The Serfs in Poland


The term serf is the name given to a person who is in a forced servitude or a person who is required to offer services to a lord. In Europe, the serfs were transferred from one owner to another depending on the ownership of the land.

Serfs can also be called slaves. They were mainly common in Europe up to the period ending early twentieth century. The term serfdom arose to describe the economic and social conditions of the serfs. The forced servitude of the serfs was usually rewarded by protection and the right to work in the fields of their lords.

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In Poland, serfs were often used in the mines, forestry, transportation and many other activities. Polish serfs mainly served for the Russian lords and were still in existence even in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, in the period just after mid nineteenth century, in 1860’s, Poland began insurgency by demanding for self governance.

This was the period in which Alexander II of Russia enacted reforms along liberal lines. Some of these reforms were meant to liberalize the serfs in his empire. By 1864, Russia had completely abolished serfdom of both the Polish citizens and Russian citizens. The liberalization of the serfs through these reforms was only but a camouflage as it shall be explained in this work.

The serfs were subjected to severe conditions of hardships. A typical serf was completely under the mercies of their lord. The lord owned anything that the serf had. He could sample anything including the serf’s wife. In short, the serf owned literally nothing except their own bellies. Their liberation came only after the last Crimean war by Russian army. Thus, Alexander II announced their emancipation in the beginning of the year 1861 so as to strengthen his army and undertake major reformations in his administration.

History of Poland

Poland occupies a substantial portion in the European history. The country was involved in major European battles, revolutions, and uprisings. Poland was involved in both World War I and World War II. The history of this country between 1815 and 1915 is pretty interesting because of the major uprisings and the state of governance during this period.

At the end of the year 1830, there was a major revolt (in the city of Warsaw), which oversaw the dethroning of the Tsar by the Sejm. However, the uprising did fall and thereby led to annihilation of the Polish governance. Another uprising was in 1905 when Polish partisans led revolutions demanding self governance. As a result ten thousand revolt master minders went into exile primarily to France.

Polish peasantry dominated the discussions on diplomatic efforts to keep the armed struggle of the Polish people alive. During this time, the Prussians who occupied particular regions of Poland had enfranchised the Polish people leading to a great economic growth in those regions. Other parts of Poland were also enfranchised by Austria and Russia.

The problem of peasantry in Poland still remained until in 1863 when things took a new turn. Many religious and nationalized demonstrations were witnessed all over the Polish kingdom in January 1863. The use of guerilla combat in this kingdom lasted for one and a half years[1].

In the next period, between 1864 and 1914, there was also a major turn of events in Poland. Alexander had just abolished slavery in Poland. Many leaders of the Polish uprising were executed by the Russian Tsar. As a result, some fled and were exiled mainly in France. Peasantry in Poland was reintroduced by the Tsar. It was only until the periods of the First World War that peasantry subsided. That was after the year 1915.

Serfdom in Poland

Serfdom in its rudimentary sense is a combination of the economic and social conditions of the enslaved serfs. This is a system which was prevalent in Poland up to the period ending at the beginning of the First World War. In other parts of Europe, serfdom had been abolished long before this time. The Tsars of Russia were the ones in control of serfdom in Poland during the nineteenth century[2]. There were different kinds of serfdoms which were grouped according to the classes of peasants.

Freemen were those peasant farmers who paid rent and did not owe the land owners any form of servitude. Villeins were those peasants who were legally restricted from doing a number of things. They were however of a higher status than the lowest serfs. Bordars ranked below the villein in the socioeconomic class who held a small land that could only feed a family. Slaves were the lowest ranked. They had almost no right and their benefits were so few.

Despite them being grouped into classes, all serfs shared the same problems. They had almost no right attached to their lives. All they had were, according to law, the property of their lords. They could grow whatever crops they wished and their descendants were always guaranteed an inheritance.

There was also a variation in the specifics of serfdom because the system could be combined with or given out in exchange for taxation. In Poland, to be specific, the amount of labor was a number of days in a year within a household. The ‘second serfdom’ persisted until mid nineteenth century. It was a very repressive kind of serfdom thereby substantially denying the serfs their rights. This system ended during the period of emancipation in the year 1861.

Russia’s Impact in Poland

Russia is known to have had a great impact on the Polish territory for the reason that Russia was one of the countries (together with Prussia and Austria) that controlled some parts of Poland during this period. To be specific, Russia controlled Eastern regions of Poland.

The impacts of Russia on the Polish territories mainly involved the economic aspects. Russia fought against many Polish uprisings during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Many of these uprisings were caused by prevalence of slavery and serfdom and the demand for self governance by the People of Poland.

When Alexander I was still the Tsar[3], Prince Adam, who was by this time Russia’s foreign minister, began the process of restating Poland. It should be noted that the Polish were split between the Russian influence and Napoleon who was a French revolutionary leader during this period[4].

However, the fall of Napoleon led to the formation of the kingdom of Poland which was attached to Russia since the Russian Tsar was made to become the king of Poland. It is from this time that the Russian influence in Poland intensified. Due to many socioeconomic factors, the Polish people were involved in major revolutions and uprisings which were quite unsuccessful.

Notable among the uprisings during this period was the one fought in January 1861. The people of Poland were completely obliterated resulting in the loss of hope of restoration of the state of Poland. The Russians certain grip was such that every uprising was accompanied with an exodus of political exiles. Thus, during the Russian occupation in Poland many Polish intelligentsia including poets and artists migrated to France.

The Miserable Account of the Serfs in Poland

Noting that the serfs were peasant slaves, their lives were as miserable as the term slave implies. They were usually given huts and a small patch of land, enough only to satisfy their small families. They were obliged to work for more days in their lord’s (Seigneurs) fields than in their own farmlands.

This obligation of servitude gave them little time for cultivation of their own small rented land. The serfs were not allowed to quit the estate or enter upon any condition of life which might give them some means of demanding for their own freedom. They had to get permission from the lords of the estates.

The peasants were often faced with the scarcity of food whereby they could not have enough food resources to support their entire families. In such situations, the lords were required to supplement although their rations were not sufficient enough. This scarcity resulted into deaths of many peasants that could amount up to 50,000 deaths[5].

Peasant women did not wear either shoes or stockings. They would only wear coats made of sheepskins, with the wooly side turned inwards and only strapped round the waist[6]. Coarse sacking was sometimes used to make the clothing. The serfs were characterized by emaciated bodies with high chick bone and flat nose. They were the class of people in the society who labored the most.

There was basically no movement at all between the socioeconomic classes. This implies that the serfs could not climb the ladder of success from their destitution.

The only two movements from one estate to another were the movement of a substantially gifted child or the movement through the ranks of the clergy. There was restricted travel thus keeping the slaves focused on the farmland. The serfs could therefore see nothing else apart from that which was within their vicinity. Their freedoms were mocked by the absence of the right to own property.

In addition to this, it should be noted that the serfs were considered as the property of the lords. The serf owned only some wooden dishes and a spoon per serf for their entire family regardless of the number or size of the family. Regulations for the slave were tightly buttressed even to the kind of cloth he bought, sold, or put on. In short, everything the serf had was to be sampled by his lord. Invasive to private life, as it may seem, the lords of the estates were allowed to sample even the brides of their peasants.

The serfs were forced to absorb any kind of violence waged against them. The women were raped and the men were often killed especially during revenge missions[7]. The serfs and the noble were therefore alienated from each other by a thick wall, or rather to simplify it, by a long distance.

It is sad to know that they were the natives of the land. Thus, they were colonized and became slaves in their own country. They did not have political muscles to counter the seemingly invincible force of their lords. The state of hopelessness of Polish serfs was so desperate.

They tried to free themselves through revolutionary uprising but their efforts were thwarted. They were left at the mercy of their lords. This is because a law that was enacted during the fifteenth and the sixteenth century that bound the peasants to the land and denied them many rights was still operational.

Emancipation of the Serfs

The polish serfs were set free in 1861 under the supremacy of Alexander II. This happened partly because of the revolutions and uprisings in Poland. The Polish serfs were beginning to become aware of their rights. They began asking for freedom and to be protected by the law. Although the efforts of the preceding revolutionary movements were thwarted by the Russian sources, Polish peasants still regrouped in an effort to discuss the way forward.

Many exiled intelligentsia such as writers, artists and poets would meet in their exiled countries to discuss the state of affairs in the kingdom of Poland. Polish political leaders were often sentenced to death by Russian authorities. As a result, some of the lucky leaders found themselves exiled in other countries, especially France.

The idea of the emancipation of Polish peasants was activated fully during the reign of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. This was after the Crimean war in the year 1855. One very important point to note here is that the main reason for the emancipation of the serfs was not to give them new freedom.

It was because of the Crimean war. The serfs who were considered hard enough to pass past the hurdles of the common hardships would be recruited into the army to fight in the Crimean war. As a result, Russia lost in this war. This was largely because the country was underdeveloped and also because it depended on the frail military composed of serfs who had been recruited in forced servitude.

This army fell into the hands of the French and British army which were stronger for the reason that the soldiers were voluntarily recruited. The results of this war exposed Russia’s bureaucracy which was full of corruption and a weak organization. The evil of serfdom, which had long been abolished in other parts of Europe, depicted the weakness of Russia. For Russia to regain her strength, she had to abolish serfdom so as to rebuild her image in the international scene.

There were no major implications of the war in the Russian government’s administration. Serfs were freed during this time but this instance did not do enough to guarantee them real freedom. This is because they did not have enough money to procure for the land, which was made available to them.

There were also some instances of violence and brutalism still reported in the kingdom of Poland among the serfs. The administration of Russia had to undergo necessary changes so as to accommodate the major reforms related to the freedom of the serfs.

Even the Russian army and judiciary were not spared in these changes. This led to the combined military effort between the rich and the poor. It is through this process that the social classes were broken thereby leading to the beginning of an end of the forced servitude. Thus in the third moth of the year 1861, a law that ended the serfdom was signed and published by the Russian administration. This law heralded the emancipation.

The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was followed by major revolts in the years of 1863 to 1864. These revolts led to the tightening of Russian mastery over Poland partly because it was an unsuccessful attempt by Polish partisans to gain self governance in their own country.

It is worth noting that Poland posed major resistance against the Russian empire during this time. The Lordz insurrection was one of the major uprisings by polish workers against Russia, which came after the January uprising in 1863. This revolution happened in mid 1905 and later on involved over four hundred thousand Polish workers. The situation was overwhelming for the Tsarist police force.

As an overview of the background of this deadly incident, economic conditions in the Polish kingdom had been worsening thereby causing the rise of tension across the country. The war between Japan and Russia damaged Poland’s economy leading to the loss of one hundred thousand jobs of Polish workers.

The revolution was so bloody. Many demonstrators were massacred leading to the outrage of Polish workers who later on joined in the demonstrations. As a result, many Polish workers were killed by live Russian bullets during funeral ceremonies of their fallen fellow workers.

Implications of the Emancipation

Emancipation of the serfs was accompanied with different reactions especially between the social class and the gender differences. There was an increase in the general presence of government officials in rural areas because the government feared that the emancipation program may provoke peasant disturbances.

Employers in the cities were ordered to release the industrial serf before the terms of the emancipation were finally pronounced. Although the issue emanated from the government, there were still some instances of violence erupting in many areas due to many reasons involving payment of dues between the lords and the serfs.

However, many protests would be resolved by competent government officials thereby decreasing the effects of the uprisings. Thus, the peace mediators came from government, and their role was to pacify issues to ensure that the peasants do not resort to rioting. The transition from serfdom to free peasantry was thus carried out in a modest manner.

The commune became pretty important to the former serfs as a result of the emancipation[8]. As a consequence of the emancipation, the commune also gained control of the land and not the individual peasant, which was contrary to serfdom. The commune was an administrative authority recognizable by both the peasants and the state. It was made up of peasant elders who were under the township and district administration.

The commune could also act as a charitable organization. When a person within the commune was unable to sustain themselves, the better off peasants would come in handy to aid in the relief of the unable peasant. The establishment of these communes was therefore for the purpose of ensuring that no one starved. It also offered a better chance for the peasants to improve their socioeconomic status while at the same time ensuring that the majority could survive[9].

The Role of Polish Intelligentsia

The intelligentsia class of the kingdom of Poland influenced the people through patriotism. The intellectual atmosphere during this period was one that contributed to the Polish demands for self governance. The intellectual climate shaped modern nationalism which was followed by many Polish citizens.

It was also the period during which ethnic loyalty as well as Romanticism emerged into the political scene. There was a massive development of literature in the entire kingdom of Poland. Poets such as Adam Mickiewicz released their patriotic works which reminded Polish citizens of the glorious past of the kingdom of Poland. Cultural movements were also responsible for the uprisings that came later on.

The intellectuals were the first to be influenced by nationalistic and romantic ideologies. These intellectuals would soon pass their influence to the peasants. Soon, nationalism would be broadened into all classes of the society. The patriotic nobility was replaced by this nationalism. As a result, more peasants would become increasingly involved in the struggle for freedom and self governance in Poland.


The serfs in Poland, just like in many other European countries, were considered as the lowest ranking class of people in the socioeconomic ladder. Poland was ruled by many countries including Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In the nineteenth century, Russia dominated the kingdom of Poland.

The atrocities committed by Russian lords over the Polish citizens cannot be easily erased from the historical perspective. The lords enslaved the Polish people thus enhancing the serfdom system which had already been purged out of the European continent by other countries.

It must be noted here that serfdom was a kind of slavery whereby the serfs would operate under a lord. The lord was responsible for anything concerning the serf, including their private lives. Serfs were living under destitute conditions. They would work longer days in their lord’s lands than in their own lands. This resulted in reports of massive starvation across the Polish country. Although the lords would supplement the serfs with some food rations, this was not enough because massive starvation led to deaths.

In 1861, the Russian authorities led by Tsar Alexander II, announced the emancipation of serfdom. It should be noted here that this abolishment was not because of elevating the situations of victims of forced servitude. It was a methodology of countering the defeated Crimean war. Thus, Russia wanted to rebuild her image and to strengthen her army. Alexander II also wanted to completely change the judicial system in order to strengthen it.

The emancipation program was pretty successful with the subsequent creation of communes throughout Russia and Poland. Establishment of communes was a much better system because it provided the opportunity for an individual peasant to develop themselves but not at the expense of the majority. Thus, someone would climb up the social ladder while ensuring that the majority are still able to survive.

The intellectual class is notably among the people who helped Poland through their successive struggles. Although the Polish revolutions ended up with stories of success, it was punctuated with many instances of failures that had led to hopelessness. Therefore, serfdom was ended in 1861 specifically by Alexander II, but not to alleviate the situations of the serfs. The main purpose of the emancipation was to counter the defeat of Russia in the Crimean war.


Hobart, L. The Social and Economic Impact of the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia. (Essex Student Research Online, Vol. 2 (2).) Not Dated. 78-79

Stephens, J. L. Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland. Vol. II., 4th Ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835). 39

It is worth noting that during this period, Poland was being ruled partly by Austria, Prussia and Russia
Poland had been ruled by different colonial masters before Russia took over.
The Tsar was a title given to a Russian territorial leader.
This was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
This figure encompasses the deaths across Russia and Poland
Stephens, John. Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland. Vol. II., 4th Ed. (New York:

Harper & Brothers, 1835). 39

Revenge missions occurred especially during uprisings and revolts
Hobart, L. The Social and Economic Impact of the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia. Essex Student Research Online, Vol. 2 (2). (Not Dated). 78.
Hobart, L. The Social and Economic Impact of the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia. Essex Student Research Online, Vol. 2 (2). (Not Dated). 79.


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