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The most important event in Russian history between the reforms of Peter the Great and the Revolution of 1905 was the abolition of serfdom. 

Serfdom was codified in the 17th century, whereby peasants were completely prohibited from moving from their estates without the permission of their landlord. The lord also had complete jurisdiction over them, though the conditions and obligations varied from region to region and even from village to village. The peasants also owed the lord service, either as labour service (barshchina), or quit-rent in the form of money or goods (obrok). The estate owner could impose any additional obligations he wished, such as an increase in taxes or payments in kind. Resistance was not tolerated.

Most serfs worked on the land. The normal arrangement was for the lord’s land to be divided, with an area set aside as demesne or landlord area, to be farmed by the peasants but under whatever orders the landlord laid down. The rest of the farm, generally the less productive area of the manorial estate, would be handed over to the peasants for their own use. This land was divided by the peasant commune (obshchina or mir), into three large fields worked on a rotation crop system. Each field was divided into strips and each family given strips in each field according either to the number of male workers (tiaglo) or the number of mouths to feed in a family. Strips were redistributed by the commune every 5 or 7 years. In a way, it reflected the peasant ideas of equality – the notion that ownership was ‘un-Christian’ and unjustified and that land should be in the hands of those who actually cultivated it.

Economic organization in peasant Russia centered around the obshchina or mir. The commune was an organization for communal management of village affairs. It was essentially an agrarian organization responsible for regulation of land distribution and use, for tax collection, road repair, mutual aid, selection for military service, maintenance of churches and clergy, for keeping social order, and settling civil disputes.

The other basic peasant institution was the household (dvor). A peasant household consisted largely of blood relatives of two or three generations. However the basic determinant of household membership was not a blood-tie but total participation in the life of the household. 

The peasants, however, understood the rationale behind serfdom. It had been imposed largely to provide an economic basis for the service gentry to enable them to serve the Tsar in civil and military capacities. Thus peasants accepted serfdom as long as it was necessary to defend the country and serve the Tsar. However, in 1762, a legislation was passed freeing the Russian nobility from this service obligation. They were given the land on a hereditary basis and were not obliged to serve the state in return. Now the peasants reacted because the only possible justification for the peasants’ attachment to the land as the peasants understood it was removed. 

With the territorial expansion of the state in the 18th century, there was a change in the mode of governance towards a more bureaucratic and formalized structure, and with this bondage to the person of service nobility emerged. As the bureaucratic state grew, there also arose a need to impose a more rigorous rule on the peasantry, because three important things needed by the state were drawn from the peasantry – food, taxes and military recruits for the army. However, due the large surplus land available, it now became essential to fix the peasants to the land. The retainers of the earlier period, known as the boyars, came to be given land on a hereditary basis as patrimonies and a service nobility known as the pomeshchiki came into existence, which held land conditional to military service. Thus, by the early 18th century, the serf was bound to the land as well as the lord, who enjoyed wide police and judicial powers. 

The bureaucratic Russian state found the mir convenient and encouraged it. It was felt that obligations and dues could be better collected if done through collective responsibility (Krugovaya Poruka). Thus the state perpetuated the commune in the 20th century, even after emancipation, and the peasants also continued to believe in the commune. 

The system of the commune also eventually led to the social and cultural isolation of the peasant. With the expansion and emergence of a bureaucratic state, the state became alienated from the peasants. The peasants had their own judicial system and law codes to administer their own affairs. So the state’s link was merely the collection of food, taxes and military recruits. All this eventually grew into a cultural chasm. 

Serfdom came under question only in the late 18th century, when Russia’s status as a Great Power was threatened. At this time, when the state and people began to come together in the West, Russia lagged behind (This became clear later in the Crimean War). Serfdom lay at the heart of this, as it hampered the modernization of economy and society, preventing Russia from maintaining its Great Power status. Russian statesmen also became aware of the gap between the state and the people and from Catherine to Nicholas II, there were attempts to bridge this gap. However neither tackled the key question of serfdom. It was only with Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1854-56) that the need for reforms became urgent.

Russian soldiers had fought the war with outdated weapons. This was connected to the fact that Russia had not witnessed an Industrial Revolution. It was argued that serfdom had prevented a change in favour of capitalist production and an agrarian revolution. Agricultural backwardness had hampered industrial progress and this led to outdated weaponry and transportation. Further, modern equipment could not be bought from Britain and France due to a financial crisis. This could again be traced back to serfdom. The army was an immense burden on the state treasury as the Russian army was organized on pre-French Revolution lines. The French Revolution had introduced a system of dual warfare and universal military service, which was cheaper. However, in Russia, there still existed large armies comprising of peasant recruits who served for 25 years. There was no universal military service. Also, once a serf was recruited to the army, he became free. This was a deterrent to increasing the size of the army suddenly in wartime since that would mean that a large number of serfs would have to be freed, which could disrupt the economic system and lead to chaos in the countryside. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the serfs would not turn against the landlords, leading to an agrarian revolt. Thus the state was forced to maintain a huge army even in times of peace, which increased military costs. A more modern system of revenue collection to deal with the increased military costs could also not be set up due to the existence of serfdom. 

Another reason for Russia’s defeat lay in the absence of citizenship and national spirit. Though the heroism of the ordinary peasant soldiers was unquestionable, but they were fighting for different reasons than their aristocratic commanders, who even spoke a different language (French) and had no link with the soldiers. While the commanders were fighting for Rossiya, the soldiers were fighting for the defense of the Christian land, Rus or ‘Holy Russia’. Thus no sense of citizenship bound the commanders to the soldiers.         

Regarding the introduction of reforms, Liberal Russian historians, Soviet historians and others have attributed various causes to the reforms but the more accepted explanation though is that the Tsar merely wanted modernization for military purposes and to gain status and power, not to develop Russia as a capitalist economy. The emancipation was not seen just as an agrarian reform but as the first step to create civic institutions and create a modern state.

Alexander stated in a speech in April 1856 that it was better to emancipate the serfs “from above” than wait “until it begins to abolish itself from below”. Another reason for ‘reform from above’ was that if emancipation was left to the landlords, it would never be on the required scale. Since the 18th century, the Russian state had allowed landlords to free their serfs but very few had done so voluntarily. 

The main questions to be answered by the State were :- how much land would the nobility keep and how much would go to the peasants; and how the peasants were to pay for the land they acquired. On March 3, 1861 (February 19 according to the old calendar), Alexander issued his Emancipation Manifesto that proposed 17 legislative acts that would free the nearly 23 million serfs in Russia. In legal terms, emancipation meant that the peasant was free of the land or the landlord. He was free to move and marry, and to buy or sell property. The serfs were also given some rights of a citizen. However they were still tied to the village commune and deprived of the right to own land individually. Further, shortly before the Act was approved, the Tsar stated that everything had been done to protect the interests of the landowners. To this end, the legislation contained three measures.

  • Firstly a transition period of nine years was introduced, during which the peasant was obligated as before to the old landowner.
  • Secondly, large parts of common land were passed to the major landowners as otrezki, making many forests, roads and rivers accessible only for a fee.
  • The third measure was that the serfs must pay the landowner for their allocation of land in a series of redemption payments. The total sum would be advanced by the government to the landowner and then the peasants would repay the money, plus interest, to the government over forty-nine years.Alterantively, the serfs couls take ¼th of their normal share of land and pay nothing. 

Although well-planned in the legislation, the reform did not work smoothly. The conseravtives opposed the allotment of land to peasants, while the liberals were disliiusioned by its terms. It made possible sustained accelreation in the rate of economic growth and the development of industry. Liberals concluded that the rapid growth of rural population on a limited supply of land created a labour surplus for industry. However labour was available in abundance even before emancipation. Some have also argued that a landless proletariat had come into existence by the early 20th century. However local studies have shown otherwise. 

The Reform led to dissatifaction among the peasants and landowners. The landowners and nobility were paid in government bonds. These bonds, however, soon fell in value as the peasants failed to make their redemption payments. This combined with the poor management skills of the landowners, leading to severe financial troubles and extensive land sales. Between 1860 and 1900, more than 40% of the gentry’s land was sold to the peasants. The peasants were unhappy with the terms of the emancipation on several grounds.
  • Firstly, they had assumed that freedom would be given along with the land. They used the term ‘volia’ for emancipation, which referred to freedom with the land, not just from the land. However, after emancipation, land was divided between the landlords and the peasants, and it was later calculated that, on an average, the peasants had 13% less land than that which they had tilled for their own subsistence under serfdom. Further, the allocation of land also led to the problem of “cut-off” land, as the landlords kept the best lands. 
  • Secondly, the payment of redemption dues and taxes placed an enormous economic burden on the peasantry, forcing them to work for their old landowners or more successful peasants, or even leave the land to find work elsewhere. This led to economic disparities, which put a strain on the mir. More wealthy peasants (later called kulaks) could lend money at high interest rates, use their neighbours as paid labour and expand their land holdings. 
  • Thirdly, the peasants did not achieve any equality before law or real personal freedom. Their land was held not by them but by the village commune. In fact, emancipation reinforced the subordination of the peasant to the commune since the peasant was not allowed to leave his village without the authority of the community, and all the households of the village were jointly liable for payment of taxes and redemption dues. Also, the peasants had no control over their land allotments, i.e., they could not buy, sell or mortgage it, till all the payments were made.
There was also a problem of shortage of land. The population rose from 76 million in 1861 to 126 million in 1897. Territorial expansion was not possible since in the 20th century there was a precarious balance of power in Europe. The commune prevented emigration by peasants as it represented the loss of a tax-paying person. Moreover, industry was also not developing fast enough to absorb the rural population. Thus the problem of land remained.

As a result, rural unrest grew and the incidence of strikes and land seizures form private landowners rose. From 1825-55, there were over 600 peasant uprisings. However, in the first 4 months after February 1861, there were 648 peasant uprisings. The total number of uprisings in 1861 was 1176. But the peasants were unorganized and dispersed throughout the country; they also lacked political conscious. 

There is also the question of whether emancipation led to an increase in revolutionary consciousness among the peasantry, which may have contributed to the revolutions in 1905 or 1917. It is true that the peasants were revolutionary in their demand for land. However, if ‘revolutionary’ is understood in the context of creation of a socialist society, then the peasants were not revolutionary. Right into the era of revolution, the peasants maintained their loyalty to the Tsar, and distinguished him from the nobility. After emancipation, they broke out in revolt under the assumption that the Emperor had granted them volia but the landlords, civil servants and the clergy had subverted his order and thus prevented them from getting full freedom. 

Alexander’s reforms did not, however, create stability or consensus in Russia. Many young upper and middle-class Russians felt that the reforms had not gone far enough to improve the peasant’s lot, to bring Russia up to Western levels of prosperity and freedom, or to allow Russians the right to express their political opinions and to participate in government. 

Thus we can see that emancipation of serfs was one of the most significant events of modern Russian history. Its ramifications were immense, though a linear correlation between the emancipation of serfs and any growth of revolutionary consciousness among the peasantry or the agrarian question at the time of the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy cannot be drawn.

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