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Slave, free, and kind of free

September 8, 2016

Alex K. catches Gary Saul Morson saying this:

Four years earlier [1861], the “tsar-liberator” Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) had at last abolished serfdom, a form of bondage making 90 percent of the population saleable property.

Which, AK says, is “quite an exaggeration. The serfs made up 34% of the empire’s total population and 38% of the total in its European part.” These figures are for the years leading up to the 1861 emancipation.

I turned to Peter Kolchin:

In 1678, according to [historical demographer Ia. E.] Vodarskii’s estimates, the male population of Russia, excluding the newly acquired Left-bank Ukraine and the Baltic region, was about 4.8 million. […] Nine-tenths of these people, or 4.3 million, were peasants. The peasant population was composed of the following groups:

Privately held peasants 2.3 million (53.5%)
Clerical peasants 0.7 million (16.3%)
Court peasants 0.4 million (9.3%)
State peasants 0.9 million (20.9%)

Thus, serfs (privately held and clerical) made up about seven-tenths of the peasant population [or 60-65% of the total population – EM]. (27)

Later, Kolchin gives these figures, citing V. M. Kabuzan: in 1795, the male population was 89.8% peasants (53.9% serfs and 36.0% state peasants), while in 1858 the male population was 83.0% peasants (39.2% serfs and 43.8% state peasants). Noblemen were 2.0% of the population in 1795 and only 1.6% in 1858. Interestingly the ratios of serfs to nobles (between 24 and 27 to 1) and peasants to nobles (between 45 and 52 to 1) are relatively constant, but the percentages of serfs, peasants, and noblemen out of the whole population all decline as the category of “other” jumps from 8.2% of the population in 1795 to 15.4% in 1858 (52, 366).

A charitable and, I think, a likely way to interpret Morson’s remark is that he meant that in 1861, Alexander II abolished a system that had once, as in 1678 and 1795, enslaved about 90% of the population, if you consider court peasants and state peasants “saleable property.” I could even imagine an editor changing “a form of bondage that once had made” to “a form of bondage making,” believing it made no difference.

I still don’t know if I get the status of state peasants (I imagine them as the ones who “used the Schism as a pretext and hid in the North, away from your pious tsars”). Kolchin says that “over the course of the eighteenth century hundreds of thousands of them had the misfortune of being converted into serfs as part of huge grants of land and peasants made by the tsars to favored noblemen” (39) and compares them to “free blacks in the slaveholding United States, like whom they were ‘slaves without masters’” (26). If combining them with serfs sensu stricto for an impressive 90% is questionable, it also seems misleading to group state and court peasants with the nobles, clergy, merchants, and raznochintsy when calculating this sort of percentage.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2016 3:17 pm

    Klyuchevsky estimated that there were 888 thousand “тягловых дворов” (tax-liable households) in Russia based on the 1678 census, and only 10% of them (including urban residents) were not in serfdom – to nobles and privileged servicemen, to monasteries and to the court. “Households” are a very rough proxy for “population” but it’s tempting to say that at the end of Tsar Alexey’s reign 90% of Russia’s commoners were serfs.

    According to Kabuzan, there were more free (“free”) peasants than serfs by 1861, so things did change for the better from 1795. S. M. Soloviev remarks in the memoir for his children that the simple way to explain the meaning of emancipation to a serf in 1861 would have been, “you’re going to be like a state peasant now.” I understand that the “state peasant” class absorbed the черносошные (“black-ard,” “black-plow”) peasants, who had been free from the start, plus the однодворцы (no idea how to translate this), the former monastery serfs (Catherine II secularized church property) and other free settlers, mostly in Siberia.


  1. Russia’s un-democratic feudalism | The Dilettante's Winterings Russia’s un-democratic feudalism | At 55°45' N.L.

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