Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

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?


2 thoughts on “Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

  1. well we know that there were originally slaves in Russia and some of thus laves were of foreign dissent. But we also know that slavery was abolished long before serfdom, implying that no race was not an issue. It also could indicate that the nobles did not have the necessary capital or means to bring in slaves. Slaves in america were brought in by entrepreneurs with a high profit margin often living right next to ports. The Russian may not have had access to slaves of a sufficiently foreign and uneducated state to have been useful no matter the race.

  2. This kind of reminds me of our discussion the other day about the idea of nationality in Russia when it was developed by Nicholas under the declaration of nationality in 1833. It was interesting how nationality didn’t list race as a qualification. Rather, it was defined by orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality. Nationality was defined not as citizenship, but rather is an innate idea, the essence of Russia. This makes me think that race wasn’t necessarily a defining factor of serfdom like it was for American slavery. There were simply too many types of people that entangled and overlapped to try and categorize people by race.

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