Kholopstvo (Slavery) in 17th-century Russia: An Institution That Did not Result in a Caste

Vladimir Arakcheev


The article deals with the history of slaves in Russia in the 17th century: it traces the evolution of the legal status of this group from the Time of Troubles to the reforms of Peter I. The bondage book of Veliky Ustyug (1619–20) provides new data on Russian slavery. The institution of slavery originally drew from all social strata, including nobles and knights; however, the enslavement of these individuals was prohibited in the 1640s. From 1641 onwards, it was forbidden to turn peasants and townspeople into slaves. The law sharply separated Zhiletskie ludi, whom some historians consider a variety of slaves, from serfs: they thus constituted a particular social group. Before the 1630s, when the ownership of slaves became a noble monopoly, members of all social strata owned slaves. This is demonstrated by the Ustyug bondage book. Slaves formed an extremely diffuse social group: therefore, R. Hellie’s definition of Muscovite slaves as a caste is erroneous. After 1649, the number of zadvornye ludi grew rapidly. This group included both slaves and persons of uncertain legal status: in reality, their position was akin to that of the peasantry. Thus, the road to the abolition of slavery was paved by processes of social stratification in Russia.


17th century Russian history; social class; peasantry; social group; kholopstvo


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