Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
During the reign of Alexander II, many reforms were instituted that changed Russia forever. These reforms brought the nation in line with the rest of Western Europe and helped the nation find a firmer footing within itself and with the rest of the world. Yet, these reforms did not come without a cost. The reforms of the last half of the nineteenth century under Alexander II would prove to be blessings and curses to the Russian nation.
The most renown of the reforms that occurred under Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This was an act unprecedented in history as the American emancipation of the slaves would not occur for two more years. The number of serfs reached as much as 52 million of which about half belonged to private families and were not part of the state. Freeing so many people was not something that could be done overnight or was something that would not affect the nation as a whole.
Peasant rebellions were quite common in Russia with it being noted by some historians to be over fourteen hundred that occurred in fifty years. These rebellions took a toll on the economy as well as the landed gentry. If the serfs did not rebel, they simply ran away. This number could be as many as thousands fleeing at one time in the hope of rumored freedom in such places as Caucasus. The louder the wheel of serfdom squeaked, the more attention the nation gave it.
It was only a year after assuming the throne that Alexander II announced the appeal of abolishing serfdom. He looked to the nobility and gentry for their opinion and even accessed the public stand on the topic. Committees were established that reviewed the effect of emancipation and the best way to go about it. The end result was the abolishment of serfdom and the freedom for millions of serfs on March 3, 1861.
Amazingly, instead of just freeing the peasants, “the state constructed the reforms as a series of steps that slowly transferred land rights to the peasants while compensating the nobility for their losses.” The committees that oversaw and planned the emancipation tried to think of all that would impact Russia. Having the state and the large estates suddenly without the workers they relied on would be detrimental to the nation. Also, where would the serfs go once they were free was another consideration. They needed land which they received carved out of the very land they called home which they paid back over the next fifty to sixty years.
The government did not take into account the amount of land needed to support the vast number of serfs. They gave the newly freed population too little land and land that logistically could not support a population on its own. Water rights could be nonexistent or questionable. This kept the gentry into a position of authority and kept the peasants in a form of slavery that they theoretically could get out of it.
The Russian government did not enter into the era of emancipated serfs without knowing the consequences. They knew it would drastically change the nation and “that the abolition of serfdom would bring with it social and administrative changes.” They just were not aware of how drastic and widespread that changes would be. It hit them much quicker than they had anticipated and would require a quick response.
The second greatest reform that spun out of the emancipation of serfs was the development of “rural institutions of self-government in the provinces and districts. The reason for this was the new number of free people who once were under the protection of the landed gentry. They took care of their every economic need including their health and education. The quality of this varied, of course, from landowner to landowner, but the care of the peasants could not be ignored once they were free. This became a problem not just for the landowner but the public at large.
The entire judicial system changed with the zemstvos to oversee the peasants needs being divided into the district and the provincial levels. This great reform took quite a while to grow as it began to only take into account the areas that were completely Russian. The zemstvos were limited in power and began leaning heavily toward the gentry. It would take many years for it to right itself and sufficiently see to the needs of the peasants.
Along with the zemstvos, the entire legal system was rearranged and is considered one of the greatest reforms of the time. No longer was the judicial system just a melded part of the Russian government. It became a separate branch that stood apart. The government could not just wield judicial decisions as it pleased. There was a process that was required and steps that had to be followed. It has been said that this one reform is the birthplace of law and lawyers in Russia. A major part of this reform was also the addition of trials by jury that appeared. These changes stretched to include the peasants as “a special procedure drew peasants into the ranks of jurors.” The reforms of this area affected all of Russia.
That alone is a good reason to call these reforms ‘great’. They did not just impact or benefit one group of people. These reforms affected all of Russian society from its pocketbooks to its legal system. It was as though Russia decided to reinvent itself and find a new Western way of doing things. A new Russia was in the making. Yet, it was these reforms that would lay the groundwork for the upheavals that would occur in the twentieth century.
Nafziger, Steven. “Serfdom, Emancipation, and Off-Farm Labor Mobility in Tsarist Russia.” University of Pennsylvania, 2011. http://www.history.upenn.edu/economichistoryforum /docs/nafziger_11.pdf.
Polunov, Alexander. Russia in the Nineteenth Century: Autocracy, Reform, and Social Change, 1814-1914. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford, 2011.