Percent of slaves in the Deep South and of serfs in Central Russia ca. 1860

Gary Saul Morson’s piece on Crime and Punishment at 150 at The New Criterion is not available for free except for this snippet at the beginning:

Four years earlier [1861], the “tsar-liberator” Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) had at last abolished serfdom, a form of bondage making 90 percent of the population saleable property.

No, not really, not 90%. That’s quite an exaggeration. The serfs made up 34% of the empire’s total population and 38% of the total in its European part. (Siberia was the land of the free. Poland, Finland, Estonia and most of Latvia were excluded from these estimates.) In some governorates, however, serfs accounted for 50%-70% of the population according to the 1857-9 census. That was typical of Russia’s historical heartland: the governorates of Kaluga (62%), Nizhny Novgorod (59%), Vladimir (58%), Kostroma (57%), Ryazan (57%), and Tver (51%). The formerly border region of Smolensk and the old southern frontier land, Tula, topped the list with 69%.

Compare this with antebellum slavery in the United States: according to the 1860 census, the share of slaves in the population was the highest in South Carolina (57%) and Mississippi (55%), followed by Louisiana (47%), Alabama (45%), Florida and Georgia (44% each). These numbers are close to the share of serfs in some areas of the Russian empire (including parts of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithiuania) and far below the levels of the Smolensk and Tula governorates. Overall, slaves only made up 13% of US residents in 1860, much less than the 34% number for serfs in Russia.


  1. Reading the history of the Baltic states, I was surprised to learn it was Alexander I, not Alexander II, who abolished serfdom in Estonia and Latvia after the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently, conditions were much worse there than in the rest of the Russian Empire. According to my notes, the emancipation of the serfs took place in Estland in 1816, Kurland in 1817 and Livland in 1819. Most of Lithuania had to wait until 1861 though.

    • Yes, but the peasants in these three regions were emancipated without land and with a transition period that lasted into the early 1830s. In 1861, the Russian serfs were given the option of buying the land they had cultivated from the landowners. In Congress Poland in 1864, the serfs received the ownership of their land for free and at once. I think the differences in the post-reform land distribution had to do with the political status of the regional landowners. The German and Swedish lords in the Baltics realized early on that serfdom was doomed and petitioned Alexander I to have it abolished on the best possible terms for themselves. Since they had a reputation for ironclad loyalty to the crown, they had their wish. In contrast, the imperial administration had little confidence in the loyalty of the Polish nobility, especially in the wake of the 1863 uprising, which turned to the benefit of the peasantry in Congress Poland. (But not so much in Lithuania, oddly.)

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