Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Peasant Children. painting by Vladimir Makovskiy 1890

Serfdom in Russia was very much like serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation, but it developed and ended later in Russia than it did in Poland. Serfs were tied to the land, expected to work a specific number of days for the landlord and allowed to farm some land for themselves. Serfdom in Russia, as in Poland, was not connected to feudalism. It developed in both places because the nobility needed a cheap source of labor to work their large estates.
More about serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 
"Barge Haulers on the Volga" Ilya Repin, 1870-73.

Muscovite Russia 1533-1682

Serfdom developed during the Muscovite Period, 1533-1682, on foundations which were laid earlier. The practice was the cornerstone of Muscovite agriculture and supported the structure of the state.  No laws were passed regulating serfs in the early days, but the government did limit movement of serfs and required that runaway serfs be returned to the landowner. In 1649 Tsar Alexis issued an Utoshe, a decree that tied peasants to their landlord’s estates, and required their labor. The Utoshe confirmed the idea that once a peasant became a serf, he and his descendants would always be serfs.  In Muscovite Russia, the peasant class included serfs, slaves and state peasants. Peasants could sell themselves into slavery, which happened during hard times.   State peasants worked for the government, not landlords.  As serfdom grew, the distinctions between serfs and slaves disappeared.

Imperial Russia 1682-1914

Peter II, The Great, enlarged Russian territory during his rule.  He put a tax on the male population, and made paying it the responsibility of the landlord.   However, the landlords passed the tax on to the serfs. As a result of this tax, landlords began to think of their serfs as property, which could be bought and sold.
During the rule of Peter’s successors, Catherine I, Anne, and Elizabeth, serfs were forbidden to buy and sell real estate, mills or factories. They could borrow money only with their landlord’s permission. In 1736, laws were enacted that required serfs to get their landlord's permission to leave the estate for temporary employment.   In 1754, serfs were listed in the criminal code as property of the landowner. Since Russian serfs, like serfs in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were attached to the land, when the land was sold, the serfs were included in the sale. However, in Russia individual serfs could be bought and sold.

Russian territory increased during the rule of Catherine II, The Great. as a result of the Partitions of Poland (1772-1795), The population increased by six million people and land by 178,000 sq. miles. Serfdom already existed in the areas of Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth acquired by Russia, and Catherine wanted to expand Russian style serfdom to the new acquired areas. Although Catherine was considered a reformer, her reforms did not improve conditions for the serfs. In 1775, when she reformed local government, the serfs were overlooked. Rights of the landlords were strengthened and they were acknowledged as the full owners of their estates without any restrictions. She gave huge grants of state land and peasants to her supporters and favorites. Serfs were forbidden to leave estates and to remain in their place and calling.  In the Census of 1794-6, 53% of all peasants and 49% of Russia’s population were serfs.
Catherine the Great, about the time of the Polish Partition.Painting by D.G. Levitsky

Russian serfs owned and farmed their own plots, which were larger than the plots of serfs in the Austrian Empire.  They could also sell their surplus crops for a profit.   If they paid a fee, the “Obrok”, to their landlord,  they were allowed  to leave the estate to work elsewhere for wages.  By 1857, 67% of serfs were on the “Obrok.”, which became a source of income for the landlord. One half of Russian peasants were state serfs who paid a tax to the state and were allowed to leave the community to find work. They generally were better off than peasants who were privately owned. Landlords could  take serfs from the land and use them has servants in their house. House serfs did not work the land and had no  plots of land for themselves. 
Peasant Children.   Photograph by William Carrick, 1860

It was possible for serfs to become wealthy, but this was not common. Western European travelers in Russia during the 19th century  noticed that Russian peasants appeared to be better off than peasants in France or Ireland, had larger houses, more farm animals and larger plots. Though some Russian serfs were more prosperous than peasants in other areas of Europe, they lacked  rights enjoyed by peasants in most other European countries.  They had no civil rights and no way to address wrongs inflicted on them by their landowner. They could not leave the landlord's estate without his permission. They could be exiled to Siberia for bad behavior.  Some had to get the lord's permission to marry. They could be bought and sold. Their lives were totally subject to the will of their owner.

Serfdom Ends in Russia

Attitudes toward serfdom began to change during the 19th century. Many Russians believed that serfdom was inhumane and should be done away with. The Crimean War showed that  there problems in Russian society and changes were necessary.  In 1856, Tsar Alexander II said “Better to abolish serfdom from above than wait until it abolishes itself from below.” When he came to the throne in 1858, 37% of all Russians were serfs.  

"Reading the Manifesto." painting by Boris Kustodiev, 1907

Tsar Alexander II
Serfdom was abolished on February 19, 1861 by a decree issued by Tsar Alexander II.
The serf was now free and owned his land.  The provisions of the emancipation were designed to protect the interests of the landlords as well as those of the peasants.  The landlord retained about half of estate’s land, the peasants received the other half.  The average size of peasant plots was about 27 acres in the Russian Empire, 18 acres in the parts of Ukraine, which were acquired in the Partitions of Poland. The landlords were compensated by the sale of government treasury bonds, which were to be paid for by  the  former serfs over a period of 49 years.   The former serfs continued to pay the head tax, even though it was no longer paid by other Russians.
"Harvesting" painting by G. Myasoyedov 1887
The emancipation benefited the landlords more than the peasants. Serfs received land, but not enough. Their new land allotment was 10% to 40% smaller than what they had before emancipation, depending on where in Russia they lived. In most areas, the land was given to the village commune (Mir), not to individual peasants.  The Mir divided the land and paid the taxes. Peasants were free, but still had restrictions on their movement. They were still tied to their communes, they were judged by customary law.  Only serfs who worked the land received land, household serfs got nothing.   State peasants received larger land grants and fared better than peasants on the land of private owners.  Peasants in Ukraine, which came to Russia in the Polish Partitions, did not have a tradition of communes,  the land was owned by individuals, so they continued to own their own plots
Peasant Girls. photo by Prokudin-Gorsky, Library of Congress.
Emancipation was a compromise, serfs had freedom, but not full equality.  They had land, but not enough.  Many were dependent on their former landlords.  Unlike  the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, where free public education was provided for former serfs, no provisions were made their education in Russia. Unable to better themselves in Russia, many chose to leave and immigrate to the United States, Canada and the countries of South America.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine,
Conquest, Robert, The Harvest of Sorrrow, New York, 1986.
Pipes, Richard, Russia Under the Old Regime, New York, 1974.
Plokhy, Serhii, The Gates of Europe, New York, 2015.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas, A History of Russia, New York, 1963.
Subtelny, Orest, Ukraine, A History, Toronto, 1988.   

Friday, February 5, 2016

Serfdom in The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Serfs and Nobles in The Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth

As the fortunes of the nobility rose, those of the peasants declined

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Source: Subtelny, Ukraine: A History.
Galicia, Bukovina and Volhynia, parts of ancient and modern Ukraine and ancestral home of most of Ukrainian-Americans were once a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Coat of Arms of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest, most populated and diverse countries in Europe with a population of over eleven million people.  The Commonwealth was 50% Polish, 28% Ukrainian and 22% other, mainly Lithuanian, Belorussian, Jewish, German and Russian.  Existing unofficially since 1386, Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united in 1569 by the Union of Lublin. Although the two countries were said to be equal, Poland was the dominant power.

The marriage of Queen Jadwiga of Poland and Jagiello of The Grand Duchy of Lithuanian sealed the Union of Lublin in 1539 and united The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Government of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth
The government of the Commonwealth was unlike any other in Europe. It was said that that the king reigns, but does not govern. There were three parts, the King, elected by the nobles, the Sejm, a legislative body made up of nobles, and the Senat, made of nobles who supervised the king.  The nobles received their privileges and land from military service.  Just to make sure that the nobles, who made up about 15% of the population, would never lose political rights and power, the Sejm had veto power on almost all important matters including law making, foreign policy, taxation, and the declaration of war.

The Economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Most of the wealth of the Commonwealth was determined by ownership of land.  Nobles owned estates that varied in size, some owned one small manor, others had many estates as well as several villages and towns.  Ternopil was founded and owned by Jan Tarnowski as a military stronghold. Burghers, or people who lived in the towns, were the smallest group in the Commonwealth.  The population of the towns was made up of artisans and merchants.  The largest population, 80%, of the Commonwealth was peasants. 

Europe’s population grew in the 16th century. Inflation caused by the increase of Spanish silver and gold from the Americas contributed to food price increases of 800-100%. Much of the land in the Commonwealth was fertile and suitable for growing grain, mainly rye. Most of the grain was sold within the Commonwealth, but rivers flowing north made it easy to transport grain to the Baltic Sea and on to Western Europe.  In order to produce food grain more efficiently, land holding nobles transformed their estates into folwarki (plantations that grew food, mostly grain).  A cheap labor source was necessary, so demands on the peasants increased.  More and more free labor was needed, so peasants worked the estates as many as many as six days a week. Their rights diminished and their incomes decreased.

The boom lasted about 100 years.  The nobles benefited, peasants suffered.  Nobles gained more political power and limited the king’s power. There was no group in society to look out for the peasant’s welfare. This economy was a one-dimensional, based growing one product, grain.  Towns were ignored, did not grow and develop, and industries were not created.  As new sources of grain developed in other parts of the world, the economy of the Commonwealth suffered.  Estates failed and were bought and sold or rented to tenants.  By the middle of the 18thcentury, the Commonwealth was weak.

Peasants harvesting grain

The Peasants become Serfs.

Long before the Commonwealth was formed, the peasants of Poland and Lithuania were slowly losing their rights and freedom. Since the nobles controlled the political system, they could raise demands on the peasants at will.

In the 15th century, peasants owed noblemen duties for the right to use for their land.  The payment of these duties was usually in free labor and paying rents of some kind.  As long as the peasant performed his duties, he could not be removed from his land.  Peasants had the right to sell their land and to hand it down to heirs. Before 1550, landowners were not engaged in commercial agriculture, and produced food for their own needs. Much of the land on nobles estates were farmed by peasants, and as long as peasant obligations to the lord didn’t increase, their incomes rose. Some peasants did very well, owning 20-30 acre plots, as well as horses, oxen, pigs and cows. The grain boom of the 16th century, benefited the nobles and adversely changed peasant conditions.

In the early 16th century, the required two days of work on the landlord’s land increased to three, four or more days The peasants did not take these changes well, between 1490-92, there were peasant uprisings in Moldovia, Bukovina and Galicia.  The uprisings were quickly put down, cementing the nobles’ control over the peasants. In 1505, the Sejm forbid peasants to leave their village without the permission of the landlord. As the grain economy grew, laws passed by the Sejm changed to enforce more peasant obligations to the lord, and because of this they saw their standard of living decrease. The landlord was given the right to judge peasants, required that they use his mills and purchase alcohol from his taverns. Some nobles charged peasants a fee in order to marry. Peasants could no longer to run their own villages, landlords brought in outsiders to run them according to Polish law. By 1557, according to the Voloky Ustov, the right of peasants to own land was no longer recognized.  The peasant was unable to move, deprived of personal rights and exploited by the landlord.  By 1600, they were serfs, not much better off than slaves.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine
Subeltny, Orest, Ukraine, A History, Toronto, 1988

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Celebrating Ukrainian Christmas in Canada 1942.--Don't Miss this one.

 Christmas is over, but this u-tube video is too good to miss, or save for next year.
It was made in Manitoba, Canada in 1942.  A Ukrainian-Canadian family goes through the preparations for Christmas and the whole holiday season.  The grandmother came from Ukraine around 1900, so the customs in the video are probably very similar to how our ancestors celebrated Christmas in "the old country." 


I want to thank my cousin Marianne, who sent sent me the link to this u-tube video.  

Ukrainian Christmas in Canada 1942

Monday, February 1, 2016

Serfdom in Eastern Europe

Ukrainian Peasant Family. Painting by Taras Shevchenko, 1845

According to my Great Aunt Katherine Rychly Pylatiuk, my grandmother's family were once serfs.  There is a good chance that my other ancestors were serfs as well, but I don't have that information.
The Rychly family were farmers, living in Galicia, part of the Austrian Empire,  just outside the city of  Ternopil' in a village named Bila, (sometimes spelled Biala). Katherine said that her mother, Maria Bryniak Rychly repeated stories her mother,  Barbara Steciuk Bryniak, told her about the time when peasants were required to work on the landlord's land. Maria was born in 1873, so her mother was born in the early 1850's,  shortly after Austrian serfs were emancipated.  She called the practice of working on the landlord's land the "pansjchyna."The peasants were required to work on his land 3 days a week, and the rest of the time, they worked their own farms.  On Sunday, no work was done, so that left 3 days for peasants to work for themselves.

Serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later in the Austrian Empire, and serfdom in Russia was similar to serfdom in Western Europe, but there were important differences.

What are serfs and what is serfdom?

The answer to this question has several answers, depending on the time and place where is was practiced.  The word serf comes from the Latin word servus meaning service.  In Old French the word serf meant slave.
A serf was a member of a servile feudal class who was bound to the land and was subject to the will of the owner.
In Europe serfdom was the status of many peasants/farmers under feudalism.

Serfdom in Medieval Europe 

Serfdom in the middle ages existed in Western Europe.  Serfs were the lowest class in society, and lived and worked on land owned by another person, usually a knight who was the vassal of a higher  ranked and more powerful noble.  The system was based on mutual obligations and contracts between the lord and his vassals.  In theory, the king owned the land, but since he couldn't directly rule land that was far away, he gave tracts of land to loyal nobles in exchange for  their loyalty and military service. Serfs were bound to the land, and if they tried to run away, they were returned to their lord.  They could become free if they managed to stay away for a "year and a day" or if they were granted freedom by their lord. The lords then gave smaller tracts (manors) to knights in their service, who ran the manors and ruled the serfs that lived on that land. Knights were required to protect the serfs in times of trouble.  In exchange, the serfs were required to give part of their crop to the knight(lord) and work on his roads and building projects This practice, the  corvee, lasted much longer than serfdom,  in France, it was still in existence in the 18th century.  Serfs were also required to serve the lord as soldiers if necessary.  Loyalty and mutual obligation was key in feudal Medieval Europe.
In Western Europe, serfdom died out in the fourteenth century, when the Bubonic plague, known as the Black Death killed thousands in Europe: royals, nobles, gentry and serfs.  The labor shortage caused by the plague made serfdom obsolete and it gradually died out.

Serfdom in Eastern Europe

Serfdom came to Eastern Europe much later than to Western Europe. Serfdom no longer existed in Western Europe when it developed in the East. It appeared last and disappeared last in Poland and Russia.  It was not as a result of or connected in any way with Feudalism as practiced in Western Europe.

Poland and Lithuania 1549

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the king was elected by the nobles. The king did not rule his subjects directly. The land was divided into estates, controlled by noble families. Not only did the nobles own the estates, they often owned the towns. The nobles ruled the people who lived on their estates.  Since the nobles controlled the political system and chose the king, they could raise demands on the peasants at will.  
Peasants became serfs during the late 15th century.  Originally, peasants living on an estate, paid the landlord rent for the use of the land, and were required to work the nobles' land as a way of paying the rent.  They were entitled to a small plot of land and were able to sell what ever they produced.   Peasants living on the estates were  also required to work on the noble's roads, (the corvee), a specific number of days a week. Historian Orest Subtelny said "As nobility's fortunes rose, those of the peasants declined." (History of Ukraine p. 90). 
In 1505, the Sejm, the governing body of nobles who ruled the Commonwealth, forbid peasants from leaving their village without the lord's permission.   Serfdom became law in 1557 when the Voloky Ustov was passed by the Sejm. The peasants right to own land was no longer legally recognized.  Since there was no strong central government, landlords were able to extract more and more from the peasants. Peasants could no longer run their own communities, nobles had the right to judge them and  to control  many aspects of their lives. They were now serfs, no better off than slaves. Serfdom was most prevalent in Galicia and Volhynia, but the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was large, and where labor was scarce, in the Eastern parts of the Commonwealth,  serfdom was rare or unknown.

Where population was low and labor scarce, serfdom was unknown.


Moscovy during the reign of Peter the Great, when serfdom was established. Source: Riasanovsky, History of Russia, 1963

Serfdom became law in Russia in 1649, but it existed long before that date.  Its foundations were build long before the Muscovite period and long before Russia came into existence.   Serfdom was the mainstay of Muscovite agriculture. It was most common in the southern, southeastern and western section of Russia, east of the Dniepr River.  By beginning of the 17th century, serfs could not leave their landowner's estates for any reason.  By the time the Ulozhenie of 1649 was passed, serfdom was firmly established.  This decree conformed the idea of "once a serf, always a serf."
Landowners were the judicial and police authority on their estates. and the serfs were at their mercy.
The landlords were members of the upper classes of Russia, and most were members of the nobility.   Eventually, serfs could be bought and sold and willed by their owners. By the end of the 17th century they were virtually slaves. 

Serfdom was extended and strengthened during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796). The practice spread to new areas, particularly to the lands acquired in the Partitions of Poland.  A series of laws passed between 1763-83 made serfs the most oppressed people in the Russian Empire.  These laws made it possible to control all aspects of a serf's life and gave landowners to right to sell entire serf families as well as individual serfs.
By 1796, 53% of all Russian peasants were serfs and 49% of the population of Russia were serfs.

In the next blog post, I will continue with the subject of serfdom in Eastern Europe, concentrating on more of the details of the lives of serfs.

Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine,
Doroshenko, Demeter, History of the Ukraine, Edmonton, 1939.

Plokyi, Serhii, The Gates of Europe, New York, 2015.
Riasonovsky, Nicholas, A History of Russia, New York, 1963.
Subtelny, Orest, Ukraine, A History, Toronto, 1988.