Emancipation of the Russian Serfs

Emancipation of the Russian Serfs

Although previous tsars had entertained reforms of Russian serfdom, the institution had become too entrenched after centuries of acceptance. Often, following localized insurrections such as the great peasant uprisings under Razin, Bulavin, and Pugachev, the government supported stronger measures to limit peasant activities and impose stricter controls. Alexander II, however, came to the imperial throne at a time other European dynasties had already mitigated their institutions of serfdom or eliminated them altogether. According to the new Tsar, it was important to reform serfdom from the top down.

Of Russia’s sixty million inhabitants, fifty million were peasants. Although approximately one million peasants (counted by males) were state owned, the majority of serfs were privately owned. At the time emancipation was seriously discussed in secret committees, almost three quarters of all privately held serfs had been mortgaged to credit institutions by their owners. Serfs represented a tradable commodity and those owners forced to send male serfs as military recruits (or voluntarily given up for recruitment as a punishment) received generous government redemption certificates


Local government bodies headed by the nobility, established in the central gubernias of Russia shortly after the emancipation of the serfs, in 1864.

The Zemstvo built hospitals, schools, constructed roads, and engaged in tax collecting. The Zemstvo also helped peasants establish experimental farms; they lent money; and generally encouraged co-operative farming. Agricultural depots were established to teach the peasants how to gain greater farm yields with less effort. Over time, some peasants sold their grain through the Zemstvo, which had better resources to purify it.

Zemstvo as creditors were highly unsuccessful: peasants refused to repay loans, seeing them as charity, not fully cognisent of capitalist lending practices. The...