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Slavery In USA And Serfdom In Russia

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Published: 24th Apr 2017 in History

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Slavery, condition in which one human being is owned by another [1] , has been part of countless civilizations since the dawn of Mankind. From the fields and mines of Ancient Mesopotamia, through great Rome and sophistic Greece, and all the way until just but a century ago in America and Russia, slavery was a basic foundation of the society. In its beginning, and several times since, slaves were kept almost as family members, but mostly they were put to do the hard, physical work. Slavery was always weld together with the economy of the owners, be it civilians or the monarch crown.

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Even today some slavery still exists. We might hear and read about evil criminality referred to as human trafficking, forced prostitution, child soldiers, forced and bonded labour and the use of children in international drug trade, children labour [2] . Also “Conservative estimates indicate that at least 27million people, in places as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil, live in conditions of forced bondage [3] . International organizations like the UN, with its Anti-Slavery Commission, still fight to abolish these modern remains of slavery. In our everyday life language we tend to say that we are slaves of our work, our money or some other materialistic need. Fortunately slavery in its ancient and medieval context has been abolished in practically the whole world.

Serfdom, condition in medieval Europe in which a tenant farmer was bound to a hereditary plot of land and to the will of his landlord [4] , differs principally from slavery in the fact that serfs obtained their subsistence by cultivating a plot of land that was owned by a lord. The reason for then comparing serfdom in the Russian Empire with slavery in the USA lies in the fact that in 18th- and first half of 19th century Russia the nobility, the Dvoryanstvo, possessed the power to practically do everything they wanted with their serfs. This power was identical to the slave owners’ in the Southern States of America, also in the 18th- and 19th century. This essay aims at showing how fundamentally different the American and Russian society was, and, ironically, how both contained unfree human beings in miserable conditions. The difficult conditions will be looked at too, and the interesting difference that can be found when comparing the fall of slavery and serfdom will be given some attention. The research question is then; What were the simmilarities and differences between slavery in the USA and serfdom in the Russian Empire? The topic is worthy of investigation since the effects of slavery and serfdom still affect people living in the USA and Russia today.

The United States of America

The New World

On October 12, 1492, when Columbus (1451-1506) reached land in the West Indies for the first time and met the indigenous people there, he made especially many notations in his log book. “(…)they [native people] indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador [Columbus named the island so] to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves” [5] . Columbus’ log indicates that the Native American civilizations already consisted of some sort of slavery, unless Columbus’ own wish to make slaves of them made him misunderstand what they were trying to tell him. Columbus thinking like this is not unreasonable, considering what we can read further in the log: “They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them” and, perhaps most surprisingly “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.” This was day one, not counting the days it took to sail to this new land, and already some sort of prediction about the future of the new continent could be drawn, like in a novel consisting of foreshadowing.

This was the beginning of the colonization of the West Indies, and later, the whole Northern- and Southern American continent. Portugal, Britain and France soon joined the scene, and successfully conquered and established themselves in the New World. Because of the cruel enslavement and barbaric behavior of the Spanish conquistadors, but mainly due to the unexpected European diseases like smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles, thereby killing millions upon millions of people [6] of the Indians. The tragic result of these biological genocides was the need for more workers, workers that would be found in Africa, and from there be brought to America.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Bible says that the root of all evil is the love [lust] for money [7] . This was the case with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a fundamental part of the Triangle Trade. This trade moved slaves from Central and Western Africa across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies [current Caribbean Islands], Brazil and North-America. It is estimated that about 9.4-12million Africans arrived in the New World from Africa. These were from Ghana and Nigeria, Congol and Angola. They were sold by West African kings and leaders, who often were put on the throne by the European traders themselves: The principal European traders took active part in installing kings who they judged would favour their activities irrespective of whether such kings were acceptable to their subjects [8] . Kings sent military expeditions against nearby tribes, captured their people and sold them to the Portuguese. The Portuguese acted out of personal, but also Spanish, need for slaves [9] .


A group of Africans captured by African slave market suppliers.

After being captured, most Africans were separated from their families, men, women and children alike. They were then forced to walk hundreds of kilometres in order to reach the Slave Coast in West Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean. After arrival there, they were stowed together on ships like animals, with almost no place to even turn around, travelling for weeks among the filth of vomit-filled tubs, blood, urin, children crying, women shrieking and the dying groaning in despair. They could feel the stench of death spreading throughout the whole ship. These were the horrors of the Midlle Passage.


At any attempt of mutiny or resurrection terrible reprisals were carried out, like on the American ship Kentucky in 1844 where 46 men and one woman were hanged, tortured and mutilated and shot “in the breast and the bodies thrown overboard…sometimes they shot at the body while it still hung living, and all kinds of sport was made of the business [12] . One can imagine that the poor survivors of these atrocities asked themselves if the situation could get worse.

Nations like Holland, Britain, France and Spain followed up the Portuguese in the triangular trade. When arriving in America the slaves, who were in much smaler numbers than at departure, were sold profitably in auctions and the money was used to by sugar , tobacco and cotton. These raw materials were transported back to the individual countries of Europe and manufactured there. Sugar became rum, cotton textiles, and the tobacco used. To maintain this buisness slave transport ships were sent to West Africa again with products from Europe that were desirable for the merchants and leaders that were settled there.

The 13 colonies and slavery

Britain, one of the greatest colonising nations, had several colonies all around America from British Honduras [Honduras] in the south to Newfoundland in the north. 13 of these colonies had settled together like neighbours on the North-American continent. These colonies did not differ from others in the matter of slavery. Also here a master could enjoy absolute rights over his property [13] . Two of the earliest established colonies, Virginia (1607) and Maryland (1632), were especially determined to repress the blacks, both free and slave. This was mainly due to fear of slave insurrectons, like e.g at St. Domingo [Haiti]. Laws and codes were created, restricting assemblies of black slaves, forbidding escape and travel without pass (Virginia,1705). Any kind of violence against the white owner(s) (or any other white person for that sake) allowed the owner to correct such a slave very physically, and also, if the slave died during this correction, no punishment towards the owner existed. It was “(…)as if such accident never happened.” [14] (Virginia,1705). Anti miscegenation laws were established (Maryland, 1664), not allowing sexual relations or marriage between people of different races [Declared unconstitutional in 1967]. The penalty for such inter-racial marriages was that the white women who had succumbed to this “terrible” act, would lawfully become a slave herself, and so any children that she might give birth to. To bear firearm (unless allowed by the owner for protection against the Indians) and witness in court proceedings against any but other blacks was illegal too (Virginia,1639 and Virginia,1705), as well as any excercisement in any ecclesiastic [church], civil or military office (Virginia,1705). Convertion to Christianity through baptism did not change civil rights either (Virginia,1667).

Noteably, greatest influence was played by the above partly mentioned Slave Codes of 1705. These subsequently came to serve as models for the other colonies. It was because of these Slave Codes that slaves would be considered by the law as real estate, property, a thing.

Due to lack of co-operation and stubborness from the British Parliament and King in former taxual matters concerning the 13 colonies, militia of the New England colony surrounded the city of Boston on April 18th 1775. The attack was a result of a confiscation and arrestation attempt in Concord [15] . Armed clashes between the British troops and the colonies began the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The Second Continental Congress met the same year. This Congress formed the Continental Army and fought the British Army. What is highly relevant to my research question is what the Second Continental Congress did but a year after its gathering. They wrote and signed the most important act in American history, on July 4th 1776. It was the United States Declaration of Independence.

Second Continental Congress [16] 

In the second sentence of this document we find the famous words:”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. One could assume that this clear separation from Imperial England and forming of a new nation based upon such beautiful words and honorable ideals must have contributed directly towards abolishment of slavery in the United States of America. The great paradox is that it didn’t. Yes, the Revolutional ideas helped the Quakers together with Tomas Jefferson and Luther Martin in their pro-abolishment fight, resulting in illegalisation of slave trade in New York and Pennsylvania, but not much more. South Carolina temporarily illegalized the trade, while Massachusetts were hypocritical in their law by only prohibiting slave trade directly from Africa. Eli Whitneys cotton gin invention strenghtened the economic foundation of slavery in the Southern states and restored the African slave trade in North-America. Apparantly the former made changes affects did not last long. Officially only South Carolina had restored the slave trade, but the rest of the States smuggled in slaves and used them as well.

The Bill of Rights (1789), the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution from 1787, guaranteed the white people in the United States that “The Congress shal make no Law respecting the Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free Exercise thereof; or abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the Press, or to the Right of the People peaceably assemble” [17] . Through this they layed down a democratic foundation and example for the whole modern world. The United States should have been quite perfect, only that the great paradoxal and moral problem of slavery due to racism persisted.

The Russian Empire

Part of the culture

Russia as a nation has gone through many changes throughout its history. The Kievan Rus’ state, which started in the 880s, contained the predecessors of several Slav people and is the oldest “Russia” we know of. Prince Vladimir (978-1015), a successor of the Kievan Rus’ crown, converted to Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy. It was through this conversion and acceptance of Eastern Orthodoxic religion that the Byzantine culture, statecraft and art came to Kievan Rus’. These three were mixed with the Slavs culture and thereby created traditions which influenced the rise of the Russian autocratic state [18] . Russias autocratic system in the 19th century was therefore quite old.

The medieval state of Kievan Rus’ disintergrated in the end though, starting to divide into principalities in the 12th century because of domestic conflicts. The Mongol-Tartar invasion, starting with an attack in 1223, did not improve the situation. The Mongol-Tartars destroyed Kiev along with many other cities at the time, so that many of the Slav people, mainly peasants, became homeless and had no choice but to move and settle on the land of wealthy Russian princes and nobles. A starting serfdom was therefore partially one of the consequences of the Mongol-Tartar invasion. The peasants-serfs, became attached and dependent upon the mercy of higher ranked Russians.

As the Mongol-Tartars power diminished, especially with the defeat at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380), the grand princes of Muscovy [Moscow], had created a strong and wealthy Grand Duchy. Ivan III (ruled 1462-1505), one of the most successful grand princes there, was the first Muscovite ruler to use the titles of tsar and “Ruler of all Rus”. He had the right to claim it, Muscovy trippled in size under his rule. In order to keep strict order and reject any smaller princes who claimed to rule specific territories, Ivan the III forced all lesser princes, the nobility, to acknowledge him the sole and unquestionable ruler of Muscovy. This would also count for his heirs.

Ivan IV [19] 

The formation of the very powerful and autocratic tsardom came to exist. With Ivan IV, grandson of the III, the word autocratic was no longer only a property of an independent ruler, it came to mean unlimited rule. Between 1565 and 1572, under Tsar Ivan the IV [the Terrible], none in Muscovys prosperous and important district was safe. The Tsar, for uncertain reasons, started killing advisers, government officials and the aristocrats (boyars/nobles) The peasants started moving away in fear their problems with unpayed taxes. In order to prevent them from moving, the Tsar started binding them to the land, bringing the russian peasantry closer and closer to legal serfdom.

Boris Godunov [20] 

The consequence of such a fools rule was constant chaos from 1598 to 1613. Despite the frequent change of tsars, tsardom itself survived and was consolidated as peasantry went through a gradual enserfment. Boris Godunov (1551-1605), brother-in-law of Ivan IV’s mentally ill heir to the throne, practically became the Tsar of Russia from 1584-1605. In 1597 a decree made by him to attach peaseants to the land on which they lived and worked with was set out. Peasants could no longer move from one landlord to another as they wanted. This was done in order to keep rural stability in Russia. Godunov formed serfdon in its most oppressive form, while at the same time the rest of Europe was getting rid of domestic serfdom.

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The Legal Code of 1649, which further legalised the attachment of serfs to the land, came about because the state prepared the serfs with land as presents of compensation for the new nobilities, the Dvoryanstvo, but also presents for acts of loyality and military service [21] The main factor in this development was the government’s central bureaucracy, which had expanded significantly by the 1650s. There were many peasants who tried to run away, becoming fugitives. Anyhow, thousands upon thousands of Russians became enserfed and controlled by other Russians. It was in racial aspects different than the situation of the African slaves in the US. But, like slaves in America, the now legimite serfs also started making riots, some more serious than others. The tsar and the government managed to keep their power though, through the nobility, the Russian Orthodox Church and autocracy.


Peter the Great (1672-1725) indirectly separated the Russian serfs culturally from the

Dvoryanstwo through his westernisation of Russia. He forced the nobility to wear Western dresses, tastes and social customs, splitting the Dvoryanstvo with serfdom even more. In 18th century Russia metallurgical and textile industries used serf labour, and practically all of agriculture used serfs. It was possible to maintain the country with this system of serfs, but from then on Imperial Russia would be backwarded compared to Western Europe with its Industrial Revolution.

Russian serfs

Russias westernisation was based upon the governing elites of Western Europe like e.g in France, but in 1789 with the French Revolution at hand, the Russian Tsar would not and could not keep contact with countries like France. When Tsar Nikolas I came to the throne he thought that all contact with Western Europe had to be sensured or stopped.

The central tool of the Tsar was His Imperial Majesty’s Private Chancery. The Third Section was in charge of state security. Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) was especially afraid of revolts against him because of the Decembrist revolt in 1825. This was a military protest in St. Petersburg by Russian army officers and intellectuals who had been affected by liberalism in Western Europe, deriving mainly from France through the Napoleonic Wars. These officers had realised the backwardness of Tsarist autocracy, and now sought to abolish serfdom, as an obstacle to economic prosperity, and modernize Russia through western technical and philosophical ideas. This was, ironically, the same thing that Peter I had wanted to do. The problem this time was that the Tsar’s autocracy was at stake.

Nikolas I regarded the West as his personal enemies, and therefore ordered the Third Section of his Chancery to use censorship and surveillance methods in order to strictly limit reports of events in Western Europe and to suppress criticism of domestic social conditions. The criticism revealed itself through works of people like Alexander Pushkin and Pyotr Chaadaev, but also through the plays of Nikolai Gogol, who satirised the institution of serfdom in his novel Dead Souls. This is highly similar to what was happening in the USA, where Slave narratives like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”and other literary publications were written by the pro-abolitionists. These works were not censored like in Russia, due to the First Amendment in the United States Constitution Bill of Rights where it is written:

“Congress shall make no law(…)abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

This also clearly shows how completely different the American and Russian society was. In 1858 there were 22.5 million serfs in the Russian countryside. Another 19 million where tied to lands owned by the state. 41.5 million out of a 74 million population [22] .

The everyday life of a slave and serf in the 19th century

While the white americans in the last part of the 19th century enjoyed a better standard of living than any other people on earth [23] , the black american’s suffering was below criticism. In Russia conditions were of the medieval kind. The North of the USA was more industrialised, while the South continued their traditional farming. Of course, there was much farming in the North as well, but due to the industry they posessed, they produced almost 90% of the nation’s manufactured output in the 1850s. Slavery therefore existed only in the South, were there was a supposed need for it. In some defence of the South, only 25% of Southern families owned slaves. In Russia on the other hand, the whole country was based upon the vast countryside. Little industry existed, thus keeping Russian serfs intact on the fields. The number of serfs was naturally greater than the number of slaves.

At least in the beginning of the 19th century auctioning was less brutal. Now dealers and owners advised against splitting up families. It still happened though, and many family members never saw each other again. The splitting up of families ended in Russia with a law of 1833. Most of the slaves were put to do the hard physical work on the cotton fields and farms. The white owners were most often performing hard work themselves, but the slaves were always inferior to them because in need for money slaves could be sold. In Russia the nobility didn’t have to do the hard physical work. The simple and inferior serfs where to do it.

Many slaves turned to Christianity and faith in God. In Russia, where the serfs were mainly Orthodox, the Church told people to withstand their hard conditions patiently. Still many, quite understandably, protested against their owners both through resistance to work and violence against them. In the US this often resulted in a visit to the Lashing House. The Lasher was a legally-appointed functionary to whom slaves were sent with just a letters notice from the owner as to how many lashes the slave was to recieve. This show that even though few people owned slaves in the South, most of them accepted it to rather big extents.

Emancipations compared

The abolishment of slavery in the USA and the emancipation of the serfs in Russia happened as a consequence of two wars. The American Civil War (1861-1865), where the blacks proved themselves through great acts of courage and valour, and the Crimean War (1853-1856), where Russian serf soldiers, even though brave, could not defeat the Western modern troops of Britain and France. The Civil War was to a significant extent the result of tensions between pro- and anti-slavery states, and as the war progressed slavery became the main theme. The Crimean War was the war of one supposed very strong power, Russia, verses Britain and France. Autocracy and serfdom against democracy and industrialisation.

I find it very interesting to at this moment observe how the Civil War was about the neccesity of victory to abolish slavery, while the Crimean War resulted in defeat and pre-unintendedly led to emancipation of the serfs as the beginning of tremendous reforms. Note also that both wars and emancipations occurred at approximately the same time.


When we look upon how the United States of America and the Russian Empire came to be, there are practically no similarities, except the law making which defined slaves and serfs. By the mid-19th century slaves and serfs possesed almost the same identical status in their societies, which meant not possesing anything at all. The ethnical difference between slaves and serfs thus loses any significance. Both groups where human beings being oppressed by other human beings who acknowledged themselves as being superior.

The everyday life of slaves and serfes were both characterised by bad conditions with practically no legal protection. Both slaves and serfs tried some form of riots, both groups consisted of runaways, and physical punishment happened if the owner wasn’t satisfied. Suspicion and mistrust was an everyday reality. Both groups experienced auctioning and splitting up of families. Slaves and serfs alike were needed for agricultur in the rural parts of their respective countries. Slave and serf were understood to be inferior to their owners. There was, in quantity, more serfdom in Russia than there was slavery in the US, but in quality they experienced the same discrimination and unrightousness.

Even though the slaves came from Africa, and lived as a minority in the USA, they ended up fighting like true heroes for their freedom in the American Civil War. The serfs of Russia where no minority, but actually the majority. They were Russians in bondage. A final comparing of slavery and serfdom would be to try to find out wheter it was worse in the USA or in Russia. I have come to the conclusion that it would be unwise to do so. Both systems consisted of people doing terrible acts against fellow people, black or white doesn’t matter. This is also what we should learn from this history, and enlighen ourselves minds to fight this kind of atrocity to ever happen again.


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