On this day in 1861, six years after being crowned Tsar of Russia, Alexander signed the Emancipation Act, bringing to an end the centuries old institution of serfdom. It brought immediate freedom to more than 23 million Russian peasants, who until that point had been the property of their masters, and existed in a world devoid of rights and privilege.
Serfdom had existed in Russia since the eleventh century. From the earliest of times, landowners held a right of taxation over the peasants living on their land. Slowly the laws that governed ownership rights evolved, and the power of landowner over peasant became all-encompassing. A succession of decrees made the peasants evermore beholden to their masters, the most crucial of which came in 1658, when the right of the peasant to leave the land was completely removed. Eventually every aspect of a serf’s life was controlled by the landowner. A serf could not even marry without the express permission of his master.
The catalyst for Alexander II’s reform was not so much a sense of liberal enlightenment, but more a recognition that Russia was seriously behind its European neighbours. Alexander had assumed the throne in February 1855, towards the end of the Crimean War. It proved a disastrous campaign, and highlighted Russia’s backwardness in comparison with other European nations. Alexander recognised that without significant changes, Russia could not dominate the European stage. Serfdom, in Alexander’s opinion, certainly did not help matters. It created a resentful and work-shy peasant population, which led to poor productivity and adversely affected the Russian economy. Despite opposition from the landowners, Alexander knew that for Russia to move forward, serfdom had to go.
While the bill broke the chains that tied the serfs to their masters, it did not spell the end of privation for the peasantry. Under the laws of the Reform Bill, former serfs were entitled to a small plot of land that had previously belonged to the local landowner. The landowners were compensated for the land by the government, which then recouped the cost from the peasantry. In many cases, the land allocated to the freed serfs was of poor quality, and it was a struggle to earn a living from it. Many peasants ended up working for their former employer, and while nominally free, remained dependent on the nobility for their existence.
But despite emancipation bringing fresh problems for the peasantry, the overall effect was undeniably positive. It meant that, overnight, more than twenty million Russians attained full citizenship, along with all the privileges that entailed. Most importantly, they gained psychological freedom: no longer could one Russian be said to ‘belong’ to another.
The emancipation of the serfs was a turning point in Russian history, and an event that defined Alexander II’s reign. It helped drag Russia out of the dark ages, bringing to an end the last vestige of slavery in the enlightened world. It might also be considered the beginning of Alexander’s demise. The Tsar’s efforts to reform Russia unwittingly created conditions that encouraged political unrest and revolutionary fervour, and it came as little surprise when Alexander’s reign was brought to an end by an assassin’s bomb in March 1881.
Photo Credit: © Henrik Winther Andersen / Alamy
Photo Caption: St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia.