The Multi-Ethnic Empire

As the Russian empire began expanding its borders through the acquisition of new land, Russia became home to became convoluted  with foreigners.  Non-Russians approximately made up more than half of the total population according to the first general census conducted in 1897.  This information was actually pretty shocking for me, as it gave me an understanding of how hard it must have been to govern an empire that was filled with so many ethnicities.

The Russian empire appeared to be mostly tolerant of other religions besides orthodoxy being practiced.  This is very different compared to how the old believers were persecuted against in the 17th century.  71 percent of the population belonged to the Orthodox Church, while other major beliefs included Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, and Lutheranism.  The orthodox church was still a unifying force, although there was still a major presence of other religions.

The position of a hereditary noble became harder for most non-russians to achieve through government service.   However, those who had achieved hereditary nobility before the reforms that were put in place to emphasize Russification were able to retain their position.  It’s even noted that, “The Muslims of Azerbaidzhan and the Germans also had a considerably higher proportion of hereditary nobles than the Russians” ((Kappeler, Andreas. “The Late Tsarist Multi-Ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition.” Chap. 8, In The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic Empire. Translated by Alfred Clayton, 283: Longman, 2001.)).  It seems that the non-russian populations that were more educated, according to the census, were more likely to have higher government positions.

Some minorities, however, seem to have been treated worse than others.  Non-russians made up a significantly large portion of revolutionary groups which shows that there must have been unrest in their treatment.  Ukrainians and Jews were especially well represented in revolutionary parties and eventually representing the Bolsheviks after the 19th century.  The Russian government seemed to restrict groups they disliked or that they felt were a threat to their rule.

What is a Russian?

At the very beginning of this course, we learned of the Scythians, a group of non-Slavic people living in what we know as Russia. Russia’s origins were never purely “Russian” for archeological evidence revealed many groups such as the Scythians in early Rus’. Fast forward four hundred years and Russia has expanded vastly. It has control of the Polish kingdom on its West side, and southern control in parts of Middle Asia. With this expansion of the Russian territory came along new demographics in Russia, in certain places, outnumbering the number of Russians in various towns and cities. It was at this time, the Census of 1897 started to collect demographic data on who lived in the Russian Empire.

The census revealed multi-ethnic, speaking, and religious groups such as the Poles, Jews, Muslims, Tartars, Finns, and Germans. Not to mention persons of Ukrainian or Belarus ethnicity who were considered to be Russian. Usually one’s ethnicity was correlated to native tongue and religion. For example Poles and Lithuanians were exclusively Roman Catholic. This allowed the Russian state to create a unified identity for many of groups because of the correlating language and religion. However this was more difficult to determine amongst populations in Middle Asia because of how common it was to be bilingual in these areas.

For the most part, a large proportion of the Russian population was not affected by these various ethnicities and religions. Many Russians lived in rural areas while non-Russians allocated to cities. Even though Russians had control over kingdoms such as Poland and Finland, by only replacing the autocratic figures and military, the native nobility was able to live on in rural areas, thus the populations at the borders of Russia remained non-“russified”. Hence the socio-economic standings of many under the old rule remained with Russian rule. For example, even if a noble Polish man were poor, the Russian empire allowed for his status to remain, largely concentrated areas of the used-to-be kingdoms’ natives. As Russian modernization and industrialization occurred, Russians began to migrate and took on industrial jobs. At this point Russians were entering spaces of foreigners and taking hold of the industrial jobs provides.


How is nobility seen as universal across ethnicities? Why do you think non-Russians were not subject to the Table of Ranks system?

Works Cited

Kappeler, Andreas. (Translated by Alfred Clayton) “The Late Tsarist Multi-Ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition.” Longman, 2001. Chapter 8

Russian Demographics

While we often hear about the Russian monarchy not having that much Russian blood, that is also associated with the mass of the Russian Empire. Many of the people living within the borders of the Empire have a different ethnic identity than simply Russian. Many of them are “Little Russians”, this can mean either Belorussian or Ukrainian. However, they were counted as Russian, in the Census of 1897. Actually, over half of the people living within the borders were not ethnically Russian. While there was no group bigger than the Russians, the massive empire was bound to include numerous ethnic groups and identities from all over. This not only includes ethnic identity but all the cultural aspects that comes with that such as religion and tradition. With the expansion of the Russian Empire, it brought on these new religions and traditions that were previously not as dominant in Russia. Despite this, it seems that the Russians did not fare considerably better than their counterparts most of the time. Excluding the nobility, most Russians were in worse shape than the other ethnic groups at the time the census was taken. Even the nobility was mostly a different ethnic group. With many of the Russians tied down to serfdom for centuries, their rise to the higher social standings was difficult to come by.

Another interesting aspect of the census was the effect industrialization had on society. Some groups were much more concentrated in urban areas, notably the Jews, more than fifty percent reported to live in the cities. The development of industrialization was led by the Russians however. “Yet the majority of entrepreneurs were Russians and foreigners, and the majority of the workers Russians.” ((Kappeler 304)) As I mentioned earlier, the fact that many of the Russians were serfs and then freed allowed them to move into the cities to help participate in this industrialization. This industrialization also involved a few key ethnic groups which linked them to the cities. Their involvement from all ends of the empire led to the rapid development of train tracks which was massive for development in Russia.

The census not only helps show that Russians were not as dominant an ethnic force as they would like you to believe, but also helps us understand how industrialization went the way it did.

What prevented other ethnic groups from getting involved in industrialization?

Works Cited

Kappeler, Andreas. (Translated by Alfred Clayton) “The Late Tsarist Multi-Ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition.” Longman, 2001. Chapter 8

The “Neglected Majority”

In his book The Russian Empire: a Multi-Ethnic History, Andreas Kappeler surveys Russia in terms of its countless distinct ethnicities and cultures. Chapter eight, “the Late Tsarist Multi-ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition,” focuses on data from the 1897 general census of the Russian population. The census contained bias from various existing prejudices at the time, but it is an invaluable source when attempting to define the population of the largest and most varied territory in the world. The census included data on “social status, profession and educational level,” making it possible to study social, economic, and cultural trends in the Russian Empire. One of the largest changes Kappeler points out is the increased diversity caused by expansion. He states that the “young peoples” in newly acquired territories began to outnumber the established Russians and Eastern Slavs. Non-Russians constituted more than half of the total population, but the census did not distinguish between “Little Russians” (Ukrainians and Belorussians) and Russians, so Russians officially made up two-thirds of the population. The increased diversity of the empire was countered by a conservative push towards “cultural russification,” achieved through codifying the heterogeneous population.

One of the most revealing examples of the preference for Russians was the trend in peripheral areas such as Bessarabia, where Russians composed a very small percent of the population (8 percent), but were a majority of the hereditary nobility (55.8 percent). Kappeler describes the disproportionally high numbers of Russians in upper administrative offices and the central government pushing for the cultivation of specific cash crops in periphery regions as a form of “internal colonialism.” This colonial structure with Russians on top, along with census data pointing to the necessity of being able to speak Russian to be successful, displays a clear and unsurprising preference for Russian culture. The preference for Russian culture did not however, extend to a preference for the Russian people. Russian peasants continued to live in utter destitution and often fared worse than the non-Russian peasants on the eastern and western edges of the empire. Kappeler describes the “Russian centre” as paramount in the military and political spheres, yet common Russians had a lower life expectancy, and thus lower standard of living, than Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Tatars, and Bashkirs. Kappeler seemingly concludes that despite a certain degree of hatred or prejudice against people such as Muslims, Poles, and Jews, the Russian elite continued to also neglect their own people, and chose expanding their wealth or territory over improving the lives of their citizens.

Why did Russians lag so far behind other ethnic groups in things such as education, urbanization, and life expectancy?

Works Cited

Kappeler, Andreas. “The Late Tsarist Multi-Ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition.” Chap. 8, In The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic Empire. Translated by Alfred Clayton, 283: Longman, 2001.

What to Mate of Multi-Ethnic Late Tsarist Russia?

When Russia grew in its empire, they also grew in the number of ethnicities within its empire. Since Russia grew in the number of ethnicities it had within its empire, Kappeler’s chapter on ethnicity in late tsarist Russia felt like a whirlwind. But, as much as a whirlwind as the chapter may have felt, one takeaway I did get was that a great number of nationalities, if not all nationalities, were treated relatively equally.

I believe this because of the high number of non-Russians who were in the upper echelon of Russian Empire society. Regardless of the russification that non-Russians may have gone through/did go through, it is still impossible to ignore the fact that, for example, “the Muslims of Aderbaidzhan (3 per cent) and the Germans (1.4 per cent) had a considerably higher proportion of hereditary nobles than the Russians.”[1] There is also the fact that the most literate groups were not Russians, but Estonians, Latvians, and Germans.[2] If the Russian goal was to thoroughly subordinate non-Russians, then the high number of literate and noble non-Russians demonstrate that they were either doing a poor job of that…or not doing the job at all.

But at the opposite end of the spectrum-peasants and how long the average person lived-Russians were still worse off than many other ethnic groups. With peasantry, our class has talked about how peasantry was abolished in certain ethnic areas of the empire, but not in Russia itself. Furthermore, Russian peasants faced poor conditions, even compared to many non-Russian counterparts.[3] Even more damning for anyone who argued that there was a “Russian master race” was the fact that Russians also had lower life expectancy (and therefore probably a lower quality of life) than those of many other ethnicities, including the Jews (who many would think would be particularly oppressed.[4]

Is it possible that there is evidence which shows oppression instead of equality? Probably, but the statistics presented by Kappeler gives me more of a rhetoric of ethnic equality than one of ethnic inequality.


How did the treatment of non-Russian ethnicities change over time in the Russian Empire? Is it a narrative of progress, or not?

[1] Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Trans. Alfred Clayton. Pearson Education: 289.

[2] Ibid., 310.

[3] Ibid., 322.

[4] Ibid., 323.


Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Trans. Alfred Clayton. Pearson Education.

Great Reforms in the 1860s


Photograph of Alexander II

During the reign of Alexander II from 1855 to 1881, the state passed a series of reforms that covered the most basic areas of need in Russian society. The emancipation of serfdom occurred in 1861 which abolished the owning of peasants. The Emancipation document asserts that those freed have “personal and property rights” just as any free city dweller. They also received some land to provide for themselves from the landowner but in return the peasant had to pay them in either labor or money. Another document on state peasants declares that land was given to peasants according to utilization and must pay a state tax. The state also addressed the administration of the village community, defining the composition and duties of the village assembly and volost’ administration. In addition, there are statutes that reform the roles of local government and judicial institutions. The local government had a higher priority to focus on welfare and needs of the poor as well as other public institutions. Judicial reform defined their jurisdiction, specific roles, and their qualifications in order to be a member of a judicial institution.

The fact that peasants had to repay the landowner with work or money is incredibly similar to what they had to do before serfdom, called the obrok or barshchina. After the emancipations, owners still own all their land but peasants continued to rent the land the used. This is also similar to the “state obrok tax”, so not only did they have to pay the landowner but also the state in the form of taxes. We also see a similarity to other reforms by having the local governments focus on welfare, education, and public health. With these refors, Alexander II is trying to reinsert the reforms, some of which Catherine tried and failed to enact during her reign.

What is the purpose of reverting to the obrok system which was used before serfdom?

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


The Free Serfs


These law codes follow the emancipation of the serfs causing much of the information and prevalence to revolve around this event. The redistribution of land and property as well as the way it should be distributed is frequently discussed throughout all the codes. This is not surprising as with the freeing of the serfs, a huge section of the population, comes the problem of property dispersal across the country. The nobles of Russia previously owned and controlled a huge majority of the property in Russia. The freeing of the serfs does not take away the noble lands but it does change the way in which they are controlled.

Also discussed are the management and help that are involved in charity work. A new appreciation for helping those less fortunate is notable in the codes. The creation of institutions specifically for this task shows the awareness of this problem not just in Russian society but also in the government. Economic interests are also more prominent in these codes. Smaller villages and towns are becoming more involved in the economic structure of Russia.

How did the introduction of the economic world influence the ideals and minds of the Russian peasants? Did the international influence brought with trade accelerate the emancipation of the serfs?

How did nobles react to the emancipation of the slaves? How quickly were these new ideas accepted?





Kaiser, Daniel H., and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860’s. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. Print.

American vs. Russian Slavery

In Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, the reader gets a comparison of American slavery and Russian serfdom. For the most part, he shows where there are significant similarities between the two. The exploration of these similarities between the two different slaveries enlightened me.

For example, Kolchin stated something that I did not know before: in some parts of the thirteen colonies, such as Virginia, there were periods where the issue of race with slavery was a non-issue. In other words, there was a period of time where most unfree people in Virginia were apparently white (Kolchin 32). This, of course, would be similar to Russian serfdom, where a lot of the serfs were Russians in the first place. So, as a result, what I expected to be a difference between American slavery and Russian serfdom (the issue of race) was in some ways not a difference at all.

Another similarity which I may have known about (but do not necessarily think about as much) is how the two types of forced labor grew out of a shortage of laborers (Kolchin 22). This similarity surprised me, especially on the Russian side, because they seemed to get their serfs from within their country (and not from Africa, like what was seen with the slave trade). Maybe too many Russians were working other jobs and not focusing on field labor? Either way, Kolchin’s reasoning with the whole “labor shortage” issue made me rethink Russian serfdom, especially since a lot of the labor Russia got to deal with the so-called labor shortage was from within their own country (or so I thought).

Now I do think that there are similarities between American slavery and Russian serfdom. However, with a couple of the issues Kolchin mentioned, they seem so different from how I think of American slavery or Russian serfdom that it would be worth exploring into both types of forced labor more thoroughly.


Kolchin places a lot of emphasis on similarities between American slavery and Russian serfdom. Based on what you’ve studied of both American history and Russian history, what differences do you see between the two institutions?


Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Generalizations about Slavery

Slavery is not exclusive to one country or body of people. In Peter Kolchin’s Introduction, “The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor” he argues against the idea that all slavery has emerged for the same isolated reason of economic attainment. Instead just as wars and social movements are inherent because of the historical conditions at hand, slavery emerged and was enforced in different ways for different purposes. Kolchin his book, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, compares the two types of forced labor that arose around the same year. Both could be isolated forms of servitude, yet analyzing American Slavery in terms of Russian serfdom exposes varying reasons for its implementation and continuation.

One of Kolchin’s main arguments is the fact that slavery often emerges when there is an imbalance between labor and land. In areas where the population is not dense, yet there is a lot of farmable land owned by a handful of lords, forced labor is more likely to be present. However in Russian society, the implementation of serfs was not for economic gains in the same way it was for American slavery. Russian serfdom at first allowed serfs to travel and make payments, tying them down to the land yet still allotting certain freedoms when compared to American slavery. Over the years, lords because of the high rate of fleeing serfs, tied them down to the land through pushes for legislation. These serfs were need to maintain the sustainability of Russia and its population, but also to maintain power and property in few hands. The nobles, even though financially better off than the serfs, still had to dedicate themselves to service and the tsar or state. To keep both serfs and nobles silenced, the state created a hierarchy amongst them allowing for an autocratic tsar to rule Russia.

In the American Colonies, slavery was implemented or highly sought after only when indentured servitude no longer sufficed. But when immigration rates plummeted and there was an economic need to harvest tobacco, indentured servants were not profitable. Portugal controlled the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and only later was Britain able to take part in the slave trade. Even though expensive at first, landowners were willing to invest in slave because they would become permanent slave labor and would create a whole new generation of forced laborers as well. However besides slaves that worked on the fields there were domestic servants and slaves that served as revolutionaries as well as politically appointment members. Overall, even the core or generalization of what slavery is and how it comes to be, as the historical context changes so do the need and regulations of forced labor.


After reading Kolchin’s Introduction we are aware of the hierarchies enforced by institutions of forced labor. But which came first, the need fueled by economics or the need fueled to maintain order?

Works Cited:

Kolchin, Peter. “The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor,” in Unfree Labor: American

Slavery and Russian Serfdom, 1-46. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard

University Press, 1987.