Trade in Runaway Peasants and “The Chichikov Phenomenon” in Eighteenth-Century Russia
This article examines the trade in fugitive serfs in eighteenth-century Russia. This trade emerged from two interrelated phenomena—the sale of individual serfs and peasant flight—and was practiced by nobles, merchants, factory owners, and government officials. The acquisition of absent peasants, although seemingly absurd, represented a risky investment from which the new owners could profit upon discovery and reclamation of the fugitives. According to several eighteenth-century decrees, individuals found guilty of accepting fugitives were required to pay monetary compensation to the peasants’ legal owners for each year of harboring. In some instances, the sum of compensation reached staggering amounts of several thousand rubles. Exploiting this legal opportunity, eighteenth-century nobles or “Chichikovs”—named after the protagonist of Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls—purchased serfs on the run for the specific purpose of making a significant profit by collecting compensation. This article argues that the trade in runaways and “Chichikov schemes” reveals a yet unexplored dimension of Russian serfdom and its influence, both beneficial and ruinous, on the interactions between nobles, and between nobles and other members of imperial society. The article additionally advances the understanding of serfdom as a social framework based on practices and customs rather than on legislation alone.