Was that really that bad being a serf?

Jun 2016
1,758
Russia
#1
Very many feel being a serf as some disaster for a human being. But difference between level of life of a serf and free peasant wasn't that big and not always to benefit of free peasant. There are know cases in Russia when a serf didn't want to buy his freedom. Look, both serf and free peasant were peasants, that means they did the same work. Not less not more, because peasants always worked as much as they could, the entire day. It was 20th century when peasants started to eat their bellyfull. Before that both serf and free peasants risked to stay without food in spring time if not always but very often. The level of life of serf and a free peasant was not different as I said and depended from time and land. Being serf weren't shameful at that time, that was usual social position for many. We aren't ashamed to be employee, are we?
Just to show that all that is not my speculations, look at events of 1861 in Russia. "Liberated" peasants made dozens of uprising all around Russia. Not because Russians have spirit of slaves but because they were better of as serves. All together there 1869 peasant revolts at that time.
When peasants in West were "liberated" they didn't celebrate that as well, but were in big trouble.
No, I don't think that serfdom is a good thing. This is not progressiv, for progress in a country peasants must be free, robbed by richier fellow peasants and leave the fields for cities, where they join the army of workers. But from the point of view of level of life, being a serf doesn't mean being in a worse position.
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,400
#3
Being a serf means being part of a collective. That collective might have rights and privileges, but not the individual serf. Some other group is going to have the freedoms that come with certain kinds of privilege as well, unlike the serf. But the serf will be working in behalf of this group regardless. Exceptions will be made, meaning cracks of individual opportunity for certain serfs, but really only so much that it greases the system for smooth operation, but not so much it allows the system to be challenged. The laws will apply differently for different groups of people to ensure this.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,495
Sydney
#4
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considering the near constant revolts of serfs through Russia history ,
one could conclude that the serf themselves were not convinced
 
Oct 2010
289
Paomia, Corsica
#5
My grasp of Russian agrarian history may not be as sharp as it once was but, if I remember correctly, the conditions of serves varied wildly across time, space and institutional condition.

First, it was clearly not the same thing to be a serf in the still somewhat underpopulated Russia of the 1700s and in the overcrowded 1800s. In later years, serves were not as good a position to drive hard bargain as they had been before. The productivity of work was so low that lords did not think much of having armies of serves acting as servants in their country estates (iirc Tolstoi had or wrote about one serf whose only job it was to hold his master's pipe).

Second, serfdom differed if you were in the highly productive black lands around Voronezh or in the poor woody terrain around Vladimir. In the same way, serves in the regions settled for a long time had it probably a lot worse than those in the more recently conquered lands. There are famous stories about formers serves turning into real magnates on the Siberian frontiers through the fur trade, but the same was unthinkable further West.

In places where land was still abundant the communal system could function relatively well but of course, as Lenin repeatedly points out, when densities increased the whole idea became rather unworkable.

Finally, there was serfdom and serfdom. If you were a state serf, you were likely to have a rather comfortable life while the private ones were not so lucky. There were also those serves sed in mines and factories, specially in the Ural, who had a rather different existence than their counterparts in the countryside.

It's also important to remark that most of what is nowadays Ukraine had a system of free labour, quite different from the Grand Russian serfdom and communal system.

In conclusion, if you don't precise when and where you're taking about, it's impossible to reach any form of conclusion about serfdom
 
Jun 2016
1,758
Russia
#6
It's also important to remark that most of what is nowadays Ukraine had a system of free labour, quite different from the Grand Russian serfdom and communal system.
Most of nowadays Ukraine is what was earlier called New Russia - the lands that belonged earlier to Turkey and Crimean khan. To be precise to 19th century. The part of Ukraina you refer to is the Western Ukraine belonged earlier to Poland. That reminds me that there were people whose situation was even worse than that of serves - the hired men, in Russian "batrak"s. In Western Ukraina there wasn't serfdom, there were land owners and hired men as everywhere in the world.
 

RoryOMore

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
3,395
USA
#7
I think that if you run things back a few centuries, virtually everybody had things really bad. Only the thinnest layer at the top of a culture was comfortable, and even they were more or less helpless in the presence of disease, infection, and the like.
 
Jun 2016
1,758
Russia
#8
.
considering the near constant revolts of serfs through Russia history ,
one could conclude that the serf themselves were not convinced
Exactly these revolts prove that I'm right. There was not a single revolt against serfdom as such. Only against some cruel form of it.
Russians had rather many contacts with Europeans, Russian soldiers were in France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Italy, Austria-Hungary etc. I don't remember even a single case when some soldier wanted to stay in European "freedom". Contrary, hundred thousands of French POWs remained in Russia, some even as serves. The conclusion: the level of life of Russian serves was at least compatible with that of European free peasants.

No, I don't say, that being a serf is happiness, but that doesn't mean disaster as well. This is like being employer or employee now. You may be poor owner of a small shop, or you may be one of the top manager of a big corporation with salary of millions.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,400
#9
Frankly, a history of "horizons of expectations" might be a good idea for this. No, serfs rarely rebelled against the system as such, only excesses. That's true for almost all farming communities — naturally conservative, they want JUSTICE, as they perceive it, not change (and being a serf, or a farmer or whatever, and A Better Sort Of People lording it over you, tends to be thought of as a just order too, that's what the priest tells you).

But one of the more apparent downsides, which admittedly is a downside in most societies, at most times in history, is the SERIOUSLY narrow expectations a community of serfs tend to have of life. Stunning lack of imagination, interests, most thing, because as a serf those things just aren't for you. Someone else perhaps, but not you.

There's a reason complacency has been such a widely cultivated virtue through history. Be happy with your lot. Don't question. Obey. There will be pie in the sky when you die...

Which is why affluence is so bloody DANGEROUS to any traditional society. Once you get a large enough group with education, resources, who can afford opinion and has the leisure to think about things — professionals, who are not part of the traditional elites — that's when you get actual revolutionaries.
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,400
#10
Russians had rather many contacts with Europeans, Russian soldiers were in France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Italy, Austria-Hungary etc. I don't remember even a single case when some soldier wanted to stay in European "freedom". Contrary, hundred thousands of French POWs remained in Russia, some even as serves. The conclusion: the level of life of Russian serves was at least compatible with that of European free peasants.
You need to source that. When and where is the supposed to be?

So the Russians didn't get it. Doesn't seem very convincing as an argument for the relative merits of serfdom. They liked what they knew and thats it.
 
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