In the old days trade in agricultural products, lumber and other raw materials was controlled by merchants who were organized into guilds whose power was based on how much capital was at their disposal. This system was most pervasive in areas where large grain surpluses were produced. Often times grain producers bypassed this system and sold grain themselves in the market towns.

There was a great deal of industrial growth in the 18th century. Mines and factories were opened. Cottage industries produced a large number of goods that were exported. Steam power was harnessed, especially in the textile industry in the early 19th century.

Responding in part to increased German and Japanese militarism in the late 19th century and early 20th century , a great emphasis was placed on heavy industrial production. Huge numbers of workers were necessary and forced labor was harnessed make the system work. Millions were put to work under these conditions between 1933 and 1957.


Russian society was largely organized along military lines, with the upper classes as the officers and serfs as the enlisted men and grunts. Society was "structured for the service of the state." The government had "patrimonial outlook" and people were "completely at the disposal" of the ruler.

In the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great's about 99 percent of all Russians were illiterate, including judges and army officers. Women who did not do as they were told were often forced into convents. In the tsarist era, many children were deposited at foundling hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg where they had a very good chance of dying.

The Boyars were the old Russian nobility—usually landlords with estates and privileges. They were often involved in commercial activities. The Russian aristocracy included grand dukes, dukes, princes, counts and barons and great families like the Yusupovs, the Shuvalovs, Sheremetevs.

Lifestyles of the Rich in the Nineteenth Century

The Russian aristocracy enjoyed social gatherings at their estates, picnics in the country and trips to the seashore. The sometimes escaped the Russian winter by heading to warm climates in Venice, the Crimea and southern France. Noblemen that were unable to make a sufficient living from the land became imperial bureaucrats and military officers.

The richest and most famous of the Russian aristocratic families was the Strogonovs. They owned huge swaths of land and ran large salt and iron mines. The were so rich they built that rivaled those of the tsars. Their grandest palace in St. Petersburg has been turned into the Russian Museum. They commissioned so many icons they had an icon school named after them.

The spa of Baden Baden in Germany became popular with rich and influential Russians after the czarina Elizabeth took regular vacations there with her huge entourage. Tolstoy liked to visit there. Turgenev carried on a not-so-secret affair with a Spanish diva in his mansion there. Dostoevsky gambled away the money he obtained from pawning his wife’s wedding ring and recounted his experience in the novel The Gambler.

Book: Life on the Russia Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History by Priscilla Roosevelt (Yale, 1995).

Russian Serfdom

Serfs were defined as peasant farmers who paid "soul tax" to the tsar. Those who didn't pay the tax were conscripted into the army for terms of 20 years, a fate that was equated with a sentence of death.

Some Russian estates had hundreds of thousands of serfs. These estates often were not just agricultural enterprises. Some aristocrats set up serf-run factories that produced porcelain, glass, linen, paper, alcoholic beverages, upholstery fabrics, shawls, furniture, watches and clocks.

The horses of a royal family were often treated much better than their servants and serfs. At the Czarkoye Tsel—the main summer residence of the czars—there is a graveyards with some quite elaborate marble tombstones for horses owned by the czars and the families but nothing remotely like them for servants or serfs. There was also retirement stables for horses that featured low, arched windows that gave elderly horses a pleasant view of the fields and forests outside their stable.

History of Russian Serfdom

Serfdom began in the medieval period and has its roots in the rule of Ivan III. When he captured Novgorod in 1478 he threw out West-leaning governors and closed Russia's "Window to the West." He replaced the traditional patrimonial system ( votchina), in which noblemen had absolute control over their land and people, with a new system of land tenure ( pomestie, or "estate"), in which noblemen had to answer Ivan III. Those that didn't go along had their land confiscated.

The move was mainly political: to keep the princes from acting too independently and rebelling and causing trouble. The new system changed society. The new landowners were often little more than administrative civil servants, mostly interested in maintaining in control. Before 1500, peasants often had a fair amount of freedom. After meeting the needs of their landowner, they were free to work for themselves and even change their masters. The new system tied them to the land.

During a bitter famine in the 16th century and the Time of Trouble, many peasants began abandoning their landlords and heading to Siberia and the open steppe where there were no landlords. Some joined the Cossack. The exodus hurt the landlords as productive agricultural land was left lie fallow as there were no serfs to till the land.

Boris Godonov (ruled 1598-1605) created more stringent rules that formally bound all serfs to their land. This is regarded as the formal beginning of serfdom. In 1646, the tsar government passed laws that prohibited peasant from moving freely. In 1649 serfdom was fully established by law. In 1675 serfs lost all claims to land. Serfdom reached its nadir in the 18th century when Aleksandr Radishchev’s A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow revealed horrible abuses.

Under Catherine the Great (ruled1762-1796) the number of serfs increased dramatically to around 18 million at the time of her death. The serfs had no rights and their survival was often based on the whims of their masters. One noblewoman in Catherine's time commented, "What is the use of the nobility being free if we are not free to bet our serfs?" By the mid 19th century there were 30 million serfs in Russia, about one third of the population.

Nicholas I (ruled 1825-1855) Nicholas I gave the serfs on state lands (about half of all serfs) title to their land, essentially freeing them. In 1817-19, Baltic peasants were liberated from serfdom but given no land. In 1861, Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) emancipated the serfs.

Serf Theater, Dead Souls and Large Estates

Serf theater was a form of entertainment unique to Russia. Reaching the height of its popularity in the late 18th century, it was made up of serf theater troops financed by wealthy landlords for their entertainment. The troupes performed dramas, comedies and dances for aristocrats but sometimes also for local peasants too.

The novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is based on the fact that in tsarist times landowners often bought serfs from one another and sold the names of dead serfs. The main character, Chichikov, achieves status and wealth by purchasing "dead souls" (the names of serfs who have died) from other landowners. Russian landowners had to pay taxes on serfs even if they were dead until new censuses were taken. Selling “dead souls” alleviated landowners of their tax burden while making Chichikov wealthy by owning lots of serfs. As the story develops it becomes clear that Chichikov is the devil as his goal is to acquire souls for hell.

Count Sheremetev was one of the richest aristocrats in Russia in the 18th century. By one count he owned 1,200 villages and 200,000 serfs. Inside his Ostankino Palace in Moscow, a pink-and-white, stucco-covered wooden mansion, are rooms filled with ornate furniture and paintings. The main attraction is a theater-ballroom used for performances by Shermetev’s 250-member serf theater troupe. The Count built it for his wife, a former serf, who was a famous actress. Kuskovo, Sheremetev’s country estate, features a pond where mock naval battles were held.

Arkhangelskoe (14 miles west of Moscow) is a grand, old estate located on a great bend in the Moscow river. It was owned by a Nikolay Yusupov, a fabulously rich nobleman with thousand of serfs and 300 mistresses. The main mansion contains halls decorated with Yusupov's extensive collects of paintings, tapestries, porcelain and glass and a serf theater. Rich landowners weren’t the only ones who owned serfs. Novodevichy Convent in Moscow was once a major landowner, with 36 villages and 15,000 serfs. Moderate landowners had about 200 serfs.

The tsar also put serfs to work. St. Petersburg is sometimes called the city “built on bones” and “founded on tears and corpses." Hundreds of thousands serfs and slave laborers from all over Russia were put to work by Peter the Great, digging canals, dragging stones, draining the swampland, driving 16-foot-long oak pilings into the swamps and erecting buildings. Much of the digging was done by hand and the dirt carried in shirts. Tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, are believed to have died from overwork and diseases like scurvy and dysentery.

Comparison Between Serfdom and Slavery

Russian serfdom was not that much different from American slavery. Both serfs and slaves could be bought and sold separately from the land. The 19th century revolutionary Alexander Herzen said Russia was, "like a ship floating on the surface, it had no real connection with the inhabitants of the ocean, beyond that of eating them."

There were many similarities between tsarist Russian estates and pre-Civil-War southern United States plantations. These included: 1) the "paternalistic attitudes of many landowners; 2) the often affectionate bonds between house servants and their owners; and 3) the opportunities for tyranny and exploitation."

There were also key differences between Russian serfs and American slaves, namely that Russians landowners and serfs belonged to the same race and there were 30 million serfs compared to four million black slaves in the United States. For 150 years, serfs were drafted for 20 to 25 years of military service. This policy caused great stress on the village level. Peter the Great instituted a modest system for military and civilian upward mobility, through a system of progressively earned ranks, that helped some serfs advance ane even become landowners themselves. But Peter also developed metallurgical and textile industries using serf labor.

Household serfs were often the most poorly treated serfs. The conditions they lived under were most akin to slavery. Serfs that worked the land under the quitrent ( obrok) system, and to a lesser extent working in the shares system, were a little better off. Siberia and other frontier areas and the Cossacks provided an avenue of escape.

Poor Treatment of Serfs

Turgenev wrote stories that "subtly showed serfs were human beings with rich emotional and spiritual life, and than many landowners were unthinkingly, unbelievable inhumane."

According to historian Priscilla Roosevelt one rural landowner "amused himself with law by interrogating and torturing his serfs, arguing for both prosecution and defense, and then pronouncing sentence.” Another "staged ballet performances for his friends; at a thump of his cane, the ballerinas would strip on stage.

One landowner even "made naked serfs, their bodies whitewashed, climb onto pedestals in his garden and adopt classical poses for his pleasure. Eventually 'Venus' and 'Hercules' conspired, leapt off their pedestals and clubbed the tyrant to death." One woman who flogged a serf to death served only three month in prison.

Boyars, Serfs and Russian Government Control in the 17th Century

The Russian autocracy survived the Time of Troubles and the rule of weak or corrupt tsars because of the strength of the government's central bureaucracy. Government functionaries continued to serve, regardless of the ruler's legitimacy or the boyar faction controlling the throne. In the seventeenth century, the bureaucracy expanded dramatically. The number of government departments (prikazy ; sing., prikaz ) increased from twenty-two in 1613 to eighty by mid-century. Although the departments often had overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions, the central government, through provincial governors, was able to control and regulate all social groups, as well as trade, manufacturing, and even the Orthodox Church.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The comprehensive legal code introduced in 1649 illustrates the extent of state control over Russian society. By that time, the boyars had largely merged with the elite bureaucracy, who were obligatory servitors of the state, to form a new nobility, the dvoryanstvo . The state required service from both the old and the new nobility, primarily in the military. In return, they received land and peasants. In the preceding century, the state had gradually curtailed peasants' rights to move from one landlord to another; the 1649 code officially attached peasants to their domicile. *

The state fully sanctioned serfdom, and runaway peasants became state fugitives. Landlords had complete power over their peasants and bought, sold, traded, and mortgaged them. Peasants living on state-owned land, however, were not considered serfs. They were organized into communes, which were responsible for taxes and other obligations. Like serfs, however, state peasants were attached to the land they farmed. Middle-class urban tradesmen and craftsmen were assessed taxes, and, like the serfs, they were forbidden to change residence. All segments of the population were subject to military levy and to special taxes. By chaining much of Muscovite society to specific domiciles, the legal code of 1649 curtailed movement and subordinated the people to the interests of the state. *

Under this code, increased state taxes and regulations exacerbated the social discontent that had been simmering since the Time of Troubles. In the 1650s and 1660s, the number of peasant escapes increased dramatically. A favorite refuge was the Don River region, domain of the Don Cossacks.

Alexander II Free the Serfs

Tsar Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) took the throne at the end of the Crimean War during a period of many serf revolts. He ended the war as quickly as he could and decided to do something to help the serfs. In 1861, Alexander II signed a proclamation freeing all of Russia's 20 to 30 million serfs, who by then made up a third of Russia. Of the land worked by serfs, about a third was given to landlords and the rest went to village communes, worked by former serfs who were required to pay their ex-landlords "redemption payments" as compensation to the landlords for the land they lost. Historians regard the freeing of the serfs as only a "partial emancipation" because according to its terms serfs allowed to purchase land had to pay huge taxes.

Local commissions, which were dominated by landlords, effected emancipation by giving land and limited freedom to the serfs. The former serfs usually remained in the village commune, but they were required to make redemption payments to the government over a period of almost fifty years. The government compensated former owners of serfs by issuing them bonds. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The regime had envisioned that the 50,000 landlords who possessed estates of more than 110 hectares would thrive without serfs and would continue to provide loyal political and administrative leadership in the countryside. The government also had expected that peasants would produce sufficient crops for their own consumption and for export sales, thereby helping to finance most of the government's expenses, imports, and foreign debt. Neither of the government's expectations was realistic, however, and emancipation left both former serfs and their former owners dissatisfied. The new peasants soon fell behind in their payments to the government because the land they had received was poor and because Russian agricultural methods were inadequate. The former owners often had to sell their lands to remain solvent because most of them could neither farm nor manage estates without their former serfs. In addition, the value of their government bonds fell as the peasants failed to make their redemption payments. *

Economic Developments in Russia in the 19th Century

Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, Russia's economy developed more slowly than did that of the major European nations to its west. Russia's population was substantially larger than those of the more developed Western countries, but the vast majority of the people lived in rural communities and engaged in relatively primitive agriculture. Industry, in general, had greater state involvement than in Western Europe, but in selected sectors it was developing with private initiative, some of it foreign. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Between 1850 and 1900, Russia's population doubled, but it remained chiefly rural well into the twentieth century. Russia's population growth rate from 1850 to 1910 was the fastest of all the major powers except for the United States. Agriculture, which was technologically underdeveloped, remained in the hands of former serfs and former state peasants, who together constituted about four-fifths of the rural population. Large estates of more than fifty square kilometers accounted for about 20 percent of all farmland, but few such estates were worked in efficient, large-scale units. Small-scale peasant farming and the growth of the rural population increased the amount of land used for agricultural development, but land was used more for gardens and fields of grain and less for grazing meadows than it had been in the past. *

Industrial growth was significant, although unsteady, and in absolute terms it was not extensive. Russia's industrial regions included Moscow, the central regions of European Russia, St. Petersburg, the Baltic cities, Russian Poland, some areas along the lower Don and Dnepr rivers, and the southern Ural Mountains. By 1890 Russia had about 32,000 kilometers of railroads and 1.4 million factory workers, most of whom worked in the textile industry. Between 1860 and 1890, annual coal production had grown about 1,200 percent to over 6.6 million tons, and iron and steel production had more than doubled to 2 million tons per year. The state budget had more than doubled, however, and debt expenditures had quadrupled, constituting 28 percent of official expenditures in 1891. Foreign trade was inadequate to meet the empire's needs. Until the state introduced high industrial tariffs in the 1880s, it could not finance trade with the West because its surpluses were insufficient to cover the debts. *

Witte and Accelerated Industrialization

In the late 1800s, Russia's domestic backwardness and vulnerability in foreign affairs reached crisis proportions. At home a famine claimed a half-million lives in 1891, and activities by Japan and China near Russia's borders were perceived as threats from abroad. In reaction, the regime was forced to adopt the ambitious but costly economic programs of Sergey Witte, the country's strong-willed minister of finance. Witte championed foreign loans, conversion to the gold standard, heavy taxation of the peasantry, accelerated development of heavy industry, and a trans-Siberian railroad. These policies were designed to modernize the country, secure the Russian Far East, and give Russia a commanding position with which to exploit the resources of China's northern territories, Korea, and Siberia. This expansionist foreign policy was Russia's version of the imperialist logic displayed in the nineteenth century by other large countries with vast undeveloped territories such as the United States. In 1894 the accession of the pliable Nicholas II upon the death of Alexander III gave Witte and other powerful ministers the opportunity to dominate the government. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Witte's policies had mixed results. In spite of a severe economic depression at the end of the century, Russia's coal, iron, steel, and oil production tripled between 1890 and 1900. Railroad mileage almost doubled, giving Russia the most track of any nation other than the United States. Yet Russian grain production and exports failed to rise significantly, and imports grew faster than exports. The state budget also more than doubled, absorbing some of the country's economic growth. Western historians differ as to the merits of Witte's reforms; some believe that domestic industry, which did not benefit from subsidies or contracts, suffered a setback. Most analysts agree that the Trans-Siberian Railroad (which was completed from Moscow to Vladivostok in 1904) and the ventures into Manchuria and Korea were economic losses for Russia and a drain on the treasury. Certainly the financial costs of his reforms contributed to Witte's dismissal as minister of finance in 1903.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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