The emancipation of the serfs: reform from above

In February 1861, Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1855-1881) issued a decree that freed all Russian serfs. By a single stroke of the tsar’s pen all Russians were to enjoy the status of free men. Despite the Russian empire’s reputation as a bastion of conservatism, Russian serfs were emancipated two years before Abraham Lincoln issued his celebrated Emancipation Proclamation. What caused the tsar to undertake such an important reform? And did peasant emancipation have its desired effect?

Russian serfdom

Russian serfdom is often compared to American slavery, but it is important to distinguish between the two. Under serfdom, the peasants were tied to the land and passed to new owners when the land was sold. Serfs could not be bought and sold individually and only rarely did masters move serfs from one of their estates to another. The practice of serfdom in Russia was therefore economically inefficient, but avoided the separation of serf families, a phenomenon which characterised slavery in the American South.

The lot of the Russian serf was in many ways preferable to workers in industrialising countries. The Russian peasant had the opportunity to produce a surplus of food to support his family. Masters were inclined to care for their peasants’ welfare in order to keep them productive. However, thefact that masters had arbitrary power over their slaves convinced many people that the institution was morally unjust.

An anachronistic institution

A small but influential group of Russians believed that serfdom was out of date. By the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), Russian intellectuals influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith became convinced that serfdom was not only immoral but an impediment to economic development in the Russian empire. In 1790, Alexander Radishchev anonymously published A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, a passionate critique of serfdom.He was exiled to Siberia for his troubles.

Serfdom also came under pressure from Russian nationalists following the Patriotic War of 1812 against the Napoleonic invaders. The peasants were glorified for their courage and self-sacrifice while confronting the enemy. Many served in the Russian army and won military decorations. Surely it was too much to ask for them to return to their farms and serve the whim of their masters?

Despite attempts by Catherine the Great and Alexander I (1801-1825) to abolish serfdom, most of the nobility continued to defend the institution. They argued that serfdom made Russia a great military power. In theory, serfdom allowed the state to control the population. This facilitated the collection of taxes and the ability to call on a large conscript army when the country was at war.

The tsar liberator

Alexander II came to the throne in 1855 during a time of crisis. Russian armies suffered serious setbacks in the Crimean War and failed to live up to their expectations as the strongest army in Europe. Following this disaster, Alexander was keen to revitalise and modernise the Russian state by introducing a series of reforms. The first step was to abolish serfdom.

One by one the arguments in favour of serfdom melted away. As military technology advanced, a conscript army was no longer sufficient to win military victories. A professional standing army was required.A new generation of Russian intelligentsia, ‘the men of the 60s’, became more assertive in their criticism of the Russian state than their fathers, ‘the men of the 40s’.

Boris Kustodiev. The Liberation of the Peasants

Boris Kustodiev. The Liberation of the Peasants

Alexander understood it was the perfect opportunity to abolish serfdom. In a speech to the Moscow nobility in 1856, Alexander said, “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for it to begin abolishing itself from below.” The nobles eventually accepted compensation from the state for the loss of their serfs. On the morning of 19 February 1861, the text of the Emancipation Manifesto was read throughout the empire, proclaiming that “the serfs will receive in time the full rights of free rural inhabitants.” The peasants gave thanks to God and praised Alexander as the Tsar Liberator.

A rotten compromise?

The proclamation of the emancipation decree was the finest honour of Alexander II’s life. The future anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin commented on the scenes that greeted the tsar: “Crowds of peasants and educated men stood in front of the palace, shouting hurrahs, and the Tsar could not appear without being followed by demonstrative crowds running after his carriage.”Yet twenty years later, while returning to the Winter Palace from a regular troop inspection, the Tsar Liberator was assassinated by radical terrorists.

The Russian liberals who had praised the liberation of the serfs soon criticised the terms under which they were emancipated. The state was obliged to buy the peasants’ land from the noblesas compensation, but the peasants were forced to pay 49 years’ worth of ’emancipation dues’ in order to redeem their land from the state. These payments placed a heavy burden on the newly-liberated peasants. Radicals considered the tsar’s compromise a betrayal of the peasantry and redoubled their efforts to dismantle the tsarist state.

Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga

Ilya Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga

The assassination of Tsar Alexander further divided Russian society. After the tsar’s assassination, his successors became reluctant to make more concessions to the radicals. After all, Alexander had abolished serfdom (1861), introduced local government (1864), introduced trial by jury (1870) and reformed the army (1874). For all his efforts he was presented with an assassin’s bomb. His son and successor Alexander III launched a wave of repression, driving the radicals underground. They would not remain there for long.

The text by Jimmy Chen

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