Alexander II, the Tsar of Russia in 1861, issued the emancipation decree for serfs. The idea behind this was that it would give complete freedom to all the Serfs and Peasants of Russia. It is easy to see the reasons behind his emancipation.
The Russians who ruled the country had no idea or barely suspected that there were weaknesses in their state’s structure. They feared this would eventually lead to the collapse of the empire, if not addressed immediately. Russia lost 600,000 people in the war. St. Petersburg might have been able to boast of having the largest force in Europe but bad roads, antiquated weaponry, and low-morale made it impossible for them to use that power. Far more dangerous was a wave of peasant revolt that swept over the entire country. The Tsarists in power were convinced that Russia’s Western neighbours had surpassed it and made the country vulnerable to attack.
Liberal thinkers spent a lot of time and effort trying to understand the causes behind Russia’s defeat. Serfdom in Russia was a major issue when comparing Russian and Western societies. Alexander II’s Emancipation for Serfs of February 19,1861 was a step towards reform, regardless of whether it was a genuine act of progressivism or just a necessity to create an army in case of war.
Alexander’s emancipation was a second reason for his decision. It could be used later to promote Russian reform. If serfs are to be liberated in Russia, then the nobility will have to lose their manorial rights and the peasantry will be granted civil rights. In such a scenario, it would be necessary for local administrations to undergo reforms as well as law courts so that the rights of the peasants are protected since they no longer fall under the exclusive jurisdictions of landowners. Alexander believed that emancipation would lead to an economic utopia, and reforms in other areas of Russian society.
The Tsar was personally responsible for the liberation of serfs. Alexander’s reform ideas were generally ignored by some key groups in Russia. These included the aristocracy as well as the gentry, who controlled the economy. This lacklustre attitude of the nobility was what pushed the Tsar into action to free the serfs. Alexander had some support but the nobility was uninterested in emancipation ideas when the Tsar asked in March of 1856. It was up to Alexander’s liberal intelligentsia to promote this policy in the press. The Orthodox was not willing to make drastic changes and the official classes were content with the power they had. Serfs also lacked the unity to be enthusiastic about emancipation. Alexander II was frustrated by the lack of interest shown by landowners in his reform proposals. This fueled his desire to inject some energy and motivation into the reform.
Less clear is the extent to which external Europe influenced Tsarist policy. Alexander made his first public pronouncement on the serfdom issue during the Parisian negotiations after the Crimean War. Alexander might have seen emancipation in Europe as a means to regain Russia’s influence after his defeat. Alexander might have wanted to get recognition for the economic reforms he had made by notifying European countries of his plans to emancipate. He may also have hoped this would attract foreign trade and investment. Also, a general desire for the Russian economy to be prosperous and competitive on the European continent may have motivated him to emancipate. His policy was based on the 307 million roubles deficit of 1856.
In the agricultural trade of Russia, there is evidence that the country has improved in the years following Emancipation. The average export of grain rose from 86 million to 136 millions in 1866-1870 and to 286.5 million in 1876-1880.
Commonly, the Tsar argued that emancipation was necessary to quell peasant revolts. The number of revolts and outbreaks in the Black Sea region had increased. In 1826-34 there were 148. Alexander was afraid to offend the nobility because they held administrative posts in Russian society and had caused the downfalls of previous Tsars. The compensation policy was designed to appease landowners who would see their serfs freed.
Alexander used the fear of uprisings to manipulate the nobility. The nobility was then more likely to accept the emancipation as it would maintain the serfs’ dependent status and avoid a new peasant. The Tsar’s fear of revolution was more of an ruse to convince the nobility not to reject his reform policies. Though he had no love for civil unrest – this was not the most important factor.
The emancipation law was intended to liberate millions of Serfs. This was not the reality. In reality, the emancipation decree gave the peasants some freedom in terms rights but also new restrictions.
They could now trade, marry whomever they wanted, and act according to their wishes. In itself, this is a major achievement. Slavery had been abolished years ago in the rest of world. Russia was finally catching up to modernization in this respect. When we consider their freedom from the oppressive and brutal landlords, the argument becomes more compelling. There was no way that landlords would torture their tenants in such a brutal manner again.
The peasants were guaranteed a job. The peasants had access to all common land, woods, grazing lands, and fertile soil. Their exploitation was very small and rare. A serf population of 20 million was only sent 107 peasants to Siberia each year. Sexual exploitation, however, was an exception.
They lost many rights after emancipation. In the past, they had all they needed to farm. After emancipation they received a third less land than they used to. The serfs were given infertile, limited quantities of land by their landlords, who had no selfless motives. The serf’s land was not free, nor were the Redemption Payments for the loss of production. The situation was almost the same. The land was theirs and they could not leave it until these heavy fines were paid.
One would think that freedom would compensate for the loss of the old way of life, but this is not always the case. For this to be understood, it is necessary to examine how peasants of that time lived. At this time, the peasantry consisted of two distinct groups: the serfs and the state-owned peasants. Theoretically both groups had a connection to the land, but in reality this wasn’t the case. They acted as if they owned land even though they didn’t own it until 1937. They had a great deal of freedom to move around their area so long they paid their taxes.
State peasants faced a very different situation. They were bound to the land by the Mir, landlords and nobles. The collective Mir was the main factor that impacted their freedom, as it made almost all of the decisions in a Serf’s daily life. All these decisions were taken by an “Elder”, elected and whose decision had no question. Some peasants simply continued living in their same houses and working the same farms, but they instead gave the Mir the produce.
In Russian society, the effects of emancipation were the first. Alexander had two reasons for his decision. First, he believed that agricultural practices needed to be more profitable in order for Russia to become a more prosperous, more developed country. The serf system had retarded agriculture development and grain production. Between 1853-58, for example, the Russian budget deficit grew from 52 to a staggering 307 million silver Roubles. By the year 1860, it had become clear that the noblest landowners weren’t receiving enough incomes. 60% of serfs who were privately owned were mortgaged by the state. The increase in grain sales after reform, both in absolute terms and relative ones, shows that this policy has been successful in a way. The increase in grain exports after the reform shows that the policy was successful to a certain extent.