Serfdom and the Great Reforms

Leading up to the emancipation of serfs the economic state of Russia was extremely uneasy at best.  The poor economic state heavily affected the decision to emancipate the serfs due to several reasons.  Primarily, the growth of the manufacturing state of Russia which meant that nobles needed available funds to participate within the economic sphere.  This largely led to the gentry being divided into those who were investing in the market and or had excessive wealth or those who did not invest and had limited funds available.  This largely led to a vast amount of cash broke nobles. Who would either not be able to maintain their noble lives and would go into a deep debt or would attempt to squeeze the money out of their serfs.  As most serfs communes did not have the money to pay off their landowners debts this led to a lot of unrest and uprisings. Prior to emancipation of serfs there was over 1,467 serf uprisings within the nineteenth century.  Additionally, as the serfs became buried underneath the weight of their landowners debts with no hope of an income of their own they became lethargic and had little desire to improve themselves or work harder. This led to Russia struggling as a manufacturing state as it largely relied on the labor of serfs who did not want to work hard due to their circumstances.

The issue of serfdom was finally addressed in 1861 by Alexander II with the Emancipation Manifesto.  Within this document Alexander outlines how the emancipation will take place. He states that the full emancipation will occur within two years and will result in the land that the serfs live on and that the landowners own being split into two.  The serfs being required to pay off the cost of the land will then be free of all obligations to the land owner. However, what is most interesting about this document is Alexander’s desire to to show how this was the desire of the nobles. Throughout the piece Alexander makes several references as to how the nobles are willing giving the serfs their freedom saying, “Russia will not forget that the nobility, motivated by its respect for the dignity of man and its Christian love of its neighbor, has voluntarily renounced serfdom, and has laid the foundation of a new economic future for the peasants.”  This clearly shows Alexander’s desire to distance himself from the decision to emancipate the serfs. Alexander continues this dialogue by stating that, “the nobility voluntarily renounced its right to own serfs.” It becomes increasingly clear that he must be using this language as an attempt to not upset the nobility as this will already be a hard blow for them.

However, within the documents from the Supplication to Revolution we see clearly that this is not a simple transition.  Within this piece we see several documents written by the peasants to those in power begging for assistance in the distribution of land.  We see how the landowners used this as an opportunity to grab better land for themselves. We see several examples of also landowners taking what is not theirs.  An example would be how Mrs. Naryshkina stole the mill from the serfs who constructed it as well as paid for it. This was in addition to taking the better portions of the land and taking land that was not her property.  It also becomes clear throughout these documents that the serfs were then punished for complaining about their stolen land.

  Contrary to the “Emancipation Manifesto”, in “Picturing Russia”, the Lubki strongly represented the importance of the Tsar and his initiative to free the serfs. This form of public art was a mode of communication with the mostly illiterate serfs. The deeply grateful peasants present beneath Alexander II relate their harsh lives through their expressive appearance, while the Tsar takes on a stern, impassive profile, which can underline his obligation to the state, also as well as the peasants who are seen in these frames. The Lubki of Emancipation convey new found hope for freedom the peasants may one day possess. 


  1.  The third paragraph in the “Emancipation Manifesto” on page 307, given Alexander II’s reasoning for emancipating the serfs (because the nobles neglected their moral duty as the protector of the peasants), do you think this would be accurate considering on pg. 172 of the “Supplication to Revolution” document the writer details the change in the attitude of his landlords. What does this say about the priorities of the nobles? 
  2. Considering the priorities of both the serfs and the landlords, do you think the conflicts which arose after declaring emancipation were inevitable considering the nature of serfdom or that the Tsar didn’t implement enough restrictions on the nobles to prohibit duress of the serfs. Even if the Tsar would have put greater restrictions on the landlords, would it have assisted the serfs. Look at the bottom of page 178 and top of 179 in “From Supplication to Revolution”. 
  3. How does Alexander II give credit to the past Tsars for implementing serfdom reforms. Look at the top of page 308 on emancipation of serfdom.
  4. When serfdom was established, the idea was to have the gentry be the peasants’ patriarch in order to help them survive, as Alexander II states in the “Emancipation Manifesto” document. He says the theory of serfdom was well-intended, but the landlords lost their moral sense of duty to the peasants. Does this help establish that the Tsar is the savior and patriarch to the peasants, and how is this exemplified in the lubki (illustrations of Russian culture, sovereignty, tradition, etc. made for public viewing). 
  5. How does both Lubok images express what it means to be a Tsar and the role of peasants in society. 
  6. In “From Supplication to Revolution”  pg 175 the first paragraph, what effect does the writer achieve telling Alexander II “permit us to be called state peasants”.
  7. Looking at the Emancipation Manifesto why does Alexander choose to claim that this was done through the will of the nobles?  Why does he not choose to use this moment to make himself into a hero who frees the serfs?
  8. Contrast the Lubok images with the Emancipation Manifesto.  How do they portray two conflicting ideas? The Lubok images demonstrating the serfs parsing the Tsar for their emancipation and the Emancipation Manifesto where Alexander downplays his role in the reforms.
  9. The Emancipation Manifesto makes it seem that there were several intercepting issues that resulted in the emancipation of serfs with an emphasis given to morality issues.  However, is it possible that this decision was purely made for economic reasons?
  10. In the piece within From Supplication to Revolution we see several examples of the serfs suffering due to the dividing of the land.  As well as them paying for the land which they have worked on and paid rent for for years. Should not the state have just divided the land and given it to them as they had technically paid for it?
  11. As we see from the piece within From Supplication to Revolution the serfs are still clearly regarded as second class citizens.  This is very apparent on page 177 when the peasants are tortured for complaining. Is it possible that this did not socially benefit the serfs? 

A Life Under Russian Serfdom: Serf Villages

Something that largely stuck out to me during the second half of the Russian Serfdom piece was the developments within Purlevskii’s village. On page 105 and 106 Purlevskii discusses his development of a local school and medical facility for the serfs as well as his hope of establishing a trade school. These developments seemingly made serf life bearable for most. I wonder if serfdom would have continued had land owners implemented better village facilities.

A Life Under Russian Serfdom- the memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii Pages 23-60

The Life in Russian Serfdom is a first hand translated account of what life was like for a serf. This first section focuses on village life, followed by his grandfather’s leadership and then his childhood. What is clear here is that this was an “upper class” serf family, for lack of a better term. His village home was made of bricks, not wood like others and there were multiple rooms. It is established as a very nice house for a serf to own. The village of Velikoe saw fairly independent serfdom. Owned by three different lords in this time there are the ones who ignore the serfs, those who are passive and those who are more strict. This allows for Purlevskii to draw his own conclusion about what sort of Lord he wants in control. It was a village full of craftsmen and traders rather than an a village focused on the agricultural outlet. This led to an overall improvement on the day to day life of a serf. In this section it discusses the passivity of the Lord over Velikoe. He leaves the serfs to their own devices except for their taxes and sending a certain number of people to work for the estate.  Savva’s grandfather is not only elected by the serfs to be the bailiff (tax collector) but proceeded to make a small loan system to help fellow serfs improve their abilities, crafts and their trading opportunities in and among themselves. This developed into a town or city not unlike many others in this time with the exception that everyone inside the city is not free. There is another abnormal system, education. Savva’s father has enough money to pay a priest at the church to educate his son and it is revealed that he, himself has some basic education. This was not a common trait describing serfs. Most were left uneducated so that they could not rise or revolt. What this section presents in an antithesis to most modern serf narratives, these people had no freedom, that is true, however they were fairly independent and some became wealth within their social parameters. 

Focusing on the third chapter, there are detailing and expounding upon what a day in the  life of a child in serfdom. The chapter discusses in more detail what the village life was like, the impact his grandfather had on the village and the family as well as how Purlevskii grew up. This section allows for a more detailed understanding of how children were raised, educated and cared for during this time giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the serf family structure of this time. Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii was born in January 5, 1800 to a father who was an accountant just like his grandfather, name Dmitrii and a mother name Dar’ia, his childhood was like any other every other childhood, playing pranks and getting into trouble with other children at his village, his father came off as a strict man towards Purlevskii when he plays pranks and become mischievous when is comes to playing as a kid. When his parents went away for the “Day of the Advent of the Holy Spirit,” he discovered a sack of coins under his father’s bed which was dated during the reign of Catherine the Great and stole some of the coins to show it to his friends. When his parents come back from “The Day of the Advent of the Holy Spirit” his father finds out that the bag of coins have been untied and two are missing, he furiously confronted Savva of taking the coins and he confessed he took the coins to show it to his friends, his punishment was to bow several times to an icon. At the age of 7-years-old his aunt came to visit him on his 7th birthday and used to tell him fairytale stories to him, which he begins to start reading and writing which he became interested in, later on his father found out he started to read and happily took his son to Yaroslavl for books, which included ABC practice books, later on he was good at pronouncing the letters in Russian dialogue while studying with his father.  Savva’s weakest point in studying would be putting the letters in a whole word and putting them into a sentence which his father would make him write something in a sentence, if he didn’t do it well he would get in big trouble. Later on Purlevskii later on collected Russian fairytale stories and tells it to his family. For this conclusion to this summary Savva Dmitrievich Pulevskii childhood memory he mentions that he admires his father’s learning and understanding as a father.

Discussion Questions:

  1. We see three owners of Purlevskii and his community. Some of them ignore them, some are strict and others are passive as long as the taxes get paid. What does it say about the Lord of the region by allowing his Serfs to elect their own bailiff? Could this be beneficial or detrimental? Why?
  2. In the “My Grandfather” Chapter, we see the establishment of a functioning trade and self-government system. Petr Petrovich even establishes a loan system to allow serfs to invest in a business and fill the village square. How do we see the Lord of the land reaping the benefits of this? How might this serf improvement, improve his economic and social standing?
  3. Where do we see differences in what we have learned about agricultural serfdom versus what serf life was explained as in this passage? How about from the factory serfdom? What are the advantages or disadvantages of each of these systems?
  4. It is clear throughout the chapters that the Purlevskii family is not a normal serf family. They have a stone house and have nice material objects and money. How do we see a social divide within the Serfdom system exemplified by the texts? Look particularly at Purlevskii’s education (pgs 54-55) and the standing of the Purlevskii family home (pg 59)
  5. When men and women are commanded to go to the house to serve the master, we are reminded that the Serfs are not free. Further, this is a rather shocking event to a reader however Savva treats it very calmly, as more of an inconvenience. Where do we see the education of children about their social class as serfs? Should it have been more explicit?
  6. Why did the economy not recognize the powerful possibilities of treating the serfs like human beings? 
  7. What does the word Schism mean? Where have we seen this before and how is it detrimental to the Serf society? 
  8. Why did Purlesvskii steal from his father’s coins that were given to his grandfather ?
  9. Why does Purlesvskii father disapprove his son not collecting fairy tale?
  10. What made Dmitrievich get into reading and writing?

Adjusted Reading List for Weeks 8 and 9!

The Midterm is coming up and we could all use an extra day to work. I am giving you Friday, Oct. 11 off from class. Please use the time to work on your midterm paper. In order to accommodate this change, I have revised the readings for Weeks 8 and 9. Please click on the Syllabus tab to see what you need to read over the next two weeks. Happy Fall Break!

Nicholas Karamzin, “Memoir of Ancient and Modern Russia”

Nicholas Karamzin is a Russian writer, poet, historian and critic. Karamzin wrote memoirs to try and change how the government was being run. He is also known as the founding father of Russian Conservatism. Alexander I greatly valued his advice on political matters and in 1811 Karamzin presented his work to Alexander to try and persuade him. 1811 was still considered a liberal period in Alexander’s rule so this could have had some affect on why the memoirs had little effect, and Mikhail Speransky was influential in Alexander’s life helping to push reforms of the government and government departments. Russia was also on the verge of going back to war with France. The major theme of the document is criticizing Mikhail Speransky (without ever calling him out) and the liberal government. Karamzin believed Alexander was a good ruler, and it was the liberal government and influences that was causing the problems in his reign. He criticized everything from Peter the Great, Catherine II, education, serfdom, and the overall government setup. The memoirs had no practical effect but it became an important piece of Russian literature.

Discussion Questions:

1.) Why didn’t Karamzin name Mikhail Speransky in the document?

2.) In the document Karamzin speaks highly of Alexander. Can we consider this document as propaganda for the Tsar? If yes, why would Alexander need such a document? What can this tell us about his situation and could it have been used for a broader influence as well?

3.) Can we consider Alexander a conservative ruler going against Peter the Great and Catherine II’s previous policies? Why might he want to portray Alexander as a conservative compared to Peter and Catherine? 

4.) How does Karamzin use people to legitimize his point of view through the document? (People’s willingness to change, the Senate, ex pg 283)

5.) What problems is Karamzin pointing out in the Russian Government?

6.) According to Karamzin, why is western influence on education a bad thing for the people? Could he believe that all western influence on Russia is bad, and would he not consider Russia to be a European country?

7.) How is the struggle between liberalism and conservatism in Russia affected by international situations like the French Revolution and Napoleon? 

8.) Even though Karamzin says that Alexander is a good, caring, kind ruler of Russia why is he trying to persuade Alexander not to emancipate the serfs?

9.) Why does Karamzin only focus on men in the Russian society (only mentions Catherine II) and not women and the roles they play?

10.) How is Karamzin making disguised attacks against Speransky in the last section of the document?