Two years prior to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Tsar Alexander II put an end to serfdom. However, the Empire experienced none of the unfathomable carnage of the U.S. Civil War. Due to the sheer power of the Autocracy, Russia’s milestone was met with relatively minor cases of civil agitation. Compare this to the situation in the United States in which roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty.
Was the emancipated serf happy with the terms of his freedom? Not one bit. Although he was granted personal liberties, those freedoms came with a heavy price tag. Not only was the serf granted an amount of land inadequate for his subsistence, he was shackled for the remainder of his life with high payments for the land he was “given.”
On the plus side, the serf was able to continue living under the same roof as before. And in the not-too-distant future, he would have access to free rural medical care and his children could acquire an elemental education. Plus he had the vision that someday his offspring would legally own the land his family had tilled for generations. During the ensuing couple of decades, the serfs gradually became part and parcel of Russian society.
In August of 1879, American banker Wharton Barker had a conversation with Alexander II. Barker quotes the Tsar as saying:
“I did more for the Russian serf in giving him land as well as personal liberty, than America did for the negro slave set free by the proclamation of President Lincoln. I am at a loss to understand how you Americans could have been so blind as to leave the negro slave without tools to work out his salvation. Without property of any kind he cannot educate himself and his children. I believe the time must come when many will question the manner of American emancipation of the negro slaves in 1863.”
Do you think Alexander was accurate in his appraisal? One thing I suspect most of us agree upon is that reform requires time to manifest its desired effect. There’s no quick fix for turning a wrong into a right.
Prior to Tsar Alexander’s 1861 Emancipation Manifesto, one-third of Russia’s population were under the direct control of another man.
The Crippled Serf c. 1878
Oil on canvas by Vasily Polenov