The origins of serfdom in Russia (крепостничество, or krepostnichestvo) may be traced to the 11th century, however, the most complete form of feudal exploitation enveloped only certain categories of rural population. In the 12th century, the exploitation of the so-called zakups on arable lands (ролейные (пашенные) закупы, or roleyniye (pashenniye) zakupy) andcorvee smerds (Russian term for corvee is барщина, or barschina) was the closest to what is now known as serfdom. According to the Russkaya Pravda, a princely smerd had limitedproperty and personal rights. His escheat was given to the prince and his life was equated with that of the kholop, meaning his murder was punishable by 5yh grivnas.
Thirteenth to fifteenth centuries
In the 13th to 15th centuries, feudal dependency applied to a significant number of peasants, but serfdom as we know it was still not a widespread phenomenon. In the mid-15th century the right of certain categories of peasants in some votchinas to leave their master was limited to a period of one week before and after the so-called Yuri's Day (November 26). TheSudebnik of 1497 officially confirmed this time limit as universal for everybody and also established the amount of the "break-away" fee called pozhiloye (пожилое). The legal code ofIvan III of Russia, Sudebnik (1497), strengthened the dependency of peasants, statewide, and restricted their mobility. The Russians persistently battled against the successor states of the Golden Horde, chiefly the Khanate of Crimea. Annually the Russian population of the borderland suffered from Tatar invasions and tens of thousands of noblemen protected the southern borderland (a heavy burden for the state), which slowed its social and economic development and expanded the taxation of peasantry.
The Sudebnik of 1550 increased the amount of pozhiloye and introduced an additional tax called za povoz (за повоз , or transportation fee), in case a peasant refused to bring theharvest from the fields to his master. A temporary (Заповедные лета, or Forbidden years) and later an open-ended prohibition for peasants to leave their masters was introduced by theukase of 1597, which also defined the so-called fixed years (Урочные лета, or urochniye leta), or the 5-year time frame for search of the runaway peasants. In 1607, a new ukase defined sanctions for hiding and keeping the runaways: the fine had to paid to the state and pozhiloye - to the previous owner of the peasant.
Most of the dvoryane were content with the long time frame for search of the runaway peasants. The major landowners of the country, however, together with the dvoryane of the south, were interested in a short-term persecution due to the fact that many runaways would usually flee to the southern parts of Russia. During the first half of the 17th century the dvoryane sent their collective petitions (челобитные, or chelobitniye) to the authorities, asking for the extension of the "fixed years". In 1642, the Russian government established a 10-year limit for search of the runaways and 15-year limit for search for peasants taken away by their new owners.
The Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Соборное уложение, or Code of Law) of 1649 introduced an open-ended search for those on the run, meaning that all of the peasants who had fled from their masters after the census of 1626 or 1646–1647 had to be returned. The government would still introduce new time frames and grounds for search of the runaways after 1649, which applied to the peasants who had fled to the outlying districts of the country, such as regions along the border abatises called zasechniye linii (засечные линии) (ukases of 1653 and 1656), Siberia (ukases of 1671, 1683 and 1700), Don (1698) etc. The dvoryane constantly demanded that the search for the runaways be sponsored by the government. The legislationof the second half of the 17th century paid much attention to the means of punishment of the runaways.
There were numerous rebellions against this bondage, most often in conjunction with Cossack uprisings, such as the uprisings of Ivan Bolotnikov (1606–1607), Stenka Razin (1667–1671), Kondraty Bulavin (1707–1709) and Yemelyan Pugachev (1773–1775). While the Cossack uprisings benefited from disturbances among the peasants, and they in turn received an impetus from Cossack rebellion, none of the Cossack movements were directed against the institution of serfdom itself. Instead, peasants in Cossack-dominated areas became Cossacks, thus escaping from the peasantry rather than directly organizing peasants against the institution. Between the end of the Pugachev rebellion and the beginning of the 19th century, there were hundreds of outbreaks across Russia, and there was never a time when the peasantry was completely quiescent.
Russian army raids
The Polish historian, Jerzy Czajewski, wrote that the Russian peasants were escaping from Russia to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in significant enough numbers to become a major concern for the Russian Government and sufficient to play a role in its decision to partition the Commonwealth. Increasingly in the 18th century until the partitions solved this problem, Russian armies raided territories of the Commonwealth, officially to recover the escapees, but in fact kidnapping many locals.
Slaves and serfs
As a whole, serfdom both came and remained in Russia much later than in other European countries. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Greatconverted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries
Bourgeois were allowed to own serfs 1721-62 and 1798–1816, this was to encourage industrialisation. In 1804, 52% of Russian factory workers were serfs,46% in 1825. Landless serfs rose from 4.14% in 1835 to 6.79% in 1858. They received no land in the emancipation. Landlords deliberately increased the number of domestic serfs when they anticipated serfdom's demise.
Numerous documents dated from the 1820s through the end of Russia’s Imperial era which pertain to police investigations, court records and trial transcriptsMorrissey, S. “Patriarchy on Trial: Suicide, Discipline, and Governance in Imperial Russia.” The Journal of Modern History 75, no. 1 (Mar., 2003): 23-58suggest that three commonly ascribed reasons for suicidebecame prominent views of the former crime within Russian society: (1) illnesses of the mind and more abstract concepts such as feelings of inner turmoil, torment or persecution resulted in many suicides. These cases were typically said to have mitigating circumstances for suicide, and thus the body was treated to a proper Christian burial. Koslofsky, C. "Suicide and the secularization of the body in early modern Saxony." Continuity and Change. 16, no. 1 (2001): 45-70(2) Another commonly attributed cause for suicide was the culmination of an individual’s moral failure, which included “drunkenness, debauchery, depravity, and impudence.”This particular view very likely sprung from reports related to incidents of serfs committing suicide once being freed by their owner. One particularly well-known example is the case of Grigorii Miasnikov, who committed suicide on 1 September 1828. A talented young man, Miasnikov received freedom from his owner so that he could pursue an education in art, which he displayed an aptitude for. However, his owner demanded that he leave art school and return to work. Though Miasnikov’s suicide could fall into the category of the natural outcome of the serf without his owner, it was in actuality an act of protest against the institution of serfdom itself. Miasnikov left behind a suicide note which read: ‘Forgive me, my most beloved friends. Do not reproach me for my act — I am showing you how one must oppose the superciliousness of ambitious men. My dear friend Vasilii Egorovich—write on my tomb that I died for freedom. Forgive me.’“In the Name of Freedom: Suicide, Serfdom, and Autocracy in Russia.” SEER 82, no. 2 (2004): 268-91
Because of this note, in conjunction with the other details of his suicide (which are discussed further down), the court charged Miasnikov’s body with the political offense of “discussing governmental reform”rather than the criminal offense of committing suicide. In addition to that, the mode by which he chose to kill himself—a gun, the favoured weapon of choice for noblemen and military officers— and the place where he performed the action, the art school’s Gallery of Antiquity, both evoked the image of a romantic hero, which could be interpreted as Miasnikov making himself a model for future protests against serfdom as a patriarchal institution. However, these details were covered up and his suicide was publicly recognised as being no different from others. Then again, there were those serfs who truly found themselves at a loss without the guidance of their owner. One such serf was able to explain the reason for his suicide as he lay dying from his self-inflicted wounds. He was often unable to find work and was without a place to live, and subsequently began to suffer from “pensiveness,”which may be interpreted in this case as depressed thought or mood congruent memory. (3) The third possibility was that a serf committed suicide as the result of constant or exceptionally harsh treatment by a cruel owner. This motivation was defined as the instigation of a suicide. Under Peter the Great, suicide and attempted suicide becamefelony offenses in Russia; as suicide had become a criminal offense, the Church no longer retained the discretion to decide how to handle them. However, instigation of suicide was regarded with more seriousness than either of those, likened more closely to premeditated murder. Instigation of suicide was also a crime unique to Russian and Soviet legal proceedings, since the very idea worked in tandem with patriarchical and paternalist principles, which is shown by the text: "Parents, guardians, and other individuals possessing some sort of power, who, through the manifest abuse of this power combined with cruelty, drive a subordinate or someone entrusted to their guardianship to commit suicide, are [subject to the following penalties]: the loss of certain rights ... and privileges and incarceration in a house of correction for a term lasting from eight months to one year and four months; in addition, if they are Christians, they are to be assigned a church penance, as determined by their spiritual authority."
As serfs made up at least half of Russia’s population for centuries, it is unsurprising that the highest percentage of suicides were committed by this social group. Women and peasants, who would compose the larger proportion of suicides after the abolition of serfdom in Russia, were less often victims of self-murder. Additionally, they did not necessarily suffer from the same situations as a serf might, which were surmised as motivations for suicide: “anger, fear of punishment, melancholy, fear of military recruitment, fear of punishment, melancholy, punishment already inflicted (by a serf owner), and avoidance of punishment.”A variety of ideas arose, all supporting the theories mentioned above and more, attempting to puzzle out why a serf would commit self-murder. Within the sphere of conjecture remained the logical assumption that a serf’s actions were spurred on by either a cruel master, or that they fell victim to personal thoughts and feelings of “melancholy,” which may be understood in the modern day as depression. Serf suicides remained prevalent in Russian society right up until the abolishment of the institution of serfdom in 1861, under Emperor Alexander II. After the removal of the institution, suicides lost their high concentration within a certain social class and the numbers dispersed amongst women, children and people of lower classes. With the centuries-long tradition of serfdom having come to an end, the total social order came under scrutiny by society. In particular, other forms of patriarchy which became more evident in different sectors of Russian society (in the home, schools and the military, for example)where the crime of instigated suicide became more prominent. In particular, the question of women’s place in society became a topic of discussion in Russian society.
Serfdom's Extent in Russia
By the mid-19th century, the peasants composed a majority of the population, and according to the census of 1857 the number of private serfs was 23.1 million out of 62.5 million Russians,37.7% of the population.
The exact numbers, according to official data, were: entire population 60,909,309; peasantry of all classes 49,486,665; state peasants 23,138,191; peasants on the lands of proprietors 23,022,390; peasants of the appanages and other departments 3,326,084. State peasants were considered personally free, but their freedom of movement was restricted.
|% serfs on estates of...||1700||1861|
% serf owners with under 100 serfs
Russian serfdom depended entirely on the traditional and extensive technology of the peasantry. Yields remained low and stationary throughout most of the 19th century. Any increase in income drawn from agriculture was largely through increasing land area and extensive grain raising by means of exploitation of the peasant labor, that is, by burdening the peasant household still further.
Serfs owned by European Russian landlords
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|No. of serfs||1777%||1859%|
% peasants enserfed in each province, 1860
+55%: Kaluga Kiev Kostroma Kutaisi Minsk Mogilev Nizhny Novgorod Podolia Riazan Smolensk Tula Vitebsk Vladimir Volhynia Yaroslavl
36-55%: Chernigov Grodno Kovno Kursk Moscow Novgorod Orel Penza Poltava Pskov Saratov Simbirsk Tambov Tver Vilna
In the black earth region 70-77% of the serfs performed labour services (barshchina), the rest paid rent (obrok) Owing to the high fertility, 70% of Russian cereal production in the 1850s was here. In the 7 central provinces, 1860, 67.7% of the serfs were on obrok.
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia
In 1816, 1817 and 1819 serfdom was abolished in Estland, Courland and Livonia respectively. However all the land stayed in noble hands and labor rent lasted till 1868. It was replaced with landless laborers and sharecropping (halbkörner). Landless workers had to ask permission to leave an estate.
In 1861 all serfs were freed in a major agrarian reform, stimulated by the fear voiced by Tsar Alexander II that "it is better to liberate the peasants from above" than to wait until they won their freedom by risings "from below." Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to increase revolutionary pressures. Between 1864 to 1871 serfdom was abolished in Georgia. In Kalmykia serfdom was only abolished in 1892.
The nobles kept nearly all the meadows and forests, had their debts paid by the state while the ex serfs paid 34% over the market price for the shrunken plots they kept. This figure was 90% in the northern regions, 20% in the black earth region but zero in the Polish provinces. In 1857, 6.79% of serfs were domestic, landless servants who stayed landless after 1861. Only Polish and Romanian domestic serfs got land. 90% of the serfs who got larger plots were in the 8 ex Polish provinces where the Tsar wanted to weaken the Szlachta. In the whole Empire, peasant land declined 4.1%,13.3% outside the ex Polish zone and 23.3% in the 16 black earth provinces. These redemption payments were not abolished till January 1, 1907.