What are the reasons for the failure of the Emancipation of Serfdom in 1861? Abstract
The necessity of reforming society based on serfdom had not been new in XIX century. However the same way, a person with a cancer does not show symptoms of illness in the first stages, the same way it was not apparent that Russia had been economically and industrially “sick” until the defeat in the Crimean War. The most significant reform to remedy Russian backwardness was the Emancipation Edict, followed by a number of jurisdictional, educational and military reforms. The essay focuses on emancipation, as it was the most radical change, representative for the trends and problems in Russia. It discusses the causes why such promising reform proved to be inefficient and unsuccessful, and concludes that the emancipation of serfs was not only imposed by the circumstances exposed by the Crimean War, it was also voluntary reform of the Tsar and even the nobility. The failure laid in the dichotomy of this intention typical for the Russian elite; eager to improve quality of life of every Russian, they were never ready to make any concession on power or wealth. Carefully, but ill-thought Emancipation Edict, therefore had never had any chance of success. I. The Importance of the Crimean War
When Alexander II became a tsar in 1855, it was obvious that his country would not survive without change. Russia had entered the Crimean War in 1854 with high hopes of victory. Two years later it suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Allied armies of France, Britain and Turkey. Unfortunately, the first and by far the most significant reform, the emancipation of the serfs, is often accredited to this defeat. It is a common view among historians, that Russia with its exposed backwardness, an incompetently led, poorly-provisioned, and disease-ridden expeditionary force, realized that its military, social, and economic systems were desperately outmoded, and therefore in the aftermath, they quickly freed the serfs to pave the way for rapid industrialization. But the caution should be exercised here; the Crimean War should not be viewed as the reason of the reforms, but it had rather a function of a trigger, and its importance should not be overestimated. Russia had suffered economic and industrial backwardness before the war; it was actually the reason of her defeat. Serfdom had been spotted as an inefficient system already by Nicholas I. The Pugachev Revolt between 1773 and 1775 had served already in XVIII century as a reminder of the threat that a disaffected peasantry could represent. The number of local riots had significantly increasing sine 1840’s. Their significance can be exaggerated: it would be too much to speak of revolutionary peasant movement in these years. They were definitely not big enough to be a real threat, Nevertheless, they worried the provincional governors and landowners, whose reports reached St. Petersburg. Nicholas I introduced a series of minor reforms which improved the conditions of state and crown peasants, but as long as Russia made an impression of sufficiently functioning state, it would be extremely hard for the tsar to find enough support to abolish the whole serfdom. In this sense, the timing of Crimean War should be appreciated; if Russia had not been defeated, it would have probably deferred the emancipation even longer, the economic and industrial gap would only continue deteriorate the living conditions of Russians. The consequent vulnerability of Russia would sooner or later attract some foreign invasion or revolution within. II. The Failure of Serfdom
In defeated and humiliated Russia, the reform that had been ignored for so long could not have been avoided any longer. What was then actually the impact of serfdom in Russia? It somehow touched upon every aspect of Russian society, deeply affecting the economic, social and political structures of the nation. Serfdom, a bulwark of Russian society, was a medieval...
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