On March 3 1861 Russian Emperor Alexander II of Russia (1855-1881) issued the Emancipation Manifesto, a document that freed the serfs throughout the Russian Empire. It was the first and most important reform that the Emperor carried out during his reign.
Back in the 19th century, Russia was one of the few countries in Europe in which serfdom was not abolished. Unlike other western European nations which had left behind their feudalist systems long ago, it still refused to put an end to it and so its economy remained socially and economically underdeveloped. To many, the serfdom was one of the main reasons why the nation could not progress and even though the population had come to terms with the fact that reform was inevitable, it was war that made the Government reconsider the issue.
Russia’s military failure in the Crimean War in 1854 by the hands of France, Britain and Turkey, proved that the country was no longer invincible. The serfdom system was not only not working in economic and social terms but had also failed to provide Russia with efficient and morally fitted people willing to fight for its army. Aiming to get through this humiliation and bring back stability, Alexander II decided to implement several domestic and military reforms. Among these, the first and most important one was the abolition of serfdom.
The Emancipation Manifesto granted the serfs freedom and the right to own land, which meant that the land settlements across Russia had to be redistributed to everyone. However, these changes were of more benefit to the landlords. Whereas they were able to keep the best part of their land, peasants received those parts which granted little or no profit. Moreover, the former received a great compensation for the loss of their land, while the latter had to pay to buy their part. As they had no savings, most of them had to ask the government for a loan and got indebted for the rest of their lives.
In order to ensure a peaceful transition to the new social system, a reorganisation of the local government was also required. The mirs (the village communes) were given more power by putting them in charge of collecting taxes from the peasants and keeping peace in the countryside. In other words, peasants were no longer under the control of their landlords but under the mir's.
The Emancipation of the serfs was Alexander II’s attempt to push reform without harming the interests and privileges of the higher classes who supported the Empire. However, it proved to be an absolute failure. By granting peasants freedom, the emperor tried to gain their favour with the hope that they would be willing to be recruited for Russian armies. With a strengthened army, Russia would be able to gain back its greatness. Nevertheless, the Emancipation just led to disappointment and distaste among all social classes. While the peasants’ freedom was still heavily restricted, the landlords felt threatened by this new social class.
Although the outcomes of the Emancipation were mainly negative, it became the beginning of a series of reforms that would change imperial Russia. Moreover, it served as proof of the power of the tsars, as a social change on such a large scale could not have been achieved in a democracy without war or coercion. In this sense, the only comparable historical event is the Emancipation Proclamation in the USA (1861), which took place four years later and had as an outcome the American Civil War (1861-1865).
- alexander ii
- emancipation manifesto
- crimean war
- imperial russia