Why did emancipation take place in Russia in 1861?
The emancipation of the Serfs, the peasants owned by the nobility and the rich, was a question that plagued Tsars years before Alexander II granted the Emancipation Ukase in February 1861. In 1858 the serfs of private landowners comprised 22.8 million persons and for centuries had being providing, along with the state peasants, the backbone to Russia economy and comprised a large percentage of all the recruits in the Russian military. So why then, did both Alexander II and preceding him Nicholas I emphasise the need for reform and change to what was one of the longest running traditions, and would cause massive waves in an traditionally autocratic and reactionary kingdom?
In March 1855 Alexander II succeeded his father, Nicholas I, who died during the Crimean War. Within a year of the new Tsar s accession Russia had been ominously defeated by British and French troops and the Russian military was in ruins. Russia s failure to compete with the European powers prompted Alexander (and for the fist time, the majority of influential people) to recognise the real need for change. Alexander publicly stated that the emancipation of the serfs was inevitable and in the course of 1857 the political initiatives were taken that led to the Emancipation Ukase of 19th February 1861.
Various explanations have been put forward for Alexander s momentous decision to free the peasants. Some historians stress economic considerations, others emphasise the government s fear of unrest, the role of liberal and humanitarian ideas, or military and fiscal motives. What can be agreed upon however, is the Crimean effect, acting as the catalyst for change by shattering the image of a powerful Russia that not only Russians themselves believed, but also other European powers respected and feared. The internal crisis resulting from the war brought to a head within the government all the pre-existing pressures for reform. There is considerable indirect evidence that motives of military efficiency played a major part in the Tsars course of action. Russia s status as a great power rested entirely on the reputation of her army; Alexander s upbringing, and his fathers influence in particular had instilled in him a concern for military values, and throughout his reign he took a great personal interest in the reorganisation of the army.
The collapse of Russia s status as a great power exposed the backwardness of the Russian state, and the reasons and answers to Russia s failure lay with its Peasants and Farmers, for while Britain was undergoing industrialisation, peasants were still strip farming individual lands under the control of rich nobles. These medieval methods needed to be remedied, and the failure of Serfdom, not just for the Serfs but for the entire Russian economy was now finally recognised.
Serfdom was largely failing the Serfs because the system was unable to match the population growth with an increasing rate of productivity and as the population grew the serfs found themselves descending into intolerable poverty. Serfdom was failing the nobility because it failed to provide them with adequate income to meet their needs, which led to increasing debt on their part, and massive mortgaging of the serfs to the state. It was also the key factor behind the stagnation of the Russian economy, because it did not encourage experiment or innovation. However, the economic argument does not provide the whole answer to the Emancipation of the Serfs. Soviet historians, working within the conceptual framework of Marxism have naturally place much emphasis on economic reasons, however it can be argued the Serfdom was not the only barrier to the expansion of Russian industry. Undoubtedly without serfdom industrial growth might have been much greater and faster, yet other reasons like the Empire unfavourable climate; the uneven distribution of its natural resources; the inadequate development of a network of transport and communications have been seen as major obstacles to the growth of Russian industry.
With the rapid population growth, the limited amount of land for peasants to work on and the slow increase in productivity there often was not enough food, which led to a growing tide of unrest. Many historians believe that the fear of agrarian disturbances was a major reason for the reform policies. In his famous speech of 30th March 1856, Alexander II told the marshals of the nobility of Moscow province that it was better for emancipation of the peasants came from above rather than from below . In these words the Tsar appeared to clearly indicate that the governments main motive in considering emancipation was its concern with peasant unrest directed against serfowners. Yet, ironically, in previous reigns, the prospect of peasant unrest unleashed by expectation of reform had been adduced as a major argument against emancipation: this was the law and order justification for preserving the status quo. Undoubtedly ministers were concerned with serf unrest, yet it seems that Alexander may have tailored his argument to suit his audience, conjuring the spectre of Pugachev s revolt of 1773-5 in order to persuade the nobility to agree to reform. There was little danger of peasant revolution, as the peasants themselves had very narrow horizons, and only knew of their local surroundings and situation. They had no real wish to rise against the Tsar, as they still saw him as the divine representation on earth. They blamed local authorities and landowners for their problems, and their conditions were not severe enough (not in their minds anyway) to promote outright despair.
Moral arguments against Serfdom were often cited in 1856-7 as one major reason for reform. Western historians accept this as a major consideration, Soviet historians allow for the influence of ideas, but see them as an expression of class interests, with the revolutionary democrats among the intelligentsia acting as spokesman for the peasants, and the liberals for the bourgeoisie or capitalist elements among the nobility. Indeed, much of the positive climate for reform created by the intelligentsia assisted Alexander in his arguments for emancipation. The moral arguments against serfdom had been accepted for almost a century, not only by opposition intellectuals, but also by many serfowners and officials: the autocrats themselves, from Catherine to Nicholas I, paid at least lip service to them. The moral case was conceded: the obstacles to emancipation were seen as purely practical ones, Serfdom , Nicholas I had said in 1842 is an evil, palpable and obvious to all, but to touch it now would be disastrous .
So why, if for such a long period Serfdom had been recognised as evil , did it not come sooner?
Fear of change and vested interests are key factors. Real changes would have seen the loss of land and service for the nobility, and uncertainty over what, and should replace serfdom led to inaction. Even when Alexander announced his intentions the nobles attempted to delay his decisions, hoping that he would drop the idea as other monarchs before him had done so. There was an intense desire among the Russian elite to avoid weaknesses and problems that freedom had brought in Western countries, and coupled with that was the very real fear of revolution, and the sweeping away from below of the autocracy. Indeed 80% of the population was made of peasants, and, as with George Orwell s novel 1984 , if they had the intelligence and could be correlated, the masses could have easily risen against their masters and overturn centuries of totalitarianism. This brings up the point of the attitude of the peasants themselves, which has been described by historians as fatalistic. Their horizons barely stretched beyond that of their own villages, comprehension of anything outside Russia was practically non-existent. They did not blame their problems on the Tsar or System but rather with corrupt local officials and landlords, therefore their anger, when aroused, was directed at something they could comprehend. Peasants did not have the time, inclination or possibly the conceptual grasp to worry about rights, starvation was a big enough worry, and ridding themselves of their landlords was sufficient insubordination.
The abdication of blame that the Tsar received from the peasants brings us finally to another major reason for the Emancipation, Alexander himself. His determination to fulfil his God-given duty and ensure the strength and respect of Russia globally forced in his mind the issue of the Serfs, and he was thereafter prepared to put his full weight of autocratic power behind the whole campaign. Most historians agree that the institutional role of the Tsar and the authority of his office were of paramount importance in enabling him to overcome the inertia of the bureaucracy and the opposition of the nobility. As had been found by his predecessors the Tsar could not emancipate the serfs single-handedly, and he was not about to receive the support of reactionary top bureaucrats. However, the creation of a new group of enlightened bureaucrats whose loyalty was to the state rather than to themselves played an important role in the framing of the legislation. Not only the enlightened officials were of assistance, Grand Duke Constantine, Alexander s younger brother, was an influential abdicator of reform. And General Jacob Rostovstev, who as chairman of the Editing Commission set up to consider the proposals for reform, probably did more than anyone else to determine the character of the Emancipation Act.
In conclusion it becomes clear that there was no individual, but a combination of factors that prompted and eventually granted the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The force of circumstance, continual underdevelopment of the economy, ignominious defeat in the Crimean war, and frequent unrest on the part of the Serfs, prompted the course of action that Alexander pursued. Yet it is this final point that the emancipation of the serfs can be contributed too. Alexander s will, his desire to change Russia, and his recognition that the development of a free-labour system in Russia, like those in the industrialised Western World, would provide a key catalyst for the improvement of Russia s economy proved the key motivators in the Emancipation Ukase. Those before him had tried, yet upon failure first time around had not exercised their supreme autocratic power and forced the issue, as they could have done and Alexander did. It cannot be denied that Alexander had few alternatives if he wished to restore Russia to prominence, and the effect of the Crimean war and the Military arguments put forward were key elements to Russia s proposed return to prominence, yet, even without the support of the nobility and the general fear of change throughout Russia, Alexander pressed for what he wanted and thought was right.
Bibliography: Russia 1815-81 Russell Sherman
Emancipation & Reform in Russia 1855-81 Maureen Perrie
From Vienna to Versailles L. C. B Seaman