The condition of the Russian peasant
The 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...