Russian Serfdom: Living Conditions

Figure 1.--The image appeared in Russian book published in 1884. It is an idealized vision of a winter scene in a peasant hut. At this time serfdom had been ended, but most former serfs were still living under the conditions that existed before liberation. This would have been seen as a prosperous peasant family. Two fctors were involved here. One was the poor productivity of Russian agriculture because of the traditional, inefficent farming methoids. The second was agrian system which both unfairly treated peasants and did not fully allow for individual iniistive. And the fiormer serfs were left deeply in debt.

Serf income of course was the primarry determinent of living conditions. And this varied not only within Russua 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 anbd 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 Fiunland, the Baltics 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.


Svod Zakonov Rossiĭskoĭ Imperii. This was the Digest of Laws of the Tsarist Russian Empire.


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Created: 9:40 AM 7/28/2018
Last updated: 9:40 AM 7/28/2018