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

a Russian master class that looked to their estates primarily for the income they generated, and a southern master class that, although not negligent of the financial benefits their holdings produced, regarded slaveholding as a way of life with nonpecuniary rewards of its own.

The contrast in the way masters lived had significant implications for the treatment serfs and slaves received. Both subject classes were accustomed to long hours and backbreaking work as their normal lot, but both resented the injustice of exploitation, compulsion, and denial of freedom. It was the compulsions that accompanied their work, including punishment and interference with their family life, that caused the bitterest resentment. In both countries masters held the power to compel or deny marriage and forbid the taking of partners from outside. Admitting that evidence of sexual relations between the classes is scarce, Kolchin nevertheless holds that “there can be no doubt that such relations occurred far more frequently in the United States South than in Russia.” That view is certainly encouraged by circumstances: the master in residence and the small size of holdings in the South increased the chances of contact, whereas absenteeism and large holdings in Russia diminished those chances.

Forced separation of families by masters presents another contrast between the two systems. Though such separations occurred in Russia, they were less common than in the South. For one thing slave marriages had no standing in law, whereas serf marriages had full legal recognition and were sanctified by the Church; family bonds were taken much more seriously in Russia. Although the law was often violated, imperial decrees forbade selling family members apart and selling unmarried children. Separation of families was more frequent in the South than in Russia, not so much because of different moral standards as because of different historical experiences. Slavery started with forced family separation in Africa, and slaves for a long time continued to be devoid of any rights society was bound to respect. They lacked many rights in law and tradition that serfs never lost in their own country.

Physical punishment was a regular cause of bitterness in both societies, and in both was more casual and frequent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than in the nineteenth century, though bad enough then. In the South a few masters spared the lash, and a few inflicted sadistic tortures (both extremes drawing community criticism), but most stayed well between these extremes. Spotty evidence suggests that while most slaves were not punished often, most masters did often resort to the whip. The primary purpose of punishment among slave owners was to influence future behavior, and with serf owners brutal retribution was intended to serve as an object lesson. Slaves were punished more often but less severely than serfs, who stood in dread of the cruel knout.

The spread of humanitarianism, together with the end of imports and the rise in the price of slaves, encouraged more humane treatment of human property by planters during the nineteenth century. Slaves became their “people” rather than simply an investment, and gestures of concern for slave welfare a means of strengthening the institution against abolitionist attacks. Standards of housing, diet, medical attention, and life expectancy exceeded those in the Caribbean as well as those in Russia. The intense relationship between master and slave under residential paternalism, while not necessarily a “better” bondage, produced not only fear, hatred, and unwelcome interference in their personal lives, but sometimes respect and affection as well. In Russia the government took steps toward amelioration of serfdom, and some serfs were freed before abolition, but in the main they perceived no improvement in their treatment or living standards, and few masters cultivated a paternalistic ethic. In addition to a harsher climate, poorer soil, and an appalling death rate (more than one-third higher than that of southern slaves), Russian serfs also faced a more callous disregard for their humanity on the part of absentee masters. As Nicholas Turgenev, a relative of the novelist, put it bluntly, “En Russie noblesse n’oblige pas.”

In spite of numerous differences, the master classes of Russia and the South shared many similar views. Both expressed aristocratic pretentions and ideals, including honor, duty, courage, and courtesy, and in both aristocracies many failed to live up to their ideals. Along with all this went the habit of command, pride of rank and lineage, and a style of living that ran to luxury and display. In both aristocracies were many newcomers of humble origins, comparative beginners at the grand style, most of them unable to rise to it. With their greater wealth, Russian noblemen could outdo southern aristocrats in display and luxury, especially in numbers of domestic servants. Few southern planters had the means, and the style of those who did was often cramped by the rise of democracy in America. In spite of all that, the planter aristocracy was clearly the stronger of the two. Real power in Russia rested in the czar and his bureaucracy, for the nobility lacked the political roots and local power that normally go with landed wealth. “In a curious way,” writes Kolchin, “Russian noblemen were less aristocratic than American planters, and their sway over society was considerably less extensive as well.” The Southerners were able to build a much more secure and defensible existence than their Russian counterparts.

Awareness of concerns and ideas common to both aristocracies occasionally comes to light among contemporaries, as in the observation by T.R.R. Cobb of Georgia in 1858 that Russian serfs “are contented with their lot and seek no change. They are indolent,…mendacious, beyond the negro perhaps, and feel no shame at detection.” Defenders of serfdom and slavery used strikingly similar arguments, including racial theories. The latter were less elaborately buttressed with biological and scientific arguments by the Russians (though some noblemen claimed that whereas their bones were white those of peasants were black) and most serf owners held that peasants were as innately inferior, lazy, and childlike as slave owners claimed blacks to be. Realizing that most slave systems were not based on racial distinctions, Southerners like George Fitzhugh and others downplayed racial justification in favor of claims for the superiority of the slave system regardless of race. Muscovites as well as Confederates used religious, economic, and sociological defenses of bondage and made invidious comparisons between the security and harmony of their labor system and the horrors of wage slavery. The proserfdom argument, however, was never elaborated with anything like the force, sophistication, boldness, and volume of the proslavery argument. “The major difference was not so much in the arguments used as in their tone, depth, and subtlety,” in all of which Southerners surpassed Russians.

On the way from the view that slavery was a regrettable evil to the doctrine that it was a “positive good,” the planters gained momentum and solidarity while during the same period the noblemen were losing conviction and public support. Whereas the Russian intelligentsia, many government officials, and even some serf owners themselves were abandoning or attacking the cause of serfdom, popular opinion in the South rallied strongly to the defense of slavery. One reason for the difference was that the attack on slavery and planter morality, unlike the attack on serfdom, came from outside, and the abolitionist assault on slavery seemed to be an attack on the South itself. Moreover, in Russia emancipation threatened only the livelihood of the masters, while in America it threatened their lives and their way of life as well as the life of an entire society. Defenders of that society were autonomous and dominant, politically as well as culturally, while the noblemen were politically dependent and weak. And even if they had had a strong case to make there was no free press to propagate it and no “public” to respond in Russia.

To return to the controversial importance of race in this equation, it is clear that serfdom was unusual in lacking an ethnic or racial base for social distance between master and bondsman to legitimize servitude. In America, on the other hand, the confusion of race with class made race an essential element of slavery. Although Russians employed the same stereotypes about white serfs that Americans used about blacks, and although it is evident that “race” is largely a subjective concept, more a creature of culture than of nature, nevertheless race became so identified with slavery in the South and in the minds of whites that it gave slavery much of its distinctive character in the South. It facilitated the paternalistic role of planters, accentuated the perception of slaves as outsiders without claim to rights as members of the body politic and in conjunction with democracy, strengthened support of slavery from nonslaveholders. It also supported the conviction that all blacks, free as well as slave, were outsiders in their own country.

Slaves as well as serfs were able to gain a measure of autonomy in communities making up slave quarters and peasant villages, but the degree and nature of independence differed in the two countries. Serfs spent their lives in their peasant commune, or “mir.” A world apart from the rest of Russia, consisting almost entirely of peasants, the mir and its deliberative body had broad authority over village affairs and provided a communal mentality. Unlike serfs, slaves were not “at home” in a traditional world with customs of centuries slow to change, but were of foreign origin, different race, and different culture. African gods and languages died more quickly in the United States than in the Caribbean and Brazil, and the slave’s experience was as subject to change as that of other Americans. With less isolation from masters than the mir, the slave quarters still afforded the slaves a measure of independence “from sundown to sunup,” a limited breathing space in which to live their own lives, a refuge from constant interference by whites.

Another refuge for bondsmen of both societies was the family, though interference by owners in family life was more pervasive in the South than in Russia. In this as in many other differences, absentee and residential mentalities, along with persistence and absence of sheltering tradition and custom, figured prominently. Unless broken by sale, slave families of the South were large, nuclear, prolific, long lasting, and typically had two parents of durable union present. A predominantly Creole slave population with even sex ratios and a high reproductive rate explains the stability, the anguish at forced separation, and the importance of black families to slave life. They were female-centered families with women having positions quite different from those of white women. Not subject to the control that property ownership gave men in the white world, and doing the same work as their men, women had unusual authority in the slave family during an era that took male dominance for granted. By contrast, the male heads of serf families ruled their brood with an iron hand, tyrannized their wives, and meted out physical punishment to wives, sons, and daughters who displeased them. Enmeshed in many generations of tradition and much freer from interference, serf families differed in structure and character from their slave counterparts.

For lack of other institutional outlets, religion had a central place in the slave community, usually becoming the very heart of it. Quite different from values preached to them by whites, those of black preachers were charged with intensity and demonstrative emotionalism. The black preachers were seen as leaders before and after emancipation. For Russian peasants religion was only one of a multitude of cultural forms, beliefs, values, and traditions that custom preserved from early times, and were lost to slaves. With the peasants, religion was more ritualistic than enthusiastic, and priests were often held in suspicion or antagonism rather than hailed as leaders. Sorcery, magic, spirits, and witches pervaded the beliefs of both classes, those of the Russian peasants even more than the American slaves. Peasant folk tales performed many of the same functions as slave tales, and some were virtually identical with the American variety.

Examining the resistance to their bondage by the bondsmen is one of the best means of clarifying their views of themselves and their world. Both serfs and slaves engaged in a wide variety of rebellious activity, much of it short of outright rebellion. Of the latter, silent sabotage, such as malingering and stealing, was often so ambiguous as to make it hard to tell when it actually constituted resistance. Not so with the opposite extreme of organized armed rebellion, the most dramatic form of resistance and one peculiarly characteristic of Russia. At roughly fifty-year intervals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries four great wars, called “peasant wars” by Soviet historians, swept across Russia. Part uprisings and part civil war, they were not composed entirely of peasants or serfs. Each leader professed to be fighting in support of monarchy, but nevertheless had revolutionary goals. The last of these, the bloodiest uprising in Russian history, in 1773 and 1774, enlisted millions of peasants in an attempt to overthrow the nobility.

Nothing remotely like this occurred in the American South. The Seminole Indian wars in the first half of the nineteenth century were the closest approximations, and slaves joined the Indians only in hundreds, not in millions. Herbert Aptheker is quite misleading in reporting 250 “revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery” involving at least ten slaves.7 As Kolchin says, “Most of these were minor incidents of unrest that were quickly put down…before they even occurred.” Of the handful that reached more than tiny proportions, two occurred in colonial New York and were readily suppressed. The bloodiest in the South was that of Nat Turner in 1831, consisting of seventy slaves and lasting less than two days. Factors conducive to rebellion, such as absentee owners, large units of bondsmen, and their predominance in the population, were much more prevalent in Russia than in the South. The wonder is that slaves attempted revolts at all, and even in Russia none of the great uprisings occurred after 1774.

More common and more significant were smaller acts of defiance. Russians used a collective form of resistance called the volnenie, for which there was no exact American equivalent. A volnenie typically started with a group of serfs who complained of grievances by petition, resisted owner authority, and went out on strike. The confrontations could involve hundreds, last for months, even years, and result in gains for the serfs. More often they ended in harsh punishments, savage beatings, and exile for penal servitude. Confrontations between slaves and plantation authorities were also common, but they usually took the form of individual slaves standing up to whites, and abundant records of such conflicts exist. The main difference between the Russian and the American confrontations was that the former were overwhelmingly collective and the latter individual.

Both serfs and slaves expressed resistance in the form of flight, and again the Russians and Americans differed. The serfs usually fled in families but also in larger groups of tens of thousands, using collective strategy in time of crises. In America slaves escaped by the hundreds to Spanish Florida, and during the Revolutionary War thousands fled to the British forces, who encouraged defection from masters. Predominantly, however, slave flight was individual, local, and temporary. While the fugitives got help at times from other blacks, they had to flee through a vigilant white world, whereas the escaped serfs moved more securely through a peasant world. Slaves, like serfs, resorted to flight or resistance when authorities breached their notion of what they had a right to expect.

Bondsmen of both countries developed cultures distinctive from those of their owners. The cultures that serfs and slaves developed differed in the degree they were defined by class or caste. In general the life of a southern slave was shaped by slavery more than that of a Russian serf was by serfdom. All but a few blacks in the South were slaves, but only about half the peasants were serfs. Thus slave culture appeared almost identical with black culture, whereas in Russia the bondsman’s culture was about as much peasant as serf. The mir was an institution of both peasants and serfs, in which they enjoyed a continuity of culture and less interference from owners. Racial identity and loyalty were stronger than class identity and loyalty among slaves. Serfs felt identity with peasants, but their primary loyalty was to their village or commune rather than to class or caste. A sense of unity existed among both, but serf attachment was chiefly local, and slaves felt oneness with blacks in general. Class stratification, limited among both, was less marked among American slaves than among Russian serfs.

As survivals from an archaic order, serfdom and slavery had common conflicts with a modern world of nineteenth-century capitalism and simultaneously faced crises that ended with abolition of the two systems. But they faced their mid-century crises in very different ways. Both systems embodied contradictions between the market mentality of the masters in the distribution of their product and the noncapitalistic nature of its production. The southern masters were more commercial in their behavior than were the Russian, but it was the mode of production by slave labor more than that of distribution that was influential in shaping the societies and the way they met their crises. Southern slavery was uniquely suffused with a paternalistic ethos and the nonmarket relationship between resident masters and their slaves. Between noblemen and serfs relations were more shaped by market forces.

Southern slaveholders developed a far more cohesive world and much more power over it than did the noblemen in their world. By mid-century slavery was flourishing as never before, and serfdom was staggering toward bankruptcy. The aggressive vitality of the planter aristocrats in defense of their society and their spirited commitment to slavery as a way of life contrasted sharply with the submissiveness and withering support of serfdom on the part of the Russian nobility. The southern planters were the only masters of unfree labor in the nineteenth-century world who carried resistance to the extreme of an all-out showdown in civil war. In Russia emancipation was the decision of Czar Alexander II, and it was carried out peacefully with no threat of forceful resistance and only cooperation or impotent grumbling from noblemen. The owners were compensated for their loss, and emancipation was effected in their interest. With them as with all slaveholders in the New World apart from those of Saint Domingue and the South, abolition was the liquidation of an investment rather than the end of a society. Slavery ended violently in the South as the result of defeat in a rebellion on which the planters staked everything and lost. They were the only owners of human property in their time except those of Brazil to suffer emancipation without compensation and the only ones, save for the French colonists in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1848, to endure radical efforts to bring the emancipated to equality and franchise as well as freedom. What they experienced was not only the overthrow of slavery but a revolution and the end of a society.

More than once in this fascinating study in comparative history there are hints of the intention to illuminate more than the past, and indeed the book concludes with a sentence containing the explicit suggestion that “it is well to remember the extent to which that earlier world has shaped our own.” When we think of the century since these archaic systems of unfree labor were abolished by the two nations—one that enchained its own people and one that enslaved people of alien culture and different color—the comparison of past societies gains significance for contrasts in the present. This makes all the more welcome the author’s promise of “a sequel in which I will examine the abolition of bondage in the United States and Russia.” Readers won by the comparison of serfdom and slavery will await comparison of the consequences of their abolition with all the more interest.

This Issue

November 19, 1987