Catherine the Great’s Biggest Failure: Serfdom

Catherine the Great is remembered as a great ruler. She transformed Russia. But there is one blemish in her extraordinary career: serfdom. Serfs were slaves in everything but name. And when she took the Russian throne in 1762, most of her subjects were serfs.

Catherine thought the institution was “inhumane.” And she set out to abolish it. Yet, at the end of her 30+ year reign, millions of Russians remained enslaved.

So why did Catherine the Great fail in this?

The serfs

Painting. Men and women working on a field.
Serfs worked in the fields. They were mostly Russian peasants who had lost their freedom. The Reapers by  Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1887. (Photo: Russian Museum/Public domain)

Serfs were Russian peasants. Several laws had taken away their freedom, leaving them pretty much enslaved.

By Catherine’s time, up to 80% of Russian peasants were serfs.

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Serfs belonged to the land they were born in and were not allowed to leave it. When the land was sold, they were sold along with it.

All serfs could -and were forced to- do was work that land, which someone else owned. Their children were also born in bondage.

Serfs had few rights. They could not own property. They were mistreated and flogged. And if they displeased their lord, he could kill them without repercussions.

According to the law, serfs were not technically slaves. Yet Catherine recognized that they were, indeed, enslaved.

Serfs and free Russians shared the same ethnicity. So it was not like, say, the Gauls enslaved in Rome, or the Gypsies enslaved in Romania. Most serfs were Russians through and through.

Can we abolish serfdom?

Painting, inside a room. Two sitting men talk while a peasant girl stands next to them. Further back, a group of peasant girls look at the scene.
The serf-owners opposed the abolition of serfdom. In the painting, a serf girl is being sold. Bargaining. A scene from serf life from the recent past by Nikolai Nevrev, 1866. (Photo: Tretyakov Gallery/Public domain).

Catherine was not the first Russian monarch who thought of abolishing serfdom. Others had tried and failed before her.

One of the problems was that Russia’s economy was heavily dependent on agriculture. And millions of serfs worked the fields.

But the empress had a plan. She wanted to modernize the agricultural sector, like the Western countries were doing. And she believed paid laborers would be more efficient. But the serf-owners would not hear of it.

Catherine, the enlightened sovereign

Painting. Catherine sits in front of a desk. She is writing on a big piece of paper. There is a bust of Peter the Great on the desk.
Catherine the Great writing to her legislators. She instructed them to abolish serfdom. Unknown author, c. 1760s. (Photo: Hermitage Museum/Public domain)

Catherine was an intellectual who loved to read. And in her youth, she fell in love with the concepts of the Enlightenment.

The enlightened authors stated that all humans were entitled to the same rights. They thought everyone deserved to be free and happy, and that the job of a monarch was to enhance the life of his or her subjects.

These were revolutionary ideas at the time, and Catherine fully embraced them. Needless to say, they were at odds with the concept of slavery.

So soon after she took the Russian throne in 1762, the tsarina decided the country needed new laws. And she convoked a group of men that were to write these laws. She asked them to abolish serfdom.

But a year passed, and the commission did not have the laws ready. By then, Catherine had embarked on a war against the powerful Ottoman Empire. So when the commission showed up empty-handed, she let the argument slide.


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Catherine defends the serfs -a bit

Painting. Outside a house. A group of disheveled men sit or lie on the floor while eating.
Freed Russian serfs. The Zemstvo dines, painting by Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1872. (Photo: Tretyakov Gallery/Public domain)

A few years later, Catherine outlawed the murder of serfs. She also granted them the right to appeal to the empress if one of their few rights had been trampled upon.

But traveling to Saint Petersburg, the capital, to see her was not possible for most serfs. So Catherine ordered the courts across the country to hear the claims of the serfs. Some serfs even won their cases and gained their freedom.

Catherine also established penalties for landowners who abused their serfs.

The setback: Pugachev’s rebellion

Painting. A chaotic scene of war inside a city. A man orders his soldiers to kill another man that tries to retreat. In the background a priest fends off the invaders with a cross and a women is kidnapped.
A Cossack named Pugachev led Cossacks, peasants, and serfs in a revolt. They sacked towns and killed thousands of people. Assault of Kazan by Pugachev by Otto von Moller, 1847. (Photo: Russian Museum/Public domain)

So Catherine had been making some progress when it came to the serf’s situation. And she was still intent on freeing them. But then, in 1773 -eleven years into her reign- there was a rebellion led by a Cossack called Pugachev.

Pugachev had been in the army and had deserted.

He now showed up in the fields and claimed to be Catherine’s dead husband, Peter III Romanov.

Peter had been the emperor of Russia until Catherine, his German wife, had taken the throne from him. Peter was subsequently killed.

“Peter” now reappeared and began uniting all the discontent factions of the empire. Pugachev roused the always-ready-to-rouse Cossacks (an ethnic group) and the impoverished peasants.

The ex-soldier vowed he would end serfdom and would give land to the serfs. That is, after he deposed the empress and took the throne.

Thousands of serfs ran away and joined his rebellion.

The rebels gain momentum and burn down cities

At first, nobody in the high spheres took the rebellion seriously. After all, there were peasant revolts all the time. And many men had claimed to be the deceased emperor before.

Furthermore, Pugachev did not even look like Peter. While the ex-soldier had darker looks and black hair, Peter had been fair.

But the revolt kept gaining momentum, and different ethnic groups joined in.

Pugachev told his followers to kill the aristocrats. They did. They killed thousands. So when the rebels captured the fortress of Tatishchevskaya, they skinned its commander. Then, they raped his daughter and killed his wife.

Pugachev’s people sacked cities and destroyed them, sometimes by burning them down.

The uprising turned into the largest peasant revolt in Russia’s history.

Catherine beats Pugachev

So far, the Russian army had not been able to respond fully to the threat. Most of the troops were in the south, still battling the Ottoman Empire.

But now the rebels were approaching the largest Russian cities. They were close to Moscow, and then they would have the road open to Saint Petersburg.

So the generals patched things up hastily with the Ottomans. And they marched north to face Pugachev.

The Russian army crushed the insurgents in a few battles.

Pugachev fled to Cossack territory. But his people betrayed him and delivered him to the authorities. His rebellion had lasted a year and a half.

The aftermath of the rebellion

Painting. Scene outdoors. A man sits under the porch of a house, like in a throne. In front of him captive women and men kneel in despair while a standing man is brought to him to be judged.
Pugachev Administering Justice to the Population by Vasily Perov, 1875. The rebellion backfired. Catherine, previously sympathetic to their cause, now saw the serfs as a threat to the stability of the country. (Photo: Russian Museum/Public domain)

The revolt showed Catherine weak points in the administration of her vast territory. She realized she needed stronger people in charge of the provinces.

But more importantly, it completely changed her view of the peasants and serfs.

Until then, she had seen them as harmless victims who needed saving. Now she saw them as a threat to the stability of the empire.

Before, she had been willing to affront the serf-owning nobility in order to ease the serfs’ lives. But after the rebellion, she realized that she needed the nobility on her side. She needed their support and resources during emergencies. Meanwhile, she could not trust the serfs. So the empress gave the lords even more power over their serfs.

Thus, the rebellion backfired. It sent enlightened Catherine into a 180-degree spin when it came to her views on serfdom.

At the end of Catherine’s reign, the serfs were worse off than when she ascended to the throne. So were many peasants.

Ultimately, this great monarch failed both the serfs and her own high ideals. Her pragmatism won.

Don’t miss: These European aristocrats ended up enslaved in Africa, Asia, and North America

The abolition of serfdom

Many of Catherine’s successors tried to abolish serfdom too, but they failed. It was only in 1861 that Emperor Alexander II abolished it.

Painting. From the porch of a house a man reads a document. Many men stand in front of the house, in the snow, listening to him.
An officer notifying serfs they are free. About 46 million Russian serfs gained their freedom in the 1860s. Liberation of the serfs by Boris Kustodiev, 1907. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

In Russia, there were serfs owned by private citizens and serfs owned by the state. Alexander first freed the private serfs. They were 23 million people.

Five years later, he freed the state’s serfs: 23 more million people.

This means that before 1861, 74% of Russians had been slaves.

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