The Half-Measured Emancipation

A group of Russian peasants around a table. Circa 1875

the picture above offers a glimpse into the lives of Russian peasants towards the end of the 19th century. The picture makes it clear that although the Russian serfs were emancipated in 1861, they remained second-class citizens for decades after. Most lived in poverty, obligated to pay special taxes and crippled by debt incurred for the land which they thought was theirs by right.

Following the end of the Crimean War in 1856, in which Russia was defeated by a coalition lead by Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire, it became apparent to many Russians that the feudal system that had defined their society for nearly 800 years could not keep pace with the industrialized powers of western Europe (Freeze 201). These nations had begun to phase out the system of serfdom centuries before, and by the 19th century western Europe had changed from an agrarian society to an industrial one (Keen 236-237). In order to modernize Russia, the serfs would have to be unbound from the land. This ultimately led to the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II.

Though the Tsar and many others within the Russian government sought major reform, they encountered fierce resistance from the nobility, who owned both the land and the serfs that worked it. Many nobles feared, quite rightly, that emancipation would equate to the nobility losing land, and in turn, income. Their opposition led to a more moderate reform of serfdom (Freeze 205).

When Alexander II signed the emancipation into law neither the nobility nor the peasantry were pleased with the outcome. Although they were free, the peasantry were still bound to their local communities. These communities were subject to special taxes and obligations, along with the debt of the massive loans necessary to purchase a portion of the land from the nobility (Freeze 206-207).

Peasants working in a field.  Circa 1905-1915

These obligations kept the peasant class at the bottom of the economic spectrum for decades to come. Much of the peasantry remained on the land, while facing debt and famine alone the way. Decades of poverty similar to what is depicted in the pictures above, along with the inequality of the lower class, contributed to unrest among the Russian peasantry throughout the remainder of the 19th century (Freeze 208).

Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Keen, Maurice. The Penguin History of Medieval Europe. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

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