The forgotten history of Slavic slavery

Modern map of Eastern Europe
Old map how the slavery used to be like in Europe

Although the history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion, from ancient times to the present day, most uninformed people consider slavery to be an African phenomenon. But it was the Slavic nations of Europe that provided the vast majority of slaves through history. The Slavs are an ethnic group living in Central, Eastern, Southeast Europe, who speak the Slavic languages, and share, to varying degrees, certain cultural traits and historical backgrounds.

From the early 6th century they spread to inhabit most of Central, Eastern and Southeast Europe; while it was also known that the East Slavs colonized Siberia. And now, over half of Europe’s territory is inhabited by Slavic-speaking communities. Slavery was a legally recognized system in which people were legally considered the property or chattel of another. A slave had few rights and could be bought or sold and made to work for the owner without any choice or pay.

Painting of a Roman slave market
Painting of Roman soldiers with captured slaves

Modern nations and ethnic groups called by the ethnonym, Slavs, are considerably diverse both genetically and culturally, and relations between them (even within the individual ethnic groups themselves) are varied, ranging from a sense of connection to mutual feelings of hostility. Present-day Slavic people are classified chiefly as Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians, Slovenes, and Montenegrins.

Since antiquity, conquered people were forced into slavery and were taken to the victor’s nation. And these people were given new lives of servitude, as servants or sex slaves. Both Greece and Rome were notorious for capturing people and making slaves out of them. In the height of the Roman Empire, one in every three people was thought to have been a slave. Men were used as labourers, while women and girls were used for enjoyment purposes. Brothels and mistresses became commonplace.

Painting of Slavic sex slaves in ancient Greece
Painting of a Spartan (Greek) whipping his Slavic slaves

Records of slavery in Ancient Greece go as far back as Mycenaean Greece. The origins of those slaves were Slavic, and it appears that slavery became an important part of the Greek economy and society after the establishment of cities. Slavery was common practice and an integral component of ancient Greece, as it was in other societies of the time. It is estimated that in Athens, the majority of citizens owned at least one slave. Most ancient writers considered slavery not only natural but necessary.

The Romans inherited the institution of slavery from the Greeks and the Phoenicians. And as the Roman Republic expanded outward, it enslaved entire populations, thus ensuring an ample supply of labourers to work in Rome’s farms and households. But although many ethnic groups were enslaved, the Slavs would become the largest supplier of Rome’s slaves. In fact, it is their predilection for being taken as slaves that gave the people of that part of Europe the name of Slavs (slaves).

Painting of Vikings selling Eastern European slave to Arabs
Painting shows a Viking selling a Polish slave girl to a Persian merchant

In addition to the Greeks and the Romans, the Vikings also raided heavily and took the most slaves across Eastern Europe. But while the Vikings kept some slaves as servants (known as thralls), they sold most of their captives within the Byzantine or Islamic markets. The Viking slave-trade slowly ended in the 11th century, as the Vikings settled in the European territories they had once raided. They converted serfs to Christianity, and eventually merged with the local populace.

The Byzantine-Ottoman wars and the Ottoman wars in Europe also resulted in the taking of large numbers of Slavic slaves and using or selling them in the Islamic world. After the Muslim conquests of North Africa and most of the Iberian Peninsula, the Islamic world became a huge importer of Slavic slaves from Central and Eastern Europe. The Muslim powers of Iberia both raided for slaves and purchased slaves from European merchants, often the Jewish Radhanites, one of the few groups who could easily move between the Christian and Islamic worlds.

A Slavic woman being exhibited before her Arab masters
Eastern European slaves with Arab masters

From the 1440s into the 18th century, more than 3.5 million Slavs were sold into slavery by North Africans. And in 1575, the Tatars captured over 100,000 Ukrainians; and a 1676 raid took almost 80,000. An additional 60,000 Ukrainians were captured in 1688; some were ransomed, but most were sold into slavery. The Romanians fared no better, as some of the Roma people were enslaved over five centuries in Romania until abolition in 1864.

Muslims has continued to trade in Slavic slaves well into the Modern times. Muslim pirates, primarily Algerians with the support of the Ottoman Empire, raided European coasts and shipping from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and took thousands of captives, whom they sold or enslaved. Many were held for ransom, but the majority were sold. The raids gradually ended with the naval decline of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the European conquest of North Africa throughout the 19th century.

Vikings and their naked slaves waiting to board ship
Slavic slave being sold in Crimean slave market

The Mongol invasions and conquests in the 13th century also resulted in the taking of numerous Slavic captives into slavery. The Mongols preferred to enslave skilled individuals, women and children, and marched them to Karakorum or Sarai, whence they were sold throughout Eurasia. Many of these slaves were shipped to the slave market in Novgorod. So clearly, the Slavic countries became the greatest source for the provision of slaves throughout the centuries.

Poland banned slavery in the 15th century, and in Lithuania, slavery was formally abolished in 1588. ¬†However, slavery remained a institution in Russia until the 1730s, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves had formally been converted into serfs earlier, in 1679. The escaped Polish and Russian serfs and ‘kholops’ formed autonomous communities in the southern steppes, where they eventually became known as Cossacks.

Young 16th Century slave waiting to be sold
A painting of a 19th Century slave sale

Throughout history, the enslavement of the Slavic people has been practiced by almost every military power over the centuries. From the Greeks to the Romans, the Vikings to the Mongols, and in recent times, both the Germans and Russians have enslaved the Slavic nations. That is why the commonly known term of ‘Slavs’ (referring to the people of that region), is said to have originated from their constant use as slaves by the conquering powers throughout history.

Although slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, slavery and human trafficking remains an international problem and an estimated 39.8 million people are living in illegal slavery today. The selling of young women into sexual slavery has become one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the global economy. During World War II, the Germans used Slavic labour from across the occupied Balkans to support their war effort, and numbering perhaps 6 million people. Additionally, the Soviet Union had about 14 million Slavic people working in the Gulags during its existence. And this camp system was also used to colonize Siberia.

A statue of Genghis Khan, the most feared Mongol warrior
Mongols capturing slaves in Russia

Unfortunately, despite the fact that slavery has been made illegal over 150 years ago, there is still a thriving Slavic slave trade in existence to this very day. In 1997 alone, as many as 180,000 young women from Russia, as well as the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, were sold commodities in the sex markets of the developed countries in Europe and the Middle East. The majority of trafficked victims in Eastern Europe are young adult women, and the most common reason for Slavic trafficking is sexual exploitation.

However, Slavic trafficking for forced labour makes up one third of all trafficking occurrences. Victims are sent to work in agriculture, construction, fishery, manufacturing, and textile industries. There are also Slavic women and men being trafficked for the purposes of domestic servitude. And children in this region are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced marriages, and forced begging.

Slavic slave workers of World War II
Slavic families fleeing German capture

Another factor contributing to the recent rise in Slavic trafficking of women has been militarization and war in the Balkans. The presence of a large number of foreign men in the Balkans after the war in Yugoslavia led to the trafficking of thousands of Slavic women and girls for commercial sexual exploitation. The connection between military bases and sex work is a well-known phenomenon, and soldiers have helped drive the demand for sex and brothels in this region.

Child trafficking in Eastern Europe is mostly likely to occur in children younger than twelve (for begging, theft, and other street crimes), and older than 15 for commercial sexual exploitation. Some cultural taboos generally prevent the trafficking of young boys for sexual exploitation however, some cases have been noted among Romanian children trafficked abroad. But more susceptible to trafficking are children with a disability and children belonging to specific ethnic minorities, such as the Jevgjit in Albania and the Romani people in other parts of the region.

Child slavery otton in north west Uzbekistan
Romanian child slaves in Eastern Europe

Crime groups in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union have achieved success by being flexible with their routes and methods to suit the rapidly changing global market. And the distinctiveness of post-Soviet and Eastern European trafficking is the speed within which it has grown and globalized. Now, despite the legal advancements that have been made over the years, all forms of Slavic slave trafficking are ‘still’ endemic within the region.

Slavic prostitutes in a Western European brothel
Child slave from Eastern Europe