The abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 was a crucial point in the country’s history and marked the first stage in its democratic transformation. Were it not for the whirlwinds of revolution that tore through Russia fifty years later—which completely altered the country’s understanding of itself and its history—the abolition of serfdom would be seen as perhaps the most significant date in Russia’s history.
The reforms of 1861 had immense domestic political significance. A third of Russia’s people were finally granted personal freedom, property rights, and civic rights. The foundations of local self-government were laid: village communities, assemblies, and district courts. The abolition of serfdom laid the groundwork for Alexander II’s other Great Reforms.
In 1864, local government reform established elected local bodies. That same year, court reform separated the local courts from the executive and legislative branches and introduced the presumption of innocence, jury trials, and open court proceedings with both a prosecution and a defense.
The urban government reform in 1870 created elected town assemblies, the local Dumas. The following year, women were granted the right to be employed in public and state institutions. The military reform of 1874 replaced the old system—which forced peasants into the army as long-term recruits—with a new system of universal compulsory military service.
The abolition of serfdom also gave the country’s economic development a big boost, particularly private industrial production and agriculture. By the start of the twentieth century, Russia had become the biggest grain producer in the world. It had increased its amount of cropland, started using modern agricultural machinery, and developed agronomic science and sales of agricultural production.
Industrial development benefited particularly strongly from the abolition of serfdom. In the thirty years following the reforms, the number of hired workers increased five-fold and the number of industrial enterprises doubled. The number of towns in Russia tripled from 1863 to 1897. By 1900, Russia became second in the world in industrial growth, following only the United States.
The serfs’ emancipation had important cultural significance, too, effectively ending the schizophrenia characterizing Russian society, where intellectuals spoke of morals and freedom while society was still based on feudal foundations. The reform helped Russia usher in a period that saw its culture flourish and spread far beyond the country’s borders.
The Soviet ideology and education system put a far more critical spin on the 1861 reform. In this way, the perpetrators of Russia’s violent October Revolution tried to diminish the significance of the peaceful transformation. The “slavery ended by imperial whim,” as Alexander Pushkin described it, in fact fulfilled centuries-old hopes and set a precedent in granting freedom from the top. It took place without violence, its proclamation preceded by many years of meticulous work in which the nobility and landowners took part. But at the same time, the prominent role the nobility played in the reform’s implementation also determined its shortcomings to a large extent.
The reform succeeded in emancipating the serfs and giving them land, when it could have been whittled down to legislation that merely improved their situation or freed them without giving them land. Still, everyone in Russia remembers from their school history lessons that the peasants had to pay a land redemption buyout, and so-called “surplus lots” of land were cut off, which left most of the former serfs with poorer quality, fragmented, and unprofitable land.
While the reform marked a big step forward for Russia, other feudal agriculture practices continued, with peasants still often indebted and bound to landowners. Landowners continued to run their estates and the nobility retained its privileges. Even forty years later, in 1903, Lenin described Russia’s social and political system as “military-bureaucratic feudalism.”
In some ways, the Soviet system was a military-bureaucracy system, too, and semi-feudal, especially after the peasants were assigned to collective farms and their internal passports were withdrawn, thus making sure they stayed put. And in some ways even modern Russia retains some of these characteristics; indeed, some, including Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Ryabov, would say they have been growing stronger recently.
Feudalism in Russia will probably end for good only when the last official car with a blinking blue light hurtles down the oncoming lane. Serfdom was abolished here only one hundred fifty years ago. Compared to Europe and Asia, Russia is still a young nation and there is much work still to do.