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How Fair were the Intentions of Alexander II and Why did the Emancipation of the Serfs Fail?

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Introduction

Martha Hampson How Fair were the Intentions of Alexander II and Why did the Emancipation of the Serfs Fail? In the 19th century it was estimated that about 50 per cent of the 40,000,000 peasants in Russia were serfs, who worked on the land and were owned by the Russian nobility, the Tsar and religious foundations. This had been true for centuries; in 1861, however, this was all changed when Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs and gave them freedom from ownership. Alexander's decision was based on many reasons, and did not have the desired consequences, for the serfs at least. Therefore, it is possible to question Alexander's motives for such large reform, which this essay will do and will also look at why the emancipation, which had been anticipated for so long, was such a failure. In the mid and late nineteenth century the whole of western Europe underwent immense change, both economically and socially, due to the industrial revolution. Factories, railways and industrial cities were built at an astonishing rate, and trade between countries became even more important as agriculture became less important. In order to survive as a strong power in this new economic and social climate, Russia needed to be able to compete in industrial terms with the rest of the world, particularly as it's agriculture was under threat already. ...read more.

Middle

We became convinced that the present state legislation favours the upper and middle classes, defines their obligations, rights, and privileges, but does not equally favour the serfs.' However, as Acton points out, 'the sharp rise in disturbances between 1857 and 1859 underlined the dangers of an excessively harsh settlement.'2 The Tsar was also obviously cautious on the day of the announcement, putting an heavy police presence on the streets and alerting the military. This suggests that Alexander knew that his Act would not be all the serfs had hoped for. However, he was aware that he had a duty to his nobles, too, many of whom would lose land and workers due to the Act, and who ultimately had more power in the state and who he relied upon to run the enormous Russian empire. Alexander stresses in the Act the importance of loyalty of serfs to their new freedom and to those who had given it to them: 'We confidently expect that the freed serfs...will appreciate and recognize the considerable sacrifices which the nobility has made on their behalf. ...They have an obligation to society and to themselves to live up to the letter of the new law by a loyal and judicious use of the rights which are now granted to them. However beneficial a law may be, it cannot make people happy if they do not themselves organize their happiness under protection of the law.' ...read more.

Conclusion

million roubles instead of 180 million); thus the serfs discovered that, in becoming free, they were now hopelessly in debt, with a plot of land that was smaller than the average needed to feed a family: 'Emancipation had little affect on the average serfs since the land they were given was useful for little more then subsistence.'4 The emancipation itself was a huge step forward in Russian reforms, and despite its problems it did show a genuine concern from the Tsar about the future of Russia as a world power. However, emancipation benefited very few of those affected by it, and it is arguable how genuine the Tsar's concerns for the peasants themselves were. Despite his apparent efforts to reform Russia to 'surround with Our affection and Our Imperial solicitude all Our faithful subjects' it is evident that he was acutely aware of his loyalty to Russia's nobles, and that he was aware even as the Act was read to the serfs that it would not be well received. The immense failings of the Emancipation Act show that the real needs and wants of the serfs were not properly considered, and, although he probably believed that what he was doing was right for Russia, Alexander's reforms were based more on his fear of uprising and his vision of an industrialised Russia. Emancipation failed, therefore, because Alexander II forced a freedom onto the serfs that they were neither prepared for nor welcoming of. ...read more.

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