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Serfdom: Eastern Europe


Boris B. Gorshkov

Serfdom was a system of relations between the owners of land and the peasant tenants who resided on it. These relations involved a variety of social, socio-psychological, cultural, economic, legal, and political aspects that together made serfdom a complex societal institution. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, just when serfdom had begun to decline in many parts of western Europe, a similar institution based on servility emerged in eastern Europe. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, east European serfdom matured and approached its climax; by the mid-nineteenth century it had declined and was abolished. Serfdom in eastern Europe was influenced by a multiplicity of political, economic, cultural, and intellectual developments that occurred in the world and the continent in general, and in each east European state in particular, throughout its existence. Although it reflected many similar economic and legal characteristics, such as its agricultural orientation and the juridical rights lords enjoyed over peasants, east European serfdom was by no means identical to its west European counterpart. Serfdom in eastern Europe was not monolithic; it differed from one state to another. The varied geography, ecology, and climate of eastern Europe lent strong regional variation to this institution. During the period of its existence, east European serfdom also experienced important social changes. Historians of east European serfdom traditionally emphasize its political or economic aspects; they concentrate on the consolidation and centralization of state power or focus on the development of master-serf economic and labor relations. Some of these studies are monochromatic in their portrayal of east European peasants as slavelike, dark, passive, and isolated. Although this essay does not ignore these traditional approaches to serfdom in eastern Europe, namely in Austro-Hungary, East Elbian Germany, Poland, Prussia, the Baltic States, and Russia, its analysis turns on a discussion of relatively dynamic social and economic factors and, where appropriate, on regional variations.


Before the sixteenth century, when serfdom became a legally established institution, east European peasants, unlike the majority of the peasantry of western Europe, enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom. They lived on the land in settlements known as communes. Although sometimes these lands belonged to the peasants themselves, the majority of communes were settled on lands that belonged either to an individual landlord, to the church, or to the state. A peasant village and the landlord's lands on which it was settled constituted the landlord's estate, known as the manor. Peasant-tenants who resided on landlords' lands were free to move and to act, for the most part, subject to their own will. Peasants either worked the landlord's fields or paid annual fees for the land they utilized. Reciprocally, the landlord administered justice and provided his peasants with certain legal and military protections. Thus, traditions of lord-peasant relations originated long before serfdom became a legally established institution.

The process of enserfment in eastern Europe consisted of the gradual economic and legal binding of free peasant-tenants to the land and in some cases to the lord; this process took several centuries. Enserfment was not a result of a single factor but a product of a combination of many complex historical forces. Internal political, economic, and social developments within the east European states (such as centralization and expansion, warfare, epidemics, and so on), as well as the general political and economic situation outside the region, were perhaps the most important key factors in the development of serfdom. Yet, the gradual binding of the majority of the east European population to the land was also a product of the mentality of the early modern aristocracy of eastern Europe. The aristocracy viewed enserfment as the only solution to the political, economic, and social changes it faced.

The deterioration of the status of free peasant tenants, the earliest stage in the enserfment of peasants, began in eastern Europe by the fifteenth century. Landlords, who were gaining political and economic strength, exerted more and more power over the subjects who populated their lands by increasing their economic and juridical subjugation. Political factors played a role, where weak governments encouraged landlord control for lack of other measures; this was compounded in Russia by the steady expansion of territory. But economic factors loomed larger. These included the expansion of markets and the sixteenth-century price revolution, processes that intensified this protoenserfment. The growth of cities, and towns and the development of nonagricultural villages provided new demands for agricultural production. Willing to seize these new economic opportunities, the lords sought to expand the size of their estates. The export of cereals became a basic element of the agricultural economy of the southeastern, central, and Baltic regions of Europe. For example, during the sixteenth century grain exports from Poland increased as much as tenfold. The Netherlands, England, Spain, and Portugal became major consumers of east European grain. Although agricultural productivity in eastern Europe was relatively low, the inexpensive labor of economically dependent peasants kept agricultural production cheap. In order to secure the labor force, landlords shifted their peasants from traditional rent in kind (agricultural commodities) to labor duties. In areas where nonagricultural activities predominated (such as in the northern and central areas of Russia), peasants usually paid rent in kind (various products of cottage industry). Later on, as the money economy expanded, rent in kind was largely succeeded by money rent.

The desire of the landlords to increase estate production put increased economic pressure on the peasants, resulting in indebtedness and economic dependence upon landlords. The indebtedness tended to fix peasants for lengthy periods of time on landlords' estates. Landlords viewed these long time residents as bound to the estates. Others, the more active and energetic peasants, preferred to flee from the estates. The increasing indebtedness, along with the devastation from warfare, famine, epidemics, and pestilence that beset the early modern east European landscape, caused mass peasant migrations from the old settled areas to the peripheries. In order to prevent these migrations, the emerging and consolidating state power sought to eliminate the territorial mobility of peasants.

Political consolidation and centralization of some east European states, as well as the integration of new lands into the existing states, accompanied and, indeed, accelerated the process of enserfment. The ties between the landlord and the peasant, with the latter's waxing economic dependence upon the former, were juridically strengthened. For example, in Poland, a 1496 statute introduced, and later the 1501 law code reinforced, limits on peasant mobility. By 1540 Polish peasants were tied to the land and could not migrate without authorization from landlords. In 1538 the Brandenburg Landtag prohibited unauthorized migration and bound thousands of Brandenburg peasants to the land. During the 1580s and onward a series of decrees heavily restricted peasant movement in Russia (early limited restrictions originated in the late fifteenth century). The 1649 law code finally tied millions of Russian peasants to the soil. Additionally, in order to provide financially for their bureaucratic and military needs, the consolidating states introduced various taxes and duties on the peasantry. During this period, similar processes occurred in most parts of eastern Europe. The legislation not only restricted peasant mobility and increased the economic burdens upon peasants but also gave landlords legal, juridical, executive, and police powers over them. On their estates, landlords became tax collectors, judges, and policemen, on behalf of the state. The state transformed the economic dependence of the peasant upon the landlord into the peasant's legal dependence, indeed subordination, thus almost completely destroying peasant freedom.

Another factor that stimulated the deterioration of the position of the peasantry was slave labor. Although slave labor had declined by the sixteenth century, a small number of slaves still existed in some parts of eastern Europe. On the one hand, as the bondage of economically dependent peasants increased, their status gradually fused with that of the slaves. On the other hand, slaves were included in taxation, which eventually eliminated their slave status. Thus, as a result of all these factors, by the mid-seventeenth century serfdom became a legally established institution in eastern Europe. Legal restrictions on their mobility reduced millions of peasants to the status of serfs tied to the soil and to the lord.


Originating from the economic needs of the landowning nobility and then bolstered by the politics of the state, east European serfdom was a social institution that lasted over two hundred years. Perhaps the most important social feature of east European serfdom, like any other serfdom, is that it occurred in a society numerically dominated by the peasantry. At the time serfdom was established, the peasantry accounted for about 80 to 90 percent of the population of the region. Approximately half of the peasants lived on individual landlords' lands and thus were serfs, whereas the balance who lived on church and state lands did not fit into the category of serfdom. Landlords constituted only about 1 percent of the population and owned lands populated with large numbers of peasants who performed agricultural or other labor. An average landlord's estate held several hundred peasants, with individual estates running from a handful to tens of thousands of peasants (several Polish, Hungarian, and Russian magnates owned hundreds of thousands). East European landlords thus lived in an overwhelmingly peasant society. With a few exceptions (the Baltic regions, Polish-Ukrainian lands), most peasants and landlords were of the same ethnicity and shared common cultural and religious roots. Peasants constituted the very essence of their respective nations, being the major social element and the principal source of the national economy and culture.

The complexities and ambiguities of east European serfdom require emphasis. Despite the essential oppressiveness of serfdom, the legislation that enforced it also enabled peasants to sustain their basic economic and social needs. The laws that tied millions of east European peasants to the land at the same time provided the peasantry with the ability for temporary employment outside the ascribed place of residence, as well as for various trading, commercial, and even entrepreneurial pursuits within and away from the village. On the one hand, serfs were sometimes bought and sold at the will of their landlords; on the other, they were protected by laws against personal insult and unreasonable corporal punishment. In Russia, despite bans on serf complaints against their lords, peasants often sued the lords in state courts and sometimes succeeded in bringing to trial those who violated their rights. Serfs also frequently applied to legal institutions seeking emancipation. Having the goal of preserving hierarchy, serfdom simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically opened the door to a certain social mobility for peasants. These legal loopholes constituted a basis for maintaining a certain balance between the interests of the state and the nobility on one side and these of the peasantry on the other.

In fact, neither the state nor the landlord had an interest in totally attaching the peasants to the land. In order to sustain the economic needs of the state and of the landlord, peasants had to have a certain freedom to move (this was particularly crucial in those areas where agriculture was not a primary occupation or where nearby urban centers offered greater earning possibilities). None of the laws in eastern Europe that restricted peasant freedom provided for complete bondage. For example, the notorious Russian 1649 law code indeed heavily restricted the peasant's ability to move. Not commonly realized is that, at the same time, the law granted the peasant the right to migrate temporarily, with proper authorization, in order to seek employment outside the estate. No authorization was required for those peasants who temporarily migrated within thirty-two kilometers of the estate, a legally sanctioned unofficial and uncounted migration. (By the end of the eighteenth century about a quarter of the serfs of Russia's central provinces officially temporarily migrated each year.) Thus, east European serfs were never completely bound to the land; they could be and in fact often were on the move. This provided peasants with opportunities to establish a certain degree of autonomy from their lords.

The social, economic, and cultural importance of the peasants thus allowed them to stretch the boundaries of serfdom. Nevertheless, because legislation in east European states established the authority of the lord over the peasantry, in Russia and Poland the lords came to view and treat peasants as their private property. In estate surveys peasants were listed under the heading of private property. Contemporary legal documents disclose that serfs were sold, mortgaged, and given as gifts. The sale of serfs occurred throughout eastern and central Europe and approached its high point in the eighteenth century. For example, during the American War of Independence (1775–1783) German landlords sold about 29,000 young peasants to the British as soldiers. Russian rulers authorized the sale of serfs to encourage mining and industry. In Russia, the sale of peasants reached its apogee during the reign of Catherine the Great, as attested to by newspaper advertisements of such sales. In most cases, east European peasants were sold with the land they populated and farmed. In other words, these transactions simply signified the transfer of entire villages or large parts of villages to new owners. The sale of serfs without land, which did occur in some cases, provoked contemporary social critics to condemn this practice as the most inhumane and brutal feature of serfdom.

In order to restrict such sales, some states introduced minute regulations into existing laws on the possession of peasants. Eventually, laws banned outright the sale and mortgage of peasants without land, as well as newspaper advertisements of such sales. Some state legislation restricted unreasonable punishment and mistreatment of peasants. Strict sanctions and penalties awaited lords who transgressed the new rules. For example, the Polish law of 1768 provided the death penalty for lords who deliberately caused the death of serfs. In Russia, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–1796), about twenty landowners were tried for causing the deaths of their serfs. Two were exiled to Siberia for life and five were sentenced to hard labor for life. Although the number of lords tried and sanctioned was modest, the fact of their harsh punishment arguably served as a lesson to other landowners. New laws increased state regulation of the lord-peasant relationship in such a way as to place sterner limits on the lord's authority. This legislative tendency accelerated toward the end of the eighteenth century and continued until the final abolition of serfdom.


More important than legal restrictions of the landlords' power, peasants themselves deployed a wide array of extralegal means to dilute the lords' influence. Peasants developed and maintained cultural values, customs, traditions, and institutions that enabled them to survive by maintaining a balance between external forces and their own communal and individual needs. When conditions became unendurable, peasants protested, withheld their labor, rebelled, and even murdered offending authorities and lords. Hallowed tradition and indigenous institutions, plus a hint of threat, enabled peasants to set limits on the landlords' power and authority, as well as to achieve a certain independence from them.

The family. The family was one such institution. In most cases regarding family affairs and strategies, as well as actual decision making, the family enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy from the landlord. The family was headed by its eldest member, usually the grandfather, known as the patriarch. Patriarchs had a dominant role in making decisions about and supervising the daily activities of other family members and represented the family in communal institutions. Some historians argue that the position and authority of the patriarch in the family was unchallengeable and that this arrangement simultaneously contributed to the development of patriarchal culture among the peasantry. In contrast, some anthropological researchers emphasize the patriarch's responsibility to the family and point out that all major family matters, such as the household economy, property, and the marriage of children, were usually settled in family meetings that consisted of all adult family members, males as well as females. In certain cases the family meeting could displace an inept patriarch and appoint a new family head. For these scholars, the authority of the patriarch was not unlimited; the process of decision making resulted from discussion and compromise among all concerned parties rather than exclusively from the authoritarian will of the patriarch.

Many peasants, particularly in Russia, spent a considerable part of their lives in structurally complex, two- and three-generational households. The family ties of peasants were usually extensive. Structural complexity, however, is not peculiar to households in eastern Europe. Family systems throughout preindustrial Europe were widely diverse depending upon local patterns of political and economic settlement, demography, culture, and ecological factors. Anthropological research illustrates that in preindustrial eastern Europe peasant household structures varied. For example, in southern Estonia extended households were common, whereas nuclear family households prevailed in northern Estonia. In Hungary complex households were more typical for serfs than for other categories of peasants. In Russia, as well as in other parts of eastern Europe, extended families often reflected a certain stage of family development and were quite changeable. For example, young couples lived under the same roof with their parents until they had saved enough money to start their own households. Some historians note that the household size of serf families slightly increased between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, family structures among east European serfs were varied, while usually fitting one or another definition of extended or complex family.

Peasant marriages, performed according to local tradition and custom, received full legal sanction. A marriage contract was usually agreed upon by the couple's parents. Landlords rarely intervened in marriage contracts and usually did not separate serf families. The marriage age of serfs was relatively low in comparison to that of nonserf peasants and to west European peasants of that period. For example, in mid-nineteenth-century Russia, the average marriage age for men was twenty-three and for women nineteen. The pattern of low marriage age for serfs to a certain degree reflected the economic pressures of serfdom because the newly married couple constituted a work unit with its own share of communal land and property. Each couple had the legal and common right to establish its own household.

The commune. Most east European peasant families lived in villages (settlements with households, small stores, mills, communal buildings, a church, and a cemetery); one or more of these villages constituted the peasant commune. The peasant commune was the most important economic and social feature of east European serfdom. Through the commune's assembly, represented by the family heads (the patriarchs), the peasants managed village resources, directed economic and fiscal activities, and maintained internal order. The authority of the commune over the village varied, depending upon local custom and the degree to which the landlord restricted its autonomy. The serf commune was a site for interactions between the landlord and the village; the communal elders consulted the lord about appropriate taxes, duties, obligations, and recruitments into the military. The commune controlled land redistribution where it occurred; coordinated agriculture (for example, made decisions about suitable crops and determined the dates of sowing and harvesting); sold, exchanged, or leased lands; and rented or bought additional land as needed. The profit from the sale and lease of communal property was deposited in the communal treasury or divided directly among the households. The commune checked weights and measures, determined the quality of bread and beer, and set the wages of day laborers. The commune often supervised the moral behavior of its members and regulated the religious and social life of the village.

Community assemblies also had important juridical functions, such as resolving intra- and intervillage conflicts and representing the community's interests in all legal institutions. In Austria, Germany, and Lithuania, village community courts settled internal disputes and levied sanctions against guilty parties. In seventeenth century Russia, village commune representatives participated directly in the landlord's court, whereas in eastern Germany they acted as advisers to it. Additionally, in some regions communal assemblies filed suits in courts seeking adjudication when deprived of their interests and rights by their own lords or anyone else. Some even won their cases.

Scholars debate the role of the commune in the agricultural economy, the degree of its autonomy from the landlord, and many other specific aspects that cannot reasonably be addressed here. Some specialists argue that serf communes carved out a certain autonomy primarily because they served as instruments of the landlords. In this interpretation, the communes upheld the landlords' interests, ensuring that every household fulfilled its manorial and state obligations. In contrast, other observers comment that the commune did not always act in the landlords' interests. Communal obligations were usually agreed upon with the lord in advance, with firm commitments from both sides. When lords unilaterally increased already negotiated and fixed duties, communes often protested vociferously and refused to comply.

The commune's practice (in Russia and to some extent in other parts of eastern Europe) of periodic redistribution of arable land among households also remains a subject of scholarly controversy. Some historians claim that redistribution was largely a result of serfdom. In this interpretation, landlords required peasants to redivide their lands in order to coordinate each household's landholdings with its labor capability based upon the number of hands in the family, with the overall goal of maximizing the household's labor effectiveness and productivity. Other historians suggest that land redistribution was not an innovation of the state or of the landlord but rather a traditional peasant practice aimed at maintaining a rough land equality among households based upon their size. Whether land redistributions originated from the commune or were imposed by landlords, it is clear that this practice occurred in parts of Russia up until the turn of the twentieth century and even beyond. Land redistribution was common in areas in which agriculture dominated the peasant economy and especially where soil quality was varied (for example, in the Black Earth regions of southern Russia). In areas where agriculture was not important, land redistribution fell into disuse. The periodicity of land redistributions, where they occurred, varied from one to five, ten, or even more years.

In addition to its important economic, social and juridical functions, the commune, indeed village life as a whole, fostered a collective consciousness among the serfs. Through village life, rich in tradition, custom, religious and national holidays, as well as innumerable communal celebrations, serf peasants maintained a sense of solidarity and cohesiveness. Overemphasis on intravillage conflicts has led some observers to question the sense of communality among the peasants. Private conflicts among peasants, however, did not undermine village solidarity. Indeed, one of the chief functions of the commune was to contain and adjudicate conflict. Furthermore, peasants who migrated into cities for employment sustained themselves in the unfamiliar urban environment by forming fraternal associations (in Russia the famous urban zemliachestvos) directly based upon the respective peasants' village and district origins. In essence, at the first opportunity many peasants who had left the village recreated familiar communal mores, hardly a practice consonant with reflexive mutual hostility.

Solidarity among the serfs expressed itself in numerous cases of collective insubordination, refusal to work, disturbances, and rebellions large in size and duration. Popular protest usually broke out when the quality of justice, as it was understood by the peasants, deteriorated. The village commune was a crucial element in initiating popular protest. Serfs first presented their disagreements and complaints collectively to their lords or local officials. If the latter failed to resolve the disputes, the serfs resorted to one or another form of protest, which was often accompanied by customary collective rituals and symbols of misrule. Naturally, serfs showed the greatest concern about increases in duties and demands upon them. From 1800 to 1861, for example, 371 out of 793 (47 percent) disturbances in the central Russian provinces were caused by increases in feudal obligations. In addition to collective forms of protest facilitated by the commune, serfs actively used various forms of individual protest, such as work slowdowns, deception, manipulation of legal norms, and fleeing. These latter forms of protest were primarily associated with the serfs' unfree status. (Although most eastern European cities could not guarantee their freedom, for peasants running away was the primary means to escape serfdom.) Thus, the strong collective consciousness noted above among serfs did not undermine their individual motivations, as also witnessed by their individual economic pursuits (trading, temporal migration, and so forth).

Thus, although often organized by local communal institutions, most peasant revolts had no concrete political or generalized economic goals. Rather, the recurrence of peasant insurrections in eastern Europe throughout the centuries of serfdom reflected the structural changes of east European society, such as the growth of population, state centralization, imposition of new heavy taxes and obligations, the development of a market economy, and the transformation of popular mentality.


The degree of autonomy that east European serfs carved out for themselves within the contexts of familial and communal life also aided the serfs' independent economic activities. In areas where agriculture was the basic element of the economy, serfs worked roughly half of their time for the landlord and the balance for themselves. For example, in the 1740s an average peasant household of Silesia had to work for its lord 177 days a year or approximately three days a week, along with some payment in kind. Three days a week was the usual amount of time most east European serfs had to give their lords, although some were faced with even higher requirements. In nonagricultural areas, where serfs usually payed rent in kind or in money, they could spend the greater part of their time working for themselves. In the 1840s, in order to meet all obligations and pay all feudal dues and state taxes, east European peasants spent from 17 to 86 percent of their income, depending on region and the economic conditions of the household. An average serf household paid out in dues and taxes from 30 to 50 percent of its annual income.

Although the agricultural economy predominated in eastern Europe, serfs, as well as other categories of peasants, were usually multioccupational. The local economy and the serfs' occupations depended largely upon regional characteristics such as soil fertility and climate. In Prussia, the Baltic region, and the southern regions of Russia and non-Russian eastern Europe, the national and local economies were based mainly on agriculture and specifically on grain production. The microeconomy of the northern regions of eastern Europe usually combined various nonagricultural and agricultural activities. With economic expansion during the late eighteenth century, this regional specialization became more notable. In fact, in certain regions agriculture became a seasonal occupation, and the nonagricultural pursuits largely dominated the peasant economy. One study of peasant economic activity in the central nonagricultural Russian provinces shows that from 60 to 93 percent of the regions' peasants engaged at least part-time in one or another nonagricultural activity. For example, in Moscow province the peasants devoted only 3.5 months a year to agriculture and the rest of the year to domestic industries and commerce.

Serf peasants engaged in various nonagricultural activities. About a half of those so employed were hired workers, whereas others were small traders, craftsmen, self-employed in services, and even, though rarely, rich merchants and entrepreneurs. The degree to which east European serfs engaged in various trading, manufacturing, and commercial activities is striking. Large numbers of peasants maintained cottage industries as a seasonal business for the entire family that produced not only for the local market but for the national and international ones as well. Textile making was the dominant type of domestic industry. Millions of peasants spun, wove, and finished various kinds of fabrics in their villages. For example, in 1780 in Tver' province of central Russia, about 280 thousand female peasants wove canvas during the non-growing season. Peasants sold their products to traveling traders and merchants (themselves often serf peasants), who sold them in various national and regional markets and fairs. Trading peasants, composed of serfs and nonserfs, were often the dominant force in national and local markets throughout eastern Europe.

The peasants' protoindustrial activities during the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries energized many serf villages, providing a basis for the economic and social advancement of those who availed themselves of the opportunity. The peasants' role in the development of east European national economies likewise expanded. After starting out as artisans, craftsmen, and small traders, the more able serfs founded manufacturing concerns and textile mills. Perhaps the single most striking example of serf entrepreneurialism was Ivanovo Voznesensk, a textile city in central Russia's Vladimir province. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, several serf traders established textile mills in the small village of Ivanovo on the Sheremet'ev family estate. Eventually the former quiet village transformed itself into the bustling textile city that Friedrich Engels later called "the Russian Manchester." Similar developments occurred in many parts of eastern Europe.

The expansion of the peasantry's economic activities had wide-ranging repercussions. For example, it had an impact on education, on the social mobility of the serfs, and on state laws that regulated the peasantry. New laws eased peasant entry into nonagricultural activities, in part by restricting the lord's authority over serfs. In Russia and elsewhere, statutes enabled serfs to engage in virtually all kinds of economic activities and regulated those activities. The Russian laws of 1827, 1828, 1835, and 1848 progressively limited the power of the lords over peasants engaged in licensed commercial and business enterprises and introduced private property rights for serfs. These laws ultimately applied to many tens of thousands of serfs. Simultaneously, numerous technical and other schools opened their doors to peasants. By learning and engaging in various crafts and trades, peasants became acquainted with the national economies of their respective states. Through economic advancement and education, some serfs even entered the upper social echelons. Although the number of such fortunate individuals was modest when compared to total serf populations, the phenomenon impressed contemporary observers. One mid-nineteenth-century Russian wrote that self-made peasants were forging to the head of merchant communities and emerging as leaders in public affairs.


The abolition of serfdom differed sharply from one east European state to another. In Prussia the royal edict of 1807 ordered the emancipation of that nation's serfs, and that same year Napoleon emancipated the serfs of Poland. Imperial Russian decrees of 1816 and 1819 freed the peasants of the Baltic states. The peasants of the Austrian Empire gained freedom as a direct result of the revolutions of 1848–1849. In Russia, the famous imperial edict of 1861 abolished serfdom there. Romanian peasants, the last European serfs, were freed in 1864, bringing to an end centuries of European peasant bondage.

Although serfdom ended as the immediate result of social revolutions, political developments, or juridical decisions of state authorities, the process of abolition had begun long before these final decisions. As noted, new laws had begun to restrict the authority of the lord over his peasants. Serf involvement in commercial and entrepreneurial activities and the social advancement of some wrought new attitudes in society toward serfs and serfdom itself. Contemporaries increasingly viewed serfs as an active societal and economic force. For most contemporary intellectuals and enlightened statesmen (not to mention various rulers of east European states), serfdom was a malign anachronism. Many tracts and discussions attacked serfdom, sometimes invoking the western European example and Enlightenment ideals. Even the archconservative Nicholas I of Russia (1825–1855) blamed his Romanov ancestors for this "unmitigated evil," which, unfortunately, he could not bring himself to eliminate. Although serfdom did not completely block significant social and economic changes, informed east European society long viewed it both as a moral evil and an obstacle to rapid societal development. In Russia, defeat in the Crimean War (1853–1856) served as a final impetus to end an outmoded institution that hindered Russia's economic and military development.

State decrees effected the various emancipations but the roots of emancipation lay in long-term east European economic and social changes. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the accelerating tempo of population growth, economic expansion, and the peasants' protoindustrial activities shed an increasingly harsh light on serfdom's petty and major oppressions. Progress, more limited than it could have been, took place not because of serfdom but despite it, in large measure because of the independent activity of millions of serfs who, in the face of their unfree status, exerted an influence on their nations' affairs. In this regard, we might recall that in announcing the emancipation of Russia's serfs, Alexander II stated only that it was better that they should be freed from above than from below, that is, that they should free themselves by force. We would be wiser to view the peasants as actors rather than as ciphers. Serfdom was an indisputable social evil but serfs were not hopeless victims who passively submitted to that evil. Instead, many took a more active stance than we have realized in influencing their own history.

See alsoAbsolutism; Protoindustrialization (in this volume);The Aristocracy and Gentry; Peasants and Rural Laborers; Rural Revolts; (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


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