To Return or to Forgive? Runaway Peasants and the Imperial State
Please join the Harriman Institute for a Russian History Workshop (kruzhok) with Andrey Gornostaev. Moderated by Catherine Evtuhov.
Traditional scholarly wisdom suggests that the eighteenth century was a period marked by worsening socioeconomic conditions and legal status of the Russian peasantry. The proliferation of taxes and obligations exerted substantial pressure on the economic sustainability of peasant households. Noble landlords and village societies gained the authority to exile unruly or unwanted rural inhabitants for hard labor or to Siberia. At the same time, the imperial state gradually became more adept at controlling its population by introducing and refining different means of social control. Within this narrative, the phenomenon of peasant flight is portrayed as a simplistic binary of domination versus resistance. This paper introduces essential nuances to this narrative through a comprehensive analysis of the dialectical relationship between state laws and the responses they elicited from peasants, and situating these dynamics within the broader official discourse on peasant flight. It underscores the development and coexistence of two distinct approaches by the government toward peasants in the eighteenth century. While compelling the return of runaways within the country, it simultaneously offered significant incentives to Russian subjects who fled abroad, particularly to Poland-Lithuania. Ultimately, this study offers insights into how the imperial state worked in practice and how its policies benefited specific groups of peasants while exacerbating the conditions of others.
Interested participants should contact Yana Skorobogatov (firstname.lastname@example.org) to receive a copy of the paper in advance of the workshop.