One of Alexander II's reforms was the emancipation of twenty million serfs in 1861. The Russian government paid former serf-holders for land that was then issued in allotments to the newly freed serfs. The peasants, however, were obligated to pay the government back for this land (plus interest) through what were called redemption payments. Each peasant household generally got less land (and less desirable land) in the emancipation settlement than it had tilled before emancipation, and the redemption payments were often in excess of the rental cost of the allotment.
The traditional peasant commune (mir or obshchina) was given the responsibility of assuring that its members would pay their redemption debt. The communes accomplished this by limiting the rights of peasants to leave the commune prior to paying off their debt, and by redistributing land between households in the commune. This method of periodic redistribution ensured that each household had the resources to make its redemption payments, but continued a pattern of a peasants holding many small strips of land rather than one contiguous field. It further required that all peasants retain the primitive three-field system of crop rotation, and discouraged individual peasants from improving their holdings.
Peasants never accepted the redemption debt as legitimate, and many communes accumulated large arrears, which periodically were written off and then accumulated again. By 1905 the government realized that the payments were more of an irritation to the peasantry than they were worth as a source of income, and on November 3 of that year an imperial decree abolished them, partly as a vain attempt to forestall growing peasant unrest that led to the 1905 revolution.
See also: enserfment; emancipation act; great reforms; mir; obshchina; peasantry; serfdom
Lincoln, W. Bruce. (1990). The Great Reforms. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
Robinson, Geroid T. (1967). Rural Russia under the Old Regime. Berkeley: University of California Press.
A. Delano DuGarm