Russian Serfdom, US Slavery
Until recently, few historians were interested in analyzing the similarities and differences between serfdom in Russia and slavery in the United States.
Even Alexis de Tocqueville, who recognized the significant comparability of the two nations, never compared their systems of servitude, despite his interest in United States slavery.
Moreover, the almost simultaneous abolition of Russian serfdom and United States slavery in the 1860s—a riveting coincidence that should have drawn more modern scholars to a comparative study of the two systems of servitude—has failed to arouse the interest of scholars.
Though some historians may have been put off by the forbidding political differences between nineteenth-century Russia and the United States—one an imperial monarchy, the other a federal democracy—a recent study by Peter Kolchin identifies differences that are illuminating, especially with regard to the different kinds of rebellion exhibited by slaves and serfs.
Kolchin points out that nobles owning serfs in Russia constituted only a tiny proportion of the population, while in the southern United States, about a quarter of all White people were members of slave-owning families.
And although in the southern United States only 2 percent of slaves worked on plantations where more than a hundred slaves worked, in Russia almost 80 percent of the serfs worked for nobles who owned more than a hundred serfs.
In Russia most serfs rarely saw their owners, who tended to rely on intermediaries to manage their estates, while most southern planters lived on their land and interacted with slaves on a regular basis
These differences in demographics partly explain differences in the kinds of resistance that slaves and serfs practiced in their respective countries.
Both serfs and slaves engaged in a wide variety of rebellious activity, from silent sabotage, much of which has escaped the historical record, to organized armed rebellions, which were more common in Russia.
The practice of absentee ownership, combined with the large numbers in which serfs were owned, probably contributed significantly to the four great rebellions that swept across Russia at roughly fifty-year intervals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The last of these, occurring between 1773 and 1774, enlisted more than a million serfs in a futile attempt to overthrow the Russian nobility.
Russian serfs also participated in smaller acts of collective defiance called the volnenie, which typically started with a group of serfs who complained of grievances by petition and went out on strike.
Confrontations between slaves and plantation authorities were also common, but they tended to be much less collective in nature than those that occurred in Russia, probably in part because the number of workers on each estate was smaller in the United States than was the case in Russia.