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The Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia is the first and most important of liberal reforms effected during the reign of Alexander II of Russia. The reform, together with a related reform in 1861, amounts to the liquidation of serf dependence previously suffered by Russian peasants.

The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates, the state serfs, and of the domestic (household) serfs. By this edict more than one hundred million people received their liberty. Serfs were granted the full rights of free citizens, gaining the rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business. The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords. This Manifesto, with amendments, remains in effect today.

Pre-reform RussiaEdit

Imperial Russia was a land of peasants, which made up at least 80% of the population. There were two main categories of peasants, those living on state lands and those living on the land of private landowners. Only the latter were serfs. As well as having obligations to the state, they also were obliged to the landowner, who had great power over their lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, more than half of Russian peasants were serfs.

The rural population lived in households (dvory, singular dvor), gathered as villages (derevni, lit. 'wood', villages with churches were called selo), run by a mir ('commune', or obshchina) - isolated, conservative, largely self-sufficient and self-governing units scattered across the land every 10 km (6 miles) or so. There were around 60 million dvory in Imperial Russia, forty percent containing six to ten people.

Intensely insular, the mir assembly, the skhod (sel'skii skhod), appointed an elder (starosta) and a 'clerk' (pisar) to deal with any external issues. Land and resources were shared within the mir. The fields were divided among the families as nadel - a complex of strip plots, distributed according to the quality of the soil. The strips were periodically redistributed (peredely) within the derevni to produce level economic conditions - albeit at the expense of actual efficiency. Despite this the land was not owned by the mir; the land was the legal property of the 100,000 or so land-owners (dvoryanstvo) and the inhabitants, as serfs, were not allowed to leave the property where they were born. The peasants were duty bound to make regular payments in labor and goods. It has been estimated that landowners took at least one third of income and production by the first half of the nineteenth century.

The need for urgent reform was well understood in 19th-century Russia, and various projects of emancipation reforms were prepared by Mikhail Speransky, Nikolay Mordvinov, and Pavel Kiselev. Their efforts were, however, thwarted by conservative or reactionary nobility. In Western guberniyas serfdom was abolished early in the century. In Russian Poland, serfdom had been abolished before it became Russian (by Napoleon in 1807). Serfdom was abolished in the Governorate of Estonia in 1816, in Latvia in 1817, and in Lithuania in 1819. But even in these western parts of the Empire, peasants were still subject to various limitations.

The shaping of the ManfiestoEdit

The liberal politicians who stood behind the 1861 manifesto - Nikolay Milyutin, Alexei Strol'man and Yakov Rostovtsev - also recognized that their country was one of a few remaining feudal states in Europe. The pitiful display by Russian forces in the Crimean War left the government acutely aware of the empire's backwardness. Eager to grow and develop industrially, hence military and political strength, there were a number of economic reforms. As part of this the end of serfdom was considered. It was optimistically hoped that after the abolition the mir would dissolve into individual peasant land owners and the beginnings of a market economy.

Alexander, unlike his father, was willing to deal with this problem. Moving on from a petition from the Lithuanian provinces, a committee "for ameliorating the condition of the peasants" was founded and the principles of the abolition considered.

The main point at issue was whether the serfs should remain dependent on the landlords, or whether they should be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors.

The emperor decided that they would become independent communal propertiors.

The Emancipation ManfiestoEdit

The legal basis of the reform is the Emperor's Emancipation Manifesto of March 3, 1861, accompanied by the set of legislative acts under the general name Regulations Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence

This Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs. Serfs were granted the full rights of free citizens, gaining the rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property and to own a business.

The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords.

OutcomeEdit

The Reform revamped Russia and the serfs, by 1870, had more then nine-tenths the wealth and power they had in 1861. They overtook their own former owners as landlords and became intelligent.