18th Century Serfdom

Something that stood out to me in this chapter was the quote by Sumner at the beginning of the reading.  He states that serfdom lasted longer in Russia than in the West because “humanitarian and other ideas of the value of the individual spirit were little developed.”  It is strange to attempt to reconcile that fact that Catherine the Great set up a Noble Wardship and a Bureau of Public Welfare for the peasants but that she was also the monarch responsible for entrenching serfdom the most.  I understand that there was a division between peasants and serfs, but I do not agree with Sumner’s statement.  I think that in Russia, at least on a theoretical level, there was a conception of individual rights and social duty.  In the “Charter to the Towns” for example, the merchants were granted private property based on their individual right and under law.  Obviously the concept of individual rights applied more to the upper classes than to the peasants, but I would go as far to say that serfdom became so important because of the new Enlightenment value placed on the individual.  The serfs became the patrimony of the nobles and the merchants because the upper classes were entitled to them by virtue of being a human with an inalienable right to property.  It is hard to apply humanitarian and spiritual concerns to a group of people barely considered human by law.

On a related note, I was surprised to learn that merchant run factories had the ability to own their own peasants as “industrial serfs.”  I do not think of Russian factories at this time period to be mechanized enough to support unskilled labor and had assumed that there would be more unindustrialized craft involved.

One thought on “18th Century Serfdom

  1. I agree that Sumner’s statement of why Russia’s serfdom lasted longer than in the west is not due to little developed humanitarian and other ideas about the value of the individual spirit. With the contributions made by Peter the Great, like the Table of Ranks, as well as Catherine the Great, such as the establishment of the Bureau of Public Welfare, clearly disproves Sumner.

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