Russian Language Blog

Serfin’ the tide of Russian history Posted by on Jun 13, 2013 in Culture, History

Since I’ve done a number of vocabulary and grammar posts recently, I thought that this week, for a change of pace, we’ll take a look at Russian history. And, more specifically, the history of that peculiar institution known as крепостничество (“serfdom”) — which for hundreds of years was the curse of the Russian poor and a constant political headache for the ruling monarchs until its formal abolition in 1858. (And even then, of course, the human effects of serfdom lingered on.)


But to understand the history of Russian serfdom, we first need to consider some basic definitions — for instance, what are the practical differences between a person held in крепостничество, “serfdom”, and someone in рабство, “slavery”? And are serfs the same as the ordinary members of the крестьяство (“the peasantry; the peasant class collectively”)?

So, to begin with, the word крестьянин is usually translated as “peasant.” However, keep in mind that the English word “peasant” can have negative connotations of нищета (“extreme poverty”) and безграмотность (“illiteracy”) — it seems almost oxymoronic to speak of a “rich, educated peasant.” But the Russian term is more neutral, and historically it wasn’t unheard of for a крестьянин to be wealthy and educated, though this was certainly the exception, not the rule! So, in some contexts, terms such as “farmer” or “agricultural worker” would be more appropriate translations than “peasant.”

Anyway, the noun крестьянин happens to have a slightly unusual declension, since the suffix -ин- is present throughout the singular but disappears in the plural. And it’s worth your time memorizing the declension because plenty of other nouns have the same pattern:

крестьянин (“peasant; farmer; tiller of land”)
sing. pl.
nominative крестьянин крестьяне
genitive крестьянина крестьян
dative крестьянину крестьянам
accusative крестьянина крестьян
instrumental крестьянином крестьянами
prepositional крестьянине крестьянах

Don’t get the spelling confused with христианин (nom. pl. христиане), “a Christian.” And other nouns with this same pattern include:

  • дворянин (nom. pl. дворяне) — “nobleman; member of the hereditary gentry”
  • англичанин (англичане) — “Englishman”
  • мусульманин (мусульмане) — “a male Muslim”
  • россиянин (россияне) — “legal citizen of post-Soviet Russia”

All of these have feminine counterparts that are formed by replacing the -ин of the nominative singular with -ка. For example, крестьянка, “peasant woman,” which has a “normal” feminine declension (nom. pl. крестьянки, gen. pl. крестьянок).

And the word господин (today, “Mister,” but originally “gentleman” or “master”) has nearly the same pattern, except that the nominative plural ends in a stressed а (not ). Thus the familiar phrase you’ll hear over a loudspeaker: «Дамы и господа, “Ladies and gentlemen!”

Anyway, although all serfs were peasants, not all of the крестьяне were serfs. In the early 18th century, by some estimates, nearly 80% of the Russian крестьянство (“peasantry”) were held in serfdom. But at other times in history, serfs accounted for far less than half of the peasants. As already mentioned, крепостничество is “serfdom,” and the adjective крепостной means “serfdom-related”. So, the phrase крепостной крестьянин, literally “peasant in serfdom”, can be used to translate “serf.” Or, you can simply use the adjective substantively as a noun — thus, освобождение крепостных, “the liberation of the serfs.”

So, then, what’s the actual difference between a крепостной, “private serf,” and an ordinary государственный крестьянин (“state peasant”)? Each was a земледелец (“agricultural laborer”) doing the same sort of backbreaking work, and generally they lived in similar conditions of squalid poverty. However, non-serfs worked land that was owned by the Russian state, while the serfs tilled land privately held by members of the дворянство (“gentry”). And despite their poverty, the state peasants were in some ways better off than the serfs — they had more freedom to travel, and if you were a state peasant, the odds were slightly better that at least one or two of your children might scramble into the urban middle class by military service, or by joining the clergy, or simply by “marrying up.” But if you were a serf, the odds were that most of your grandchildren would be born, live, and die as serfs.

On the other hand, state peasants were obliged to pay a подать (an old word for “tax”) to the state, which effectively kept most of them in perpetual servitude. And there was also a risk that the reigning monarch might decide to give away the state land you lived and worked on as a little gift to a member of the служилое дворянство, “the service gentry” — i.e., nobles who’d performed useful work for the crown, such as by leading the troops to victory as a military officer. Government land that was transferred to private hands in this fashion was called a поместье — and while this custom could be a great boon for the younger sons of noble families who’d inherited no property from dad, the peasants living on the поместье got screwed — you automatically became a privately-held крепостной, thereby losing whatever minimal advantages you’d had as a state-held peasant.

Finally, we might consider the difference between крепостничество, “serfdom”, and рабство “slavery” — the latter being sometimes called холопство, but only in the specific context of ancient/medieval Russian slavery. In theory, there are some distinctions. A раб or холоп might be a foreigner who had been taken as a war-captive by the Russian army; or he might be a Russian who was enslaved as punishment for a crime. And in some cases, this slave-status could be passed to a slave’s wife and inherited by their children. On the other hand, serfs were generally descended from free peasants who had sold themselves into “temporary” indentured servitude for a wealthy землевладелец (“land owner”), but couldn’t pay off the debt, and instead passed the debt on to their descendants.

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  1. Mark:

    Good article, but you spelled крестьянство wrong the first time.

    There’s more to be said about words in -ин and odd declension patterns. For example, хозяин with the plural хозяева.