On the surface, the institution of Russian serfdom bears great resemblance to other forms of unfreedom, and contemporaneous Western slavery in particular. Like Western European and New World slave owners, Russian lords bought and sold their serfs as property and subjected them to physical abuse. Nineteenth century abolitionists in the Russian Empire commonly compared these two labor systems to bolster their moral argument against enslavement and serfdom. Eventually, when describing the situation of the peasantry, Russians abandoned the term krepostnoe pravo (serfdom) in favor of rabstvo (slavery), the word that, before, they had more commonly used to denote American-style slavery.
However, the feudal Russian institution is unique among implementations of bound labor. Most comparative historians of serfdom focus on the questions of nationality and communality. Unlike the African and Native American slaves in the New World, Russian serfs shared a national and ethnic identity with their masters. Additionally, serf communes could, in theory, exist with relative autonomy out of their lord’s immediate reach.
The purpose of this paper, however, is to move beyond these traditional arguments and contend instead that the instance of Russian serfdom was unique because the legally unfree peasants held the right to petition. To do so, I will examine four petitions as a case study of legal agency among serf communities in the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. After establishing a historical context for the petitions in question, I will analyze them one at a time, starting with the 1796 petition and progressing chronologically. Specifically, I focus on the respective identities of the author(s) and the intended recipient, the specific nature of the complaint or request, and the rhetorical language utilized by the petitioners. These documents not only illustrate the hardship endured by serfs, but they also illuminate the serf’s unique position in the Russian Empire. Through the powerful act of petitioning, serfs were able to express their voice and exercise legal agency, even from a position of enslavement.
I. Comparison of Serfdom and Slavery
While this paper is not a comparative analysis of Russian serfdom and Western slavery, it is fruitful to briefly examine the similarities between the two institutions. By understanding the status quo of bound labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one can more fully conclude that Russian serfs occupied a historically extraordinary social position because of their ability to petition.
The two parallel institutions of serfdom and slavery arose from critical labor shortages and followed analogous paths of decline in the mid-nineteenth century. The case of Brazil is exemplary. During the time that it was a Portuguese colony, Brazil became the primary consumer of the African slave trade. In the mid-sixteenth century, two simultaneous factors compelled Portugal to move away from compelled Indian labor and implement large-scale plantation-style slavery: the dwindling of reliable Indian labor—mainly from disease—and the boom in European demand for sugar, the region’s chief agricultural product. Moreover, the highly technical process of sugar refinement required far more hands than were realistically available from either coerced natives or free Europeans. Additionally, other major Atlantic powers, such as America and Spain, experienced an analogous boom in slave labor to cope with increases in cotton cultivation and mining, respectively.
Likewise, a looming labor crisis spurred the Russian state to adopt its system of feudal bondage. A series of devastating wars with its Baltic neighbors, paired with the internal terror of a paranoid Ivan IV, left Russia in domestic chaos in the late sixteenth century. Some peasants sold themselves into slavery, exchanging their freedom for the security of the confines of the land held by the nobility. However, this trend did little to reassure the noble elite, who feared that rampant peasant migration and foreseeable labor shortage would worsen the general socioeconomic chaos. Thus, in 1581, the tsar temporarily bound the peasantry to the land. The peasant laborers were only de facto bound to the land until 1649, when the state officially and permanently codified serfdom, making them slaves de jure as well. By the eighteenth century, Russian peasants were arguably indistinguishable from the chattel slaves of the colonial Atlantic world.
Much of the existing historiography distinguishes Western-style slavery and Russian serfdom via the question of collective and relative identity. While African slaves were outsiders to the transatlantic system, Russian society accepted that serfs were, in a sense, citizens. However, one should note that the term “citizen” does not perfectly describe the unique social position the serfs occupied, because serfs lacked social rights and freedoms associated with modern concepts of citizenship. However, they were more than just subjects of the crown because of their ability to legally engage with the authorities through petitions.
Additionally, serfs were not imported; rather, they were Russian nationals. Part of the distinction between serfs and slaves is obviously racial, but another part is simply practical. Unlike the African slaves in the United States or Brazil, unfree Russians constituted a vast majority of the population. In fact, in 1795, nearly ninety percent of Russian people were serfs, and this ratio remained largely consistent until emancipation in 1861. There were also a great deal more Russian serfs than Western slaves. Though Portugal’s colony in Brazil was the largest consumer of African slaves, with approximately two and a half million imported between 1550 and 1800, Russia possessed a far greater number in any given year in the eighteenth century. In fact, according to a 1791-1800 census, there were over five and a half million male serfs, and the serf population outnumbered the landed nobility nine-to-one.
Because of their numbers and collective identity as Russian, they possessed a limited, but significant legal agency absent in the lives of Western slaves. As loyal subjects of the tsar, serfs were able to act collectively, appoint representatives, and send delegations to petition the authority of local administrators or the crown in Moscow. They could (and often did) work within the system to level charges of abuse against their lords.
The handful of New World cases in which slaves achieved such a level of communal autonomy are, in fact, not wholly comparable to the Russian peasant commune. For instance, in the seventeenth century, runaway slaves in Brazil constructed a community based on African semi-monarchic governance. This quilomobo, or refugee slave encampment, at Palmares stayed independent in the Amazonian interior until the end of the century. From here, these black Africans corresponded with and even petitioned the colonial Portuguese government. Though this level of autonomy and community are significant, it is worth emphasizing that this instance occurred outside of the chains of slavery and out of reach of the colonial government, while the Russian serfs exercised these privileges even within the confines of bondage.
Both chattel slaves and Russian serfs experienced comparable hardships at the hands of the establishment. Serfs endured physical violence parallel to that experienced by unfree Africans in America or Brazil. Just as an American slave could suffer flogging and lashing, or a Brazilian slave could draw the ire of his master at the pillory, a Russian serf could be punished for insolence and disturbance with harsh corporal punishment. Furthermore, property owners in both scenarios held the right to buy and sell their laborers. This is well catalogued in the case of the New World, and the exchange of workers as commodities is the foundation of chattel slavery. Though it was less important to the feudal system with a more steadfast ratio of serf population to labor demand, Russian landlords possessed full ownership and transfer power over their peasants, as is evident in newspaper advertisements listing serfs for sale.
Both African slaves in the New World and Russians faced cruelly unrealistic labor expectations. In a 1790 travel account by Russian intellectual Alexander Radishchev, one serf explains that he must labor on his master’s field during the daylight of the week, leaving only the night to cultivate his own crops. This is still not enough, though, and he meekly explains to the traveler that he must break his Christian observance of the Sabbath or else “starve to death.” Slaves in the New World faced similarly malicious labor expectations; sixteenth century Brazilian slaveholders would work five to ten percent of their slaves to death each year in the sugar mills, as it was cheaper to replace a worker than to treat him or her humanely.
Critics of the two institutions were most concerned with the religious transgressions of slaveholders. A master in either case reserved the right to determine marriage and relationship arrangement among their unfree servants, a violation of the matrimonial sacrament. Religious observers further condemned the extra-marital (not to mention often non-consensual) sexual exploitation of the slaves by the men in power.
An important difference between the institutions was that serfs were also subject to military conscription in wartime—a fate that young Russian peasants equated with a death sentence—but this was of little concern to a New World slave. While populating the army was a cardinal motivation for the maintenance of serfdom, military-building was never a primary motivation for slavery in the colonial Americas.
However, this does not detract from their comparability for the purposes of this paper. The above comparison of serfdom and slavery serves to contextualize the historical circumstances in which serfs existed. By understanding the status quo of bound agricultural labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, one can more easily see that Russian serfs occupied a unique social and political position. The basis of this exceptional position lay in their ability to petition imperial authority.
II. Historiography of Serf Petitioning
Few historians of the era have directly focused on the significance of Russian serf petitions. For instance, in Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, American historian Peter Kolchin noted that the serfs’ right to petition made them distinct from American slaves who were more restricted. However, he lent this idea little page space and instead focused on concepts of communality and race. He further examined petitions in his essay “Peasant Patterns of Resistance” and concluded that petitions were an available means of rebellion against authority. However, this argument failed to note that petitioning was not necessarily subversive, but rather an established legal means of interacting with authority.
In Serfdom and Social Control in Russia, American historian Steven L. Hoch utilized a wealth of peasant petitions as primary sources. However, he never discussed the significance of how and why serfs were able to exercise this right, and he did not recognize the gravity behind collective peasant complaints. Rather, he employed petitions only as a means to describe the nature of peasant life. In his monograph, Hoch simply noted that serfs had the option to petition, but he did not examine the greater implications of this fact in a context of societal or legal agency.
Further, broad surveys of history, such as Aleksandr Kornilov’s Modern Russian History, have only mentioned petitions in passing. Likewise, biographical works, such as Isabel de Madariaga’s “Catherine II and the Serfs: A Reconsideration of Some Problems,” have only treated petitions as historical footnotes during the reign of a particular tsar.
Works that center on petitions, instead of more generally on Russian serfs, are more useful lenses through which to analyze serf complaints and requests. For instance, in the introduction to Petitions in Social History, editor Lex Heerma van Voss outlined the extremely influential power that petitions have had within various historical contexts. The author made no direct mention of serfs (nor did any of the other essays published in this volume), but he briefly discussed petitions from other subaltern groups, and his emphasis on the power of petitioning is directly applicable to the case of Russian peasants. In Fiction in the Archives, Natalie Zemon Davis took a more pointed approach. Instead of analyzing the act of petitioning overall, she investigated French pardon-seekers in the sixteenth century. She argued that petitions were inherently fictionalized to an extent, though she did not conclude that they were deceitful. Instead, she suggested that effective petitions had to be compelling literature. These sources looking specifically at petitions are helpful tools for examining Russian serf petitions, while the works of Russian history are more useful to contextualize this analysis.
III. Definition and Significance of Petitioning
The term “petition” represents a diverse body of documents through the course of history—from medieval prayers for pardon, to collective labor negotiations in colonial India, to the expansive political mechanism of American female abolitionists—but recent scholarly discourse has begun to identify key similarities and synthesize a cohesive picture of petitioning. In his edited collection of petition-related essays, Heerma van Voss presents a simple and inclusive definition of “petition.” He postulates that, on the most basic level, these documents either ask for the redress of a perceived injustice or request a favor from an established authority. His definition also suggests that any group or individual from any social status could utilize this method of communication.
When petitions come from a subservient group—as they often do—they provide a vital channel through which the “masses” can engage with those in power. This method of communication not only benefits the lowly petitioner, but may also serve the empowered recipient. If handled carefully, petitions can maintain the established power structure by acting as a proverbial steam valve. Allowing the population an outlet for complaints may keep them from taking more drastic, or even revolutionary, measures to ameliorate their collective plight.
IV. Petitions from Vladimir
This paper will examine four petitions as a case study of legal agency among serf communities in the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. There are a handful of types of peasant documents that could be considered petitions. Specifically, a zhaluba refers to a general complaint, and a prigovor is a sentence or decision reached by a peasant council, usually regarding an issue at the commune. However, these documents do not necessarily traverse the legal channels in question, and thus will not be treated in this paper. Instead, the four petitions analyzed here are prosheniya (singular: proshenie). This is the term that the petitioning serfs used in self-reference to the documents and the term by which Soviet historians have classified them. For the purposes of this essay, the term proshenie is interchangeable with “petition.”
All four of these prosheniya come from the Vladimir Governance (guberniya) just east of Moscow from 1796-1808. These dates are particularly significant. Prior to 1796, Catherine the Great ruled the Russian Empire. Though Catherine toyed with liberalism and Enlightenment-era ideals throughout her reign, she revoked the serfs’ right to petition during her rule. However, the empress died in 1796 and passed the throne to her son, Paul I. Upset by personal conflict with his late mother, he quickly went to work undoing much of his predecessor’s policies. Thus, Paul I reinstated the right of peasants to directly appear before the tsar himself. He opened the proverbial floodgates and saw a wave of peasant petitions during his reign.
In the relatively short period between 1796 and 1808, key aspects of these documents remain consistent. First, each petition represents the interests of a group of serfs in the same village. This reflects a degree of collective identity among these bound peasants. As a whole, Soviet scholars maintained that this group identification was a manifestation of burgeoning proletariat class-consciousness. This Soviet idea is inconclusive based on the petitions alone, but it is evident these serfs recognized that their landlord (pomeshchik) wronged them as a group and that they could wield more power as a unit. Petitions were the most common—and perhaps most effective—means of wielding this collective power. Serfs rarely engaged in nationwide or even regional rebellions, because the specific village commune, or mir, was the center of the peasant universe. They may have had a strong collective identity, but it was likely associated with their immediate community and not an abstract peasant solidarity.
The second element constant in each petition is the addressee—viz. the tsar. This illuminates a handful of facts about the serf mindset. Why did they, lowly and essentially enslaved laborers, feel they had a right to discourse with the emperor, the man imbued with the divine right to rule all of Russia? American historian Peter Kolchin chalks it up to “naïve monarchism.” In other words, serfs viewed the tsar as their loyal father, who had only to hear about their suffering and would leap to action to save them. Soviet historians, on the other hand, consistently underplayed serf fondness for their tsar, focusing instead on themes of class warfare. Both of these arguments are incomplete and fail to acknowledge that while serfs undoubtedly felt some nationalist attachment to the autocrat, their deference may have been a self-aware rhetorical device.
The third repeated aspect of these prosheniya is their content; they requested redress for very specific grievances. Usually, these took the forms of agricultural and financial misdeeds by the landowning noble and/or allegations of physical abuse. They did not ask for freedom (like some slave petitions in the contemporary United States or Brazil) from the land, nor to be raised out of serf-status. The most radical request was for more control of the land they cultivated.  This further illustrates their attachment to their own mir. The petitions only referred to incidents on the local level because to the serfs, the mir was their whole world, and they were likely unconcerned with matters on a provincial or a national level. In fact, in Russian, the term “mir” also means “world.”
- Petition I: Svyatoe
Though the institution of serfdom in the Russian Empire was inherently oppressive, it was theoretically sustainable for both the serf and his master. Ideally, the peasant farmers would divide their time between working the noble’s land and cultivating their own crops on another portion of the estate. According to this plan, the peasant mir could provide sustenance for itself, remaining relatively autonomous, and still fulfill its obligation to the landowner. However, lords commonly abused this system by sequestering all of the fertile land for their own crops and leaving only miniscule, unproductive tracts to the peasants. Moreover, the nobles often requisitioned extra grain, livestock, and resources from their already struggling serfs. Upset by this injustice, serf villages collectively petitioned governmental authorities for reprieve and retribution.
A 1796 proshenie from the village (selo) of Svyatoe addresses this kind of financial and agricultural transgression, and the petition is especially exemplary of how serfs exercised legal agency, even from a position of unfreedom. In this document, the peasants asserted that their landlord had taken all of the land suitable for plowing and haying, leaving the laborers only “the smallest amount” in the “most inconvenient places.” They also accuse their lord of forcibly requisitioning their rye, confiscating their livestock, and taxing them despite their already fulfilled labor obligation. Furthermore, they claim that their landlord compelled them to cut down trees for his own use and then inexplicably charged each peasant for every log he or she delivered. According to the petition, this greedy noble had driven them to “deathly hunger,” “poverty,” and “ruin.”
This document begins with a list of seventeen signatories from the village of Svyatoe. By petitioning collectively instead of individually, the peasants corroborate each other’s claims and reinforce the validity of their grievances. Although the document represents the complaints of this group, a copyist of the lower land court, Osip Fedorov, credits himself with the physical transcription. The employment of Fedorov by the mir illuminates two notable aspects of serf society: first, literacy was very low; and second, serfs had (paid) access to the resources of government administrations and court, despite their unfree status. There is no evidence in the petitions to indicate how the peasants paid for these court services, if the services were not somehow provided by the state. However, three possibilities seem most likely: they may have bartered using their agricultural resources; they may have had a small cache of savings for such an occasion; or the scribe may have worked pro bono. In this instance, it seems unlikely that a professional court scribe would provide his pen for free.
The mir in the village of Svyatoe existed as the smallest geographical division in a multi-tiered administrative hierarchy. Svyatoe fell under the administration of the Pereslavl okrug (surrounding district), which, in turn, fell under the Vladimir guberniya (province). Interestingly, the petitioners bypassed all of these mid-level jurisdictions and instead directed their petition to the emperor himself. Perhaps the serfs felt that the governmental middlemen would ignore their plight, or that the layers of government beneath the tsar were too inept to handle their case effectively. Alternatively, they might have simply believed that Paul I had more of a paternal obligation to respond than did the local bureaucrats.
The content of the petition corroborates the peasants’ perception of the tsar’s supposed paternal obligation. Specifically, the serfs’ omission of any explicit request or suggested course of retribution is indicative of their unwavering patriotism. Because they believed so strongly in the benevolence of their monarch, they felt no need to request retribution. Rather, they confidently expected the tsar to leap to action on his own; if only tsar Paul knew about the abuse suffered by the serfs, he would do anything in his power to aid his loyal subjects!
The petition’s tone further reinforces this idea. Instead of supplicating themselves before their emperor, the serfs present a matter-of-fact list of transgressions by their feudal master. Aside from a single use of “e. i. v.” (His Imperial Majesty), the document contains no explicit compliment or deference to the tsar. This word choice suggests that the peasants—or at least the scribe they employed—perceived their relationship with the autocrat as one of national solidarity; the tsar and his unfree subjects were true, wholesome Russians, but the greedy landlords disrupted and perverted that relationship.
The matter-of-fact tone of the Svyatoe petition stands in stark contrast to the supplication present in intra-governmental memos and documents. For instance, a 1796 report (the same year as the petition in question) from the governor of Kaluzhkskaya guberniya to the Procurator-General began with a flattering exclamation. Before discussing matters of governance, Governor Obleukhov saluted the “most illustrious prince, the merciful gosudar’”(a Russian title of nobility). This may suggest that noblemen were simply more practiced in the art of hierarchical deference. That being said, it is more likely that the serfs felt closer to the tsar than a governor felt to an officer, despite the much wider status gap. This is significant because it shows that serfs felt more or less comfortable in exercising their right to petition. This, in turn, suggests that they likely did not view petitioning as an extraordinary act, but rather as an established everyday channel of political and legal activity. The petitions were, in fact, quite common. In Unfree Labor, Kolchin notes that there were 195 petitions from a single guberniya in the span of only 34 years.
Ultimately, the brief Svyatoe petition offers much to elucidate the nature of legal agency among unfree Russians. Most notably, it exemplifies the abuses suffered by the peasant class and the means by which they fought those injustices. The formal and official nature of the petition—paired with the involvement of a court copyist— demonstrates that the Russian legal system welcomed serf involvement to an extent. Despite being bound to the land and owned by noblemen, serfs participated as civic actors in the government of the Russian Empire.
- Petition II: Berestinka
A second Vladimir petition came from the sel’tsa (hamlet) of Berestinka in January (OS) 1797. As in the Svyatoe petition (submitted only a few months before), the Berestinka document represents the collective complaints of a group of serfs who felt oppressed by their gospodin (lord). Also as in Svyatoe, these peasants bypassed mid-level administrative bureaucrats and addressed their complaints to Tsar Paul I.
However, this document did not list the names of the complainants; rather, only the author Gerasim Fedorov gave his name. In lieu of a list of signatories, the author of this proshenieutilizes the phrase “total mir agreement.” The reason for the omission of signatures is unclear. Perhaps the serfs in question feared retribution for taking action against their lord and thus chose to remain anonymous, or the cost of paper was a limiting factor and they left off their names to save page space. The phrase “total mir agreement” could also conceivably be a lie. In other words, this proshenie could have mustered inadequate support from the commune, and the vague reference to the whole mir obscured this fact from Paul I. However, the phrase likely represents the truth. It seems likely that the serfs probably expressed their collective concerns through the governing structures of the mir and selected Fedorov to represent their interests with this proshenie.
The content of the proshenie is similar in nature to that of the Svaytoe petition and one of the two that follow. The charges leveled against the lord are largely agricultural and financial. Specifically, Fedorov complained that their landlord, Solinikov, refused to provide them with sufficient food or the means to feed themselves adequately. He compelled them to work “day and night,” even on Sundays and holy days. Moreover, he made certain serfs travel outside of the village to work at a paper mill he also owned. Without the opportunity to cultivate their own crops, these peasants had to rely on charitable alms from their community, but a grain shortage stretched this source of sustenance too thin. In the proshenie, Fedorov conceded that Solinikov did grant each serf an allowance of grain, but he argued that this allotment was insufficient because Solinikov failed to consider children below the working age in his calculations.
Despite the village’s obvious resentment of their lord, they accepted the established power structure and worked within the system. The petition states that they had repeatedly requested more grain from him. When he refused, they asked him for permission to send a proshenie to the tsar. Solinikov initially agreed, but reneged his offer and subsequently punished the petitioners as if they were disobedient rebels (buntovshchiki i osluzhniki). It is evident from the tone of the document that this accusation of disloyalty offended the serfs, who considered themselves entirely loyal to the system. Here, one can see a discrepancy between the serfs’ and the empowered nobility’s perceptions of the right to petition. Solinikov seemingly felt threatened by his serfs’ desire to seek redress from a higher authority and punished those who took part in the previous proshenie. Conversely, in the peasant mindset, there was nothing subversive about notifying the tsar of their plight. If they recognized that the act of petitioning could undermine the established power structure, then they would not have taken such offense to the accusations of subterfuge and disloyalty. Moreover, they likely would not have sought their master’s permission to contact the tsar.
Interestingly, the Berestinka proshenie, contains a degree of literary flourish stronger than the other petitions. The author invoked a desperate, pleading tone by using especially dire words. For instance, the serf petitioner claimed that his landlord drove him and his fellow serfs to “great poverty and ruin (razorenie i bol’shuyu skudost’).” He continued to give a thorough description of their domestic destitution, explaining that the six or more people crammed into each izba (hut) could hardly share a single stove. Fedorov also employed an abundance of rhetorical repetition. Every instance of the word “we” was followed by “the poor ones” or “not to mention our wives and children.” An historian like Davis might characterize these elements as possibly fictive while arguing that they did not necessarily diminish the petition’s effectiveness or significance, because the document still reflected the spirit of the peasants’ discontent. However, it is more likely that these devices were rhetorical and persuasive, but not somehow deceptive, given the reality of living conditions under serfdom.
- Petition III: Uspenskoe
The third proshenie from the Vladimir Governance bore the date June 1797—the same year as the Berestinka petition and only a year after the Svyatoe petition—and came from the village of Uspenskoe. Interestingly, the petitioners seem to have used Uspenskoe as a gathering point, as the document also listed the smaller communities (dereven’) of Turgenev, Yakhonin, Kruglyshev, and Sushchev. These five communities came together to collectively complain about their mutual landlord, one Brigadier Ivan Il’ich Mukhanov. Again, the petitioning serfs addressed their proshenie to Tsar Paul I.
Unlike the Svyatoe petition’s long list of signatories, this document only contained two participants’ names. Specifically, the proshenie introduced the serf Vlas Yakovlev as the representative of the scorned peasants, but it attributed authorship to Emel’yan Ivanov. Ivanov did not expound on his own identity, so it is unclear if he is a professional scribe, a court copyist, a helpful clergyman, etc. In fact, his word choice may suggest that he was simply a literate peasant, but this was uncommon. He used the first person plural throughout the proshenie, consistently using “we ask” or “we request.” Furthermore, he included a conclusion in which he stated, “I am petitioning for these things in place of the aforementioned Vlas Yakovlev according to his petition because he cannot write.” Conversely, it is equally possible that Ivanov was a professional scribe, as the evidence is inconclusive.
The main complaint of this petition was a relatively simple one. Yakovlev (via Ivanov) complained that taxes imposed by their landlord unreasonably burdened him and his fellow serfs. He very specifically catalogued the varying amounts they were compelled to pay under different circumstances. The crux of his argument was that extra taxes and penalties were excessive because the peasants in Uspenskoe worked under the less-common obrok system, as opposed to the system of barshchina.
Barshchina, often translated as “corvée,” was the common model present in the first two petitions, where serfs repaid their landlords for use of their land through a work obligation. As in the cases of Svyatoe and Berestinka, a landlord would set a quota for days that his serfs would have to labor in the landlord’s field. Conversely, other serfs fulfilled their legal obligation to their landlords through a monetary rent payment called “obrok.” This system was far less prevalent; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were approximately twice as many barshchina serfs as there were obrochnyi (the adjectival form of “obrok”) serfs. These peasants were more autonomous than their barshchina counterparts, because lords with obrochnyi estates often adopted the practice of absentee land ownership and moved into the city. Some scholars maintain that this distinction made paying obrok a lesser burden than owing labor in the barshchina system. However, suffering was relative, and an offense on an obrok estate could still warrant a petition to the tsar. The existence of this proshenie proves that serfs under either system could feel subject to abuses of power by their owners.
A second charge leveled against the landlord in this petition centered on an individual incident in which Mukhanov compelled his serfs to travel to Moscow, and during the journey they incurred travel costs of one ruble and fifty kopecks per wagon. Yakovlev conceded that this was the fairest and most efficient method of travel, but lamented that his landlord only remunerated the serfs with fifty kopecks each. This specific transgression listed in the Uspenskoe petition—paired with the complaint that Mukhanov’s tax rate was excessive—seems mild compared to the previous two documents. Nevertheless, Yakovlev accuses his landlord of driving them to “extreme ruin and poverty (v krainee razorenie i bednost’).” The less-intense nature of this document reinforces the idea that the legal system welcomed peasant involvement through petitions. These serfs took a singular and specific complaint to the tsar, not a grand request for reform, and thus these petitions were apparently more commonplace than revolutionary, at least from the perspective of the recipient of the petitions.
This proshenie also utilized more supplicative language than the two previous documents; even though this petition was barely a single page long, several lines at the close showered the tsar with flattering titles. The author not only showed standard deference, addressing the tsar as “Your Imperial Majesty,” but also stacked superlatives referring to Paul I as “the-most gracious-of-all (vsemilostiveishii)” and begged his “merciful (milostivoe)” decision. Finally, he ended his petition by requesting the tsar receive them, “the poor ones, (bednye),” into his protection.
The notable difference in tone and content among the three eighteenth-century documents illustrates the individuality of peasant communities. Even in the same administrative governance during the same year, these villages did not present a united front. Rather, these were singular communities, each considering their own concerns and problems individually. This notion further bolsters the idea that serf petitions were welcome in the system, because these prosheniya did not come from especially large or powerful groups. Instead, they came from lowly people with everyday concerns.
- Petition IV: Vladimir Governance
Among the documents analyzed in this paper, the fourth proshenie is unique for several reasons. First, the petitioners wrote and submitted it in 1808, eleven years after the previous three prosheniya, and thus its addressee is Tsar Alexander I. Second, the landlord in question had died, and the petitioners did not disparage him with allegations of abuse. Third, the petition did not come from a single village, but rather from a collection of 1,618 serfs from all over the Vladimir Governance. Finally, and most significantly, these petitioners did not seek redress for abuse, but rather asked the tsar for a favor. Specifically, they requested a reduction of their fees and a loan from the emperor in order to create a peasant treasury for the district (okrug) of Murom within the Vladimir Governance.
This proshenie is the most supplicative of the four; it spends nearly a third of the document flattering the tsar with exaggerated compliments and titles. This is likely because the serfs recognized that asking for a favor was more presumptuous than reporting the crimes of an abusive lord. The peasants from the first three petitions merely presented complaints about abuses they perceived as obviously unfair, and they expected the tsar to issue justice. On the other hand, the peasants of the fourth proshenie did not necessarily believe they were entitled to this loan and therefore needed to make their request more persuasive with excessive flattery.
In conclusion, Russian serfdom was unique among contemporary systems of bound labor. While it differed from the parallel institution of chattel slavery in scale, racial environment, and communal context, these concepts do not provide the whole answer to what made Russian serfdom distinct. Rather, these elements only provide the context. Russian serfdom was truly exceptional among types of unfreedom, because serfs possessed the right to petition and thus occupied an extraordinary social and political position. As is evident in the four prosheniyafrom the Vladimir Governance, serfs were able to petition the highest level of authority regarding a varied list of topics. Despite some pushback by the local elite, this outlet of legal agency was not subversive or revolutionary. Rather, it allowed the state to interact with and placate the vast population of serfs that may have otherwise threatened the established structure of power. Moreover, the serfs’ petitions were not grand requests for legal reform, manumission, or abolition. Instead, they aired everyday grievances and leveled individual complaints, almost like a small claims court. While there is no available evidence to indicate the success or failure of these four prosheniya in particular, petitions usually circulated through the government bureaucracy, and it was not uncommon for serfs’ complaints to prompt official investigations. Moreover, these petitions were not spontaneous or disorderly protests, but rather official documents conceived by the governing structures of the mir and filed through official channels. Thus, through the power of petitions, serfs had access to an established legal system and were able to exercise legal and political agency in the Russian Empire, even though they were not technically free.
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* A note on translation: I will give commonly known translated names for large cities and monarchs. For instance, I will refer to Moscow and Alexander, not Moskva and Aleksandr. I will transliterate all other Russian terms, names, and places from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Alexander Radishchev, “Alexander Radishchev Excoriates Russia’s Social System, 1790,” in Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia, edited by James Cracraft (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994), 212.
Peter John Bakewell, Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico:Zacatecas, 1546-1700(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 122.
Jorge Benci, “A Jesuit Father Writes on Slave Marriage and Immoral Acts Forced by Masters Upon their Slaves,” in Children of God’s Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil, edited by Robert Edgar Conrad (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 174.
Note: American slaves petitioned as well. However, in my research, I only came across petitions from very specific circumstances. For example, following the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, the federal government allowed slaves in Washington to petition for freedom only if their masters did not do it first. See “Petition of Eglantine Randolph, 5 May 1862,” Civil War Washington, accessed July 4, 2014, http://civilwardc.org/texts/petitions/cww.00031.html. These were very formulaic and individual, not collective petitions. Any slave petitions that I found were wholly unlike the serf petitions in question, and so the comparison is largely unproductive.