
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 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.
Russian peasant families were patriarchal, reflecting Russian society in general. Russian serfs were not mobile and most lived much of their lives in villages. There may have been some movement among local villages, mostly the men, depending on work activity. Thus of course resticted contact woth young women. Serfs tended to live in extended, usually two-generational families not including the children. Young adults even couples commonly lived with their parents until they acquired the wealth to establish a household. Boith Russian civil law and the common law fully recognized the right of nuclear couples to establish their own households.
One author reoports that nuclear serf family households were fairly common in northern Russia. [Baklanova] This all depended on the ages of the family members. While young adults may live with their parents. Elderly parents would be vsred for by their adult children. Peasant including serf marriages occurred according to local traditions and were afforded both legal and community recognition. Couples might know each other and desire to be marries, but this was not always the case. Commonlky marriage was something worked out by the poarents, especiallt the mothers. Parents negiotiated marriage contracts. The marriage age of serfs was lower than that if non-serf peasabts. This may have bveen the economic dynamic of the cost of maintaing large families by serf families. One study suggests that male serfs was age 18-25 years. Females were a little younger, 17-21 years. This was probably because it was the male who was the primary family provider. There appears to have been some regional differences. The average ages in souther regions were a little younger. [Bernshtam, pp. 43–46.] We are not sure why this may have been. It again could have been economic. The Landlord did not normally interfere in marriage matters although there are some variations between individul lsnd lords and regions. Usually landlords did not separate serf families. Thius was a ajor difference between serfdiom anbd skavery. There were, however, instances in which family members were sold. Some serfs had to pay landlords a 'marriage fee'. The orevalence of this practice and the amount of the fee varied substantially throughout Russia. Generally Russian law supported the landlords, but in matters such as sales brealking up families and marriage matters, the law tended to support serf rights. [Bushnell] A law was promulgated prohibiting landlords from intervening in the marriages of their serfs or from forcing serfs into a marriage against their desires (1772). [Svod Zakonov, 180, no. 949.] And this was in the era in which much of the peasantry was fully enserfed. Of course the serfs often did not have access to the legal system in a meaningful way. The liberation of the serfs affected family relations
Serf income of course was the primarry determinent of living conditions. And this varied not only within Russia and Ukraine, but the wider Tsareist Empire. Historians estimate that serfs in central Russia tended to pay 30-50 percent of their income to the landlord as rent. Yjis was paid in a share of the harvest or as labor service. Studies show that there were instances from about 15-85 percent, the lower and upper range being basically outliers. The variatiin involved many factors including the economic conditions of the serf family, skills the serf possessed, and the productivity and resources of the land. Serfs were primarily employed in the vast agricultural areas of Russia and the Ukraine as well as areas acuired by the various Tsars, including the Baltica and Poland. Conditions varied in these different areas. In the vast agricultural areas of the Tsarist Empire (especially Russia and Ukraine), which dominated the economy, serfs performed labor servicefor the lord/landowner. This was the corvée, a French term showing the importance of France in medieval Europe. In Russia the term was 'barshchina'. This usually meant about half of their woring time, most often 3 days a week. The actuall time increased as part of the ebnserfment process with landowners consrantly demanding more labor service. Eventually the Tsarist state stepped into to limit barshchina to 3 days a week. Barshchina was prohibited on Sunday. [Svod Zakonov, 184, no. 965.] Thus would vary seasonally.
Serfs would have to do extra work during the busier seasons such as ploughing/plantuing and harvesting. Serfs also had to make payments to the Lord which could include money, grain, honey, eggs or other produce when they used the lord's facilities, most commonly the grainery and bread baking oven. Serfs were responsible foor building their own homes and obtauning the materials. They had to make their own clothes and grow theit own food. Not all serfs worked in agriculture. In some areas, serfs worked where agriculture was combined with nonagricultural pursuits such as forestry or even mining. Here the serfs tended to pay rent. Serfs who paid rent in actual money were able to achieve a greater degree of autonomy from their landlords. This was an important factor in helping serfs to pursue independent economic pursuits. Living conditions were harsh even by contemprary standards.
Most accounts of serfs focus on adults. As part of the enserfment process, however, serfdom became hereditary. As with slavery, the children born to serf parents inherited the serf status of their parent. They became serfs at birth. That meant that that there were serf children as well as adults. And their responsibilities at serfs did not begin as adults. Even as children they owed services yto the lord/landowner. There were differences between the boys and girls. Of course this was limited for younger children, but increased as they got older. A serf had to pay a fine if his children ran off instead of staying on a lord's esrate and being a serf. Serfs had to give their best animal to the lanbdowner when they died. This essentially allowed the children to remain on the lord's land. Family issues involving the household economy, property, inheritance, and the children. The most important decesion involving the children would be marriage. The landlord's chief respomsibility concerning the children was to build a school. We begin to see this in the early-19th century. There may have been some schools earlier, but it was not until the 19th century thst it was common. Before this the Russians peasantry, esoecially the serfs, were mostly iliterate.
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."
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 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 .
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 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
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.
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]
Baklanova, E.N. Krest’ianskii dvor i obshchina na russkom severe, konets XVII – nachalo XVIII v. (Moscow: Nauka, 1976).
Bernshtam, T.A. Molodezh v obriadovoi zhizni Russkoi obshchiny, XIX–nachala XX v. (Leningrad: Nauka, 1988).
Bushnell, John. “Did Serf Owners Control Serf Marriage? Orlov Serfs and their Neighbors, 1773–1861,” Slavic Review Vol. 52 (1993), pp. 419–45.
Hayek, Friedrich. The Road to Serfdom (1944).
Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little Brown, Boston, 1927), 661p.
Svod Zakonov Rossiĭskoĭ Imperii. This was the Digest of Laws of the Tsarist Russian Empire.
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