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Peasant Emancipation

The Revolutionary Masses
The Reading of the Emancipation Manifesto. By B. Kustodiev 

On 19 February 1861 the Imperial order on the Emancipation of the Peasants from Serfdom was decreed. From the political, legal and moral points of view, a peaceful emancipation of 23 million peasants from the condition of slavery was an event unprecedented in world history.

This tremendous work could be only compared with the abolition of slavery in the United State which followed four years later. In the Russian case, however, the emancipation was carried out on an infinitely larger scale, and was achieved without civil war and without devastation or armed coercion. It revealed a great paradox: only an autocrat could achieve a ‘peaceful’ transformation like this; in a democracy, which must compromise on such issues to satisfy pressure groups, such bold actions are much more difficult!

The essential features of the complex legislation were as follows.  First, the serfs were given their technical, legal liberty, that is they were no longer the private property of their masters and were free to trade, marry, litigate and acquire property. Second, the serfs were freed with allotments of land, assigned to them from their previous owner’s estate, for their own use. However, they were to pay a series of ‘redemption payments’ to the government for these land-allotments (the government paid the landowners for the loss of some of their land at once). The high level of the redemption dues, set at 6 percent interest over a period of forty-nine years, meant that the peasants were forced to pay a price for their land which was far in excess of its current market value, and represented a ‘hidden’ compensation to the nobility for the loss of their servile labor.

In addition, the landlords were able to cut off for themselves over one fifth, or even two fifths, of peasants’ land, which they used to farm before the emancipation. They retained possession of the best parts of the peasants’ allotments, including woods, meadows, watering places and grazing grounds, without which the peasants could not engage in independent farming.        

Another crucial feature of the legislation was the fact that the land which they received was granted not on an individual but on a collective basis - to the village commune. The obshchina retained extensive powers over its members, both of an economic and of a quasi-judicial nature. Taxes, redemption payments and other dues were communally collected and paid; the land was periodically redivided among the members in the commune, as before; no peasant was free to leave the commune without the permission of the village elders; and the commune retained judicial powers to banish its wayward members to exile in Siberia. The retention of the obshchina as an official institution meant that although the peasant had been freed from his bondage to the serf-owner, he remained in bondage to the commune.

In addition, peasants were still subject to corporal punishment, military conscription, payment of the poll-tax and certain other obligations from which other social classes were exempt.  In other words, the peasantry did not receive equal status with the other classes in Russian society.  It remained a separate ‘caste’ with its own internal structures, procedures, laws and economic arrangements. Bound to the commune, without individual land tenure, subjected to heavy taxes and periodic redistribution of land to enforce complete egalitarianism, the peasantry remained a rebellious and impoverished neofeudal mass with a poorly developed sense of private property and law. For decades it would continue to dream of a new partition of land.

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