Gregory W. Frux    (Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski)


     Maps:  Dorling-Kindersley Atlas of World History / 1999







It may come as a surprise that European history is filled with slavery. Most of us know that classical Greece, the Roman Empire and 'the Moslem Caliphates were slave states. But slavery was also conmon in the Middle Ages: it existed in Visigothic Spain, Merovingian France, among the Vikings and in the Italian city states. (1) Orlando Patterson estimates that in the year 950 AD between 10% and 15% Europeans were bound in servitude. (2)


The first Russian State emerged in this cruel and violent time. The "civilized" empires of the Mediterranean were slave states. In the north, barbarian raiders carried off people as pillage. The Vikings, in particular, abducted and enslaved people from Ireland to Russia, for their use and for sale.


A major Viking trade route ran through the heart of Russian land. Commerce descended from the Baltic Sea, via Novgorod and Kiev to Constantinople; and via the Volga to the Middle East. The Slavic peoples of Russia were among the victims of the Northmen. A Tenth Century Muslim geographer Ibn Rustah describes their actions.


They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them; the carry them off as captive and take them to Hazaran and Bulghar [both on the Volga], and sell them there. (3)


It is estimated that at its height the Viking slave trade moved 3400 people a year along this route alone. (4)




Click on the map for better resolution


These East Vikings warriors and traders soon intermixed with the native Slavs to create the Kievan Rus State. Slavery continued throughout the Kievan period. It is mentioned in the earliest treaties between the Russians and Byzantines. Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (c. 950) recounted a Novgorodian trading expedition to Constantinople which includes a description of slaves lead in chains for six miles around rapids in Dnieper. (5)



Varangians of Kievan Rus (reconstruction: Angus McBride / 1979)




When Russia converted to Christianity in 988 it did not abandon slavery. Early Russian law codes give us some idea of its practice. It is also mentioned in the national history "Die Primary Chronicle" and in the epic "Pie Song of Prince Igor".


      Despite relatively meager evidence, it is reasonable to attempt a reconstruction of conditions of slavery in Kievan Rus. (6) Some questions to address are: Who was enslaved'? What were the conditions of slavery? What was the place of the slave in society? How did the law look on the slave? Did conditions change over time? Did people ever regain freedom?


In this discussion we need to define "slavery"‑‑ Slaves are people held in permanent subjugation by means of violence or threat of violence, up to and including death. They are, in addition, people removed from all inherited and familial rights and any place of honor within the slave holding Society. (7)







The definition of slavery takes leads us to the discussion of who was enslaved. Typically, slaves were foreigner or disenfranchised members of the community. A scholar of slavery identifies eight maj or sources: [1] Capture in warfare, [2] Kidnapping, [3] Tribute and tax, [4] Debt, [5] Punishment for Crimes, [6] Abandonment and sale of children, [7] Self‑enslavement, [8] Birth.  (8)


In Russia we will find that while at first foreigners were enslaving Russians (and the reverse) very soon Russians were enslaving one another. The early period Viking raids abducting slaves can be considered either capture in warfare or kidnapping. There is also evidence of Russian prisoners of war enslaved in Byzantium: a 945 Russo‑Byzantine treaty provided for their ransom. (9)


It was also apparently common for the Russians to enslave shipwrecked sailors, presumably foreigners. From the same treaty as above:


"In case the Ruses find a Greek ship cast ashore, they shall not harm it, and if any person remove any object there from or enslave a member of the crew, or kill him, he shall be amenable to both Russian and Greek law." (10)


Very soon after the founding of Kievan Rus, we have evidence of Russians enslaving Russians. During wars, enslavement was an alternative to slaughtering a population. It mentioned at least twice in the "Primary Chronicle". The first is the culmination of Princess Olga's revenge (947 AD)


Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the captives she killed, while she gave others as slaves to her followers. (11)


Eighty years later, during a war between rival princes, Minsk was captured (1067 AD).


Then the brethren captured it, put the men to the sword, sold the women and children into slavery. (12)


Warfare shaded into raiding and kidnapping parties. War booty included slaves. A successful war could mean a lowering of the price of slaves in the market. Some of the most revealing lines of the period comes in the epic "Song of Prince Igor" (1187 AD). The section of note is part of a lament that a great prince was not present at a battle.


If you were here, a female slave would fetch one nogata and a male slave, one rezana;... (13)


[nogata was twenty kopeks and a rezana fifty kopeks, both very small amounts] (13.5)


Early Russian laws, Statutes of "Vladimir Monomach" (c. 1120), disclose additional means of enslavement. One case refers to a laborer who gets paid in advance and had to repay the loan and interest with work.


If an indentured laborer runs away from his lord he becomes the latter's slave. But if he departs openly, to sue for his money [and goes] to the prince, or to the judge, to complain of the injustice on the part of his lord, they do not reduce him to slavery but give him justice. (14)


Punishment for other crimes could result in enslavement.


if an indentured laborer steals [a horse] or some other [beast], his lord is responsible for him. And when they find him, the lord first pays for the horse or anything else he stole, and then [the indentured laborer] is his full slave. (15)


A contemporary Bulgarian lawbook that circulated in Kiev abound 1100, the "Zadon Sudnyi Liuden", provided that in the case of the theft of a horse or weapon or for riding a horse without permission the culprit should be beaten and then sold into slavery. (16)


Russians, on occasion 'voluntarily' sold themselves into slavery. The "Statute of Vladimir Monomach" set a minimum price and procedures for this.


If anyone buys [a man] willing [to sell himself into slavery], for not less than half a grivna, and produces witnesses and pays [the fee of 1 nogata] in the presence of the slave himself. (17)


'Voluntary' slavery seems to have occurred during famines and economic hardship when a rich lord might feed or take in the poor. A following law from the same statue appears to make enslavement more difficult.


And the recipient of a money grant is not a slave. And one cannot make a man a slave because [he received] a grant‑in‑ad in grain..." (18)


Other sections of this same statute stipulate that if a man marries a female slave, he becomes a slave. Lastly, it also stipulates that one becomes another's steward or housekeeper without a special agreement also becomes a slave.


In summary, we find that slaves in Russia came from warfare and kidnapping, as well as unlucky sailors. Period laws also document enslavement for socio‑economic reasons: debt, crime and self‑enslavement because of need and by marriage to a slave.






Slavery, by definition, represents the extreme loss of human rights. Underlying all slavery is the threat of death. Historically, conditions of slaves varied from utmost brutality to extreme luxury, yet the underlying threat remained. The earliest surviving accounts of Russians enslaved by the Vikings are among the most brutal.


An important and famous eyewitness description is from an Arab diplomat on a mission to the Bulghars on the Volga River in 922. Ibn Fadlan, describes first the sexual exploitation of female slaves at a trading point on the river.


Ten or twenty people, more or less, live in such a house. Every man has a shop where he stays, together with the beautiful [slave] girls he has for sale. Sometimes he has intercourse with one of his girls while the companions look on. Often, several men can be seen in that position, each observing the act of others. Sometimes a merchant comes to his shop to buy a girl only to find him in the midst of intercourse. He does not leave her until he finishes his affair.  (19)


      Further on in the same account is a funeral of a chief. A long passage describes the selection and rituals surrounding the sacrifice of a slave woman as part of the funeral. She was stripped, given intoxicating drinks, had intercourse with several of the men, then laid alongside the chief, was strangled and stabbed.


Later Russian laws remained harsher to slaves than free persons. The death penalty, at an early period, and corporal punishment at a later time, were reserved only for slaves.


And if a slave strikes a freeman and hides in the house, and his lord will not surrender him, the lord pays a 12 grivna [fine]; and then whenever and wherever the injured man meets the offender, who struck him; [Prince] Yaroslav ordered to [allow him] to kill the offender, but his sons, after their father's death, ordered the matter to be settled with the alternative of payment: either to bind the slave [to a post] and beat him, or to accept 1 grivna for the offense to his honor. (20)


One can get a hint of the conditions, as well, from "The Domstroi", a book on housekeeping during the time of Ivan the Terrible. Written several hundred years after the period under discussion, its severity may or may not reflect Mongol influence.


Do not box anyone's ears for any fault. Do not hit them about the eyes with your fist or below the heart. Do not strike anyone with a stick or staff or beat anyone with anything made of iron or wood. From such a beating, administered in passion or anguish, many misfortunes can result: blindness or deafness, dislocation of an arm, leg, or finger, head injury or injury to a tooth. With pregnant women or children, damage to the stomach could result, so beat them only with the lash, in a careful and controlled way, albeit painfully and fearsomely. Do not endanger anyone's health; beat someone only for a grave fault. (21)


It is likely that during the Kievan period female slaves, would have been sexually exploited. The Orthodox Church imposed relatively light penance for fornication with a slave women, especially for a bachelor. (22) The slave, as a person outside of society, could be viewed as socially acceptable outlet for sexual desires. It is possible that the higher valuation of a female slave in wergild at this time is a reflection of this. On the other hand, society did afford some protection to female slaves, consistent with Slavic and Orthodox notions of female honor. A Twelfth Century treaty between Novgorod and the Germans provided that a master who raped his slave had to pay a one grivna fine and that if she got pregnant he had to free her. (23)


Since Russians were enslaving one another, there was no racial or ethnic component to slavery at this time. It is likely, and suggested by period laws, that it was difficult to distinguish slave and freeman. About the only reference to a distinguishing feature is a mention in a modern costume book of short hair as a mark of servitude.






It is uncertain what work slaves did in Kievan Russia. In some parts of the world slavery was connected with large‑scale agricultural production, especially in warmer climates. This was unlikely in Russia due to weather and ecological conditions. It is more likely that owning slaves was a display of wealth and status and had little or no economic benefit to the owner. "The Domestroi", for example, admonished the head of household not to keep more slaves than he could afford.


Each person should acquire additional slaves only after thinking about how he will feed, cloth and maintain them so that they will live in peace of mind, fearing God and knowing good governance. (24)


Various employments of slaves are listed in the Pravda. Almost all are connected with functions of a household (as opposed to agricultural estate). These roles included tutor, wet‑nurse, caretaker of war‑horses, steward, and housekeeper. The wet nurse and tutor were particularly valued under these statues. These same laws also show us that slaves were carrying out trade on behalf of their owners. The steward (perhaps equivalent of the major‑domo or butler) was likely an elite slave. That is to say, he was charged with overseeing other slaves and organizing household affairs. (25)






Societies which held slaves all wrestled with the paradox of people within their midst who were not fully recognized as human. This paradox was reflected in the Russian Pravda. An important principal of ancient Russian law was the wergild or blood fee. If a murder took place, a large cash payment went to the victim's family and often a second fee to the prince. This weirgeld was a substitute for revenge killing. How the Pravda assigns weirgelds is revealing of social values in a most basic sense. From Yaroslav's Pravda (26)



Prince's retinue

80 grivna

Citizen, male

40 grivna

Citizen, female

20 grivna


5 grivna


5 grivna

Slave, female

6 grivna

Slave, wet nurse

12 grivna



The later version (c 1120) increases the fines for killing slaves and clarifies that it is not exactly a blood fee.


And there is no bloodwite (weirgeld) for either a male or female slave; but if a slave is killed without any fault of his, [the killer] has to pay amends for the male, as well as for the female, slave; and to the prince, 12 grivna fine. (27)


The slave is neither a full, honored citizen on one hand, or on the other a being without value. The significance that the 12 grivnas is a fine, rather than a bloodwite, is that a bloodwite was payable to a person's kin or community. Clearly the slave was denied those connections. Their ambivalent place in Kievan Rus was best expressed in a law discussing return of stolen slaves.


If anyone finds his stolen slave and apprehends him, he must, as in the case of other property litigations, bring him along until the third confrontment;... And he [the slave] is not a beast; [in this case] the buyer cannot say, "I do not know from whom I bought him" [because the slave can talk]; and thus by the slave's word on proceeds to the end... 28


Historians have made the case that the "Statutes of Vladimir Monomach" was part of an attempt to limit slavery. Of particular note is the article defining grounds for enslavement. We don't have enough information to say for certain. Mentions of enslavement during warfare are numerous in 10th Century accounts, then appear occasionally in the 11th and 12th centuries. If enslavement during warfare continued, as it seems to, then the border wars and unending feuds of the Russian princes would have guaranteed a steady source of slaves. Was internal enslavement curbed? There is scant evidence and I have found no documents, either secular or religious, forbidding slavery nor even describing means of manumission.






Like slaves every where and every place, the hope for freedom was never abandoned. Throughout period documents are numerous laws and articles in treaties providing for the return of runaways. Of 29 articles in Pravda referring to slaves, at least 10 refer to escapees. Russia was even then a huge country, with, at that time, a small population. Slavic peoples regularly traveled great distances, and vanishing was a more feasible prospect than in Western Europe.


Running away must have been a common and serious problem for the owners. The fine for aiding an escaped slave equaled the fine for killing a slave.


If a slave runs away and his owner makes due announcement, and someone else, having heard the announcement or knowing about it and understanding that the man is a fugitive slave, gives him some bread or shows him the way [to escape], he has to pay for the male slave 5 grivna and for the female slave 6 grivna. (29)


Desire for freedom and resistance to slavery is universal theme. Again and again the Pravda record these acts.


If a slave steals another's horse [the owner has to pay] two grivna. (30)


[If a runaway slave obtains goods on credit] the owner takes back the slave, [and assumes his debt] and also takes the goods. (31)


If [a slave] runs away and takes any neighbor's property or goods, his owner pays the damages. (32)


One wonders how status and wealth weighed against the vigilance and aggravation of being a slave holder. How deep or universal the institution was in Kiev Rus we do not know. Part of what remains is evidence of the deep desire of people everywhere for freedom.




(1) Patterson, Orlando Slavery and Social Death (Harvard University Press 1982) page vii I am indebted to this book for the overall structure and theory behind this essay.


(2) Patterson, pages 156‑7


(3) Simpson, Jacqueline Everyday Life in the Viking Age page 111


(4) Patterson page 157


(5) Dmytrshyn, Basil ed. Medieval Russia: A Source Book 900 ‑ 1700 (Hinsdale, III: The Dryden Press 1973) page 28

            "At this barrage all put into land prow foremost, and those who are deputed to keep watch with them get out, and off they go, these men, and keep vigilant for the Pechnegs [Nomads]. The remainder taking up the goods which they have on board conduct the slaves in their chains past by land, six miles..."


(6) Something to keep in mind in the following discussion is that often, especially in the laws, only exceptional cases are mentioned. It may be that the typical situations were so well known that they weren't written down.


(7) Patterson, page 13


(8) Patterson, page 105


(9) Cross, Samuel & Hazard, Shenbowitz‑Wetzor trans. The Primarv Chronicle (Cambridge, Ma: The Medieval Academy of America 1953)

            "If any Ruses are found laboring as slaves in Greece, provided they are prisoners of war, the Ruses shall ransom them for ten bezants each."


(10) Cross, page 79


(11) Cross (947) page 81


(12) Cross (1067) page 145


(13) Nabokov, Vladimi trans. The Song of Prince Igor


(13.5) Nabokov, Vladimi trans. The Song of Prince Igor notes504‑8, page 120


(14) Vernadsky Medieval Russian Law, (New York: Octogon Books 1965) article 56


(15) Vernadsky, article 64


(16) Hellie, Richard Slavery in Russia 1450‑1725 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980) page 42


(17) Vernadsky, article 110


(18) Vernadsky, article 111


(19) Dmytryshyn,. page 14


(20) Vernadsky, article 65


(21) Pouncey, Carolyn trans. The Domostroi (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1994) page 143‑4


(22) Levin, Eve Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slav (Ithaca:Comell University Press 1989) page 191‑3


(23) Hellie, Richard Slavery in Russia 1450‑1725 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) page 116


(24) Pouncey, page l23‑24


(25) This title is mentioned in the Pravda, Vernadski, article 110 and discussed in some detail in the period of The Domostroi, see Pouncey pages 33‑4


(26) Vernadsky Medieval Russian Law


(27) Vernadsky article 89


(28) Vernadsky article 38


(29). Vernadsky article 112


(3O) Vernadsky article 63


(31) Vernadsky article 117


(32) Vernadsky article 118



Copyright 1999 by Gregory W. Frux


Originally published at

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