Serf’s Up!

Greek workers harvesting tea near the Black Sea in the East
Greek workers harvesting tea near the Black Sea in the East

The serfs were Russia’s primary agricultural laborers up to the mid-19th century.  However, Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War brought to light the need for societal reform, and the issue of serfs was a hotbed of political debate.  The reformists wanted serfs to be liberated (although to what extent was also debated at length), while others wanted to keep the serfs in their position of servitude.  In the end however, the Reformists were victorious, and the serfs were liberated.  It took several tries to figure out what new freedoms the serfs had.  The societal elite eventually settled on what was called the “Nazimov Rescript,” which stated that the landlords still owned both the land and the serfs, but the serfs had the ability to buy their own land and create their own provisions for self governance within their social class.  However, the rest of the elite despised this decision, and called for yet another reform.  This time, the serfs “got the short end of the stick.”  For an additional two years after the serfs were emancipated, they had to continue living as they had before while the bureaucracy finalized the terms of their emancipation , and after that two year period would be given land and forced to pay the government back for any land they owned prior to their emancipation (which they were not allowed to keep instead of the government issued land).  The emancipation of the serfs also inspired a slew of other societal reforms, aimed at bettering the lives of the average person.  Local governments gained more control and assumed responsibility for the maintenance of their respective domains.  Hospitals and roads were built and fixed, as were prisons and bridges (i.e. general infrastructure items).  Education was reformed and schooling now included an elementary school level.  The military received a total refitting, in order to avoid another defeat (they were still reeling from their loss during the Crimean War) (Freeze, 2009, 199-212).


The serf liberation and the subsequent societal reforms it inspired is very similar to the emancipation of the slaves in the United States.  At the most fundamental, both the slaves and the serfs played similar roles in society: agricultural laborers.  The slaves were still treated poorly after their emancipation, just as the serfs were.  The government was at first what role the slaves would play in society, and there were many different proposals and a good deal of debating between government officials as to what rights slaves really had.  Similar to Russia’s serfs, even after the slaves were given their rights there were numerous dissenters who felt that they didn’t deserve any rights (or at least not as much as they were given).  Some wanted the slaves to only remain as workers but could still have their freedoms, just like some did with the serfs.  The emancipation of the slaves was just one of many factors which would eventually spark the Civil War, which would tear apart and repair the United States into something stronger than it was, and also created the industry necessary to further our weapons technology and refit our military with the newest technology after the war.  Finally, although it took another hundred years, the emancipation of the slaves sparked a revolution for equality across all races and ethnicities which became a battle we still fight today.  Despite the thousands of miles, I find it interesting that there were two major social reforms going on in the world at nearly the exact same time, over the exact same thing.  I would also hope to discover over the course of this class what caused the United States and Russia to develop into the nations they are today, differences and all, when their prior history is so similar.


NOTE: All information was pulled from:

Freeze, G. (2009). Reform and Counter Reform 1855-1890. In Russia: A History (3rd ed., pp. 199-212). Oxford: Oxford University Press.