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Emancipation Of The Serfs

The Emancipation of Russian Serfs occurred in 1861 and was the most significant reform of Tsar Alexander II's Reign. The Cherry Orchard, written in 1903, makes numerous references to the serfs who cultivated the orchard in the past. So, take a moment to learn about Russian serfdom, the emancipation, and the political impact it had on Russia for years to come.

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First of all, what is serfdom? / Via

You may or may not vaguely remember this term from your middle school history class. Serfdom is an aspect of the political system of feudalism where serfs -- peasants who are essentially slaves and are tied to the land of a lord who owns their existence-- work on a landowner's land while renting a small patch of land for farming to provide sustenance for their own needs.

Background of Russian Serfdom / Via

Russian serfdom has roots as far back as the 11th century. However, it was not until the creation of of the Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Law Code) in 1649 by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich that serfs were first legally tied to Russian estates. In 1658, it was made illegal for serfs to flee their estates and this entrenched them in their lowly societal position.

Slavery also existed until it was abolished by Peter the Great in 1723. Sadly, many of the slaves ended up becoming serfs.

By the mid 19th century, nearly fifty percent of Russian peasants were serfs.

Life of the Serfs / Via

Serfs tended to live in extended two generational families. Often young couples would live with their parents or grandparents until they gained enough wealth to separate.

In terms of marriages, the couples parents would negotiate the marriage contract.

The average marriage age was younger than non-serf peasants. Usually between the ages of 17-21 for females and 18-25 for males.

Grandfathers were the patriarchs of the family and were the ones who made decisions regarding the family's affairs.

Serf families lived in villages which consisted of a church, cemetery and communal buildings in addition to the households.

Communal meetings were held with all family heads present. These communes would consult the landlord in terms of various duties and obligations.

It was the strong community bond generated in these villages that allowed serfs to feel comfortable to incite popular protest when justice was not being served.

Peasants outnumbered any other social class during this time period. They made up 80-85% of the population, where as the landowning nobility only made up about 1% !

Character of Serfdom / Via

Serfdom varied immensely from region to region, and sometimes was vastly different from one estate to another.

The nation’s diverse geography, climate, ecology, and differing local conditions and arrangements, lent serfdom to have a distinct regional and local character.

Emancipation of the Serfs / Via

Tsar Alexander II was one of Russia's most liberal leaders. He recognized that Russia's feudal system was a liability, one that long since abandoned by the Western European Powers. In March 1861, he published the Emancipation Manifesto. This gave all serfs the right to be free citizens, the right to marry, own their own land and businesses. More than 23 million serfs were freed.

However, those serfs who were tied to the land were required to buy the land they leased, often of poor quality and not for a good price. In fact, often they would pay more than a third over the market rate for their land, some even paid double. They paid with money loaned to them by the Government, and were required to repay it over 49 years. The redemption payments caused considerable hardship – many would end up selling their land back to their previous landlords to cover their debts. These were not abolished until 1907.

Impact of the Emancipation of the Serfs

Overall, the emancipation had a positive impact on Russia. There was economic growth between the years of 1860 to 1900.

An increase in commercial farming had a dramatic impact on agriculture. The change in what defined the working and middle classes led to an increase in the number of people qualified to take on management roles in factories and industry, which increased productivity.

However, in terms of societal relations, the hardship of redemption payments made peasants resent the more privileged classes.

Also, an industrial boom led to an increase in the populations in cities, leading to harsher working conditions and therefore more unrest.

It can then be deduced that emancipation of the serfs in Russia was a factor in the unrest that led to the revolutions in 1905 and 1917.

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