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The Lash and the Knout

Writing about Mary Chesnut’s family in antebellum South Carolina, Edmund Wilson remarked that “comparisons with Russia seem inevitable when one is writing about the old South.”1 Russian serfdom and American slavery present a challenge to historical comparison that would seem all but irresistible. Yet the challenge has been around a long time without attracting a taker. Alexis de Tocqueville should have been the one to start the ball rolling a century and a half ago. He was one of the first to recognize the significant comparability of the two nations, the one marching east, the other west, each fated, he wrote in 1835, “to sway the destinies of half the globe.” Tocqueville was also keenly interested in slavery, yet he never compared the systems of servitude in the two countries in Democracy in America except to say, somewhat inaccurately, that in the American and Russian conquests of expansion, “the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude.”2 Of course Tocqueville could not have foreseen the almost simultaneous abolition of Russian serfdom and American slavery in the 1860s, events that drew attention to their parallel histories. But even that riveting coincidence failed, for all the attention it got, to evoke the comparative study by historians that might have been reasonably expected.

Modern historians have to some extent broken out of the national boundaries traditionally set for the study of American slavery and produced a number of works comparing it with bondage elsewhere. But the partners chosen to be compared have so far been confined largely to New World slave societies or South Africa. Among causes inhibiting comparisons of American slavery with Russian serfdom, the forbidding differences between the two countries probably figured most prominently. Not only were there the formidable differences between an imperial monarchy and a federal democracy, but marked differences in religion, race, and demography, and those between masters as well as between bondsmen of the two societies that seemed to stand in the way.

Marc Bloch, the brilliant French historian and pioneer of the comparative method, once remarked, “It is often supposed that the method has no other purpose than hunting out resemblances.” But, he pointed out, “correctly understood, the primary interest of the comparative method is, on the contrary, the observation of differences.”3 Bloch would agree that well-paired subjects for comparison require similarities as well as differences. Given the rich endowment of differences in the Russo-American pair, the number of resemblances that turn up is all the more remarkable. But it was the differences that had the more inhibiting influence on historians.

In addition to the intricate problems of pairing, American historians face special impediments to comparative studies. One is the myth of American exceptionalism, a myth with more substance for support in the North than in the South, which shares so many historical misfortunes with the rest of the world as to invite comparisons promiscuously. Other common blocks to comparative history are the result of professional specialization within national borders, which often leads to spotty command of the other nation’s history, and incidentally to unreliable command of needed languages.4

All these difficulties are handsomely overcome in Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Professor Peter Kolchin of the University of Delaware. His first book was an account of the response of slaves to emancipation and reconstruction in Alabama, a work that demonstrated his mastery of the sources and of the scholarly literature on the American side.5 On the Russian side, it is evident that Kolchin is at home with the language and has made wide use of both source material and scholarship, in Russian and other languages. Full evaluation of his scholarship on the Russian side must be left to critics better qualified than the reviewer. It will be clear to any discerning reader, however, that Unfree Labor is a learned and sophisticated book in the tradition of high scholarship, as well as a book written to be read and enjoyed. Those who share a taste for comparative history will be taken with the author’s spirit of play, his readiness to ask “what if,” and his zest for experiment and discovery. (Discovery by comparative study? Yes. For example, the tripling of the American slave population after importation had ceased held no particular significance until it was discovered that the slave population of no other New World slave society grew at all after the slave trade ended, and that of many declined.)

Undaunted by differences, Kolchin holds that it is just because of their “strikingly different historical environments” and because Russian serfdom and American slavery were “in many ways fundamentally unlike,” that comparison of the two “proves especially revealing.” Not only does he expand the geographical scope of comparative studies but the temporal span as well, reaching back to the seventeenth century and demonstrating that serfdom and slavery evolved and changed significantly over time. Another departure from much previous comparative history is his avoidance of writing parallel histories that leave comparisons to the conclusion, or even to the reader, and his practice of interweaving history with comparison and making each chapter comparative. After an introduction setting forth the origins and development of bondage in the two countries down to the mid-eighteenth century, the book consists of two parts, the first treating the world of the master, the second that of the bondsman. There follows a brief epilogue drawing together the main themes and comparing the crises faced by the two societies in the mid-nineteenth century that led to emancipation.

The two systems of bondage emerged on Europe’s eastern and western borders at about the same time, both in order to provide by compulsion agricultural labor that could not be obtained by other means. In Russia enserfment of the peasants developed gradually until, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, they rather suddenly lost their right to move, began their decline to a status resembling chattel slavery, and merged eventually with a slave minority that had existed prior to serfdom. The serfs were subject to the authority, and bound to the land, of their landlords, who became for all practical purposes their owners. Also plagued by the shortage of labor, one that white indentured servants could no longer meet, English settlers in the American colonies increasingly resorted to enslaved Africans, and Britain became the foremost slave-trading country in the world in the late seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century black slaves, like white serfs, “appeared part of the natural order, as God-given as government or agriculture itself,” and among Americans as among Russians “the notion that it was wrong for some to live off the labor of others—even under physical compulsion—was virtually nonexistent.”

Kolchin agrees with the current consensus of historians that for more than a hundred years before emancipation, the status of serfs was virtually indistinguishable from that of slaves, and that Russian serfdom was a kind of slavery. He emphasizes, however, that serfdom took a form that differed in two ways from the form slavery took in the American South. One was that American slaves were taken from Africa against their will and sold to people of different nationality, language, race, and culture, and remained in many ways aliens in a white America. In Russia serfs and masters were nearly always of the same nationality, language, and religion. Serfs were the lowest class of their own society, but the peasants, about one half of whom were serfs, were the essence of Russia and not outsiders as blacks in America were. The Russian example confutes the notion that no people would enslave their own compatriots. Nevertheless, noblemen and peasants came to seem as different from each other as blacks and whites, Africans and Europeans, in America.

The second important difference between slavery and serfdom followed from the first: the role of tradition in limiting the control of master over bondsman was greater in Russia than in America. Slaves worked for their masters all the time and received maintenance, while most serfs worked part-time for owners and got little if any support from them. They maintained themselves off their land allotments. Tradition and custom had less weight in America, where both slaves and masters were relative newcomers, and bondsmen could not claim as much independence.

While bondsmen made up roughly similar proportions of the total population—about one third in the South and one half in Russia—the proportion of owners to bondsmen differed widely. Noblemen serf owners were only a tiny percent of the population, while in the South about a quarter of all whites were members of slave-owning families. Russian noblemen lived in an overwhelmingly serf or peasant world, and serfs were held in far larger units than American slaves. In 1860 only one American slave owner held more than a thousand slaves as compared with 3,358 such Russian serf owners. Most serfs belonged to noblemen owning more than two hundred, and nearly half to those owning more than one thousand. In striking contrast, almost half of American slaves were held by owners with fewer than twenty, and three-quarters by those with fewer than fifty. In the South only 2.4 percent of the slaves had owners with more than two hundred bondsmen; in Russia 80.8 percent of the serfs had such owners. Holdings of some noble families exceeded 10,000 souls, and were distributed among many estates across numerous provinces. In both countries there were great regional variations in size of holdings and proportion of bondsmen and owners in the population.6

Important differences in human relations and labor management followed from these statistics. Most serfs rarely saw their owners, who remained remote, faceless figures to be dreaded or appealed to mainly in crises. On the other hand, slaves typically dealt with their owners regularly, and slave owners, for better or worse, knew them personally and took a lively interest in them. Absenteeism was the rule among Russian owners, the exception among Southern planters, most of whom lived on the plantation. Serf owners relied on intermediaries, the wealthiest on administrative bureaucracies, to run their estates and exact from the serfs the labor or payment in kind and money due them. A few rich slave owners had managers, but most large plantations got along with an overseer who worked through slave drivers.

Noblemen as well as planters, in seeking to prevent unexcused absences and discourage fugitives, required passes to leave the estate, used patrols or guards, and punished offenders. Other management problems common to masters of slaves and serfs were those of morals and marriage, particularly marriage off the estate. Comparison indicates far greater emphasis in America than in Russia on the protection and care of the slaves. Partly this reflects the difference between a system in which the master fed, housed, and clothed his slaves and one in which the serfs fended for themselves. The absentee mentality of the noblemen and the residential paternalism of the planters also played a part, as did the white conviction that blacks were, like children, unable to care for themselves. That conviction fit in perfectly with the planters’ policy of maximizing dependency and fostering the dependent nature of slaves. The effect of these differences was to produce

  1. 1

    Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 288.

  2. 2

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Phillips Bradley, ed. (Knopf, 1972), p. 434 for Russo-American comparison; pp. 333–379 on slavery.

  3. 3

    Marc Bloch, “Toward a Comparative History of European Societies” (1928) in Frederic C. Lane and J.C. Riemersma, eds., Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History (Irwin, 1953), pp. 494–521.

  4. 4

    C. Vann Woodward, ed., The Comparative Approach to American History (Basic Books, 1968), pp. 3–17, 346–357.

  5. 5

    Peter Kolchin, First Freedom: The Response of Alabama’s Blacks to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Greenwood Press, 1972).

  6. 6

    Russian figures are usually males only, hence I have doubled them.

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