Monday, March 14, 2011

The Emancipation of the Serfs

How the Tsar peacefully liberated 23 million people.
Alexander chose Sunday, March 3, 1861, for his epochal act. (Under Russia’s antiquated Julian calendar, the date was reckoned as Feb. 19.) That morning, he prayed alone in the chapel of the Winter Palace, then attended a grand cathedral mass with his family. After breakfast, he went into his private study – separated by a curtain from his bedchamber – and sat down at a desk piled high with papers. Atop this heap lay the historic manifesto that would grant the serfs their freedom in two years’ time. The czar crossed himself, dipped his pen in an inkwell and signed.
He waited another couple of weeks to announce this decree to the nation and the world. Some of Alexander’s advisors predicted that the serfs, emboldened by the news, would stage a revolution. Others feared that the serf-holding aristocrats would try to overthrow him. Civil wars had been fought in Russia over far less. Wisely, though, the czar had decided to grant land to the newly freed families and reparations to the aristocrats (many of whom promptly decamped with their windfall to live the good life in Paris or Biarritz). In the end, calm prevailed.
Across the Atlantic, however, the news from Russia made waves in an already turbulent political sea. Just a few days before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Horace Greeley wrote in the New-York Tribune:
The Manifesto of the Czar is throughout in most striking contrast to the recent Manifestoes of the leaders of the rebel slaveholders in this country. [The Confederates] with brutal coolness doom a whole race to eternal bondage …. The Russian autocrat, on the other hand, admits that man has certain rights …. The whole world and all succeeding ages will applaud the Emperor Alexander for the abolition of Slavery in Russia. But what does the world think, what will future generations think, of the attempt to make Slavery perpetual in America?
Despite the two nations’ vast cultural and political differences, some of the same forces were operating in both. Like the United States, 19th-century Russia was expanding aggressively across a continent, building railroads and telegraph lines as fast as it could, and guzzling foreign capital in the process. Those same new technologies had also broken down the geographic isolation of both countries. What the rest of the world thought – especially regarding slavery and serfdom – suddenly mattered more than ever.
More HERE.


Gareth Russell said...

Thank you for the link.

It was a very brave and moral thing the Emperor did in 1861.

Christina said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you!
Alexander was truly a brave man and, like many monarchs of the time, he always had the best interests of his people at heart. Bizarre, isn't it, the way that tyrants are tolerated and yet kings who care for their people are killed?? (Alexander, Nicholas, Louis XVI of France, Richard III of England...and, though not quite a king, Franz Ferdinand of Austria....)