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Serfs, Emancipation of


dimensions of russian serfdom
challenges to serfdom's foundations
the emancipation's creation, provisions, and consequences

Emancipation of serfs in Russia is associated with the 3 March (19 February, old style) 1861 "All-Merciful Manifesto" of Alexander II, the emperor of Russia (1855–1881). It involved the legal abolition of serfdom (known in Russia as krepostnoe pravo) and the liberation of over twenty million serfs. Although Russian serfs were among the last European serfs to gain legal freedom, Russia's experience squares with the long process of peasant emancipation throughout Europe. The abolition of serfdom throughout Europe in the areas where it survived into the eighteenth century began with the French Revolution and ended in 1864 with the emancipation of Romanian serfs.

What in fact brought to an end the system of peasant bondage in Russia? Why and how did serfs gain their legal freedom? These questions have produced scholarly controversy. In general, historians underscore either economic or political factors allegedly responsible for serfdom's abolition. Economic explanations suggest that the 1861 act was a result of the so-called crisis of feudalism. In this view, the new "capitalist forms of production" clashed with the old "feudal economy" and caused peasant resistance. This clash produced what some historians call a "revolutionary situation," a fatal condition that eroded serfdom and finally ended it. Political explanations usually emphasize the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853–1856), portrayed as the apotheosis of "Russia's backwardness." They also accentuate the role of the state bureaucracy in initiating the reform of 1861. In this interpretation, the defeat forced the Russian autocracy to recognize the necessity of reforms. In order to carry out military and industrial reforms, the government finally decided to free the vast bulk of Russia's population. In contrast to approaches that focus on a mid-nineteenth-century "crisis," long-term economic, social, and cultural developments in Russia since the late eighteenth century can be seen as bringing serfdom to an end.

dimensions of russian serfdom

What was actually abolished in 1861? In the main, serfdom was a system of relations between individual landlords who owned the land and serfs who dwelled on and worked it. Serfdom had legal, economic, political, social, sociopsychological, and cultural dimensions and endured in Russia for more than two centuries.

Serfdom emerged in Russia in the sixteenth century, when a similar institution had declined in most parts of northwestern Europe. Beginning with a series of late-sixteenth-century decrees, the state severely restricted peasants' mobility and subjugated them to landlords' authority. The 1649 Law Code (Ulozhenie) definitively bound millions of peasants to the land by banning them from leaving their place of residence without permission. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, serfdom matured and reached its height. By the early nineteenth century it began a gradual decline. The 1861 manifesto finally ended the legal bondage of landlords' serfs. (Earlier acts of the 1810s freed serfs of the Baltic provinces.)

A most important feature of Russian serfdom was that it occurred in a society where peasants constituted about 85 percent of the population. Approximately half of Russia's peasants lived on lands owned by individual landlords and thus were serfs; the landlords composed only about 1 percent of the population. According to the tenth imperial census (1857), the 10,694,445 male serfs accounted for about 49 percent of all male peasants and 34 percent of the empire's male population. An average noble estate accommodated several hundred serfs, with individual holdings running from several dozens to tens of thousands of people. A few noble magnates possessed hundreds of thousands serfs, whereas some impoverished nobles had none.

As the overwhelming majority of the population, peasants were in several respects the essential social group in Russia, especially with regard to their economic role. Peasants' crucial contribution to the local and national economies went far beyond producing agricultural commodities and paying feudal dues. In addition to their agricultural pursuits, peasants and serfs traded goods of all kinds, possessed manufacturing establishments and workshops, and were involved in various entrepreneurial and commercial ventures. With the absence of a significant middle class in Russia, peasants' activities predominated in these economic spheres.

Their economic, cultural, and social significance enabled peasants, and specifically serfs, to establish and maintain a balance between the diverse and often opposing interests of the state, the landlord, and themselves. The economic importance of the serfs simultaneously induced the state to regulate lord–peasant relations and permitted peasants to establish limits on the landlords' and local officials' prerogatives. The obvious factor was that the Russian national economy could not function without a certain degree of more or less free peasant and serf activity.

Serfs' economic importance perhaps helps explain certain juridical ambiguities of Russian serfdom. The legislation that established serfdom simultaneously empowered peasants to sustain their everyday economic, social, or cultural needs. Russian law allowed serfs to engage in various trading, commercial, and entrepreneurial ventures both within and away from the ascribed place of residence. The 1649 Law Code restricted peasant mobility but also granted serfs the right to leave the village temporarily in order to seek employment or pursue other economic or social activities. Studies show that during the first half of the nineteenth century, about a quarter of peasants (including serfs) of the central Russian provinces temporarily migrated each year, thus exercising significant territorial mobility.

On the one hand, landlords sometimes bought, sold, and punished serfs; on the other, the state protected serfs against "unreasonable" corporal punishment, banned the sale and mortgage of serfs without land, and outlawed advertisements of such transactions. Nonetheless, Russian serfs were usually bought and sold with the land they populated, a legally sanctioned transaction that signified the transfer of estates or parts of estates to new landlords. The state's laws restricted feudal obligations of serfs, and forbade landlords to intervene in serf marriages and separate serf families. Worthy of note is that despite the initial legal prohibitions on complaining against their landlords, serfs in some cases sued the lords in state courts and succeeded in bringing to trial those who transgressed their rights, including their own lords. During the late eighteenth century, a few landlords were tried for causing the deaths of their peasants, deprived of noble status, and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia for life. Those lords who harshly mistreated their serfs were normally ostracized in society.

Neither the state nor the landlord had an interest in completely binding the peasant. In order to sustain the national economy and the economic requirements of the landlord, the state needed to provide the peasantry, as a demographically and economically predominant social group, with certain legal protections and freedoms for territorial mobility, as well as for economic and social pursuits. This legal aspect distinguished serfdom from American slavery and brought it close to European feudalism. Contrasting Russian serfdom with American slavery, some contemporary Americans noted that in Russia serfs could not be beaten to death or separated from their families and sold like any other piece of merchandise, practices endured by many American slaves.

Supplementing the legal limits on the land-lord's authority provided by the state, Russian serfs themselves deployed a broad range of means to curtail the lord's influence. Living on their land for centuries, serfs created and maintained their customs, cultural values, and institutions. These provided for peasants' survival by keeping a balance between external forces and their own individual and communal interests and needs. Hallowed tradition and indigenous institutions enabled peasants to set limits on the landlords' and the state's power and authority.

Most peasants spent a considerable part of their lives in extended two- and three-generational families. Peasant marriages, performed according to local tradition and custom, received full legal sanction. The couple's parents or guardians usually agreed upon a marriage contract. Studies illustrate that landlords rarely intervened in marriage contracts and usually did not separate serf families, practices forbidden by a 1722 law. In most affairs of family life, including economic and social activities and decision-making, the family enjoyed a significant degree of freedom from the landlord.

Most Russian serf families lived in villages (settlements with households, small stores, mills, communal buildings, a church, and a cemetery). One or more of these villages constituted the peasant commune, the most important economic and social feature of serfdom. The authority of the commune over villagers varied, depending upon local custom and the arrangements with the landlord. The serf commune ordinarily regulated land use, collected taxes, and was a site for interactions between the village, the landlord, and the state. The 1861 law preserved the peasant commune as an official institution and retained most of its functions.

Regarding their feudal duties, serfs were supposed to perform work for landlords (corvée or barshchina) part of the time or pay money rent (obrok), depending on the local economy and arrangements. A 1797 decree banned landlords from requiring their serfs to work more than three days a week, as well as to work on Sundays and holidays. Those on money rent paid landlords between 30 and 50 percent of their annual income. As the market economy accelerated during the first half of the nineteenth century, many landlords shifted their serfs to money rent. In general, serfs who paid rent in money enjoyed greater freedom from the landlords for their independent pursuits.

Although the agricultural economy predominated in Russia, serfs, as well as other categories of peasants, were usually multi-occupational. The local economy and the serfs' occupations depended largely upon regional conditions. In the southern, southeastern, and western regions local economies were oriented mainly toward agriculture, specifically grain production. The economy of the northern and central regions usually combined various nonagricultural and agricultural activities. With the expansion of the free-market economy, this regional specialization became more pronounced. In certain regions agriculture became a seasonal occupation and nonagricultural pursuits largely dominated the peasant economy.

About half the serfs engaged in various non-agricultural activities were hired workers, whereas others were small traders, craftsmen, self-employed in services, and even, although rarely, rich merchants and entrepreneurs. Large numbers of peasants maintained cottage industries as a seasonal business for the entire family, producing not only for the local market but for national and international ones as well. Peasants sold their products to traveling traders and merchants (themselves often serf peasants) who resold them in various national and regional markets and fairs, and even abroad. About a quarter of serfs temporarily migrated each year in order to pursue their economic or social activities outside the village.

challenges to serfdom's foundations

These legal, institutional, social, and economic factors underlay the internal dynamics and changes within serfdom during the centuries of its existence. New economic, social, and cultural realities that emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century, in turn, challenged serfdom's foundations.

The expansion of the peasantry's economic and social activities in the nineteenth century had wide-ranging repercussions. Peasants' engagement in various crafts and trades acquainted them with national and local economies and with pertinent state and local laws and regulations. Through economic advancement and education, some serfs entered the upper social strata. Although the number of such fortunate individuals was small when compared to the total serf population, the phenomenon impressed contemporary observers. One mid-nineteenth-century commentator pointed out that self-made peasants were forging to the head of merchant communities and emerging as leaders in public affairs. Some scholars began to describe peasants as the most economically important social estate. The development of new favorable attitudes toward the peasant estate and the wide recognition of peasants as an important economic and social force had political consequences. Contemporaries, including high state officials, increasingly viewed serfdom as a social evil. This opinion was expressed in numerous mid-nineteenth-century publications and literary works that attacked serfdom.

The ideas of the Enlightenment and liberalism penetrated into Russia prior to and especially during the reign of Nicholas I (1825–1855). Russian public discourse of the first half of the nineteenth century stressed the ideas of freedom and equality. These ideas were not limited to only a few enlightened individuals, but penetrated the minds and discourses of common people. Over the first half of the century, perceptions of serfs about themselves and their serf status dramatically changed. The number of peasant refusals to perform feudal duties increased during the first half of the nineteenth century, as peasants refused to work or pay rent because they perceived themselves as "free persons."

The process of emancipation of serfs started long before the final 1861 decision. The series of laws that regulated relations between landlords and their peasants were direct state responses to peasant economic and social activities. Peasants' public actions also influenced the peasant-oriented legislation of the first half of the nineteenth century. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, new laws eased peasant entry into nonagricultural activities, in part by restricting the lord's authority over serfs. New decrees enabled serfs to engage in virtually all kinds of economic activities and regulated those activities. A series of laws progressively limited the power of the lords over peasants engaged in licensed commercial and business enterprises and introduced private property rights for serfs. These laws ultimately applied to many tens of thousands of serfs. The law of 1812 granted serfs the right to engage in entrepreneurial activities in their own names. This law gave peasants of all categories virtually complete freedom to take up economic activities "such as those given to merchants and townspeople." Serfs were granted significant immunities from interference by the lord. The law of 1827 restricted lords' authority over peasants who engaged in commerce. It forbade landlords to "divert" peasants who obtained trading licenses from their business activities.

Of special interest is the law of 1835. This law prohibited lords and other "local authorities" from recalling peasant-migrants temporarily employed outside the estate. The law of 1848 granted serfs the right to possess (buy, inherit, sell, and so on) private enterprises. The law of 1856 set free serfs who settled on their own lands. Laws that regulated seasonal migration provided peasants, including serfs, the right to travel for employment or conduct their own business and to prolong their stay without undue interference from their landlords. These laws, often ignored in scholarship, were of tremendous historical significance. They challenged the foundation of serfdom by reducing the power of the lord over peasants.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the state took harsh measures against lords who violated the provisions that regulated their relations with serfs. Over a hundred noble estates were under state guardianship because of the land-lord's mistreatment of serfs. In these cases serfs' feudal obligations and payments went directly to the state, not the landlord. These legal actions gradually undermined the position of the nobility by the mid-nineteenth century and influenced serfdom's decline.

By the mid-nineteenth century in Russia only a few radically minded conservatives, usually members of the landed gentry, still supported the institution of serfdom and staunchly opposed its abolition. The defeat in the Crimean War made the position of these advocates of serfdom shaky and simultaneously solidified the position of those who desired liberal reforms. The defeat served as the final impetus to end the outmoded institution.

the emancipation's creation, provisions, and consequences

In 1857 Emperor Alexander II appointed a "secret committee" to draw up a new law on abolition of serfdom. The committee, however, consisted of conservative state bureaucrats who opposed emancipation. It worked out a plan for emancipation according to which peasants were to gain their freedom but receive no arable land. The procedures for freeing serfs outlined in this project were extremely complicated. The project was not accepted, and in 1858 the government established the Main Committee to carry out a new project of serf emancipation. The government also established provincial gentry committees to discuss emancipation at the local level.

In general, most nobles agreed with the government's emancipation effort. It is clear, however, that they wanted to carve out for themselves as many privileges as possible. For instance, lords from the agricultural provinces, where agriculture dominated the economy and was the major source of wealth, wanted to retain land and free their serfs without land or with very small allotments, all suggestions similar to those outlined in the 1857 commission proposal. Nevertheless, as an active social force, serfs also exercised some influence on the process of lawmaking. They publicly expressed their attitudes on the emancipation project. State institutions studied peasant opinion about the reform. Most state reports emphasized the peasants' desire both to gain legal freedom and to retain their land.

In 1859 and 1860 materials on public opinion about emancipation, as well as the official opinions of the local gentry committees, went to the Editing Commission and finally to the Main Committee. After brief consideration by the State Council, Alexander II signed the 1861 act of emancipation. The act granted the status of "free rural inhabit ants" to over twenty million serfs. According to the act, serfs could purchase, or in some cases receive free, much of the land they had used before 1861. Alexander's emancipation, one of the most important legal acts in the history of imperial Russia, would have far-reaching consequences.

The foregoing description of serfdom during its last decades suggests that the 1861 abolition of serfdom had perhaps brought serfs somewhat less new freedom than some contemporaries and many serfs expected. Clearly, before the 1861 decree serfs exercised some freedoms regarding their economic and social activities and decisions, as well as territorial mobility. And, after the law's introduction former serfs still remained subjects of their village communes. In order to leave the village they had to obtain permission from the commune or other local authorities rather than from the landlords. The law also retained most of the functions and authorities of the commune, and extended some feudal obligations of serfs for certain periods of time, an arrangement that kept peasants in home villages. Some evidence suggests that the number of peasants who seasonally migrated decreased somewhat during the first decade after the emancipation, a phenomenon caused by the terms of the emancipation law.

These provisions represented an effort to retain for the landlords some of the economic powers they formerly enjoyed over serfs as well as to protect as much as possible nobles' former privileges.

Nevertheless, the serf emancipation as a whole was in large part an achievement of the liberal-minded intelligentsia and statesmen. Individuals, such as Nikolai Milyutin, Yuri Samarin, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who identified themselves as "liberals," participated in the emancipation and exercised an influence on its preparation. The law was a compromise between conservatives who completely opposed emancipation and liberals who were moved by their belief in freedom. Liberals influenced the emperor to speed up the passage and implementation of the new law.

The 1861 law emancipated serfs with land, unlike millions of former American slaves freed a few years later without land. Peasants received much of the land they had previously used, although this land was assigned to peasant communes rather than to individual peasants. The state compensated landlords for the land they lost, whereas former serfs had to pay the state redemption payments over a period of forty-nine years for land they received. In cases in which former serfs took only one-quarter of their previously owned land (the so-called pauper's allotment), they were exempt from redemption payments. In order to estimate a redemption payment for each specific case, the government prepared inventories of landholdings and feudal obligations of former serfs. Peasants and landlords had to sign the inventory and thus agree on a final settlement. In most cases the land price was estimated at up to twice as much as its market value before 1861, a practice that benefited the lords and burdened the peasants.

According to various studies, serfs received from 10 to 18 percent less and in the southern provinces from 25 to 40 percent less land than they used before 1861. Landlords, who accounted for 1 percent of the population, retained about 95 million desyatinas (265.5 million acres) of land, whereas former serfs (34 percent of the population) remained with 116 million desyatinas (313.2 million acres). Most scholars suggest that serfs received inadequate land, in allotments hardly sufficient to maintain their households. Some historians, however, point out that land had provided peasants with only a part of their incomes, the rest of which came from economic activities not associated with land. In many cases, particularly in the areas where nonagricultural economic activities prevailed, peasants preferred to take the minimum pauper's allotment so as to pay no redemptions. Overall, former serfs had paid off about 680 million rubles of indebtedness by 1905, when, because of revolutionary challenges to the state, the redemption payments were abolished. The land arrangement of the 1861 law, along with the rapid growth of the population and resulting unemployment in the countryside, contributed to agrarian problems during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The emancipation's land settlement was met with unexpected responses among former serfs. The emancipation set off a series of revolts and disturbances that swept throughout the Russian countryside. Scholars estimate that about 1,889 disorders occurred in 1861. The complicated nature of the emancipation and lack of confidence in the local nobles and authorities provoked peasant riots. Peasants believed that the local gentry had deceived them by manipulating the terms of the emancipation legislation. Some peasants found that the price on land was highly overestimated and refused to sign or otherwise confirm landholding inventories, which would have signified their acceptance of the terms of emancipation. In addition to peasant disturbances, during the early 1860s student uprisings broke out in cities; liberal-minded students had expected more far-reaching political reforms. In Tver (central Russia) a provincial noble assembly called in vain for the convocation of a constituent assembly in order to create a national constitutional government in Russia. Although the government of Alexander II took harsh measures to deal with these and other disturbances and to restore order, it continued the reform efforts. Simultaneously, the dissatisfaction of many educated Russians with the emancipation terms spurred the development of the revolutionary movement in Russia.

The law of 1861 set in motion a transformation of the Russian Empire. The emancipation contributed to the decline of the noble class in Russia and the rise of the middle class during the late imperial period. With the accompanying reforms of the 1860s, the abolition of serfdom stimulated rapid capitalist development during the late nineteenth century. Although the emancipation did not meet the expectations of peasants and the liberal intelligentsia, it ended human bondage of some twenty million Russian serfs, a signal event in Russian history.

See alsoAlexander II; Great Reforms (Russia); Peasants; Russia.


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Emmons, Terrence, ed. Emancipation of the Russian Serfs. New York, 1970.

Field, Daniel. The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 1855–1861. Cambridge, Mass., 1976.

Gorshkov, Boris B. "Serfs on the Move: Peasant Seasonal Migration in Pre-Reform Russia, 1800–61." Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 1, no. 4 (2000): 627–656.

Gorshkov, Boris B., trans and ed. A Life under Russian Serfdom: Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, 1800–1868. Budapest, 2005.

Hoch, Steven L. Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, a Village in Tambov. Chicago, 1986.

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Boris B. Gorshkov

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