Slavery has a long and complex history in Russia, enduring for centuries before finally being abolished in the 19th century. While serfdom, a form of servitude that tied peasants to land owned by nobles, is often conflated with slavery, Russian slavery proper existed alongside serfdom and involved the ownership of people as personal property.
Early History of Slavery in Russia
Slavery likely existed in the territory of modern Russia since ancient times. Various peoples and kingdoms in the region practiced slavery and slave trading, including the Slavs, Balts, Finno-Ugric tribes, Turkic peoples, and the Mongols. Under the Mongol Empire which ruled over Russia from the 13th-15th centuries, slaves were widely traded and owned by aristocrats.
The rise of the Muscovite state in the 14th and 15th centuries saw increasing numbers of slaves in Russia. The nobility owned domestic slaves, often obtained through slave raids on neighboring peoples. The Orthodox Church also owned slaves working on church lands. Legal documents from this period codified the status and treatment of slaves.
By the 16th century, with the expansion of the Russian Empire, the flow of slaves into Russia grew significantly. Slave markets operated in the major cities as demand increased, fueled by the elite’s desire for domestic servants and craftsmen. Many slaves were obtained from raids on nearby countries like Poland-Lithuania and the Crimean Khanate.
18th Century Developments
In the early 18th century, under Peter the Great, Russia’s capital moved from Moscow to the new city of St. Petersburg. Domestic slavery continued to grow to staff the households of the imperial court and noble families in the new capital. More state peasants were tied to the factories and mines fueling Russia’s industrialization, essentially as state slaves.
Most Russian slaves in the 18th century were still obtained by slave raids or as war captives from the frequent conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and Persia. But starting in the 1760s, the Imperial government banned the selling of Russians into slavery. This shifted the trade to emphasize the buying of foreign slaves from Central Asia, Caucasus, and Sweden’s Baltic provinces.
Key Statistics on 18th Century Slavery
Some estimates of slavery in 18th century Russia:
- Up to 40% of the population in some border regions of the Russian Empire were slaves.
- Over a million Islamic slaves were bought between 1760-1825 from Central Asia and Caucasus.
- St. Petersburg had around 20,000 domestic slaves by the end of the 18th century.
- The number of household slaves owned by nobles quintupled from 1762 to 1801.
This growth led Russia to become the largest slave owner in Europe by 1800. The table below illustrates the rapid increase in recorded slave sales and ownership:
|Year||Number of Slaves Sold||Number of Slave Owners|
19th Century: Emancipation Reforms
In the first half of the 19th century, the momentum against slavery began growing across the Western world. While serfdom remained widespread in Russia, views on slavery also started shifting to see it as morally wrong. But the restrictions continued to be gradually introduced.
Some key milestones in the emancipation of Russian slaves:
- 1787 – Import of slaves from Sweden’s Baltic provinces is banned.
- 1801 – Religious minorities are granted the right to own up to 2 domestic slaves.
- 1803 – Slaves are granted the right to file petitions for their freedom.
- 1812 – Religious minorities are restricted to household roles only for their slaves.
But the major turning point came after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War in 1856. Seeking to gain favor with the European powers, Tsar Alexander II ushered in major reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. While serfdom and slavery were distinct institutions, the emancipation declaration was also applied to slaves:
“While releasing the peasant from the obligation of performing duties for the benefit of the landowner, to grant complete personal freedom also to domestic serfs.”
In 1863, Alexander II reiterated the declaration with a decree emancipating all slaves who were crown or state property. While some limitations remained, this marked the definitive end of slavery in Russia.
Some figures on slavery after the reforms:
- In 1857, before emancipation, there were 1.8 million privately owned serfs and 79,000 domestic slaves in Russia.
- By 1867, after the reforms, statistics showed only 478 people remaining in slavery in Russia.
However, the cultural view of racial slavery persisted longer. As the Russian Empire expanded across Asia, some ethnic peoples, like Central Asians, were traded and viewed as slaves by Russians up until the October Revolution in 1917.
To conclude, slavery was a significant institution in Russia for centuries until it was finally abolished through reforms in the 19th century:
- Slave trading and ownership has existed since ancient times under successive Russian kingdoms.
- In the 18th century, Russia became Europe’s largest slave owner with over 1 million slaves.
- Emancipation came in two stages – the 1861 reform freeing serfs, followed by the 1863 decree freeing state and crown slaves.
- The abolition of slavery removed Russia’s 3 million slaves and eroded the centuries-old practice.
While serfdom and involuntary servitude persisted in some forms until the 20th century, the epoch of slavery in Russia ended with Alexander II’s emancipation reforms in the 1860s.