This Day in History- Abolition of Serfdom in Russia
19 February, 2015
On February 19, 1861, Александр II (Alekandr II) singed a Manifesto, which contained the most important social and economical reforms of the century in Russia. Aleksandr II aimed to take over the process of modernisation started with Пётр Великий (Peter the Great) and his act began with the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire.
Before the reform peasants lived in conditions of slavery; they weren’t allowed to leave their land and landlords had full control over them. Peasants had to work for and pay a labour rent to their owners, who had the right to buy and sell, to punish or exile them to Siberia.
After the defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) Russian peasantry were exhausted by taxes and extra recruitments. The landowners increased the labour rents and mass riots sprang up in the whole country. The situation highly affected the economic system and led Aleksandr II to carry out the reforms to prevent a catastrophic revolution.
The royal Manifesto announced that the serfs were given personal liberty and civil rights and the landlords had to give them plots of land. The reform goals were to increase the social mobility, promote the growth of the urban population, and so the development of the Russian economy.
The rural and urban reforms that followed, change the structure of local government. Contested action, trial by jury, magistrate court and legal defence were first introduced as part of the court proceedings. In addition the reform made education accessible to all social classes while universities became more independent and censorship less severe.
These political and economical turn in favour of freedom gave Alexander II the name of “Liberator”, but nine years after the abolition of serfdom the situation was far from ideal. The peasants still worked for the landlords and paid the rents. The Manifesto turned out to support mainly the interests of the landowners and the government, since the plots given were usually inconvenient and infertile and peasants had to pay if they wanted to redeem the land.
The great reform didn’t bring the immediate freedom declared in the Manifesto, but realized profound social transformations. The institution of serfdom a true form of slavery in Russia, had been demolished. The declaration introduced new structures in justice and education while the migration of peasantry increased. The Manifesto was the leading step towards freedom and social progress in Russia.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons