The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia

(Redirected from Emancipation of the serfs)

The Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia performed by tsar Alexander II of Russia amounted to liquidation of serf dependence of Russian peasants.

The legal basis of the reform was tsar's Emancipation Manifesto of March 3 (February 19, O.S.), 1861, accompanied by the set of legislative acts under the general name Regulations Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence (Положения о крестьянах выходящих из крепостной зависимости, Polozheniya o krestyanakh vykhodyashchikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti).

The Manifesto granted the full rights of free citizens to serfs and prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords.

See also: Alexander II of Russia: Emancipation of the serfs.


Pre-reform Russia

Imperial Russia was a land of peasants, serfs made up at least 80 % of the population.

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', also meaning 'world' and 'peace', or obshchina) - isolated, conservative, largely self-sufficient and self-governing units scattered across the land every 10 km 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 periodicallly 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 and its inhabitants were the legal property of the 100,000 or so land-owners (dvoryanstvo). The peasants were duty bound to regular payments in labour and goods, usually working the land half-and-half for themselves and the land-owner.

Emancipation Manifesto

The Russian government recognised that their country was the only remaining feudal state in Europe. The pitiful display by Russian forces in the Crimea left the government acutely aware of their 'backwardness'. Eager to grow and develop industrial, hence military and so political, strength there were a number of economic reforms. As part of this the end of serfdom was considered. Optimistically it was 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 become remain dependent on the landlords, or whether they should be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors.

The land-owners initally 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 within 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. 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 a number of years.


Although well planned the legislation 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 were severe money problems and extensive land sales. The nobility held 850,000 square kilometres in 1861, by 1905 this was up? (please fix, used to say down. Facts unknown by editor, although error noted.) to 58 million.

Many peasants also felt economic difficulties. The hard money demands of redemption payments and taxes pulled many into unfavourable situations, forcing them to work for the old land-owners, or more successful peasants, or even leave the land to find work elsewhere.

The legislation retained the village commune as an official administrative force. The strain on the mir of new economic disparities was intense. More wealthy peasants could lend money at high interest rates, use their neighbours as paid labour and expand their land holdings. Successful peasants were called miroedy (mir-eaters) or kulaks.

Worse were population pressures, an excess of 15 per 1,000 was the highest natural rate in Europe. Strong growth created more families who could, under the law, demand a share of the mir's land. This created ever smaller and less economic plots, from an average holding of 25,000 square metres in 1861 an average plot was reduced to 14,300 square metres by 1900. The deeply conservative nature of the mir also inhibited new agricultural methods or capital investment.


The legislation neither freed the peasants from excessive external obligation or greatly reordered their social and economic constraints. The uneven application of the legislation did leave many peasants in Poland and northern russia both free and landless (batraki), while in other areas peasants became the majority land owners in their province

The government, replacing the land-owners as the administrative hub for the peasants, proved itself to be careless, corrupt, and incompetent. With just 8,500 police to control 90 million people.


Related article

External links

Last updated: 05-21-2005 10:59:15