Russia’s un-democratic feudalism

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September 14, 2016 by AK

Erik McDonald provides more detail on the share of serfs in the Russian population before the great peasant reform of 1861. From a slightly different angle, one can claim with some justification that in 1678, two years after the death of Tsar Alexey, 90% of Russia’s non-privileged population was made up of serfs. In 1859, serfs accounted for fewer than 50% of the peasants and fewer than 40% of the non-privileged classes. The other, greater, half of the peasantry was mostly made up of the so-called “state” peasants: not free citizens in the post-1789 sense but not some landowner’s “souls” either.

Russian feudal masters were a small elite group: 107,000 in 1857 according to Vasily Klyuchevsky, less than 0.2% of the population. Assuming families of ten, less than 2% of all families owned serfs. Here the parallel with the antebellum Deep South breaks down.

In the five Lower South states plus Florida – the states with the highest slave populations, ranging from 44% to 57% of total – the percentages of slaveholders and slave-owning families were also the highest, 3.4%-3.9% and 29%-49%.

In a sense, slavery was a democratic institution in states like Mississippi and South Carolina. Corey Robin writes in The Reactionary Mind:

The slaveholder created a quintessential form of democratic feudalism, turning the white majority into a lordly class, sharing in the privileges and prerogatives of governing the slave class…

One school of thought… located the democratic promise of slavery in the fact that it put the possibility of personal mastery within the reach of every white man… [B]y 1860, there were 400,000 slaveholders in the South, making the American master class one of the most democratic in the world.

In pre-reform, pre-1861 Russia, only hereditary noblemen, as a rule, were allowed to acquire estates with serfs living on the land. On the other hand, hereditary nobility was attainable, in principle, through civil or military service. Old-stock aristocrats kept getting diluted by the newly ennobled but that class was not even close to becoming “democratic.”


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