Escaping Russian Serfdom: Peasant Flight to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Eighteenth Century
Running away to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was an option available to Russian peasants seeking to improve their lives. Based on extensive archival research, this chapter traces the peasants’ process of flight, from leaving official places of residence and crossing the border to being captured or settling down. It seeks to understand the peasants’ motives and expectations of life in the Commonwealth. The second part of this chapter examines the state’s policies regarding the peasant runaways and its importance for Russia’s relations with the Commonwealth before and after the Partitions of Poland. In the eighteenth century, the security of unstable western borders and the impossibility of controlling them efficiently were an ever-increasing concern of Russian rulers, who perceived fugitives as one of the main destabilising elements. In response to depopulation, decline in agriculture, and banditry, the tsarist state sought to return peasant runaways and utilised different means, ranging from severe punishments and investigative expeditions across the border to appeals to peasants, backed by promised amnesties, to return home. These policies varied in their degree of success, sometimes leading to military raids from abroad and sometimes attracting Russian and even Polish peasants to begin a new life in the Russian Empire.