Serfs of Poland and Russia Part I Early History of Serfdom by Robert S. Sherins, M.D.


In 1648, Cossack forces inspired a peasant uprising in southwestern Ukraine against the absentee Polish landlords, local Polish inhabitants, resident Jewish arendars (lessees of village farms and inns), and Jewish managers, who served the landlords to administer the properties and to collect the rents and taxes that had been imposed by the Polish nobility and Boyar proprietors. The resultant riots became undisciplined and deteriorated into deplorable massacres of the town’s Polish inhabitants and clergy, as well as the Jewish communities.

Huge regions of Western Russia had been occupied as a result of the expansion of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania during the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1610-1612, the Polish monarch achieved suzerainty over the Russian throne in Moscow. Roman Catholic clergy persisted in their attempts to convert the local Orthodox populations in the occupied regions, while referring to the Orthodoxy as the “religion of the serfs.” Polish laws were reinstated that restricted the property rights and privileges of the serfs in Russia, further enslaving the serfs to their landlords. All of those factors served to agitate the relationships between the Polish and Russian communities. Ultimately, Hetman Bogdan Chmielnicki gathered the peasants into armed bands of fierce horsemen, who were then joined by disaffected remnants of the Tatars and Ottomans. Together, they first defeated the Russian military in decisive battles and then turned upon the Poles.

Many of us have discovered ancestors, who lived in those regions along the borders between the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania and Russia. The basis of the ethnic conflicts had profound effects upon our ancestors. Underlying the conflicts were issues of property rights, civil rights, and the freedom of religious worship. This article was written with the purpose of reviewing some of those issues that were fundamental to the mounting discontent among the peasants (serfs, khlops).

Early Russian Trade History

By the 8th century, Slavic tribes in Eastern Europe began to diversify from their basic agricultural occupations. To defend the small towns, outsiders were hired. In time, the mercenaries assumed increasing roles in the governance of the towns. Among them were the Vikings (also known as the Varangians), who were particularly successful in organizing the communities/tribes. It was Viking Princes, who created the Kievan Rus, a federation which became the first Russia.

Trade became essential to the economic survival of the towns. Agricultural production was often sufficient to support the small local populations, but trade was required to exchange goods for items not locally available. The river waterways from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea and Black Sea were crucial for transporting those goods. Vikings had a long history of sailing expertise and plied the waters of the Don, Oka, Vistula, and Volga Rivers in their search for trading markets.

The Kievan Rus was established in 880. It was a loose federation of nearly autonomous city-states, which were communities that shared defenses under an umbrella of protection provided by the Princes. In the beginning, there were endless conflicts among the regional towns and city-states and no fixed boundaries. As well, the Princes had no legal rights of hereditary succession, which led to obvious conflicts among the claimants. Frequent nomadic tribes or bands of outsiders from the Central Asian Steppes attempted to take over the region. There was a fascinating cultural conflict between the nomadic peoples, who needed new pastures for their livestock, and the city-states, who wanted to protect their properties with boundaries.

The economic success of the Kievan Rus was based upon the access and trade along the rivers, which enabled them to exchange commercial goods with their neighbors. The Kievan Rus Princes demanded tributes for use of the waterways in the regions that they controlled. In return, they protected their neighbors from the Khazars. Commercial trading prospered, but armed conflicts developed between the Byzantines, Greeks, Khazars and the Rus. The Rus created significant commercial links with the East via the Caspian Sea routes. Trade with the West required extensive travel via the European rivers to Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, and England, as well as the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Salt, metals, and jewelry were among the most important products needed by the Kievan Rus.

Early traders exchanged cattle and furs for other products. By the 11th century, monetary currencies were utilized in exchange for goods. Coins have been found that were minted as early as the 11th century. As a result, it was the cities along the waterways that became the urban trade centers of the Kievan Rus. Russians used money in trade, but it was not the first currency of the region. Greek coins were used as early as the 5th-6th century BCE (Before Common Era).

As a direct result of the expansion of trade, new colonies were developed. There were many new towns comprised of “settlers” along the rivers. Initially, “colonization” was required, which later was followed by regional organization and political management.

Maps of Russia from the 12th to 13th centuries already had identified the large regions or provincial territories that they controlled. Those regions were: Volhynia and Halicz in the South; Polotsk, Chernigov, Seversk and Riazan to the West; and to the North were Novgorod and Finland.

Importance of Agriculture

The earliest tribes could sustain themselves from their own agricultural yields. It was the weather, which limited the production from the farms. As the city-states developed there were increasing populations to feed. Ever larger supplies were required from the import/export trading along the rivers. Commercial trade was controlled totally by the Princes and their retinues. Trade was the predominant income earner. Farming was much less profitable and was the principal occupation of the common folks/peasants. Russians traded furs, honey, wax, and slaves for silks, wines, fruits, and weapons.

In order to clear the fields, smaller farms were prepared by slashing the vegetation and burning the forests. Seeds could be spread by broadcast methods. Tree branches were used to rake and spread the soil in the fields. It was an inefficient method, but few farm implements were available. Agricultural science was unknown, so fields were planted for seven or eight years until the yields from the farms declined. Then the fields would be abandoned for several years and the process would be repeated. It was a wasteful process.

In the open Russian Steppes, field grasses were continuously cropped by hand until the grasses were depleted. Then, the same fields would be tilled again until the farm yields became exhausted. There was no regular rotation of fields or crops. The so-called 3-field rotation methods were not introduced until the 14tth-15th centuries. When animal husbandry methods became available, farming production improved considerably and larger populations could be fed. As well, agricultural products then could be exported since there were ample food supplies for the local population.

Hand labor relied upon simple farm tools. Commonly used were hand axes, sickles, scythes, and hoes that could be converted into plows. Later on, iron tools were introduced, such as the iron plowshare. It wasn’t until the 17th century that oxen and horse-drawn plowing methods became firmly established.

Long before the development of the Kievan Rus, Slavic tribes began to assemble themselves into groups that were organized for more efficient labor sharing. Family clans developed which were defined and organized by their “blood” relationships. Communes of those gathered families began to appear, which were led by a “Patriarch.” They worked together for the success and betterment of the entire clan. The common labor pool was more efficient. By the 11th century, territorial communes developed. They consisted of much larger populations of shared labor, who were bound by their mutual socio-economic requirements and benefits. Families lived separately, but probably shared their resources of the local pastures and forests, and combined the tasks of tilling and operating the farms. Farming, which was very difficult and labor intensive, required large amounts of manpower that exceeded the capabilities of single families. It can be assumed that the larger territorial communes must have included other obligatory collective functions. In the Dnieper region, a territorial commune was called a Verv; in the region of Novgorod, it was known as a Mir. Importantly, the larger communes had well-defined boundaries. Free peasants, who lived among the Kievan Rus, formed the lowest social group of individuals. They were known as Smerdy (plural) or Smerd (singular).

Competition between the Elite Class and Peasantry

The noble class of the Kievan Rus consisted entirely of the princes and their retinue. In time, the elite were comprised of the landowners, court retinue of advisors and servants, and the bureaucrats. With successive generations, this social order of the privileged elite expanded to ever-larger numbers of individuals and their families. In contrast, the free peasants, who served as the essential farmers, were increasingly separated from the elite status. In the 11th century, Jaroslav, Prince of Kiev, declared that all free men were to be equal under the law. In practice, however, there were major differences in privileges between the classes. The elite were valued much higher as demonstrated by the fines imposed for the injury or murder of an elite member in contrast to a peasant. Distinctive class differences appeared by the late 11th century.

New concepts of land ownership by the governing elite developed in the 12th century. Those landowners governed huge plots of estate lands. The principal incomes of the princes and elite continued to be earned from the extensive trading practices. In time, the payments from the princes to their retinue of servants and bureaucrats became excessive. In order to keep up with the expanding population of the privileged, the princes switched their method of sustaining the elite with currencies to providing them with grants of land. By the 12th-13th centuries, ownership of very large estates of forests and farms passed to individuals other than only to the children of the princes and nobility.

Granting land to individuals was the beginning of private and hereditary property rights in Russia. Previously, the Vikings of Norway had acknowledged the concepts regarding hereditary titles and land ownership. In a similar way, the princes of the Kievan Rus encouraged the Christian Church to help organize and settle new communities by also offering them gifts of parcels of land. Thus, the private land holdings of the Church expanded significantly in Russia.

A larger retinue of servants of the nobility was required to protect the newer communities from marauding nomadic foreign tribes. That is how the Viking mercenaries first established themselves in Kiev. Later on, other groups of people with different ethnicities served the aristocracy. That new “elite” joined the upper class in the Kievan Rus. They were known as “Boyars.” By the 12th century, there was a fusion of the Boyars with the other elements from the social, political, and economic elite. This upper class became quite large and powerful. In time, however, the Boyars challenged the policies of the princes and nobility.

The land holdings of the elite continued to increase as a result of the shift from supporting them monetarily to granting them land for services provided to the monarch. Those servants of the monarchy, Druzhiny, remained loyal to the princes in return for the gifts of land. Thus, the Druzhiny became the principal and outright landowners of Russian properties.

If the Druzhiny were removed from providing the “services to the monarchy,” they were able to still retain their properties. As a result, the wealth and power of the Druzhiny shifted from total dependency upon the princes to self-sufficiency from the incomes derived from their immense land grants. Boyars and Druzhiny became increasingly independent. Sons inherited the properties from their fathers. Daughters only inherited properties if there were no brothers/sons. Inheritance was guided by the instructions of the Wills of the deceased. By the end of the 12th century, almost all of the land was divided among the princes and nobility, the Boyars and Druzhiny, and the Church. It is not known how much of the Russian land was still governed by the large territorial communes of free peasants.

Feudalism in Medieval Europe

Feudalism, as a form of land management in the Middle Ages, appeared in the 9th century with the beginning of the disintegration of the Roman and German Empires and their settlements. Possibly due to the breakdown of the authority of central governments, feudalism became established in Europe. During the era of Roman villas, land was temporarily granted, but could be revoked. Poor tenants had to give back the land to their protectors, which may have been the basis for the development of the “Manorial System” which followed. The Romans and Germans also surrounded themselves with people who offered services and military protection. A Fief was a vassal of the monarch, who swore allegiance and by so doing was awarded land (fiefdom) and special rights in return for services provided to the monarch. Thus, a system of providing land for services was established. In time, greater services were required and larger land grants were given, which in turn established a basis for demanding from the protectors the rights of inheritable lands, greater justice, and shielding from interference by the monarchy in the affairs of the landlords.

Monarchies offered gifts of land to the church in exchange for assistance in establishing monasteries and churches in newly settled regions. The land granted to the church carried feudal obligations, which were similar to the responsibilities of the secular communities. In determining the policies over church-held lands, the bishops and abbots had enormous power over policies that were implemented in the region.

Feudalism first spread throughout most of Western Europe including England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and partly in Scandinavia. After the 10th century, feudalism spread into Eastern Europe. With the rise of powerful monarchies, power and land was increasingly concentrated in the hands of only a few individuals. The exchange of land for services provided to the monarchy led to the emergence of a new class of burgers/boyars in the towns. As a result, conflicts arose between the monarchy and nobility and the burgers/boyars.

Estate Management

Larger estates required significantly different methods of management. An elaborate hierarchy of management was required to control the increasing numbers of peasants. The term, latifundia, refers to the great landed estates with primitive agriculture, which depended upon the labor of the peasants/serfs and slaves. The profits from the agricultural output directly benefited the landowners. An alternative method of selling off leaseholds on the land was financially less desirable for the owners, even though through leaseholds the owners would have been spared the enormous responsibilities of managing their huge work force. In Poland and Romania, however, the Boyars frequently utilized the leasehold methods.

In medieval Europe, a “Manorial System” was recognized, in which all phases of the agricultural community were regulated under the “lord of the land.” The fundamental purpose of the system was the economic benefit to the landowners, but it included the economic, social, local justice, and taxation policies, as well as the laws governing the land tenure of the peasants. Manorial administration was related to feudalism with the exception that there was no connection with the military defenses or political relationships of the region. The serfs held land given by the lord of the estate. In return, the lord was required to provide the serfs with specified services and money.

The prince, lesser noble, or Boyar, could administer a manorial estate. The owner was required to provide military protection, services, and income to the peasants. Land was retained by the lord and was “loaned” to the peasants, who cultivated the farms and produced the agricultural products. The lord retained all rights to the land, but could not redeem the land or increase the dues charged to the peasants for use of the land. Serfs retained their hereditary rights to the use of the land. Servitude or slavery became issues about freedom, but those rights were related to the land rather than the individual.

The “manor” was an administrative unit of the territory, which was presided over by the lord. The lord or his agents (bailiffs and provosts) served as administrator of justice, determined all public policy, and collected the taxes. Parts of the estate could be transferred to others, but the single manor and lord remained in charge. Thus, a manor might serve several subsequent lords. Tenants were required to maintain the land, roads, and bridges, as well as the castle of the lord.

Typically, the lord lived in the manor house on the property. But, the land possessions were divided into arable lands held by the serfs, meadows, woodlands, and wasteland. A serf could hold a parcel of land or a single individual might hold several separate unconnected strips. Meadows were held in common. The lord of the manor, who was compensated for the cut wood, animals hunted or fish caught in the ponds, most often retained the use of the woodlands. During poor economic times, the lord was obliged to intercede by supplying money or credits to the serfs to prevent starvation. In normal times, the lord received part of the agricultural yield or woodland products as compensation for providing the land. Other dues to the lord were based upon the rights of justice supplied by the lord, the small industries that developed on the estate, or for the use of the lord’s mills and ovens. In such cases, dues in the form of cloth, building material and ironware might be paid to the lord. As well, the lord could be compensated with food, lodging, and other services the he required.

The manorial system was probably developed from the earlier estate management concepts of the Romans and the Germans. Later on, other factors contributed to the modification of the manorial system. Economic competition in the form of capitalism and centralized monarchies gradually replaced the subsistence system of the manors, which slowly began to disappear in Spain (after the Moors), England, France (after the Revolution), Italy, Austria, Prussia, and Hungary.

There were regional differences in the rights provided to the serfs. Some tenants were completely bound to the land. That differed from slavery by the fact of their inherited rights to the land, which could be passed on to their sons. The land could not be sold or given away without the serfs. Also, the lords were required to provide certain services to the serfs. In some areas serfs held individual rights; in other regions serfs had group rights or even served without landlords. Sometimes after wars the conquered peoples were reduced to serfdom by the victors, rather than retained as slaves. Tribute/taxes then were paid to the victors.

Peasant Rights

In Russia, the peasants/serfs were known as “Smerdy.” They could become hired laborers either by contract or as indentured tenants. In dire times, some smerdy sold themselves into slavery in order to provide their families with enough food to survive. Hired tenants remained free men, but were dependant upon the proprietors for both economical and legal services. The social status of tenants was decreased and more precarious. By the 12th century, independent peasant communes had been established. However, if a peasant died without heirs, the property reverted to the prince. Later on, the individual could bequeath his land holdings to whomever he chose, including female heirs or the church. Unless there was a private special arrangement, smerdy tenants retained their personal freedoms and were able to leave the proprietor. However, in more rural areas, slaves and peasants had no freedoms.

Slaves were a primary source of income for the princes. Slaves had no special rights and were transported and traded during the early years of the Kievan Rus. As early as the 9th century, slaves were sold to the Byzantines. Russians also owned slaves, who were essential to the economy of their agricultural system. There were large rewards for catching runaway slaves. Even monasteries owned slaves, who had been either civilian or military prisoners of war. The children of slaves remained slaves. However, if a child was the issue of a slave and her master, the child slave was freed upon the death of the master. If caught, his lord could enslave an indentured runaway. Bankrupt merchants, who had used very poor judgment, could be enslaved to settle the debts and expenses that were incurred by the proprietor. Also, the property of the merchant could be sold to defray the expenses to the landowner.

While the serfs were bound to the land and had specified rights and services pledged to them by the proprietor, slaves were merely chattel and without any rights. A man, who married a slave, could remain free only if his wife’s owner granted permission. Proprietors could demand payment for the death of a slave to compensate the owner for the property, as if the slave were a parcel of land or material object. Properties could be purchased, sold, or borrowed by a slave, but always in the name of the owner. Indentured servants could borrow from the proprietor, but the interest on the loan was so great that the debt rarely could be repaid and the servant never achieved his freedom. Slave owners were completely responsible for the consequences of all actions taken by their slaves. Although it was possible for a slave to purchase his freedom, few had the resources to attain their liberty. The value of one slave was equivalent to the cost of one goat or sheep. But, a pig was valued at two slaves; a mare horse was valued at four slaves.

Russian peasants were known as “Zakupy.” They formed the largest percentage of the population. In an attempt to achieve more rights, they staged a revolt in Kiev in the 12th century. Not all Zakupy lived in the rural regions. A few lived in cities where they served their creditors. Zakupy were also known as peons. Zakupy could become enslaved if they stole from their creditors, if the master had to sell a peon to pay for the damages or expenses created by the peon, or was a captured escapee. Russian law afforded few protections for the peons. However, if a peon was abused or if the creditor took the peon’s property, the court might demand the freedom of the peon’s debt.

There were other types of farm workers than serfs, slaves, and Zakupy. Vdachi were workers, who performed labor for the proprietor and received a subsidy for their efforts. As an example, if someone were ruined as a result of a catastrophe he could seek aide from a landlord. Such money was gifted and the grant was not to be considered a loan. Vdachi worked for a specified time to repay the assistance that was granted. Riadovichi referred to laborers, who made a contract to work for a specified amount of money or services and worked for an agreed upon amount of time. Izgoi were workers, who lost their jobs and were unable to locate new employment. Such workers might have been illiterate sons of priests (priests could marry then so their children inherited the priestly caste), freed slaves, or insolvent merchants who had escaped enslavement. Later on, an “orphaned prince” qualified as an Izgoi. Brothers of a prince, who died without issue, and who would have no possibility of ascending to the throne, might have become Izgoi.

  • Blum, Jerome: Lord and Peasant in Russia, from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton University Press, 1961.
  • Dubnow, Simon M.: History of the Jews in Poland and Russia. Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, PA, 1918. Republished by Avotaynu, Inc., Bergenfield, New Jersey, 2000.
  • Zamoyski, Adam: The Polish Way, A Thousand-year History of the Poles and their Culture. Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1987, 1995.
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