The emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II in 1861 was an inevitable result of Russia’s inadequate hierarchical, militaristic and industrial systems. Serfdom was a feudal system in Russia, ‘in which a tenant farmer was bound to a hereditary plot of land and to the will of his landlord.’ (Britannica, 2019). The serfs made up around 90% of the population and were heavily concentrated in the central and western provinces of Russia. In the 17th century, serfdom became the dominant form of partnership between Russian farmers and aristocracy, although was abolished in 1861 at Tsar Alexander II’s imperial command. Similarly, four years later, slavery in the United States was declared unlawful and entirely illegal throughout all states and land under US jurisdiction, by presidential order. Living conditions for the serfs were poor and due to limited agriculture famines, epidemics and a high requirement of manual labour, serfs managed to survive on the bare minimum without starvation. In consideration of the problems with serfdom, Alexander II carried out the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 to modernise Russia and agriculture, to improve the army after the loss of the Crimean War and as a result of growing internal pressure.
The initial reason behind Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs was due to the substantial obligation to modernize Russia and its agriculture. This was a significant development in society as 82% of the Russian serf population lived in poverty, and with many famines and epidemics occurring, and the serfs being tied to the land that the noble’s owned, the ideal industrialised needs could not be met by Russia. To develop as a country in an industrial and economic aspect, serfs were required to work in factories in the cities boosting the industrial development that Russia needed. However, due to the legal code with the noble landowners, serfs could not travel to the cities where free labour would be more efficient than forced labour. Therefore, the industrial modernisation of Russia could not be met. Emancipation of the serfs became a more pressing issue. Additionally, with agricultural stagnation and the falling prices of grain, peasants were unable to pay taxes leading to Russia’s national debt to reach a total of 54 million roubles by 1855. As well as that, due to the fact that serfdom kept the standards of living low in the villages, which resulted in the reduction of an internal demand for goods. The import of goods relied upon agricultural trade and due to agricultural stagnation, no food was available to be traded with other countries, resulting in the country to be stuck in a reoccurring loop, of only being able to feed and provide the bare minimum for their own.
Another reason behind Alexander II’s reasoning for emancipation was because of the loss of the Crimean War and the urgency to improve Russia’s limited army. 2/3 of the soldiers died before getting to the front lines as a result of inexperience and no training in fighting and warfare. Furthermore, the army was under resourced with 2 soldiers for every single gun as a result of failure to transport weapons, food and ammunitions to the military. Incompetent military leaders were also a reason behind why the army was failing. Maintaining a new, strong and powerful army, was ideal for Russia progress. For this to occur, emancipation was required in preparation for reforming the Russian army along the Western lines. The empire could no longer afford a large army and maintaining an army of 25-year conscripts was both costly and inefficient. This proposed system was thought to be unworkable whilst serfdom continued.
Moreover, as a result of growing internal pressure, emancipation was an ideal solution to serfdom. A growing feeling of discontent among the peasants and constant pressure to produce more grain, coupled with conscription, had provoked more than 3000 separate peasant uprisings in the decade before the Crimean War. As a consequence, the increase in riots and peasant disturbance, the nobility could not do anything to stop the serfs as the only form of resistance was the army which was made up of serf soldiers. Therefore, a solution would be to have a secure police force, but for this to occur, serfdom would need to be abolished.
The impact of the emancipation verdict was significant in the development of Russia’s feudal system and society. Furthermore, the reform specifically developed the military, education and local government. The Manifesto in Emancipation of 1861 declared the emancipation of serfs on private property and domestic (household) serfs. More than 23 million people received their rights through this edict. Serfs acquired free citizens ' full rights, including the right to marry without permission, own land, and own a corporation. The Manifesto proposed that the landowners would be able to buy the peasants. The least affected was household serfs, who only received their freedom and no land. The reforms developed a new structure in which the tsar coexisted with a constitutional judiciary, free press, and local governments that functioned more independently than previously. The updated army had a positive impact upon Russia as the change to a smaller, more efficient and more professional army lead to economic benefits as it was less expensive to maintain. Additionally, with the establishment of military schooling and mandatory education, the army improved, leaving a positive impact upon Russia. Along with an improved military system, the education system also improved, as schools and universities were authorized. Moreover, the reforms had an impact upon the Russian economy. The reform was based upon an economic system comparable to those of powerful Western countries.
Alexander II wanted to avoid any other far-reaching changes throughout the country, to do with his autocratic rule or the status of the aristocracy, issues that would have been challenged by maintaining the system of serfdom, as a rebellion would be unavoidable. Alexander realized that without reformatory intervention, the risk of a revolt was possible and not far away. Additionally, serfdom is the equivalent to slavery, which is viewed upon as inhuman and cruel. Therefore, the end result was the emancipation of the serfs, allowing the newly declared peasants to live slightly better lives than in the past.
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