Russian Peasantry

The relationship between the Tsar and the peasantry of Russia was a complicated one, which hearkened back to medieval Europe yet survived until late in Romanov history.  The overwhelming majority of Russians were peasants – between 80-90% – and were still peasants into the midst of the 20th century.[1]  One of the biggest challenges faced by the Romanov dynasty in their 300-year reign was pushing Russia towards modernization in an effort to catch up with much of the rest of the world while still maintaining the traditions and culture that helped make Russia Russia.[2]  Although serfdom was not codified into law until 1649, in the middle of the 17th century roughly half of the peasants in Russia would be considered slaves to the modern eye – they were property that could be sold and purchased and their offspring inherited their slave-like status.[3]  The other half were simply the property of either the royal family or the church whose taxes were tendered directly to them rather than their noble lords.[4]  Although some peasants believed that they had the right to the land they worked primarily because they worked it, but they also viewed the Tsar as divinely appointed and the people’s ‘little father’ who could be appealed to for help.[5]

The role of the peasantry and it’s push towards modernization was a topic faced by many of the Tsars throughout the Romanov period.  Catherine recognized that the existence of serfs that made up 90% of the population of her country was at odds with her desire to civilize Russia and make it a more modern state.[6]  For Catherine, however, the initial problem was the noble’s abuse of the serf system rather than the existence of serfs themselves.[7]  This thinking began to shift as Catherine acknowledged the necessary end of serfdom in Russia, but the people were simply not ready for liberation and to do so would cause an economic catastrophe.[8]   Despite the inherent unfairness of serfdom in the Russian system, it was producing the food and agriculture was necessary for Russia’s success.[9]

Alexander II was to end serfdom only at the end of the 19th century out of a recognition that firstly it was a system that was incompatible with Russia’s existence as a modern state as well as a fear of peasant revolt that could topple not only the economy but the state’s stability overall.[10]

[1] Lindsey Hughes, The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008) 4.

[2] Hughes, The Romanovs, 4.

[3] Hughes, The Romanovs, 21.

[4] Hughes, The Romanovs, 21.

[5] Hughes, The Romanovs, 21.

[6] Hughes, The Romanovs, 119.

[7] Hughes, The Romanovs, 119.

[8] Hughes, The Romanovs, 119.

[9] Hughes, The Romanovs, 120.

[10] Hughes, The Romanovs, 181.


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