As an American Studies major, I found Peter Kolchin’s The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor to be absolutely fascinating. Kolchin’s purpose in the introduction we read is to delineate the similarities and differences between the causes and realities of Russian serfdom and American slavery. Kolchin begins by detailing the origins of Russian serfdom. Serfs originally had freedom to move around the country; however, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century this right was restricted and eventually abolished because serf migration caused too much disruption and therefore decreased the amount of agricultural labor being performed. In America at the end of the seventeenth/beginning of the eighteenth century, Africans brought through the slave trade replaced English indentured servants as the main source of labor. Because slaves worked for life and reproduced, they were more economically beneficial than indentured servants, who only worked for several years, whose children were not automatically enslaved, and who therefore always had to be replaced.
Kolchin then provides a discussion of why slavery occurred, arguing that, at least in Russia and America, a surplus of land and a small amount of laborers led land owners to force people into working for them. Kolchin finally cites the two main differences between American slavery and Russian serfdom: first, American slaves were “aliens,” of a different nationality, race, and religion to their masters, while Russian serfs were almost always the same nationality and had similar customs; and second, American slaves did all of their work for their masters, paying them nothing and receiving some sustenance in return, whereas Russian serfs paid their Lords rent, worked part-time for their them and part-time cultivating their own land.
I thought that Kolchin’s point on Russian serfs not being racially different from their Lords to be very interesting. He explains that, while many Americans imagined a United States without blacks, Russia depended upon its outsiders, defining them not as outsiders, but as “the people.” Still, as serfdom continued over centuries, the class lines hardened between noble and serf, so that “nobleman and peasant seemed as different from each other as white and black, European and African” (Kolchin 45). This implies that the distinction between the serf and the noble came to be considered as innate, and not merely a consequence of who owned the land. To me, this section brings up the question of race. “Race” was socially constructed to justify the maltreatment of certain individuals who looked different–based on skin color, eye shape, etc.–from others. I wonder if Russian serfs were ever thought to be a different “race” from the nobles (similar to how Africans were a different “race” from Europeans) as a justification for the enslavement. Or, was race simply not as much of an “issue” in Russia as it was in America?