Emancipation of the Serfs

The Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia (Russian: Крестьянская реформа 1861 года, Krestyanskaya reforma 1861 goda, lit. "The Peasant Reform of 1861") was the first and most important of liberal reforms effected during the reign of Alexander II of Russia. The reform, together with a related reform in 1861, amounted to the liquidation of serf dependence previously suffered by peasants of the Russian Empire. In some of its parts, the serfdom was abolished earlier.

The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs. By this edict more than 23 million people received their liberty.[1] Serfs were granted the full rights of free citizens, gaining the rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords. Household serfs were the worst affected as they gained only their freedom and no land.

In Georgia the emancipation was postponed until 1864 and on much better terms for the nobles than in Russia. State-owned serfs — the serfs on the imperial properties — were emancipated in 1866[1] and were given better and larger plots of land.

Pre-reform Russia

There were two main categories of peasants, those living on state lands, under control of the Ministry of State Property, and those living on the land of private landowners, with only the privately owned ones considered serfs. They were an estimated 38% of the population.[2] As well as having obligations to the state, they also were obliged to the landowner, who had great power over their lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, less than half of Russian peasants were serfs.

The rural population lived in households (dvory, singular dvor), gathered as villages (derevni, villages with churches were called selo), run by a mir ('commune', or obshchina) — isolated, conservative, largely self-sufficient and self-governing units scattered across the land every 10 km (6.2 mi) or so. There were around 20 million dvory in Imperial Russia, forty percent containing six to ten people.

Intensely insular, the mir assembly, the skhod (sel'skii skhod), appointed an elder (starosta) and a 'clerk' (pisar) to deal with any external issues. Land and resources were shared within the mir. The fields were divided among the families as nadel ("allotment") — a complex of strip plots, distributed according to the quality of the soil. The strips were periodically redistributed within the villages to produce level economic conditions. Despite this the land was not owned by the mir; the land was the legal property of the 100,000 or so landowners (pomeshchiks, an equivalent "landed gentry") and the inhabitants, as serfs, were not allowed to leave the property where they were born. The peasants were duty bound to make regular payments in labor and goods. It has been estimated that landowners took at least one third of income and production by the first half of the nineteenth century.[3]

The need for urgent reform was well understood in 19th-century Russia, and various projects of emancipation reforms were prepared by Mikhail Speransky, Nikolay Mordvinov, and Pavel Kiselev. Their efforts were, however, thwarted by conservative or reactionary nobility. In Western guberniyas serfdom was abolished early in the century. In Congress Poland, serfdom had been abolished before it became Russian (by Napoleon in 1807). Serfdom was abolished in the Governorate of Estonia in 1816, in Courland in 1817, and in Livonia in 1819.[4]

Shaping of the Manifesto

The liberal politicians who stood behind the 1861 manifesto - Nikolay Milyutin, Alexei Strol'man and Yakov Rostovtsev - also recognized that their country was one of a few remaining feudal states in Europe. The pitiful display by Russian forces in the Crimean War left the government acutely aware of the empire's backwardness. Eager to grow and develop industrial and hence military and political strength, they introduced a number of economic reforms. As part of this the end of serfdom was considered. It was optimistically hoped that after the abolition the mir would dissolve into individual peasant land owners and the beginnings of a market economy.

Alexander II, unlike his father, was willing to deal with this problem. Moving on from a petition from the Lithuanian provinces, a committee "for ameliorating the condition of the peasants" was founded and the principles of the abolition considered.

The main point at issue was whether the serfs should remain dependent on the landlords, or whether they should be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors.

The land-owners initially pushed for granting the peasants freedom but not any land. The tsar and his advisers, mindful of 1848 events in Western Europe, were opposed to creating a proletariat and the instability this could bring. But giving the peasants freedom and land seemed to leave the existing land-owners without the large and cheap labour-force they needed to maintain their estates and lifestyles. By 1859 a third of their estates and two thirds of their serfs were mortgaged to the state or noble banks. This was why they had to accept the emancipation.[5]

To 'balance' this, the legislation contained three measures to reduce the potential economic self-sufficiency of the peasants. Firstly a transition period of two years was introduced, during which the peasant was obligated as before to the old land-owner. Secondly large parts of common land were passed to the major land-owners as otrezki ("cut off lands"), making many forests, roads and rivers accessible only for a fee. The third measure was that the serfs must pay the land-owner for their allocation of land in a series of redemption payments, which in turn, were used to compensate the landowners with bonds. 75% of the total sum would be advanced by the government to the land-owner and then the peasants would repay the money, plus interest, to the government over forty-nine years. These redemption payments were finally canceled in 1907.

Emancipation Manifesto

The legal basis of the reform was the Tsar's Emancipation Manifesto of March 3 [O.S. February 19] 1861, accompanied by the set of legislative acts under the general name Regulations Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence (Russian: Положения о крестьянах, выходящих из крепостной зависимости, Polozheniya o krestyanakh, vykhodyashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti).

This Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs.[1] Serfs were granted the full rights of free citizens, gaining the rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords.


Mir communities had the power to distribute the land given to newly freed serfs by the Russian government amongst individuals within the community. Due to the community’s ownership of the land, as opposed to the individual’s, an individual peasant could not sell their portion of land in order to work in a factory in the city. A peasant was required to pay off long term loans received by the government. The money from these loans was given to the primary landowner. The land allotted to the recently freed serfs did not include the best land in the country, which continued to be owned by the nobility.

The implementation of land settlement varied over the vast and diverse territory of the Russian Empire, but typically a peasant had rights to buy out about half of the land he cultivated for himself. If he could not afford to pay it off, he would receive a half of the half, i.e., a quarter of the land, free. It was called pauper's allotment (bednyatskiy nadel).[6]

Although well planned in the legislation, the reform did not work smoothly. The conditions of the manifesto were regarded as unacceptable by many reform minded peasants; "In many localities the peasants refused to believe that the manifesto was genuine. There were troubles, and troops had to be called in to disperse the angry crowds." [7]

The land-owners and nobility were paid in government bonds and their debts were removed from the money before it was handed over. The bonds soon fell in value; the management skills of the land-owners were generally poor.


Although the emancipation reform was commemorated by the construction of the enormous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Moscow and history books give Alexander II the name of "The Tsar Liberator", its results were far from ideal. Household serfs were the worst affected as they gained only their freedom and no land.

The serfs from private estates were given less land than they needed to survive which led to civil unrest. The redemption tax was so high that the serfs had to sell all the grain they produced to pay the tax, which left nothing for them to survive on. Landowners also suffered because many of them were deeply in debt and the forced selling of their land left them also struggling to keep their lavish lifestyle.

The uneven application of the legislation did leave many peasants in Congress Poland and northern Russia both free and landless (batraks), with only their labor to sell, while in other areas peasants became the majority land owners in their province(s).

The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto affected only the privately owned serfs. The state-owned serfs were emancipated in 1866[1] and were given better and larger plots of land.

See also


Further reading

  • (English) Boris B. Gorshkov. A Life Under Russian Serfdom: Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, 1800-68. Budapest & New York, 2005
  • (English) Boris B. Gorshkov. "Serfs on the Move: Peasant Seasonal Migration in Pre-Reform Russia, 1800-61". Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History (Fall 2000):627-56
  • (English) Boris B. Gorshkov. "Serfs, Emancipation of" Encyclopedia of Europe, 1789-1914 John Merriman and Jay Winter, eds in chief New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006
  • Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, Vol. C Since 1740. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.

External links

  • Emancipation Manifesto, in Russianpl:Reforma uwłaszczeniowa Aleksandra II
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