Emancipating the serfs in 1861 was an extraordinarily key event which catapulted Russia into the 20th century. At the time Alexander II obtained the position of Tsar, during the Crimean war conflict in 1855, fifty million of the sixty million legal occupants of Russia were serfs. Inhumane treatment, rape and torture topped the long list of how serfs were treated daily. If the previous list did not cure the serf of his rebellion, he was to be enlisted into the military, where far worse treatment was received. The major reason the serfs were emancipated was not due to the cruel lives they were forced to live, but rather because of the Crimean War.
Back to Imperial Russia Chronology
Great Britain and France entered the two year Crimean War against Russia in 1854. The result left Russia very open and weak because the country was grossly underdeveloped when compared to most major civilizations of the time. For example, Russia's military was frail because it almost entirely consisted of serfs, who were forced to serve in it. France and Great Britain, on the other hand, did not require its citizens to participate in the armed forces unwillingly. After this conflict, it was also evident that Russia's bureaucracy was filled with corruption and insufficient organization. Furthermore, "At the root of all the weaknesses and abuses was the supreme evil of serfdom."  In short, in order for Russia to regain her strength, serfdom must be abolished.
The first step Alexander II took in the process of reforming serfdom was to appoint a committee to identify possible solutions to this complex situation; this committee was formed in 1857. After two years of committee meetings, a body called the Editorial Commission was formed to define the best solution to the following problems: "first, how much land was to be given to the peasants and on what terms, and secondly, what kind of administrative authority was to take the place of the powers of the serf-owning landlord."  Early in 1861 a piece of legislation freeing the serfs was approved and quickly passed into law. The serfs were free, yet were not given land. If the serf desired to own land, he would be delegated a small portion of property which he had to pay for.
Since the war was not devastating, no major overthrow in the government's administration came about directly. Freeing the serfs did little to give them real freedom, as they had little or no money to buy the inadequate amount of land provided for them to purchase. Additionally, brutality was continued towards the serfs for years to come. Yet, despite all of this, "It was inevitable that the major reform should bring great changes in administration, army and judiciary." 
Huge Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (Great Britain; Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 331
 Huge Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (Great Britain; Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 341
 Huge Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (Great Britain; Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 348
Huge Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (Great Britain; Oxford University Press, 1967)
Vera Brovido, Apostils into Terrorists (Great Britain; Billing and Sons ltd, 1978)
W. E. Mosse, Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia ( New York; The Macmillan Company, 1958)
Researched and Written by:
Honna Michelle Eichler
History 2260 - Modern World
September 12, 2003
Copyright 2003 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.