What in the Russian countryside are “free rural inhabitants?!”

Alexander’s 1861 Manifesto (Cracraft 1994, 341) bestows on the serfs “the full rights of free rural inhabitants.” What are these rights? They do not seem to be fully specified in the Manifesto. Alexander outlines some principles and a general direction to be followed by the ensuing reforms, namely, the right to perpetual use of one’s homestead, plow land and other goods, as well as the (eventual) right to purchase and own land. Even considering the qualifications of the transitional obligations for both lord and serf, much detail regarding the exact status of the serfs is left to be defined later. Alexander conveys as much explicitly in the following.

“In accordance with these general principles of the said statutes, the future status of peasants and domestic folk is to be defined; a system for administering peasant affairs is to be established; and the rights granted to the peasants and domestic folk, as well as their obligations to the Government and the lords, are to be specified in detail.” (Cracraft 1994, 341; my emphasis)

Alexander’s use of the future perfect tense suggests to me that much work still needed to be done regarding the definition and classification of the social strata he had just brought into existence.To what extent did the emancipation create a novel social class? Was this class of so called “free rural inhabitants” something entirely new to the Russian countryside?

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4 Responses to What in the Russian countryside are “free rural inhabitants?!”

  1. micguthr says:

    While I cannot comment on whether the idea of “free rural inhabitants” was truly novel, I think David Saunders’ analysis of the reform movement can help us answer the question of whether or not the statutes of 1861 actually resulted in the creation of a distinct social class.

    In the course of discussing the sociopolitical context of Alexander II’s declaration regarding the emancipation of the serfs, Saunders explains that the laws presented to the Tsar on February 19, 1861, were a far cry from what the “Enlightened Bureaucrats” that initially staffed the Editing Commission had intended due to the body’s gradual infiltration by conservatives. Consequently, the resulting manifesto was both intentionally vague and biased in the gentry’s favor. Saunders notes as much towards the end of chapter 8.

    “The new charters were to be a staging post. Once they were in place, not only could peasants buy (rather than just occupy) their dwelling-places, but also in certain circumstances they could ‘acquire in full ownership’ the land which the charters assigned them. If they bought both – the dwelling-places and the land – they ceased to be ‘temporarily obligated’ and became independent smallholders… The snag lay in the circumstances under which a peasant could move from permanent use to ‘full ownership’ of the land which he worked…nobles who decided to be obstreperous could perpetuate ‘temporary obligation’ indefinitely.” (Saunders 1992, 232)

    Based on this assessment, I think we can arrive at two provisional conclusions. First, that while the ‘Great Reforms’ of Alexander II, including the emancipation legislature of 1861, may have had pronounced social and political repercussions (including a general improvement in the lives and prospects of the peasantry), they did not result in the genesis of a unique social class. And second, that the statutes of 1861 seem to be a continuation of a broader trend in Russian history. Namely, that of reformist legislature originating in the central government being hampered or undermined by the conservative interests of the Russian nobility.

  2. whitec says:

    I believe Michael is probably correct in saying that the vague language used in the statute was most likely intentionally so as it could then be used to benefit the nobility. By leaving many details open for later the conservatives who replaced the reformers in the Editing Committee left the door open for later changes to be made easily which could make the reforms beneficial for the nobility. I believe that is is possible that we see this when the State Council reduced the maximum size of peasant allotments. This change at the last minute allowed the nobles to, at least theoretically, profit off of the abolition of serfdom.

    In regard to “free rural inhabitants” I also must admit that I don’t have enough knowledge to say for certain whether it was a new class. We can probably deduce that because it is not defined in any way that “free rural inhabitants” refers to a preexisting class in Russia. This class could have been made up largely of serfs who had gained their freedom through military service.

  3. Oskar says:

    While Alexander does not specify the details of the rights of the “free rural inhabitants” he leaves clues as to the nature of their emancipation. After quoting Romans 13:1 “every soul must be subject to the governing authorities” and Romans 13:7 split into “pay all of them their dues,” in particular “labor, tribute, fear, and honor.” Alexander makes clear that the emancipation of the serfs is an “important sacrifice made by the Well-born Nobility for the improvement of their lives.” (Cracraft pg. 343). In many ways it seems that the rights of the these new “free rural inhabitants” are not the focus of their emancipation, but rather it is a means to ceremonially acknowledge and condemn an antiquated system rife with corruption. As Alexander cites the place in the New Testament which legitimizes governmental authority he more instills a new sense of obligation upon the peasants now that they are nominally free. Yet, without a discussion of their rights, and without peasants representing themselves, this emancipation reads as more a strictly political motion rather than a progressive and humanistic development.

  4. martiju says:

    There is also some ambiguity around the serfs’ duties/obligations and how they relate to their freedom. For example, on pg. 341 of Cracraft’s “Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia”, the landlords are required “to grant to the peasants, in return for a certain obligation, perpetual use of their homestead”. However, in the next paragraph, the Statute also says that the peasants are “temporarily obligated” to “fulfill the obligations to [their] lords specified in the Statutes”. It also seems that the peasants are required to ask their lords’ permission for their freedom, since they must ask their lord’s permission to acquire ownership of the land they inhabit and only “on acquiring ownership of said land” are the peasants “freed of any duties owed on it to the lord”. These restrictions around the serfs gaining freedom are clearly in the nobility’s favor.

    I’m also curious as to why the statute specified a timeline for the freedom of household serfs (“two years after publication of this Statute”), but not that of other serfs.

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