Historians of Central Europe often debate the so-called Sonderweg, the “other path” taken by German-speaking nation in the 1800s-1945 that led away from individual freedoms and toward autocracy. But I want to look farther east, to what happened in Russia and Central Europe in the 1500s-1600, and even back in the 1300s. because while the Black Death and the wars of the Renaissance brought slowly increasing freedoms of movement, conscience, and individual rights to Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia shifted back, re-imposing serfdom and forms of slavery. That difference still resonates today, as journalist/historian Martin Sixsmith found out. “Russia is too big to be ruled by a democracy. Russia needs one man,” ordinary Russians told him over and over.
(At this point I should add the disclaimer that this is going to be a very broad overview of a topic that historians are still fighting over tooth, claw, quill, and across-the-table-death-glare.)
Some time ago, during the Cold War, a Junior High history teacher commented in passing that the Mongols had given Russia a postal system and a tradition of despotism. At the time I made a note and then he continued on about Ivan the Terrible and the Romanovs and so on. Later, when I learned more, historians had started poo-poohing the notion that the Mongols had really left that much influence (other than the postal service) and focusing on the class disparities caused by the concentration of capital in a hereditary nobility supported by a corrupt church. (Yes, the Marxist interpretation of Russian history, where the Time of Troubles is the first proletarian uprising, an honor usually accorded to the French Revolution, for equally wrong reasons.) In college, most history focused on the period from 1815-1980 and Russia disappeared into the Soviet Union. I ended up with a pretty good knowledge of events in the time of the Princes of Kiev and Nizhni Novgorod, and a solid grasp of Soviet history, and a gaping hole in the middle, a hole not entirely filled by the movie Alexander Nevski.
A few years ago I started going back to Russian and Eastern European history, in part because of Sarah Hoyt’s ideas about what happens when populations decline. I knew that the Black Death had caused the liberation of serfs and other bound labor in Western Europe, and was curious to see what had happened elsewhere. I needed data because of trying to sort out how the Azdhagi came to be the way they are. To my surprise, in eastern Europe and Russia, population crashes led to the imposition (or reimposition) of serfdom. In Russia the process started during the Black Death, continued through the Mongol occupation, and culminated in the events leading to the Time of Troubles between 1590-1630 more or less. The plague reached the East later, but coincided with crop losses just as it had in the west. People began binding themselves to large estates around Novgorod and other settlements in order to have food, or being bound for debts. This was not a totally new development, but the size and pace greatly increased. Then along came the Mongols.
Recall that the Mongols also devastated Central Europe, cutting the population of the Hungarian Plain in half and in other places killing or carrying off eighty percent of the inhabitants. But they didn’t stay. Russians got to deal with them for 200 years. And around the time that the Princes of Moscow, beginning with Dimitri, a grandson of Alexander Nevski, began pushing the Mongols south and east, Constantinople also fell, leaving Orthodoxy with one last bastion: Russia. Church began uniting with state to produce the idea of holy kingship passed through the family of the properly anointed tsar. Under Ivan IV, called Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible is not the best translation, but that’s what everyone uses), Russia began expanding south, into the rich lands of the steppe toward the Black Sea, and east into Siberia. Russia also had increasing restrictions on the movement of farmers and various land holders. Everyone owed service to the tsar and the church, and the tsar could order people to go or not go when and how he desired. But windows of opportunity remained for people to legally shift places. So by 1570, say, far more Russians had been tied to their land or station than in the West. In fact, west of the Elbe River, you’d be hard pressed to find that kind of autocracy on anything beyond a limited local scale.
The succession crises that followed the death of Ivan IV’s last son coincided with the onset of one of the low points of the Little Ice Age. Three years of total crop failure and the increasingly despotic (and paranoid) reign of Boris Godunov convinced many people that God had withdrawn His grace from Russia because the tsar did not belong to the proper lineage (among other things). In order to make up for decreasing tax revenue and increasingly expensive military expansion and settlement costs, Tsar Boris had expanded earlier laws about labor, in the process enserfing more and more people, and removing the legal opportunities to relocate. He also added a mandatory farming duty, the “tsar’s tenth,” just as the climate became less favorable to agriculture in northern Russia. As the population declined, freedom dropped as well, the opposite of western Europe.
Central Europe wavered until the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. As the dust settled, landholders in Prussia, Poland, and other areas enserfed their tenants, again to ensure revenue and to keep the now-relatively scarce workers from departing. There were some fundamental differences between Russian and Eastern European serfdom, besides the duration of the system, but a similar process led to the reduction in freedoms.
So Sarah Hoyt was right. Only in Western Europe did a population loss caused by the Black Death and the famines associated with the onset of the Little Ice Age lead to an increase in economic and personal freedom. In the rest of Europe, enserfdom and the imposition of near caste-systems followed population declines. While the Mongols don’t get all the credit, they began the tradition of a single, strong ruler to whom all owed service. An unfortunate (if you happened to be a peasant small holder) series of coincidences led to a tightening of the system and the addition of an overlay of religious duty to the worldly requirements. And so Russia went a different way.