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date: 21 November 2017

Russian Serfs, Emancipation of

Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Arthur Holst

Russian Serfs, Emancipation of 

The emancipation of Russian serfs was accomplished by Czar Alexander II on 3 March 1861 and celebrated by American abolitionists who saw parallels between Russian serfdom and American slavery. The czar had expressed his logic regarding emancipation in March 1856: “It is better to destroy serfdom from above, than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below.” Alexander had to employ various methods to exert his will upon Russia because obstructionist groups within the government were bent on impeding his plans. In 1857 he created a committee that was to outline the logistical details of the emancipation operation. The committee was a secret one, composed of high-ranking bureaucrats and headed by Alexander's brother Constantine.

To effect emancipation, Alexander created forty-eight local committees that eventually comprised a total of 1,377 members. He soon found that disagreement between the central committee and the provincial committees was causing great tension. Nevertheless, after numerous village uprisings and the murder of twenty-seven landlords, the Emancipation Manifesto was signed on 3 March 1861.

The manifesto was not a short document simply proclaiming all serfs to be free. Its four hundred pages stipulated many points, such as that the emancipated serfs had to pay their former masters the same loyalty and obligations as they had during serfdom; even after two years of “freedom” the serfs were still under “temporary obligation” with respect to landholdings. Far from imposing immediate liberation, the manifesto acted more as a catalyst to serf uprisings than as an agent of true freedom: there were 1,176 cases of upheaval on land estates in 1861, followed by 400 in 1862 and 386 in 1863. The main objection held by the serfs against the emancipation involved the distribution of land. While the serfs were allocated land, the manifesto stipulated that they had to pay the government and the landlords for it in incremental payments. The newly liberated serfs would continue to work as they had before, the one notable difference being that they were working toward purchasing their own property.

In addition to this new debt placed on the serfs, the peasant class in Russia bore most of the tax burden under the administration of the finance minister Sergei Witte. Witte's agenda included pushing Russia into a new industrial age to compete with the emerging industrial technologies materializing in Europe. Witte used a nationalist approach to Russian industrialization and exploited the newly enlarged sense of independence of the serfs to achieve one of the largest and most successful industrialization projects ever.

The emancipation of the serfs in Russia reverberated around the world as a historic event. Thirty years later, in 1892, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in which he compared the treatment of serfs in Russia with the treatment of newly liberated American slaves:

When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our slaves were emancipated. They were sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land upon which to stand. (

Douglass, who worked fervently to end slavery, thought that it was the moral duty of those who emancipated slaves to help the newly liberated people to become integrated into greater society and become truly, not just symbolically, independent. Douglass, speaking on the failures of Reconstruction, said,

When the Russian serfs had their chains broken and [were] given their liberty, the government of Russia—aye, the despotic government of Russia—gave to those poor emancipated serfs a few acres of land on which they could live and earn their bread. But when you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst, of all you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters. (

The American brand of slavery, in contrast to Russian serfdom, was primarily racially motivated. American slave owners thought of African Americans as less human than whites. Douglass understood that abolition of slavery did not mean abolition of racism and prejudice. Therefore, the government should be responsible for giving the newly liberated slaves land, money, or at least assurance of the possibility of achieving the American dream.

See also Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation; Race, Theories of; and Racism.


Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Boston: De Wolfe and Fiske, 1892. this resource:

The Emancipation Manifesto, March 3 1861.∼dml0www/emancipn.html.Find this resource:

Graham, Stephen. Tsar of Freedom: The Life and Reign of Alexander II (1935). North Haven, CT: Shoe String Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Rempel, Gerhard. “Emancipation of the Serfs.”∼grempel/courses/russia/lectures/20emancipation.html.Find this resource:

Arthur Holst

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