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Lecture 5. Reforms, reaction, and revolution

(1855–1917) (4 HRS)

Introduction. Three czars –Russia’s last – ruled between 1861, the year the empire’s serfs were emancipated, and 1917, the year its monarchy was overthrown: Alexander II (1855–81), Alexander III (1881–94), and Nicholas II (1894–1917). As personalities, the three men were quite different.

Alexander II began his reign with the emancipation of the serfs, which was followed closely by the rest of an extensive program of change known as the Great Reforms, only to retrench later on. Alexander III came to the throne in the wake of his father’s assassination and immediately implemented a vigorous program of reaction and repression known as the counter-reforms, but near the end of his reign he instituted a comprehensive program of economic modernization. Nicholas II floundered as he drifted or was pushed back and forth. He continued his father’s economic program for nine years, and then fired its chief architect; reluctantly granted a constitution to stop a revolutionary upheaval, but then did all he could to reverse what he had done; and inaugurated visionary reforms – the vision came from the country’s prime minister, not its czar – to help the peasantry economically, but then changed his own electoral law to reduce the peasantry’s political weight. His one area of consistency was foreign policy – to his and his country’s tragic detriment. Nicholas followed an aggressive foreign policy that led Russia into two wars and was an inept leader in both of them. That unfortunate consistency contributed to a final crisis that was fatal to Nicholas himself, the Romanov dynasty, and the Russian monarchy.

It is a mistake to view that final crisis as somehow inevitable, whatever the virtues or defects of the last three czars. The revolution that brought down the Russian monarchy in March 1917 was above all the product of World War I. Between 1861 and 1914, the year World War I began, Russia made fundamental institutional changes and achieved enormous economic and political progress, albeit in fits and starts. The Great Reforms of the 1860s and 1870s eliminated serfdom and significantly improved the country’s government. From the early 1890s until the outbreak of the world war Russia’s industrial development was extremely impressive. Efforts to raise agricultural production and improve the lives of the peasantry lagged, but after 1906 there were significant gains in those areas. In the wake of the revolutionary upheaval of 1905, which the monarchy barely survived, Russia gained a constitution and a parliament with limited but not inconsequential powers.

The country’s middle class grew rapidly. Russia’s overall situation was definitely improving, but its creaky social order was still vulnerable to powerful shocks, which World War I brought without letup until the breaking point was reached and passed.

1. Emancipation and the Great Reforms

The Crimean War, the curtain raiser to the era, highlighted Russia’s urgent problems, but it left the regime with enough strength to deal with them. Even before the treaty ending the war was signed in 1856, Alexander II made it clear that policies at home were going to change. He lifted restrictions from non-Orthodox religious sects, ended onerous restrictions on foreign travel, and liberalized censorship. The “thaw” intensified after the treaty was signed and Alexander was officially crowned: The czar cancelled millions of rubles of unpaid back taxes, issued an amnesty allowing the Decembrists still in Siberia and other political prisoners to return home, and suspended army recruiting for three years.

Serfdom was always a brutal system and had long hindered Russia’s development, but by the mid-1850s it was also a badly corroded institution.

It was totally unsuited to the capitalist money economy that was spreading in Russia. Illiterate and unskilled serfs were inefficient laborers, both on the small parcels they farmed for themselves and on the large fields of their landlords’ estates. Instead of using their serfs as farm laborers, many landlords let them work in factories or in industries such as transportation in return for a cash payment, a practice that yielded a higher income to both parties. By the 1840s and 1850s landlords were increasingly demanding cash payments in place of labor even from the serfs living and working on their estates. In some of the better agricultural regions, such as in the south along the Volga, landlords actually preferred free to serf labor. None of these practices helped nearly enough, and by the late 1850s most landlords were deeply in debt.

Serfdom was in relative and absolute decline. By the end of the 1850s serfs accounted for just under 40 percent of Russia’s total population, slightly less than the number of state peasants. The latter, of course, were also bonded to the land on which they lived and thus likewise required a fundamental change in their legal status. Despite the system’s growing difficulties, the nobles did not want to give up their serfs, fearing they could not survive without them. Alexander responded cogently and directly that it was better to abolish serfdom “from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below”. The warning resonated strongly against the background of increasing peasant disturbances during the first six decades of the 19th century. The next noble line of defense was to accept emancipation but without granting the peasants land, a proposition the czar also categorically rejected. Slowly he pushed the bureaucratic wheels forward until on March 3, 1861, six years to the day after he ascended the throne, Alexander II, henceforth the “Tsar-Liberator,” at last issued his Emancipation Edict granting the serfs their freedom.

The Emancipation Edict did a great deal but left at least as much undone. It freed more than 20 million peasants from the authority of their landlords – about five times the number of slaves liberated after the American Civil War. And unlike the former slaves in the United States, the Russian serfs were liberated with land. The problem was how much land, at what price, and under what circumstances.

Although conditions varied from place to place, the peasants generally received about one-third of the land; the landlords retained the best land, including most of the woodlands and pasture. In a major disappointment the serfs had to pay their former landlords for the land, at a price, set by the government, generally higher than what the land was worth. Since peasants were in no position to pay for what they in effect were forced to buy, the government provided them with loans to be repaid over 49 years in installments called redemption payments.

Finally, in most parts of the empire title did not go to individual peasant households but to their communes, which the Emancipation Edict retained. As they did before the emancipation, the communes divided the land up among its member households. The whole system was disastrously inefficient because of two policies, both designed to insure equality. First, the allotments were periodically redistributed, thereby killing any incentive to improve one’s land. Second, instead of a unified plot of land, each household was given a series of strips of varying widths (from barely six to over 20 feet wide), scattered across the countryside. The obsession with equality, carried over from preemancipation days, was driven by a logical imperative: The commune was collectively responsible for monetary obligations, including taxes; it was crucial that each family be able to carry its own weight.

The commune system and its inherently inefficient system of land tenure was retained because it was the state’s proven method of controlling and taxing the peasants. That retention came at a high price. In the post-emancipation era, the system stifled most attempts by industrious or innovative peasants to increase their productivity and improve their lot. Having paid too much for their land to begin with, the peasants were unable to keep up with their redemption payments or with the high taxes the government continued to impose on them, and as a result they fell deep into debt.

Other factors also undermined the peasants’ precarious economic position. After emancipation they no longer had free access to the forests and pastureland of the nobles. The spread of industry wiped out many of their cottage industries, which in the past had provided a slim margin of survival to many families. Finally, rapid population growth put increasing stress on limited resources. Debt mounted and the standard of living in many regions declined. When in 1891 the harvest failed, Russia experienced one of the worst famines in its history. As the century drew to a close, the defects rather than the successes of emancipation dominated the rural landscape.

State peasants were freed under more favorable conditions according to a law issued in 1866. Their initial advantage over their ex-serf countrymen eroded over time under the relentless undertow of hard times. Ultimately Russia found itself with a single, hard-pressed, and often demoralized peasant class.

The Emancipation edict of March 3, 1861

The law that emancipated the serfs was more than 400 pages long. Alexander’s edict, issued on March 3, 1861, summarized that lengthy legal document for the general population.

Tensions were running high. The government feared that the peasants would react angrily to an emancipation that forced them to pay for the land they believed was theirs as recompense for hundreds of years of unpaid labor, an article of deep faith summed up by a saying the serfs used to describe their relationship to their masters: “We are yours, but the land is ours.” Another potential complaint concerned limits on personal freedom. Peasants were free of their landlords but still subject to the authority of their communes. They could not leave their localities unless the commune granted them a passport, a disability that set them apart from the rest of Russia’s population.

The government’s fears were generally exaggerated. Still, while there was no violent reaction remotely comparable to the great upheavals of the past, official records list more than 1,100 disturbances during 1861 and about 400 annually during the following two years.

The following is a small selection of the Emancipation Edict, which was read in churches and publicized in other ways to what was an often uncomprehending peasant audience:

By the Grace of God, We, Alexander II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, Tsar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland . . .

Declare to all Our loyal subjects. . . .

Having called upon God for help, We decided to put this into effect.

By virtue of the aforesaid new regulations the serfs will in due time receive the full rights of free rural inhabitants.

The landowners, preserving the right to ownership of all land belonging to them, allot to the peasants in perpetuity, in return for fixed obligations, the homesteads on which they are settled and, in addition, for the security of their daily lives and the fulfillment of their obligations to the Government, a definite amount of field and other lands, as defined in “Regulations.” In return for the use of the land allotments, the peasants, on their part, are duty bound to discharge for the benefit of the landowners the obligations defined in the “Regulations.”. . .

In addition, they are given the right to redeem the homesteads on which they are settled, and by agreement with the landowners they can acquire ownership of the field and other lands allotted to them in perpetuity. By acquiring ownership of a definite amount of land, the peasants will be freed from obligations to the landowners on the land they have purchased and will acquire the definitive status of free peasant proprietors.. . .

And now we hopefully anticipate that the serfs for whom a new future has been opened up will comprehend and accept with gratitude the important sacrifice made by the nobility for the improvement of their daily lives. . . .

And now, make the sign of the cross, O Orthodox people, and call upon God to bless your free labor, which is the guarantee of your domestic well-being and common good. . . .[2, 269]

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