What Were the Causes of the Emancipation of the Serfs and Was It Successful? Essay

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In 1861 serfdom, the system which tied the Russian peasants irrevocably to their landlords, was abolished at the Tsar’s imperial command. Four years later, slavery in the USA was similarly declared unlawful by presidential order. Tsar Alexander II (1855-81) shared with his father, Nicholas I, a conviction that American slavery was inhumane. This is not as hypocritical as it might first appear. The serfdom that had operated in Russia since the middle of the seventeenth century was technically not slavery. The landowner did not own the serf. This contrasted with the system in the USA where the African slaves were chattels; that is, they were regarded in law as the disposable property of their masters. In Russia the traditional relationship between lord and serf was based on land. It was because he lived on his land that the serf was bound to the lord. In a number of respects serfdom was not dissimilar to the feudalism that had operated in many parts of pre-modern Europe. However, long before the 19th century, the feudal system had been abandoned in Western Europe as it moved into the commercial and industrial age. Imperial Russia underwent no such transition. It remained economically and socially backward. Nearly all Russians acknowledged this. Some, known as “slavophiles”, rejoiced, claiming that holy Russia was a unique God-inspired nation that had nothing to learn from the corrupt nations to the west. But many Russians, of all ranks and socio-economic classes, had come to accept that reform of some kind was unavoidable if their nation was to progress and remain a competitive power in a rapidly developing Europe. It became convenient to use serfdom to explain all Russia’s current weaknesses: it was responsible for military incompetence, food shortages, over population, civil disorder, industrial backwardness. These were oversimplified explanations but there some
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