Serfs of Poland and Russia Part III Serfdom during the Age of Russian Expansion and Absolute Rule in the 15th-17th Centuries by Robert S. Sherins, M.D.

The role of the serfs during the period of expansion and commercial prosperity in Russia was modified during the late 15th to early 17th centuries. At the time of the previous Kievan Rus, the princes administered and controlled all trade and gained their principal incomes thereby. Little income was derived from agriculture, but it was sufficient for the peasants. During the Mongol era, access to the waterways and trade routes became inaccessible, so the Kievan Rus was forced to become self-sufficient. With the loss of foreign trade, Russia could barely feed itself. It was a period of severe agricultural and commercial decline. Whereas Poland remained a successful merchant and trading nation, Russia was forced to turn inward for survival.

Beginning in the late 15th century, commercial and trade enterprise expanded in Russia. Predictably, the major incomes continued to be retained by the Tsar and nobility. Whereas in Western Europe the nobility had great disdain for any role in business, in Russia, the monarchy and nobility were avid businessmen. In fact, the Tsar became Russia’s most significant and wealthiest trader and merchant. A commercial monopoly was created by the monarchy, which maintained control and restrictions on all business transactions and trading. Trade was lucrative and the monarchy exercised full advantage over Russian commerce. Thus, the Tsar controlled all liquor transactions and held the monopoly on sable furs, walrus tusks that were utilized for knife handles, silks, caviar, potash and rhubarb. Although it is rather uncommonly consumed among modern Western diets, rhubarb was then a highly sought after fruit because of its presumed purgative effects. Tsars could also control the prices of goods and supplies and thus be able to attain competitive advantages in trading. This was accomplished by both price controls and restrictions placed upon their competitors. Imports and commercial trades had to be offered to the Tsar’s representatives before being made accessible to merchants. As the Kievan Rus princes had practiced in earlier times, trade again became the principal endeavor of the monarchy and nobility. In the previous centuries, after the devastations wrought by the Mongols and Tatars, the serfs had exercised their freedom to migrate to more profitable estates on which they could also enjoy more prosperity. By the early 16th-17th centuries, many serfs moved to cities, where they entered more profitable commercial enterprises. The greater incomes earned by serfs enabled them to pay off debts owed to their proprietors, the seigniors.

By the late 15th century, serfs began to enjoy a definite fluidity of movement within the more profitable landed estates. As long as they did not indenture themselves, serfs continued to relocate within Russia. Serfs moved at will and had no allegiance to a specific lord or regional prince. Serfs could leave the rural peasantry and enter city life, but they still did not shape a social class within Russia. There were economic consequences as a result of the dislocation of the serfs. The peasant populace was still small, yet the princes and the seigniorial proprietors depended upon them for their principal incomes. The bulk of the military forces were comprised of serfs.

The very significant incomes derived from the efforts of the serfs were much too important to the princes, nobility, and proprietors to permit the peasants to leave proprietors at will. Therefore, treaties were signed among the landowners, which in effect restricted a proprietor from taking serfs from another landowner. However, serfs could elect to move into another princedom, where no prior treaties or agreements had been in force. Regional agreements were instituted that restricted offers of incentives to the serfs which might encourage them to move to better locations. It was forbidden to take one another’s serfs by force. Runaway serfs were not to be protected by another proprietor. The treaties served as a monopoly of control over the administration of the serfs.

In practice, the agreements failed because of the rivalry among the realms and the developing independence of the regions, as well as the fact that the populace of serfs was still quite small and the desire for profits from the work performed by the peasants remained very competitive among the princes and proprietors. There was little desire to restrict the movement of the serfs because the gain from the peasants on one’s estate ensured higher taxes collected from their production, which would then be passed along to the regional princes. The gain from the work of the serfs was too self-serving for everyone, so few restrictions were actually enacted that would interfere with peasant movement.

The monarchy was also enriched by the successful production from the migration of the serfs to more profitable estates. Princes offered the lords within their realms “charters of immunity” to lure serfs elsewhere, which was a far greater incentive to the landowners than the treaties that restricted the peasant’s movements. Competition among the princes led to various exemptions and restrictions in order to maximize fiscal revenues for the realms. Peasant movements were limited to specific times of the year when harvests or important events had been completed, but only after debts owed by serfs had been repaid.

More centralized control over Russia was established by Ivan III in the last half of the 15th century. He decreed that the monarch possessed authority to regulate his entire realm. Thereafter, serfs gained the rights to move anywhere within Russia, as long as their debts were repaid and all obligations to their landlords were met. Movements of serfs were restricted to the autumn or for short periods of time surrounding certain holidays. Exit fees were required to repay landlords for their expenses incurred in providing the serfs with land, housing, and protection, which the serfs had required during their tenure on the estate. The maximum tax was established between ¼ and 1 ruble per year of work on the estate, up to four years. But, the tax was only ½ ruble if the serf’s land was in the wooded forested areas. One ruble was an exorbitant tax by comparison to the value of a serf’s production. For example, one ruble could purchase 300 bushels of oats, 200 bushels of barley, 150 bushels of rye, or 120 bushels of wheat grain. But, an average serf could only produce in one year about 100 bushels of rye or oats.

It was estimated that in the late 15th century, an average serf moved once every few years or when his land became completely exhausted. Field rotation was yet unknown in Russia so, depleted fields were most often just abandoned.

Serfdom After the Tatar Era

Peasants began to assume a nomadic life under the Tatar rule. This imposed enormous physical hardships on the peasants. Slaves began to request assistance from the regional courts after instances of abuse. Slaves could also be freed by the declarations included in the Wills of their deceased lords. On the other hand, slaves were valuable and could be given as part of a wedding dowry or sold as part of the wealth of a lord. Monasteries started to terminate slave labor practices.

During the Tatar era, the tenants were mobile, so debts owed could be repaid to the lords and proprietors by the cash earned working on more productive estates. If a tenant failed to repay his debt, the lord could request the courts to intervene. However, the court could not require the serf to return to the prior landowner’s property.

By the end of the 15th century, a shift away from rural agriculture occurred. Greater incomes by craftsmen were derived from the successful production of manufactured goods. More efficient waterways were used to power the mills. Technology was improved for casting of metal bells and artillery pieces. As well, there was an increased use of stone masonry in building construction.

Princes encouraged the establishment of business enterprises in their towns. Lords and proprietors (i.e. town magnates) obtained additional exactions from the princes not to interfere with their trading and manufacturing ventures. In time, commerce gained momentum. Monasteries were granted independent business privileges. Finally, a major shift of commerce occurred in which the cities became the center of the business administration and economic headquarters for the enterprises of the nobility and lords. A business class was finally emerging in Russia, whereas it had been established much earlier in Poland. Managers were required to serve the lords by supervising their business interests in the salt mines, workshops, and purchasing of raw materials and supplies.

As business enterprises expanded in the 16th century, increased demand for housing of the staff and workers ensued. New buildings were required for the workshops. Foreign trade expanded and merchants traveled to new markets. As a consequence, diplomatic activities improved particularly with the Eastern potentates of Asia. Next followed the visitations by foreign traders, who ventured into the Russian interior.

Demand for currencies increased, which required minting of new coins, as well as the use of foreign cash. Paper money was established. The most serious consequence from the urgent demand for currency was the irresistible practice of clipping the metal, thinning of the coins and diluting of the silver content. As a result, Russian currencies became progressively devalued, which was accompanied by price inflation and increased shipping costs.

In time, both the minting of coins and currency transactions became a monopoly of the monarchy in Moscow. The demand for cash was so great that the monarchs could not resist tampering with the metal content of their currencies. Further debasing of Russian money resulted. Coin weights dropped almost 40%. Similar practices occurred elsewhere in Europe so that foreign exchange became more problematic, which led to further increased inflation.

Silver, gold, and copper currencies were circulated in Russia. However, copper coins were principally used among the poor peasants for their local purchases. Gold coins were reserved by the Tsars and used for special honors and events. Silver was the most commonly used commercial currency of the nation. The “ruble” was first established as a currency in 1316, but was not utilized as a currency. Rubles were kept by the Tsars and reserved “on account.” Rubles were valued at one “grivenka” or equal to 48 zołotniki, which equaled 4.26 grams of silver. A small coin, the den’gi, was of limited use. It was debased so often that the value varied from region to region. In the 16th century, one ruble was valued at 100 kopecks or one den’gi. Foreign coins entered Russia, but the metals were most often melted and struck as Russian currencies. A markedly disproportionate amount of the silver and gold metals were accumulated by the Tsars and nobility, which were used for their table service and jewelry. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Austrian Empress Maria Theresa recognized the urgency of stabilizing currency. Austria created the “MTT” (Maria Theresa Thaler), which contained pure silver with precise engravings placed on all edges of the coin, thereby eliminating the clipping and thinning of money. As a result, the MTT not only became the preferred currency among the European nations, but also developed into the most desirable coin traded throughout world until the mid-20th century.

During the 15th-16th centuries, agriculture also improved in Russia. The three-field system of both field and crop rotation was established. Iron plowshares were manufactured and water mills were built. All of those developments resulted in a significant expansion of cultivation and agricultural production in Russia. The ever-increasing demand for agricultural production was followed by a marked upsurge of colonization and expansion into new territories of Eurasia.

New wealth flowed from the colonies into Russia, which included furs, hides, salt, and many other wares. Much new wealth was created from the increased commercial and industrial activities. As the population expanded, the demand for more goods increased. An improved market economy finally developed in Russia after centuries of decline. Old towns were revised and many new towns and rural settlements were established along the waterways and trade routes. Cities emerged as vital commercial centers. Serfs began to abandon agriculture with preferences for the better incomes earned from commerce, industry, and trades. However, the city dwellers still depended upon the nearby rural settlements for all of the products needed to sustain the increasing populations of the regions.

Perhaps the most significant social change in Russia during the 15th-17th centuries was a consequence of the escalation in the number of artisans and craftsmen that resulted from the expanded urban market economy of the cities. Industry was concentrated in cities, but rural settlements required manufactured goods in exchange for the agricultural products that they supplied in return. Crafts became increasingly specialized in the cities, as well as regional specialization, that was related to the materials that were available, such as silver, iron, the production of leather goods and wool cloth, and the manufacturing of arms. At first, local town markets were used for trading of those goods. Later on, weekly regional markets developed in the town squares. Annual special trade fairs were established to exchange imported goods for their locally available supplies. Shipping costs increased, especially for heavier goods, such as the bulky grains that were required by the distant rural new settlements. Prices also increased as a result of the added tariffs and taxes, which were imposed at the borders of neighboring regions and nation-states.

By the 16th century, Russia controlled the Don and Volga Rivers. Trade with Poland-Lithuania and Germany was established. Trade with the neighbors provided access to the Baltic ports and expanded into Western Europe. By 1553, Russia gained access to the Atlantic Sea via the egress of the Dvina River in the north. Trade treaties with the English and Dutch provided access to Scandinavia via the White Sea, which reached to the entrance to the Dvina River. Although the Russians could only use the port of Archangel during the three summer months when the ice was sufficiently melted, to avoid the huge tariffs that were imposed by the use of the European overland routes, this provided an important commercial advantage. Russia imported base metals, munitions, and chemicals from Europe and in turn traded raw materials and semi-finished products. Russia also exported vegetables, animal products, hemp, cordage, flax, pitch, potash, furs, bristles, hides, salted meats, tallow, wax, and oils. However, basic grains in Russia were consumed locally and could not be exported, whereas in Poland, grains were readily exported.

Commercial trade with the East was even more important to Russia. Russia often re-exported the goods that they received from Western Europe and trans-shipped them to the East. In return, Tatars continued to trade with Russia supplying livestock (sheep and goats) and valuable fast horses, which the cavalry required.

More centralized control of the government in Moscow developed during the last half of the 16th century. Tsar expanded his authority to the Ural Mountains, the Lower Volga region, and into Siberia. New supplies of raw materials, furs, and forest products were in great demand. Ivan IV continued the policies of his father, Vasilii III, to further centralize all authority in Russia from the throne in Moscow. Ivan IV, also known as “Ivan the Terrible,” became the pinnacle of authority over Russia and the Orthodox Church. He claimed that resistance to the Tsar was akin to resistance to God’s laws, which was a mortal sin. Ivan IV wanted Moscow to become the third Christian authority in the world, equal to the rule of the Vatican and Byzantium.

So that there will be no confusion between the personality of Ivan IV versus his royal policies, his deplorable personal behavior should be discussed. He had been a physically abused child. His father died when Ivan was only three years old. By early youth Ivan IV became an alcoholic and displayed terrible fits of anger, joining street gangs and participating in open violence. Most of the Tsar’s eight wives were murdered. Ivan IV was brutal and engaged his personal black-shirted army, Oprichniki, into violent and atrocious acts against both the aristocracy and the ordinary peasants of Russia.

Severe power struggles ensued among the nobility and boyars when the issues of inherited succession from the monarch and the highest princes became essential to maintaining power within the realm. Ivan IV was ruthless in confiscating properties of princes, whose loyalty to the monarchy was questioned. Suspected princes, proprietors (seigniors), and boyars were often relocated to new frontier territories, out of the way. Their lands were given to new and younger loyalist princes. The region of Chernigov-Seversk underwent such radical changes. Ivan IV confiscated much of the property in the region as well as in many other regions. Lords were required to pay large sums of cash as guarantees to the Tsar and all of his future children, who might reign over Russia. The test of loyalty to Ivan IV was required to keep properties and privileges in Russia, thus undoing the liberties of the aristocracy that were gained during the 15th century. Failure to ensure proof of loyalty could result in severe fines, imprisonment with torture, or execution.

All lords/seigniors were required to supply the monarchy with cash, fully armored noble personnel, and several horses for their long mounted journeys. In the 16th century, the Russian military was formed from the gentry, who were loyal warriors for the Tsar. The other gentry lost their lands. Non-royal proprietors, boyars, as well as the church were required to pay large sums of cash as guarantees of their loyalty to the Tsar. Ivan IV was able to protect his power and wealth of the realm by surrounding himself with loyalists, who blocked the threats to his monarchy.

In 1552, Ivan IV defeated the Tatar army at Kazan, which was the Central Asian Tatar capital situated on the Volga River. Russia defeated the Tatars at Astrakhan in 1556 and then claimed the region along the Volga River to the Caspian Sea, as well as the territories beyond the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Siberia became part of Russia in 1581. Ivan IV continued to appropriate for himself the private properties of Russia on the basis that it was required by the state for the security and support of the Tsar and his family. Eventually, even the town people were victimized by the Tsar. By the 1570s, few of the old aristocratic families remained.

In 1569, Lithuania and Poland signed the treaty of the Union of Lublin, which consolidated the Commonwealth of Lithuania-Poland. In effect, the Commonwealth was trying to protect itself from both the incursions of the Crimean Tatars and from the Russian Imperialist military forces.

In the process, much of the agricultural basis of Russia was ruined, which had previously served the peasants. The serfs had suffered greatly from the policies of Tsar Ivan IV. Mass confiscations eventually were halted with the uprising of the Crimean Tatars in the 1570s and the unsuccessful wars with Livonia (1558-1583), which drained Russia’s manpower and resources. During his reign, Russia suffered a plague epidemic in 1570, destruction of Moscow by fires, and several invasions by its neighbors, Sweden, Livonia, Crimean Tatars, and the Ottoman armies. The most feared personal army of the Tsar, the Oprichniki, was disbanded in 1572, which finally ended the open confiscation of Russian properties. Rather than being united by the absolute central authority that Tsar Ivan IV had instituted, Russia was left in disarray when he died in 1584.

Ivan IV’s son, Fedor (1584-1598), who followed as Tsar, was an ineffectual religious fanatic. Boris Godunov, who was the son-in-law of Ivan IV’s former wife, replaced Fedor. However, the authoritarianism continued under Boris’ rule. Many of the aristocracy were banished to monasteries. Loyalty among princes was maintained by gifts of cash and additional property. Most importantly, increased powers were awarded to the lords and proprietors over the rights of the serfs. Then in 1601-1604, severe famine was followed by widespread popular unrest, riots, and the appearance of roving brigands.

Boris Godunov died in 1605. The Polish monarchy clandestinely supported a pretender to the throne of Russia, who claimed to be Dmitrii 7th - son of Ivan IV. However, Dmitrii had died previously in 1591 at the age of nine. Poland had assumed control over Moscow indirectly through the installation of their puppet Tsar, “the false Dmitrii.” Peasant uprisings and foreign invasions soon followed. The “false Dmitrii” was assassinated and Poland briefly assumed the throne of Moscow (1610-1612). In 1613, a national army of the gentry overtook Moscow and evicted the Polish prince and his retinue. The Russian Assembly reorganized and elected Michael Romanov, the grand nephew of Anastasia (one of Ivan IV’s wives), as monarch. Michael was the first Romanov Tsar of Russia.

At the age of 16, Michael Romanov attained absolute power in Russia. Russian lords and common peasants all owed him total allegiance. The seigniors still were bound by loyalty and military service to the Tsar. Even the most ambitious princes were not guaranteed a share of the royal/state power. Only a few old families retained prestige. Ivan IV had killed many of the former gentry, so few princely dynasties remained and Tsar Michael did not always support them. Michael appointed and promoted only his favorites. Officially recorded genealogical lineage was of no value in protecting the gentry. As a result, the lesser nobility rose to power under Tsar Michael and formed a new, but absolute, monarchy.

In 1634, at the time the town of Konotop was founded in Chernigov, Gubernya, (where this author, Robert Sherins’ ancestors, originated) Konotop was located within the boundaries of Poland-Lithuania. The recent marriage of Polish king Władysław IV Vasa, son of Sigismund III Vasa, and Cecile Renate von Hapsburg, daughter of Austrian Emperor Ferdinand II, had further unified the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. Konotop had been given to a Polish nobleman for “loyal services rendered to the Polish king.” Furthermore, Western European powers were still embroiled in the Thirty-Years War, which devastated Europe from 1618 to 1648.

The first Romanov Tsar, Michael, assumed that Polish King Władysław IV would have been preoccupied with his new kingdom and marriage, as well as being distracted by the Thirty-Years War in neighboring Europe. Tsar Michael decided to invade Poland-Lithuania in 1634 to take back the territories, which had been previously ruled by Russia. As a result of their several previous conflicts, the Russian-Polish borders had been moved numerous times. However, the Polish army was not distracted by the king’s marriage, so Russia was defeated in the ensuing engagement and the Russians were forced to retreat.

The invasion of the Russian military into the region of Chernigov Gubernya enraged the Ukrainians. Despite past repeated negotiations with the Russians in search of peaceful territorial solutions, the Cossacks gathered their own forces and were joined by disaffected troops of Tatars and Ottomans. Together, they defeated the Russian military. However, in 1648, the Cossack-led forces became totally uncontrolled and destroyed the Polish and Jewish communities in the region. Many innocent Polish and Jewish people were murdered in the uprising and their properties were burned to the ground. Ω

  • 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.