The Emancipation of Russia's Serfs in 1861
An outwardly liberal measure may not have been what it seemed
The Emancipation of the Serfs of 1861, carried out by Russian Tsar Alexander II, is often regarded as a rare act of liberalism and humanity by an autocratic regime. However, in reality it was just another measure designed to preserve the status quo.
The Emancipation of 1861
Russia was one of the last countries in Europe to be organized by a feudal system according to which each class of society was “owned” by the class that was superior to it. At the top of the tree was the Tsar, who ruled as an absolute monarch, and at the bottom were a vast number of peasants, or serfs, who were tied to the land and could be bought or sold together with the land. Their status was not far removed from slavery.
The Crimean War of 1854-6 had shown that this system was bankrupt and was hopelessly inefficient as a means of feeding a growing population. Reform was desperately needed and the Emancipation (or “Peasant Reform”) of 1861 was the result.
The Tsar who instituted the reform was Alexander II, who is generally regarded as having been the most liberal Tsar of the 19th century, but this was only by comparison with the extreme autocrats whom he followed and who succeeded him. It is to be noted that even his reactionary father, Nicholas I, had proposed to end serfdom, for purely economic reasons, so it is misleading to regard the emancipation as having been motivated by a genuine concern to improve the lot of those on the bottom rung of Russian society.
The Emancipation Manifesto was signed into law on 19th February 1861 (3rd March according to the Julian calendar then in force in Russia). It granted freedom to 23 million serfs on private estates and in domestic households. The rights granted included that of marriage without the landlord’s consent and that of ownership of land and business enterprises, although the right to buy land only applied to agricultural serfs. Other decrees were signed in 1864 and 1866, the latter applying to serfs on estates owned directly by the Tsar.
One reason behind the move towards emancipation was a desire to defuse revolutionary feelings, but the way in which the reform was implemented led to complete failure in this regard. Indeed, the emancipation could be regarded as having perpetrated a complete swindle on the peasantry that was to have profound consequences in later decades.
Why was it a swindle?
For one thing, the landlords came out of the deal better than did most of the peasants. They were able to retain the best land and were compensated, at inflated prices, for the land that they were forced to sell to the peasants. The peasants could not buy land as individuals but only as village communities, and village officials became responsible for raising taxes to pay for the land purchases. These payments continued for more than 40 years in some places and were responsible for most peasants continuing to live in dire poverty.
Peasant families still had to farm land that was spread in small parcels over a wide area, as their ancestors had done since the Middle Ages. They also had to plough the landlord’s estate with their own equipment and horses, either for wages, as rent for additional plots of land, or to pay off debts.
The result of emancipation, therefore, was to leave the landlords with their economic privileges undiminished, and with the peasants no longer being serfs but wage-labourers. The other freedoms, such as that of being able to marry without consent, hardly made up for the continuing economic dependence of the peasantry on the landlord class, and the fact that the peasants were still tied to the land.
The rise of the kulak class
After the first Russian Revolution of 1905 changes were made that did create extra freedoms, particularly the freedom to leave the village community should a peasant family so choose, and to consolidate their strips of land into single farms if they chose to stay. Many peasants joined the move to the cities and became workers in the vast new factories that were being established as part of Russia’s much delayed Industrial Revolution. They sold their land to more prosperous peasants who became the class of “kulaks”.
The kulaks comprised about a million families who employed their poorer neighbours under conditions that were no better than those imposed by the former rich landowners. The kulaks would later, in the 1920s and 1930s, become the chief victims of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture under the Communist system.
Alexander II’s reform was therefore nothing like the liberal measure that it might at first sight appear to have been. It benefited the landowners more than the peasantry, and it did nothing to avert the ever-present threat of hunger and disease in the Russian countryside. After more than half a century of emancipation, Russian agriculture still showed the lowest yields in Europe at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.