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Results of Emancipation

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The emancipation reform cannot be appraised on a simple ‘positive or negative’  scale.  On the one hand, the abolition of serfdom led to irreversible changes in all spheres of Russian life giving a powerful impulse to the development of new socio-economic relations. It accelerated the process of the cleavage of peasantry, with more enterprising peasants increasing their wealth and leaving the patriarchal commune while others growing destitute and turning into dispossessed proletarians. As a result, mines and factories in rapidly developing industrial regions gained a steady flow of cheap wage labor.  

As natural economy disintegrated, the Russian internal market’s capacity increased. All this taken together gave a powerful boost to the growth of industrial production. By the early 1880s the industrial revolution in Russia had arrived.  Alongside the older, traditional branches of industry, new ones were created: coal-mining, oil-extracting, machine-building; the country was covered by a network of railways.  The new social classes of bourgeoisie and industrial proletariat were rapidly developing. All strata of society were experiencing change. 

Alexander II meets peasants while hunting

On the other hand, the reform had conserved some of the elements and relations of the old serfdom system. The pressure of circumstances had impelled the authorities to implement the abolition of serfdom and thus undermine the  landowners’ economy.  But at the same time the government sought to maintain this traditional economy by compensating the former serf-owners’ losses as much as it could. This compensation had to be shouldered entirely by the peasantry which was being freed.

No wonder that the peasants were bitterly disappointed by the emancipation settlement. The feeling grew among them that they were being deceived by greedy landowners and that the true intentions of the Tsar were being thwarted. They resented not receiving all the land they formerly tilled, they objected to the burdens, and they felt constrained by the commune which was often under the undue influence of a village elder, or priest or a rich peasant (derogatively referred to as a kulak ‘fist’). The contradictory nature of the peasant reform aggravated the traits of backwardness in village life and in the final analysis led to a deeper crisis.

This is how Nicholas Berdiaev assessed the situation in the postreform Russia: 

 
 

The peasants were liberated and given land... But the peasants, in spite of the fact that they possessed the larger part of the land, remained  unorganized and discontented. The level of agricultural skill was low and at a primitive stage, and the peasants had not sufficient land for their subsistence. A class regime still remained, and the peasant, as a man, continued to be humiliated. Russia was still an aristocratic country, and feudalism was not entirely superseded until the actual revolution of 1917. The great magnates who possessed immense estates still remained. Manners and morals were feudal. Notwithstanding the immense significance of the reform, everyone was discontented.

 
 

The retention of the commune was arguably the chief stumbling-block that hindered the modernization of the agrarian sector and prevented capitalist development in rural areas. The continuing practice of periodical equalization of landholdings between peasant households made it difficult for successful peasants to accumulate land and become small entrepreneurial farmers. In addition, the 1861 Act slowed capitalist development in urban areas by making it difficult for destitute peasants to leave their land and become full-time wage-workers. Lack of capital investment, periodic reallocation of land, primitive agricultural methods, the crippling financial burden of redemption payments and the impediments to labor mobility  imposed by the village commune ensured that the agrarian sector of the Russian economy more or less stagnated for the next forty years.

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Alexander II

 

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