The 1861 Emancipation of Russian Serfs was the single most important reform of the reign of Tsar Alexander II. As a consequence, it is taught widely on Russian history courses around the world (particularly A-Level History courses in the UK – I know, because I did the course myself, long ago!).

This article gives a brief overview of serfdom in Russia prior to the emancipation, the reasons for emancipation and its impact on Russian politics.

What is serfdom?

But first, before thinking about history, it’s important to answer the simple question of – what is a serf?

A serf is a peasant who lives under the political system of feudalism – they aren’t just unique to Russia but were found across Europe throughout the middle ages. The peasant is almost, but not quite, a slave, tied to the land of a landowner who also owns the right to that peasant’s existence. As well as working on their landowner’s land (on the fields, in his mines, in his factories), they could rent a small patch of land on which they could practice subsistence farming to provide for their own needs.

History of Russian Serfdom

Serfdom in Russia developed gradually over many centuries. Historians usually trace the root of Russian serfdom to the 11th century, but it only began to fully establish itself after the introduction of the Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Law Code) in 1649 by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich which first legally tied serfs to Russian estates. Shortly after, in 1658 it was made illegal for serfs to flee their estates and this really entrenched them in their lowly position in Russian society.

Slavery was also legal in Russia until 1723, when it was abolished by Peter the Great. The lot of slaves was not greatly improved, though –the vast majority simply became serfs.

By the middle of the 19th century, around half of all Russian peasants were privately owned serfs. Other Russian peasants mostly worked on land owned by the state – nominally they were freer, but in reality they remained serfs.

Emancipation of the Serfs

Emancipation of the Serfs

Listening to the Emancipation Proclamation

Alexander II was one of Russia’s more liberal leaders. He recognised that Russia’s feudal system – long since abandoned by Western European powers – was a liability. Russia’s weakness had been demonstrated by its defeat in the Crimean War, in which its armies of conscripted serfs had been regularly outmatched by the volunteer armies of France and Great Britain. The war effort had also been hampered because Russia’s largely agricultural society was unable to compete with the industrialised Empires of Western Europe.

After a number of committees had considered the matter, Alexander published his Emancipation Manifesto in March 1861. The Manifesto was quickly turned into law, and all privately owned serfs were given the right to become free citizens, free to marry, own land and their own businesses. Those tied to the land were entitled to buy the land they had previously leased, but not at a very good rate.

Naturally, the land that serfs were allowed to buy was usually of poor quality – the best land was held back by landowners for themselves. And to add insult to injury the newly free serfs paid, on average, more than a third over the market rate for their land – some paid almost double the market rate. They paid for their land with money loaned to them by the Government, and were required to repay it over 49 years. The redemption payments caused considerable hardship – many simply sold their land back to their previous landlords to cover their debts – until they were finally abolished in 1907.

State owned serfs were given a similar emancipation package five years later, in 1866. The terms of their deal were less onerous, however, and they usually received larger plots of land.

Impact of the Emancipation of the Serfs

In the short term, emancipation had a positive impact on Russia, and Russian economic growth ran at an average of 4.6% between 1860 and 1900, speeding up over the years.

An increase in commercial farming had a dramatic impact on Russia’s agricultural sector, and the changing nature of the working and middle classes led to an increase in the number of people qualified to take on management roles in factories and industry, increasing productivity there. The serfs’ change in status also led to a much more vibrant commercial market in Russia, as serfs were freer to make more purchasing decisions on their own.

The changes also altered the dynamic of Russian society in ways that led to social unrest. The heavy burden of redemption payments caused a great deal of resentment among peasants in rural Russia. In addition, the boom in Russian industry led to a rise in the population of cities and harsh working conditions fermented radicalisation among the industrial workforce.

It is fair to say, therefore, that the emancipation of the serfs in Russia was a factor in the unrest that led to both the 1905 Russian revolution and the 1917 Russian Revolutions. Not the only factor, certainly, but significant enough to be notable.