The Free Economic Society was founded on June 26, 1765, in St. Petersburg, an initiative promoted by several Russian aristocrats (Count Vorontsov, Count Chernyshev, the Empress’ favorite Grigory Orlov) that earned the blessing of Catherine II herself. Learned societies of this sort were in fashion during the Age of Enlightenment, as were the competitions they sponsored. The Free Economic Society soon announced a prize for the best essay on the topic: “What belongs to those who work the land – is it the land that they cultivate or moveable goods, and what right to either could they have that would most greatly benefit the commonweal?”
This philosophical and seemingly abstract question was inspired by a very real problem. By implicitly asking whether a peasant could actually own land, the contest’s organizers were in essence exploring whether it would make sense to abolish serfdom in Russia. If peasants were able to own land, then they should be free, while, as matters stood, they themselves were the property of landowners, who could do with them as they pleased.
Catherine herself came up with the essay topic. She was pondering the possibility of liberating the serfs and was sending out feelers to see what the educated classes would think of the idea.
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