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Consolidation of Serfdom


The consolidation of the ruling landed nobility and the strengthening of its economic power went hand in hand with the process of the enserfment of the peasantry. The bonded status of the peasants became gradually fixed in Russia’s law codes, starting from the first restrictions of their free movements in the late fifteenth century and reaching the stage of complete bondage, or serfdom, by the middle of the seventeenth century.

The starting point in the establishment of serfdom was the restriction on the peasants’ right to switch landowners. The law code of 1497 for the first time limited the period during which the peasant could leave his squire and move to another landowner’s manor.  This period was restricted to just two weeks each year, in late autumn after the end of the harvest season.  But even this severely constrained freedom of movement from one master to another was later taken away from them, thus leaving the peasants with only one, illegal, way of obtaining personal freedom - by fleeing from their landlords. The State continued to tighten the grip over the person of the peasant by enacting legislation which gradually increased the number of years, during which runaway peasants could be chased, and by perfecting the system of catching escaped serfs. 

1649 law code

Finally, the law code of 1649 removed any time limits on the period during which the runaways and their descendants could be hunted down and returned to their former masters. This, in effect, meant the culmination of the process of the enserfment of the peasantry. Under the law code of 1649, a form of a Muscovite ‘constitution’ which became the most important legislation of the pre-Petrine Russia, the peasants were bonded to the land and service to their squires, the small class of townsmen was obligated to perform town duties, the serving nobility  had to perform military and government service.

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Pre-Petrine Russia

Origins of Kievan Rus
Emergence of Muscovy
Imperial Expansion
Key Historical Factors
Environment and Climate
Geopolitical Factor
Religious Factor
Social Organization
"Service State"
Consolidation of Serfdom
Vast Powers of the State
Traditional Society
Political Regime


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
The Revolutionary Movement
Appearance of Marxism
The Last Romanovs
The Birth of Bolshevism
The Revolution of 1905-7
Between Revolutions
The Revolutions of 1917
Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
Tables and Statistics

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