We meet the female protagonist of Who Is to Blame, Elizaveta Anafreva, in 1840. Thirty or so generations before that, Elizaveta’s ancestors were tenant farmers—free peasants at liberty to leave their landlord for a more favorable one. Or they could quit farming altogether and seek income in the cities.
Agricultural labor was scarce in old Moscovy, spawning fierce competition among landlords in need of field workers. To eliminate the troublesome migration of the peasants to greener pastures, the State exercised its autocratic power. Beginning in late 1400s, a series of laws made it increasingly difficult for a peasant to leave his landlord’s estate.
But a shortage of field hands continued to vex the Empire. Wars, waves of Black Death, territorial conquests, rapidly growing urban populations, and a grain-hungry Western Europe generated a demand for Russia’s grain that exceeded its supply. Russia laid claim to some of the richest, deepest, blackest soil in the world. And plenty of it. What it lacked was manpower.
In response, a hodgepodge of Imperial decrees chipped away at the peasants’ freedom. By the middle of the 17th century, the Anafrev children and their children’s children in perpetuity were born and died on the plot of earth known as Petrovo. Bit by bit, the owner of the estate of Petrovo evolved from landlord into master. Serfdom became a variant of slavery, the difference being a legal formality. Slaves were personal property (like a person today owns a cell phone or flip flop sandals). The Russian nobility, on the other hand, did not own their serfs. But they did possess virtually complete control over their serfs, including the right to administer corporal punishment.
Although the Anafrev family would undoubtedly beg to differ, the progressively restrictive edicts stemmed only partially from man’s appetite to prosper off the backs of others. Serfdom was, hands down, in the best interest of Holy Russia. First and foremost, it boosted Russia’s prosperity through the production of grain. In addition, the serfs bore the brunt of military recruitment, the term of service being, for all practical purposes, a life sentence. A further bonus for the Motherland was a per capita tax levied on the already impoverished serf population.
Despite living under their master’s thumb, serfs were granted considerable autonomy. For instance, they typically selected their own spouses and were responsible for their own sustenance and personal property. The residents of Petrovo kept their village neighbors on the straight and narrow through the establishment of civil rules and punishment of wrong-doers. Master and serf worshiped the same God in the same church.
Early in the 19th century, the gap widened between the rural gentry and their laborers as enlightened European culture was assimilated into affluent Russian society. As the arts and sciences took the forefront, over three-quarters of Mother Russia’s population continued to be denied an education, thereby condemning peasants to short lives rife with superstition and ill-health. Along with the other twenty million serfs, the Anafrev family was typecast as benumbed and passive sufferers, the embodiment of drunkenness, venality, and fatalism.
For further reference, see the highly readable non-fiction book, Unfree Labor by Peter Kolchin.