On December 2, 1857, a decree was signed by Alexander II and distributed all over Russia, in the name of Vladimir Nazimov, Governor General of Vilnius. This decree announced the beginning of gradual liberation of peasants and ordered the creation in each province of noble committees for entering offers and amendments to the project of reform. Open preparations for the abolition of the serfdom began.
The demand for reform followed Russia's inglorious defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56). It left the government acutely aware of the empire's backwardness and weakness, and the need for internal change. The advancing social and political thaw and the universal expectation of change also forced Alexander to realize that the abolition of serfdom was his first priority.
Soon after the conclusion of the peace terms, Alexander II announced his intention for the liberation of Russia's serfs in a speech to the Moscow nobility on March 30, 1856. In his famous pronouncement, the Tsar observed that, “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to await the time when its abolition would begin from below without action on our part.”
By the end of 1859, the provincial committees had sent their proposals to the editorial commissions, which compared and systematized them, and drafted the first legislation for emancipation. These were revised by the Chief Committee and by the State Council in early 1861.
On the anniversary of his accession to the throne, February 19, 1861, Tsar Alexander II signed the famous manifesto on the abolition of serfdom, the system which tied the Russian peasants irrevocably to their landlords. On March 5, the edict was promulgated and adopted by the people without any social upheaval.
According to the act, the serfs were immediately granted personal liberties and promised land. But the process by which they were to acquire the land was slow, complex, and expensive. Peasants, using government loans, had to redeem their land allotments from the landlords and make redemption payments to the government for the next 49 years.
Many peasants were crushed by the huge payments and remained poor and without their own land. Despite this, the emancipation of the serfs was the biggest reform, and one of the most important, in Russia's history, and earned Alexander II his nickname of the Tsar Liberator.