Emperor Alexander II: "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to be abolished from below"

3 March 2021

On March 3 (February 19, old style), 1861, Emperor Alexander II signed a manifesto "On the all-merciful granting to serfs of the rights of the state of free rural inhabitants" and "General provision on peasants who emerged from serfdom", which consisted of 17 legislative acts. Based on these documents, the peasants were granted personal freedom and the right to dispose of their property.

The Presidential Library’s collection The Emancipation Reform of 1861 is dedicated to one of the most significant events of the 19th century. Documents, rare editions, letters and memoirs provide the difficult way of overcoming feudalism by Russia and the growing capitalization of agriculture. The collection contains such sources as "The imperially approved general provision on the peasants who emerged from serfdom on February 19, 1861", published in the 36th volume of the Complete Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire (1863); article in the section "Peasants" from volume 16A of the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1895). The electronic reading room of the Presidential Library features the research of the lawyer Ivan Engelmann "The History of Serfdom in Russia" (1900) and others.

Catherine the Great dreamed of saving Russia from serfdom, but she met rejection of the idea from the nobility. In subsequent years, significant bureaucratic work was done to issue laws to make the life of the peasants easier, but in fact it did not affect their situation in any way. The young Tsar Alexander Nikolaevich was led through life by the words of his father, who was an opponent of serfdom: “I don’t understand”, - he said in 1847 to the deputation of the Smolensk nobility, “how a person became a thing and I cannot explain to myself otherwise than by cunning and deceit with one side and ignorance - on the other”, - quotes the words of Nicholas I, the lawyer and public figure Anatoly Koni in the study The main figures of the liberation of the peasants (1903).

Alexander II designated the emancipation reform as the main goal of his reign.

With an appeal to support him, Alexander at the end of March 1856 appealed to the Moscow nobles. He warned that the reform does not promise an early success, it will be gradual and long-term. “But, of course, gentlemen, you yourself know that the existing order of possession of souls cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to abolish by itself from below”, - the emperor said.

It took 5 years to develop the ideology of reform and draft legislative acts on the abolition of serfdom. In 1857, by decree of Alexander II, a secret Committee for Peasant Affairs was formed, which was later renamed the Main Committee for the Arrangement of the Rural Population. The tsar considered it his duty to attend every workshop. 

Not all members of the Committee agreed with its chairman. “When the attacks seemed to have reached the highest tension, the Tsar experienced a new blow: on February 6 (according to the old style), 1860 Rostovtsev died “whispering before his last breath to the Tsar who was present at the death: “Sovereign, do not be afraid!”

A year later, after countless "committees" and meetings, opinions and debates, the Manifesto on the abolition of serfdom was signed! However, the joy with which he was greeted was soon replaced by disappointment. The former serfs expected full freedom and were dissatisfied with the transitional state of the "temporarily liable". The peasants rebelled, demanding liberation with land...

Despite this, the emancipation reform of 1861 was of great historical significance. It opened up new perspectives for Russia, creating an opportunity for the broad development of market relations and other major transformations aimed at creating a civil society. It was formed already during the discussion of the abolition of serfdom. That is why Anatoly Koni also considers the representatives of the printed word to be direct agents of the reform, including the leader of journalism of that time - Alexander Herzen, who, as the author of the book The Main Figures of the Liberation of the Peasants writes, “respectfully bowed before Alexander II in the famous article “You won, Galilean"".

According to the deep conviction of Anatoly Koni, “Emperor Alexander Nikolaevich...firmly held his post at the "stern of his own ship" in these difficult years of his voyage, rightfully earning the admission to his name of the enviable epithet of the Liberator".