Serfdom

Serfdom. A form of peasant servitude and dependence on the upper landowning classes that was characteristic of the feudal system and existed in different parts of Europe from the medieval period to the 19th century. The degree of subservience and the prevalence of the serf-lord relation differed with time and country according to natural, economic, social, and political conditions. In Ukraine serfdom developed first in the territories ruled by Poland. Under the Polish system of serfdom the peasants were bound by law to their plots of land, which were owned by the lord. The amount of obligatory labor (corvée) owed by the peasant to the lord depended on the size and quality of the peasant's plot, but the amount of labor effectively exacted was often arbitrary. The Russian system of serfdom, which was established in most Ukrainian territories under Russian rule at the end of the 18th century, was based on the principle that the lord owned the peasant under his control. He could dispose of his serfs as he wished: he could even separate them from their land. The amount of labor owed by the peasants and the size of their allotments depended on the number of adult males in their families.

Medieval period. In Kyivan Rus’, the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania the larger households of the princes and boyars usually produced enough to meet only their own needs, and the work was done mostly by slaves or by semifree nepokhozhi peasants of different types (zakupy, izhoi, siabry, etc). The bulk of the peasants lived on their own land and paid tribute in kind or money to the ruling prince. The free pokhozhi peasants sometimes had to provide unpaid labor for the construction of fortifications and roads and in emergencies were called to bear arms in a levy en masse.

Under Polish rule. As Polish rule spread throughout Ukraine in the second half of the 15th and in the 16th centuries, the position of the peasantry in Ukrainian territories changed radically. In Poland alodial land ownership was already an established privilege of the ruling class. The nobility had been exempted from any form of conditional (feudal) land tenure, and the peasants had been deprived of their former rights to land. The Polish magnates and nobles extended their serf system to Western Ukraine and, after the Union of Lublin in 1569, to Right-Bank Ukraine as well. To equalize the obligations of the different categories of peasant, the voloka land reform was introduced in 1557 in Ukrainian territories and was implemented gradually over the next century. Polish nobles set up filvarky on the better lands and began to specialize in grain farming for export (see Filvarok). The nobles' diets of 1496, 1505, 1519, and 1520 issued decrees tying the peasants ever more closely to the land, depriving them of the right to move, subjecting them completely to the nobles' courts, and increasing their obligations to the nobles. Finally, the amount of labor owed by the serfs and all other matters affecting them were left to the decision of the nobles, their tenants, or their stewards. A uniform system of serf obligations and relations was maintained on the royal estates, where serfs received better treatment than on the private estates of the nobility.

The obligations imposed on the serfs rose steeply in cases where a tenant, not the landowner, managed the estate. Although the plots of the serfs gradually shrank, their obligations were not lowered. In 1566, 58 percent of the peasant farms in Galicia consisted of more than a half field (pivlan). By 1648 only 38 percent were of that size, by 1665 only 16 percent, and by 1765 only 11 percent. At the end of the 16th century the typical serf allotment was a half field. Almost 41 percent of the serf plots were of that size, and 24 percent were a quarter field. Either allotment called for draft corvée with ox or horse. The larger plots required corvée with a pair of draft animals and were therefore known as parovi (pair). The smaller ones were called poiedynky (single). Depending on the period and the locality, the amount of corvée varied from three to six days per week by one or more members of a household. The poorer serfs, such as the horodnyky and komornyky (see Horodnyk and Komornyk), with smaller or no field allotments, provided one to six days of pedestrian corvée per week. The weekly corvée quota, other seasonal or special forms of labor, and additional dues in kind or cash varied with the territory and even the estate, as did the size of the allotments. In the 1620s, corvée on magnate estates in Volhynia came to four to six days per week per voloka (16.8 ha) of land, but some lords demanded labor every day of the week, including holidays. Farther eastward the serf plots became larger, the corvée became smaller, and the bond to the plot grew weaker. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were three distinct serfdom belts in Ukrainian territories. In Western Ukraine, where the filvarky were most developed, the peasants were exploited intensely and had the smallest allotments. In the middle belt, encompassing eastern Podilia and the northwestern Kyiv region, mixed (alodial and conditional) land tenure lasted longer, and the transition to filvarok farming was slower. The large landowners there were usually content to receive payment in kind, and the peasants were not completely or uniformly deprived of the right to own land. In the third belt, covering the lands along the Dnieper River and the Boh River in southwestern Ukraine, serfdom was difficult to impose: because of the proximity of the steppes and the constant danger of Tatar attack, the population was too mobile. North of the defensive line of castles many estates in the second and third belts offered 15-, 20-, or 30-year waivers from corvée or other obligations in order to attract and hold settlers.

The Hetman period. As the serfs became increasingly exploited in the western and middle belt, and as the corvée waivers expired or were foreshortened by the landowners, the peasants fled to the territories under Cossack control and joined Cossack uprisings. Those conditions contributed to the Cossack-Polish War. The peasantry participated in the war on a mass scale. Some of the peasant combatants joined the Cossack ranks and along with new Cossacks from the other estates demanded open access to land and other Cossack privileges. Former serfs who failed to gain admission to the Cossack estate first took possession of free lands in the liberated territories. But in their universals Bohdan Khmelnytsky and his successors called upon former serfs to return in certain cases to the service of the monasteries and the nobles who recognized the Cossack state. Generally, peasant obligations in the Hetman state during the second half of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century were light. The serf-lord relation and the corvée depended on the kind of village and on its owner. A large number of pospolyti, who performed corvée for the state, could own property. The Cossack starshyna, who received rank estates, demanded labor from their subjects. Many peasants from Western Ukraine and Right-Bank Ukraine, which were retained by Poland, fled to the Hetman state or to Slobidska Ukraine. Most of them settled as landless peasants on the estates of the Cossack starshyna or monasteries. According to the 1729–30 census of the Hetman state only 35 percent of the peasant farmers were subject to private landowners and not all of those were required to perform corvée. Hetman Ivan Mazepa's universal in 1701 prohibited more than two days' corvée per week. Gradually the peasants in Hetman Ukraine lost the right to dispose of their land and, eventually, their freedom as well. In the 1740s the pospolyti could still move from one landowner to another but had to leave their property (land and inventory) behind. The Cossack officers and monasteries made every effort to attach the peasants to the land, and the process was reinforced by the Russian government, which was interested in extending the imperial serf system to Ukraine.

In Right-Bank Ukraine, particularly in Volhynia, Bohdan Khmelnytsky's uprising in 1648 brought no basic changes in the position of the peasantry. During the 18th century the filvarok system was restored, and the corvée demands on the serfs increased.

Under Russian rule. By the decree of 3 May 1783 Catherine II introduced the Russian serf system in the territory of the former Hetman state, and in 1785 the Cossack starshyna received the rights of the Russian nobility. After the Second and Third partitions of Poland the Russian serf system was extended to Right-Bank Ukraine. According to official estimates made in 1858, 60 percent of the serfs belonged to landowners, and 40 percent lived on state or appanage lands. Of the landowners' serfs only 1.2 percent paid quitrent, and the rest did corvée. State peasants usually paid quitrent. During the first half of the 19th century the land allotted to peasants diminished to the advantage of the filvarky, corvée increased, and the number of landless peasants rose sharply. Corvée and the poll tax rose on average to between four and six labor days per week. The norm (urochna) system of labor was widely adopted. Many peasants, known as misiachnyky, lost their land and worked only on the lord's demesne for a monthly ration of products. Others became household serfs, who worked and lived in the lord's manor. The landowners increased corvée to cover the state-imposed poll tax and tax arrears. In a separate manifesto in 1797 the Russian government proposed that the landowners limit their demands on the peasants to a three-day corvée. In 1819 it clarified some aspects of the serf-lord relationship. Those and other manifestos were largely ignored by the landowners. In 1847–8 the government issued the so-called Inventory Regulations for Right-Bank Ukraine, which diminished the personal dependence of the peasants on their masters, lowered the corvée and regulated it according to the household allotments, prohibited the transfer of corvée from one week to another, abolished certain payments, and prohibited the conversion of ordinary serfs into household serfs. Infringement of the regulations was punishable by military court, yet the position of the serfs hardly changed.

Transcarpathia. Serfdom was practiced in Transcarpathia from the 14th century. In the first half of the 16th century the serfs were bound to the land, and the corvée was greatly increased. In 1546 Stephan Werböczy codified the laws governing the serf-lord relation in the Tripartitum Code. A serf had to pay the state a household tax (podymne), the church a tithe (one-tenth of his grain), and his lord one-tenth of his income and perform usually three days' corvée per week. The burdens placed on the peasants, however, varied with external conditions (diminishing in wartime) and the will of the landowner.

The condition of the serfs improved after 1767, when Maria Theresa restored their right to resettle, defined their obligations, and reduced corvée by half. In 1848 the Hungarian Diet abolished corvée, but the law did not come into effect until 1853.

Bukovyna. Under Moldavian rule the peasants in Bukovyna usually performed 12 days of corvée per year and paid the lord one-tenth of their harvest. But they were free to move. The serf system introduced in 1544 was less exploitive than the Polish one, and as a result many peasants from Pokutia and Podilia escaped to Bukovyna. In 1749 the Moldavian ruler K. Mavrokordatos (Mavrocordat) abolished serfdom and imposed 24 days of corvée per year and a tax. According to the Golden Charter of Voivode G. Ghica in 1766, peasants were obliged to do 12 days of corvée and to surrender one-tenth of their harvest. That law was in effect until 1848.

Galicia and Bukovyna under Austrian rule. To increase tax revenues and improve the recruit pool for the army in the newly annexed lands, Maria Theresa and Joseph II tried to regulate serf-lord relations and to limit the dependence of the peasant on the landowner. In the 1780s a cadastre and a survey of serf obligations were carried out. The land belonging to landowners was separated from the rustical lands reserved for the peasants, and transfers from one category to the other were prohibited. The serf's personal dependency on the lord was restricted, and he was allowed to appeal to state institutions against the lord's verdicts. Corvée was limited to a fixed number of days depending on the size of the land allotment, and additional burdens were abolished. The peasant acquired the right to sell his products freely. Village communities were given new powers of self-government. A special ombudsman (mandator) was appointed to look after the affairs of the peasants. Many of the reforms were ignored by the successors of Joseph II. His decree limiting serf obligations to 30 percent of the serf's total income was revoked. In spite of the law, by 1848 the landowners annexed to their filvarky about a million morgen of rustical land.

At the beginning of the 19th century 78 percent of the serf families in Galicia were attached to private estates, and 22 percent to state lands. The peasants were divided, according to amount of property and number of obligations, into parovi (pair) serfs (2.5 percent of all households, possessing 6.9 percent of the rustical lands), poiedynky (single) serfs (42.6 and 60.5 percent respectively), pedestrian serfs (45.9 and 32.6 percent), and the landless komornyky and khalupnyky (9 percent of households) (see Komornyk and Khalupnyk). On the average a peasant household had to till 2 ha of the lord's land and perform 78 days of corvée per year on state lands and 133 days, and sometimes as much as 300 days, on private estates. Most (68.2 percent) of the peasant's obligations consisted of corvée, 26.6 percent of monetary payments, and 5.2 percent of other services and fees. The lord sometimes made further (illegal) exactions from the peasants by imposing various fines and by forcing them to buy a certain amount of alcohol (see Propination).

Abolition of serfdom. The abolition of serfdom in Galicia, Bukovyna, and Transcarpathia on 16 April 1848 was speeded up by the revolutionary events in Austria. In Russia the political repercussions of the Crimean War brought about the emancipation of the serfs on 19 February 1861. But the redemption payments and the continued social inequality of the peasants diminished the impact of those reforms and hindered the economic progress of the peasantry.

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Illia Vytanovych

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]




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