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Four thousand miles from where President-elect Abraham Lincoln was counting down the final hours before his inauguration, Czar Alexander II rose before dawn and stood contemplatively by a window in the Winter Palace. This morning he would grant freedom to Russia’s serfs, one-third of the Empire’s population.

Alex II and LincolnAbraham Lincoln is regarded as the Great Emancipator; however, Tsar Alexander beat him to the punch by liberating the serfs in 1861, two years prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Russia’s emancipation freed 23 million serfs, whereas Lincoln’s actions liberated 4 million slaves.

Due to the sheer power of the Autocracy, Russia’s milestone incited few and relatively minor cases of civil agitation. Compare this to the situation in the United States where a great civil war claimed the lives of an estimated 620,000 men (2% of the US population).

Both Lincoln and Tsar Alexander were killed at the hands of assassins. On March 1, 1881 – nearly 20 years to the day after freeing the serfs, Alexander was riding through St. Petersburg in a closed carriage when two young radicals hurled bombs. The Emperor died just a few feet from the spot where he had signed his decree of liberation.

 Reading of Emancipation

Reading of the Emancipation, painted by Boris Kustodiev in 1907