Excerpts from =

Peter Kolchin
Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom

[SAC Editor has introduced bold face in certain passages and hypertext links to SAC]

Kolchin:41-46 = Conclusion of introductory chapter
[without footnotes]

As class lines hardened, the [Russian] serfs' status deteriorated to the extent that they became in most respects indistinguishable from slaves. If the original earmark of Russian serfdom as defined in the decrees of the 1590s [ID] and the legislative code of 1649 [ID] had been prohibition of movement, noblemen wasted little time in behaving as if they actually owned the peasants who lived on their lands. A series of acts passed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries made it clear that in fact they did. The debasement of the serfs was essentially a linear process; virtually every Russian monarch was responsible for some piece of legislation that further reduced the serfs' rights, with some of the most important acts being passed during the reigns of the reforming monarchs Peter I (1682-1725) [e.g.] and Catherine II (1762—96) [e.g.]. By the middle of the eighteenth century the formal power of the pomeshchik [ID] over his serfs was as great as that of the American slaveowner over his chattel — almost total, short of deliberate murder.

Russian serfdom thus departed significantly from the serfdom that had existed in medieval Europe, the most salient feature of which was binding the peasants to the land. Even in the code of 1649 landholders with more than one estate were allowed to move their serfs from one pomest'e or votchina to another, although they could not transfer them from a pomest'e to a votchina, because pomest'ia and therefore the serfs living on them were in theory conditional grants. With the merger of these two forms of landholding, however, serfowners were able to move their peasants wherever they wished. During the second half of the seventeenth century, probably in the 1660s, noblemen began buying and selling serfs without land, and by the eighteenth century the practice had become commonplace. By the end of Peter I's reign any idea that serfdom meant simply prohibition of movement or that serfs were tied to the land was long since gone. Serfs could be bought and sold, traded, won and lost at cards. They were, in short, personal property.

Over this property serfowners had almost total control, although they did not always choose to exercise it. Such control extended to the serf's "possessions," which in fact belonged to his master. Thus, although it was common practice to provide serfs allotments of land by which they would support themselves and to recognize as theirs whatever they earned on their own time, this was simply a custom that noblemen could and sometimes did violate. Serfs could be taken away from their landed allotments and made into house servants, or into day laborers entirely supported by their owners and performing barshchina [ID] for them six days per week. The control also extended to the bodies of the serfs, who could be corporally punished as an owner saw fit, removed from their loved ones at his whim, and denied his permission to marry. About the only right serfs had that slaves in many countries did not was that of being sent into the army. (Kholopy [Russian slaves, indentured servants], too, had served in the Muscovite army.) Under the recruit system established by Peter 1 in 1700 peasants were subjects to periodic military levies, in which a given number of young men from each village would be taken into the army. Military service hardly constituted a privilege, however, and was usually looked upon more as a death sentence than as a release from serfdom; service was for life until 1793, when it was reduced to a twenty-five-year term. Peasants taken into the army could expect never to see their homes or families again.

[...] Russian serfdom was indeed a form of slavery, it was a form that differed in two basic respects from the slavery that existed in the southern part of the United States. Because these differences are important, it is necessary to introduce them at the start of this volume.

First, American slaves were aliens, taken from their homes in Africa against their will and deposited in a strange land among people they did not know. As a consequence, slavery in America entailed a number of basic relationships other than that of master and slave. Master and slave were, at first, of different nationality, race, and cultural background; they spoke different languages and practiced different religions. Over the course of several generations, some of these differences were reduced or entirely overcome, as the Africans and their descendants adjusted to their new homes, acquired and modified some elements of their masters' culture, and in turn influenced the civilization of white America. But blacks remained in an important sense outsiders living in an alien white America. White southerners always so regarded them; no matter how affectionately a slaveowner might speak of "my people,", "the people" was a term always reserved for whites who formed the body politic.

This was not the case in Russia, where with few exceptions masters and serfs were of the same nationality. True, in the western provinces of the Russian empire there occurred the interaction of different religions and nationalities; in the right-bank Ukraine, for example, Orthodox Ukrainian peasants frequently had Polish Catholic owners, and in the Baltic region Orthodox peasants had German Lutheran owners. Similarly, as the empire spread to the south and east, conquered nationalities were absorbed into the serf population. In the great interior of Russia, however, peasants and noblemen shared the same race, religion, and cultural roots. Nor were the peasants outsiders the way American blacks were, removed from their native land and placed in a strange new world. They constituted the lowest level of society rather than outcasts from it. Many Americans advocated a United States without blacks, but to imagine a Russia without the peasants was inconceivable; they were the essence of it—and 90 percent of its population. When Russians spoke of "the people," they meant precisely the peasants.

Of course, national, religious, or racial distinction between master and bondsman is not an intrinsic element of slavery; in his survey of slave societies around the world Orlando Patterson found that in about one-quarter, some or all of the slaves were of the same ethnic group as their masters. Nevertheless, the Russian case flies in the face of assertions made by some scholars that slaves must, by their very nature, be outsiders, that no people would enslave their own compatriots. "What sets the slave apart from all other forms of involuntary labor is that, in the strictest sense, he is an outsider," wrote Moses I. Fintey. "He is brought into a new society violently and traumatically; he is cut off from all traditional human ties of kin and nation and even his own religion; he is prevented, insofar as that is possible, from creating new ties, except to his masters, and in consequence his descendants are as much outsiders, as unrooted, as he was." Finley's statement is an exaggeration: slaves in the Americas did form ties— familial and other—and subsequent generations of slaves were hardly as unrooted as the original African imports. Still, the Russian enserfment of other Russians is unusual—Patterson noted "a universal reluctance to enslave members of one's own community"—and produced consequences that in important ways differentiated Russian serfdom from American slavery.

Historians have hardly dealt with the question of how Russians were so easily able to contradict the general rule that slaves must be outsiders. Richard Hellie plausibly suggests the importance of kholopstvo as a precedent, noting that "Russians for centuries [had] been accustomed to enslaving their own people" and suggesting that early Russian enslavement of insiders was facilitated by a "fundamental lack of ethnic identity and cohesion among the inhabitants of Muscovy." What appears to have been crucial in serfdom—in addition to the legacy of kholopstvo—was its gradual degeneration into slavery, so that there was no one point in time when Russians actually took the step of enslaving their fellow countrymen. By the time serfdom had fully developed, in the eighteenth century, nobleman and peasant seemed as different from each other as white and black, European and African. Russian noblemen were thus able to create the kind of social distance between themselves and their peasants necessary for the maintenance of serfdom.

The second major difference between American slavery and Russian serfdom was in part a consequence of the first. Although juridically the powers of a nobleman over his serfs were as extensive as those of a planter over his slaves, because serfdom emerged gradually and because the peasants were not outsiders but for the most part members of the same community as their parents, grandparents, and earlier ancestors, the role of tradition in limiting the total control of masters over the lives of their bondsmen was greater in Russia than in the United States. This was especially true of the bondsmen's economic lives. Although serfs did not legally own any landed property, most received from their owners allotments of their "own" that they used to support themselves. Unlike most American slaves, who worked for their masters all the time and received sustenance in exchange, most serfs worked only part of the time for their owners, received no support from them, and were expected to maintain themselves. There was thus a dual economy in Russia: the peasants cultivated their owners' seigneurial land, but they also cultivated their "own" land and were free to use its product as they saw fit.

The contrast was not absolute and legally it was nonexistent. Not all serfs had their own allotments. A small number of agricultural laborers and much larger number of house serfs worked full-time for their owners and received sustenance from them. Furthermore, any serf could be transferred to house status, and noblemen could ultimately dispose of their peasants' property as they saw fit. In America, too, most slaves had small garden plots with which they supplemented their food allowances, and a few were permitted to hire their own time, giving their owners the equivalent of obrok payments; in a few areas—most particularly the South Carolina and Georgia lowlands—something approaching Russia's peasant economy existed. (This was even more true in Jamaica and some other Caribbean slave societies, where the slaves were self-supporting; see Chapter 4.) In neither country, then, did the legal rights of the bondsmen necessarily define their actual condition. Still, the role of custom in shaping master-bondsman relations was greater in Russia than in the United States, where both slave and slaveowner were relative newcomers and tradition weighed less heavily in shaping social relations.

[...] The most fundamental consequence concerns the relationship between the masters and bondsmen; on the whole, Russian serfs were able to lead lives that, although circumscribed by the authority of their owners, were much more independent than those of American slaves. Russian serfdom was a very particular type of slavery, with features that in many ways resembled those of America's "peculiar institution" but in other respects differed sharply from them. It is precisely because both the similarities and differences were so marked that the comparison of these two institutions is so fruitful.


Kolchin:359-379 = Epilogue
[without footnotes]

By the middle of the nineteenth century American slavery and Russian serfdom were labor systems in crisis. Although the crises they faced were not identical, both were based on the fundamental conflict between bondage and a modern world view consistent with the realities of nineteenth-century capitalism. At first simply two of many systems of unfree labor in the Western world, American slavery and Russian serfdom had become noteworthy as the most important remnants of an archaic social order, beleaguered outposts of servitude in an era that celebrated liberty and equality. What was true of the crises was also true of their resolution. In both cases, despite major differences in the way that participants responded to the pressure of events, the end result was the same: abolition of bondage. The legacy of slavery and serfdom, however, would persist for generations.

American slavery and Russian serfdom served similar socioeconomic functions. Emerging under conditions of labor scarcity on the periphery of a modernizing Europe, they constituted productive systems designed to support landholding elites. As such they shared ambiguous economic characteristics that have spawned considerable historical confusion.

On the one hand, both had strong commercial components. From the beginning American—indeed all New World—slaveholders formed a preeminently market-oriented class, living off the sale of goods produced by their chattel. Although the commercial orientation of most Russian serfowners was less pronounced and many small landowners lived in semi-impoverished autarchy, as a system serfdom too was predicated on the masters' appropriation and sale of goods produced by their bondsmen. Except on the smallest holdings, barshchina, which remained the dominant form of labor exploitation, implied seigneurial production for market. In the broadest sense both slavery and serfdom were labor systems that served to maximize the master class's access to market.

At the same time, slavery and serfdom were fundamentally noncapitalist productive systems, increasingly antagonistic to the emerging bourgeois world order [LOOP], because they lacked capitalism's basic ingredient: a market for labor-power (that is, labor hire). The two systems of forced labor were thus marked by an essential contradiction between the commercial orientation of the masters with respect to the distribution of their product and the noncapitalist nature of its production. This contradiction produced in both slavery and serfdom an incongruous mixture of characteristics, some of which engendered a distinctly capitalist tone; certainly, to take one example, slaveowners and serfowners were intensely interested in the price their crops would bring. Overall, however, the mode of production was more influential than that of exchange in shaping the nature of society in Russia and the United States South. The master-bondsman relationship was fundamentally different from that between employer and employee; so too was the social outlook of the master at odds with that of the bourgeois. In both countries bondage fostered distinctive societies that were increasingly out of step with the dominant course of the Western world. [LOOP on wage labor]

Ironically, this phenomenon was more pronounced in the United States South, where slavery was totally commercial in orientation, than in Russia, where market ties were less dominant. Here is persuasive evidence that productive relations were more important than distributive relations in shaping the nature of slave society, for nowhere was the contradiction between the two so great as in the Old South. Although the southern economy was pervasively commercial and historians such as James Oakes have seen antebellum slaveowners a businessmen par excellence, southern slavery was infused with a paternalistic ethos shaped by the nonmarket relationship that existed between largely resident masters and their slaves.

In Russia, by contrast, the market orientation of the masters was less pervasive but their treatment of their serfs was correspondingly more "capitalistic." Pomeshchiki who were generally absentee proprietors either physically or mentally took little interest in their peasants except as sources of income. Serfdom lacked the market for labor-power inherent in capitalism, but relations between nobleman and serf were often marked by quasi-capitalist features—payment of obrok fees, accumulation of arrears, rental of land—largely lacking in the slave South. The existence of a peasant economy in Russia in which serfs raised their own goods for sale meant that bondsman as well as master had market ties, and relations between the two inevitably reflected this reality.

There were thus major differences between American slavery and , Russian serfdom, differences that were based on specific demographic, socioeconomic, political, and cultural attributes of the two societies. (These differences were not, it should be clear by now, primarily based on the systemic distinction between slavery and serfdom, because in most respects Russian serfdom must be seen as a particular variety of slavery rather than a fundamentally distinct labor system.) Southern slaveowners were able to develop a far more cohesive civilization of their own than were Russian pomeshchiki. The rural South constituted a slaveholder's world in a way that rural Russia was not a serfholder's world; indeed, the Russian countryside belonged largely to the peasantry. Although slaves had their own lives, which did not entirely conform to the ideal prescribed for them by their masters, they were rarely able to develop the kind of economic, social, and even political autonomy enjoyed by most serfs.

An integral relation existed between the character of the bondsmen's lives and that of the masters'. The relative lack of communal autonomy among American slaves was in part a product of the slaveowners' cultural dominance: resident owners who took an active interest in running their estates and who maintained political and cultural hegemony within southern society impinged pervasively on the lives of their slaves and acted both consciously and unconsciously to undermine their communal independence. In Russia, not only did the absentee orientation and weak local ties of the nobility enable serfs to exercise much greater control over their lives than was enjoyed by the slaves; that autonomy in turn further undercut the nobility's interest in becoming a rural aristocracy. Just as Jamaican slaveowners felt uncomfortable among their slaves, who represented a culturally alien group that vastly outnumbered them, so too did Russian pomeshchiki; in very much the same way, they were outsiders in their own villages. There was thus an inverse relation between the dominance of the masters' culture and the autonomy of the bondsmen's.

The coherence of both the masters' and the bondsmen's culture was related to the development of the labor systems in which they existed. The Old South, which saw the emergence of the least "capitalistic" form of slavery, spawned a master class that was uniquely dedicated to the preservation of a social order that it saw as the last bulwark against decadence, individualism, and greed. The antebellum South constituted, in the truest sense, a slave society, not just a society in which some people were slaves. It is for this reason that C. Vann Woodward has suggested that "the end of slavery in the South can be described as the death of a society, though elsewhere it could more reasonably be characterized as the liquidation of an investment." Although Woodward was writing only of New World slave societies Russia clearly belongs with those he contrasted with the United States South. Like Caribbean slavery, Russian serfdom exhibited capitalistic features that ultimately sapped its ability to endure in a changing world.

Ultimately, therefore, despite many similar features of Russian serfdom and southern slavery, there was a contrast in their viability. By the middle of the nineteenth century, as southern slavery was flourishing as never before, Russian serfdom constituted a bankrupt system widely recognized as on its last legs. The vitality of antebellum slavery was evident in the dynamic growth of the southern economy, the daily behavior of resident owners, and the burgeoning efforts of southern spokesmen to defend slavery as a noble institution essential to the preservation of a virtuous and harmonious society. This growing commitment to slavery, both as a practical way of life and as an abstract system, stands in stark contrast to the withering of noble support for Russian serfdom. Most pomeshchiki never really "lived" serfdom as southern planters did slavery; it served more as an investment for them, to use Woodward's terminology, than as an indispensable way of life. After the 1820s, when southerners were elaborating with increasing frequency and forcefulness their arguments in defense of the "peculiar institution," public defense of serfdom in Russia virtually disappeared. Informed noblemen realized that its demise was simply a matter of time.

So too did most serfs. Although bondsmen in both countries hated their servitude, most southern slaves saw little hope for an imminent end to slavery and continued to strive to make their lives as tolerable as possible within it (or to escape from it on an individual basis). In Russia, however, a spreading expectation of imminent emancipation fueled a growing unwillingness of serfs to tolerate continued bondage. The diminished provocation needed to ignite volneniia was a telling sign of a breakdown in the serfs' acceptance of the social order. By midcentury, in short, Russian serfdom, unlike American slavery, was a system in internal crisis. It was not, in a literal sense, collapsing; it conceivably could have been maintained for years, perhaps even decades, but it had lost its long-term social viability. Informed noblemen, serfs, and government officials all expected its abolition. The question that remained to be determined was not whether emancipation would occur, but when and how.

A telling sign of the viability of unfree labor is provided by differing patterns of growth of the bound population. Historians of both New World slavery and Russian serfdom have recently paid considerable attention to demographic questions, and although they have not reached total agreement concerning the causes of variations in patterns of growth, they have established the existence of these variations. They are of interest to us here because of their indication of the general long-term health of unfree labor systems: a sharp decline in the proportion of bondsmen in the total population almost always signified serious problems for such a system and was followed within about a generation by its abolition.

In most New World slave societies slaves failed to reproduce themselves. The slave population grew rapidly, at least for a while, but only as a result of continued imports of new slaves from Africa. Because slave deaths exceeded births in countries as diverse as Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica, the end of the slave trade led first to a leveling off and then to an outright decline in the number of slaves and, especially in Brazil and Cuba, a sharp decline in the proportion of the population that was unfree. In Brazil, for example, where importation of Africans ended in 1851, the number of slaves declined from about 2.5 million in 1850 to 1.5 million in 1872, and slaves as a proportion of the population fell from 32 percent to 15 percent. Although slaveowners fought rearguard actions designed to protect their investments, it was clear that the end of the slave trade doomed slavery in these countries; in all three, the beginnings of emancipation followed the cessation of large-scale African imports within about a quarter-century.

Slavery in the United States constituted a major exception to this pattern. Although in the early colonial period the number of slaves increased only because of importation from Africa, in the eighteenth century slaves experienced natural population growth, with annual births continually exceeding deaths. There was some variation in the timing of this transition to natural population growth, which occurred earlier in the Chesapeake region than farther south; in all the southern colonies, however, slaves were more than reproducing themselves by the outbreak of the American Revolution, well before the end of the legal slave trade in 1808. During the half-century after that, the number of American slaves more than tripled, from 1,119,354 in 1810 to 3,963,760 in I860; with high birth rates (in excess of 50 per 1,000) and relatively low death rates (about 30 per 1,000), the black population—most of which was slave—grew naturally at an annual rate of more than 2 percent.

Several specific factors, whose relative importance is still disputed by scholars, contributed to the unique natural population growth of American slaves. New patterns of lactation may have acted to boost fertility rates; as Herbert Klein and Stanley L. Engerman have pointed out, antebellum southern slaves generally followed American custom in breastfeeding their babies for about a year, whereas many West Indian women continued the African practice of nursing for two years. Absence of tropical diseases undoubtedly reduced mortality rates (although as Philip Curtin has noted, "the experience of Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador [where the black population grew far more rapidly than in most of Latin America] suggests that disease is not the only explanation" for high death rates.) The unusually high proportion of Creoles among American slaves affected both fertility and mortality rates: everywhere native-born slaves tended to live longer and have more children than African imports because the Africans were both less resistant to New World diseases and more heavily male in composition.

On a more general level, however, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the relatively good material conditions under which most American slaves lived were central to their rapid population growth. The strength of their family life made possible a high birth rate, and it is surely no accident that the transition to natural population growth in the southern colonies coincided with the emergence of Afro-American families among second-generation slaves. An abundance of food and the determination of resident owners to look after the welfare of their "people" was equally important in promoting the slaves' health and longevity. (In the Caribbean, by contrast, life was cheap and slaves were driven mercilessly, especially during boom times on the sugar islands. In Jamaica, pregnant women typically labored in the field even in their ninth month, a practice that both reduced the number of live births and increased the female mortality rate.) On the whole, slaves were simply healthier in the American South than elsewhere in the New World.

If the growth of the bound population is an indication of the continuing vitality of American slavery, a final demographic contrast between the South and other New World slave societies underscores that vitality. As the southern commitment to slavery strengthened in the antebellum period, interest in private manumission of slaves waned, states took vigorous action to make the practice more difficult, and the number of slaves freed by their owners declined sharply. Although the number of free Negroes slowly increased, because like slaves they reproduced themselves, most were the descendants of those freed during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and from 1820 to 1860 free Negroes declined as a proportion of the South's black population from 8.1 percent to 6.2 percent. Elsewhere, however, when it became clear that the end of the slave trade had doomed slavery, the number of manumissions—both private and government sponsored—increased dramatically. In Cuba, for example, although the slave population declined from 436,495 to 370,553 between 1841 and 1860, the number of free colored increased from 152,838 to 225,843. In Cuba and Brazil, and to a much lesser extent in the British West Indies, the freeing of slaves combined with the lack of natural population growth after the end of the slave trade to undermine slavery. The failure of slaves to reproduce themselves was a sign of the inability of slavery to survive without fresh supplies from Africa, and the freeing of large numbers of slaves was an index of the concomitant unwillingness of slaveholders to continue struggling for a lost cause. One way or another, abolition of the slave trade presaged the imminent end of slavery in all major New World slave societies except that of the United States.

The growth pattern of the Russian serf population fell between the two extremes shown by American and Caribbean slaves. Births generally exceeded deaths, although by substantially smaller margins than among American slaves, and the number of serfs grew rapidly— primarily from natural increase but also from enserfment of state peasants and territorial expansion—in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The failure of the bound population to grow during the last years of serfdom, however, suggested a system unlikely to endure much longer.

The population of Russia, which was about 90 percent peasant, grew at a moderately rapid pace throughout the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century (see Table 11). Although some of this growth was the result of territorial expansion, within the area defined by Russia's 1719 boundaries the population increased at an annual rate of 0.81 percent between 1719 and 1858. This was considerably population grew much more slowly than that of the North: between 1830 and 1860 the southern share of the total American population declined from 44.2 percent to 35.3 percent. Southerners had varying explanations for their section's backwardness: some turned it into a virtue, insisting that the South lacked the crude mercenary traits of the Yankees, others blamed the North for stealing the fruits of southern labor, and a few hardy souls like Hinton Helper saw slavery as the culprit. They were, however, acutely aware of the problem.

The political assault on the South was most alarming of all. From 1789 to 1860 southerners dominated the federal government. Eight of the fifteen presidents who served during these years were southern slaveholders, and of the remaining seven, three were "doughfaces," northern men with southern principles. What is more, not one of the northern presidents served two terms, whereas four of the southerners did. Southern dominance of the executive branch of the government translated into southern ascendancy in the federal judiciary as well. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a former Maryland slaveowner who presided over the Supreme Court from his appointment by Andrew Jackson in 1835 until his death in 1864, enjoyed the company of a southern majority during most of his tenure; at the time of the Dred Scott decision in 1857, for example, five of the Court's nine justices were southern, and one of the northerners was a doughface, Southern interests were secure in the Senate too, because until 1850 half or more of the states (and hence of the senators) were southern, and even after 1850 southerners and doughfaces together formed a majority. Only in the House of Representatives, where the increasing northern majority of the population produced a corresponding northern majority of congressmen, were southerners not in command, and even there southern fears were assuaged until the mid-1840s by the gentlemen's agreement among Democrats and Whigs that agitation of the slavery issue was off limits; from 1836 to 1844, under the "gag rule," the House refused even to receive antislavery petitions. In short, southerners had come to expect the federal government to protect their interests—the most basic of which was slavery—from any and all attack; as long as it did so, it was performing an invaluable function and deserved full and enthusiastic support.

That situation began to change dramatically during the 1840s and 1850s, when the prospect loomed that the federal government might soon challenge rather than safeguard southern interests. Whereas the abolitionists of the 1830s had seemed dangerous fanatics to most northerners as well as southerners, from the mid-1840s an increasingly vociferous free soil movement, grounded on the free-labor argument that slavery was a backward and inefficient system of labor, threatened to bar slavery's expansion into new western territories and thus consign it to gradual but ultimate extinction. The gentlemen's agreement to refrain from agitating the divisive issue of slavery broke down under this pressure, and by the mid-1850s, with the emergence in the North of the antislavery Republican party, national politics was hopelessly divided along sectional lines. Not only did the South face a new assault from without, but the changing balance of population held out the terrifying likelihood that this assault would soon be victorious. To the growing free-state majority in the House of Representatives was added, after 1850, that in the Senate, as well as the prospect of a "black Republican" president. It was this last prospect that was the most frightening, and with Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 the South's general crisis became the nation's secession crisis."

The social isolation of the South and the economic, intellectual, and political assault upon it led, of course, to civil war and the overthrow of slavery. But it is not only because of this momentous objective change that one can legitimately assert a southern crisis, by taking advantage of historical hindsight to superimpose a theoretical construct upon the past. Abundant evidence suggests that politically aware southerners subjectively felt this crisis as well. It was not a narrowly defined economic (or cotton) crisis—the southern agricultural economy was booming in the 1850s and gave every indication that it would continue to do so in the immediately foreseeable future—but a general crisis of an entire social system. Southerners recognized that slavery—and with it their entire way of life—was under powerful attack from without; their increasingly shrill defense of it and the siege mentality that they exhibited during the last years of the old regime were indications of precisely how seriously they took this attack. As John C. Calhoun put it in 1850, the northern onslaught had already disrupted "the equilibrium between the two sections" and threatened the very existence of the Union, forcing the South soon "to choose between abolition and secession." Eloquently he concluded, "The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take." It was a sentiment that southerners widely shared."

In both Russia and the United States South unfree labor systems were abolished in the 1860s. Because of differences in the internal viability of those systems, however, as well as in the nature of their crises, there were also fundamental differences in the course of abolition. Both slavery and serfdom were abolished from above, by governmental decree rather than popular upheaval. Nevertheless, the immediate consequences of the transformation were more far-reaching in the South than in Russia.

In the United States slavery died violently, as the result of northern military victory over a planter-led rebellion. Because southern slaveholders staked everything on preserving slavery—and lost—they were in a poor position to influence the terms of the new settlement. Viewed as traitors by an indignant northern population, they suffered an immediate, uncompensated emancipation of their slaves (the only large-scale confiscation of private property in American history), and they were powerless to prevent the federal government from imposing on the South a series of increasingly sweeping measures designed to bring freedom in fact as well as in name to the ex-slave population. Although historians continue to debate the degree to which "Radical" Republicans controlled the postwar Reconstruction process, in comparison with developments in most other ex-slave societies there can be little doubt about the radical nature of American Reconstruction. Through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution as well as the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and innumerable measures passed by the individual southern states, a major effort was undertaken to extend to the freedmen the full rights of citizenship—redefined to include such new features as suffrage (at least for males) and education—and indeed to make the ex-slaves the backbone of political power in the South. The attempt was halting, half-hearted, and ultimately unsuccessful, but even so the overthrow of slavery constituted a revolution that brought fundamental changes to southern life. In short, the continued internal viability of southern slavery and the unique commitment to it of the master class produced an emancipation that proved unusually radical in its social consequences.

Emancipation in Russia, while momentous, represented less of a break with the past. Abolition of serfdom occurred internally (although from above) rather than by imposition of outside force; unlike southern planters, Russian pomeshchiki did not see their power and influence crushed by military defeat. Indeed, once the inevitability of change was clear to them, they played a major role in drafting and implementing the provisions of the emancipation settlement. As a result, emancipation, although representing a significant new departure for Russia, occurred within a broad framework of continuity. Therewas no radical attempt to give sudden equality to the ex-serfs or to break the social and economic hegemony of the pomeshchiki; peasants were still peasants and noblemen still noblemen in a highly stratified society. Russian emancipation, unlike southern, was undertaken with the interests of the masters at heart and involved both financial compensation to owners and measures to ensure their continued authority in the countryside. In this respect the Russian experience was typical of the emancipation process in most slave societies, from the British West Indies and Brazil to the northern United States; the unusual vehicle of southern emancipation—Civil War—brought with it unusual revolutionary potential as well.

But there was a common legacy of forced labor that Russia shared with the United States and with all other former slave societies as well. New forms of dependency that provided the ex-bondsmen with at best semifreedom became the rule. Exploitation, poverty, and bitterness endured, even as the freedmen struggled to take advantage of changed conditions. It proved far easier to abolish slavery and serfdom than to remove their influence: the "peasant question" in Russia and racial issues in the United States persisted as grim reminders of an earlier era. Although the world in the 1980s seems far removed from the one described in this book, it is well to remember the extent to which that earlier world has shaped our own.

[What might Kolchin make of these post-1980 world developments? = W#1 | W#2 | W#3 | W#4 ]