Learn more about Russian serfdom
The origins of serfdom in Russia are traced to Kievan Rus in the 11th century. Legal documents of the epoch, such as Russkaya Pravda, distinguished several degrees of feudal dependency of peasants. Traditionally, the term for a peasant of the epoch of feudalism in Imperial Russia, krepostnoi krestyanin (крепостной крестьянин), is translated as serf.
The legal code of Ivan III of Russia, Sudebnik (1497), strengthened the dependency of peasants, statewise, and restricted their mobility. The Russians persistently battled against the successor states of the Golden Horde, chiefly the Khanate of Crimea. Tens of thousand 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.
After the passage of laws which further restricted the peasant's right to free movement, the vast majority of the Russian populace was finally bound in full serfdom. Serfs were given estates in the Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Соборное уложение, "Code of Law") of 1649; and flight was made a criminal offense in 1658. Russian landowners eventually gained almost unlimited ownership over Russian serfs. The landowner could transfer the serf without the land to another landowner while keeping the serf's personal property and family, however the landowner had no right to kill the serf. As a whole serfdom came to Russia much later than in other European countries.
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 nineteenth century, there were hundreds of outbreaks across Russia, and there was never a time when the peasantry was completely quiescent. By the mid-eighteenth century, the serfs composed a majority of the population, according to the census of 1857 the number of serfs was 23.1 million of the 62.5 million of Russians.
Russian serfdom depended entirely on the traditional and extensive technology of the peasantry. Yields remained low and stationary throughout most of the nineteenth century. Any increase in income drawn from agriculture was drawn 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.
In Russian Baltic provinces (Courland, Estonia, Livonia) serfdom, however, was abolished at the beginning of 19th century.
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.
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) and corvee 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 limited property 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 5 grivnas.
In the 13th-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). The Sudebnik 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 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 the harvest from the fields to his master. A temporary (Заповедные лета, or Prohibition years) and later an open-ended prohibition for peasants to leave their masters was introduced by the ukase 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 legislation of the second half of the 17th century paid much attention to the means of punishment of the runaways.
 See also
 External links
 Further reading
- (Russian) Князьков, С. Как сложилось и как пало крепостное право в России. 1906
- (Russian) Энгельман, И. История крепостного права в России. М., 1900pt:Kreopostnoje Pravo