It’s impossible to ignore the fact that there have been some extremely bleak periods in Russian history and while living memory exists to put the grim, Stalinist regime at the forefront of our minds, the era of Russian serfdom was longer, and in many ways just as hard to bear for those that lived with it.
The timeline of Russian serfdom stretches for an incredible 800 years and in the main, was the backdrop for unspeakable hardship and suffering.
Origins of Russian Serfdom
Russian serfdom has its origins in the 11th century and the long period is believed to have started in the Kievan Rus’. However, feudal dependency and exploitation wasn’t widespread in Russia at this time so the practice was largely isolated in this area alone.
Through the course of the next two centuries, serfdom began to become much more widespread and an explosion took place in the 13th century as a result of the Tartar devastation.
With many thousands of Russian peasants becoming homeless, those that survived were forced to settle on the land of wealthy Russian landowners and the feudal system began to take hold. Serfdom itself was still isolated to an extent however and many peasants still had rights, including the stipulation that some were free to leave their masters, provided that they gave appropriate notice.
As serfdom grew however, those rights became much rarer. In 1550, the amount of the pozhiloye- the fee required to free a peasant from their master was made higher and additional taxes were introduced. These were punitive measures and the sums involved were beyond the reach of most labourers.
At the very end of the century, measures were introduced that essentially brought in an open ended prohibition when it came to peasants leaving their land. Any that were found to have runaway were severely dealt with.
This was a turning point in the history of Russian serfdom because the rich landowners were given a free reign to treat their workers as they wished. Many were cruel masters who operated in the knowledge that the peasants had little choice but to carry on in their employ, or leave and suffer a potentially worse fate.
Faced with this invidious choice of staying as a slave to a cruel master or attempting escape and an unknown fate, many serfs were distressed enough to commit suicide.
In the years that followed the long period of serfdom in Russia, many documents have emerged that chronicle the vast number of serf suicides by those who felt trapped by their circumstances.
A merciful end
In 1861, the Emancipation Reform started to bring an end to the centuries of suffering, experienced by peasants across Russia. You can read more about this reform in our emancipation of the serfs article.
In some areas of the Empire, reform was slow but in time, the act resulted in the liberty of some twenty-three million Russian peasants.
It had been eight centuries in the making but the Emancipation Reform ended one of the bleakest periods in the lives of ordinary Russians.