Changes and Continuities in the Russian Labor System from 1750-1914

Russian serfs
Russian serfs | Source
Russian serfs as apart of the feudal system
Russian serfs as apart of the feudal system | Source


During the period between 1750 and 1914, Russia saw Western Europe’s borders expanding. England was gaining power in the Middle East and Africa, Germany and Italy were becoming established nation states, and all the while Western Europe was getting richer due to the economic boom created by the Industrial Revolution. When Russia realized they needed to reform or be left behind, it caused big changes in Russia’s labor system, through industrialization and emancipating serfs, while maintaining continuity as well, in the treatment of serfs and the type of reform.

Changes in the Russian Labor System

Monumental change came to Russia when Tsar Alexander II launched a series of reforms that stretched from the 1860s and the early 1900s and included emancipating Russian serfs and industrializing the nation’s economy. Previously, serfs tilled and cultivated the land of a lord without pay, as is common in feudal societies. While they were permitted to have farms of their own, serfs had to work the lord’s land whenever called upon, usually during the time of harvest, regardless of their own farm’s needs. Once emancipated, serfs fled to either large cities to find work or the countryside to find land. Change also came through Russian industrialization. Railroads, factories, and other infrastructure expanded, and the steel, coal, and petroleum industries boomed. Because of this, serfs who migrated to the city, easily found work in the new, industrialized establishments. Serfs also created guilds, much like unions, to protect the interests of the laborers. With new industries creating new jobs and plenty of freed serfs to take them, the Russian labor system changed dramatically between 1750 and 1914.

Continuities in the Russian Labor System

Although emancipating serfs and instituting plans for industrialization brought change to the Russian labor system, some continuity remained through the treatment of serfs and the type of reform. After the serfs were emancipated they fled to the city and the countryside, and while they found work, they did not find escape from the hindrances of their feudal position. Peasants who worked in Russian factories between 1750 and 1914 were overworked and underpaid, and serfs who attempted to farm had to pay to do so. Even after reform, serfs were still treated the way they had been in their previous labor system. Along with serf’s treatment, continuity remained in the Russian labor systems through the type of reform instituted. Although the reforms themselves were revolutionary for a country like Russia, whose feudal system went back to the eleventh century, the type of reform instituted still benefitted the state rather than the individual, as was always the case with Russia’s despotic government. When emancipated serfs found work in the city, they also found disgusting and dangerous conditions, due to the heavy influx of people living in a confined space. The Russian government made no attempt to remedy the situation, nor would they been capable to. Eventually, citizens became disgruntled and the Russian government cracked down on the discontentment by forbidding the public announcement of opinions, which was punished by being sent to Siberia. Although the labor system saw change through reform, the attitude surrounding the labor system, those in it and those controlling it, did not.


From the emancipation of serfs to widespread industrialization, the Russian labor system was affected by significant change between 1750 and 1914. However, the feudal mindset remained, even in the industrialized labor system, maintaining continuity.

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