The Emancipation of Russian Serfs

Alexander II issued a document of emancipation for the Russian serfs in 1861.  In it, he stipulates that the nobility agreed, for the benefit of their country, to release the serfs from their status at the end of a two year reconstruction period.  After serfdom is abolished, the nobles are required to give their former serfs land so that they may continue to earn a living.

This document echoed the Enlightenment principles of the former reformist monarchs. Firstly, the nobles are given a social duty to the lower classes as well as mandating that the now-free peasants give back to society.  Secondly, there is much discussion of the inherent rights of the free man like the ability to gather property and the benefits of freedom.  Also, the document decrees that the government will lend assistance to the freed serfs.  These stipulations are very reminiscent of Catherine’s charters to the nobility and the towns.

The way this document was written seems like a very clever manipulation on the part of Alexander II.  Although the monarchy is responsible for continuing the tradition of serfdom, he transfers the blame to the nobles for the failure of the institution, citing their lack of “paternal attitude” that was required.  Then it is repeated several times that the nobles made the decision to free the serfs voluntarily, although this is probably not the case since it was to their economic misfortune to free the serfs.  He also requires the nobles to establish their own terms when freeing their serfs, not developing a standardized practice throughout the country.  In using this language, Alexander is taking a preventative step against the failure of such an action, so that if freeing the serfs fails, the Tsar will not be the one to blame.  The nobles, which already harbor resentment from the serfs will have to defend themselves in the face of a new free body of peasants.  It is almost a means of further centralizing power to the monarch and making the nobles weaker.

On a related note, the best quote of this reading is as follows, “However beneficial a law may be, it cannot make people happy if they do not themselves organize their happiness under protection of the law.”  To me, this completely sums up what I know about Russian government, and it is highly ironic since laws put the serfs into poverty in which they were unable to organize their happiness.

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