Photo Credit: Book Cover provided by UNC Press

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Amanda Bellows is a Lecturer in the Department of Historical Studies at The New School’s Eugene Lang College where she teaches nineteenth century U.S. History. Her new publication, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination was published by the University of North Carolina Press, June 2020.

This book is the first monograph-length comparison of the ways in which the people of two disparate countries, Russia and the United States, reacted to the nearly simultaneous abolition of serfdom and slavery during the mid-nineteenth century. Emancipation freed millions of Russian serfs and enslaved African Americans who subsequently strove for absorption into the national polities as subjects and citizens. In both nations, the post-emancipation era was characterized by territorial expansion, population growth, immigration, industrialization, and modernization, phenomena that further complicated notions of Russian and American national identity.

During the fifty years that followed the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and slavery in 1865, Russians and Americans of all backgrounds responded to societal transformation through cultural production. Authors, artists, and businessmen produced mass-oriented images of serfs, peasants, enslaved African Americans, and freedpeople in literature, periodicals, illustrations, paintings, and advertisements, sources that circulated widely in the public sphere. As acts of imagination and remembrances, these portrayals were a lexicon of representation that creators and audiences endowed with significance and interpreted in competing ways. Elite Russians and Americans, or those who wielded the greatest political, economic, or social power, typically portrayed serfs and enslaved people as victims on the eve of abolition, as contented rural laborers whose simple way of life attracted nostalgic audiences during an industrial, expansionist age, and, at the turn of the twentieth century, as disruptive rural-to-urban migrants. Russian peasants and African American freedpeople countered these depictions by producing dignified self-representations that illuminated their traditions, communities, and accomplishments. Ultimately, these diverse textual and visual images shaped collective memories of two systems of bondage, affected the development of national consciousness, and influenced public opinion as peasants and freedpeople strove to exercise their newfound rights.

Navigating the seas of change after emancipation was no easy task for nineteenth century Russians and Americans. In Russia, Tsar Alexander II’s issuance of the Emancipation Manifesto on February 19, 1861, liberated 40 percent of the nation’s people from bondage and was the first of several modernizing policies that produced substantial change. The former serfs, now poddannye (subjects), strove to manage their villages’ communal land, establish schools, and participate in national initiatives by serving alongside their former owners on local governing bodies like the zemstva (provincial assemblies). However, Russia’s autocratic government extended few political rights to the former serfs, who, like landowners, lacked elected representation at the national level. Racism did not influence the dynamics of assimilation in Russia, because peasants and landowners largely shared the same ethnicity, language, and Russian Orthodox religion. But neither emancipation nor subsequent government-initiated reforms eliminated the barriers created by an estate system from the era of Tsar Peter the Great that divided the population into different social groups. Indeed, the Russian nobility and the peasantry remained culturally distant from one another through the early twentieth century. Although the peasantry and pro-reform intellectuals harbored great hopes about the potential for individual uplift, political representation, and national progress after 1861, the newspaper Nedelia (The Week) lamented in 1871 that while “much had changed, many dreams were not realized, [and] much did not turn out as expected.”

In the United States, Harper’s Weekly issued a buoyant pronouncement of national peace in July 1865, shortly after the Civil War ended, by declaring that “every question within the nation [would soon] be wisely settled.” Ultimately, the popular periodical’s assertion proved premature. The war’s conclusion brought the challenge of integrating four million formerly enslaved African Americans into a total population of about thirty-six million people in 1865. One essential factor that shaped the dynamics of assimilation was race: African Americans composed a demographic minority in a nation of approximately thirty-two million white citizens. In their post-emancipation efforts to exercise their right to vote, gain literacy, acquire property, or establish businesses, freedpeople met strong resistance from Americans who viewed the color of their skin as a sign of racial inferiority that precluded them from equal treatment under law. During the post-emancipation period of rebuilding known as Reconstruction (1865–1877), the states’ ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments secured for African Americans citizenship and, for African American men, the franchise. But these early guarantees of African Americans’ civil rights crumbled during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s due to legal challenges to Reconstruction-era laws, the passage of new “Jim Crow” legislation that severely curtailed black liberties, and a significant rise in acts of violence against African Americans intended to enforce racial subjugation.

American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination breaks new ground as the first comparison of textual and visual mass-oriented depictions of former serfs and enslaved African Americans from the post-emancipation era in Russia and the United States. This juxtaposition identifies the ways in which the subjects and citizens of two disparate societies responded to emancipation by constructing collective memories through cultural production. In both the United States and Russia, textual and visual post-emancipation imagery composed what Alon Confino calls “shared cultural knowledge” that was passed down from one generation to the next through “vehicles of memory.” By studying this heterogeneous body of remembrances, it is possible to detect important correspondences between the ways in which Russians and Americans of diverse backgrounds imagined their pasts and futures through the creation of archetypes that served analogous societal purposes.

This book also pinpoints the parallel and divergent ways in which Russians and Americans received images through the study of the manufacture, dissemination, and consumption of the aforementioned representations. It not only catalogs the most influential representations but also places these images within their proper historical contexts in order to evaluate their forms, functions, and evolutions. Furthermore, this book views representation as more than l’art pour l’art; instead, it considers the motivations of painters, writers, and businessmen, the messages embedded within depictions, and the ways audiences processed images at different moments in time.

Indeed, cultural production served as an essential tool in the fight to influence popular opinion about explosive post-emancipation issues. After the abolition of serfdom and slavery, peasants and freedpeople sought to acquire jobs, establish businesses, and participate in political or civic affairs. In many cases, non peasant Russians and white Americans opposed their efforts to achieve these goals. Landowners and businessmen refused to pay their laborers adequate wages, urban workers pushed back against rural-to-urban migrants who sought jobs, and in the United States, white citizens prevented African Americans from voting for representatives whom whites feared would institute policies that threatened their privileged status.

While some Russians and Americans responded to the sweeping societal changes that followed emancipation through acts of violence like rioting or lynching, others turned to literature, art, and other forms of mass media. Ardent advocates of emancipation, for instance, urged readers in radical short stories, fictional autobiographical narratives, drama, and poetry during the 1860s to act compassionately toward peasants and African Americans. An alternate response, however, was that exhibited by authors from Russian and American landowning families. During the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, they produced mass-oriented works of historical fiction that sought to uphold the ideology of civilization through portrayals of peasants and freedpeople who preferred bondage to freedom. The popularity of these revisionist stories attests to middle-class readers’ opposition to change and to the authors’ shared method of responding to the challenges to the way of life they sought to preserve. Meanwhile, the visual culture of the late nineteenth century reflected similar divisions among artists. In oil paintings, illustrated periodicals, cartoons, and advertisements that reached both literate and nonliterate audiences, Russians and Americans of diverse backgrounds debated the consequences of abolition, the rights of citizenship and subjecthood, urban migration, and the decline of traditional folk culture. At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans and Russian peasants increasingly challenged through important counternarratives representations produced by men and women who had never experienced bondage. Using fiction and other forms of visual culture, they depicted the experiences of former serfs and enslaved people in complex, humanizing ways.

By placing portrayals of peasants and African Americans in comparative perspective, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination identifies striking representational similarities and illuminating differences that better explain the individual histories of the abolition of serfdom and slavery. First, I argue that it was primarily Russian and American elites’ twin desire to maintain power in the face of change that resulted in their parallel portrayals after emancipation. For instance, white and nonpeasant authors’ and artists’ depictions of peasants and freedpeople contentedly continuing to serve their former owners reveal their resistance to the transformation of the historical power dynamics governing owner-laborer relationships. Meanwhile, images of freedpeople and peasants as perpetrators of urban disorder serve as additional evidence of their anxieties about the activities of liberated bonded laborers. These corresponding representations emerged from starkly different contexts; while racism played a central role in shaping post-emancipation social dynamics in America, conceptions of racial difference between landowners and serfs were largely absent in Russia. Peasants and freedpeople also produced similar self-representations of ambitious, dignified men and women that contradicted existing stereotypes of former serfs and enslaved African Americans as naive, lazy, or violent. They shared the goal of giving voice to their experiences and countering caricatures created by whites and nonpeasants after emancipation.

Second, I contend that Americans’ and Russians’ divergent depictions of peasants and freedpeople stem from differing conceptions of race and ethnicity, the varying degrees of political power exercised by peasants and freedpeople, and their distinct cultural backgrounds. White Americans saw African Americans as racially inferior; racism drove their actions and infused many of their representations of enslaved African Americans and freedpeople. In a situation unique to the United States, whites also felt threatened by the Reconstruction Amendments, which gave African Americans citizenship and the right to vote. In response, whites enacted black codes and terrorized African Americans to retain their political power. These dynamics contributed to white Americans’ production of demeaning representations of freedpeople; whites used these images to justify their suppression of African Americans. Ultimately, whites’ commitment to racial supremacy and fear of losing power served as a major barrier to the acquisition of freedom and the securing of civil rights for African Americans during the century that followed the abolition of slavery.

By contrast, Russia’s former serfs appeared in a broader range of portrayals that included the peasantry as representatives of Slavic culture and as egalitarian urban denizens. While racism constrained the imagination of many white Americans, the lack thereof in the Russian context enabled the cultivation of a more expansive post-emancipation imagination. Political dynamics also played a crucial role. After emancipation, peasants did not receive political rights that seriously challenged the authority of Russian aristocrats; instead, nobles and peasants alike remained the subjects of an autocratic tsar. Violence plagued the post-emancipation South, but relations between the Russian peasantry and aristocracy were less fraught with tension during the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, factors including poverty, war, a universal lack of civil liberties, and class antagonisms ultimately led to total social upheaval during the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

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Dr. Amanda Bellows is a historian of the nineteenth century United States. She teaches at The New School in New York City. Her book, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020. Her research, writing, and teaching focuses on the history of American slavery, the Civil War era, Reconstruction, and nineteenth century popular culture. 

From American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination by Amanda Brickell Bellows. Copyright © 2020 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org

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