On February 19, 1861, Emperor Alexander II carried out the first and the most important of his reforms – he declared the abolishment of serfdom in the Russian Empire to improve the Russian economy and avert a possible revolution.
The history of serfdom in Russia began in 1649, when Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich issued a decree which prohibited peasants from leaving their lands and gave landowners full control over the peasants. This decree was followed by a number of others depriving peasants of their personal liberty and turned them into actual slaves – into “baptized property”. The peasants had to work for their owners and to pay them labor rent, while the owners had the right to buy and sell them, often separating families; to punish them; and even to exile them to Siberia for crimes such as escape attempts or for trying to dodge army recruitment.
The defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) exposed all the drawbacks of Russian industry, economy and agriculture, and served as a trigger for Alexander’s II reforms. That war put the peasantry in hard straits. For war purposes, the government had raised taxes, regularly commandeered peasants’ horses and cattle, and conducted extra recruitment among serfs. At the time the service lasted for 20 years, and that considerably affected landowners’ incomes, which in turn led to landowners increasing labor rents. Recruited serfs were also treated with scorn and were often left hungry and poorly equipped.
In 1857, 192 mass riots took place, and in 1859 there were already 938 riots. Sometimes, the peasants of several neighbor villages rose together against their owners. The armed clashes between the rebels and the military forces became frequent. The country was ripe for revolution, and the reform was meant to prevent the upcoming catastrophe.
The “Royal Manifest of the Abolishment of Serfdom” returned personal liberty and civil rights to serfs. The landowners were obliged to give them plots of land, and a special commission defined the sizes of those plots. However, nine years after liberation the peasants still had to pay the rent for the given land and to work for the landowners. Only at the end of the term were they able to redeem the rented plots.
The reform brought Alexander II the nickname “Liberator”, but the terms offered by the Royal Manifest actually supported the interests of the landowners and the government. The plots given to the peasants were usually small scraps of soil, inconveniently placed and often infertile. If the peasant wanted to redeem the land, the government lent him 80% of its price out at 6% per year, demanding the payment to be stretched over a period of 50 years no less. Former serfs ended up paying about 300% of the actual cost of their lands.
However, the liberation of the serfs amended the Russian economic situation. The peasantry became an active part of the economy, entering exchange relations, and the inner market started to develop. Many peasants left the countryside, moved to the cities and turned into wage laborers, becoming a part of the qualified industrial force. Still, the reform failed to develop agriculture, and for a long time it remained backward.