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Peasants and Serfs in the Russian Empire

When Czar Nicholas I emancipated the serfs of the Russian Empire in 1861 it was not so much a liberal revolution as a return to traditional standards - for serfdom was not an ages-old institution in Russia, as in Western Europe, but a relatively late-developing tangent to the rise of imperial, centralized power. Historically, the great majority of the Russian people have been peasants, and by the mid-19th century almost all peasants were either serfs of private landowners or in serflike bondage to the state.

It was not always so. In Kievan Russia (879 A.D. - 1240 A.D.), and under the Tartar occupations (11th century - 14th century), most peasants had been freedmen, though there were some who were simple slaves. Though the process of the establishment of serfdom in Russia is variously interpreted, it can be generally identified as resulting from three factors: peasant indebtedness, the fiscal needs of the rising imperial government, and the need for agricultural labor.

During the 15th century, the peasants became increasingly dependent on the nobles as tenants, paying them in money, barter or labor for the use of their land. The peasants also paid taxes to the nascent state being created in Moscow by Ivan the Terrible (died 1584) and his early successors. Increasing numbers of peasants borrowed money from landowners, and agreed to stay on the same land until they could repay their debts. As this was rarely possible, the end result was that a large portion of the peasantry became bound to the soil. The government had an interest in this development since it needed the peasants' taxes for its revenue - and needed to ensure that its taxpayers would always be available in the same place.

Despite several centuries of relative domestic peace following the expulsion of the Tartars from Russia, by the 1600s there was a constant threat of labor shortage in agriculture, damaging the interests of landowners and the state trea...

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