Ulric B. and Evelyn L. Bray Social Sciences Seminar
Abstract: Why did the Russian state introduce serfdom for its previously free peasants, at the time when Western Europe was undergoing the opposite direction? In this paper we empirically test two prominent theories of Russian serfdom – Do-mar (1970), who argued that low population density was the primary reason for serfdom, and Hellie (1971), who stressed the role of military class, arguing that serfdom ensured stable supply of the army to compensate for the low fiscal capacity of the state. To discriminate between the theories we employ, for the very first time, unique data on the structure and spatial distribution of the Russian population in late 17-th century. We show that the highest proportion of serfs in 1678 was on the Tula fortification line (Tul'skaya zasechnaya cherta), which was the first in a sequence of defense lines built to protect the southern frontier against the nomad raids. The location of other types of peasants (free, church, state) was not associated with the defense line. To deal with possible endogeneity, we deploy spatial methods and terrain data to calculate optimal invasion routes for nomads, and optimal location of the defense line to block the raids. Using it as an instrument for the actual defense line we confirm our OLS estimations. We also test statistically the mechanism of the enserfment – small land plots along the southern frontier were granted by the government to high ranked solders in exchange for military service. Using data on Russian landowning elites of the late 17-th century we show that small estates (up to five peasant households, which is sufficient to support one solder and his family) were disproportionately concentrated in regions on the Tula defense line. Overall, the data do not support Domar's predictions, but favor, with some modifications, Hellie's insight about the origins of Russian serfdom.
Written with Timur Natkhov