Feudalism

Feudalism. Feudalism is a controversial topic in Ukrainian history, and East Slavic history in general, because of a different understanding of that concept in Western (including non-Soviet Ukrainian) and Soviet Marxist scholarship. The hallmarks of feudalism, according to Western historians, are the institutions of vassalage (a contract binding lord and vassal by bonds of loyalty and mutual obligations) and fief or benefice (heritable land held by a vassal from a lord in return for military and other services). Feudalism emerged in the post-Carolingian period (9th–10th centuries AD), and it passed away, save for some survivals, with the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times (15th–16th century). Feudalism is seen as limited basically to Western Europe; only isolated feudalistic features appeared occasionally in other civilizations.

A much broader meaning is ascribed to the concept of feudalism in Soviet historiography, which stresses its socioeconomic rather than institutional aspect. According to Marxist theory, humanity advances through a sequence of socioeconomic ‘formations’—primeval communist (communal-clan society), slaveholding, feudal, capitalist, and socialist—towards the final future goal of full communism. These categories are supposed to possess a universal, worldwide validity, although differences in the rate of progress among individual peoples are recognized; it is also possible to skip a stage under certain circumstances. Thus, the Germanic and Slavic peoples moved directly from the communal-clan to the feudal formation, bypassing the slaveholding stage. The nature of a formation is determined by its modes of economic production and, based on the latter, the society's class structure. Each formation, excluding primeval communism and socialism, possesses two principal, antagonistic classes: a class of original producers and a dominant class, which, by owning the means of production, exploits the labor of the former. The feudal formation is characterized by a natural (non-market), agricultural economy. Its principal classes are a half-free, bound-to-the-soil peasantry (serfs) and a landowning aristocracy. The exploitation of the peasants takes place through unpaid labor services (corvée), deliveries in kind, and, at a later stage, money rents, and it is bolstered by the jurisdiction of the landlords over the tenants. It should be noted that in popular and propagandistic Marxist literature the term ‘feudalism’ is often used loosely in an abusive sense to castigate any condition of social inequality and class privilege.

Because of the absence of the crucial institutions of vassalage and fief, non-Marxist historians tend to question the very existence of feudalism among the Eastern Slavs; it was denied by most prerevolutionary Ukrainian historians, including Mykhailo Hrushevsky. In contrast, Soviet historians assert that the feudal era in the East Slavic lands lasted from the inception of Kyivan Rus’ in the 9th–10th century AD to the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire in 1861. This interpretation, as adumbrated by Vladimir Lenin and developed in the writings of Boris Grekov, Serafim Yushkov, and others, has become canonized in Soviet historiography since the 1930s. It enjoyed official sanction in the USSR, and no basic deviations from it were tolerated; discussion was allowed only on points of detail. Soviet historians distinguished three subdivisions in the development of ‘Russian’ feudalism: early feudal monarchy (9th–10th century to the early 16th century), estates-representative monarchy (16th to the mid-17th century), and absolute monarchy (from the late 17th century). With respect to Ukraine, Soviet scholars stressed the antifeudal nature of the Cossack revolts of the 16th–17th century. The great uprising under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648) (see Cossack-Polish War) destroyed the rule of Polish feudal lords in large parts of Ukraine and undermined feudalism; feudal relations, however, were later restored, owing to the transformation of the stratum of Cossack starshyna (officers) into a new feudal nobility and to the reimposition of serfdom. Soviet historiography applied a double standard to the Russian and the Ukrainian past. It readily acknowledged the ‘progressive’ contributions of feudalists and monarchs as builders of the Russian state and culture. In the case of Ukraine, it systematically played down and denigrated the traditional upper classes, except for those representatives who adhered to a pro-Russian orientation.

Without entering into a critique of Marxist philosophy of history (so-called historical materialism), one can state that, on empirical grounds, it makes little sense to subsume under the label of feudalism a whole millennium extending from the 9th to the 19th century. The concept of feudalism should not be stretched to cover any social system that encompasses a landed nobility and a dependent peasantry. But neither should the concept be defined too narrowly by predicating it on a single institution such as vassalage. Feudalism may perhaps be best understood as a syndrome, a coming together of several interrelated socioeconomic, political, juridical, and cultural traits. Feudalism allows for a great variety of forms, and the historian will be concerned less with the general (and necessarily imprecise) categorization, but will focus rather on the specific shape the system has assumed in a given time and place.

Keeping in mind the preceding methodological guidelines, it is possible to present the following outline of the role of feudalism in the history of Ukraine. The Kyivan Rus’ state was definitely non-feudal during its formative period (9th-10th century ad). Its ruling class consisted not of landowners, but of a highly mobile stratum of warrior-merchants, whose livelihood derived from international commerce, military loot, and tribute. The bulk of the population were not serfs, but free farmers living in extended family groups and tribal units. The process of feudalization started in Rus’-Ukraine around the middle of the 11th century with the settlement on land of the druzhyna (military retinue of the princes). Simultaneously, the Kyivan realm began to break up into a number of appanage principalities (udily). This growth of a multiplicity of local centers paralleled a similar earlier development in Western Europe. The 12th–13th-century Ruthenian princes and boyars adhered to an ethos whose supreme values were the search for chivalrous honor and glory, loyalty to one's lord, and struggle against the ‘infidels’ (the steppe nomads). Feudalistic tendencies were particularly pronounced in the westernmost Halych principality (later, the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia), whose powerful and turbulent boyars were influenced by the example of the neighboring Hungarian and Polish nobilities.

Nevertheless, in spite of many similarities, there were also significant structural differences between Rus’-Ukraine of the appanage period and feudal Western Europe. In Rus’ there were no formal contractual ties between prince and boyar. The landed estates of the boyars were not conditional fiefs, but allodial property (votchyny). Neither was there a hierarchy of noble titles. The grand princes of Kyiv, and later also senior regional princes, exercised authority over the minor appanage princes; but inasmuch as all the princes belonged to a single dynasty, the Riurykide dynasty, interprincely relations were conceptualized in familial rather than in feudal terms: as relations between father and son or between older and younger brother, rather than between suzerain and vassal. The common people were free, although there also existed many slaves (mostly war captives) and a growing stratum of semifree bondsmen (zakupy) resulting from indebtedness. Prior to the mid-13th-century Mongol invasion, medieval Kyivan Rus’ had numerous cities whose inhabitants at times acted politically through popular assemblies (viche). In contrast to the West, however, the cities were not organized in self-governing municipalities, and burghers were not legally differentiated from the rural population. The Ukrainian Orthodox church, true to its Byzantine heritage, was politically much less assertive than the Roman Catholic church in Western countries.

While the sociopolitical structure of pre-Mongol Rus’-Ukraine can be called ‘feudal’ only with reservations, a full-fledged feudalism is to be found in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (often referred to as the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state by historians), to which the majority of Ukrainian lands belonged from the middle of the 14th century to 1569. Thus, the high point in the development of feudalism in Ukraine occurred at a time when it was already waning in the West. Under the grand duke, there existed in Lithuania a hierarchy of princes (belonging either to the junior lines of the Lithuanian Gediminas dynasty or to the surviving families of Riurykide dynasty), non-princely magnates (barones in Latin sources), and landowning knights (boyars, later named, on the Polish model, shliakhta). The princes and magnates were quasi-independent in the internal administration of their domains; they went to war at the head of their own contingents and monopolized high state offices. The estates of the nobility were burdened with definite military obligations. As a reward for service, the nobles obtained, in the course of the 15th century, a number of privileges, securing their personal and property rights, tax and other exemptions, and participation in the organs of provincial administration. These rights were embodied in provincial charters (zemski pryvilei) and were later codified on a state-wide basis in the Lithuanian Statute (which underwent three editions: 1529, 1566, and 1588).

A peculiarity of the Grand Duchy was the division of its aristocracy and nobility into Roman Catholic-Lithuanian and Orthodox-Ruthenian (Belorussian-Ukrainian) factions. The latter was more numerous, but the former enjoyed legal advantages and dominated the central government in Vilnius. (This religious rift weakened the Grand Duchy's internal cohesion and contributed to its decline as an independent power.) Constitutionally the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state evolved towards a feudal parliamentarianism. A Council of Lords assisted the grand duke and, during his prolonged absences, acted as the government. (Because of Lithuania's dynastic union with Poland, the monarch frequently resided in that country.) By the early 16th century there emerged provincial assemblies of nobles, which began to send elected delegates to Vilnius, enlarging the Council of Lords by a second chamber and forming the Grand Duchy's diet (soim). The more important cities received charters granting them municipal self-government on the German model, the so-called Magdeburg law. Cities, however, as was generally the case in Eastern Europe, were excluded from the country's government. The line between petty boyars and substantial peasants was at first fluid, but it gradually grew rigid. The peasants were placed under the jurisdiction of the noble landowners and reduced to serfdom.

The Union of Lublin (1569) may be considered as marking the end of the feudal age, properly speaking, in Ukrainian history. The union created the federated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and transferred the Ukrainian provinces from Lithuania to the Crown of Poland. The system of Polish ‘gentry democracy,’ which thereafter prevailed in Ukraine, was essentially non-feudal in its institutional and political aspects: it entailed legal equality of all noblemen (ie, abrogation of feudal hierarchy) and freed the shliakhta from service obligations. The Commonwealth's nobility lost its military characteristics and became a class of agrarian entrepreneurs. The latifundialists and the middle gentry, in search of money income, were producing for export. This transition from a subsistence to a market-oriented agricultural economy led to an intensification of corvée (panshchyna) and to a plantation-like organization of manorial domains (see Filvarok). Some historians consider this ‘second serfdom’ a form of feudalism. But the choice of this term should not cloud the essential differences between genuine medieval feudalism and manorialism-cum-serfdom, typical of early-modern Eastern Europe.

Some observations, touching on the problem of feudalism, should be made about Ukraine's social development in the 17th and 18th centuries. Widespread dissatisfaction with social conditions in the Commonwealth was the major cause of the 1648 Ukrainian revolution. The Khmelnychchyna (Khmelnytsky uprising) (see Cossack-Polish War), however, was not merely an ‘antifeudal,’ peasant revolt, but rather a war of national liberation, in which all strata of the Ukrainian population participated, except the magnates and their retainers. The Cossack military order, the Zaporozhian Host, served as the nucleus, around which rallied the peasants and the burghers and which was also joined by a large segment of the Orthodox petty nobility. The Ukrainian Cossack Hetman state, or Hetmanate, that emerged from the revolution was in its social structure neither feudal nor, of course, a modern ‘bourgeois democracy.’ It may be seen as a variant of the estates-bound, corporate social system common to 17th-century Europe. Peculiar to Ukraine was the adaptation of the Cossack military organization, which had originated under the conditions of the steppe frontier, to the requirements of civil life. The Hetman state's social groupings, or estates (stany), were made up of the Cossack starshyna (who had absorbed many former Commonwealth nobles), the rank-and-file Cossacks (a class of farmer-warriors), the burghers (to whom the Magdeburg law continued to apply), the Orthodox clergy, and the peasants or commoners (pospolyti). Social differentiation became more pronounced in the post-Khmelnytsky period, and there were many instances of class antagonism in the second half of the 17th century. Still, the status of the peasantry was more favorable in the Hetman state than in any East European country of the time: they were personally free and could own land. Ukraine's indigenous social development, however, was deflected in the course of the 18th century by the ever-increasing pressure of the Russian Empire, involving, among other things, economic ruin to Ukrainian towns and continual deterioration of the position of the peasantry. The final dismantling of Ukrainian autonomy in 1783 coincided with the official restoration of serfdom.

Since by the late 18th century Ukraine's social structure was brought into line with that prevailing in the Russian Empire at large, the question arises about the nature of the latter's social system. Soviet historians contended that it was feudal, but this view is not shared by most non-Marxist scholars. The feudal elements, which actually existed in northeastern Rus’, the future Russia, during the appanage era (12th–14th century), were stifled and suppressed by the rise of the Muscovite state. The Grand Principality (later Tsardom) of Muscovy of the 15th–17th century was a patrimonial autocracy, resembling Oriental despotic empires (eg, the Ottoman Empire) rather than European feudal monarchies. The hallmarks of the Muscovite system were the lack of secure personal and property rights, the absence of any autonomous corporate bodies, and the total subjugation of all social groups, including the ‘nobility of service’ (dvorianstvo), to the unlimited, arbitrary power of the tsar. The reforms of Peter I superimposed on the Russian Empire the facade of contemporary European absolute monarchies without affecting the patrimonial nature of the system. While the question of Muscovite and imperial Russia's sociopolitical system—whether it was feudal or patrimonial—is debatable, two things may be considered as well established. First, Ukraine's social evolution followed for some 400 years, during the Lithuanian, Polish, and Cossack periods, a course markedly divergent from that of Muscovy-Russia. Second, the annexation of Ukraine by the Russian Empire had a generally noxious and regressive effect on Ukrainian social conditions.

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Ivan Lysiak Rudnytsky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]




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