January 01, 2011

Freeing the Serfs

On march 30, 1856, a young Tsar Alexander II, only recently ascended to the throne, appeared before the Moscow nobility. The ancient capital was in a state of agitation over rumors about the possible abolition of serfdom. The tsar, as usual, denied the rumors, but at the same time made the following statement: “Better to abolish serfdom from above than see a day when it will be abolished from below.”

This was an eventuality that struck fear in the hearts of Russian landowners. Memories of the Pugachyov Rebellion were deeply, almost genetically, ingrained in the Russian psyche – in the form of family legends of great grandmothers and grandfathers who had suffered at the hands of irate peasants, tales of grandmothers and grandfathers who still remembered the horrors they had seen in their eighteenth century childhoods, and Pushkin’s story The Captain’s Daughter. What could be worse than a peasant revolt? Could the mid-nineteenth century really see such an uprising?

During the Soviet era, historians made a great effort to prove the existence of a heated class struggle in Russia before the abolition of serfdom. Every serf who fled his master, every murder of a cruel landowner, was painstakingly documented and presented as evidence of “actions by the people.” Still, they were not able to paint a very impressive picture.

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