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Enserfment refers to the broad historical process that made the free Russian peasantry into serfs, abasing them further into near-slaves, then emancipating them from their slavelike status and finally freeing them so that they could move and conduct their lives with the same rights as other free men in the Russian Empire. This process took place over the course of nearly five hundred years, between the 1450s and 1906. Almost certainly enserfment would not have occurred had not 10 percent of the population been slaves. Also, it could not have reached the depths of human abasement had not the service state been present to legislate and enforce it.

The homeland of the Great Russians, the land between the Volga and the Oka (the so-called Volga-Oka mesopotamia), is a very poor place. There are almost no natural resources of any kind (gold, silver, copper, iron, building stone, coal), the three-inch-thick podzol soil is not hospitable to agriculture, as is the climate (excessive precipitation and a short growing season). Until the Slavs moved into the area in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, the indigenous Finns and Balts were sparsely settled and lived neolithic lives hunting and fishing. This area could not support a dense population, and any prolonged catastrophe reduced the population further, creating the perception of a labor shortage. The protracted civil war over the Moscow throne between 1425 and 1453 created a labor shortage perception.

At the time the population was free (with the exception of the slaves), with everyone able to move about as they wished. Because population densities were so low and agriculture was extensive (peasants cleared land by the slash-and-burn process, farmed it for three years, exhausted its fertility, and moved on to another plot), land ownership was not prized. Government officials and military personnel made their livings by collecting taxes and fees (which can be levied from a semi-sedentary population) and looting in warfare, not by trying to collect rent from lands tilled by settled farmers. Monasteries were different: In about 1350 they had moved out of towns (because of the Black Death, inter alia) into the countryside and entered the land ownership business, raising and selling grain. They recruited peasants to work for them by offering lower tax rates than peasants could get by living on their own lands. The civil war disrupted this process, and some monasteries, which had granted some peasants small loans as part of the recruitment package, found that they had difficulty collecting those loans. Consequently a few individual monasteries petitioned the government to forbid indebted peasants from moving at any time other than around St. George's Day (November 26). St. George's Day was the time of the pre-Christian, pagan end of the agricultural year, akin to the U.S. holiday, Thanksgiving. The monasteries believed that they could collect the debts owed to them at that time before the peasants moved somewhere else.

This small beginninginvolving a handful of monasteries and only their indebted peasantsinitiated the enserfment process. It is possible that the government rationalized its action because not paying a debt was a crime (a tort, in those times); thus, forbidding peasant debtors from moving was a crime-prevention measure. Also note that this was the normal time for peasants to move: The agricultural year was over, and the ground was probably frozen (the average temperature was -4 degrees Celsius), so that transportation was more convenient than at any other time of year, when there might be deep snow, floods, mud, drought, and so on.

For unknown reasons this fundamentally trivial measure was extended to all peasants in the Law Code (Sudebnik ) of 1497. Similar limitations on peasant mobility were present in neighboring political jurisdictions, and there may have been a contagion effect. It also may have been viewed as a general convenience, for that is when peasants tended to move anyway. As far as is known, there were no contemporary protests against the introduction of St. George's Day, and in the nineteenth century the peasants had sayings stating that a reintroduction of St. George's Day would be tantamount to emancipation. The 1497 language was repeated in the Sudebnik of 1550, with the addition of verbiage reflecting the introduction of the three-field system of agriculture: Peasants who had sown an autumn field and then moved on St. George's Day had the right to return to harvest the grain when it was ripe.

Chaos with its inherent disruption of labor supplies caused the next major advance in the enserfment process: the introduction of the "forbidden years." Ivan IV's mad oprichnina (15651572) caused up to 85 percent depopulation of certain areas of old Muscovy. Recent state expansion and annexations encouraged peasants disconcerted by oprichnina chaos to flee for the first time to areas north of the Volga, to the newly annexed Kazan and Astrakhan khanates, and to areas south of the Oka in the steppe that the government was beginning to secure. In addition to the chaos caused by oprichnina military actions, Ivan had given lords control over their peasants, allowing them "to collect as much rent in one year as formerly they had collected in ten." His statement ordering peasants "to obey their lords in everything" also began the abasement of the serfs by making them subject to landlord control. Yet other elements entered the picture. The service state had converted most of the land fund in the Volga-Oka mesopotamia and in the Novgorod region into service landholdings (pomestie ) to support its provincial cavalry, the middle service class. These servicemen could not render service without peasants on their pomestie lands to pay them regular rent. Finding their landholdings being depopulated, a handful of cavalrymen petitioned that the right of peasants to move on St. George's Day be annulled. The government granted these few requests, and called the times when peasants could not move "forbidden years." Like St. George's Day, the forbidden years initially applied to only a few situations, but in 1592 (again for precisely unknown reasons) they were applied temporarily to all peasants.

That should have completed the enserfment process. However, there were two reservations. First, it was explicitly stated that the forbidden years were temporary (although they did not actually end until 1906). Second, the government imposed a five-year statute of limitations on the enforcement of the forbidden years. Historians assume that this was done to benefit large, privileged landowners who could conceal peasants for five years on various estates so that their legal possessors (typically middle-service-class cavalrymen) could not find them and file suit for their return. Moreover, there was the issue of colonial expansion: The government wanted the areas north of the Volga, south of the Oka in the steppe, and along the Middle and South Volga eastward into the Urals and Siberia settled. It even had its own agents to recruit peasants into these areas, typically with the promise of half-taxation. Those running the expansion of the Muscovite state did not want their sparse frontier populations diminished by the forcible return of fugitive peasants to Volga-Oka mesopotamia. Thus they also supported the five-year statute of limitations on the filing of suits for the recovery of fugitive serfs.

The Time of Troubles provided a breathing spell in the enserfment process. Events occurred relevant to enserfment, but they had no long-term impact with the possible exception of Vasily Shuisky's near-equation of serfs with slaves in 1607. After the country had recovered from the Troubles and from the Smolensk War (16321634), the middle-service class sensed that the new Romanov dynasty was weak and thus susceptible to pressure. In 1637 the cavalrymen began a remarkable petition campaign for the repeal of the statute of limitations on the filing of suits for the recovery of fugitive peasants. This in some respects was modeled after a campaign by townsmen to compel the binding of their fellows to their places of residence because of the collective nature of the tax system: When one family moved away, those remaining had to bear the burden imposed by the collective tax system until the next census was taken. For the townsmen the reference point typically was 1613, the end of the Time of Troubles. For the cavalrymen petitioners, the reference points were two: the statute of limitations and the documents (censuses, pomestie land allotments) proving where peasants lived. The middle-service-class petitioners pointed out that the powerful (i.e., contumacious) people were recruiting their peasants, concealing them for five years, and then using the fugitives to recruit others to flee. The petitioners, who had 5.6 peasant households apiece, alleged that the solution to their diminishing ability to render military service because of their ongoing losses of labor would be to repeal the statute of limitations. The government's response was to extend the statute of limitations from five to nine years. Another petition in 1641 extended it from nine to fifteen years. A petition of 1645 elicited the promise that the statute of limitations would be repealed once a census was taken to show where the peasants were living.

The census was taken in 1646 and 1647 but no action was taken. The government was being run by Boris Morozov, whose extensive estate records reveal that he was recruiting others lords' peasants in these years. Morozov and his corrupt accomplices got their comeuppance after riots in Moscow, which spread to a dozen other towns, led to their over-throw and to demands by the urban mob for a codification of the law. Tsar Alexis appointed the Odoyevsky Commission, which drafted the Law Code of 1649 (ulozhenie ). It was debated and approved with significant amendments by the Assembly of the Land of 16481649. Part of the amendments involved the enserfment, especially the repeal of the forbidden years. Henceforth all peasants were subject to return to wherever they or their forbears were registered. This measure applied to all peasants, both those on the lands of private lords and the church (seignorial peasants) and those on lands belonging to the tsar, the state, and the peasants themselves (later known as state peasants). The land cadastre of 1626, the census of 16461647, and pomestie allotment documents were mentioned, but almost any other official documents would do as well. Aside from the issue of documentation, the other major enserfment issue was what to do with runaways, especially males and females who belonged to different lords and got married. The solutions were simple and logical: The Orthodox Church did not permit the breaking up of marriages, so the Law Code of 1649 decreed that the lord who had received a fugitive lost the couple to the lord from whom the fugitive had fled. If they wed as fugitives on "neutral ground," then the lord-claimants cast lots; the winner got the couple and paid the loser for his lost serf.

The Law Code did not resolve the issue of fugitives, because of the intense shortage of labor in Muscovy. After 1649 the government began to penalize recipients of fugitives by confiscating an additional serf in addition to the fugitive received. This had no impact, so it was raised to two. This in turn had no impact, so it was raised to four. At this point would-be recipients of fugitive serfs began to turn them away. Peter I took this one step further by proclaiming the death penalty for those who received the fugitive serfs, but it is not known whether anyone was actually executed.

The Law Code of 1649 opened the door to the next stage of enserfment. Lords wanted the peasants converted into slaves who could be disposed of as they wished (willed, sold, given away, moved). This contradicted the idea that serfs existed to support the provincial cavalry. The Law Code permitted landowners to move their serfs around, whereas landholders had to leave them where they were so that the next cavalry serviceman would have rent payers when the pomestie was assigned to him. The extent to which (or even whether) serfs were sold like slaves before 1700 is still being debated.

The issue was resolved during the reign of Peter I by two measures. First, in 1714 the service landholding and hereditary estate (votchina ) were made equal under the law. Second, the introduction of the soul tax in 1719 made the lord responsible for his serfs' taxes and gave him much greater control over his subjects, especially after the collection of the soul tax commenced in 1724. In the same year, peasants were required to have a pass from their owners to travel. This was strengthened in 1722, and again in 1724. That serfs were becoming marketable was reflected in the April 15, 1721, ban on the sale of individual serfs. Whether the ban was ever enforced is unknown. The fact that it probably was not was reflected in a law of 1771 forbidding the public sale of serfs (the private sale of serfs was permitted) and a 1792 decree forbidding an auctioneer to use a gavel in serf auctions, indicating that the 1771 law was not observed either.

After 1725 the descent of seignorial serfs into slavery accelerated. In 1601 Godunov had required owners to feed their slaves, and in 1734 Anna extended this to serfs. In 1760 lords were allowed to banish serfs to Siberia. This was undoubtedly done to try to ensure calm in the villages. That this primarily concerned younger serfs (who could have been sent into the army) is reflected in the fact that owners received military recruit credit for such exiles.

A tragic date in Russian history was February 18, 1762, when Peter III abolished all service requirements for estate owners. This permitted serfowners to supervise (and abuse) their serfs personally. Thus it is probably not accidental that five years later, in 1767, Catherine II forbade serfs to petition against their owners. Catherine, supposedly enlightened, opposed to serfdom, and in favor of free labor, gave away 800,000 serfs to private owners during her reign. The year 1796 was the zenith of serfdom.

Paul tried to undo everything his mother Catherine had done. This extended to serfdom. In 1797 he forbade lords to force their peasants to work on Sunday, suggested that peasants could only be compelled to work three days per week, and that they should have the other three days to work for themselves. Paul was assassinated before he could do more.

His son Alexander I wanted to do something about serfdom, but became preoccupied with Napoleon and then went insane. He was informed by Nikolai Karamzin in 1811 that the Russian Empire rested on two pillars, autocracy and serfdom. Emancipation increasingly became the topic of public discussion. After suppressing the libertarian Decembrists in 1725, Nicholas I wanted to do something about serfdom and appointed ten committees to study the issue. His successor, Alexander II, took the loss of the Crimean War to mean that Russia, including the institution of serfdom, needed reforming. His philosophy was "better from above than below." Using Nicholas I's "enlightened bureaucrats," who had studied serfdom for years, Alexander II proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, but this only freed the serfs from their slavelike dependence on their masters. They were then bound to their communes. State serfs were freed separately, in 1863. The seignorial serfs had to pay for their freedom, that is, the state was unwilling to expropriate the serfowners and simultaneously feared the consequences of a landless emancipation.

The serfs were finally freed in 1906, when they were released from control by their communes, the redemption dues were cancelled, and corporal punishment for serfs was abolished. Thus, all peasants were free for the first time since 1450.

See also: emancipation act; law code of 1649; peasantry; podzol; pomestie; sudebank of 1497; sudebank of 1550; serfdom; slavery


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Hellie, Richard. (1967, 1970). Muscovite Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago College Syllabus Division.

Hellie, Richard. (1971). Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hellie, Richard, tr. and ed. (1988). The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Irvine, CA: Charles Schlacks, Publisher.

Kolchin, Peter. (1987). Unfree Labor. American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robinson, Geroid Tanquery. (1932). Rural Russia under the Old Regime. New York: Longmans.

Zaionchkovsky, P. A. (1978). The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.

Richard Hellie