ABSTRACT

The peasantry, who comprised over 80 per cent of the population of late-Tsarist Russia, were before 1861 either privately owned or state serfs. Nicholas I (1825–55) considered that serfdom was problematic – but that ‘to tamper with it now would be an evil still more perilous’. No action was taken, therefore, until after the accession of Alexander II, whose 1856 Manifesto declared that it would be ‘better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs liberate themselves from below’. Five years later his Edict of Emancipation granted serfs legal freedom while making provision for them to buy land from the nobility, repaying government loans through long-term redemption payments.