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...