Written by Vladimir Moss


The rise of nihilism in Russia coincided with a series of liberal reforms unparalleled in any country on earth, and undertaken by the tsar himself. These were elicited by the various inadequacies in Russian life exposed by the Crimean War. The first, according to both Slavophiles and Westerners, was serfdom. The second, according to Westerners alone, was the autocracy…[1]

Serfdom came into being in the sixteenth century as a result of military needs. “Before then,” writes Max Hayward, peasants “had been free to leave their masters every year, by tradition, on St. George’s day in November. The introduction of serfdom meant that the peasants were bound to the land in the same way and for the same reasons as their masters were bound to the czar’s service. During the eighteenth century, however, just as the privileges of the landowners were made absolute, so were the rights of their serfs whittled away until they became virtually slaves who could – and, notoriously, often were – bought and sold, even if meant separating them from their families. Perhaps the worst aspect of a serf’s life was that – from the time of Peter the Great – he could be sent into the army for twenty-five years…”[2]

“With the military character of the state,” wrote Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, “it was impossible for the military class not to occupy the first place in the state. In particular in ancient and middle-period Russia the military element absorbed and overshadowed all other elements…

“The necessity of muzzling the self-will of the simple people and the impossibility of having a police force in an unorganised state forced Tsar Boris Godunov to tie the peasants to the lands. Then all the Russian peasants were turned into unfree peasants [by Catherine II]…

“From the time of Alexander I views on the subject changed: the state finally became organized, a police force consisting of officials was established everywhere, the people began to emerge from their condition of childhood, received new ideas, felt new needs. The nobility began to chafe at being guardians of the peasants, the peasants began to chafe at the restrictions on their liberty, at their patriarchal way of life. All this began to appear and express itself strongly in the second half of the reign of Emperor Nicholas I. [3]

“Now the prosperously reigning Emperor Alexander II has found the matter already prepared and has found it necessary to change the form of administration of landowners’ peasants. What is the essential significance of the improvement in the peasants’ way of life? It is the change in the form of their administration. They are being given freedom, but not self-will. They are coming out from under the jurisdiction of the landowners as if from under the supervisions of educators and guardians, into a relationship of personal service to the state…”[4]

The Tsar declared: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than wait for it to abolish itself from below.” For the serfs were becoming violent...[5] This was not caused by poverty alone – as English observers noted, the Russian peasants were on the whole richer than their British counterparts.[6] “The peasants,” wrote the senator, Ya. A. Soloviev, “either were disturbed in whole regions by false rumours about freedom, or were running away from cruel landlords, or resisted the decrees of unjust landowners. The landlords feared both the government and the peasants. In a word, serfdom was beginning to shake and with each day became more and more unsuitable: both for the peasants, and for the landlords, and for the government.”[7]

The peasants understood their relationship with their noble masters to be: “we are yours, but the land is ours”, or even: “we are yours, and you are ours”.[8] While this was unacceptable to the Tsar, he did accept that “emancipation was, in [Prince Sergius] Volkonsky’s words, a ‘question of justice… a moral and a Christian obligation, for every citizen that loves his Fatherland.’ As the Decembrist explained in a letter to Pushkin, the abolition of serfdom was ‘the least the state could do to recognize the sacrifice the peasantry has made in the last two wars: it is time to recognize that the Russian peasant is a citizen as well’.”[9]

In any case, there were major benefits to be gained from emancipation from a purely material, economic point of view. Emancipation would pave the way for more efficient agriculture and the provision of labour for the industrialization of Russia[10], so sorely needed in view of the relative failure of the Crimean War, by freeing the peasants from the commune as soon as they had paid their redemption payments. These would then be free to seek work in the towns and factories. Again, as Sir Geoffrey Hosking writes, “the existence of serfdom obstructed modernization of the army and thereby burdened the treasury with huge and unproductive military expenditure. As the military reformer R.A. Fadeyev pointed [out], ‘Under serfdom, anyone becoming a soldier is freed; hence one cannot, without shaking the whole social order, admit many people to military service. Therefore we have to maintain on the army establishment in peacetime all the soldiers we need in war.’”[11]

Moreover, emancipation of the serfs would save the poorer nobles from bankruptcy. For “by 1859, one-third of the estates and two-thirds of the serfs owned by the landed nobles had been mortgaged to the state and noble banks. Many of the smaller landowners could barely afford to feed their serfs. The economic argument for emancipation was becoming irrefutable, and many landowners were shifting willy-nilly to the free labour system by contracting other people’s serfs. Since the peasantry’s redemption payments would cancel out the gentry’s debts, the economic rationale was becoming equally irresistible.”[12] Nor would they have to wait for the peasants to pay them: the government would immediately pay them 80% of the value of the land by wiping out their debts, while the peasants, having been given their freedom gratis, would be given a 49-year period within which to pay for the land at a cheap rate of interest. The remaining 20% would be paid by the peasants directly to the landowners in cash payments or labour. Moreover, they would be helped by generous loans from the government.

The question of the emancipation of the serfs tended to cut across these ideological discussions. Supporters of emancipation could be found in all camps; but among the more Slavophile and Orthodox thinkers could also be found anxieties about its possible effects on the ethnic and religious cohesion of the country. In order to understand these concerns, we need to look at the origins of the institution of the peasant commune.

“The commune,” writes Professor Richard Pipes, “was an association of peasants holding communal land allotments. This land, divided into strips, it periodically redistributed among members. Redistribution (peredely), which took place at regular intervals – ten, twelve, fifteen years or so, according to local custom – were carried out to allow for changes in the size of household brought about by deaths, births, and departures. They were a main function of the commune and its distinguishing characteristic. The commune divided its land into strips in order to assure each member of allotments of equal quality and distance from the village. By 1900, approximately one-third of communes, mostly in the western and southern borderlands, had ceased the practice of repartitioning even though formally they were still treated as ‘repartitional communes’. In the Great Russian provinces, the practice of repartition was virtually universal.

“Through the village assembly, the commune resolved issues of concern to its members, including the calendar of field work, the distribution of taxes and other fiscal obligations (for which its members were held collectively responsible), and disputes among households. It could expel troublesome members and have them exiled to Siberia; it had the power to authorize passports, without which peasants could not leave the village, and even to compel an entire community to change its religious allegiance from the official church to one of the sects. The assembly reached its decisions by acclamation: it did not tolerate dissent from the will of the majority, viewing it as antisocial behaviour.”[13]

Now, as we have seen, for both Slavophiles and Westerners the institution of the commune was the essence of Russianness. For Slavophiles, it was a patriarchal institution of pre-Petrine Russia, while for the Westerners it was “Russian socialism”. However, Fr. Lev Lebedev points out that the commune was by no means as anciently Russian as was then thought: “In ancient Rus’ (Russia) the peasants possessed or used plots of land completely independently, according to the right of personal inheritance or acquisition, and the commune (mir) had no influence on this possession. A certain communal order obtained only in relation to the matter of taxes and obligations… To this ancient ‘commune’ there corresponds to a certain degree only the rule of ‘collective responsibility’ envisaged by the Statute of 1861 in relation to taxes and obligations. But in Rus’ there was never any ‘commune’ as an organization of communal land-use with the right of the mir to distribute and redistribute plots among members of the ‘commune’…”[14]

Again, according to Pipes, “the origins of the Russian commune are obscure and a subject of controversy. Some see in it the spontaneous expression of an alleged Russian sense of social justice, while others view it as the product of state pressures to ensure collective responsibility for the fulfilment of obligations to the Crown and landlord. Recent studies indicate that the repartitional commune first appeared toward the end of the fifteenth century, became common in the sixteenth, and prevalent in the seventeenth. It served a variety of functions, as useful to officials and landlords as to peasants. The former it guaranteed, through the institution of collective responsibility, the payment of taxes and delivery of recruits; the latter it enabled to present a united front in dealings with external authority. The principle of periodic redistribution of land ensured (at any rate, in theory) that every peasant had enough to provide for his family and, at the same time, to meet his obligations to the landlord and state.”[15]

The emancipation reform, which was announced in a manifesto written by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow on February 19, 1861, was welcomed by many, including highly conservative churchmen such as Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, who saw it as “a most happy initiative, a majestic order amazing Europe”. He argued: “1. That both the Word of God and the Church – both the Universal Church and the Russian Church – in the persons of the Holy Fathers, has never said anything at all about the abolition of civil slavery, that there is nothing in common between spiritual and civil freedom, that both slaves and masters were constantly taught by the Church the most exact and conscientious fulfilment of their obligations, that the violators of Christ’s commandment on love were subject to rebukes and exhortations.

“2. That the emancipation of slaves has always been recognized by the Church as a good deed, a deed of mercy, a deed of brotherly Christian love.

“… The most pious Russian Autocrat has indicated to the class of the nobility the accomplishing of a great Christian work, a work of love. The Church invokes the blessing of God upon the great work of the fatherland with her warmest prayers. Her pastors invite the nobility to noble self-renunciation, to sacrifice, to the immediate sacrifice of material goods for the sake of moral goods, while they instruct the peasants to accept this gift of the Tsar with due veneration and humility – the true indications that the gift will be used wisely and usefully.

“But one must not think that civil liberty morally exalts only the peasants: the class of the nobility must unfailingly enter onto a higher level of moral achievement in renouncing the ownership of slaves. That is the characteristic of self-sacrifice and the offering of material goods as a sacrifice for spiritual goods: it exalts, changes and perfects man.”[16]

According to Dostoyevsky, far from undermining the traditional bonds of society, emancipation in fact strengthened the bond between the Tsar and the people, the union in faith and love which was at the very heart of Holy Russia. For the peasants had always looked to the Tsar as their father and protector against the greed of the landowners and officials. They had been expecting the Tsar to liberate them, and their expectations had been fulfilled. For Dostoyevsky, as Igor Volgin writes, “the reform of 1861 created a historical precedent of exceptional importance. It presented an example of voluntary renunciation of an age-old historical injustice, a peaceful resolution of a social conflict that threatened to have terrible consequences. In this sense the emancipation of the peasants was as it were the first step to ‘the Russian resolution of the question’: the action taken from above hinted at the possibility of the creation of a world-order that would be founded on justice – and only on justice.”[17]

“Is the saying that ‘the Tsar is their father’ a mere phrase, an empty sound in Russia? He who so believes understands nothing about Russia! Nay, this is a profound and most original idea, - a live and mighty organism of the people merging with the Tsar. This idea is a force which has been moulding itself in the course of centuries, especially the last two centuries, which were so dreadful to the people, but which we so ardently eulogize for European enlightenment, forgetting the fact that this enlightenment was bought two centuries ago at the expense of serfdom and a Calvary of the Russian people serving us. The people waited for their liberator, and he came. Why, then, shouldn’t they be his own, true children? The Tsar to the people is not an extrinsic force such as that of some conqueror (as were, for instance, the dynasties of the former Kings of France), but a national, all-unifying force, which the people themselves desired, which they nurtured in their hearts, which they came to love, for which they suffered because from it alone they hoped for their exodus from Egypt. To the people, the Tsar is the incarnation of themselves, their whole ideology, their hopes and beliefs.

“So recently these hopes have been completely realized. Would the people renounce their further hopes? Wouldn’t the latter, on the contrary, be strengthened and reinforced, since after the peasants’ reform the Tsar became the people’s father not merely in hope but in reality. This attitude of the people toward the Tsar is the genuine, adamant foundation of every reform in Russia. If you wish, there is in Russia no creative, protective and leading force other than this live organic bond of the people with their Tsar, from which everything is derived. For instance, who would have ventured to dream about the peasants’ reform without knowing and believing in advance that the Tsar was a father to the people, and that precisely this faith of the people in the Tsar as their father would save and protect everything and stave off the calamity?…”[18]

Inevitably, however, many were disappointed. Many of the peasants had not expected to pay for the land, and found the payments greater than the rents they had been paying earlier. Moreover, once liberated they lost access to timber and firewood in landowners’ forests.

Again, “the Law allowed landowners considerable leeway in choosing the bits of land for transfer to the peasantry – and in setting the price for them. Overall, perhaps half the farming land in European Russia was transferred from the gentry’s ownership to the communal tenure of the peasantry, although the precise proportion depended largely on the landowner’s will. Owing to the growth of the population it was still far from enough to liberate the peasantry from poverty.”[19]

Again, for those peasants who did not take advantage of their freedom to leave the land, and until they had paid their redemption payments, the authority of the commune over them would actually increase now that the authority of the landlord was removed. If one member of the commune could not contribute payments or labour, he fell into debt, as it were, to the commune.

Moreover, “during the conservative reign of Alexander III legislation was passed which made it virtually impossible for peasants to withdraw. This policy was inspired by the belief that the commune was a stabilizing force which strengthened the authority of the bol’shak [head of the individual peasant household], curbed peasant anarchism, and inhibited the formation of a volatile landless proletariat.”[20] So while the government genuinely wanted to free the peasant, both as a good deed in itself, and in order to exploit his economic potential, its desire to strengthen the bonds of the commune tended to work in the opposite direction…

The radicals said that the reform provided “inadequate freedom”. However, the real problem was not so much “inadequate freedom” as the fact that emancipation introduced “the wrong kind of freedom”.

True freedom, according to Metropolitan Philaret, “is Christian freedom – internal, not external freedom, - moral and spiritual, not carnal, - always doing good and never rebellious, which can live in a hut just as comfortably as in an aristocrat’s or tsar’s house, - which a subject can enjoy as much as the master without ceasing to be a subject, - which is unshakeable in bonds and prison, as we can see in the Christian martyrs’.”[21] This freedom was not lost under serfdom. Rather, it was emancipation that threatened this true Christian freedom by introducing the demand for another, non-Christian kind.

In fact, as we have seen, the old order, though harsh, was never really one of traditional slavery. It had been dictated by the military situation of the time, in which Russia had vast extended borders with no natural defences. A quasi-monastic way of life was developed in which everyone from the Tsar to the humblest peasant had his “obedience”. The Tsar had to obey his calling; the nobles had to obey the Tsar (by providing military service or service in the bureaucracy); and the peasants had to obey the landowners. It was a common effort for a common cause – the preservation of Orthodox Russia. Nobody literally “owned” anybody else. But there were relations of obedience enforced by law that were carried out, for the most part, in the Spirit of Orthodoxy. For, as St. John of Kronstadt said, “the varied forms of service... to the tsar and the fatherland are an image of the main service to our heavenly King, which must continue forever. Him first of all are we are obliged to serve, as fervent slaves of His by creation, redemption and providence… Earthly service is a test, a preparatory service for service in the heavens”.[22]

Emancipation changed the relationship both between the state and the landowners, and between the landowners and the peasants. As the nobles began to lose their feeling of duty and obedience to the state, the peasants, correspondingly, began to see their obedience to the nobles as a burden that was not justified, as in the past, by the defence of the land. As such, the formal structure probably had to change in view of the change in its spiritual content. But the change in formal structure from patriarchal to civil meant that the sanctifying bonds of obedience broke down still faster than they would have done otherwise.

To that extent, the reform, though rational from a politico-economic point of view, was harmful. As Schema-Monk Boris of Optina said: “The old order was better, even though I would really catch it from the nobleman… Now it’s gotten bad, because there’s no authority; anyone can live however he wants.”[23]

Fr. Lev Lebedev writes: “Later critics of the reform also justly point out that it suffered from an excessive ‘slant’ in one direction, being inspired most of all by the idea of the immediate emancipation of the serfs from the landowners, but without paying due attention to the question how and with what to substitute the guiding, restraining and, finally, educating function of ‘the lords’ (the landowners) for the peasants. Indeed, delivered as it were in one moment to themselves, to their own self-administration (after 100 years of the habit of being guided by the lord), could the Russian peasants immediately undertake their self-administration wisely and truly, to their own good and that of the Fatherland? That is the question nobody wanted to think about at the beginning, being sometimes ruled by the illusion of the ‘innateness’ of the people’s wisdom!… They began to think about this, as often happens with us, ‘in hindsight’, after they had encountered disturbances and ferment among the peasantry. All the indicated mistakes in the reform of 1861 led to the peasantry as a whole being dissatisfied in various respects. Rumours spread among them that ‘the lords’ had again deceived them, that the Tsar had given them not that kind of freedom, that the real ‘will of the Tsar’ had been hidden from them, while a false one had been imposed upon them. This was immediately used by the ‘enlighteners’ and revolutionaries of all kinds. The peasants gradually began to listen not to the state official and the former lord, but to the student, who promised ‘real’ freedom and abundant land, attracting the peasant with the idea of ‘the axe’, by which they themselves would win all this from the deceiver-lords… In such a situation only the Church remained in her capacity of educator and instructor of the people, which task she immediately began to fulfil, although it was very difficult because of the restricted and poor condition of the Church herself. Therefore there soon arose the question of the broadening and strengthening of the rights and opportunities of the Russian Church. The most powerful and influential person who completely understood this was Pobedonostsev, who did a great deal in this respect, thereby eliciting the hatred of all ‘democrats’.

“But in spite of inadequacies and major mistakes, the reform of 1861, of course, exploded and transfigured the life of Great Russia. A huge mass of the population (about 22 million people) found themselves a free and self-governing estate (class), juridically equal to the other estates. This immediately elicited the need to build its life and activity on new foundations…”[24]

Vladimir Moss.

December 29 / January 11, 2010/2011.

[1] “The unsuccessful conclusion of the Crimean war was connected by the Westerners with God’s punishment striking Russia for all her vices and absurdities, by which they understood the existence in the country of serfdom and the despotic character of the State administration. Despotism and serfdom, as the Westerners noted, hindered the normal development of the country, preserving its economic, political and military backwardness.” (A.I. Sheparneva, “Krymskaia vojna v osveschenii zapadnikov” (The Crimean war as interpreted by the Westerners), Voprosy Istorii (Questions of History), 2005 (9), p. 37).

[2] Hayward, introduction to Chloe Obolensky, The Russian Empire: A Portrait in Photographs, London: Jonathan Cape, 1980, p. 13.

[3] Nicholas I had long planned to emancipate the serfs, and was able to improve the lot of the State serfs considerably. Thus L.A. Tikhomirov wrote: “Under Emperor Nicholas I the government undertook a restructuring of the State peasants. The Emperor made a very good choice for the executor of his thought in Count Kiselev, one of the greatest statesmen that Russia has ever given birth to. Thus one of the most remarkable social organizations in our history was created. Lands the size of the whole of Europe were united in the hands of the State, the peasants were abundantly endowed [with them], and the system of repatriations gave an exit to new generations of the farming class. A remarkable system of national provision for the struggle against poor harvests was created. The improvement of the farming culture of 20 million peasants became the object of obligatory and conscious work on the part of the ministry. Moreover, the peasants were personally free, and their communities were ruled by men chosen by themselves. After two decades of effort this extensive organisation was finally put on its feet.” (“Pochemy ia perestal byt’ revoliutsionerom” (Why I ceased to be a revolutionary), Kritika Demokratii (A Critique of Democracy), Moscow, 1997, p. 26) (V.M.)

[4] Polnoe Zhizneopisanie Sviatitelia Ignatia Brianchaninova (A Complete Biography of the Holy Hierarch Ignatius Brianchaninov), Moscow, 2002, pp. 317, 319-320.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm writes: “There were 148 outbreaks of peasant unrest in 1826-34, 216 in 1835-44, 348 in 1844-54, culminating in the 474 outbreaks of the last years preceding the emancipation of 1861.” (The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, London: Abacus, 1962, p. 362) Ronald Seth writes: “A Russian historian, Vasily Semevsky, who died in 1916, using official records as a basis, claimed that there were 550 peasant uprisings in the sixty years of the nineteenth century prior to liberation; while a later Soviet historian, Inna Ignatovich, insists, upon equally valid records, that there were in fact 1,467 such rebellions in this period. And in addition to these uprisings serfs deserted their masters in hundreds and thousands, sometimes in great mass movement, when rumours circulated that freedom could be found ‘somewhere in the Caucasus’.” (The Russian Terrorists, London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1966, pp. 20-21) (V.M.)

[6] M.V. Krivosheev and Yu.V. Krivosheev, Istoria Rossijskoj Imperii 1861-1894 (A History of the Russian Empire), St. Petersburg, 2000, pp. 10-11.

[7] Soloviev, in Krivosheev and Krivosheev, op. cit., p. 17.

[8] Archimandrite Constantine (Zaitsev), “Velikaia Reforma Osvobozhdenia Krestian. 1861-1961” (“The Great Reform of the Emancipation of the Serfs. 1861-1961”), Pravoslavnij Put’ (The Orthodox Way), Jordanville, 1961, p. 24.

[9] Oliver Figes, Natasha’s Dream, London: Penguin, 2002, pp. 144-145.

[10] This applied also to the production of armaments. The Crimean war had revealed Russian rifles to be very inefficient. Therefore priority had to be given to new armaments technologies and factories. But that required a free labour force instead of the system of forced labour of serfs that was then in operation… For “in the words of a report on the Tula Armory in 1861: ‘It would seem to be generally indisputable that only free men are capable of honest work. He who from childhood has been forced to work is incapable of assuming responsibility as long as his social condition remains unchanged.’” (David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, London: Abacus, 1999, p. 241). (V.M.)

[11] Hosking, Russia. People and Empire, 1552-1917, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 318.

[12] Figes, Natasha’s Dream, p. 144. “More than 80% of the small and middle nobility were in debt to the state on the security of their own estates, and this debt would have been unrepayable if it had not been for the reform. The value of the payments for the land cleared many debts.” (Krivosheev and Krivosheev, op. cit. p. 20).

[13] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 1899-1919, London: Collins Harvill, 1990, pp. 87-98.

[14] Lebedev, Velikorossia (Great Russia), St. Petersburg, 1997, pp. 314-342.

[15] Pipes, op. cit., p. 98.

[16] Polnoe Zhizneopisanie Sviatitelia Ignatia, pp. 335-336.

[17] Volgin, Poslednij God Dostoevskogo (Dostoyevsky’s Last Year), Moscow, 1986, pp. 32-33.

[18] Dostoyevsky, The Diary of a Writer, January, 1881, London: Cassell, pp. 1032-1033.

[19] Figes, Natasha’s Dream, op. cit., p. 145.

[20] Pipes, op. cit., pp. 98-99.

[21] Philaret, in Bishop Plato, On the Question of Freedom of Conscience, Kiev, 1902.

[22] St. John of Kronstadt, Moia Zhizn’ o Khriste (My Life in Christ), Moscow, 1894.

[23] Victor Afanasyev, Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2000, pp. 216, 217. The old family retainer in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard also believed that the rot set in with “Freedom” (Hayward, in Obolensky, op. cit., p. 13).

[24] Lebedev, op. cit., pp. 342-343.

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