The historiography of slavery, serfdom, and their demise usually focuses on abolition projects and the historical imagination during the pre-emancipation era and on achievements after the official abolition of bondage. This innovative book describes how many people in Russia and the United States depicted freed people after their emancipation. Diverse textual and visual images constitute the bulk of materials that Bellows explores in her vivid, subtle, and highly sensitive analysis.
The first chapter discusses radical literature in the two countries at the eve of emancipations. Bellows locates no abolitionist movement in Russia that paralleled that of the United States; she contrasts the rare Russian serf narratives with the relatively more common autobiographies of U.S. slaves. Chapter 2 moves to the nostalgic historical fiction produced by American and Russian landlords during the post-emancipation years, depicting the relationships between serfs/slaves and their masters as paternalistic and nonconflictual. Chapter 3 examines illustrated periodicals and lithographs. According to Bellows, “by reading periodicals, Americans and Russians grew increasingly aware of and connected to their nations and the wider world.” In both countries, illustrators usually showed former slaves and serfs struggling to understand “freedom” and “modernity,” when not actively involved in political uprisings. Stereotypes of violent African Americans and peasants consolidated at this time. The self-representations of African Americans and peasants occasioned distinct images of them attempting to improve education, farming, and business.
Oil paintings, as shown in Chapter 4, reflected the differences. Many Russia and American artists shared the goal of humanizing former slaves/serfs in displays of their daily lives of peasants. U.S. painters, however, often focused on runaways and various forms of slave resistance, whereas their Russian counterparts placed peasants’ resignation at centertstage. Chapter 5 presents advertisements and ephemera aimed at introducing former slaves and serfs into the world of goods and business. Russian advertisements tended to show peasants in positions of equality with other people; the U.S. variety emphasized racism and ethnic difference and segregation. The final chapter discusses the literature and visual culture at the turn of the twentieth century that dealt with social transformations, whether to idealize or criticize slavery and serfdom.
Although the materials in this valuable and innovative book are engaging, the conclusions that Bellows’ draws from them seem too facile and familiar. She argues that these sources show Russian and American elites trying to maintain power in the face of social and political change and that “Americans’ and Russians’ divergent depictions of peasants and freed people stem from differing conceptions of race and ethnicity” (7), hardly a ground-breaking observation. Recent studies of the Russian Empire, however, have begun to challenge such clear-cut opposition. The literature and images of non-Russian ethnical groups deserve greater attention than Bellows pays them.
The book quotes but never starts a genuine conversation with the existing historiography. What is its main target? If it is the historical imagination and the consolidation of social stereotypes, the book should have complemented the visual and fiction materials with the more common historical analysis and the construction of national historical memories. Do Bellows’ visual sources confirm or contravene what we know from the more conventional historiography? Bellows’ methodology might also have benefited from insights based on a broader comparison—notwithstanding her mention of works by Bloch, Skopcol, and Kolchin.1 Kolchin’s comparison of Russian serfdom and American slavery in Unfree Labor was a by-product of debates during the Cold War era that focused obsessively on comparisons between Russia and the United States. Nowadays, however, a narrow concentration on the histories of those two countries fails to observe that in the 1860s, slavery and emancipation were issues not only in the United States and Russia but also in Latin America, Africa, China, and parts of the French, British, and Ottoman Empires.
Bellows has left another major “black hole” in the book. She barely notes that abolition in the United States came at the price of a devastating Civil War, whereas Russia’s abolition of serfdom met with little more than an ephemeral, sporadic resistance from landowners. We find instead contrasts between “freedom of expression” in the United States (for former slaves?) and censorship in Russia, as well as race and ethnicity versus estate order. Bellows’ treatment of the Civil War and the Crimean War as similar sources of abolition is misleading. The historiography about Russia almost unanimously rejects the pertinence of the Crimean War to the abolition of serfdom. Moreover, the American Civil War was not a root cause of the abolitionist movement but an integral part of it; the Crimean War was a European, eventually a global, concern related to the decay of the Ottoman Empire. How did this major difference in the two settings intervene in popular literature and paintings, in the nostalgia of bondage, the identification of the “other,” and the evaluation of “modernity”? Maybe, an older reference, such as Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston, 1967), might serve as a useful corrective regarding the lapses in this work, given recent advances in the relevant historiographies.
See Marc Bloch (trans. William R. Beer), Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages: Selected Essays (Berkeley, 1975); Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (New York, 1979); Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).