Serfdom and American Slavery

There are interesting parallels between Russian serfdom and the form of slavery found in the Americas. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Russian serfdom changed dramatically. The beginning of the 16th century brought economic prosperity to Russia, but from the 1560’s into the early 1600’s Russia was struck by many brutal periods of chaos that combined to cause large reforms in serfdom. These reforms drastically restricted the movement of the serfs and turned serfs from peasants into property.

In the second half of the 16th century, Russia was affected by regime changes, instability, revolts, foreign interventions, crop failure and famine, and a government that didn’t have the strength or organization to provide for or protect the peasantry. The combination of these factors led to a steep decline in living conditions and prosperity for the peasants. Many of the peasants became slaves or criminals, but the majority packed up and left their homes to try and find better living conditions. The mass migrations of agricultural workers caused a great strain on the nation as a whole, as it could barely support the needs of the population.

Serfdom in Russia had become necessary due to the lack of labor and the Russian government instituted laws that rapidly took away the remaining freedom of the serfs. Slavery in the American colonies was used because of a lack of sufficient population for the necessary agricultural work. Both American slavery and Russian serfdom were used to compensate for an insufficient population of agricultural workers, but they also were similarly maintained by the respective governments for a time. The American government allowed slaves to be owned by specific people or households that typically required them to be stationary and work on farms and orchards, and the Russian government created laws that prevented serfs from leaving the land that they worked.

Russian serfdom and American slavery had some key similarities. Primarily, the usage of slaves/serfs to perform agricultural work, rather than work in secondary or tertiary industries. The main difference between them comes from the necessity of their existence. Slavery in the Americas was important because of economic reasons, but serfdom in Russia was necessary at the time in order to keep the nation functioning and stable.