Serfs of Poland and Russia Part II Serfdom During the Mongol/Tatar Era by Robert S. Sherins, M.D.


In earlier centuries, the principal income of the princes, nobility, and boyars [Russian aristocrats] was centered upon the thriving trade and the river waterways on which the commercial products were transported and exchanged with distant markets. Cities developed along the rivers where commerce flourished. Agricultural production was the occupation of the peasants/serfs, although farming did not provide the serfs with great incomes. But the lands upon which farms were created and the direct income derived from the production on the farms went to the proprietors. The princes, their retinue, and the newly established boyars became exceedingly wealthy.

By the 12th century, the unbridled prosperity changed and the economy of the Kievan Rus began to falter. Despite the military power of the federation of Kievan princes, waves of violent nomadic tribes continued their raids upon the Russian settlements. The nomads belonged to such tribes as the Patzinacs, Torks, and Cumins, who came from the great Asian Steppes. Kievan forces were unable to defend themselves from the sustained incursions. After the death of King Vladimir Monomakh in 1125, internal conflicts and civil wars developed within the Kievan Rus. Weakened, the princes failed to defend their territorial boundaries. As a result, inhabitants fled from the region situated between the Oka and Volga Rivers. Foreign trade suffered greatly and the incomes of the princes and nobility were severely depressed. Nomads controlled large regions of land between the Don and Danube Rivers. Consequently, Kievan Rus’ trade with the Byzantines was denied to them. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a Crusade to the Holy Land to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, and to help defend the Byzantines against the infidel Muslims. As a result, the Kievan Rus were further denied access to Middle Eastern trade. As a consequence of the blocked access to direct trade in the Middle East, merchants bypassed the traditional routes through the territories of the Kievan Rus. Baltic trade continued through Central Europe, while trade from Kiev was dispatched to Novgorod.

Russia was considerably weakened by the declining commerce through its territories. Not only was the economy depressed, but also the internal military conflicts continued and the political cohesion of the federation was in disarray. Weakened nations are always at risk for invasion and take-over. Thus it was in the 13th century that the Mongol/Tatar invasions began, which crushed Russia. The devastation was extreme and the ruinous consequences lasted for centuries.

In 1237, Batu Kahn, grandson of the Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, swept through the Kievan Rus region of the Oka and Volga Rivers. The invaders stopped before reaching Novgorod and turned southward to the Dnieper River valley. Kiev was destroyed in 1240 and other cities were burned to the ground and their inhabitants murdered. Survivors were enslaved. The important northern town of Riazin was also destroyed. Many of the Kievan inhabitants fled to Galicia and other regions of Central Europe. Particularly, the escaped settlers migrated to the northeast, between the Oka and Upper Volga River valleys, which was destined to become the heartland of future Russia. Equally important, much of the western part of the territories of the Kievan Rus was absorbed by Lithuania and later became part of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. Subsequently, Russian territories became divided into Central Russia in the northeast, White Russia (Belarus) along the upper Dnieper River, and Little Russia (Ukraine) along the middle Dnieper River.

Mongols retained the Russian Steppes as their home base of operations for campaigns in Eastern and Central Europe. They extracted heavy tolls and tributes from the vanquished cities and towns. Mongol raids continued and eventually involved 45 separate wars, which continued under Tatar rule after the death of Genghis Khan, when the Mongols had returned to Asia. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Russian conflicts continued along other fronts with 41 wars with Lithuania, 31 wars with Germany as a result of Crusader orders, and an additional 44 raids by the Swedes, the Bulgars, and others.

During the same time frame of the 13th and 14th centuries, Russia was devastated by the consequences of the “Black Plague.” Plague epidemics had erupted in Western Europe in the 11th century, but spread eastward. In 1230, an outbreak developed in Smolensk. Then in 1290, Kiev fell victimized by the infection. Plague recycled for the next century with more than twenty outbreaks in Europe and Russia. Smolensk was again devastated by Plague in 1387; Novgorod was besieged in the 1390s.

Rivalry among the Russian princes continued until the 15th century. There were more than 90 internal wars between 1228 and 1462. Ivan III rose to power in 1462 and assumed central authority in Russia. At the same time, Russia suffered from the effects of severe weather, locust epidemics, devastating forest fires, and crop failures.

The cumulative effects of the nomadic raids, destruction by the Mongol/Tatar invasions, internal wars among the princes, plagues, locust infestations, and the ruinous weather and fires led to severe crop failures. A long economic decline lasted three centuries. Populations dwindled or disappeared outright with the abandonment of many peasant holdings. Being further away, Western Europe escaped the direct Mongol invasions, but the downturn in the economy eventually spread westward.

Widespread Abandonment of Russian Lands

“Pushoshi” was the term that was used to describe the widespread effects of the abandonment of the Russian lands in the 14th century. The financial depression and devastation that followed the cumulative invasions and deteriorating economy forced significant cultural and political changes in Russia. Few workers remained to perform even the basic agricultural tasks that had earned the principal incomes for the proprietors. Travelers described the region as a desert of life. Russia was on the brink of total collapse of its society.

Princes were forced to provide the landowners with concessions to offer more freedom to the peasants from governmental obligations, as well as the right to migrate and settle on other more gainful properties. Loans were provided by the princes and manors, which were advanced to the serfs to attract them to settle on new lands under new proprietors. Both rural and city life declined because agricultural production was minimal and served only local populations. Trading was restricted, so that derived incomes that supported the nobility and boyars were severely reduced, and the trade centers in the cities along the major rivers declined. Few new settlements were established; the few that existed merely served as either administrative or military centers.

Initially, Moscow and Novgorod escaped the Mongol invasions. Novgorod maintained an excellent economy because of its Baltic trade. However, in 1382, the Mongol army invaded Moscow. The entire city of wooden buildings was burned to the ground. An estimated 35,000 people were slaughtered and another 25,000 people were enslaved. Moscow recovered within a decade, but to do so, the princes had to pay significant tributes to the Mongol chief, Tokhtamysh. The Russians paid 2000 rubles at the rate of two rubles per person; Moscow’s population was estimated at 100,000. Moscow and Novgorod were very large cities, that rivaled Paris, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Ghent [Belgium]. Most cities in Europe at the time were much smaller with less than 20,000 inhabitants.

The Russian economy slipped further as the Tatars stripped away skilled craftsmen. The policy benefited Tatar trade and the workmen provided expertise to rebuild fortresses and manufacture more armor and weapons, while depriving native Russians of those supplies. Both the Mongols and Tatars used captives to maintain the roadways, and to provide forage for their horses. The captives also functioned as huntsmen using dogs or as beaters and stalkers in the hunt. As a result, Russian towns had to become self-reliant. Trade was local since shipping of commercial merchandise had ceased. Reducing the tariffs was intended to encourage trading, but the perilous routes and continued attacks by Tatar brigands interfered with any meaningful commerce. Mongols preferred trading and maintained high tariffs on shipments through their territories. Thus, Russian trade with the East disappeared in the 14th and 15th centuries. Later on, Russia succeeded in reestablishing some Eastern trade, but foreign merchants still refused to travel in the region.

The Novgorod Empire reached from the Baltics to the Ural Mountains. Russians traded furs, hides, leather, wax, hemp, flax, and fish oil. Products were mainly exchanged with the Hanseatic Germans, who dominated the European trades. Germans needed raw materials and semi-processed food and other items, so they traded their manufactured commodities, especially textiles. Russians continued to trade slaves for Italian products, often shipped via the Black Sea. When the Mongols finally conquered Constantinople, Russian merchants were denied the trade routes. Unlike Poland, a prosperous and significant merchant class failed to develop in Russia. Instead, Russia’s successful elite belonged to the class of landowners.

Since Russian tradesmen, the middlemen of commerce, were denied foreign routes to the Middle East and Asia, merchants had to rely upon local business. That change in the commercial ventures resulted in the further isolation of Russia from Europe.

Further difficulties developed in Russian society regarding the distribution of lands. Under Russian feudal land management system, the aristocracy passed on their properties through inheritance. With each succeeding generation, there were more descendants among whom the land had to be divided. Newer princedoms were therefore smaller and political fragmentation of the realms resulted. Some of the Russian properties became private lands. Russians used the term “Udely” to describe the inherited share of the land gained through inheritance. But, the Udely became more of a private “Manor” and princes functioned more like the European feudal “Seigniors” or Lords of the Manors than as princes. The Udely was not a permanent political community since inhabitants had gained the freedom to move to other more gainful lands. Only slaves and indentured tenants were restricted from moving. As a result, Russian communities deteriorated.

Native princes ruled only the northeastern region of Russia. Tatars had gained political supremacy. Tatar Khans bestowed “patents” to some princes and gave them rights under which they ruled, while other subordinate princes of the Udely served them. Conflicts among the princes continued until Ivan III unified the whole of Russia from Moscow in 1462. Ivan III was an astute politician and maintained favorable relationships with the Tatar leaders. Other long-lived monarchs reigned over Russia, which helped to stabilize the nation. They also had fewer sons with whom to divide the properties through inheritance. The “House of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church” was invited to live in Moscow, which further consolidated the political power and durability of Russia. Ivan III refused to recognize the suzerainty [power of the feudal lord/suzerain/sovereign] of the Tatar Khans, ceased the tribute payments, and refused the custom of traveling to the Mongol court to render homage each year. Although the last Khan and his sons were assassinated, some Tatar minor raids continued until the fall of the Crimean Khan in 1571.

Major changes in the policies of the distribution of Russian land and management of properties resulted from the political effects of the Mongol/Tatar era. The aristocracy, boyars, and lords migrated to the northeastern region of Russia, which destroyed the former Kievan federation. The prince’s retinue, boyars, and lords were permitted to leave the service of a prince, unlike the European feudal system in which the fief required permanent loyalty to a prince. The core of the Druzhiny, proprietors of Russia, was left to junior retainers, which the Russians called “Dvor.” The term Druzhiny became obsolete.

Since the boyars, who served a ruler’s court (Dvor) could leave at will, they were called “free servitors.” Some of the proprietors served for specific terms or years. Slaves and indentured tenants were required to serve until released by the ruler. Even the Church Bishops and Abbots functioned as lords over their properties. Servitors, who were denied freedom to move, had to join the military forces of the lords in times of war.

Eventually, descendants of the princes inherited less and less land, which had been divided too many times. Political power was lost in the process. Princes functioned with no greater power than the boyars. Occasionally, princes merely held a small town as their private property, while other princes were landless. To avoid poverty, landless princes entered the service of the more important major princes and grand dukes. Sometimes foreign princes joined the services of major princes, which provided them with aristocratic social privileges and protection. Thus, two distinct divisions of nobility arose, the more powerful princes and the “serving princes.”

The “servitors” of the princes functioned as managers and governed cities and districts for the major princes. They also formed the basis for the civil and military administrations, and managed private noble properties. For their services, the servitors received money from court fees in their jurisdictions and all proceeds from the sale of alcohol (rights of propination). Cash or merchandise produced on the private lands was passed to the servitor. The wealthier properties provided significantly increased incomes. Short terms of office were the norm, since the term of office was sufficient for the servitor to establish enough reserve funds for his future needs, after which another individual served the prince. The Russian term “Kormlenie” referred to those offices and policies. When cash was unavailable, payments “in kind” were substituted.

As the economy in Russia deteriorated even further during the 13th to 15th centuries, regulations regarding land ownership had to be progressively liberalized. Because of the poor incomes from agriculture, either the proprietors had to provide more support and services for their tenants or offer them freedom to move. All classes of men, priests, and slaves were encouraged to own property, which would increase production on the prince’s lands. At times land was simply abandoned. Although princes were forced to recognize privately-owned properties, they never fully relinquished claim to the land or charters. Later on, some princes attempted to reclaim their former properties. Special marital arrangements, colonization of new lands, confiscation of properties, or conquests were some of the devious methods that were used to acquire more gainful and productive holdings.

Gradually over the centuries, the Church obtained larger properties as a consequence of the gifts through wills of the deceased nobility or boyars. The Mongols also permitted religious freedoms and granted liberties to the clergy. Punishments were specified if peasants were abused or harmed. In general, the Mongols did not interfere with Church affairs. By the 15th century, Novgorod property was divided among the nobility; 27 individuals owned 33% of the land, Church 25%, and lay proprietors (over 1000 individuals) owned only 10% of the land. There were smaller properties consisting of a few acres each. Peasants rarely owned private land and served mostly as tenants. The market/trade economy based upon the manorial system with services of the landlord supporting the serfs, the latifundia [large landed estates with absentee landlords worked by the serfs], deteriorated into a system whereby only local production and self-sufficiency was available and goods were most often exchanged by bartering. The proprietors no longer received direct income from the production of the land, but preferred to lease their properties and receive income from rents.

Both labor and income were scarce. Fortunate landlords held properties on which natural resources provided wealth in the form of cut wood, furs, hides, fish, salt, honey, and wax. Small plots of land often were self-managed. Medium sized properties had to be entrusted to a steward, who was often a slave. Magnates owned the larger parcels of land and required a variety of services in order to manage the agricultural fieldwork and the household. Slaves and the debtors working off their loans supplied most of the labor on the properties. Boyars were free to move in bad times and also keep their properties. By the 16th century, the system was amended so that princes could reclaim the land from departed proprietors. However, the reclaiming of property was required within a 40-year period. Wills of deceased owners of gifted lands were required to remain in the service of the proprietor or risk that the property would revert to the original owner. Smaller property owners often transferred their services to a more powerful prince for protection and income. Magnate owners could distribute small parcels of land and in return received cash income, services, and increased production from the cultivation of the property for which they received even greater income.

New properties were identified in the 16th century, which were not already held by private landowners. The new territories were called the “Black Lands” of Russia and the workers were called “Black People.” The Black Lands were purchased from the princes, fees paid for the sale, and the rights to the properties were hereditary. Black Land could be given away, but the peasants had to remain with the new owner. In that way Black Lands became private lands, removed from the direct administration of the princedoms. By the 16th century only frontier territories remained non-private.

During the worst economic times, peasants had opportunities to migrate to forested regions that were yet not cleared. They enjoyed more freedoms, which attracted the free-serfs to clear the land and create new hamlets and communes. Officers, who were chosen from the members within the community, often managed the hamlets. However, the lord of the Dvor still retained the right to reclaim his land from the peasants. Usually, peasants retained the land so long as they continued to pay dues to the lord. Early German settlers were encouraged by grants of free lands in Russia and served as “peasants with rights.” Because the proprietors desperately needed workers to produce from their lands, the new settlers were encouraged with incentives. The proprietors obtained rent incomes as a result.

Conflicts resulted between the “old peasants” and the new settlers. The “old peasants” retained their previous obligations to the proprietors whereas the new settlers were given incentives and more freedoms. Sometimes new settlers were relieved of the tax obligations to the princes, had reduced obligations to the proprietors, were given a promise of better services or assistance from the proprietors, and were provided military protection.

Sharecroppers also existed in Russia. They were a third type of peasant, who was retained for a fixed term of service and paid the proprietor an agreed-upon portion of their crop (30% to 50%). Sharecroppers received loans of grain and cash to get started and paid little or no taxes to the princes. The competition for the scare workers and demand for more income to the proprietors and princes resulted in a wide variety of arrangements with the peasants. Often the varied privileges led to conflicts. Occasionally, peasants sought restitutions from the courts of the princes.

Payments made by the tenants could be in cash or “in kind.” Sometimes payments were made in goods, such as rye and oats grains, hides, live or slaughtered animals, or foodstuffs like butter and cheeses. Very poor peasants paid off their obligations with services, such as maintaining the roads and fences, plowing and cultivating the fields, hunting, fishing, or repairing the proprietor’s household and properties.

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  • Dubnow, Simon M.: History of the Jews in Poland and Russia. Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, PA, 1918. Republished by Avotaynu, Inc., Bergenfield, New Jersey, 2000.
  • Zamoyski, Adam: The Polish Way, A Thousand-year History of the Poles and their Culture. Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1987, 1995.