Serfdom in Russia

In 1861, over 23 million Russians were given their freedom, but what led to this transformation of Russian society, and what were the consequences? This article looks at Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861.

Serfdom in Russia Serfdom in Russia

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Table of contents

    Serfs definition

    Serfs were indentured peasant workers. They made up roughly a third of the population and belonged to the state or to private owners.

    Serfs in the middle ages

    In Europe, early evidence of serfdom can be found from the 11th century onwards but then declined in Western Europe around the time of the Renaissance in the 14th century. However, in Russia serfdom started and ended much later. Serfdom had existed in Russia since 1649, when a legal code granted landowners complete authority over the peasants who lived on their land. This meant that landowners had full control over these people's lives and work, including their right to move elsewhere.

    Indentured peasant workers

    Peasants who were bound by a contract to work for landowners without pay to pay off a debt.

    Serfdom vs slavery: What's the difference?

    When talking about serfdom and slavery, it is important to see the similarities and key difference that distinguishes the two. Whilst both are forms of forced labour, slaves themselves are considered forms of property that are owned by people. Serfs, on the other hand, are bound to the land that they occupy and are not owned by the landowner. When that land was passed on to somebody else, the slaves then came under their control.

    Emancipation of the serfs in Russia

    A significant motivation for emancipation was Russia’s failure in the Crimean War. However many other factors also contributed.

    Humiliation in the Crimean War

    Failure in Crimean War demonstrated Russia's underdevelopment in comparison to the other European powers. The Russian intelligentsia put pressure on Alexander to modernise. For example, Dmitry Milyutin argued only a free population could provide the labour needed to improve the army.

    Influence from tutors and nobles

    Alexander’s tutor was a progressive, pro-European Romantic poet named Vasily Zhukovsky.

    The tsar’s court included a group of nobles called the 'Party of St Petersburg Progress', a political circle of progressive nobles and officials. Alexander was also influenced by his brother the Grand Duke Konstantin and his aunt the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna. The Party was often seen at Elena's salons or with the Grand Duke.

    Emancipation of the Serfs Vasily Zhukovsky StudySmarterFig. 1 - Vasily Zhukovsky

    Other 'enlightened bureaucrats' at court were committed to abolition. Nikolai Milyutin (of the Ministry for Internal Affairs) favoured Slavophile reform, while his brother Dmitry was a scholar who argued for military reform. Other members of the intelligentsia shared their view that serfdom was both immoral and inhibiting Russia's development.


    A Slavophile was a member of the 19th-century intellectual movement that believed Russia's future development should be based on Russian history and values rather than being influenced by the West. The Slavophiles supported autocracy (government where one person has absolute power) and also pushed for the emancipation of the surfs. The movement was most active in the 1840s and 50s and declined after the 1860s.

    Increase in peasant uprisings since 1840

    There were around 60 outbreaks of disorder per year by 1960. Peasants resented conscription in the Crimean War and the demands of their landowners, who could charge unaffordable rents. While serf uprisings did not threaten the autocracy, they were a sign of general discontent.

    The Tsar's reliance on the nobility

    Many younger nobles were in debt and critical of Russia's economic system. Alexander relied on the nobility to rule, and so could be influenced by them.

    Social reasons for emancipation

    Emancipation would reduce conflict between the serfs and nobles, potentially preventing future unrest.

    Economic reasons for emancipation

    Not only were there political and social reasons for emancipating the serfs, there were also economic reasons.

    Reducing state debts

    By the time Alexander II was Tsar, state debts had reached 54 million roubles, and serfs were too poor to pay their taxes. Emancipation would incentivise serfs to work. This would produce a grain surplus which could be exported to increase state revenue. Peasants could also move to towns and become wage-earners, increasing revenue via taxation.

    Emancipation of the serfs Diagram showing the economic implications of serfdom StudySmarterFig. 2 - Diagram showing the economic implications of serfdom, StudySmarter

    Emancipation of the serfs Diagram showing the economic implications of emancipation StudySmarterFig. 3 - Diagram showing the economic implications of emancipation, StudySmarter

    Encourage economic migration to towns

    Emancipation would create a pool of available labour for urban industry, as peasants would be able to leave their owner's property. Urbanisation and industrialisation would make Russia a richer country.

    Encourage agricultural development

    Land management techniques on the mir were outdated and difficult to change. Village elders ran the mir (the village community) and resisted attempts at modernisation. Emancipation would weaken the mir, and so encourage agricultural innovation.

    Ideological reasons for emancipation

    Ideological reasons also informed the decision to emancipate the peasants.

    Pressure from the West

    Western liberals were putting pressure on Russia to emancipate the serfs, believing it was immoral.

    Russian Westernisers argued that Russia should abandon its Slavic traditions and embrace Western values, including economic, military and social reforms like establishing a representative assembly.

    Russian realist literature, such as Ivan Turgenev’s “Sportsman’s Sketches”, depicted the struggles of peasants. Alexander II had read and was influenced by Turgenev’s work.

    Preserving Russia's status as a 'Great Power'

    Many of the intelligentsia argued that serfdom threatened Russia's international status. With the spread of Western liberalism, relying on a serf-based economy reflected poorly on Russia's moral values.

    Pressure from the Slavophiles

    Slavophiles believed Russia's cultural heritage, based on peasant society and the Orthodox Church, should be preserved as Russia modernised.

    Opposition from nihilists and anarchists

    Nihilism and anarchism were popular with the younger generations of the intelligentsia. The Nihilists criticised the government and called for radical change or even revolution.

    How did Alexander progress towards Emancipation?

    Alexander began his reign with a series of liberalising gestures. In March 1856, he asked a group of nobles for suggestions for an emancipation measure. He toured Russia from 1858-59 to win emancipation support from the nobles. His Emancipation Edict came into force in March 1861. As a result of his Edict, he became known as the ‘Tsar Liberator’.

    Emancipation of the Serfs Translation: Release of serfs in Russia StudySmarterFig. 4 - Translation: Release of serfs in Russia

    The 1861 Emancipation edict

    The edict applied to privately owned serfs immediately, and to state-owned serfs from 1866.

    • Serfs were granted their freedom and a land allotment

    • Open fields were granted to the mirs, with landowners keeping woodland, meadows, pasture, and a personal holding

    • Landowners were given government bonds as compensation

    • Freed serfs had to pay 'redemption payments' to the government over a 49-year period

    • Freed serfs could not leave the mir until the redemption payments were paid in full

    • The mir were responsible for distributing serfs' land allotments, controlling farming, and collecting and paying the peasants' taxes

    • Volosts were established to supervise the mirs. A volost was an administrative area made up of 200-3000 peasants. Volosts were run by representatives from their mirs.

    • From 1863, volosts ran their own courts under management from government officials and a noble 'peace officer'. This replaced the landlords' jurisdiction over serfs.

    Positive and negative consequences of the emancipation

    Positive consequencesNegative consequences
    For peasants

    Peasants were freed.

    Wealthy peasants (kulaks) profited, buying up land and exporting surplus grain.

    Some peasants’ standard of living improved after they migrated to become urban workers.

    Emancipation took a long time. In theory, serfs had a 2-year period of 'temporary obligation' while land allocation was worked out. In practice, around 15% of serfs were still 'temporarily obligated' to their landlords by 1881. Peasants’ rights were often theoretical.

    Land allocations were unfair.

    Land holdings diminished in size as the mir population grew, because the land had to be divided between all male peasants.

    Allotments were too small to adopt new farming methods.

    The new agricultural system was traditional and inefficient, as it was still dominated by the mir.

    Redemption payments and travel restrictions made rural life hard. Land prices were often above market value, so serfs went into debt. Some had to work for their old masters to survive.

    For landowners

    Some landowners paid off their debts using their compensation.

    Some landowners profited by investing in industrial enterprises.

    Disagreements over money and land led to outbreaks of violence.

    Some landowners struggled to make a living without the use of open fields.

    Landowners resented their loss of influence, with protests and riots in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Kazan.

    Historical interpretations of the Emancipation of the Serfs

    There are two main interpretations of the Emancipation:

    1) As a product of Alexander's liberal ideas

    The Emancipation was a humanitarian project led by Alexander out of benevolence. He challenged convention and set Russia on the path to reform.

    2) As an attempt to improve social and political stability

    The Emancipation was a state-directed attempt to maintain tsarist authority, which ultimately backfired. Alexander's reforms produced short and long-term political and social problems. The Emancipation led many to believe that reform was impossible inside an autocratic system.

    Historical interpretations of the economic and social impact of the Emancipation

    Social and economic developments are further discussed in the articles ‘Social developments 1861-95’ and ‘Economic developments 1860-95’. Historians have different interpretations of the impact of emancipation.

    1) Emancipation was a turning point for Russia

    In ‘The Industrialisation of Russia 1700-1914’, the historian Malcolm Falkus argues that emancipation ‘removed a considerable barrier to industrial growth’. He suggests that serfdom restricted the domestic market, prevented labour mobility, stifled agricultural innovation, and most significantly encouraged attitudes that were harmful towards modernisation. On Falkus’ account, emancipation led peasants to market more crops and supply industrial labour.

    2) Russian society and economy were not significantly changed by the emancipation

    The historian Christopher Read offers a different view in his book ‘From Tsar to Soviets’, arguing that the attitudes and institutions of serfdom survived emancipation. He claims that Russia ‘remained essentially a serf owners’ state’, with peasants inefficient and hostile towards their masters, and a continuing reliance on the police and army to govern peasants.

    Serfdom in Russia - Key takeaways

    • One of the main reasons for the Emancipation of the serfs was Russia’s failure in the Crimean War. Other reasons include:

      -Political pressure from different factions within Russia

      -Reducing unrest between serfs and landowners

      -Preserving Russia’s status as a Great Power

      -Encouraging economic growth

      -Reducing state debts

    • The Emancipation gave serfs their freedom and a land allotment.

    • Serfs had to make 49 years of ‘redemption payments’ before they could leave the mir.

    • Volosts were established to oversee the mirs.

    • Emancipation took many years to implement and the new agricultural system was inefficient.

    • Emancipation led to unrest with both peasants and landowners.

    • One interpretation of the Emancipation sees it as a liberal gesture from a reforming Tsar.

    • Another interpretation sees it as an attempt to maintain tsarist authority which backfired.

    • Historians disagree about the impact of Emancipation on the economy and Russian society.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Serfdom in Russia

    Did the emancipation edict improve the lives of former serfs in Russia?

    The emancipation of the serfs gave Russian serfs their freedom and an allotment of land. Serfs were free Russian citizens, and once they had completed their redemption payments they could move away from the mir.

    Who emancipated the Russian serfs?

    The Russian emperor Alexander II issued the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861 that freed the Russian serfs.

    When was serfdom abolished in Russia?

    The Emancipation Edict came into force in March 1861. However, it did not apply to state-owned serfs until 1866 and some serfs remained ‘temporarily obligated’ to their owners until 1881.

    What is serfdom in Russia?

    Serfdom was a condition in Russia, where peasants were bound to landowners and provided labour for them.

    What was the emancipation of the serfs?

    The Emancipation of the Serfs was the freeing of Russian serfs from their owners by Tsar Alexander II. His 1861 Emancipation Edict gave serfs their freedom and a land allotment. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did Alexander’s Emancipation Edict come into force?

    When did the Emancipation Edict apply to state serfs?

    When did the Emancipation Edict apply to privately-owned serfs?


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