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…

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