Peasants "on the Run": State Control, Fugitives, Social and Geographic Mobility in Imperial Russia, 1649-1796
This dissertation explores the issue of fugitive peasants by focusing primarily on the Volga-Urals region of Russia and situating it within the broader imperial population policy between 1649 and 1796. In the Law Code of 1649, Russia definitively bound peasants of all ranks to their official places of residence to facilitate tax collection and provide a workforce for the nobility serving in the army. In the ensuing century and a half, the government introduced new censuses, internal passports, and monetary fines; dispatched investigative commissions; and coerced provincial authorities and residents into surveilling and policing outsiders. Despite these legislative measures and enforcement mechanisms, many thousands of peasants left their localities in search of jobs, opportunities, and places to settle. While many fugitives toiled as barge haulers, factory workers, and agriculturalists, some turned to brigandage and river piracy. Others employed deception or forged passports to concoct fictitious identities, register themselves in villages and towns, and negotiate their status within the existing social structure. Although officially unwilling to tolerate illicit migration, the Russian state often exhibited pragmatism and flexibility in practice, changing the status of runaway peasants who worked at important commercial sites in the Urals and Astrakhan or who defended the country’s frontiers. Overall, this dissertation demonstrates how the issue of peasant flight influenced not only the process of state formation but also relations between different members of early modern Russian society.
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