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?

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?