The emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861 followed the unrest fomented by the 1848 socialist revolutions in Europe, but it should not be too closely compared to Lincoln’s act in 1863. Then, the impetus was purely military and followed the pervious examples set by the British in 1775 and 1814 which promised freedom for those who rose up against their owners and contributed to British victory. Contrary to Lincoln’s writ of fire and sword, the Russian act of emancipation was peaceful and serfs were not enfranchised to rule over the Russian nobility.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Serfs, Slaves and Irishmen
“The rationale of serfdom, that is, the tying of the peasant to the land he tilled, was that it ensured labor (and hence income) to the landowning noble, enabling the latter to devote himself to serving the state. The enserfment of the peasants had been gradual, but by the middle of the seventeenth century the peasant and his descendants were legally obliged to remain on the land of their master. When the state granted land to new or old nobles for services rendered, the peasants on that land were transferred from state peasants into serfs.
[When Tsar Peter III released the nobility from state service] the peasants [expected reforms and] became resentful. Hitherto, peasant revolts had been localized though frequent, but in the reign of Catherine the Great the intensified discontent expressed itself in Pugachov’s rebellion, which lasted two years and threw official Russia and the nobility into a panic.
Serfs cultivated the land allotted to them, and in recompense for the use of this land they were required to work also on the land reserved for the use of the landowner. Three days a week was probably the average requirement but in the worst cases, and in busy weeks, this might be doubled . . .
The landowner could increase his serfs dues and duties, he could seize their property, he could forbid them from buying from, selling to, or working with persons outside the estate, he could make them into domestic servants, sell them either separately or with their families, force them to marry so as to breed more serfs, or forbid them to marry disapproved partners. Except in case of murder or banditry, the landowner administered rural justice and could send troublesome serfs to Siberia or into the army. Whipping was commonplace.
Although there were many landowners who were kindly, educating and sometimes liberating favoured serfs, there were others who were brutal; social isolation and almost absolute power led some landowners to excesses which in other circumstances they would have found revolting.
Englishmen travelling through Russia often compared Russian peasant life, not always unfavourably, with the condition of the Irish. Bu many foreigners were shocked by the condition of the poorer peasants.
An American wrote that the village poor “generally wanting the comforts which are supplied to the Negro on our best-ordered plantations, appeared to me not less degraded in intellect, character and personal bearing. Indeed, the marks of physical and personal degradation were so strong, that I was irresistibly compelled to abandon certain theories not uncommon among my countrymen at home, in regard to the intrinsic superiority of the white race over the others.”
(Endurance and Endeavor, Russian History 1812-1986, J.N. Westwood, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 74-76)