The Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia (Russian: Крестьянская реформа 1861 года, Krestyanskaya reforma 1861 goda, literally: "the Peasant Reform of 1861") was the first and most important of liberal reforms effected during the reign (1855-1881) of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. The reform effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire.
The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs. By this edict more than 23 million people received their liberty. Serfs gained the full rights of free citizens, including rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords. Household serfs were the least affected: they gained only their freedom and no land.
In Georgia the emancipation took place later, in 1864, and on much better terms for the nobles than in Russia. The serfs were emancipated in 1861, following a speech given by Tsar Alexander II on 30 March 1856. State owned serfs, i.e., the serfs living on Imperial lands were emancipated later in 1866.
Prior to 1861 Russia had two main categories of peasants:
- those living on state lands, under control of the Ministry of State Property
- those living on the land of private landowners
with only those owned privately considered to be serfs. They comprised an estimated 38% of the population. As well as having obligations to the state, they also were obliged to the landowner, who had great power over their lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, less than half of Russian peasants were serfs.
The rural population lived in households (dvory, singular dvor), gathered as villages (derevni; a derevnya with a church became a selo), run by a mir ('commune', or obshchina)—isolated, conservative, largely self-sufficient and self-governing units scattered across the land every 10 km (6.2 mi) or so. Imperial Russia had around 20 million dvory, forty percent of them containing six to ten people.
Intensely insular, the mir assembly, the skhod (sel'skii skhod), appointed an elder (starosta) and a 'clerk' (pisar) to deal with any external issues. Peasants within a mir shared land and resources. The fields were divided among the families as nadel ("allotment")—a complex of strip plots, distributed according to the quality of the soil. The strips were periodically redistributed within the villages to produce level economic conditions. Despite this the land was not owned by the mir; the land was the legal property of the 100,000 or so landowners (pomeshchiks, an equivalent of "landed gentry") and the inhabitants, as serfs, were not allowed to leave the property where they were born. The peasants were duty-bound to make regular payments in labor and goods. It has been estimated that landowners took at least one third of income and production by the first half of the nineteenth century.
The need for urgent reform was well understood in 19th-century Russia. Much support for it emanated from universities, authors and other intellectual circles. Various projects of emancipation reforms were prepared by Mikhail Speransky, Nikolay Mordvinov, and Pavel Kiselyov. However, conservative or reactionary nobility thwarted their efforts. In Western guberniyas serfdom was abolished early in the century. In Congress Poland, serfdom had been abolished before it became Russian (by Napoleon in 1807). Serfdom was abolished in the Governorate of Estonia in 1816, in Courland in 1817, and in Livonia in 1819.
In 1797, Paul I of Russia decreed that corvee labor was limited to 3 days a week, and never on Sunday. But his law was not enforced. Beginning in 1801, Alexander I of Russia appointed a committee to study possible emancipation, but its only effect was to prohibit the sale of serfs without their families. Beginning in 1825, Nicholas I of Russia expressed his desire for emancipation on many occasions, and even improved the lives of serfs on state properties, but did not change the condition of serfs on private estates.
My intention is to abolish serfdom ... you can yourself understand that the present order of owning souls cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for that time when it starts to abolish itself from below. I ask you to think about the best way to carry this out
The liberal politicians who stood behind the 1861 manifesto—Nikolay Milyutin, Alexei Strol'man and Yakov Rostovtsev—also recognized that their country was one of a few remaining feudal states in Europe. The pitiful display by Russian forces in the Crimean War left the government acutely aware of the empire's backwardness. Eager to grow and develop industrial and therefore military and political strength, they introduced a number of economic reforms. As part of this the end of serfdom was considered. It was optimistically hoped that after the abolition the mir would dissolve into individual peasant land owners and the beginnings of a market economy.
Alexander II, unlike his father, was willing to deal with this problem. Moving on from a petition from the Lithuanian provinces, a committee "for ameliorating the condition of the peasants" was founded and the principles of the abolition considered.
The main point at issue was whether the serfs should remain dependent on the landlords, or whether they should be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors.
The land-owners initially pushed for granting the peasants freedom but not any land. The tsar and his advisers, mindful of 1848 events in Western Europe, were opposed to creating a proletariat and the instability this could bring. But giving the peasants freedom and land seemed to leave the existing land-owners without the large and cheap labour-force they needed to maintain their estates and lifestyles. By 1859 however, a third of their estates and two thirds of their serfs were mortgaged to the state or noble banks. This was why they had to accept the emancipation.
To 'balance' this, the legislation contained three measures to reduce the potential economic self-sufficiency of the peasants. Firstly a transition period of two years was introduced, during which the peasant was obligated as before to the old land-owner. Secondly large parts of common land were passed to the major land-owners as otrezki ("cut off lands"), making many forests, roads and rivers accessible only for a fee. The third measure was that the serfs must pay the land-owner for their allocation of land in a series of redemption payments, which in turn, were used to compensate the landowners with bonds. An amount of 75% of the total sum would be advanced by the government to the land-owner and then the peasants would repay the money, plus interest, to the government over forty-nine years. These redemption payments were finally canceled in 1907.
The legal basis of the reform was the Tsar's Emancipation Manifesto of 3 March [O.S. 19 February] 1861, accompanied by the set of legislative acts under the general name Regulations Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence (Russian: Положения о крестьянах, выходящих из крепостной зависимости, Polozheniya o krestyanakh, vykhodyashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti).
This Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs. Serfs were granted the full rights of free citizens, gaining the rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The Manifesto also prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords.
Mir communities had the power to distribute the land given to newly freed serfs by the Russian government amongst individuals within the community. Due to the community's ownership of the land, as opposed to the individual's, an individual peasant could not sell his portion of land in order to work in a factory in the city. A peasant was required to pay off long term loans received by the government. The money from these loans was given to the primary landowner. The land allotted to the recently freed serfs did not include the best land in the country, which continued to be owned by the nobility.
The implementation of land settlement varied over the vast and diverse territory of the Russian Empire, but typically a peasant had rights to buy out about half of the land he cultivated for himself. If he could not afford to pay it off, he would receive a half of the half, i.e., a quarter of the land, free. It was called pauper's allotment (bednyatskiy nadel).
Although well planned in the legislation, the reform did not work smoothly. The conditions of the manifesto were regarded as unacceptable by many reform-minded peasants; "In many localities the peasants refused to believe that the manifesto was genuine. There were troubles, and troops had to be called in to disperse the angry crowds."
The land-owners and nobility were paid in government bonds and their debts were deducted from the money before it was handed over. The bonds soon fell in value; the management skills of the land-owners were generally poor.
Although the emancipation reform was commemorated by the construction of the enormous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Moscow and history books give Alexander II the name of "The Tsar Liberator", the change to an economic system involving a large proportion of a large population resulted in some far from ideal outcomes. Household serfs were the worst affected - they gained only their freedom, and no land. Many of the more enlightened bureaucrats had an understanding that the freeing of the serfs would bring about drastic changes in both Russian society and government. However, their idea that these changes would affect only the "lower stories" of society, and would strengthen the autocracy, rather than weaken it, was wrong. In reality, the reforms created a new system in which the monarch had to coexist with an independent court, free press, and local governments which operated differently, and more freely, than they had in the past. This new form of local government involved in each area an assembly called a zemstvo. More specifically, in regards to new localized government, the reforms put in place a system where the landowners were now able to have more of a say within their newly formed "provinces." While this was not the direct intent of the reforms, it was evident that this significantly weakened the idea of the autocracy. Now, the "well-to-do" serfs, along with previously free peoples, were able to purchase land as private property. While early in the reforms the creation of local government had not changed many things about Russian society, the rise in capitalism drastically affected not only the social structure of Russia, but the behaviors and activities of the self-government institutions. With new, capitalistic ideals, the local government was not responsible for the rules and regulations that would dictate how the new market would operate. If there was a positive of this movement towards localized government, from the autocracy's point of view; it was (as Petr Valuev put it): the zemstvo would "provide activity for the considerable portion of the press as well as those malcontents who currently stir up trouble because they have nothing to do".
The serfs from private estates received less land than they needed to survive, which led to civil unrest. The redemption tax was so high that the serfs had to sell all the grain they produced to pay the tax, which left nothing for their survival. Landowners also suffered because many of them were deeply in debt, and the forced selling of their land left them struggling to maintain their lavish lifestyle. In many cases, the newly freed serfs were forced to "rent" their land from wealthy landowners. Furthermore, when the peasants had to work for the same landowners to pay their "labor payments", they often neglected their own fields. Over the next few years, the yields from the peasants' crops remained low, and soon famine struck a large portion of Russia. With little food, and finding themselves in a similar condition as when they were serfs, many peasants started to voice their disdain for the new social system. On one occasion, on 12 April 1861, a local leader murdered a large number of uprising peasants in the village of Bezdna. When the incident was over, the official report counted 70 peasants dead and another 100 wounded. After further investigation, and trial of some members of the uprising, five peasants were found guilty of "agitation" and not uprising. That said, several different instances did take the form of an uprising.
The uneven application of the legislation left many peasants in Congress Poland and in northern Russia both free and landless (batraks), with only their labour to sell, while in other areas peasants became the majority land-owners in their province(s). The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto affected only the privately-owned serfs. The state-owned serfs were emancipated in 1866 and were given better and larger plots of land.
Lastly, the reforms transformed the Russian economy. The individuals who led the reform favored an economic system similar to that in other European countries, which promoted the ideas of capitalism and free trade. The reformers aimed to promote development and to encourage the ownership of private property, free competition, entrepreneurship, and hired labor. This they hoped would bring about an economic system with minimal regulations and tariffs, thus a more "laissez-faire" economy. Soon after the reforms there was a substantial rise in the amount of production of grain for sale. Because of this there was also a rise in the number of hired laborers and in farm machinery. Furthermore, a significant measuring stick in the growth of the Russian economy post-reform was the huge growth in non-gentry private landownership. Although the gentry land-holdings fell from 80% to 50%, the peasant holdings grew from 5% all the way to 20%.