The Emancipation of the Russians Serfs, 1861-A Charter of Freedom or an Act of Betrayal? Michael Lynch Takes a Fresh Look at the Key Reform of 19th-Century Russia

By Lynch, Michael | History Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Emancipation of the Russians Serfs, 1861-A Charter of Freedom or an Act of Betrayal? Michael Lynch Takes a Fresh Look at the Key Reform of 19th-Century Russia


Lynch, Michael, History Review


In 1861 serfdom, the system which tied the Russian peasants irrevocably to their landlords, was abolished at the Tsar's imperial command. Four years later, slavery in the USA was similarly declared unlawful by presidential order. Tsar Alexander II (1855-81) shared with his father, Nicholas I, a conviction that American slavery was inhumane. This is not as hypocritical as it might first appear. The serfdom that had operated in Russia since the middle of the seventeenth century was technically not slavery. The landowner did not own the serf. This contrasted with the system in the USA where the negro slaves were chattels; that is, they were regarded in law as the disposable property of their masters. In Russia the traditional relationship between lord and serf was based on land. It was because he lived on his land that the serf was bound to the lord.

The Russian system dated back to 1649 and the introduction of a legal code which had granted total authority to the landowner to control the life and work of the peasant serfs who lived on his land. Since this included the power to deny the serf the right to move elsewhere, the difference between slavery and serfdom in practice was so fine as to be indistinguishable. The purpose behind the granting of such powers to the Russian dvoriane (nobility of landowners) in 1649 had been to make the nobles dependent on, and therefore loyal to, the tsar. They were to express that loyalty in practical form by serving the tsar as military officers or public officials. In this way the Romanov emperors built up Russia's civil bureaucracy and the armed services as bodies of public servants who had a vested interest in maintaining the tsarist state.

As the table shows, the serfs made up just over a third of the population and formed half of the peasantry. They were most heavily concentrated in the central and western provinces of Russia.

Why was it necessary to end Serfdom?

In a number of respects serfdom was not dissimilar to the feudalism that had operated in many parts of pre-modern Europe. However, long before the 19th century, the feudal system had been abandoned in western Europe as it moved into the commercial and industrial age. Imperial Russia underwent no such transition. It remained economically and socially backward. Nearly all Russians acknowledged this. Some, known as slavophiles, rejoiced, claiming that holy Russia was a unique God-inspired nation that had nothing to learn from the corrupt nations to the west. But many Russians, of all ranks and classes, had come to accept that reform of some kind was unavoidable if their nation was to progress.

It became convenient to use serfdom to explain all Russia's current weaknesses: it was responsible for military incompetence, food shortages, over population, civil disorder, industrial backwardness. These were oversimplified explanations but there some truth in all of them: serfdom was symptomatic of the underlying difficulties that held Russia back from progress. It was, therefore, a particularly easy target for the intelligentsia, those intellectuals who in their writings argued for the liberalising of Russian society, beginning with the emancipation of the exploited peasants.

As often happened in Russian history, it was war that forced the issue. The Russian state had entered the Crimean War in 1854 with high hopes of victory. Two years later it suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Allied armies of France, Britain and Turkey. The shock to Russia was profound. The nation had always prided itself on its martial strength. Now it had been humiliated.

Alexander II's Role

By an odd twist of fate, defeat in the war proved of value to the new Tsar. Although he had been trained for government from an early age, foreign observers had remarked on how diffident and unsure he appeared. The war changed all that. Coming to the throne in 1855 in the middle of the conflict, Alexander II was unable to save Russia from military failure, but the humiliation convinced him that, if his nation was to have stability and peace at home and be honoured abroad, military and domestic reforms were vitally necessary. …

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