Codification of Russian Serfdom Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The codification of serfdom in Russia completed a process begun by the Muscovite state in the first half of the fifteenth century and marked the legalization of an institution that would remain a fundamental feature of Russia’s society and economy until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

On January 29, 1649, Muscovy’s Muscovy zemskii sobor (assembly of the land), a consultative assembly consisting of representatives from the Muscovite elites, ratified the Ulozhenie Ulozhenie , Russia’s fundamental law code that lasted until the 1830’. Law;Russia Drawn up by a five-man commission, headed by Prince Nikita Odoevsky Nikita Odoevsky , and consisting of twenty-five chapters, the Ulozhenie, chapter 11 specifically, effectively turned peasants residing on both seigniorial and nonseigniorial lands into serfs by abolishing a previously established statute of limitations on landlords. The statute had restricted the amount of time a landlord had to recover fugitive peasants, gave the state responsibility for recovering fugitive peasants, and threatened dire consequences for anyone found harboring fugitive peasants. The term “serf” means a peasant possessed by a noble, who is tied to land for sustenance and subject to the landlord’s will. [kw]Codification of Russian Serfdom (Jan. 29, 1649) [kw]Serfdom, Codification of Russian (Jan. 29, 1649) [kw]Russian Serfdom, Codification of (Jan. 29, 1649) Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 29, 1649: Codification of Russian Serfdom[1640] Government and politics;Jan. 29, 1649: Codification of Russian Serfdom[1640] Social issues and reform;Jan. 29, 1649: Codification of Russian Serfdom[1640] Economics;Jan. 29, 1649: Codification of Russian Serfdom[1640] Agriculture;Jan. 29, 1649: Codification of Russian Serfdom[1640] Russia;Jan. 29, 1649: Codification of Russian Serfdom[1640] Serfdom, Russia Russia;serfdom

The codification of serfdom found in the 1649 Ulozhenie represented the culmination of a relatively lengthy process by which the Muscovite state limited the movements of peasants in Russia. This process commenced during the Moscow Civil War of 1433 to 1450, when Michael Andreyevich, the appanage prince of Beloozero and Vereia and a loyal ally of Muscovite grand prince Vasily II, decreed that peasants residing on lands of Kirillov and Ferapontov monasteries could leave only during the week before and the week after Saint George’s Day (November 26), which marked the traditional end of Russia’s agricultural season.

Probably issued at the request of Grand Prince Vasily, who wanted to maintain the support of key Orthodox monasteries against rival claimants to the throne, Prince Michael’s decrees established a precedent that soon became applicable first to all monastery peasants and ultimately to all peasants living in the territories of the Muscovite state. This precedent became law in Ivan the Great’s Code (sudebnik) of 1497, which reiterated, this time explicitly, restrictions on peasant movement. The sudebnik of 1497 further established that peasants could depart only after having given prior notice, having cleared up any existing debts, and having paid an exit fee determined by the length of time the peasant in question had been resident on the land.

Although Czar Ivan the Terrible’s Ivan the Terrible Code of 1550 also reiterated the provisions of 1497 (and of the mid-fifteenth century decree of Michael Andreyevich), the Muscovite state placed no new limitations on peasant mobility during the first three-quarters of the sixteenth century. Moreover, there is evidence that many peasants ignored the existing provisions, moving at their own discretion without paying off existing debts or the compulsory exit fee, or both. Still, as long as peasant movement had no adverse impact on the interests of the Muscovite state, Muscovy’s rulers showed no genuine concern to restrict where or when peasants could be mobile. However, once peasant movement, both legal and illegal, began to affect the state in an adverse fashion, which it did in the late 1570’s and early 1580’, Moscow’s czars were quick to respond.

In 1581, Ivan the Terrible, whose disastrous domestic and foreign policies produced major chaos and dislocation within the Muscovite state, declared the first so-called Forbidden Year, prohibiting peasant movement for one year, even during the Saint George’s Day period. Many historians believe this was Ivan’s response to the flight of a significant amount of peasants from the estates of the middle service-class cavalrymen. The cavalrymen, by the end of the sixteenth century, became the backbone of Muscovy’s army. They could not fulfill their military obligations to the state without peasant labor on their land. Also losing peasant labor were the estates of the wealthy and powerful magnates (boyars) as well as the church. Although the Forbidden Year of 1581 was intended to be a temporary expedient, the Muscovite state renewed it annually until 1592, when the government of Czar Fyodor I Fyodor I issued an even stricter decree that prohibited all peasant movement until further notice.

Five years later, in 1597, Fyodor’s government established a statute of limitations that gave landlords the right to seek out and reclaim peasants who had run away within five years of the decree’s issuance. The legislation establishing the statute of limitations declared that fugitive peasants, their families, and their personal (movable) property be returned to their former residences. Yet, the law simultaneously stated, explicitly, that peasants who had fled more than five years before the decree was issued could not be made to return to their former residences if no formal complaint had been made to the appropriate authorities. Also, the seigniors who had received these peasants could not be prosecuted.

Russia’s catastrophic Time of Troubles (1584-1613) Time of Troubles (1584-1613) , which featured ongoing dynastic crises, social unrest, rebellion, and foreign invasion, promoted a renewed increase in significant peasant flight from landed estates in general and the estates of the middle service-class cavalry in particular. Once again, Muscovy’s rulers responded to the plight of its military servitors (servants). In 1607, Czar Vasily Shuysky Vasily Shuysky issued a decree extending the statute of limitations to fifteen years and imposing fines on any landlord, including the church, who gave refuge to fugitive peasants. Henceforth, any landlord found guilty of harboring a fugitive peasant had to pay the czar ten rubles for each fugitive discovered on his land. In addition, the landlord had to pay the peasant’s rightful seignior three rubles for each year the fugitive in question had been given refuge. The evidence suggests that Shuysky’s decree did little to halt the flight of peasants, who simply ignored all restrictions on their freedom of movement and relocated, taking maximum advantage of the chaos that reigned in Muscovy. Moreover, by 1613—the end of the Time of Troubles and the election of Michael Romanov Romanov, Michael as Russia’s new czar—the statute of limitations had reverted to the five-year period first established in the legislation of 1597.

The Muscovite state’s provisions on peasant movement remained unchanged until the late 1630’, when a new increase in peasant flight and the concomitant concern for the middle service-class cavalry led to renewed governmental measures to restrict peasant mobility. Serving as a catalyst was the cost of Muscovy’s Smolensk War (1632-1634) Smolensk War (1632-1634) against Poland, which required a tax increase that fell disproportionately on the peasants. Faced with a heavier tax burden, many peasants fled, a development adversely affecting the cavalry, whose representatives, yet again, petitioned the government for assistance. Taxation;Russia In response, Czar Michael raised the statute of limitations to nine years in 1637 and to fifteen years in 1642. Ultimately, in 1645, the czar even promised to repeal the statute completely as soon as the new census, scheduled for 1646-1647, was completed. Though Michael died shortly thereafter and thus could not fulfill his promise, his successor, Czar Alexis Alexis , appointed in 1648 the commission that produced the codification of serfdom found in the 1649 Ulozhenie.


The Ulozhenie of 1649 effectively legalized serfdom. It prohibited peasants and their descendants from legally leaving the lands of the landlord with whom they were registered. A famous, brutal uprising of peasants, led by Don Cossack leader Stenka Razin, Razin, Stenka occurred between 1667 and 1671 and has become legendary. Serfdom as it was codified by Czar Alexis would remain a fundamental feature of Russia’s society and economy until it was abolished by Czar Alexander II (r. 1855-1881) on February 19, 1861.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blum, Jerome. Lord and Peasant in Russia: From the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. A classic analysis of the complex relationship between peasant, noble, and state in Russia from the origins of the Russian state to the emancipation of the serfs. Especially good on serfdom’s origins and development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hellie, Richard. Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. The definitive history of the enserfment of the peasant in Muscovy, emphasizing the role of the state and its concern for the well-being of the middle service-class cavalry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hellie, Richard, ed. and trans. The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Irvine, Calif.: Charles Schlacks, 1988. A wonderful English translation of the Code of 1649, which codified Russian serfdom.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Alexis; Nikon; Stenka Razin; Michael Romanov; Vasily Shuysky. Serfdom, Russia Russia;serfdom

Categories: History