First Advisor

Chia Yin Hsu

Term of Graduation

Summer 2021

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Serfs -- Historiography, Historians, Serfs -- Russia -- History, Slave labor -- Russia -- History



Physical Description

1 online resource (iii, 148 pages)


Serfdom in Russia has often been viewed in Anglo-U.S. historiography as an exceptional institution in that it emerged in the early-modern age, after serfdom in Western Europe had ended, and that it persisted for well over two centuries, spanning the Muscovite and the Imperial eras. Many historians have thus compared serfdom in Russia unfavorably to labor systems that developed in Western European nations at that time, considered to be "modern" and "free," in contrast to the "unfree" labor obtained through Russian serfdom. This thesis presents the scholars who take this view, and refers to them as "Consensus Historians," as their works are seminal and their influence is even now far-reaching. In addition to depicting Russian serfdom as a type of "unfree" labor similar to slavery, Consensus Historians maintain that the persistence of serfdom in Russia was interconnected with the "backwardness" of Russian society. The view of the Consensus Historians, who were generally active in the 1960s-1970s, has been challenged by more recent scholars, whom this chapter calls "Revisionist Historians." Using archival material not available to the Consensus Historians, as they belonged to the Anglo-U.S. side of the Cold War divide, the "Revisionists" question many of the assumptions underlying the argument of the Consensus authors, as well as their depiction of serfdom. Examining court cases, records of landed estates where enserfed peasants lived and worked, and other archival documents, the Revisionist authors argue that serfdom was in practice an institution that changed over the years, varied vastly depending on location and time, and was far less monolithic and inflexible than has been depicted by previous historians. The first two chapters deal with the claims of these two groups of authors. The third chapter explores contemporary works that give voice to the experiences of the enserfed peasants, including several serf memoirs. This chapter gives the reader an opportunity to square the life experiences portrayed by the memoirs with the claims from the Consensus and Revisionist authors. Finally, the fourth chapter will take a step back from the Russian Empire and look at labor systems elsewhere in the long nineteenth-century world, a time of expanding world markets and sharply growing labor needs. This chapter compares and contrasts to the Russian case a variety of "free" and "un-free" labor systems that took hold around the world in this time, and aims to determine whether serfdom in Russia was uniquely or exceptionally "unfree" in an era when a wide range of coercive labor practices existed, supported by powerful Western countries and affecting millions and generations of laborers.


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