Great Reforms

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At the accession of Alexander II in 1855, some twenty-two million Russian peasants were serfs; their status was like slavery. "State peasants" were similarly constrained. In 1861, serfdom was abolished. Other reforms followed. Together they are called the "great reforms." How did they emerge from a conservative regime? How did they relate one to another? What was their impact on Russia's development?

The explanations most often given for the abolition of serfdom do not work. Russia's defeat in the Crimean War left the regime discredited and impoverished, ill positioned to challenge the serfholding elite. The regime believed that peasant rebellions were more likely a result of reform. It expected economic growth if serfdom were abolished, but dreaded economic disruption. It understood that serfdom was outmoded, but it seemed to work. When, in August 1857, a secret committee pronounced that "not only the peasants but even the Government itself is not prepared for a general emancipation" of the serfs, Alexander expressed satisfaction.

Three months later, the government began to reform serfdom. The turnabout occurred because serfdom was weak. The serfholders were dependent upon the state, to which they had mortgaged twothirds of their serfs and on which they relied to keep the serfs subordinate. They had no political experience. Most of them shared a culture oriented to western Europe, where serfdom had disappeared. No articulate voice in Russia could praise serfdom. Thanks to censorship, nothing critical or supportive of serfdom, appeared in print. Russia had no Garrison, but also no Calhoun; serfdom had no ideology.

The breakthrough took the form of directives to the governor-general of three northwestern provinces. These incoherent documents were the by-product of an abandoned initiative, but their publication committed the government to the reform of serfdom. And they contained the germ of a resolution to the key problem. The government believed that a noble's land was inalienable private property; peasants believed the land was theirs because they tilled it. Freedom without land would, from a peasant perspective, be a monstrous injustice. To give privately-owned land to the peasants would, from an elite perspective, be no less monstrous. The directives reaffirmed the serfholders' property rights, but provided peasant households with the use of allotments of land.

Ostensibly, the nobility of each province was to participate in drafting the reform. The government learned that there was no flim-flam the nobility would not tolerate. It made a series of promises to the nobility and withdrew or ignored each one. The nobles barely responded, confident because most top positions in government were held by men as hostile to reform as they were.

The abolition legislation was not created by these dignitaries, but by a group of zealous reformers assembled in an Editorial Commission. They had enormous energy and guile. They managed to convince Alexander that their critics were actually challenging his autocratic prerogatives.

The legislative process was epitomized when the commission's draft came before the Council of State in early 1861. The council was composed of Alexander's friends and confidants. It voted down each section of the draft by large margins. The members were counting on the emperor's sympathy and his distrust of reformers. These dignitaries could not, however, come up with a coherent alternative. Furthermore, the council was not a legislature. With each section of the draft, the emperor used his prerogative to endorse the minority position, and the Editorial Commission's version became law without significant change. The result was a cautious reform that was nonetheless much more radical than anyone in authority had contemplated.

The terms of the legislation promulgated on February 19, 1861, varied from province to province. The reformers wanted to accommodate the nobility. Hence, in the North the allotments of land assigned to the ex-serfs were relatively large but costly; since the land was of little value, the squires would rather have cash. To the south, where land was valuable, the allotments were smaller but not so costly. The complexity of the legislation is compounded by special cases, some involving millions of peasants. The commune was unknown in Ukraine and was not imposed there. State peasants would be more generously treated than serfs when the reform was extended to them in 1866; the regime was more willing to sacrifice its interests than those of serfholders. If one focuses on a majority of Great Russian serfs, one can grasp the reform by comparing it to the system of serfdom.

(1) Authority: The essence of serfdom was the subjection of the serfs to the arbitrary power of their master or mistress. Serfholders could buy and sell serfs and subject them to physical or sexual abuse. The laws limiting the squires' powers were vague and rarely enforced. This arbitrary power of the serfholding noble was utterly abolished by the legislation of 1861. The ex-serfs found themselves subject in a new way, however, to the nobles as a class, because they dominated local administration. And most ex-serfs were dependent, as renters, wage-laborers, or sharecroppers, on a squire in the neighborhood.

(2) Ascription: A second element of serfdom was ascription, or fastening. The reform left peasants ascribed, but transferred the power to regulate their comings and goings from the squire to the village commune, which now issued the passports that enabled peasants to go in search of wage work. The government retained ascription as a security measure.

(3) Economics: It was the economic elements of the reform that most severely restricted the freedom of ex-serfs. Most peasants received (through the commune) an allotment of land and had to meet the obligations that went with the allotment. It was almost impossible to dispose of the allotment. Few peasants who wanted to pull up stakes and start afresh could do so.

Servile agriculture was linked to the repartitional commune. Plowland was held by the commune and subject to periodic repartition among households. The objective of repartition was to match landholding to the labor-power of each household, since the commune allocated and real-located burdens, such as taxes, as well as plowland. The reform, like the serfholders before, imposed a system of mutual responsibility. If one household did not meet its obligations, the others had to make up the difference. It was in the interests of the commune that each household have plowland proportional to its labor power.

Also characteristic of the servile economy was "extraeconomic compulsion." Under serfdom, it was not the market but the serfholders's arbitrary authority that determined the size of the serfs' allotments and the dues they had to render. After the reform, these were determined not by the market, but by law.

These characteristics of the servile economy broke down slowly because, to minimize disruption, the reformers took the elements of serfdom as their point of departure. The size of the allotments set by statute derived from the size under serfdom. In the interests of security, the reformers retained the commune, although it impeded agricultural progress. The statutes sought to minimize the economic dependence of ex-serfs on their former masters. They provided that peasants could redeem their allotments over a forty-nine-year period. Redemption entailed an agreement between the squire and his ex-serfs, which was hard to achieve. Until the redemption process began in a village, the ex-serfs were in a state of "temporary obligation," subject to yesterday's serfholder. Within limits set by statute, they had to render dues in cash or in labor in return for their allotments.

The abolition of serfdom regulated more than it changed, but regulation represented an enormous change: The arbitrary power of the serfholder had been the essence of serfdom. The reform could not provide an immediate stimulus to economic development. The regime set a higher value on stability, on the prosperity of the nobility, and on the welfare of the peasantry, than on development. It feared chaos more than it wanted progress. So it imposed stability and opened the way for a slow passage out of the structures of serfdom.

It is argued that the other great reforms followed from the abolition of serfdom, but the peasant reform reordered the Russian village, while the other reforms addressed the opposite end of the social spectrum. For example, the education reform (1863) restored autonomy to Russia's universities, permitting the rector and faculty to run them; the minister of education, however, had broad authority to interfere. It also provided for technical secondary schools. However, only graduates of the traditional, classical schools could enter the universities; the regime supposed that Greek and Latin had a sobering effect on the young. The reform also gave new authority, but little money, to local agencies to establish primary schools. Finally, it allowed some education to women, provided that they would get an education "appropriate for the future wife and mother."

The censorship was reformed in 1865. Under the old system, a censor went over every word of a book or magazine, deleting or changing anything subversive. This system had been supportive of serfdom, but useful publications had been impeded, and pre-censorship had not prevented the dissemination of radical ideas. The emperor wanted knowledge to flourish, but he was suspicious of intellectuals. He observed, "There are tendencies which do not accord with the views of the government; they must be stopped." The censorship reform did that. It eliminated the prepublication censorship of books and most journals. Editors and publishers were responsible for everything they printed, however, and subject to heavy fines, criminal penalties, and the closing of periodicals. The regime appreciated that publishers dreaded financial loss. The result was self-censorship, more exacting than precensorship.

The Judicial Reform (1864) was not closely related to the abolition of serfdom, since peasants were not usually subject to the new courts. Under the old system, justice had been a purely bureaucratic activity. There were no juries, no public trials, and no legal profession. Corruption and delay were notorious. Commercial loans were available only on short terms and at high interest because the courts could not protect the interests of creditors.

The new system provided for independent judges with life tenure; trial by jury in criminal cases; oral and public trials; and an organized bar of lawyers to staff this adversary system. Peasants were formally eligible to serve on juries, but property qualifications for jury service excluded all but a few peasants. Here, as elsewhere, distinctions linked to the system of estates of the realm (sosloviya ) were retained by other means.

The reform of the courts had long been under discussion. Officials who shared the emperor's suspicion of lawyers and juries were unable to produce any workable alternative to the chaos they knew. Hence the task of drafting the new system passed to a group of younger men with advanced legal training. With the task came powers of decision making. The reformers acted in the spirit of the cosmopolitan legal ethos they had acquired with their training. They, alone of the drafters of reform statutes, avowedly followed western models and produced the most thorough-going of the reforms.

The zemstvo, or local government, reform (1864) provided for elective assemblies at the district and provincial levels; the electorate was divided into three curias: landowners (mostly nobles), peasant communities, and towns. Voting power was proportional to the value of real estate held by each curia, but no curia could have more than half the members.

The zemstvo's jurisdiction included the upkeep of roads, fire insurance, education, and public health. Squires and their ex-serfs sat together in the assemblies, if not in proportion to their share of the population. Public-spirited squires found a sphere of activity in the boards elected by the assemblies. These boards, in turn, hired health workers, teachers, and other professionals. The zemstvo provided an arena of public service apart from the state bureaucracy, where liberal landowners and dissidents interacted. The accomplishments of the zemstvo were remarkable, given their limited resources and the government control over them. The provincial governor could suspend any decision taken by a zemstvo. The zemstvo had only a limited power to tax, and as much as half the total it collected went to functions performed for the state.

Why didn't the government do more? It cherished autocracy and realized that genuine constitutional change would favor the rich and the educated, not the peasants; many nobles sought a national zemstvo as compensation for their supposed losses. Most important, to let authority pass to judges, juries, editors, and others not under direct bureaucratic discipline required a trust in which the regime was deficient. Many bureaucrats feared that the reforms would come back to haunt the regime. They were right. The bar did become a rallying point for dissidents, the economic and social position of the nobility did decline, and the zemstvo eventually protested. Cautious officials can be good prophets, even if the solutions they offer are ineffective.

See also: alexander ii; emancipation act; peasantry; serfdom


Bushnell, John; Eklof, Ben; and Zakharova, Larisa, eds. (1994). Russia's Great Reforms. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Field, Daniel. (1976). The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 18551861. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mironov, Boris. (1999). A Social History of Imperial Russia, 17001917, 2 vols., ed. Ben Eklof. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Wortman, Richard. (1976). The Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Daniel Field