VoxEU Column Economic history Institutions and economics

Serfdom and Russian economic development

There is a debate among economists about the effects of serfdom on economic development. This column sheds light on this debate using novel dataset from 19th-century Russia. The findings indicate that serfdom was a crucial factor causing economic slowdown. The abolishment of serfdom was followed by a sharp increase in agricultural productivity, the living standards of peasants, and industrial development. 

Serfdom was one of key institutions in Russian history. This column argues that relatively late abolition of serfdom was an important factor of divergence in economic development between Russia and Western Europe.

Serfdom is a term that refers to an institution of forced agricultural labour that existed in the Middle Ages all over Europe. It largely disappeared in Western Europe by the early modern period, while persisting in Eastern Europe and, in particular, in the Russian Empire till the 19th century. Serfs were tied to land and had to work on duties assigned by the landlord. Their legal status, obligations, and rights varied greatly through time and across regions.

There is a debate among scholars about the effects of serfdom for development. On the one hand, scholars such as North and Thomas (1973) to Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) argue that limited rights of serfs over their labour and human capital distorted incentives, discouraged the efficient allocation of resources, and as a consequence, harmed economic growth. On the other hand, a number of studies debate this conclusion, portraying serfdom as a dynamic institution that sustained a considerable speed of economic development (e.g., Moon 1996, Dennison 2011, and Stanziani 2014). They point out that landlords were the only social class that could at that time guarantee and enforce social order, accumulate resources to launch new projects when access to credit was limited, and provide minimum food consumption to peasants during famines.

New evidence on the effects of the Russian serfdom on economic development

Our recent paper (Markevich and Zhuravskaya 2015) sheds light on this debate. We are the first to conduct a rigorous empirical analysis to assess the effects of serfdom on economic development of the Russian empire throughout the 19th century. Our results strongly confirm the conjecture that serfdom was a crucial factor causing a slowdown of economic development of Eastern Europe and that the difference in timing of the abolition of serfdom is an important reason for the divergence of development paths across the European continent.

This analysis was made possible due to a novel province-level panel dataset of development outcomes that we constructed for the European part of the Russian empire in the 19th century. Using these data, we document a very large (in terms of magnitude) and sharp (in terms of timing) increase in agricultural productivity, peasants’ living standards, and industrial development as a result of the abolition of serfdom.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate these results. They show the deviations of the measures of agricultural productivity (Figure 1) and peasant nutrition (Figure 2) from the long-term trend around the time of the emancipation of serfs in the Russian empire.

Figure 1. The abolition of serfdom and agricultural productivity

Figure 2. The abolition of serfdom and peasant nutrition

Grain was the main commodity produced in the Russian empire in the 19th century.

  • Our results indicate that the abolition of serfdom caused a 10% increase in grain productivity.

This is a large effect comparable to 40 years of aggregate development; grain productivity, on average, was increasing by 2.5% per decade in the 19th century Russia. This result confirms that with limited economies of scale, as in the production of cereals, forced labour has a negative effect on agricultural development.1

The abolition of serfdom also had a very large positive effect on living standards of peasants, measured by the height of draftees into the Russian army.

We find that peasants became 1.6 centimetres taller as a result of emancipation in provinces with the most severe form of serfdom (corvee, barshchina).

  • We also find that peasant mortality decreased by 5.6 deaths per thousand people as a result of emancipation of serfs in addition to the development trend. 

These results suggest that the abolition of serfdom in Russia was one of the most important humanitarian reforms of all times.

Finally, we find a substantial positive effect of the abolition of serfdom on the industrial development of Russia’s provinces.

  • In an average province, industrial output increased by 60% and the industrial employment more than doubled as a result of the abolition of serfdom.

Concluding remarks

Overall, according to our counterfactual estimates, Russia would have been about twice as rich by 1913 compared to what it actually was, had it abolished serfdom in 1820 instead of 1861, as was considered by the emperor Alexander I and demanded by the ‘Decemberists’ gentry liberals. In 1913, according to Maddison (2007), Russia’s per capita GDP was $1488 (measured in 1990 US dollars). Our estimates suggest that the abolition of serfdom in 1820 would have implied per capita GDP in the range between $2513 and $2992. Thus, by 1913 national income per capita in European Russia would have been comparable to Norway ($2447) or Sweden ($3073) right before World War I.

The difference in the level of development by a factor of two in 1913 due the counterfactual abolition of serfdom 40 years earlier implies that 20th century history of Russia could have taken a very different trajectory.


Acemoglu, D and J Robinson (2012), Why Nations fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown Publishing Group.

Dennison, T (2011), The institutional framework of Russian serfdom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fogel, R (1989), Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, W&W Norton and Company, Inc.

Markevich, A and E Zhuravskaya (2015), “Economic Effects of the Abolition of Serfdom: Evidence from the Russian Empire”, CEPR Discussion Paper 10398.   

Moon, D (1996), “Reassessing Russian Serfdom”, European History Quarterly, 26: 483-526.

North, D C and R P Thomas (1973), The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Stanziani, A (2014), “Russian Serfdom: A Reappraisal”, Ab Imperio, 2014(2): 71-99.


1 This is in contrast to the case of the American slavery, for which forced labour was found to be superior to free labour because of the economies of scale in production of cotton and tobacco (Fogel 1989).

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