The Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia (Russian:
Крестьянская реформа 1861 года,
translit. Krestyanskaya reforma 1861 goda, literally: "the
peasants Reform of 1861") was the first and most important of liberal
reforms passed during the reign (1855-1881) of Emperor Alexander II of
Russia. The reform effectively abolished serfdom throughout the
The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the
serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs. By
this edict more than 23 million people received their liberty.
Serfs gained the full rights of free citizens, including rights to
marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a
business. The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy
the land from the landlords. Household serfs were the least affected:
they gained only their freedom and no land.
In Georgia the emancipation took place later, in 1864, and on much
better terms for the nobles than in Russia. The serfs were emancipated
in 1861, following a speech given by
Tsar Alexander II on 30 March
1856. State owned serfs, i.e. the serfs living on Imperial lands,
were emancipated later in 1866.
2 Earlier reform moves
3 Shaping of the manifesto
4 Emancipation Manifesto
6.1 Effects on the serfs
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
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Prior to 1861 Russia had two main categories of peasants:[citation
those living on state lands, under control of the Ministry of State
those living on the land of private landowners
with only those owned privately considered to be serfs. They comprised
an estimated 38% of the population. As well as having obligations
to the state, they also were obliged to the landowner, who had great
power over their lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, less than half
of Russian peasants were serfs.
The rural population lived in households (dvory, singular dvor),
gathered as villages (derevni; a derevnya with a church became a
selo), run by a mir ('commune', or obshchina)—isolated,
conservative, largely self-sufficient and self-governing units
scattered across the land every 10 km (6.2 mi) or so.
Imperial Russia had around 20 million dvory, forty percent of them
containing six to ten people.
Intensely insular, the mir assembly, the skhod (sel'skii skhod),
appointed an elder (starosta) and a 'clerk' (pisar) to deal with any
external issues. Peasants within a mir shared land and resources. The
fields were divided among the families as nadel ("allotment")—a
complex of strip plots, distributed according to the quality of the
soil. The strips were periodically redistributed within the villages
to produce level economic conditions. The land however, was not owned
by the mir; the land was the legal property of the 100,000 or so
landowners (pomeshchiks, an equivalent of "landed gentry") and the
inhabitants, as serfs, were not allowed to leave the property where
they were born. The peasants were duty-bound to make regular payments
in labor and goods. It has been estimated[by whom?] that landowners
took at least one third of income and production by the first half of
the nineteenth century.
Earlier reform moves
The need for urgent reform was well understood in 19th-century Russia.
Much support for it emanated from universities, authors and other
intellectual circles. Various projects of emancipation reforms were
prepared by Mikhail Speransky, Nikolay Mordvinov, and Pavel Kiselyov.
However, conservative or reactionary nobility thwarted their efforts.
In Western guberniyas serfdom was abolished early in the century. In
Congress Poland, serfdom had been abolished before it became Russian
Napoleon in 1807).
Serfdom was abolished in the Governorate of
Estonia in 1816, in Courland in 1817, and in Livonia in 1819.
Paul I of Russia
Paul I of Russia decreed that corvee labor was limited to 3
days a week, and never on Sunday, but this law was not enforced.
Beginning in 1801,
Alexander I of Russia
Alexander I of Russia appointed a committee to
study possible emancipation, but its only effect was to prohibit the
sale of serfs without their families. Beginning in 1825, Nicholas I of
Russia expressed his desire for emancipation on many occasions, and
even improved the lives of serfs on state properties, but did not
change the condition of serfs on private estates.
Shaping of the manifesto
My intention is to abolish serfdom ... you can yourself understand
that the present order of owning souls cannot remain unchanged. It is
better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for that time when
it starts to abolish itself from below. I ask you to think about the
best way to carry this out
— Alexander II's speech to the Marshalls of the Nobility, 30 March
The liberal politicians who stood behind the 1861 manifesto—Nikolay
Milyutin, Alexei Strol'man and Yakov Rostovtsev—also recognized that
their country was one of a few remaining feudal states in Europe. The
pitiful display by Russian forces in the
Crimean War left the
government acutely aware of the empire's weaknesses. Eager to grow and
develop industrial and therefore military and political strength, they
introduced a number of economic reforms. It was optimistically hoped
that after the abolition the mir would dissolve into individual
peasant land owners and the beginnings of a market economy.[citation
Alexander II, unlike his father, was willing to deal with this
problem. Moving on from a petition from the Lithuanian provinces, a
committee "for ameliorating the condition of the peasants" was founded
and the principles of the abolition considered.
The main point at issue was whether the serfs should remain dependent
on the landlords, or whether they should be transformed into a class
of independent communal proprietors.
The land-owners initially pushed for granting the peasants freedom but
not any land. The tsar and his advisers, mindful of 1848 events in
Western Europe, were opposed to creating a proletariat and the
instability this could bring. But giving the peasants freedom and land
seemed to leave the existing land-owners without the large and cheap
labour-force they needed to maintain their estates and lifestyles. By
1859 however, a third of their estates and two thirds of their serfs
were mortgaged to the state or noble banks. This was why they had to
accept the emancipation.
To 'balance' this, the legislation contained three measures to reduce
the potential economic self-sufficiency of the peasants. Firstly a
transition period of two years was introduced, during which the
peasant was obligated as before to the old land-owner. Secondly large
parts of common land were passed to the major land-owners as otrezki
("cut off lands"), making many forests, roads and rivers accessible
only for a fee. The third measure was that the serfs must pay the
land-owner for their allocation of land in a series of redemption
payments, which in turn, were used to compensate the landowners with
bonds. An amount of 75% of the total sum would be advanced by the
government to the land-owner and then the peasants would repay the
money, plus interest, to the government over forty-nine years. These
redemption payments were finally canceled in 1907.
Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto, an 1873 painting by
The legal basis of the reform was the Tsar's Emancipation Manifesto of
3 March [O.S. 19 February] 1861, accompanied by
the set of legislative acts under the general name Regulations
Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence (Russian:
Положения о крестьянах, выходящих из
крепостной зависимости Polozheniya o krestyanakh,
vykhodyashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti).
This Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private
estates and of the domestic (household) serfs.
Serfs were granted
the full rights of free citizens, gaining the rights to marry without
having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The
Manifesto also permitted peasants to buy the land from the
Mir communities had the power to distribute the land given to newly
freed serfs by the Russian government amongst individuals within the
community. Due to the community's ownership of the land, as opposed to
the individual's, an individual peasant could not sell his portion of
land in order to work in a factory in the city. A peasant was required
to pay off long term loans received by the government. The money from
these loans was given to the primary landowner. The land allotted to
the recently freed serfs did not include the best land in the country,
which continued to be owned by the nobility.
The implementation of land settlement varied over the vast and diverse
territory of the Russian Empire, but typically a peasant had rights to
buy out about half of the land he cultivated for himself. If he could
not afford to pay it off, he would receive a half of the half, i.e., a
quarter of the land, free. It was called pauper's allotment
Although well planned in the legislation, the reform did not work
smoothly. The conditions of the manifesto were regarded as
unacceptable by many reform-minded peasants: "In many localities the
peasants refused to believe that the manifesto was genuine. There were
troubles, and troops had to be called in to disperse the angry
The land-owners and nobility were paid in government bonds and their
debts were deducted from the money before it was handed over. The
bonds soon fell in value; the management skills of the land-owners
were generally poor.
Despite newly acquired freedom, the life of a serf remained grim in
many aspects. Household serfs were the least benefitted, gaining only
their freedom, and no land. Many bureaucrats believed that these
reforms would bring about drastic changes which would only affect only
the "lower stories" of society, strengthening the autocracy. In
reality, the reforms forced the monarch to coexist with an independent
court, free press, and local governments which operated differently,
and more freely, than they had in the past.:p. 110 This new form
of local government involved in each area an assembly called a
zemstvo. In regards to new localized government, the reforms put in
place a system where the landowners were now able to have more of a
say within their newly formed "provinces.":p. 112 While this was
not the direct intent of the reforms, it was evident that this
significantly weakened the idea of the autocracy. Now, the
"well-to-do" serfs, along with previously free peoples, were able to
purchase land as private property. While early in the reforms the
creation of local government had not changed many things about Russian
society, the rise in capitalism drastically affected not only the
social structure of Russia, but the behaviors and activities of the
self-government institutions.:p. 113 With new, capitalistic
ideals, local government was not responsible for the rules and
regulations dictating how the new market would operate. If there was a
positive of this movement towards localized government, from the
autocracy's point of view; it was (as Petr Valuev put it): the zemstvo
would "provide activity for the considerable portion of the press as
well as those malcontents who currently stir up trouble because they
have nothing to do".:p. 111
Effects on the serfs
The serfs of private estates received less land than they needed to
survive, which led to civil unrest. The redemption tax was so high
that the serfs had to sell all the grain they produced to pay the tax,
which left nothing for their survival. Landowners also suffered
because many of them were deeply in debt, and the forced selling of
their land left them struggling to maintain their lavish lifestyle. In
many cases, the newly freed serfs were forced to "rent" their land
from wealthy landowners. Furthermore, when the peasants had to work
for the same landowners to pay their "labor payments", they often
neglected their own fields.:p. 126 Over the next few years, the
yields from the peasants' crops remained low, and soon famine struck a
large portion of Russia.:p. 127 With little food, and finding
themselves in a similar condition as when they were serfs, many
peasants started to voice their disdain for the new social system. On
one occasion, on 12 April 1861, a local leader murdered a large number
of uprising peasants in the village of Bezdna. When the incident
was over, the official report counted 70 peasants dead and another 100
wounded. After further investigation, and trial of some members of the
uprising, five peasants were found guilty of "agitation" and not
uprising. That said, several different instances did take the form
of an uprising.
Central Bank of Russia
Central Bank of Russia coin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the
Congress Poland and in northern Russia both free and landless
(batraks), with only their labour to sell, while in other areas
peasants became the majority land-owners in their province(s). The
1861 Emancipation Manifesto affected only the privately owned serfs.
The state-owned serfs were emancipated in 1866 and were given
better and larger plots of land.
Lastly, the reforms transformed the Russian economy. The individuals
who led the reform favored an economic system similar to that in other
European countries, which promoted the ideas of capitalism and free
trade. The reformers aimed to promote development and to encourage the
ownership of private property, free competition, entrepreneurship, and
hired labor. This they hoped would bring about an
economic system with minimal regulations and tariffs, thus a more
"laissez-faire" economy. Soon after the reforms there was a
substantial rise in the amount of production of grain for sale.
Because of this there was also a rise in the number of hired laborers
and in farm machinery.:p. 125 Furthermore, a significant measuring
stick in the growth of the Russian economy post-reform was the huge
growth in non-gentry private landownership. Although the gentry
land-holdings fell from 80% to 50%, the peasant holdings grew from 5%
all the way to 20%.:p. 126
Judicial reform of Alexander II
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