Great Reforms in the 1860s


Photograph of Alexander II

During the reign of Alexander II from 1855 to 1881, the state passed a series of reforms that covered the most basic areas of need in Russian society. The emancipation of serfdom occurred in 1861 which abolished the owning of peasants. The Emancipation document asserts that those freed have “personal and property rights” just as any free city dweller. They also received some land to provide for themselves from the landowner but in return the peasant had to pay them in either labor or money. Another document on state peasants declares that land was given to peasants according to utilization and must pay a state tax. The state also addressed the administration of the village community, defining the composition and duties of the village assembly and volost’ administration. In addition, there are statutes that reform the roles of local government and judicial institutions. The local government had a higher priority to focus on welfare and needs of the poor as well as other public institutions. Judicial reform defined their jurisdiction, specific roles, and their qualifications in order to be a member of a judicial institution.

The fact that peasants had to repay the landowner with work or money is incredibly similar to what they had to do before serfdom, called the obrok or barshchina. After the emancipations, owners still own all their land but peasants continued to rent the land the used. This is also similar to the “state obrok tax”, so not only did they have to pay the landowner but also the state in the form of taxes. We also see a similarity to other reforms by having the local governments focus on welfare, education, and public health. With these refors, Alexander II is trying to reinsert the reforms, some of which Catherine tried and failed to enact during her reign.

What is the purpose of reverting to the obrok system which was used before serfdom?

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


The Emancipation Manifesto, 1861

The Emancipation Manifesto of March 3, 1861 released serfs from their serfdom. However, this improvement of the peasant condition was emphasized as gradual, leading to the establishment of many temporary measures and statuses to ensure the process of serfdom abolishment went smoothly. For example, the peasants were still required to fulfill obligations to the nobles, so much so that they were “temporarily bound” to their nobles, which hardly seems different from their situation previously. Language regarding the nobility was extremely courteous, praising the nobility for their generous hearts in voluntarily renouncing serfdom, implying that the renouncement may not have been as “voluntary” as it was portrayed to be. Furthermore, the nobles were given the task of much of the reorganization of land, meaning it unlikely that these land allotments would be decided in the benefit of the peasants.  The repetition of words such as “sacrifice”, “greater good”, and “obligation” seek to remind the nobles that their first priority is to the Russian state, and, accordingly, to the abolishment of serfdom as being in the best interests of the Russian state.

How effective was this document in promoting change? Were the peasant’s lives improved within two years or made worse?

What Makes a Revolutionary?

For Friday’s class, we’re reading “The Catechism of the Revolutionary (1868)” and the “Demands of the Narodnaia Volia.” The “Catechism,” written by Bakunin and Nechaev, describes a Russian Revolutionary: how he should act; what he should value; how she should treat others, etc. This document defines a “Comrade” as someone who is irrevocably committed to the cause. He has no external connections or motives other than causing a complete destruction of the current social political order, and he full-on recognizes that he will probably die in this process. The “Demands of the Narodnaia Volia,” written by the organization who assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, explains the group’s reasons for the assassination. The “Demands” delineate the current social order as oppressive and seek to radically reform it. Their biggest demand is an “Organizing Assembly.” The Assembly will be instituted through a general election by the people, will take the place of the existing government, and then will use their power to construct a new, fairer government that the Russian people need.

Paragraph 13 of the “Catechism” states, “He is not a revolutionary if he feels compassion for something in this world.” I found this rhetoric (and others like it) to be interesting because it implies that a true comrade should have no family: no wife, no children, etc. On one hand, this lack of connection correlates with the Catechism’s message that comrades will be killed. But on the other hand, it leaves how the whole idea of who the comrades are fighting for. Not only is not allowing comrades to have families harsh and unrealistic, it also seems counterproductive. Wouldn’t it be a stronger case to enforce to the comrades that they were bringing about total destruction so that their children can have a better world?

These documents also made me wonder why the Narodnaia Volia put a tsar back on the throne after they had killed his father. If they were so intent on total reform, than why place another hereditary monarch back in power? Why not try to institute a whole new government? (I know that this is coming in the next 40 years, but why didn’t it happen in 1881?)

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.

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.


It’s the End of Their World as They Know it.

The emancipation of serfs and serfdom in 1861 was forced due to the realization that Russia was far more backwards in compared to other major European powers which prevented them from industrializing at the rate necessary. Although serfdom was far more prevalent in the South than the North due to the availability of healthy land and soil, it did decrease slightly between 1835 and 1858 based on the census taken these two years. Once Alexander II created The Emancipation Manifesto, he enabled Russia to move more towards modernization by completely freeing those who had been subjected to servitude for generations. In this manifesto, Alexander II allowed serfs to take the rights given to free rural inhabitants. Nobles were required to allow the serfs to keep their homes and to keep their livelihood. This was done in a way that allowed nobles to retain their power but enabled the serfs to take control of their lives without remaining in any form of servitude. In order to ensure that this reform was successful, Alexander II created offices specially designed to protect the interests of both the newly formed peasants and the nobles and prevent serfdom from returning.

How was serfdom able to continue to flourish in the 19th century when many Russian controlled territories did not have or allow for serfdom? What was the original consensus of the nobles when this reform began? How did this affect relationships between newly freed serfs and the rest of Russia’s population? Aside from allowing Russia to compete against other world powers why did Alexander decide in 1861 that it was necessary to emancipate serfs?