The Economic Effects of the Abolition of Serfdom: Evidence from the Russian Empire

Andrei Markevich (New Economic School)
Ekaterina Zhuravskaya (Paris School of Economics)

Abstract: We document a very large increase in agricultural productivity, peasants’ living standards, and industrial development in late 19th century Imperial Russia as a result of the abolition of serfdom in 1861. A counterfactual exercise shows that if serfs were freed in 1820, by 1913 Russia would have been more than one-and-a-half times richer, compared to what it actually was. We construct a novel province-level panel dataset of development outcomes, and conduct a difference-in-differences analysis of the effects of the abolition of serfdom, relying on cross-sectional variation in the shares of serfs and the timing of the different stages of reform, controlling for unobserved variation across provinces and over time, as well as province-specific development trends. We disentangle the two stages of the abolition of serfdom: the emancipation of serfs and the subsequent land reform. We show that, in contrast to the large positive effect of emancipation, land reform negatively affected agricultural productivity. We provide evidence that a shift to more marketable crops from traditional non-marketable crops is the main mechanism behind the positive effect of emancipation, and the increase in the power of re-partition peasant communes is the main mechanism behind the negative effect of land reform.