Accessibility links

Russian Court Chief Raises Eyebrows With Praise For Serfdom

  • Robert Coalson

"The human being, the member of society, is drowned forever in the tyrant," wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky abour serfdom. (painting: Georgy Savitsky's "Workforce Driven to a Factory in the Urals")

"The human being, the member of society, is drowned forever in the tyrant," wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky abour serfdom. (painting: Georgy Savitsky's "Workforce Driven to a Factory in the Urals")

As a top official tasked with guarding Russia's supreme law, the head of the country's Constitutional Court has some surprising things to say about serfdom.

In a long article on the history of legal reforms published in the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta," longtime Constitutional Court head Valery Zorkin describes serfdom as the "staple" that held Russian society together.

Its abolition by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 "destroyed the already greatly weakened connection between the two basic social classes of the nation -- the nobility and the peasantry," Zorkin wrote recently.

"Despite all the liabilities of serfdom, it was precisely what formed the main staple holding together the internal unity of the nation," he wrote. "It is not for nothing that peasants -- according to historians -- after the reforms told their former masters: 'We were yours and you were ours.'"

The official proceeds to say that abolition exacerbated "social tensions" between the tsar and the peasantry by eliminating the "main shock absorber" between them: the nobility.

"This became one of the basic reasons for the growth of 'rebellions' and then organized revolutionary processes in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," he writes.

He later argues that abolition deprived peasants of "communal justice."

Reactions to the article ranged from sarcastic to serious across Russian media and social-networking sites.

"It's strange to hear an apologia for serfdom, which presupposes inequality, from the head of the Constitution Court, which in theory should defend the supremacy of the law and equality before the law," the respected Russian business daily "Vedomosti" wrote in an editorial.

Zorkin's article was flagged in the Western media by journalist Elena Holodny, who wrote about it for "Business Insider" on September 30.

'Drowned Forever In The Tyrant'

Zorkin's nostalgic tone when discussing serfdom is startling, especially considering that historians, philosophers, and towering Russian literary figures alike have condemned the institution.

While abolition was long delayed and, arguably, poorly implemented because the autocracy was keen not to undermine the foundations of its own absolute power, it's hard to find anyone who had anything good to say about serfdom itself.

"By the time serfdom had fully developed, in the 18th century, nobleman and peasant seemed as different from each other as white and black, European and African," historian Peter Kolchin wrote in a comparative history of American slavery and Russian serfdom.

"Russian noblemen were thus able to create the kind of social distance between themselves and their peasants necessary for the maintenance of serfdom," Kolchin added.

Dissident 19th-century nobleman philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev called serfdom "a terrible ulcer" and asked: "Why … did the Russian people fall into slavery only after having become Christian? … Can [the Orthodox Church] explain why it did not raise its motherly voice against the repulsive violence committed by one part of the nation against the other?"

In the late 18th century, nobleman Aleksandr Radishchev was exiled to Siberia for publishing his critique of serfdom. At one point in the book, Radishchev's stance seems at odds with Zorkin's that it was the abolition of serfdom that produced revolutionary unrest in Russia. It was serfdom itself.

"Tremble, cruel-hearted landlord! On the brow of each of your peasants, I see your condemnation written," Radishchev wrote.

"The Vengeance of Serfs," an engraving by Charles Michel Geoffroy (1845)

"The Vengeance of Serfs," an engraving by Charles Michel Geoffroy (1845)

In 1847, literary critic Vissarion Belinsky penned his famous letter to Nikolai Gogol, in which he wrote that Russia "presents the dire spectacle of a country where men traffic in men without even having the excuse so insidiously exploited by the American plantation owners who claim that the Negro is not a man."

Russia is "a country where there are not only no guarantees for individuality, honor, and property, but even no police order, and where there is nothing but vast corporations of official thieves and robbers of various descriptions," Belinsky wrote.

He added that the "most vital national problems in Russia today are the abolition of serfdom and corporal punishment and the strictest possible observance of at least those laws that already exist."

Novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky was nearly executed and then exiled to Siberia for his involvement in a socialist group bent on abolishing serfdom. In his "Notes From the House of the Dead," he wrote that tyrannical power over other humans was destroying the souls of the nobility.

"The human being, the member of society, is drowned forever in the tyrant," he wrote. "And it is practically impossible for him to regain human dignity, repentance, and regeneration. The power given to one man to inflict corporal punishment upon another is a social sore and it will inevitably lead to the disintegration of society."

Nineteenth-century dissident and journalist Aleksandr Gerzen wrote that "the liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all."

"It is on this and this alone that the true will of the people can develop," he wrote.

In his "Gulag Archipelago," Nobel Prize laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote "the whole raison d'etre of serfdom and the Archipelago is one and the same."

"These are the social structures," Solzhenitsyn wrote, "for the ruthless enforced utilization of the free-of-cost work of millions of slaves."

  • 16x9 Image

    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to