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Was serfdom slavery?

July 6, 2012
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Since slavery is a recurring topic here, I thought I should address this comment from Kolya in its own post:

I enjoy your blog but don’t know why you equate serfdom with slavery (and serfs with slaves.) Both serfdom and slavery were evil institutions, but they were not the same. As bad as it was for the serfs, by and large serfs had more autonomy than slaves. Serfdom was terrible and unjust, but slavery was even worse. This is not “merely a matter of semantics.”

I agree that Russian serfdom and American slavery were terrible but different, and it’s important to keep the differences in mind.

But it was also different being a slave in Kentucky than in Mississippi, not to mention being one of the 54 slaves in the 1840 census in Connecticut. Slavery was not the same in the nineteenth century as in the eighteenth. In the European portion of the Russian empire in 1858, serfs were a majority in most of the western and central provinces, but less than 10 percent of the population in a few places. State peasants had a different life than serfs owned directly by the gentry. If, in Kolya’s view, using one word, “slavery,” to describe the Russian and American systems improperly obscures their differences, surely using “slavery” and “serfdom” masks internal variations that are quite important too.

I like “slave” and “slavery” in the Russian context because I feel that, at least from an American perspective, it’s useful to be reminded that the Russian system also meant people owning people. Both slaves and serfs had to work for their owners’ benefit, could be beaten, could not travel without permission, and had no legal recourse against despotic masters. Their families could be divided, or their owners could deny them permission to marry. The word “serfdom” calls to mind peasants in medieval Western Europe who were bound to the land but not bought and sold in the manner of nineteenth-century American and Russian slaves/serfs.

Peter Kolchin has an excellent discussion of whether to consider serfdom the same as or different from slavery. He notes that contemporary Russians used the words рабство and рабы to refer to Russian serfs as well as American slaves (cf. Я видел красный день: в России нет раба!); that contemporary English and French visitors argued that Russian serfs were essentially slaves; and that the consensus of historians is that Russian serfdom either was slavery or “‘very closely approached’ slavery.” On the other hand, Russian serfdom was different in that the serfs belonged to the same ethnic group as their owners and, as Kolya says, had more autonomy (see pp. 43-46).

Suppose we were talking about religion instead of slavery. Using the words “mosque,” “church,” “synagogue,” and “temple” emphasizes the differences between religions. Using “church” in all Christian contexts obscures internal variation between Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and other forms of Christianity. In other languages (and, I believe, historical and regional varieties of English) different words are used for different kinds of church (here is an example of the Russian word костел and a three-way contrast of костел, кирка, and церковь). Using “house of worship” is properly inclusive, but loses the clarity and emotional associations each of the other terms has. When Kolchin uses “unfree labor” as the title of his book, he’s creating a “house of worship” term. But I think it’s as appropriate to use the single term “slavery” for the Russian and American systems as they existed in the first six decades of the nineteenth century, as it is to use the single term “church” for Russian and American institutions that also were different in important ways.

Last year I touched on this issue and started a list of literary commonplaces about slavery that the two cultures do or don’t seem to share. See also Julie W. de Sherbinin’s reading of Levin in Anna Karenina as analogous to a white American borrowing from black culture.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2012 8:23 am

    I entirely agree. I used to unthinkingly assume serfdom was entirely different from slavery, basically because not only were they two different words (the linguistic fallacy) but, as you say, “serf” made me think of peasants in medieval Europe. I forget in what book I read it (I grow old, I grow old), but some historian laid out the overwhelming similarities in the situations of American slaves and Russian serfs, and I realized that insisting on the differences was basically dismissing the hell that serfdom was. No terminology is perfect, but I think more is gained than lost by referring to serfs as slaves.

  2. July 9, 2012 8:47 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to have traveled that path. I’m struck more and more by how alike serfdom and slavery can seem in literature – though of course that may say something about mid-century Russians reading Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as writers everywhere reacting to what they saw.

  3. February 7, 2017 8:33 am

    I just ran across this, from the excellent Gasan Guseinov (in this radio talk, with transcript), and thought I’d add it here:

    В России слово «раб» традиционно подменялось эвфемизмом «крепостной крестьянин», и это позволяло даже знающим людям многие десятилетия уходить от серьезного обсуждения проблемы рабства. И в эпоху колхозного строя, и во времена массовых переселений или других преследований людей по вот этому самому признаку рабства. Попробуй только заговорить о рабстве в России!

    Euphemism is indeed a useful thing if you’re trying to cover up blatant inhumanity.

    • March 12, 2017 1:10 am

      Thanks for adding this! I’m sometimes wary of attempts to equate with slavery more recent acts of inhumanity that happen(ed) in spite of (and not in execution of) the law as it exists on paper, or where people’s slavelike status isn’t automatically inherited by their children, but after clicking through to the full transcript, I think I get what Guseinov is saying. And I certainly agree with you both about euphemism.

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