The Era of Proclamations
The one or two years following the liberation of the serfs on February 16, 1861 are known by Russian historians as “the era of proclamations.” For the first time since the Decembrist uprising in 1825, open agitation was carried on against the regime in the streets of Petersburg and Moscow. Inflammatory leaflets turned up everywhere—not only on doorhandles and in mailboxes but also lying scattered along main streets such as the Nevsky Prospect. The sheer fact of their appearance was a highly significant and unprecedented event—not to mention the boldness of those who wrote and distributed them. The sudden explosion of this propaganda campaign revealed the rancorous discontent of the radical intelligentsia with the tsar whom, just a few years before, they had been hailing in adulatory terms for his intention to bring an end to serfdom.
Even before the issuance of the liberation decree, the radical progressives had become convinced that the economic terms proposed would, in the long run, lead to the impoverishment of the peasantry. The peasants themselves were simply bewildered by the complicated terms of the manifesto, which, of course, most of them could not read, and rumors swept the vast countryside that the “true liberation” supposedly proclaimed by the tsar was being concealed by the rapacious landed gentry. Literate peasants, who set up as “interpreters” (in the sense desired by the people) of the floridly written and ambiguous liberation decree, gained a wide following among credulous listeners only too willing to believe in the treachery and mendacity of their overlords. Such a “true liberation” had long been cherished in the apocalyptic imagination of the Russian peasants, who dreamed that they would be granted, without repayment, all the land they deemed to be their own—”mainly,” writes Franco Venturi, “the complete separation of their community from the landlord, the breaking of all ties between them, and hence the obshchina closing in on itself.” 1
Refusal to obey the local authorities occurred in several districts, and the most widespread disorder took place in the small village of Bezdna in the province of Kazan. Here, a raskolnik named Anton Petrov acquired an immense authority over the peasantry of the region when, on the basis of an aberrant read
1 Franco Venturi, The Roots of Revolution, trans. Frances Haskell (New York, 1966), 218.