Alexander II Liberator

Alexander II Liberator

On February 19, 1861, Emperor Alexander II carried out the first and the most important of his reforms – he declared the abolishment of serfdom in the Russian Empire to improve the Russian economy and avert a possible revolution.

The history of serfdom in Russia began in 1649, when Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich issued a decree which prohibited peasants from leaving their lands and gave landowners full control over the peasants. This decree was followed by a number of others depriving peasants of their personal liberty and turned them into actual slaves – into “baptized property”. The peasants had to work for their owners and to pay them labor rent, while the owners had the right to buy and sell them, often separating families; to punish them; and even to exile them to Siberia for crimes such as escape attempts or for trying to dodge army recruitment.

The defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) exposed all the drawbacks of Russian industry, economy and agriculture, and served as a trigger for Alexander’s II reforms. That war put the peasantry in hard straits. For war purposes, the government had raised taxes, regularly commandeered peasants’ horses and cattle, and conducted extra recruitment among serfs. At the time the service lasted for 20 years, and that considerably affected landowners’ incomes, which in turn led to landowners increasing labor rents. Recruited serfs were also treated with scorn and were often left hungry and poorly equipped.

In 1857, 192 mass riots took place, and in 1859 there were already 938 riots. Sometimes, the peasants of several neighbor villages rose together against their owners. The armed clashes between the rebels and the military forces became frequent. The country was ripe for revolution, and the reform was meant to prevent the upcoming catastrophe.

The “Royal Manifest of the Abolishment of Serfdom” returned personal liberty and civil rights to serfs. The landowners were obliged to give them plots of land, and a special commission defined the sizes of those plots. However, nine years after liberation the peasants still had to pay the rent for the given land and to work for the landowners. Only at the end of the term were they able to redeem the rented plots. ...

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