Why did emancipation take place in Russia in 1861?
The emancipation of the Serfs, the peasants owned by the nobility and the rich, was a question that plagued Tsars years before Alexander II granted the Emancipation Ukase in February 1861. In 1858 the serfs of private landowners comprised 22.8 million persons and for centuries had being providing, along with the state peasants, the backbone to Russia economy and comprised a large percentage of all the recruits in the Russian military. So why then, did both Alexander II and preceding him Nicholas I emphasise the need for reform and change to what was one of the longest running traditions, and would cause massive waves in an traditionally autocratic and reactionary kingdom?
In March 1855 Alexander II succeeded his father, Nicholas I, who died during the Crimean War. Within a year of the new Tsar’s accession Russia had been ominously defeated by British and French troops and the Russian military was in ruins. Russia’s failure to compete with the European powers prompted Alexander (and for the fist time, the majority of influential people) to recognise the real need for change. Alexander publicly stated that the emancipation of the serfs was inevitable and in the course of 1857 the political initiatives were taken that led to the Emancipation Ukase of 19th February 1861.
Various explanations have been put forward for Alexander’s momentous decision to free the peasants. Some historians stress economic considerations, others emphasise the government’s fear of unrest, the role of liberal and humanitarian ideas, or military and fiscal motives. What can be agreed upon however, is the Crimean effect, acting as the catalyst for change by shattering the image of a powerful Russia that not only Russians themselves believed, but also other European powers respected and feared. The internal crisis resulting from the war brought to a head within the gov...