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.

Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

While the two systems of human bondage appear significantly different, they are more similar that most realize.  At the basis for both systems was the shortage of labor.  For the Russian system, this was less prominent until the Mongol period.  Mongolian conquest, Mongolian centralization of the state, and plague  caused population shifts, forcing the nobility to largely abandon the indentured servitude systems that had been used for centuries, replacing it with serfdom, where the workers tied to land, rather than an individual.  The United States, in contrast, continued Europe’s tradition of using slaves, primarily from Africa as the main source of labor.  As the British colonies expanded, the need for exported labor grew drastically.  Driven by differences in race and a disconnect between the slave and the master that was not so distinct in Russia, American Slavery tied the slave to the owner, and were not considered human, but only as property.  As slaves were seen as property in the United States, entire businesses for created around the transportation of new Africans to the Western Hemisphere, as well as Europe.  In Russia, since slaves were not owned by an individual, and the importation of humans was not present, the concept of a business surrounding the selling of slaves was unknown to the Russian nobility.

It was not until the mid 1800’s for both nations for their own respective forms of slavery were to be abolished.  In Russia, serfdom was seen as inhumane since the enlightenment, but was unable to find an alternative to nobles’ source of labor for working the land.  This caused serfdom to be practiced for another century after the enlightened ideals became prominent.  Similarly in the United States, the issue of finding alternative labor also proved difficult for plantation owners.  This was in addition to the blacks being seen as inferior to their white masters. This was not seen in Russia’s system.  There was a rapidly expanding abolitionist movement among a wide range of social classes.  The debate on whether or not slavery should continue was one of the main reasons the Civil War occurred.

If Russia also had a shortage of labor, why did they not import slaves from other areas, especially when there was a lot of economic potential in the business?

How significant is the fact that it took much longer for the two nations than Britain and other European countries to abolish slavery/serfdom?

Russian Serfdom

When first coming to the understanding of serfdom in Russia, many draw comparison to slavery in the Americas; however, there are subtle differences between these two institutions.  Although both were instilled for agricultural labor, slavery had always set humans as the property of their owners.  Serfdom, on the other hand, tied serfs to the land, which in turn tied them to the owners of that land, be them nobles, the church, or the tsar, himself.  Slaves were never permitted to leave their masters unless they had been granted freedom, as they were physical property.  As serfs were not property but tied to the land, landowners viewed them as necessary in order to cultivate the land they owned and pay taxes to the state.  As a result, many landowners would try to lure serfs away from their neighbors, especially during times of famine, disease, peasant uprisings, and war, when there was a shortage in the population, and therefore of labor.

Furthermore, over time, regulations around serfdom gradually became stricter.  For example, serfs at one point were essentially free persons, and were initially given the liberty to move at their own will to better land with a better landowner.  However, as previously mentioned, this caused an upset among landowners, complaining they could not pay off taxes without the manpower necessary to work their land. Eventually, serf movement was restricted to a two-week period around St. George’s day.  This restriction proved ineffective to keeping serfs bound to their original land. In 1649 serfs were prohibited from moving totally.  Recovery periods were extended to four years, then to five years, and eventually there was no cut-off for recovering serfs who fled their lands.  Even when serfs could leave, landowners did what they could to keep them in their lands by giving loans for the serfs to pay off over time and even charging exit fees which would increase by the number of years a serf was in a certain land.

While serfdom was not necessarily slavery, it still an institution which oppressed the majority of the Russian population.  Though it ended only four years before the abolition slavery in the United States, it was deemed a necessary evil for many a Russian monarch in order to keep nobles appeased, and had been in existence for centuries longer than American slavery ever was.

Nicholas and the Decembrists

At the very beginning of his reign, Nicholas I faced rebellion as his succession to the throne was called into question.  3,000 members of the Russian military stood against the state on the date which subjects were to pledge fielty to the new emperor.

As Alexander I had no heirs before his sudden death, the next logical successor was his brother Constantine.  Constantine was favored by Russian subjects as they viewed him to be more liberalized, mainly because he was living in Poland and isolated from St. Petersburg society.  A reign under Constantine would have been interesting, as he was the Viceroy of Poland, had more training to rule than his younger brother, Nicholas, and was married to a catholic Polish commoner.  Arguably, Constantine had the makings to be another reforming monarch; however, Constantine would never rule as he privately refused to rule.  Since Constantine’s decision not to become the next emperor, Russian subjects were left in the dark about the decision for Nicholas to rule instead.  As a result, rumors spread that Constantine may have been forced to denounce his rule, or that he was waiting to gather full support of the Polish army before taking the throne.

Either way, the Russian public, especially members of the Russian army, did not want Nicholas to come to power.  They witnessed his brash manner in the barracks, a dull personality, unnessecary brutality towards soldiers, and even the compete displacement of military groups as a part of “paradomania.”  This led to the formation of officer-led rebel groups within the ranks of the Russian army, which, unfortunately, were all defeated by Nicholas’ troops.

What was perhaps most interesting, as Marc Raeff mentions in The Decembrists, is that the Decembrists recognized the main issue with the state was the institution of Serfdom.  All agreed it needed to be abolished; however, no one could come up with a solution that would benefit both serfs and landowners.  Many were sore about how Alexander I had acknowledged the issue during his reign, but never acted upon ending it, like his grandmother, Catherine II.

Nicholas’ reign, as the Decembrists predicted, would be problematic in regards to the abolition of serfdom.  He had no training in statecraft, and his reign was one of conservatism and restrictions instead of progressive reform.  The start of his reign set a tone of reaction toward rebellion or notions of disapproval, meaning that instead of making state or social progress, he trammeled it severely.  Because of this, it pull Russia further into “backwardness” and continue the oppression of Russian serfs.

Emancipation Manifesto (1861)

The Emancipation Manifesto was established in 1861 during the reign of Alexander II. While this appeared to be a sudden, rash decision, in reality, the movement was quite logical. Russia’s pitiful defeat in the Crimean War revealed to officials the blatant inadequacies in the Russian governmental system. Eager to grow and develop industry and subsequently the military and political power, the abolishment of serfdom seemed a practical option. This would allow people who had been previously tied to the land to branch out and help jumpstart a market economy in Russia.

The document itself begins by establishing the government’s legitimacy, “Called by Divine Providence and by the sacred right of inheritance to the throne of Our Russian ancestors…” (307). Then the document continues to explain why the reform is needed, citing that “…the present state legislation favors the upper and middle classes…” (307). The document argues that a weakening of noblemen’s paternal attitude towards peasants was one factor that contributed to the deterioration of serfdom as a system. In essence, the government admitted that they relied too much on the nobles, and acknowledged that noblemen weren’t as honest and virtuous as they believed. The document noted “…these measures were ineffective, partly because they depended on the free, generous action of nobles…” (307). This was certainly deliberate, as this shifted the blame of serfdom to the noble class, not to the government specifically (even though they were the ones to initiate the system).

The document summarizes the ultimate decision regarding serfdom.  The document declared that serfs would be granted the rights given to free rural peasants. They were given their homes and allowed to continue in their livelihoods. Thus, any form of servitude was eradicated. Additionally, Alexander II established several offices specifically for the newly created peasants to ensure that serfdom would not continue.

I think the aspect of this document that I found most interesting was language used specifically in addressing the nobles, and how it evolves over the course of the document. As mentioned before, the selfishness of the noble class was cited as a reason for the initial lack of success with serfdom. However, all these sections are collectively under the title “We have deemed it advisable…” (309). This meant that perhaps these were suggestions to the nobles. Additionally, the document explicitly states that in order for this program to work, “We…rely on the zealous devotion of our nobility, to whom We express our gratitude…for the unselfish support it has given…” (310). In essence, even though the nobles are partly responsible for the failure of serfdom because of their dishonesty, they are still being relied on for the success of this new endeavor! Additionally, the establishment of these Offices for Peasant Affairs is another way the government would continue to rely on the nobles to administer these offices. It seems very hypocritical to me.

I think that this document can serve as an instance of how the government had to rely on the noble class, regardless of what they did. While they realized that they were part of the problem associated with serfdom, the government had no one else to rely on to maintain order.


Ask not what Russia can do for you but what you can do for Russia

The reading for today was a except from Dmytryshyn and contained a deceleration from Alexander II the then tzar of Russia freeing the surfs from their burden. In the deceleration he says that he with the cooperation and assistance of the nobles have devised a method of freeing the surfs without violating the nobles rights. They decide to free the surfs in two years. And that any freed surfs will receive some land and a stipend from the noble they were serving. In return they must fulfill their obligations to the nobles. The declaration also states that any surfs not working the fields but instead otherwise employed should work out an arrangement with their noble. The peasants office and the organization of peace were to be set up to determine the fairness of the proceedings.

The most interesting part of the deceleration was the last section were the now freed surfs are spoken to directly. In it they are told to act with in a appropriate way and bear their new obligations. I believe that this is the Russian version of “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. The government is telling the surfs to serve the same roles they are now and not to forfeit their jobs and move to a better location.

It’s the End of Their World as They Know it.

The emancipation of serfs and serfdom in 1861 was forced due to the realization that Russia was far more backwards in compared to other major European powers which prevented them from industrializing at the rate necessary. Although serfdom was far more prevalent in the South than the North due to the availability of healthy land and soil, it did decrease slightly between 1835 and 1858 based on the census taken these two years. Once Alexander II created The Emancipation Manifesto, he enabled Russia to move more towards modernization by completely freeing those who had been subjected to servitude for generations. In this manifesto, Alexander II allowed serfs to take the rights given to free rural inhabitants. Nobles were required to allow the serfs to keep their homes and to keep their livelihood. This was done in a way that allowed nobles to retain their power but enabled the serfs to take control of their lives without remaining in any form of servitude. In order to ensure that this reform was successful, Alexander II created offices specially designed to protect the interests of both the newly formed peasants and the nobles and prevent serfdom from returning.

How was serfdom able to continue to flourish in the 19th century when many Russian controlled territories did not have or allow for serfdom? What was the original consensus of the nobles when this reform began? How did this affect relationships between newly freed serfs and the rest of Russia’s population? Aside from allowing Russia to compete against other world powers why did Alexander decide in 1861 that it was necessary to emancipate serfs?

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.

Serfdom and American Slavery

There are interesting parallels between Russian serfdom and the form of slavery found in the Americas. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Russian serfdom changed dramatically. The beginning of the 16th century brought economic prosperity to Russia, but from the 1560’s into the early 1600’s Russia was struck by many brutal periods of chaos that combined to cause large reforms in serfdom. These reforms drastically restricted the movement of the serfs and turned serfs from peasants into property.

In the second half of the 16th century, Russia was affected by regime changes, instability, revolts, foreign interventions, crop failure and famine, and a government that didn’t have the strength or organization to provide for or protect the peasantry. The combination of these factors led to a steep decline in living conditions and prosperity for the peasants. Many of the peasants became slaves or criminals, but the majority packed up and left their homes to try and find better living conditions. The mass migrations of agricultural workers caused a great strain on the nation as a whole, as it could barely support the needs of the population.

Serfdom in Russia had become necessary due to the lack of labor and the Russian government instituted laws that rapidly took away the remaining freedom of the serfs. Slavery in the American colonies was used because of a lack of sufficient population for the necessary agricultural work. Both American slavery and Russian serfdom were used to compensate for an insufficient population of agricultural workers, but they also were similarly maintained by the respective governments for a time. The American government allowed slaves to be owned by specific people or households that typically required them to be stationary and work on farms and orchards, and the Russian government created laws that prevented serfs from leaving the land that they worked.

Russian serfdom and American slavery had some key similarities. Primarily, the usage of slaves/serfs to perform agricultural work, rather than work in secondary or tertiary industries. The main difference between them comes from the necessity of their existence. Slavery in the Americas was important because of economic reasons, but serfdom in Russia was necessary at the time in order to keep the nation functioning and stable.