Slavery in the United States and serfdom in Russia were simultaneously the dominant sources of production in their respective nations. The institutions differed greatly in their economic and political motivations and their societal repercussions, but according to Peter Kolchin’s book Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, both systems developed from a high land to population ratio. Many social scientists have proposed the idea that compulsory labor is often borne from such a ratio coupled with an expansion of agricultural production. The lopsided ratio creates a labor shortage, while the agricultural expansion creates an increased demand for labor, pushing those on top of society to force those below to meet this labor demand. Despite similar catalysts to the start of their development, serfdom and American slavery had disparate processes and patterns of evolution.
Russian serfdom emerged slowly over a span of three centuries. The precursor to the serf was the unfree Russian known as a kholop. The kholopy were a diverse group, many of whom were skilled artisans or high-status administrative figures. They also constituted only ten percent of the population while serfs, at the height of serfdom in Russia, constituted over half of the population. During the sixteenth century, the number of skilled unfree people decreased and the state began limiting the freedoms of peasants. Much of the blame for the development of serfdom can be placed on the system of pomest’e. The land gifted to nobles under this system required peasants to work it. When Ivan IV’s reign of terror coincided with an economic collapse, many of these peasants began fleeing and leaving tracts of land fallow. Powerful landowners beseeched the state to aid in tying their labor to their land. At the turn of the seventeenth century, the state responded by revoking a peasant’s right to move to different landholdings, and in 1723 Peter the Great officially delegated all slaves or kholopy into the rank of serf.
The English settlers in the American colonies faced a similar shortage of labor due to their plentiful land but small population. They did not turn immediately to the use of slaves, opting instead for indentured servants, usually from the British Isles. Unrest in Britain made the prospect of temporary indentured servitude in a new land preferable to staying at home. The conversion to widespread use of slavery occurred far more rapidly than did the leap from kholopy to serfdom in Russia. Economic prosperity between 1680 and 1730 allowed more landowners to purchase slaves, which were initially far more expensive than indentured servants. Slaves were preferable as a long term investment because they could reproduce other slaves, unlike the servants who were obligated to a master for a finite amount of time. One of the largest discrepancies between American slavery and Russian serfdom was the racial component. The institution of slavery overtook indentured servitude so quickly partially due to the ease with which an escaped slave could be identified by his skin color and then returned. As the system became an entrenched and irreplaceable part of the American economy, it would help develop a social hierarchy based on race. In Russia, serfs differed from their master only in wealth and rank, indicating a social hierarchy based on birth. These systems of forced labor both served to secure seemingly necessary agricultural manpower, and despite differences in enactment and evolution, both played pivotal roles in the development of their nations.
Kolchin, Peter. “The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor.” In Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1987.
In Gogol’s Overcoat, the reader is overcome with a great sense of pity for Akaky. He’s a sad man – not just because of his relative linguistic incompetency or his inability to perform tasks that extend beyond a simple copy job but because all of his peers see him as utterly beneath them. He is unfit of any type of respect. They can torment him without any sort of recognition for the important tasks he can complete without fail. Much of this ridicule comes from his “night gown.”
Here the “night gown” is a reflection of the role of social status in the Russian Society. His coat reflects his rank and stance in society. He lives in the dank part of St. Petersburg and occupies a lower rank than his peers who sport lavish coats with beaver fur collars. Gogol shows that performance and capability matters little. Prestige is really just superficial. Akaky’s stance and acceptance by his peers fluctuates with his appearance. When he finally obtains his new coat his coworkers notice him but this is only temporary.
Gogol is absolutely critiquing the manner in which power and respect is garnered in Russian Society. I guess one of my questions pertains to the significance of Akaky’s ghost and how he haunts the city. Is this a foreshadowing of how the lower gentry or bureaucracy will eventually rise up and take “revenge” on the self absorbed and entitled upper class? If yes, how would such literature be perceived by those Russians who could read and appreciate Gogol’s work?
Gogol’s The Overcoat has the same sticky, slimy, unpleasant-to-view feeling of George Orwell’s 1984. Akaky Akakievich has a monotonous job that only he loves, one that he takes very seriously and even does in his free time. Winston Smith, Orwell’s protagonist, has a fairly boring occupation as well, doing almost the same thing: where Akaky simply copies the words, Winston changes them to reflect Big Brother’s infallibility. Akaky and Winston both live alone, eat the bland foods that their meager government salaries can afford them, and either willingly ignores or is encouraged to ignore every attempt at meaningful human interaction. Where Akaky smells alcohol and slops on the stairs going to Petrovich’s apartment, Winston is followed by the odor of the Victory gin that everyone in his caste drink. Both stories have the theme of being born into blindly following the leadership presented to the character.
Gogol’s short story is much less harsh than Orwell’s and for a good reason. Gogol did not intend for The Overcoat to comment on the oppressiveness of the contemporaneous government. He merely wanted to mention or draw attention to the way of life of some of the government workers. Our protagonist was a titular councillor, rank nine, which means that he was a noble. He was a noble earning 400 rubles per year doing and loving service to the state almost every day. In the current ranking system Akaky could scarcely clothe himself with the salary he earned while people working in the same room as he threw lavish parties for everyone, eating and drinking at probably a month’s worth of food for Akaky. There was a large gap between the rich and the poor even if they held similar or the same occupation.
Gogol’s short story The Overcoat follows an awkward individual named Akaky Akakievich who occupies a low ranking position in the government where he simple copies documents all day. He saves up his money in order to get a new overcoat which is then stolen on his way back from a party. Akaky Akakievich asks for help from several higher level officials who all turn him down. After his death several days later, his ghost comes back and doesn’t leave until he finds and steals a perfectly-sized overcoat from one particularly Important Person who was one of the officials that cruelly rejected him.
This story makes several references to rank and relationships between different ranks. Akaky is from a very low level that tries to stay with those of similar rank. He is completely devoted to his job and is very good at it, but can’t seem to do anything else but that specific job and he receives no respect, possibly because of his rank. Akaky is constantly rejected or turned away when he asks for help for higher ranked officials, especially by the Important Person who tries to make himself even more prominent by yelling at everyone. This dynamic between the ranks mirrors actual societal ranks – the sosloviye – of the Russian system and criticizes the superiority given to higher ranking individuals.
The story also contains the classic message of the lower class rising up against the upper class. Akaky does die, but his ghost comes back and ultimately completes its revenge by giving a good scare to the Important Person and stealing back an overcoat. The Important Person also starts to act less mean towards his clients and coworkers, which signifies that Akaky, of a low rank, had an effect on this high ranking person. Readers can interpret this as an inspiring story that even the most dull, unimportant individual can make a difference on the upper class people.
Given Gogol’s criticism of rank and message of poor against rich, Gogol incorporated social aspects into his work, making him a member of the Russian intelligentsia devoted to social change through art.
Question: How does Akaky treat rank versus Akaky’s ghost and what does this signify? Why did Gogol include this?
On December 14, 1825, the Decembrists stood tall in front of the government calling for revision in administration as well as a rule on behalf of the people. Quickly such a revolt was ended in bloodshed by the government, but the ideas behind the revolt left quite the impression for years to follow.
The Decembrists, called such because of the time of the revolt, were comprised of three secret societies. The Northern Society were young members of the educated elite who were dissatisfied with current conditions in Russia not only for the noblemen but also for the population as a whole. The Southern Society on the other hand had members who were former officers of the Smenovskii Regiment located in Ukraine. The last secret society involved in the Decembrist efforts was the Society of United Slavs who can be categorized as the proletariat of the Russian nobility, living alongside mostly Polish nobility. “It was not so much their common social class, nor their closeness in age that makes them a definable group. It is rather their sharing of the same historical experiences, mainly the Napoleonic wars,” (24). This revolting group was angered at what was going on around Europe but not in Russia. Fighting intensely and bravely for the county, Russian citizens were not rewarded for their efforts. While countries such as Poland (actually under Russian control) and France adopted constitutions, Russians felt that after helping defeat Napoleon, they deserved guaranteed rights as well. Much of the Decembrists focus was not to dismantle the Russian government, but to reorganize it. They found much of the autocratic rule corrupt, especially with the succession of Nicholas, and therefore wanted a government more focused on serving the people. They were fighting against the split between state and society; a bridging of “we” and “they.”
The government killed off the main leaders in the revolt, but let the rest of the Decembrists live on. “By allowing them to live on, making it possible for them to write their memoirs and to be an example of heroic sacrifice for another generation or two, he transformed their failure into victory,” (27). Ideas of enlightenment and romanticism were able to live on even though the leaders of the revolt did not. This was a group of educated, young, and passionate Russians that even though selfish for some purposes, looked at Russia as a whole and saw how in many ways it was backwards and poor. Such a powerful patriotic energy would remain lively for years to come.
- How can a revolt be seen as patriotic? In what ways were the Decembrists embody Russian ideals and adapt more of a reformist platform rather than revolutionary?
- How aware do you think Nicholas as well as other rulers were aware of the power of the ideas of the Decembrists?
Raeff, Marc. “The Decembrists.” in Russian Civilizations Series. NJ: Englewood Cliffs: 1-29.
The Decembrist Revolt of 1825, although an immediate and clear failure, succeeded in setting the stage for later revolutionaries to topple the Russian autocracy. The Decembrists were a group of disgruntled, educated elite calling for the security of the individual in Russian society and the improvement of Russian administration, particularly in regards to the corrupt judiciary. Most of these men were young, some even adolescent, and their age showed in the uprising’s lack of organization. The three thousand men who formed in Senate Square assumed that their cause would attract other guard units who were angered and confused by the succession of Nicholas to the throne, but no additional mutineers rose up and Nicholas quashed the display without a problem. The Decembrists were largely the product of European influence and domestic disappointment about the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia helped to foster significant amounts of nationalist pride within the country. When he was ultimately defeated, many of the countries he previously occupied, including Poland, received constitutions. Many of the enlightened Russian elite felt snubbed as some of Tsar Alexander’s prior reforms bred optimism about Russia moving towards a constitutional monarchy, but this did not come to fruition. Raeff attributes the distinction between the Decembrists and the generation before them to this optimism, which led to disappointment when Russia remained largely stagnant. The static nature of Russian culture starkly contrasted Western Europe. Much of the Decembrists inspiration came from the enlightenment and other Western ideals so the changes abroad became increasingly important in the actions of Russian Revolutionaries.
Enlightenment ideals developed into the Decembrist distrust for autocracy. The young men who orchestrated this uprising were the dregs of the previously powerful Russian nobility, but they found themselves increasingly at odds with their all powerful ruler. The rise of the bureaucracy had absorbed most of the responsibilities and powers previously reserved for the nobility and the threat of obsoletism was real. Despite the issues surrounding their decline in prominence, these young elite truly took on the ideals of the enlightenment. They felt the plight of the serfs in Russia and most believed the abolishment of serfdom was a necessary part of making their society just. The physical act of the Decembrist Revolt closely mimicked many of the eighteenth-century coups put on by palace guards, but their ideals set them apart and gave them a lasting legacy. Their sincere desire to better the lives of all their fellow Russians earned them the title of “the fathers and first martyrs of the Russian Revolution.”
Raeff, Marc. The Decembrists.
The Decembrist movement, named after the month of the failed revolution, was a movement championed by military men of higher standing from educated backgrounds. The leaders of the movement were officers who couched their positions in the military amidst assumed political responsibility derived from positions in secret societies. The “Northern Society,” responsible for the formation in the Senate Square in St. Petersburg, kept the rank and file men supporting them unaware of the purpose for their insurrection. The “Southern Society,” in Ukraine, was much more inclusive, ideologically speaking, allowing the soldiers at the bottom to understand their goals in rebellion.
The Decembrists sought general improvements of government administration and the betterment of the lives of commoners, but lacked specific plans to achieve these goals. The Decembrists intended to lessen the burden of serfdom on the lowest levels of society, but failed to actually craft plans to that end. The movement featured a belief in the responsibility of the soldiers to serve the state as an entity separate to the ruler, marking the first time in Russian history a major political group marked a difference between the two.
For all its lofty ideals, the movement ultimately saw only failure. The defiance in St. Petersburg was hindered by confusion and failure to receive support from additional units, while uprisings in Southern Russia met only slaughter at the hands of loyalist units. Given the confusion surrounding the whole affair, it is understandable that so little success was borne out by the revolutionaries, who were largely isolated, both physically and in terms of the information available to them.
Russia went through a number of rebellions in its past, but somehow the Decembrist Rebellion of 1825 had a different feel to it than some other rebellions. Maybe it was that the philosophy and nature of the rebellion was different from what one is often accustomed to.
I, for one, am accustomed to looking at peasant rebellions like the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1774, but the Decembrists were demographically the absolute opposite of the Pugachev Rebellion. The Decembrists, in other words, were actually a group of intellectual elites rebelling over the fact that the ideals of the French Revolution have not infiltrated into Russia. Another demographic note about the Decembrists (and a striking one as well) was the fact that many of them were very young, so young that they were viewed as being child-like in a lot of ways.
The best way to describe the Decembrists’ aims was this: they wanted the political system in Russia to change drastically. From their wanting to rid the government of certain elements of autocracy, to wanting to eliminate serfdom, the Decembrists clearly wanted to shake the Russian government up.
These aims were not achieved by the Decembrists. Yet, in spite of their failures, Nicholas did not execute them all. To the contrary, many of the Decembrists were allowed to live on an talk freely about their experiences. Raeff thinks that maybe the decision to allow the Decembrists to live on transformed the fate of their actions from an obscure part of Russian history to a really important part of Russian history.
 Marc Raeff, The Decembrists: 11
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 27.
Raeff, Marc. The Decembrists.