4 Must-Read Books About Serfdom Life in Russia

Serfs, as they were known, in Russia were limited and bonded to their masters in a certain type of altered slavery. The period of time was known as the Russian Empire, a term popularized by Peter I the Great. It was an era of regeneration for the peasant serfs in the Russian countryside. The period of time tried on to be covered was between 1721, at the start of what is known as the Russian Empire, and the year 1861, when under the reign of Czar Alexander II serfdom was eradicated.

Russian serfs worked and lived on the land set to them by their masters and gave barshchina or obrok in return. Barshchina was a term for unpaid labor, meaning that for a specific number of days per week, serfs were compelled to work on the field or dig up vegetables for their masters rather than for themselves. Obrok was a term for a concurrent scheme where serfs worked when they wanted to but needed to regularly give a certain amount of their harvest or a sum of money to their masters.

The serfs and serfdom era played major roles in shaping and setting limits on the social structure of Russia. Some writers deliberately pick this theme in the hope of serving an unprecedented comparative work that will fascinate sociologists, historians, and all social scientists, especially those with a keen interest in studies in slavery and comparative history. Here are 4 must-read books about serfdom life in Russia (global authors).

  1. Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804 – 1824 by Aleksandr Nikitenko

There are not many firsthand accounts of serf life in Imperial Russia and this book is one that should not be missed. It shows that even in the most stratified class system, there is room for hope and change as long as you know where to find the right people and catch a few breaks. It takes place not long before serfdom was eradicated in Russia and offers some insight into why people are drawn to certain political schemes that seem hardly comprehensible to the rest of us in modern’s day.

The story is written in engaging prose layered with magnificent imagery and sympathetic passion. The tale of Nikitenko’s journey from serfdom to freedom is a beautiful story. It provides us a fascinating look into the everyday life of the lower echelons of Russian society in the early 19th century. Nikitenko, his family, and his friends all become engaging characters who support the readers through any occasional lulls in the action. The honesty and wisdom with which Nikitenko tells his story are really engaging and inspiring.

  1. Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century by Jerome Blum

Despite the standard overview of this subject, i.e. serfs and serfdom in Russia which is rather difficult to grasp, this is a surprisingly readable book especially if you are highly interested in labor and agricultural history because the story tells about how folks have made a living and the conditions under which they make a living. It is also essential reading for those who are interested in the political history of the Russian Empire during the second half of the 19th century and into the first quarter of the 20th. This book is recommended to readers who want to understand the Russian literary history of the same period such as Gogol’s Dead Souls since it is incomprehensible without background knowledge of the type that Blum’s book provides.


  1. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin

This is a fascinating read, more so than you expect. Each chapter discusses some other aspect of some central comparison that is really interesting. Kolchin compares American slavery with Russian serfdom and it turns out to be really illuminating. It seems pretty obvious to compare American slavery with Caribbean slavery which is just as illuminating but comparing it to a non-racial form of slavery on the other side of the world puts it in a whole new light. For example, Kolchin writes about how, ironically, the free democratic society set up in America made it harder to end slavery there than it was in Russia. In Russia, there was no thought of equality in letting go of the serfs because there was no equality in society at all. They had an Emperor and there were no free elections or anything alike. But in America, all men with freedom could participate in the political process by the mid-1800s. So, if the slaves were freed, logically, they would have to become participants in society. This caused whites, especially in the South, to cling to slavery ever more persistently, as it really would mean a leveling of the playing field whereas, in Russia, the playing field basically stayed exactly the same.


  1. The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia: 1762 – 1907 by David Moon

This book is a good example of how a complex issue can be presented to a noob in a relatively compact and affordable format. It gives good coverage to one of the most important issues in Russian history including a chronological summary, extensive analysis of all phases of the process such as historical debate and a number of translated primary source documents that allow the readers to reconstruct the history for themselves.

The book tells about the abolition of serfdom which was a very long process that ultimately might have been too slow to satisfy anyone, either serf or master. Reform-minded czars found their powers detained by a corrupt and inefficient civil service and by the limitations of a system of autocracy that failed to bestow power effectively. Although the weight of morality easily fell on reform, the Orthodox Church had strong ties to traditional rule and often worked to undervalue change.

So, those are 4 must-read books about serfdom life in Russia (global authors).

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