Ulozhenie: Difference Maker or Part of a Trend?

In Chapter Twelve of Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s, Daniel Kaiser and Gary Marker decide to include the perspective of an author (Richard Hellie) who thought of the Ulozhenie as the defining moment in the history of serfs in Russia. Hellie’s perspective, while interesting, leaves me with additional questions.

The most intriguing part of Hellie’s point-of-view was that his words seem to create a sharp division in Russian history, a division between pre-1649 and post-1649 (since 1649 was the year that the Ulozhenie was written). He did not view the law code as part of a pattern of regressing rights for peasants, but as something which all seemed to happen at once (Kaiser and Marker 181). His view is certainly different from some thoughts on the reduction in peasant rights over time; Kaiser and Marker even said that one school of thought on the disappearance of peasant rights was that it was a long process which began long before 1649 with actions such as the restriction of travel outside of St. George’s Day (Kaiser and Marker 180).

Also interesting was how Kaiser and Marker did not include any documents which introduced the point-of-view that the events over many decades was a bigger factor than any governmental law code. They had a document which addressed how the institution of slavery developed in Muscovy over the course of many decades (namely, during the “Time of Troubles”), but they didn’t do the same with serfdom and how that gradually developed in the decades leading up to the Ulozhenie in 1649.

I am indeed left with multiple questions. Here are the questions I have:

Do you believe that the restrictions on serfdom were a gradual process, or was it something that mostly came out of the Ulozhenie in 1649?

Why would Kaiser and Marker not give more time to the point-of-view that serfdom was an institution which developed over many years, and not mostly from one law code?

On a note unrelated to my response here, how were these masters able to keep control of their peasants when they were so outnumbered by peasants? According to the reading, ninety percent of the Russian population consisted of peasants at one point; this is a percentage so high that it must have been hard to control all of them.


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

The Emancipation of Russian Serfs

Alexander II issued a document of emancipation for the Russian serfs in 1861.  In it, he stipulates that the nobility agreed, for the benefit of their country, to release the serfs from their status at the end of a two year reconstruction period.  After serfdom is abolished, the nobles are required to give their former serfs land so that they may continue to earn a living.

This document echoed the Enlightenment principles of the former reformist monarchs. Firstly, the nobles are given a social duty to the lower classes as well as mandating that the now-free peasants give back to society.  Secondly, there is much discussion of the inherent rights of the free man like the ability to gather property and the benefits of freedom.  Also, the document decrees that the government will lend assistance to the freed serfs.  These stipulations are very reminiscent of Catherine’s charters to the nobility and the towns.

The way this document was written seems like a very clever manipulation on the part of Alexander II.  Although the monarchy is responsible for continuing the tradition of serfdom, he transfers the blame to the nobles for the failure of the institution, citing their lack of “paternal attitude” that was required.  Then it is repeated several times that the nobles made the decision to free the serfs voluntarily, although this is probably not the case since it was to their economic misfortune to free the serfs.  He also requires the nobles to establish their own terms when freeing their serfs, not developing a standardized practice throughout the country.  In using this language, Alexander is taking a preventative step against the failure of such an action, so that if freeing the serfs fails, the Tsar will not be the one to blame.  The nobles, which already harbor resentment from the serfs will have to defend themselves in the face of a new free body of peasants.  It is almost a means of further centralizing power to the monarch and making the nobles weaker.

On a related note, the best quote of this reading is as follows, “However beneficial a law may be, it cannot make people happy if they do not themselves organize their happiness under protection of the law.”  To me, this completely sums up what I know about Russian government, and it is highly ironic since laws put the serfs into poverty in which they were unable to organize their happiness.