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The Backdrop for the Emancipation of the Serfs under Alexander II, 1861

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Introduction

The Backdrop for the Emancipation of the Serfs under Alexander II, 1861 The Edict of Emancipation, a manifesto issued in March 1861, ended, with its "Statutes Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence", over two centuries of Russian feudalism and was thus the single most consequential element of Russian history from the time of Peter the Great to the revolutions of 1917. In this essay, I shall examine the factors surrounding the purposes behind this monumental reform that fully satisfied no one. Tsar Alexander II (1855-81), was born to a leader renowned for his reactionary policies and had been heir to the throne from the day of his birth. Though not initially anti-progressive, he was a conservative man well trained for his position as autocratic ruler unrestricted by constitution. While the "Modern Era" flourished in the West, his Russia was a country seemingly caught in the Middle Ages, notoriously backward in comparison. The humiliating and economically strenuous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56), set Russia as the defeated power for the first time since 1712 [Cowie, Wolfson], highlighting this state of underdevelopment. To retain Russia's position as a world power, reformation was inescapable and so began Alexander II's momentous relationship with domestic affairs. ...read more.

Middle

These were the main reasons for the edict; the humanitarian question was clearly neglected given, among other effects, the unfair redistribution of the land and 495 years of debt through redemption payments that were to accompany the "freedom" which the edict promised the peasants. Though peasant unrest is generally considered a major factor toward the creation of the edict, the slightly rising numbers of peasant disturbances, classified as "refusal to fulfill obligations", were far from out of the ordinary. Considering the vastness of the Russian Empire and her stereotypical tendency toward alcohol abuse, 108 [Curtis, data for 1860, p50] instances of disobedience in a year are next to none, especially given the fast circulation of rumors about the serfs' proposed autonomy from their landlords [Curtiss p51]. Even half a century later, during the 1905 revolution, the people were not ready to overthrow their "Little Father" for there was a severe lack of political awareness among peasants. The Decembrist conspiracy of 1825 is an ideal example in which the crowds calling for "Constantine and Constitution" believed that the latter was the wife of Grand Duke Constantine. Each peasant lived his life in his own limited world, few venturing beyond the next village in their entire lifetime. ...read more.

Conclusion

Where he was prepared to acquiesce to his people, it was not enough, or not in the correct manner. On March 1, 1881, he was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists. Despite their many consequences (be they negative or positive depend entirely on the viewpoint), Alexander's reforms caused the empire to step forward in terms of the formulation of ideas and ideologies and paved a rickety but hard-wearing path toward future development. They allowed for much of the thought that caused later revolt and revolution. The Emancipation had changed the legal status of the serfs but little else, for the same agricultural practices were kept. Industry, with a small influx of "freed" serf workers, improved but failed to keep up with the West. The army grew seemingly stronger and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 was won. The war with Japan in 1904 and the First World War were not. As Marx wrote, war is the midwife of progress. Following the Crimean war, Alexander II instituted "liberalization" processes, attempting to please all, yet Russia's diversity ensured this to be impossible. Instead, all remained dissatisfied. Despite his later reactionary policies, radicalism grew steadily as the steam had been let out of the pot. Overall, his failure to create sufficient political change became the basis for future uprisings. ...read more.

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