With the stroke of his pen, the nation’s leader abolished a system of servitude that had lasted generations. Over twenty million people received their liberty in this declaration of emancipation. In 1861, Alexander II of Russia freed the serfs almost two years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Russians, however, did it without war. The Tsar allegedly said that his top-down decree precluded a bottom-up revolt.
Serfdom was a form of agricultural servitude that most of Europe had left behind in the medieval period. Russian serfdom developed, as historian William C. Hine writes, during roughly the same time period as American slavery. The Russian Code of 1649 “firmly embedded serfdom” as a labor system. The Virginia House of Burgesses’s first piece of slave legislation, allowing African slavery for life, passed in 1661. Though both slavery and serfdom mandated total control over the bodies of those in bondage, Hine says the Russian experience was “incredibly more varied and complex than its American counterpart” because of the time-honored relationship between peasants and the land.
Nonetheless, as historian Peter Kolchin shows, the defenders of both systems used much the same justification through the eighteenth century. This may be surprising to some, considering that Russian serfs and their masters were generally of the same national and religious origin.
Defenders of slavery in the United States pointed to an alleged racial difference as the reason Africans and African-Americans needed to be enslaved. In this racist argument, blacks were not fit for freedom. Russian lords believed the same thing about serfs. The class difference was so great, Kolchin says, that “Russian noblemen had come to regard themselves as inherently different from their peasants.”
Kolchin writes that the Russian nobles “invented many of the same kinds of racial arguments to defend serfdom that American slave-owners used to justify” slavery. Some nobles went so far as to say they had white bones, while the serfs had black bones. Kolchin calls this an “essentially racial argument in defense of serfdom, even though no racial distinction divided lord and peasant.”
Then there was the aristocratic paternalism of the arguments that bondage was a humane institution in comparison to the precariousness of the free labor market. Both Russians and Americans argued that their systems of bondage resulted in a superior society.
Kolchin quotes American slave-advocates who argued that the race of slaves was actually immaterial. Absent Africans, these defenders of American slavery said whites would do just as well as blacks. Because planters needed the support of non-slaveholding whites, however, such arguments never dominated the defense of slavery.
But these pro-bondage arguments started to diverge as the nineteenth century progressed. As early as 1839, the Tsar’s secret police recommended abolition of serfdom out of fear of revolution. The nobles—one percent of the population—put up little resistance after the Tsar’s 1857 announcement of the coming emancipation. (Not that they had much power to do so in an authoritarian state.) The fact that serfs were Russian peasants went a long way in helping to breaking up this system; they were seen as members of society, albeit at the lowest level.
Kolchin argues that it was because America was a democracy, with elections, a free press, and a growing abolitionist sentiment, that Southerners doubled down on defending slavery. As a ruling class with a regional power base and a strong urge to expand slavery into new territories like Texas and Cuba, they would not give up their privilege and wealth without a fight. For them, blacks were inherently alien and could never be a part of American society.