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Saturday, August 19, 2000
On March 3, 1861, in response to growing peasant unrest and fearful of full-scale revolution, Tsar Alexander II issued the Emancipation Edict. The purpose was to end the feudal system in Russia and servitude status of the peasants. The Edict was a gift from the bureaucracy and touched the lives of over 20 million peasants, roughly one-third of Russia's population, at the time. Russia was moving into the industrial age and serfdom caused a lack of capital and absence of skilled labor. Russia's feudal system had become outdated and had to be abolished, not merely changed. Alexander II, himself, noted that change had to come from the top, lest it come violently from the bottom.
There is little difference between slavery and serfdom. Individuals of either group were not allowed to own property and were forced to labor for a master in return for the bare basics needed to sustain life. Both could be bought and sold. In a majority of cases, serfs and slaves lived on the property of their master. Neither group had any civil rights.
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued 18 months after Alexander II's edict, did not free the slaves. During the Civil War, a majority of the slaves were owned by masters in the Confederate states. Thus, an edict from the president of the Union was not binding in these states. Congress had already passed legislation providing for the freeing of slaves of owners hostile to the Union, as well as, the prohibition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the territories. By 1862, the military position of the North had suffered and morale was quite low. The Emancipation Proclamation boosted morale and gave the Union soldiers a moral reason to continue the fight. The Proclamation, also, greatly increased support for the Union in Europe. American slaves were officially freed by Congress on December 18, 1965, in the form of the 13th Amendment
Presented just eighteen months apart, the Emancipation documents of Russia and America make for an interesting comparison. They differ in their motives and nature of the type of governing official presenting them. The American document offers freedom from bondage and the right to serve in the armed forces. Freedom and property ownership are set forth in the Russian document.
In 1861, the peasant population was roughly 50 million. By 1897, it grew to 85 million. The average land allotment, per person, in 1869, was 13 acres. By 1900, this had decreased to roughly 8 acres. Starvation became the lot of the peasant. In 1905, peasants held roughly 38% of the land, while the State, Church, Nobility, townsmen and others combined held 62%. Tasked with feeding a huge nation, peasants were desperate for larger tracts of land. The small allotments were inefficient and, in 1910, were producing only 10 bushels of wheat per acre as apposed to an average of 40 bushels per acre in neighboring Eastern European countries.
The Russian peasant, once free of the authority of his landowner master, found himself under a new authority. The local commune was not ill conceived. In fact, it was believed to be an ideal system of social order and the means by which to facilitate maximum economic security in rural Russia. The commune was to insure each family a parcel of land and, thus, avoid such social ills as unemployment and poverty. Land was given to the commune which distributed it among its members according to size of family. Law required that, as a family grew, it was to receive more land. This seldom happened. The peasant was obligated to follow the commune's demands regarding the use of his land.
In effect, the reform of 1861 further defined the class structure in Russia. There was the nobility and urban classes and the peasantry. The latter were considered the lower layer of society, had few rights and was controlled by a special set of laws rather than the general civil code of the nation. The small, individual plots of land given to the peasants combined with the absence of crop rotation, deeper plowing or scientific fertilization, caused production far beneath the needs of nation. Not only were the peasants unable to feed themselves and the country, they lacked the cash to pay their taxes. As a result, the nation was headed straight for civil revolution.
In the United States, the slaves did not have it much better. After the Civil War, some stayed on the plantations and worked for pay. Still others migrated to the industrial North in search of jobs, or ventured west, into the frontier states. The newly free African was not allotted any property, by law. Whatever he owned was earned by his own toil and struggle in a society that, like in Russia, considered him at the bottom of the social stratum.
The Russian peasantry rebelled against the prejudice and injustice it was being forced to endure. The result was the Bolshevik Revolution, overthrow of the monarchy and installation of communist rule. Communism, in theory, is utopic; the state owns and runs everything, the individual owns nothing, each person has a job, food and shelter. This is an over simplification of reality and, as history has shown, did not work.