Serfdoms Effect on Industrialization

Serfdom is the bonding of peasants, agricultural workers, to the land, which they cultivate.  Serfdom was established in Seventeenth Century Russia to allow the Tsar (Emperor) to compensate the nobility for military service, when the government did not have other means to pay for such service.  While serfdom was a political solution to an economic problem, the solution inhibited industrialization in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, when Russia was attempting to become a European industrial power.  Serfdom prevented the creation of an adequate industrial labor supply, provided a disincentive for the nobility to become industrial entrepreneurs, and left the state as the main industrializing force. Serfdom provided several obstacles for emperors and empresses trying to follow the Western European model of industrialization.

Since Peter the Great set Russia on a path of Westernization to improve his military in the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Russia looked at Western European development as a model to follow. Western European industrialization generally developed along the following pattern.


Painting of Peter the Great by Jean Marc Netie from 1717

New methods of cultivation and laborsaving inventions make farming profitable to wealthy landowners, who begin to sell their produce.  Subsistence farming is no longer necessary, which frees agricultural laborers to pursue industrial work in the cities.

Initially, industry consists of natural resource production like iron, steel and textiles.  As cities spring up around these industrial centers, an urban population of consumers is created and industrialization moves into mass produced goods, which are purchased by urban and rural consumers.  Britain is the epitome of this path of development. (Winks, p. 427)  Russia could not follow this pattern of development due to serfdom, which evolved from the Fifteenth Century to its codifying in the Seventeenth Century.

A strong military was vital to the Tsar because Russia is a land without natural boundaries.  Dividing landmarks such as mountains, rivers, etc. were notably absent from the boundaries of the Imperial Russian Empire.  The facts of geography left Russia vulnerable to attack from its neighbors.  Russian Imperial history is the story of Russia’s emperors trying to capture enough surrounding territory to keep traditional Russia safe from invasion by hostile powers such as the Ottoman and Swedish Empires.

To accomplish these military feats, the Russian emperor’s needed a large army but Russia could not pay its military with a salary.  As V.O. Kliuchevsky wrote in A Course in Russian History: The Seventeenth Century, “Finance was probably the sorest spot in the Muscovite state order…the needs created by the frequent, costly, and seldom successful wars definitely outweighed the means at the government’s disposal.”(p. 229)

The tsarist government devised a system to pay for the military service without using cash.  The tsar would grant nobles a pomestie, a parcel of land, for either bureaucratic or military service to the state.  The pomestie would revert back to the ownership of the state, when the noble died.  His widow could petition the Grand Duke for a portion of the pomestie but the Grand Duke was free to disregard the petition.  Free peasants, who were charged a certain amount of their yearly yield in rents to the noble landlords, farmed the pomestie.  Initially, the peasants were free to leave the estate at any time.

In 1464, Ivan III limited the peasant’s leaving the pomestie “during two weeks of the year-one week before and one week after St. George’s Day (November 26).” (Dmytryshyn1, p. 222)  In addition to these restrictions on movements, numerous poor peasants sold themselves into indentured servitude to pay debts.  With further Imperial Decrees limiting peasant movement to the land they currently worked, by the Seventeenth Century, 80 percent of the Russian population were rural peasant serfs.  Eventually the nobility would take ownership of the land during the Eighteenth Century, which meant the serfs working their lands would become their hereditary property.  These rights were given to the nobility in an Imperial Decree in 1785.  Since limited industrialization did occur during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century, where did the laborers for the factory come from?

Initially, a decree was issued in 1721, which gave nobles and non-nobles, merchants, the right to purchase villages close to a factory and utilize the serfs from the village to staff the factories.  However, the serfs did not belong to the factory owner but were attached to the factory, so that they passed from owner to owner.  Just as peasant serfs were attached to the land they worked, the factory serfs were attached to the factory.

The arrangement was not very satisfactory because factory serfs were often required to farm as well to survive.  Because serfs had a right to at least a subsistence existence outside of the rent paid to a manorial lord, the lord would estimate how many days a week a peasant needed to reach subsistence levels. (Millward, p. 538)  If a factory owner was unfamiliar with farming methods, it was difficult for him to come up with an adequate formula.

To combat this problem, the government decided on a formula for them.  A decree in 1752 established the factory work week as three days, so the other three days could be used to farm. (Vucinich, 162)    The law was seen as a protection for the peasants but probably was the product of the nobility wanting to block merchants from attaining some of their privileged status.  An urban merchant class failed to materialize with the main industrializing forces being foreigners and the state.

The state was interested in industries, which would enhance its military capabilities.  Initially, these pursuits led to the development of the iron industry.  “The iron industry was the largest in Europe, and right up to the end of the Eighteenth Century was exporting its products to other European countries…thereafter it declined, since it failed to develop new technologies and suffered…from British competition.” (Hosking, p. 251)

The Russian government’s interest in industrialization was purely to improve its military, so its profitability suffered accordingly.  It did have a benefit, which private industries did not have.  State industries benefited from a ready labor supply.


Portrait of Tsar Nicholas I in Austrian uniform by unknown artist in 1840s

State peasants were transferred to state-owned factories in the early Eighteenth Century.  While the labor supply was for state factories was plentiful enough to make significant improvements in state guided industrialization, the state peasants bitterly opposed doing factory work.

Forcing state peasant to work in factories “…contributed to the creation of one typically Russian form of labor protest, which was based on the enserfed worker’s demand to be restored to what he considered his rightful status as a state peasant.” (Vucinich, p. 165)  This attitude was ingrained in serfs on both private and state lands.

When nobles spoke of a landless emancipation, the typical response was “No.  Let’s leave things as they are. ‘We are yours, but the land is ours.’  The Russian peasantry had almost a religious attachment to the land”. (Hosking, p. 200)

A second group of laborers were “freely-hired” workers.  Freely hired is a misnomer because the laborers were actually peasant serfs, who were working in the factory with the permission of their landlords.  The peasant would provide the landlord with a percentage of his wages like he would be required to provide a percentage of his crop yield.  The laborer was free to negotiate his salary but his obligations to his landlord were still in effect.

If the landlord needed his services on the manorial estate, the peasant would have to leave the factory and return to the estate.  This type of labor was also considered undesirable for most peasants.

The final category of peasants were the manorial peasants, who became attached to factories, when a noble or non-noble purchased a village adjacent to the factory.  Nobles were hesitant to become involved in industrial activity, so this group was very small and became smaller, when foreign investment was limited in the Nineteenth Century.

All three groups were a poor source of industrial labor.  Serfs had no incentive to be productive workers.  In fact, the perceived undesirability of industrial labor provided peasants with a distinct disincentive to work hard in the factories.  Besides being a poor source of industrial labor, the lack of free workers prevented another key component to economic take-off, a base of consumers.

Due to the lack of industrialization in cities, urban areas did not develop like Western European cities.  “Only 4 per cent of the population was urban in 1796 and … no more than a fraction of this small group was typically urban in the Western sense…in Russia most city dwellers were connected with government administration.” (McConnell, p. 189)

St. Petersburg, the capital, was the exception to this rule. St. Petersburg, the most Westernized Russian city, seemed to be the one place in the empire, where Western style development could be pursued.  A textile industry developed in the 1840s and a merchant class of shop owners, who catered to the Europeanized tastes of the educated government elite, developed at the same time. However, a bad harvest in 1848 wiped out this industry and the St. Petersburg’s urban class did not recover for several years. (Lincoln, p. 271)  Merchants did not really exist outside of St. Petersburg, which had a significant foreign and westernized population to serve.


Vengence of the Serfs engraved by Charles Michael Geoffrey in 1845 from the Public Domain

It is doubtful that if the cities had developed along Western European lines, the relocated peasants would have become consumers.  The peasants were accustomed to handcraft methods of production, which they utilized to survive in the countryside.  The handcrafts were traded between peasants instead of sold.  Aleksandr Engelgardt wrote about the peasant attitude towards commerce, when he was exiled to the countryside in 1872-1887.

When Engelgardt arrived in his new estate, he discovered a flood washed out his dam and his road.  Being a St. Petersburg native, he expected to pay money to the villagers to help repair his dam.  He was amazed when a peasant friend named Stepan told him that the work would be done “out of respect” instead of being paid for.

“Look! Your dam washed away, the roads ruined, that, you see, is from God.  How could anyone not help as a neighbor?…Today you need to repair your dam, you pay us money; tomorrow we need something-we’ll pay you money.  It’s better to live as neighbors.” (Frierson, p. 58)  Serfdom created social relationships, which substituted for contractual relationships in the Western world.

Serfdom created a disincentive for nobles to become involved in financing industrialization.  Rich nobles would have made a better industrializing force than the state because they would be more concerned with the profit margin.  However, most nobles were too poor to take up industry building.

Before serfdom ended in 1861, commercial farming did not really exist in Russia.  “…all the land, both demesne and peasant allotments, parceled and worked in traditional fashion by the peasants, who provided all the equipment and livestock…so that there was no large-scale farming, only agglomerates of peasant operations.” (Vucinich, p. 43)  Even after the elimination of the military service requirement for the nobility, the nobles did not concern themselves with agricultural matters.

If the noble could afford it, he became a leisured elite living off the labor of his serfs.  Since serfs were often illiterate, they were unfamiliar with new cultivation methods or innovations.  Even if they were familiar with the methods, they did not have the financial means to implement the innovations. Subsistence farming was the rule of agricultural life.

Nobles did become involved in handcraft production as a result of Catherine the Great’s Charter to the Nobility of April 21, 1785.  The nobility was granted freedom from military service by the decree.  With this decree, the need to compensate the nobility for their military service disappeared, yet serfdom remained firmly in place. In fact, the institution of serfdom became more odious due to the decree.

Catherine provided the nobility with control over not only peasant agricultural labor but artisan labors as well.  “The nobles have the right to purchase villages…The nobles have the right to sell wholesale whatever their villages grow or their handicrafts produce…The nobles may have factories or mills in their villages…The nobles may build small towns on their estates on which they may organize trade and annual fairs.” (Dmystryshyn, p. 116)

These developments would seriously impair Russia’s ability to follow the Western European example in industrialization.   Due to noble control of peasant industrial labor, most rural industry consists of handcrafts made by peasants and traded by both nobles and peasants.  Subsistence farming remained the main focus of the nobility.


From Prince Mikhail of Chernigov to Stalin – No Longer in Print

The few industrializing nobles purchased factory villages.  However, this group never was a serious force in industrializing Russia.  “Although this type of factory was on the rise throughout the post-Petrine years of the eighteenth century, it was never quantitatively very significant.  Of 554 enterprises that feel within the jurisdiction of the College of Manufactures in 1769, only 71 belonged to the nobles, and this number had decreased by the middle of Catherine’s reign…By the nineteenth century, except in the area of the manufacture of spirits, where they were buttressed by the government, noble manufacturers found it virtually impossible to compete with other types of enterprise.” (Vucinich, p. 166)

While the nobility, who replaced merchants and country squires in the Russian economy, should have been the engine of industrialization, they were either unwilling or unable to lead the effort.  Since the nobility was impotent as an innovative entrepreneurial class, the state accomplished what little industrialization did occur.

Imperial Russia was an autocracy.  Each Romanov emperor or empress ruled their vast domains by their own personal will.  If an emperor or empress died, his or her successor was free to rule by the dictates of their own conscious.  The new emperor or empress often rejected the policies of their predecessors, which caused government programs to begin or end rapidly.

Peter the Great would build a Russian navy.  Anna I and Elizabeth I would let the navy rot in port.  The pattern would continue through the Imperial Age.  One monarch would invest in shipbuilding, while another would begin to build a railroad.  This cycle of rapid progress followed by neglect caused Russia to lag far behind Western Europe in industrial might.

However, Russia needed to create products to sell on the world market because costly foreign wars kept it heavily in debt.  In 1809, state revenues were 127 million rubles compared with 278 million rubles in government expenditures. (McConnell, p. 72)

Serfdom limited Russian industrial growth putting it far behind the other European powers.  Forced labor was not as effective as free labor and even forced industrial labor was in short supply.  Most nobles did not have the financial capabilities to industrialize and were not motivated to become entrepreneurs even when they had the funds.  The nobility’s desire to protect its privileged position led to legislation, which prevented the formation of a merchant class.

Finally, state controlled industries were unsuccessful due to changes in the autocrat leading to changes in state focus of resources.

These residual problems of serfdom did not end with the emancipation in 1861.  Russia would not seriously industrialize until state-sponsored efforts in the 1930s under Josef Stalin.  Twenty years after this industrial revolution, Russia took its place next to the United States of America as a superpower but it never had the industrial might of the West.

Work Cited

Dmytryshyn, Basil, ed. Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 850-1700. Academic International Press: Gulf Breeze, FL, 2000.

Dmytryshyn, Basil, ed. Imperial Russia: A Source Book, 1700-1917. Academic International Press: Gulf Breeze, FL, 1999.

Frierson, Cathy A., ed. Aleksandr Nikolaevich Engelgardt’s Letters from the Country, 1872 1888.Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1993.

Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia: People and Empire. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1997.

Kliuchevsky, V.O. A Course in Russian History: The Seventeenth Century.   E.M. Sharpe: London, 1994.

McConnell, Allen. Tsar Alexander I: Paternalistic Reformer. Thomas Y. Crowell Company: New York, 1970.

Millward, Robert. An Economic Analysis of the Organization of Serfdom in Eastern Europe. Journal of Economic History. 42.3 (1982): 513-548.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1978.

Vucinich, Wayne S., ed. The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1968.

Winks, Robin W. et al. A History of Civilization, Volume II: 1648 to the Present, Ninth Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1996.

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