Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

This week’s episode is the first of seven events Distant Friends and Intimate Enemies: The US and Russia, the Fall 2020 Speakers Series at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. If you want to see the entire schedule go to REEES’ website

It was inspired by a letter Walt Whitman wrote in 1881 to his Russian translator of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Whitman wrote that, while the United States and Russia were “so distant, so unlike at first glance,” they nevertheless “so [resemble] each other” in their “historic and divine mission.” Whitman’s words would astonish many Americans and Russians today, since the living memory of relations between the two nations is one of conflict and animosity rather than concord and similitude.

Distant Friends and Intimate Enemies seeks to examine US-Russian relations in the context of concurrent historical developments from their beginnings in the early 19th century. The goal is to provide a set of alternative narratives to the tendency to only view US-Russian relations through a Cold War lens. Hopefully these discussions will allow audiences to become more historically cognizant of the commonalities, just as much as the differences, between the two nations.

One commonality between the United States and Russia is both had systems of human bondage. Russia-serfdom. The United States-slavery. Though both systems differed in origins, practice, and logics, they were systems where human beings were property to be bought, sold, exploited and abused.

Also, in a twist of historical irony, serfdom was abolished in autocratic Russia in 1861, a mere four years before the abolition of slavery in the republican US. Both systems, however, were undone in radically different ways. In Russia, it was a “revolution from above,” a long, but peaceful, legal process managed by Tsar. The US was torn apart by civil war, and enslaved people freed themselves by fleeing their owners for the Union army.

So, what to make of these two system of bondage shared by two unlikely states? How did it shape their future? And how did serfdom and chattel slavery fit within a wider international practice of human bondage?


Amanda Brickell Bellows is a Lecturer in History at The New School in New York City. A 2016 PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she is the author of American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination published by University of North Carolina Press.

Alessandro Stanziani is a Professor of Global History at EHESS in France and Research director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Current director of the Institute of Global Studies, PSL University, Paris. He’s the author of many books and articles including Labor in the Fringes of Empire: Voice, Exit and the Law and Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia, 17th-20th Centuries published by Berghahm.


Public Enemy, “Nighttrain,” Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, 1991.