Russia's Enlightenment | The Freeing of Serfs: a Rotten Deal | Other Reforms and Economic Growth | Student Rebellion and Assassination of Tsar Alexander II, 1862-81 | Alexander III, Pogroms and Student Revolutionaries | Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin
Russia fought the Crimean War (1853-56) with Europe's largest standing army, and Russia's population was greater than that of France and Britain combined, but it failed to defend its territory, the Crimea, from attack. This failure shocked the Russians and demonstrated to them the inadequacy of their weaponry and transport and their economic backwardness relative to the British and French.
Being unable to defend his realm from foreign attack was a great humiliation for Tsar Nicholas I, who died in 1855 toward the end of the war. He was succeeded that year by his eldest son, Alexander II, who feared arousing the Russian people by an inglorious end to the war. But the best he could do was a humiliating treaty, the Treaty of Paris – signed on March 30, 1856. The treaty forbade Russian naval bases or warships on the Black Sea, leaving the Russians without protection from pirates along its 1,000 miles of Black Sea coastline, and leaving unprotected merchant ships that had to pass through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. The treaty removed Russia's claim of protection of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire, and it allowed the Turks to make the Bosporus a naval arsenal and a place where the fleets of Russia's enemies could assemble to intimidate Russia.
In his manifesto announcing the end of the war, Alexander II promised the Russian people reform, and his message was widely welcomed. Those in Russia who read books were eager for reform, some of them with a Hegelian confidence in historical development. These readers were more nationalistic than Russia's intellectuals had been in the early years of the century. Devotion to the French language and to literature from Britain and Germany had declined since then. The Russians had been developing their own literature, with authors such as Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), Nicolai Gogol (1809-62), Ivan Turgenev (1818-83) and Feodor Dostoievski (1821-81). And Russian literature had been producing a greater recognition of serfs as human beings.
In addition to a more productive economy, many intellectuals hoped for more of a rule of law and for an advance in rights and obligations for everyone – a continuation of autocracy but less arbitrary. From these intellectuals came an appeal for freer universities, colleges and schools and a greater freedom of the press. "It is not light which is dangerous, but darkness," wrote Russia's official historian, Mikhail Pogodin.
And on the minds of reformers was the abolition of serfdom. In Russia were more the 22 million serfs, compared to 4 million slaves in the United States. They were around 44 percent of Russia's population, and described as slaves. They were the property of a little over 100,000 land owning lords (pomeshchiki). Some were owned by religious foundations, and some by the tsar (state peasants). Some labored for people other than their lords, but they had to make regular payments to their lord, with some of the more wealthy lords owning enough serfs to make a living from these payments.
Russia's peasants had become serfs following the devastation from war with the Tartars in the 1200s, when homeless peasants settled on the land owned by the wealthy. By the 1500s these peasants had come under the complete domination of the landowners, and in the 1600s, those peasants working the lord's land or working in the lord's house had become bound to the lords by law, the landowners having the right to sell them as individuals or families. And sexual exploitation of female serfs had become common.
It was the landowner who chose which of his serfs would serve in Russia's military – a twenty-five-year obligation. In the first half of the 1800s, serf uprisings in the hundreds had occurred, and serfs in great number had been running away from their lords. But in contrast to slavery in the United States, virtually no one in Russia was defending serfdom ideologically. There was to be no racial divide or Biblical quotation to argue about. Those who owned serfs defended that ownership merely as selfish interest. Public opinion overwhelmingly favored emancipation, many believing that freeing the serfs would help Russia advance economically to the level at least of Britain or France. Those opposed to emancipation were isolated – among them the tsar's wife and mother, who feared freedom for so many would not be good for Russia.
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