Serfdom in Russia

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SERFDOM IN RUSSIA. The origins of serfdom as a form of migration control can be seen in mid-fifteenth-century documents that restricted peasant movement to the period on or around St. George's Day in November. By the early 1580s decrees proclaiming "forbidden years," which prohibited all peasant movement for specific periods, were already functioning in certain districts, and they were extended to the rest of the realm in the reign of Fyodor Ivanovich (ruled 15841598). By 1597 the state instituted central registration of deeds and documentskreposti, the root of krepostnichestvo, or 'serfdom'regulating various kinds of dependency. Although Muscovite slavery was also regulated by government officials, slaves belonged to a separate juridical category denoted by the Russian term kholop, which could refer to various forms of indentured servitude and debt bondage as well as to chattel slavery. The majority of slaves were Russian males of diverse social origins, primarily employed in nonagricultural occupations.

Serf legislation developed primarily in the core lands of the Muscovite state in order to secure labor for estates belonging to elites and military servitors. Beginning in the sixteenth century the majority of dependent peasants came under the control of individuals and families in state service. Two forms of landholding predominated in the rural economy of early modern Russia. Hereditary properties (votchina) could be sold or transferred to kinsmen, while usufruct or conditional land grants (pomest'e) were revocable grants of lands and their revenues awarded to individuals in return for fulfillment of military service. In order to preserve their revenue and military potential, conditional lands could not originally be donated to the church or sold, nor could they be passed on to heirs without government authorization.

The supply of service lands expanded as Moscow conquered neighboring political structures, most notably Novgorod in 1478 and Kazan' in 1552. Lands annexed along the southern steppes also fueled the growth of a significant class of provincial cavalrymen supported by the labor of a small number of dependent peasant households. By the mid-sixteenth century retention of all lands was made contingent upon service, and by the early decades of the seventeenth century the stark distinctions between the two forms of landholding were eroding, and service tenure lands were being acquired, exchanged, and passed on to heirs like hereditary lands. The combining of both forms of landholding into a single category was recognized de jure in 1714.

Competition for a limited supply of peasant labor and endemic peasant flight and relocation drew the government into recording, regulating, and policing the relations between agricultural laborers and their masters. Decrees specifying a limited period of years (five at the turn of the seventeenth century and ten by mid-century) after which peasants could not be returned to their former masters particularly hurt provincial gentry. As early as 1637 they petitioned for an end to such restrictions, and in January 1649 the limitations on returning fugitives were abolished throughout Russia. By the turn of the eighteenth century serfs could be moved, bought, and sold, and by the 1720s the legal distinctions between serfs and slaves were eliminated.

At the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the overwhelming majority of peasants were enserfed to private masters. Many landowners merely extracted resources from their serfs, allowing serfs to work only their own lands or ply other trades in exchange for cash (obrok) payments. Others sought to develop their estates by issuing detailed instructions on the management of their properties to stewards and attempting to control various aspects of the rural serf economy, from land tenure to marriage. Around the same time formerly free groups of militiamen from the southern frontier and some non-Russian groups were equated in status with the tax-paying (chernososhnye) peasant communities of the Russian north and Siberia and were reclassified as state peasants. By the mid-eighteenth century over fifty thousand state peasants were forced to work in factories in the Urals region and Siberia, and a growing number of private serfs were also put to work in industrial enterprises.

Under serfdom the peasant commune (mir) coalesced into a distinct labor and fiscal unit. The available evidence does not clearly outline the features of the peasant commune until the seventeenth century. Institutions of community suretyship over and collective responsibility for the actions and obligations of individuals were a significant feature of the early modern Russian rural economy. Government taxation and fiscal policies also significantly shaped household and village structures. By the last decades of the seventeenth century sources record certain contours of the mir and its communal gathering (skhod) that show how it assigned lands and apportioned shares of the collective fiscal burden to its individuals. In the first half of the eighteenth century, elected representatives of the mir often worked jointly with government officials and landowners to ensure that villages and their inhabitants fulfilled their economic obligations to the state and/or to their landlords, in addition to providing recruits for the army. The mir could function as both a rapacious institution of communal control over individuals and a vehicle for negotiating communal interests and voicing them to the wider world. Active resistance by serfs was primarily realized through flight, suggesting that the government's attempts to wholly regulate movement were not always effective in practice. Serfs frequently joined rebellions instigated by Cossacks along the southern frontiers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

See also Landholding ; Peasantry ; Pugachev Revolt (17731775) ; Razin, Stepan ; Russia ; Slavery and the Slave Trade .


Aleksandrov, V. A. Sel'skaia obshchina v Rossii (XVIInachalo XIV.) Moscow, 1976.

Blum, Jerome. Lord and Peasant in Russia: From the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, 1961.

Hellie, Richard. Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago, 1971.

Brian Boeck