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.

One thought on “American vs. Russian Slavery

  1. I think the first blogger for this post did a great job at highlighting some of the major differences between the two systems. The first being American slavery’s rapid development both in terms of economic importance but also reach across the US. The second, and in my opinion the greatest, difference between the two be the racial factor. Kolchin describes a short-lived period in Virginia where race was not the main factor leading to slavery. This quickly vanished from the American system – as we all know race became the crux of American slavery. My question is whether or not there were certain family names that were identifiably “serf?”

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