Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute

Painting of a peasant sitting on the countryside. Image links to event page.



To Return or to Forgive? Runaway Peasants and the Imperial State, 1725-1801
Reserve Your Seat



Please join the Harriman Institute for a Russian History Workshop (kruzhok) with Andrey Gornostaev. Moderated by Catherine Evtuhov.

Traditional scholarly wisdom suggests that the eighteenth century was a period marked by worsening socioeconomic conditions and legal status of the Russian peasantry. The proliferation of taxes and obligations exerted substantial pressure on the economic sustainability of peasant households. Noble landlords and village societies gained the authority to exile unruly or unwanted rural inhabitants for hard labor or to Siberia. At the same time, the imperial state gradually became more adept at controlling its population by introducing and refining different means of social control. Within this narrative, the phenomenon of peasant flight is portrayed as a simplistic binary of domination versus resistance. This paper introduces essential nuances to this narrative through a comprehensive analysis of the dialectical relationship between state laws and the responses they elicited from peasants, and situating these dynamics within the broader official discourse on peasant flight. It underscores the development and coexistence of two distinct approaches by the government toward peasants in the eighteenth century. While compelling the return of runaways within the country, it simultaneously offered significant incentives to Russian subjects who fled abroad, particularly to Poland-Lithuania. Ultimately, this study offers insights into how the imperial state worked in practice and how its policies benefited specific groups of peasants while exacerbating the conditions of others.

Interested participants should contact Yana Skorobogatov ( to receive a copy of the paper in advance of the workshop.

Andrey Gornostaev is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His primary research interests include Russian social and transnational histories, with a particular fascination for the narratives of ordinary people – peasants, townsfolk, nobles, etc. – and their interactions with the imperial state in different geographic contexts. Currently, he is working on his first book, tentatively titled Peasants on the Run: Resistance, Mobility, and Governance in Imperial Russia, 1649-1801, in which he examines the state’s policies against unauthorized peasant migration, strategies employed by runaway peasants, and the impact of peasant flight on the relationships among different social strata in eighteenth-century Russia. Additionally, Dr. Gornostaev has begun working on a new project that explores how the problems and processes occurring in borderlands (flight, crime, violence, disease) between Russia and Poland-Lithuania shaped the states’ relations during the eighteenth century and how they allow us to shed new light on the history of the Partitions of Poland. His works have recently been published in Journal of Social History and Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, and his new article “The Bashagurov Brothers: A Story of Brigandage and Mobility in the Urals, 1789-1792” will appear in Slavic Review this fall.