The Question of Serfdom: Catherine II, the Russian Debate and the View from the Baltic Periphery (J. G. Eisen and G. H. Merkel)

  • Roger Bartlett


The second half of the eighteenth century marks a new phase in the peasant question in the Russian empire. While Vasilii Golitsyn in the late seventeenth century is reported to have thought in terms of serf emancipation — Professor de Madariaga has shown convincingly that the authority for this claim, Foy de la Neuville, is not reliable1 — early eighteenth-century concern, both official and unofficial, for the lot of the peasantry was largely confined to its economic well-being and stability. Such swallows as A. Kantemir and V. Tatishchev, attuned to the human dignity of rural folk, to philosophical issues of natural law and economic questions of labour productivity, did not as yet make a summer. (Tatishchev explicitly opposed the abolition of serfdom.) Even M. Lomonosov tended to view things in terms of the national interest, and made no criticism of the system of Russian serfdom as such.2 In the mid-century, however, things changed markedly. In the 1760s not only the defects of the servile system, but also the system itself, were held up for critical scrutiny. As Professor de Madariaga has put it:

Two trends emerged, neither of which had much following among the nobility at large. The first, based on Russian tradition, … urged state regulation of the existing system, with a clear assertion that the serf was the subject of the state, not the slave of the landowner …. The second trend derived from the humanitarian and economic theories of the Enlightenment. Though unrelated to Russian realities, it opened men’s minds to new ideas — and indeed it led eventually to the development of a counter-movement — a completely new school of defenders of serfdom, an institution which had never needed defending before.3


Eighteenth Century American Historical Review Crown Estate Russian Empire Legislative Commission 
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© School of Slavonic and East European Studies 1990

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  • Roger Bartlett

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