Emancipation of Russian Serfs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The emancipation of Russia’s serfs fundamentally altered the political, social, and economic relationships that had upheld the czarist system through more than two centuries but did not satisfy rising pressures for fundamental reforms.

Summary of Event

Serfdom developed in Russia as an integral part of the Russian political system. Medieval European notions of serfdom held that peasants belonged to the land. Thus, when title to land changed hands, the peasants went with it. In Russia, however, serfdom was virtually indistinguishable from slavery because the peasants could be legally separated from the land. By law and by custom, landowners held powers over peasants that made them chattel. Peasants discharged their formal obligations either by paying case (obrok) or by giving their owners stipulated amounts of work (barshchina). The owners, in turn, were expected to maintain the peasants during famine Famines;Russian times, to watch over their health and welfare, and in all ways to act as fathers to them. In practice, these conditions meant that landowners held the power of life and death over their serfs, for whom there was neither recourse nor protection against abuses. Serfs Russian;emancipation of Russia;emancipation of serfs Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];emancipation of serfs [kw]Emancipation of Russian Serfs (Mar. 3, 1861) [kw]Russian Serfs, Emancipation of (Mar. 3, 1861) [kw]Serfs, Emancipation of Russian (Mar. 3, 1861) Serfs Russian;emancipation of Russia;emancipation of serfs Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];emancipation of serfs [g]Russia;Mar. 3, 1861: Emancipation of Russian Serfs[3450] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 3, 1861: Emancipation of Russian Serfs[3450] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 3, 1861: Emancipation of Russian Serfs[3450] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 3, 1861: Emancipation of Russian Serfs[3450] Miliutin, Nikolai Philaret Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Samarin, Yuri Pavlovna, Helena Herzen, Aleksandr

Serfdom developed into the foundation of the Russian economy. Between 1649 and the mid-nineteenth century, the government preserved the principle of serfdom, although the institution did not go entirely unchallenged. A growing chorus of criticism developed as enlightened landlords and bureaucrats joined the new intellectual classes in condemning serfdom as the most stultifying and barbarous influence in what had become a stagnant country.

As Russia entered the nineteenth century, the inadequacy of serfdom to meet the needs of a developing industrial society was clearly demonstrated. Even Czar Nicholas I Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and serfs[Serfs] , whose concept of official nationality made serfdom an essential element in the autocratic order, established several commissions to study the peasant problem, and he also made it easier for individual landlords to release serfs from bondage. His son and successor, Alexander II, benefited from the demand for reform that followed Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, and he began his reign by announcing that he intended to change Russia from above in order to avoid change from below.

Alexander II was a conservative who saw that it was necessary to reform the autocracy in order to preserve it. Although only thirty-seven years old at the time of his accession in 1855, he had had wide experience in government and had already decided on the need for emancipation. In 1856, he invited the gentry to formulate reform proposals. In January of 1857, a private committee was formed to pursue the question. The committee was chaired by the reactionary Prince Aleksei Orlov Orlov, Aleksei , but other more enlightened persons pressed for progress. These included the Grand Duke Constantine Constantine, Grand Duke Nikolaevich and the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna Pavlovna, Helena , as well as Count P. D. Kiselev Kiselev, P. D. , Nikolai Miliutin, Miliutin, Nikolai Count Yakov Rostovtsev Rostovtsev, Yakov , and Count Sergei Lanskoi Lanskoi, Sergei , the minister of the interior. Rostovtsev headed the Editing Commission, which was responsible for working out the details of the emancipation legislation, and Miliutin became the chief author of the emancipation legislation. While the government deliberated, liberal and radical journalists, including Aleksandr Herzen Herzen, Aleksandr in London and Nikolai Chernyshevsky Chernyshevsky, Nikolay in St. Petersburg, urged action and for a brief period conservatives and radicals seemed united in bringing a new era into being.

Three years of intensive work produced the emancipation decree, which was drafted by Yuri Samarin Samarin, Yuri and Philaret Philaret , the metropolitan patriarch of Moscow. The decree was signed on March 3, 1861 (February 19, according to the Julian calendar then used in Russia). Two weeks later it was read out in all the churches Orthodox Church, Russian of Russia. Serfdom was officially abolished. The decree destroyed the power of landlords over the peasants and made the mir, or commune, the basic unit with which the government dealt. The gentry retained something more than Russia;land distribution half of the arable land, and the peasant communes divided the remainder among their members.

The gentry were paid immediately by the government for the land that they gave up, while the peasants were committed to “redemption payments” to the government for forty-nine years. The amount of land assigned to the peasant communes varied from province to province, but in no case was it equivalent to the land the peasants had worked under serfdom. Individual peasants, however, were granted the right to contract leaseholds, and they could also work as laborers. In this way, it was possible to make up a portion of the deficit which the smaller allotments created.

Flaws in the emancipation scheme proved to be only too obvious. Peasants, though freed from their former landlords’ control, were still not considered legal beings, as communes were interposed between them and society. The government, which relied on the communes to take the place of serf owners in keeping order in the countryside, thus replaced bondage to landlords with bondage to communes. The former serfs were not free to sell their allotments or even seek work outside their villages without the permission of their communes. Since members of communes were jointly responsible for making redemption payments and paying taxes, the communes were typically reluctant to grant individual peasants permission to leave, lest financial burdens increase for those who remained behind.


When it became clear that Alexander II had not instituted the peasant reform as the first step toward liquidating the autocracy, and as the conservative character of the peasant reform became clearer, a new generation of Russian radicals turned their back on government-sponsored reforms. They opened new attacks on the czar and began to organize political circles for action. The liberal minds of the 1830’s and 1840’s found themselves out of touch with the new radical generation, and even the venerated Herzen Herzen, Aleksandr was distressed to discover that he had been bypassed, if not forgotten. Emancipation was only a milestone on Russia’s road to modernity, not the end of the journey as many hoped in 1861.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blum, Jerome. Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Comprehensive history of serfdom that examines its impact on czarist Russia’s economic development and earlier efforts to abolish it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Field, Daniel. The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 1855-1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Detailed study of serfdom for scholars and advanced students of the drafting of the emancipation legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoch, Steven L. “On Good Numbers and Bad: Malthus, Population Trends and Peasant Standard of Living in Late Imperial Russia.” Slavic Review 53 (Spring, 1994): 42-75. Attempt to use statistical evidence to challenge the standard view that the economic plight of the peasants worsened during the half century following emancipation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. Comparative study of Russian serfdom and American slavery that argues that the Russian system, unlike American slavery, had ceased to be socially acceptable by the mid-nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lincoln, W. Bruce. The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1990. Clear and concise introduction to the major reforms enacted during the reign of Czar Alexander II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Walter G. A History of Russia. 2d ed. 2 vols. London: Anthem Press, 2002. The second volume of this very full history of Russia describes Alexander’s reforms and foreign policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. London: Anthem Press, 2002. Examination of the personal and public lives of Alexander, incorporating this information with details about Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and other nineteenth century Russian writers and thinkers who were concerned about social issues
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mosse, W. E. Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. Reprint. London: I. B. Tauris, 1992. First published in 1958, this book is a highly readable introduction to the personality of the ruler known as the “Czar Liberator” and the major events of his reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Geroid Tanquary. Rural Russia Under the Old Regime: A History of the Landlord-Peasant World and a Prologue to the Revolution of 1917. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. This classic study, first published in 1932, argues that the condition of the peasants deteriorated rather than improved after the emancipation decree was issued.

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Categories: History