Russian Serfdom

When first coming to the understanding of serfdom in Russia, many draw comparison to slavery in the Americas; however, there are subtle differences between these two institutions.  Although both were instilled for agricultural labor, slavery had always set humans as the property of their owners.  Serfdom, on the other hand, tied serfs to the land, which in turn tied them to the owners of that land, be them nobles, the church, or the tsar, himself.  Slaves were never permitted to leave their masters unless they had been granted freedom, as they were physical property.  As serfs were not property but tied to the land, landowners viewed them as necessary in order to cultivate the land they owned and pay taxes to the state.  As a result, many landowners would try to lure serfs away from their neighbors, especially during times of famine, disease, peasant uprisings, and war, when there was a shortage in the population, and therefore of labor.

Furthermore, over time, regulations around serfdom gradually became stricter.  For example, serfs at one point were essentially free persons, and were initially given the liberty to move at their own will to better land with a better landowner.  However, as previously mentioned, this caused an upset among landowners, complaining they could not pay off taxes without the manpower necessary to work their land. Eventually, serf movement was restricted to a two-week period around St. George’s day.  This restriction proved ineffective to keeping serfs bound to their original land. In 1649 serfs were prohibited from moving totally.  Recovery periods were extended to four years, then to five years, and eventually there was no cut-off for recovering serfs who fled their lands.  Even when serfs could leave, landowners did what they could to keep them in their lands by giving loans for the serfs to pay off over time and even charging exit fees which would increase by the number of years a serf was in a certain land.

While serfdom was not necessarily slavery, it still an institution which oppressed the majority of the Russian population.  Though it ended only four years before the abolition slavery in the United States, it was deemed a necessary evil for many a Russian monarch in order to keep nobles appeased, and had been in existence for centuries longer than American slavery ever was.