Peasant Reform of 1861

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Peasant Reform of 1861


a bourgeois reform that abolished serfdom in Russia and laid the foundation for the development of capitalism. The principal cause of the Peasant Reform was the crisis of the feudal serf-owning system. As V. I. Lenin wrote, “the force of economic development which was drawing Russia on to the path of capitalism” compelled the serf owners to submit to the reform (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 20, p. 173).

The Crimean War (1853-56) revealed the “rottenness and impotence of feudal Russia”(ibid.). Confronted with peasant disturbances, which had become particularly widespread during the war, the tsarist government was compelled to abolish serfdom. The Secret Committee “for the discussion of measures concerning the arrangements for the landlords’ peasants” was formed in January 1857. The government’s program was set forth in Alexander IPs rescript of Nov. 20, 1857, to the governor-general of Vil’no, V. I. Nazimov. According to the program, the personal dependence of the peasants would be abolished, but all land would remain the property of the pomeshchiki (landlords). The peasants would be given a certain amount of land, for which they would be obliged to pay quitrent or perform corvee. In time they would have the right to buy their homesteads (that is, their homes and the outbuildings).

In 1858 provincial committees were formed to prepare the reform. Within the committees liberal and reactionary pomeshchiki struggled over the implementation of the reform and acceptable concessions. The viewpoints of the pomeshchiki who considered it expedient to abolish serfdom were expressed in drafts written by K. D. Kavelin. A. M. Unkovskii, lu. F. Samarin, and A. I. Koshelev. In early 1858 the Secret Committee was reorganized into the Main Committee for Peasant Affairs. Fear of a peasant war that would engulf all of Russia forced the government to alter its plans for the reform. Indeed, the drafts of the program were changed a number of times, always in connection with the rise or decline of the peasant movement.

In December 1858 a new program of reform was adopted, under which peasants would be given the opportunity to buy a plot of land and peasant communal administrative bodies would be created. The Editing Commissions were established in March 1859 to review the drafts submitted by the provincial committees and to draw up the reform. Compiled at the end of 1859, the Editing Commissions’ draft differed from the provincial committees’ proposal: the size of the peasants’ allotments of land was increased, and their obligations were reduced. Because these changes aroused dissatisfaction among the landed dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), in 1860 the draft reform was altered again, so that peasant allotments were somewhat smaller and peasant obligations heavier. This tendency to revise the draft law in favor of the dvorianstvo characterized both the review of the reform in the Main Committee for Peasant Affairs at the end of 1860 and the discussion of it in the State Council at the beginning of 1861.

In St. Petersburg on Feb. 19, 1861, Alexander II signed a manifesto on the abolition of serfdom and the Statutes Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence, which consisted of 17 legislative acts. The fundamental act—the General Statute Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence—contained the main conditions of the Peasant Reform. The peasants received personal liberty and the right to dispose of their property freely. The pomeshchiki maintained their property rights over all the land belonging to them but were obliged to allow the peasants to use their farmhouses, the plots of land attached to them, and allotments of field land in such a way as “to ensure their way of life and the fulfillment of their obligations to the government and to the pomeshchiki In exchange for the use of their allotments of land, the peasants had to perform corvee or pay quitrent—obligations that they could not renounce for nine years.

The size of the allotment of field land and the extent of the peasants’ obligations were to be determined in the title-deeds (ustavnye gramoty) of 1861. Compiled by the landlords for each estate, they were approved by the mirovye posredniki (arbitrators of the peace). Peasants were granted the right to redeem their homesteads and, with the consent of the pomeshchik, their allotment of field land. Until this right became a reality, the peasant was referred to as vremennoobiazannyi (temporarily bonded). The General Statute defined the structure, rights, and obligations of the peasant communal administrative bodies (at the village and volost [small rural district] levels) and of the volost courts.

The four Local Statutes defined the size of peasant land allotments and the extent of obligations for their use in 44 provinces of European Russia. The first of the statutes, known as the Great Russian Statute, applied to 29 provinces of Great Russia, three provinces of New Russia (Ekaterinoslav, Tavrida, and Kherson), and two provinces of Byelorussia (Mogilev and part of Vitebsk), as well as to part of Kharkov Province. This entire territory was divided into three zones (nonchernozem, chernozem, and steppe), each of which was, in turn, divided into “localities.” In the nonchernozem and chernozem zones the peasant allotments were limited, depending on the locality, to maximums of 3-7 desiatinas (3.27-7.63 hectares [ha]) and 2.75-6desiatinas (2.99-6.54 ha), respectively. The minimum allotments permitted in these zones were equal to one-third the maximums. For the steppe zone there was one “decreed” allotment size: in the Great Russian provinces, 6-12desiatinas (6.54-13.08 ha), and in New Russia, 3-6.5desiatinas (3.27-7.09 ha). The allotments were to be given to the “village society”(sel’skoe obshchestvo) —that is, to the obshchina (peasant commune)—according to the number of peasants (men only) entitled to plots by the time the title-deeds were compiled.

The peasants could lose some of the land that they had held before Feb. 19, 1861, if their plots exceeded the upper limit set for their locality (art. 18) or if the retention of the prereform arrangement left a pomeshchik with less than one-third of his estate (art. 20). The size of the allotments could be decreased if a special agreement was made between the peasants and the pomeshchiki (arts. 9 and 121) or if the peasants were given darstvennye nadely (redemption-free land allotments one-fourth the maximum size established by law; art. 123). If the plots used by the peasants before the reform were smaller than the minimum allotment size set by the statute, the pomeshchik was obliged either to increase the allotments to meet the minimum or to lower peasant obligations (art. 19). For the largest allotments, the peasants paid an annual quitrent of from eight to 12 rubles (art. 168) or a corvee of 40 male and 30 female workdays per year (art. 189). If the allotment was less than the maximum, the obligations were decreased, but not proportionally (arts. 169 and 190).

Except for some modifications designed to suit specific local conditions, the other Local Statutes basically repeated the terms of the Great Russian Statute. Thus, the Little Russian Statute (for Chernigov, Poltava, and part of Kharkov Province) provided that allotments would be distributed on the basis of hereditary family principles. Each province was divided into several localities with maximum peasant allotments of 2.75-4.5desiatinas (2.99-4.9 ha). The minimum allotments were to be half of the maximum. In these provinces obligations were somewhat less heavy than in the Great Russian provinces. For each desiatina (1.09 ha) of land the peasant had to pay a quitrent of from 1 ruble 40 kopeks to 2 rubles 80 kopeks or a corvee of from 12 to 20 male workdays.

The Local Statute for the Right-bank Ukraine (Kiev, Podolia, and Volyn’ provinces) confirmed the peasants’ ownership of all the land that they were using under the inventarnye pravila of 1847 and 1848 (regulations covering the peasants’ quitrent and corvee). In the Right-bank Ukraine the peasants’ obligations were somewhat heavier than in the Left-bank Ukraine. The Local Statute for Vil’no, Grodno, Rovno, Minsk, and part of Vitebsk Province confirmed the peasants’ ownership of all the land they were using as of Feb. 19, 1861. The peasants could lose land only if this arrangement left the pomeshchiki with less than a third of the usable lands. Under the statute, peasant obligations were somewhat lighter than those established by the regulations of the estates.

Eight sets of Supplementary Rules made the Peasant Rule applicable to special categories of peasants and to specific regions. Of the eight sets, those applicable to special categories of peasants were entitled Concerning Persons Assigned to Private Mining Enterprises Supervised by the Ministry of Finances, Concerning Peasants and Workers at the Perm’ Private Mining Enterprises and Salt Mines, Concerning Peasants Working in Their Pomeshchik’s Factories, and Concerning the Arrangements for Landless Household Serfs on Small Gentry Estates and Assistance to the Estate Owners. The remaining sets of Supplementary Rules were entitled Concerning the Household Peasants and Landless Serfs in the Oblast of the Don Cossack Host, Concerning Peasants and Landless Household Serfs in Stavropol’ Province, Concerning Peasants and Landless Household Serfs in Siberia, and Concerning Persons Leaving Serf Dependence in the Bessarabian Region.

The Statute on Arrangements for Landless Household Serfs provided for the liberation of these serfs without land. However, for two years they were to remain completely dependent on the pomeshchiki. The Statute on Redemption defined the system under which peasants purchased their land from the pomeshchiki, the organization of the redemption operation, and the rights and obligations of the peasant property owners. Without the consent of the pomeshchik, a peasant could not buy field land. However, if he wished, the pomeshchik could oblige his peasants to buy field land. The price of the land was calculated from the quitrent, capitalized at an annual rate of 6 percent. If the pur-chase was arranged with the pomeshchik’s consent, the peasants were obliged to make an additional payment to him. The pomeshchik received the principal sum of the purchase price from the government. The peasants were supposed to pay off this sum to the government in annual redemption payments over a 49-year period.

The Manifesto and the statutes were promulgated between March 7 and April 2. (In St. Petersburg and Moscow, however, they were promulgated on March 5.) Fearing that the peasants would be dissatisfied with the conditions of the reform, the government took a number of precautionary measures. Troops were relocated, members of the emperor’s suite were sent to outlying regions on special missions, and the Synod made an appeal to the people. The peasantry responded to the onerous terms of the reform with massive disturbances, the most important of which were the Bezdna Uprising of 1861 and the Kandeevka Uprising of 1861.

The implementation of the Peasant Reform began with the compilation of title-deeds, a task that was, for the most part, completed by the middle of 1863. About 113,000 title-deeds referring to 10,013,000 peasants registered in the population censuses were drawn up. (A total of 22.5 million peasants of both sexes were released from serfdom.) By Jan. 1, 1863, peasants had refused to sign about 60 percent of the title-deeds. The redemption price of land significantly exceeded its market value at the time. (In some areas redemption payments were two to three times the market value of the land.) Consequently, in a number of areas peasants tried to get the darstvennye nadely rather than assume the burden of a long-term debt. In the provinces of Saratov, Samara, Ekaterinoslav, and Voronezh there were many krest’iane-darstvenniki (peasants who received darstvennye nadely).

As a result of the reduction of allotment sizes relative to the prereform plots, the acceptance of darstvennye nadely, and the refusal of some peasants (primarily in the Left-bank Ukraine) to take their land, peasant ownership of land declined significantly with the implementation of the Peasant Reform. (For example, in the province of Saratov it fell by 42.4 percent, in Samara, by 41.3 percent, in Poltava, by 37.4 percent, and in Ekaterinoslav, by 37.3 percent.) By shaving away pieces of peasant land that were vital to the peasant economy (watering places, common pastures, access to pastures, and hayfields), the pomeshchiki managed to enslave the peasants even more.

Under the influence of the Polish Uprising of 1863, the government made changes in the conditions of the peasant reform in Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Right-bank Ukraine. The 1863 law introduced obligatory redemption and cut redemption payments by 20 percent. Peasants who had become landless between 1857 and 1861 received their allotments in full, while those who had become landless before 1857 received partial allotments. Consequently, the allotments given to peasants in these regions were considerably larger than those established by the title-deeds.

The peasants’ transition to the redemption operation was drawn out for several decades. By 1881, 1,552,000 peasants registered in the population censuses, or 15 percent of the total, were still vremennoobiazannye. The percentage of vremennoobiazannye was significantly higher in some provinces than in others (Kursk, 160,000 peasants, or 44 percent; Nizhny Novgorod, 119,000, or 35 percent; Tula, 114,000, or 31 percent; and Kostroma, 87,000, or 31 percent). On the whole, the peasants made the transition to the redemption operation more rapidly in the chernozem provinces, where voluntary argreements were more common than obligatory redemption. Pomeshchiki burdened with heavy debts were more eager than others to hasten the land purchase and to conclude voluntary agreements. In a number of provinces the pomeshchiki offered the peasants extra time to pay the additional charges, usually at onerous, usurious interest rates and usually with the understanding that labor ser-vice might be substituted for the charges.

A law instituting obligatory redemption as of Jan. 1,1883, was issued on Dec. 28, 1881, but it was fully implemented only in 1895. By Jan. 1, 1895, 124,000 redemption agreements had been confirmed, and 9,159,000 peasants in areas with communal land-ownership and 110,000 heads of households in regions with noncommunal landownership by households had begun to re-deem their allotments. About 80 percent of the redemption agreements were obligatory. According to data on the provinces of European Russia in 1877-78, 9,860,000 peasants received 33,728,000desiatinas (36,763,520 ha) of land. The average peasant allotment was 3.4desiatinas (3.7 ha). At the same time, Russia’s 115,000 pomeshchiki retained 69 million desiatinas (75,-210,000 ha), or an average of 600desiatinas (654 ha) per owner.

The abolition of serfdom also affected the appanage peasants. Under the Statute of June 26, 1863, they were to become peasant property-owners by means of obligatory redemption under the terms of the Statute of February 19. The appanage peasants lost considerably less land than the pomeshchiki^ peasants. Reform of the status of state peasants was begun by the law of Nov. 24, 1866, which allowed them to keep all the lands they held at that time. Under the law of June 12, 1886, the state peasants were included in the redemption operation.

The Peasant Reform of 1861 also led to the abolition of serfdom in the national borderlands of the Russian Empire. A decree issued on Oct. 13, 1864, abolished serfdom in the province of Tiflis. A year later this law was extended, with some alterations, to the province of Kutaisi. It was extended to Megrelia in 1866. In Abkhazia serfdom was abolished in 1870, and in Svanetia, in 1871. The reform in these areas preserved more of the features of the serf system than did the Statute of February 19. The peasant reform implemented in Armenia and in Azerbaijan between 1870 and 1883 had the same onerous character as the Georgian reform. In Bessarabia most of the peasant population consisted of legally free but landless peasants—the tsarane, who were given permanent use of land allotments in exchange for the performance of certain obligations (the Statute of July 14, 1868). Redemption could be arranged on the basis of the Statute on Redemption of Feb. 19, 1861, with certain qualifications.

As V. I. Lenin wrote, “The ’Peasant Reform’ was a bourgeois reform carried out by feudal landowners. It was a step in the transformation of Russia into a bourgeois monarchy”(Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 20, p. 173). However, the reform did not resolve the socioeconomic contradictions in Russia. It preserved the ownership of land by the pomeshchiki, as well as a number of other feudal vestiges of serfdom, and it led to a further exacerbation of the class struggle. According to Lenin, “The year 1861 begot the year 1905”(ibid., p. 177).


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