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Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

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Contents

Week 3

Freeing the Serfs

Pre-reform Russia

Imperial Russia was a land of peasants, which made up at least 80% of the population. There were two main categories of peasants, those living on state lands and those living on the land of private landowners. Only the latter were serfs. 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, lit. 'wood', larger villages were called 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 miles) or so. There were around 20 million dvory in Imperial Russia, four in ten numbering from 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. Land and resources were shared within the mir. The fields were divided among the families as nadel - a complex of strip plots, distributed according to the quality of the soil. The strips were periodically redistributed (peredely) within the derevni to produce level economic conditions - albeit at the expense of actual efficiency. Despite this the land was not owned by the mir; the land was the legal property of the 100,000 or so land-owners (dvoryanstvo) 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 labour and goods, usually working the land half-and-half for themselves and the land-owner.

The need for urgent reform was well understood in 19th-century Russia, and various projects of emancipation reforms were prepared by Mikhail Speransky, Nikolay Mordvinov, and Pavel Kiselev. Their efforts were, however, thwarted by conservative or reactionary nobility.

Emancipation Manifesto

The liberal politicians who stood behind the 1861 manifesto - Nikolay Milyutin and Yakov Rostovtsev - also recognised 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 industrially, hence military and political strength, there were 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, 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, 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.

To 'balance' this, the legislation contained three measures to reduce the potential economic self-sufficiency of the peasants. Firstly a transition period of nine years was introduced, during which the peasant was obligated as before to the old land-owner. Additionally large parts of common land were passed to the major land-owners as otrezki, making many forests, roads and rivers only accessible 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. 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. Redemption payments were finally cancelled in 1907.

Implementation

Although well planned in the legislation, the reform did not work smoothly.

The land-owners and nobility were paid in government bonds and their debts were removed from the money before it was handed over. The bonds soon fell in value, combined with the generally poor management skills of the land-owners under the new conditions there

Outcome

The legislation neither freed the peasants from excessive external obligation nor greatly reordered their social and economic constraints. The uneven application of the legislation did leave many peasants in Congress Poland and northern Russia both free and landless (batraks), while in other areas peasants became the majority land owners in their province(s).

Questions

Week 3 Questions

Next week's materials

Week 4

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