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.

The Gap Between Land and Labor

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.


Works Cited

Kolchin, Peter. “The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor.” In Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1987.

Serfdom In Russia and American Slavery

Serfdom in Russia was such an important phenomenon because, like P. Kolchin mentions in his book, peasants “were the essence of” Russia “and 90 percent of its population.” Were the serfs really slaves, like P. Kolchin implies? He states that even some respectable Russian writers and historians referred to the serfs as slaves. I believe that this meant that the life conditions of serfs in Russia were very hard, and in this respect compared to the slaves in the United States. However, they were not truly slaves. The word “slave” in the Russian language is often used indirectly, in the figurative sense, and the word “slave” can describe somebody in a difficult situation without meaning that the person is actually a slave. The serfs in Russia were not the property of the landowner and had their own property. However, they were dependent on the landowner and had to pay him rent for the use of land. In my opinion, this is the main difference between the Russian serfs and American slaves. Even though, the situation in which the Russian serfs had to live was very miserable, it was very different from the American slaves. Therefore, it is not right to call the Russian serfs slaves.
P. Kolchin’s analysis, especially his comparison of slavery in America with serfdom in Russia is very interesting. The point he makes about the exploitation by the Russian nobility of the serfs who were also ethnically Russian, really stirred my feelings – he presents it in a very clear and graphic way that the Russian nobility were exploiting the people who were just like themselves and never had any qualms of conscience about it. Of course it doesn’t mean that slavery in America can be justified, because the slaves were black and came from a totally different background than the people who owned them. It just gives you a slightly different historic perspective and makes you understand more how unjust the whole situation was.
The introduction to P. Kolchin’s book also highlights the causes the role of serfdom in Russia and slavery in America in a very unique way. They both arose from the scarcity of agricultural labor and had similar social and economic significance for the development of the two countries. At the same time they were very different and, therefore, elicit a “fruitful” comparison. It is a great incentive to read the whole book.