The 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs was Russian leader Czar Alexander II's attempt at reforming Russian society by eradicating serfdom. Russian serfs held a similar status as slaves in the United States, with the exception that they were not owned by their landlord in the way that slaves were. Established by legal code in 1649, serfdom allowed landowners to control virtually all aspects of the peasants who lived on their land.

Background

Serfs made up around one-third of the Russian population and almost half the peasantry, and, although they held no political power, a total of 712 peasant uprisings between 1826 and 1854 made Russian rulers wary of widespread civil unrest. Russia’s defeat in the 1850s Crimean War led Czar Alexander II to implement a program of social reform, and he placed the emancipation of the serfs at the center of that program. “It is better to begin to destroy serfdom from above,” he said, “than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below.” Alexander charged Russian landowners with the task of working out a program for emancipation.

Emancipation Manifesto

A lengthy process of consultation and negotiation among the landowners eventually resulted in the Emancipation Manifesto. Approved by the State Council in January 1861 and formally signed by Czar Alexander on Feb. 19, the Manifesto was published on March 5. The published document revealed its committee origins in the hundreds of pages detailing the terms of the emancipation.

Emancipation Terms

Emancipation radically altered the legal status of serfs. As a result of the Manifesto, serfs were now legally free of their landlords. This meant that they could own property in their own right, and could purchase land from their previous owner. They could also marry freely, trade, vote and sue in court. However, landlords chose the land they would sell to serfs; they selected the poorest-quality plots, and often provided the mortgages that allowed serfs to make the purchase in the first place. The government also tried to keep serfs in their local areas to avoid large population movements that would disrupt the country.

Results

The Emancipation Manifesto initially led to disturbances among peasants, which were sufficiently widespread that the Russian army was brought in to suppress them. In Podolia, Hrodno, Penza, Voronezh and Chernigov, thousands of peasants refused to work and prepared for an armed uprising. Levels of unrest eventually dropped, but most former serfs found it difficult to support themselves and their families, and by 1900 only half the income of a peasant family came from farming -- the rest was made up of paid manual labor.