The abolition of serfdom in Russia was a complex, multi-layered process that spanned decades – and was not even properly completed when the revolution of 1917 occurred. Most Russians to this day do not fully understand serfdom and the consequences of its abolition. We strive to explain the brutal truth behind the shining facade of Russian peasant freedom.
Serfdom was an “under state gunpowder magazine”
Portrait of Nicholas I of Russia
For much of Russian history – from the mid-17th century until the abolition of serfdom in 1861 – peasants were tied to their land. They could also be bought and sold, their basic human rights were not respected. Following the French Revolution, which proclaimed personal freedom as a basic human right, serfdom was to be abolished.
Emperor Nicholas I organized at least ten secret committees to discuss the abolition of serfdom – throughout his reign, from 1826, and until his death, in 1855. He understood that peasants must above all else own their land, and pleaded with his son, Alexander II, not to deprive them of it, lest it lead to a national catastrophe. Nicholas said the serfdom was a “state gunpowder store.” He said abolition would become “the most necessary act that I leave to my son.”
The abolition of serfdom was also seen as necessary because by the 1840s and 1850s, especially after the devastating Eastern War, uprisings and peasant revolts had multiplied. The fuse was already on.
The reform was planned by the owners
Tsar Alexander II, Emperor of Russia (between 1870 and 1886)
Global Look Press
After Nicholas I, there were only 37% serfs (about nine million) among Russian peasants. But the owners were in a perpetual financial crisis. Two-thirds of their estates were pledged to the state and the nobles were doing no business, so the owners were desperately against reform.
In 1857, a reform plan was drawn up, but the landowners, members of the reform committee, strongly opposed it, and in 1859, the plan was amended in favor of the landowners. The peasants were granted freedom without land – the worst scenario against which Nicholas warned. The Manifesto of Emancipation was signed on February 19, 1861.
Reform was bad for serfs and landlords alike
The first page of the Manifesto of February 19, 1861
The peasants gained personal freedom. To support themselves, they acquired small plots of land (about 3.5 hectares) which the state bought from the owners. These small plots were, however, loaned to farmers by the state at an annual interest rate of 5.6%. They couldn’t leave or sell this land for 49 years!
The landowners took the best land, leaving their peasants with infertile or marshy plots. Freedom for the peasants was only in their newly installed communal autonomy. In all other respects, their life has remained unchanged.
The owners were also pushed. The state paid them for their former serfs in stock papers which could be cashed but cost much less than face value. The state should have paid the owners 902 million rubles (for about nine million serfs), but 316 million was withheld by the state for the debts of the owner. To put it in perspective, Russia’s annual budget at the time was 311 million rubles.
Russian writer Ivan Turgenev in Baden-Baden
Was this sum sufficient? Well, an owner with an estate with 300 serfs was considered rich at that time; but after the reform, an owner who owned 300 would get only 30,000 rubles – that could support the lavish lifestyle of a noble family for only about five or six years. The money had to be invested or put into a bank account. But the nobles did not know how to use the money. Historian Semyon Ekshtut writes: “The nobility… considered this sum as compensation for their loss, not as start-up capital… The nobility did not invest their money in the development of the country but preferred to waste it on foreigner.
The reform was economically inefficient
An auction for arrears, by Wassily Maximov, 1880-1881
Berdyansk Art Museum
Soviet history textbooks said serfdom should have been abolished because it hampered economic growth, as free peasants would work better. Unfortunately, this is not true. Alexander Malakhov argues that an average American slave worked 2.6 times more than a Russian serf.
Serfs were “motivated” to work by their owners using corporal punishment and fees, but state serfs, who were personally free and paid state taxes, worked less well and less than private serfs. : State serfs sowed 42% fewer seeds, and showed 16% less productivity. Thus, after the reduction in taxes and working days that the reform brought about, the peasants began to work less, not more; and even though there were rich and prosperous people among them, who managed to open their own businesses, they were still a minority.
The reform provoked multiple peasant riots
“Reading of the Manifesto of 1861” by Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1873
Immediately after the Manifesto, many peasant riots started. The peasants saw the reform as “bogus” because it left them in the same state they were in – working for the landlord. Many peasants revolted by stopping work. In March 1861, army regiments were sent to nine (out of 65) Russian governorates (regions) to stop the riots. In April, 29 governorates were in riot, in May – 38. In total, in 1861, 1176 riots took place. In 1863, there were more than 2000 and more than 700 of them were suppressed by the army. It was not a peasant war – but what was appalling was that the peasants were in fact paying more than the price of the land.
In 1855, the total cost of peasant land was $ 544 million, but the peasants had to pay $ 844 million (including the 5.6 percent annual increase), and the cost only increased increase over time: in 1906, peasants had paid 1.57 billion rubles for these lands (triple the cost!). The peasants were impoverished and began to seek income in the cities, where they were deprived of their families, their native lands, angry and ready to revolt against the corrupt state which robbed them.
The reform impoverished the nobles and impoverished the peasantry
Sergey Vinogradov. Poor near the church, 1899
Smolensk State Museum Reserve
Almost all noble families in Russia were broken up at the start of the 20th century. Even in “La Cerisaie”, a play by Anton Tchekhov, Firs, a valet, regards the emancipation of the Russian serfs as “a disaster” for the peasants as for their owners.
The nobility lost all their money and didn’t know how to work or do business, so they were of no use to the state. And the old peasants had now become the working class, broke, angry and living far from their homes and families (if they had any) – fertile ground for Communist propaganda.
No wonder the Soviets’ first decree concerned land. Lenin promised to return the land to the peasants – and although he ultimately did not do so, this is what helped the Communists ignite and win the Revolution – the selfish desire of the emperor and the nobility to separate from the general population and do nothing at all.
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