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 in
Various explanations have been put forward for Alexander"tms momentous decision to free the peasants. In his famous speech of 30th March 1856, Alexander II told the marshals of the nobility of Moscow province that it was better for emancipation of the peasants came "from above"tm rather than "from below"tm. Real changes would have seen the loss of land and service for the nobility, and uncertainty over what, and should replace serfdom led to inaction. They had no real wish to rise against the Tsar, as they still saw him as the divine representation on earth. Undoubtedly without serfdom industrial growth might have been much greater and faster, yet other reasons like the Empire unfavourable climate; the uneven distribution of its natural resources; the inadequate development of a network of transport and communications have been seen as major obstacles to the growth of Russian industry. Indeed 80 of the population was made of peasants, and, as with George Orwell"tms novel "1984"tm, if they had the intelligence and could be correlated, the masses could have easily risen against their masters and overturn centuries of totalitarianism. This brings up the point of the attitude of the peasants themselves, which has been described by historians as "fatalistic. However, the creation of a new group of "enlightened bureaucrats"tm whose loyalty was to the state rather than to themselves played an important role in the framing of the legislation. The force of circumstance, continual underdevelopment of the economy, ignominious defeat in the Crimean war, and frequent unrest on the part of the Serfs, prompted the course of action that Alexander pursued. In these words the Tsar appeared to clearly indicate that the governments main motive in considering emancipation was its concern with peasant unrest directed against serfowners. As had been found by his predecessors the Tsar could not emancipate the serfs single-handedly, and he was not about to receive the support of reactionary top bureaucrats. Serfdom was failing the nobility because it failed to provide them with adequate income to meet their needs, which led to increasing debt on their part, and massive mortgaging of the serfs to the state. The collapse of Russia"tms status as a great power exposed the backwardness of the Russian state, and the reasons and answers to Russia"tms failure lay with its Peasants and Farmers, for while Britain was undergoing industrialisation, peasants were still strip farming individual lands under the control of rich nobles. The moral case was conceded: the obstacles to emancipation were seen as purely practical ones, "Serfdom", Nicholas I had said in 1842 "is an evil, palpable and obvious to all, but to touch it now would be disastrous".