Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

As an American Studies major, I found Peter Kolchin’s The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor to be absolutely fascinating. Kolchin’s purpose in the introduction we read is to delineate the similarities and differences between the causes and realities of Russian serfdom and American slavery. Kolchin begins by detailing the origins of Russian serfdom. Serfs originally had freedom to move around the country; however, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century this right was restricted and eventually abolished because serf migration caused too much disruption and therefore decreased the amount of agricultural labor being performed. In America at the end of the seventeenth/beginning of the eighteenth century, Africans brought through the slave trade replaced English indentured servants as the main source of labor. Because slaves worked for life and reproduced, they were more economically beneficial than indentured servants, who only worked for several years, whose children were not automatically enslaved, and who therefore always had to be replaced.

Kolchin then provides a discussion of why slavery occurred, arguing that, at least in Russia and America, a surplus of land and a small amount of laborers led land owners to force people into working for them. Kolchin finally cites the two main differences between American slavery and Russian serfdom: first, American slaves were “aliens,” of a different nationality, race, and religion to their masters, while Russian serfs were almost always the same nationality and had similar customs; and second, American slaves did all of their work for their masters, paying them nothing and receiving some sustenance in return, whereas Russian serfs paid their Lords rent, worked part-time for their them and part-time cultivating their own land.

I thought that Kolchin’s point on Russian serfs not being racially different from their Lords to be very interesting. He explains that, while many Americans imagined a United States without blacks, Russia depended upon its outsiders, defining them not as outsiders, but as “the people.” Still, as serfdom continued over centuries, the class lines hardened between noble and serf, so that “nobleman and peasant seemed as different from each other as white and black, European and African” (Kolchin 45). This implies that the distinction between the serf and the noble came to be considered as innate, and not merely a consequence of who owned the land. To me, this section brings up the question of race. “Race” was socially constructed to justify the maltreatment of certain individuals who looked different–based on skin color, eye shape, etc.–from others. I wonder if Russian serfs were ever thought to be a different “race” from the nobles (similar to how Africans were a different “race” from Europeans) as a justification for the enslavement. Or, was race simply not as much of an “issue” in Russia as it was in America?


Serfdom in Russia

Within this particular chapter, there was one aspect that stood out to me. I was surprised at the number of types of serfs that were discussed. Prior to taking this course, I had thought that a serf was a single type of individual, and there wasn’t any differentiation because they were collectively seen as the lowest within Russia society. In addition to the serfs that most people associate with the title, there were also industrial serfs, as well as household serfs.

In the reading, the author discusses the development of “possessional factories” that were established by the state to assuage the difficulties associated with a scarce labor supply. These operations were run by merchants usually and had “possessional workers” attached to these establishments.  The book notes that in reality, these workers were really industrial serfs, meaning that instead of belonging to an individual, they belonged to a factory.

In contrast to industrial serfs, household serfs were seen as the lowest within the serf hierarchy. With no land to till, these individuals acted as domestic servants, within the master’s household. These people essentially were slaves, and were kept under constant control . However, the authors noted that some household serfs had the opportunity to rise socially, and even receive an education.

I found this aspect of the chapter to be interesting because I would like to learn more about industrial and household serfs compared to typical serfs (I’m assuming “regular” serfs constituted as the majority of serfs in Russia). For instance were there any stark contrasts between the groups that would have prevented them from unifying in a revolt? It would be interesting to find out if there were such differences, amongst the groups, and if subsequently they each had different goals or grievances.

18th Century Serfdom

Something that stood out to me in this chapter was the quote by Sumner at the beginning of the reading.  He states that serfdom lasted longer in Russia than in the West because “humanitarian and other ideas of the value of the individual spirit were little developed.”  It is strange to attempt to reconcile that fact that Catherine the Great set up a Noble Wardship and a Bureau of Public Welfare for the peasants but that she was also the monarch responsible for entrenching serfdom the most.  I understand that there was a division between peasants and serfs, but I do not agree with Sumner’s statement.  I think that in Russia, at least on a theoretical level, there was a conception of individual rights and social duty.  In the “Charter to the Towns” for example, the merchants were granted private property based on their individual right and under law.  Obviously the concept of individual rights applied more to the upper classes than to the peasants, but I would go as far to say that serfdom became so important because of the new Enlightenment value placed on the individual.  The serfs became the patrimony of the nobles and the merchants because the upper classes were entitled to them by virtue of being a human with an inalienable right to property.  It is hard to apply humanitarian and spiritual concerns to a group of people barely considered human by law.

On a related note, I was surprised to learn that merchant run factories had the ability to own their own peasants as “industrial serfs.”  I do not think of Russian factories at this time period to be mechanized enough to support unskilled labor and had assumed that there would be more unindustrialized craft involved.