Emancipation Manifesto (1861)

The Emancipation Manifesto was established in 1861 during the reign of Alexander II. While this appeared to be a sudden, rash decision, in reality, the movement was quite logical. Russia’s pitiful defeat in the Crimean War revealed to officials the blatant inadequacies in the Russian governmental system. Eager to grow and develop industry and subsequently the military and political power, the abolishment of serfdom seemed a practical option. This would allow people who had been previously tied to the land to branch out and help jumpstart a market economy in Russia.

The document itself begins by establishing the government’s legitimacy, “Called by Divine Providence and by the sacred right of inheritance to the throne of Our Russian ancestors…” (307). Then the document continues to explain why the reform is needed, citing that “…the present state legislation favors the upper and middle classes…” (307). The document argues that a weakening of noblemen’s paternal attitude towards peasants was one factor that contributed to the deterioration of serfdom as a system. In essence, the government admitted that they relied too much on the nobles, and acknowledged that noblemen weren’t as honest and virtuous as they believed. The document noted “…these measures were ineffective, partly because they depended on the free, generous action of nobles…” (307). This was certainly deliberate, as this shifted the blame of serfdom to the noble class, not to the government specifically (even though they were the ones to initiate the system).

The document summarizes the ultimate decision regarding serfdom.  The document declared that serfs would be granted the rights given to free rural peasants. They were given their homes and allowed to continue in their livelihoods. Thus, any form of servitude was eradicated. Additionally, Alexander II established several offices specifically for the newly created peasants to ensure that serfdom would not continue.

I think the aspect of this document that I found most interesting was language used specifically in addressing the nobles, and how it evolves over the course of the document. As mentioned before, the selfishness of the noble class was cited as a reason for the initial lack of success with serfdom. However, all these sections are collectively under the title “We have deemed it advisable…” (309). This meant that perhaps these were suggestions to the nobles. Additionally, the document explicitly states that in order for this program to work, “We…rely on the zealous devotion of our nobility, to whom We express our gratitude…for the unselfish support it has given…” (310). In essence, even though the nobles are partly responsible for the failure of serfdom because of their dishonesty, they are still being relied on for the success of this new endeavor! Additionally, the establishment of these Offices for Peasant Affairs is another way the government would continue to rely on the nobles to administer these offices. It seems very hypocritical to me.

I think that this document can serve as an instance of how the government had to rely on the noble class, regardless of what they did. While they realized that they were part of the problem associated with serfdom, the government had no one else to rely on to maintain order.


One thought on “Emancipation Manifesto (1861)

  1. I also found it particularly interesting how heavily the nobles within society were relied on. Despite them being partially involved with serfdom the government still decided to rely on only them to maintain peace and order. Because of this I found myself wondering if any alternate solutions in which, to an extent, applied to the appeal of both abolishing serfdom and the nobles in order to best restart Russia after its defeat in the Crimean War.

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