In Kievan Rus', smerdy were peasants who gradually lost their freedom (partially or completely) and whose legal status differed from group to group. Unlike slaves, they had their own property and had to pay fines for their delinquencies, legally the smerds never possessed full rights; the killing of a smerd was punished by the same fine as the killing of a kholop (similarly to a slave). The property of the deceased was inherited by the knyaz (prince). The Russkaya Pravda forbade torturing the smerds during court examination without the consent of the knyaz.
During the 12th and the 13th centuries a number of sources mention the smerdy while narrating events in Halych-Volynia and in Novgorod. It appears that during this period the term smerd encompassed the whole rural population of a given region. Sources of the 14th and 15th centuries refer to the smerds of Novgorod and Pskov as peasant-proprietors, who possessed lands collectively (communes) or individually and had the right to freely alienate their own allotments. However, their personal freedom was limited: they were forbidden to seek a new master or princely patronage. The knyaz could not accept complaints from the smerds against their master. Also, the smerds had to provide labor services and to pay tribute (dan') to the benefit of the city as a collective feudal master.