Serfdom in Russia
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The origins of serfdom in Russia are traced to Kievan Rus' in the 11th century. Legal documents of the epoch, such as Russkaya Pravda, distinguished several degrees of feudal dependency of peasants, the term for an unfree peasant in the Russian Empire, krepostnoi krestyanin (крепостной крестьянин), is translated as serf.
Serfdom became the dominant form of relation between peasants and nobility in the 17th century, and it was abolished by a decree issued by tsar Alexander II. Serfdom only existed in central and southern areas of the Russian Empire. It was never established in the North, in Urals, and in Siberia.
- 1 History
- 2 Marriage and Weddings
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
- 6 Further reading
The origins of serfdom in Russia (крепостничество, or krepostnichestvo) may be traced to the 11th century, however, the most complete form of feudal exploitation enveloped only certain categories of rural population. In the 12th century, the exploitation of the so-called zakups on arable lands (ролейные (пашенные) закупы, or roleyniye (pashenniye) zakupy) and corvee smerds (Russian term for corvee is барщина, or barschina) was the closest to what is now known as serfdom. According to the Russkaya Pravda, a princely smerd had limited property and personal rights. His escheat was given to the prince and his life was equated with that of the kholop, meaning his murder was punishable by 5 grivnas.
Thirteenth to fifteenth centuries
In the 13th to 15th centuries, feudal dependency applied to a significant number of peasants, but serfdom as we know it was still not a widespread phenomenon. In the mid-15th century the right of certain categories of peasants in some votchinas to leave their master was limited to a period of one week before and after the so-called Yuri's Day (November 26). The Sudebnik of 1497 officially confirmed this time limit as universal for everybody and also established the amount of the "break-away" fee called pozhiloye (пожилое). The legal code of Ivan III of Russia, Sudebnik (1497), strengthened the dependency of peasants, statewide, and restricted their mobility. The Russians persistently battled against the successor states of the Golden Horde, chiefly the Khanate of Crimea. Annually the Russian population of the borderland suffered from Tatar invasions and tens of thousands of noblemen protected the southern borderland (a heavy burden for the state), which slowed its social and economic development and expanded the taxation of peasantry.
The Sudebnik of 1550 increased the amount of pozhiloye and introduced an additional tax called za povoz (за повоз, or transportation fee), in case a peasant refused to bring the harvest from the fields to his master. A temporary (Заповедные лета, or Forbidden years) and later an open-ended prohibition for peasants to leave their masters was introduced by the ukase of 1597, which also defined the so-called fixed years (Урочные лета, or urochniye leta), or the 5-year time frame for search of the runaway peasants. In 1607, a new ukase defined sanctions for hiding and keeping the runaways: the fine had to be paid to the state and pozhiloye – to the previous owner of the peasant.
After the passage of laws which further restricted the peasants' right to free movement, the vast majority of the Russian peasantry was finally bound in full serfdom. Serfs were given to estates in the Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Соборное уложение, "Code of Law") of 1649, and flight was made a criminal offense in 1658. Russian landowners eventually gained almost unlimited ownership over Russian serfs. The landowner could transfer the serf without land to another landowner while keeping the serf's personal property and family, however the landowner had no right to kill the serf. About four-fifths of Russian peasants were serfs according to the censuses of 1678 and 1719; free (black) peasants remained only in the North and North-East of the country.
Most of the dvoryane were content with the long time frame for search of the runaway peasants. The major landowners of the country, however, together with the dvoryane of the south, were interested in a short-term persecution due to the fact that many runaways would usually flee to the southern parts of Russia. During the first half of the 17th century the dvoryane sent their collective petitions (челобитные, or chelobitniye) to the authorities, asking for the extension of the "fixed years". In 1642, the Russian government established a 10-year limit for search of the runaways and 15-year limit for search for peasants taken away by their new owners.
The Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Соборное уложение, or Code of Law) of 1649 introduced an open-ended search for those on the run, meaning that all of the peasants who had fled from their masters after the census of 1626 or 1646–1647 had to be returned. The government would still introduce new time frames and grounds for search of the runaways after 1649, which applied to the peasants who had fled to the outlying districts of the country, such as regions along the border abatises called zasechniye linii (засечные линии) (ukases of 1653 and 1656), Siberia (ukases of 1671, 1683 and 1700), Don (1698) etc. The dvoryane constantly demanded that the search for the runaways be sponsored by the government. The legislation of the second half of the 17th century paid much attention to the means of punishment of the runaways.
Serfdom was hardly efficient; serfs and nobles had little incentive to improve the land. However, it was politically effective. Nobles rarely challenged the tsar for fear of provoking a peasant uprising. Serfs had lifelong tenancy on their plots so they tended to be conservative as well. The serfs took little part in uprisings; it was the Cossacks and nomads who rebelled. The revolutions of 1905 and 1917 happened after serfdom's abolition.
There were numerous rebellions against this bondage, most often in conjunction with Cossack uprisings, such as the uprisings of Ivan Bolotnikov (1606–1607), Stenka Razin (1667–1671), Kondraty Bulavin (1707–1709) and Yemelyan Pugachev (1773–1775). While the Cossack uprisings benefited from disturbances among the peasants, and they in turn received an impetus from Cossack rebellion, none of the Cossack movements were directed against the institution of serfdom itself. Instead, peasants in Cossack-dominated areas became Cossacks, thus escaping from the peasantry rather than directly organizing peasants against the institution. Between the end of the Pugachev rebellion and the beginning of the 19th century, there were hundreds of outbreaks across Russia, and there was never a time when the peasantry was completely quiescent.
Russian army raids
The Polish historian, Jerzy Czajewski, wrote that the Russian peasants were escaping from Russia to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in significant enough numbers to become a major concern for the Russian Government and sufficient to play a role in its decision to partition the Commonwealth. Increasingly in the 18th century until the partitions solved this problem, Russian armies raided territories of the Commonwealth, officially to recover the escapees, but in fact kidnapping many locals.
Slaves and serfs
As a whole, serfdom both came and remained in Russia much later than in other European countries. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries
Bourgeois were allowed to own serfs 1721–62 and 1798–1816, this was to encourage industrialisation. In 1804, 48% of Russian factory workers were serfs, 52% in 1825. Landless serfs rose from 4.14% in 1835 to 6.79% in 1858. They received no land in the emancipation. Landlords deliberately increased the number of domestic serfs when they anticipated serfdom's demise. In 1798, Ukrainian landlords were banned from selling serfs apart from land. In 1841, landless nobles were banned also.
Serfdom's Extent in Russia
By the mid-19th century, the peasants composed a majority of the population, and according to the census of 1857 the number of private serfs was 23.1 million out of 62.5 million Russians, 37.7% of the population.
The exact numbers, according to official data, were: entire population 60,909,309; peasantry of all classes 49,486,665; state peasants 23,138,191; peasants on the lands of proprietors 23,022,390; peasants of the appanages and other departments 3,326,084. State peasants were considered personally free, but their freedom of movement was restricted.
|% serfs on estates of...||1700||1861|
 % serf owners with under 100 serfs
Russian serfdom depended entirely on the traditional and extensive technology of the peasantry. Yields remained low and stationary throughout most of the 19th century. Any increase in income drawn from agriculture was largely through increasing land area and extensive grain raising by means of exploitation of the peasant labor, that is, by burdening the peasant household still further.
Serfs owned by European Russian landlords
|No. of serfs||in 1777 (%)||in 1859 (%)|
% peasants enserfed in each province, 1860
In the black earth region 70–77% of the serfs performed labour services (barshchina), the rest paid rent (obrok). Owing to the high fertility, 70% of Russian cereal production in the 1850s was here. In the 7 central provinces, 1860, 67.7% of the serfs were on obrok.
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia
In 1816, 1817 and 1819 serfdom was abolished in Estland, Courland and Livonia respectively. However all the land stayed in noble hands and labor rent lasted till 1868. It was replaced with landless laborers and sharecropping (halbkörner). Landless workers had to ask permission to leave an estate.
The nobility was too weak to oppose the emancipation of the serfs. In 1820 a fifth of the serfs were mortgaged, half by 1842. By 1859, a third of noble's estates and two thirds of their serfs were mortgaged to noble banks or the state. The nobility was also weakened by the scattering of their estates, lack of Primogeniture and the high turnover and mobility from estate to estate.
In 1861 all serfs were freed in a major agrarian reform, stimulated by the fear voiced by Tsar Alexander II that "it is better to liberate the peasants from above" than to wait until they won their freedom by risings "from below." Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to increase revolutionary pressures. Between 1864 to 1871 serfdom was abolished in Georgia. In Kalmykia serfdom was only abolished in 1892.
The serfs had to work for the landlord as usual for two years. The nobles kept nearly all the meadows and forests, had their debts paid by the state while the ex serfs paid 34% over the market price for the shrunken plots they kept. This figure was 90% in the northern regions, 20% in the black earth region but zero in the Polish provinces. In 1857, 6.79% of serfs were domestic, landless servants who stayed landless after 1861. Only Polish and Romanian domestic serfs got land. 90% of the serfs who got larger plots were in Congress Poland where the Tsar wanted to weaken the szlachta. The rest were in the barren north and in Astrakhan. In the whole Empire, peasant land declined 4.1%, 13.3% outside the ex Polish zone and 23.3% in the 16 black earth provinces. These redemption payments were not abolished till January 1, 1907.
Marriage and Weddings
Just as in all aspects of a nineteenth-century Russian serf life, serfs were not free to marry whomever their heart desired. Serf mobility was heavily restricted, which did not leave many options in choosing a spouse. To make things harder, there were three main constraints on the marriage of serfs. The entire empire had to follow rules put into place by the Tsar and the Church, landowners imposed restrictions for their estates, and finally families and communities established certain guidelines and influence.
The Russian Orthodox Church had many rules regarding marriage that were strictly observed by the population. For example, marriage was not allowed to take place during times of fasting, the eve or day of a holiday, during the entire week of Easter, or for two weeks after Christmas. Before the abolition of serfdom in 1861, marriage was strictly prohibited on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Because of these firm rules most marriages occurred in the months of January, February, October and November. After the emancipation the most popular marrying months were July, October and November.
Imperial laws were very particular with the age in which serfs could marry. The minimum age to marry was 13 years old for females, and 15 for males. After 1830 the female and male ages were raised to 16 and 18 respectively. To marry over the age of 60, the serf had to receive permission, but marriage over the age of 80 was forbidden. The Church also did not approve marriages with large age differences.
Landowners were interested in keeping all of their serfs and not losing workers to marriages on other estates. Prior to 1812 serfs were not allowed to marry serfs from other estates. After 1812 the rules relaxed slightly, but in order for a family to give their daughter to a husband in another estate they had to apply and present information to their landowner ahead of time. If a serf wanted to marry a widow, then emancipation and death certificates were to be handed over and investigated for authenticity by their owner before a marriage could take place.
Before and after the abolition of serfdom, Russian peasant families were patriarchal. Marriage was important for families economically and socially. Parents were in charge of finding suitable spouses for their children in order to help the family, and were not interested in true love when there were mouths to feed and fields to tend. The bride’s parents were concerned with the social and material benefits they would gain in the alliance between the two families. Some also took into consideration their daughter’s future quality of life and how much work would be required of her. The groom’s parents would be concerned about economical factors such as the size of the dowry as well as the bride’s decency, modesty, obedience, ability to do work, and family background. Upon marriage, the bride came to live with her new husband and his family, so she needed to be ready to assimilate and work hard.
Serfs looked highly upon early marriage because of increased parental control. At a younger age there is less chance of the individual falling in love with someone other than whom his or her parents chose. There is also increased assurance of chastity, which was more important for women than men. The average age of marriage for women was around 19 years old.
During serfdom, when the head of the house was being disobeyed by their children they could have the master or landowner step in. After the emancipation of serfs in 1861, the household patriarch lost some of his power, and could no longer receive the landowner’s help. The younger generations now had the freedom to work off their estates; some even went to work in factories. These younger peasants had access to newspapers and books, which introduced them to more radical ways of thinking. The ability to work outside of the household gave the younger peasants independence as well as a wage to do with what they wanted. Agricultural and domestic jobs were a group effort, so the wage went to the family. The children who worked industrial jobs gave their earnings to their family as well, but some used it as a way to gain a say in their own marriages. In this case some families allowed their sons to marry whom they chose as long as the family was in similar economic standing as their own. No matter what, parental approval was required in order to make a marriage legal.
In 1753 Empress Elizabeth I abolished capital punishment, and started banishing people to Siberia in its place. Russian authorities wanted Siberian land farmed, but serfdom was banned in the area and the indigenous people were thought of as lazy alcoholics. However, the people being sent to Siberia as punishment were not experienced farmers in favorable conditions for agriculture, therefore hopeless in Siberia’s even more extreme climate. Siberia quickly became an unruly land of criminals and undesirables, and authorities believed that the lack of domestic households and gender balance in society were to blame. Authorities wanted the “ideal” Russian woman to come save the accelerating disorder with her ability to turn unruly men into well behaved peasants and into a household that would pay taxes and support the state. Someone had the idea that if a woman married a Siberian exile and was able to maintain her faith and dignity, then this would motivate her husband to become an outstanding citizen who defends his family and gives himself to the tsar. However, in reality the only woman who would want to marry a Siberian exile was most likely a felon herself. Women in Siberia were often found to have fled from their master or fled exile, stolen goods worth over one hundred rubles, murdered or performed acts of arson. Many of these women were also over forty years old. In order to improve the vast part of their continent, authorities started bringing women to Siberia in different ways. In 1832 there was a ruling requiring the wives of exiles to move to Siberia with their husbands even if they were born free or did not want to go. Another way the government lured women to Siberia was by paying their fathers 150 rubles to let their daughters or sisters marry an exile.
- Imperial Russia
- Slavery in Russia
- Manifesto of three-day corvee (1797)
- Rural Population Classes
- Serfdom in Early Nineteenth Century Russia
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- Russia by Donald Mackenzie Wallace
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- Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions, page 87
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- Richard Pipes, Russia under the old regime, pages 147–8
- Geoffrey Hosking, Russia: People and Empire, page 164
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- NUPI – Centre for Russian Studies
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