It is usually agreed that the Russian serfdom which was abolished in the mid-19th century originated in the 16th century as a form of martial law needed for armed campaigns and was especially strengthened by Peter the Great in the 17th-18th centuries.

This hints that by 16th century classical slavery (for which Russian word "раб" would be used) was already abolished or extremely rare. Yet we know that at some stage there was quite widespread slavery at least in Kievan Rus. Given this I wonder when slavery went out of use and was formally abolished in Russia?

  • There was gradual escalation of serfdom from the 11th/12th century onwards; with slaves eventually being converted into serfs as serfdom itself became more restrictive. Kievan Rus' recognised slavery in their legal code (Russkaya Prava) but it's unclear whether slavery was widespread. There wasn't a sudden 'blip' of liberty that disappeared but rather long downward spiral after the Black Death and Mongol horde. Nov 2, 2014 at 7:45
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    Ī’m not a historian, but AFAIK the word used in Rus' for domestic forms of slavery was холоп, whereas раб ≈ Latin servus is a word of Church Slavonic origin with ambiguous meaning that became unambiguously refer to slavery only after introduction of Marxist historiography. Nov 2, 2014 at 8:54
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    @IncnisMrsi - actually, it's backwards. "Толковый словарь Даля. — 1863—1866" shows that the word "холоп" was actually mostly used for serfs; and the word "раб" was used for serfs as a colloquialism as well without meaning outright Kievan-Rus style slavery
    – DVK
    Nov 12, 2014 at 21:28
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    @DVK What was the difference in rights between холоп и челядь?
    – Anixx
    Nov 13, 2014 at 5:12
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    @Rodrigo then you would have count any country as having slavery: penal labor is employed everywhere, in the US even private companies can own prison farms.
    – Anixx
    Nov 13, 2014 at 19:40

2 Answers 2


The usual answer is that Russia abolished slavery in 1723. Technically speaking, there were no more slaves in Russia after this point. In reality, it meant they were merged into the class of serfs, whose lives were barely distinguishable from the formally enslaved anyway.

State measures to increase the numbers of people liable to direct taxation in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries led to the addition of two groups to the peasant estate ... All slaves, including those who lived in their owners' households, were added to the poll tax census in 1723. By making slaves liable to taxation, the state extended its jurisdiction to them, thereby abolishing slavery in Russia. There was no longer any legal distinction between slaves and seigniorial peasants, and former slaves were merged with the seigniorial peasantry.

- Moon, David. The Russian Peasantry, 1600-1930: the World the Peasants Made. London: Longman, 1999.

Agricultural slaves who lived in their own houses were converted to serfs earlier, in 1679. Either way, as the last sentence states, this "abolition" results from the erasure of legal distinction between slavery and serfdom from the state's point of view. Practically speaking therefore, slavery essentially continued as serfdom until Alexander II's reforms emancipated the serfs.

Finally, as happened in the late Roman Empire, the status of peasant degraded into serfdom and become almost undistinguishable from slavery; in 1723 the two estates were amalgamated. Confusion persisted long thereafter, as can be seen from the fact that serfs were often sold as chattels, without land, in spite of official efforts to restrict the practice.

- Hosking, Geoffrey A. Russia and the Russians: a History. Harvard University Press, 2001.

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    @Anixx As far as I can tell, Peter the Great abolished that status entirely at this time.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 2, 2014 at 8:12
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    @Anixx do you actually read the answer? Slavery was never “declared void”, but merged with serfdom, to be eventually abolished by the emancipation reform of 1860s. Slaves/serfs (крепостные) were never freed without any compensation. Nov 2, 2014 at 8:34
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    @Evargalo yes, POWs were also forced into slave labour in the USSR, in contravention of international treaties.
    – jwenting
    Oct 30, 2018 at 10:32
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    @DanilaSmirnov this wasn't penal labour, it was slavery, pure and simple. And no, penal labour is effectively slavery. Else by your definition the concentration camp inmates in WW2 weren't slaves either, as they were incarcerated legally.
    – jwenting
    Aug 21, 2019 at 4:43
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    @jwenting Yes, by this definition any inmate of the camps were not slaves. Slavery implies ownership - and while Nazi ideologues intended to legalize enslavement of "subhumans", they never quite got to that point. Same with the Soviet camps - prisoners were denied some of their rights, and the terms of imprisonment definitely did not fit any definition of "humane", but they were not property of the state, of the camp administration or of any individual. Aug 21, 2019 at 5:37

To add to Semaphore's answer, Russian Wikipedia confirms that it was specifically Peter the Great's doing:

Холо́пство — состояние несвободного населения в княжествах Древней Руси, в Русском государстве, отменённая Петром Первым высочайшей резолюцией на докладные пункты генерала Чернышева 19 января 1723 г

... abolished by Peter the First via the High Resolution reacting to report of General Tchernyshev on 1723/01/19

However, the process was underway for a while, with the goal being to get as many people taxable as possible, which the slaves were not. The report mentioned basically detailed how the nobility was evading prior taxation and census rules.

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