The Emancipation Edict of 1861 The condition of the Russian peasant



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The Emancipation Edict of 1861
The condition of the Russian peasant

T
he most noticeable feature of 19th century Russian society was the high proportion of the population, around 80 per cent, who were peasants. In 1850 almost half of these peasants were serfs, peasants tied to the land they worked. They worked on the land given to them and in return for the use of this land they were required to work also for the noble landowner. Three days in the week was the average requirement but in the worse cases, and in busy weeks, this might be doubled (which meant that the serf could not look properly after their own land). The nobles generally had a free hand in the treatment of their serfs. As long as they produced their serfs’ taxes on time and found the required number of peasant conscripts they were free of government interference. Thus, a landowner could increase his serf’s duties and obligations or he could seize their property. He could control where and who they working with, he could make them domestic servants, sell them, force them to marry against their will so as to breed more serfs, or forbid them to marry who they wished. The landowner also administered justice to his serfs and could send them to Siberia or into the army. Whipping was commonplace. Whilst this is a generalisation of the condition of serfdom, and there were many kind landowners, existing evidence suggests there were still far more who treated their serfs brutally.


A 19th century engraving showing the treatment of Russian serfs
Why did Alexander II emancipate the serfs?

The Russian serf was granted emancipation (freedom) during the reign of Alexander II. Various explanations have been put forward for this momentous reform but there has been little agreement among historians. There is an economic argument – that serfdom was inefficient and prevented in­dustrialisation which Russia desperately needed - but this has been called into question; serfdom seems to have been productive and industrial development does not appear to have been a government concern. There is a moral argument ­serfdom was wrong - but this argument had been around for some time. More convincing perhaps, is the suggestion that fear was the main motive. There was growing peasant unrest - more than 100 serious local revolts occurred between 1848 and 1854. Alexander II himself warned the nobility in 1856 that it would be better if emancipation came 'from above' rather than 'from below'. However, it does not seem that the nobles were convinced by this argument. What is clear is that Alexander himself wanted emancipation and in an autocracy the wish of the autocrat counts for a great deal. He wanted to restore Russian prestige through modernisation and military reform. This required a reform of the ‘peasant situation’.


The terms of the Edict

In March 1861, in the face of considerable landowner opposition, the Emancipation Edict was passed. It extended basic rights to millions of Russian citizens and earned Alexander the name ‘Tsar Liberator’. It seemed to sug­gest that Alexander would steer a progressive course for the remainder of his reign. However, the precise terms of the Edict soon gave cause for great concern. They provoked considerable disap­pointment amongst the two great social classes most closely touched by the changes – the peasants and the landowners.


Serfs were given their personal freedom. They could not longer be sold. They could marry who they chose, own property, take legal action and take part in trade or business. In time, they were able to purchase land from the nobles in a process known as redemption. The government compensated the landowner for this loss of land and collected repayments from the peasants over 49 years. However, the land peasants received was not held personally but collectively by the village commune (mir). Members of the commune were therefore jointly responsible for redemption payments.
Peasant reaction to emancipation

The peasants were unhappy with the terms they received under emancipation. They ended up with less land than they had cultivated before (about one-fifth less - possibly more in fertile areas, less in infertile ones) Most had assumed that emancipation was a dual package of freedom and land-ownership, the concept of Redemption Payments simply did not occur to them. They did not understand why they had to pay for the land and felt that the Tsar should have just given it to them. It was also not good value since the nobles kept much of the best land and the price tended to be above market­ value. This was the cause of considerable resentment.
The peasants were also now bound to the mir in a manner that was not unlike the old practice of being tied to the nobility. This gave them no incentive to improve the land. The village assembly decided the size and position of their land and peasants had joint responsibility for taxes and payment (an administrative and financial convenience for the state) However, the right to administer justice was taken away from the landowner which now brought the discontented peasant into direct confrontation with the state official and, ultimately, the Imperial government. Indeed, hostility to 'masters' was a deeply ­held serf attitude which lived on after serfdom.
The way land was now farmed was also inefficient. Peasants were given narrow strips in different fields. The idea behind this was to create an equal distribution of the best and worst land, but peasants spent a great deal of time walking from one field to the next. (It also encouraged large families as the strips were distributed according to family size.)



A serf being freed following the Emancipation Edict

When the terms of the Edict began to be spelled out from the pulpits of their churches, jubilation was replaced by disbelief and anger. Large numbers of peasants convinced themselves that these arrangements were temporary and that true emancipation would be granted shortly. In 1861 alone, there were 499 incidents of serious rioting in which soldiers were deployed to restore order. Alexander himself was forced to intervene to correct the confused peasants:


Reports have reached me that you expect a new emancipation. There will be no emancipation except the one I have given you. Obey the laws and the statutes: work and toil! Obey the authorities and the landowners!
Incidents of disorder declined but the peasants remained deeply disap­pointed. Few peasants would have toasted Alexander as their 'Tsar Liberator'.

Noble reaction to emancipation


The nobles were also unhappy with the terms of the Emancipation Edict. They lost about one-third of their land and the labour of their serfs, and found their compensation payments being swallowed up by debts. Many were unable to make agriculture pay and were forced to sell up. Between 1861 and 1905 the acreage of land in noble possession fell by 41 per cent. The Edict badly damaged the economic fortunes of the land-owning class and signaled a significant decline in their social and political status. There is no doubt that their interests were sacrificed.
Alexander's most celebrated reform had therefore succeeded in alienating the principal classes in Russian society. He failed to earn the gratitude of the peasantry, while at the same time he lost the devotion of the nobility - a disastrous outcome given his initial hopes for the scheme. Nevertheless, what is really rather remarkable about this reform is that an autocratic regime could be so generous, giving its peasants both freedom and land - after all, the United States gave its slaves freedom only, and at a slightly later date. The arrangements in Russia did protect the peasants from the usual dire social consequences of rapid capitalist development - vagrancy, underemployment and slum dwelling. At the same time they allowed for agricultural growth and change. Furthermore, despite the anger of peasants and landowners towards the reform, the fact that emancipation had been introduced without civil war was something of an achievement.

The need for further reform


The emancipation of the Russian serf had far-reaching consequences. Once the power of the nobles was removed, it affected the government’s system of tax collection and conscription, both of which had operated through serfdom. Also, the judicial and local government systems had depended on the nobility’s control of the serfs, and so these now had to be changed. Major reforms were required to establish a new framework in which society could function.

In Summary

Before 1861, the Russian peasants had been serfs, virtually owned by their masters, the nobility. In 1861 they had been emancipated (freed) and given plots of land from the estates of the nobility. But they had been forced to pay for their land by making yearly redemption payments to the government. Most could not afford the payments and went into debt. The peasants felt betrayed by this. They believed that the land really belonged to the people that worked it – them! They wanted the rest of the big estates to be given to them. The nobility also resented the Emancipation Edict and therefore, in passing the legislation, the government alienated both social groups.



The Emancipation Edict of 1861



  1. What percentage of the Russian population were peasants in 1850? How many of these peasants were serfs?

  2. Using the information provided in the first paragraph, provide your own definition of ‘serfdom’.

  3. Historians have referred to the Russian serfs as ‘slaves’. Do you agree with this viewpoint? Explain your answer.

  4. Briefly outline the three main arguments as to why the serfs were granted emancipation.

  5. What did Alexander II mean when he said ‘emancipation should come from above rather than from below’?

  6. When was the Emancipation Edict passed?

  7. What name was given to Alexander II as a result of this legislation?

  8. Outline the terms of the Emancipation Edict.

  9. Provide four reasons why the peasants resented emancipation.

  10. How did Alexander II respond to peasant disorder following emancipation?

  11. Provide four reasons why the nobility resented emancipation.

  12. In what ways can the decision to emancipate the serfs be viewed as an achievement?

  13. Why was major reform now needed in the areas of local government, the army and the legal system?


The Emancipation Edict of 1861



  1. What percentage of the Russian population were peasants in 1850? How many of these peasants were serfs?

  2. Using the information provided in the first paragraph, provide your own definition of ‘serfdom’.

  3. Historians have referred to the Russian serfs as ‘slaves’. Do you agree with this viewpoint? Explain your answer.

  4. Briefly outline the three main arguments as to why the serfs were granted emancipation.

  5. What did Alexander II mean when he said ‘emancipation should come from above rather than from below’?

  6. When was the Emancipation Edict passed?

  7. What name was given to Alexander II as a result of this legislation?

  8. Outline the terms of the Emancipation Edict.

  9. Provide four reasons why the peasants resented emancipation.

  10. How did Alexander II respond to peasant disorder following emancipation?

  11. Provide four reasons why the nobility resented emancipation.

  12. In what ways can the decision to emancipate the serfs be viewed as an achievement?

  13. Why was major reform now needed in the areas of local government, the army and the legal system?


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