Revolutionary Situation of 1859–61 in Russia

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Revolutionary Situation of 1859–61 in Russia


a vivid expression of the crisis in the entire feudal system of serfdom, which had begun to decline in the second half of the 18 th century.

Underlying the revolutionary situation was the conflict between old feudal production relations and the developing capitalist productive forces. The Crimean War (1853–56) had greatly aggravated the poverty and misery of the toiling masses owing to increased recruitment, the loss of breadwinners, and higher taxes. These misfortunes coincided with crop failures, accompanied by landlords’ encroachment on peasant lands, with an increase in barshchina (corvée) and obrok (quitrent), and with the forcible resettlement of peasants or transfer of peasants to the status of house serfs. The resulting situation stimulated a peasant movement. The disturbances provoked by the registration of peasants in the naval and army militia during the Crimean War, the Kiev Kazatchina of 1855, and the peasant march “to Tavrida to seek freedom” in the summer of 1856 were directed not against individual landlords but rather against the oppression of the autocratic administration.

In these circumstances the Russian revolutionary movement grew stronger. A. I. Herzen established his Free Russian Printing House in London in 1853; proclamations were issued; and the journal Poliarnaia zvezda (Polar Star) was founded. In 1856, N. P. Ogarev, who had joined Herzen abroad, proposed that they establish the first Russian revolutionary newspaper, and the next year Kolokol (The Bell) began to appear. Trying to determine whether a secret society was necessary in Russia, Ogarev concluded that “it is necessary, possible, and indispensable.” An important center of the Russian revolutionary movement was created in London.

Concurrently, the importance of the St. Petersburg Sovremennik (The Contemporary) was growing in Russia; the journal was headed by N. G. Chernyshevskii and later also by N. A. Dobroliubov. Another center—this one within Russia—of the revolutionary-democratic raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class) movement was forming, ideologically unifying Russian revolutionary democracy. A liberal camp was also evolving. The liberals issued “memoranda” on Russia’s internal affairs and proposed plans for emancipating the peasants (Iu. F. Samarin, A. I. Koshelev, A. M. Unkovskii, and K. D. Kavelin). The crisis of the upper strata was reflected in the autocracy’s acknowledgment of the necessity of reforms, above all, the abolition of serfdom. The Secret Committee was formed in 1857 for the purpose of preparing a peasant reform, subsequently known as the Peasant Reform of 1861 (the committee was renamed the Central Committee for Peasant Affairs in 1858). Provincial committees were also established to draw up plans that were subsequently reviewed by the Editing Commissions. It was becoming increasingly clear to the tsarist regime that it was impossible to govern “in the old way”: the upper strata was no longer able to rule as before, and the lower classes would not accept such rule.

The upsurge in the social movement was manifested in a powerful onslaught against the tsarist government, which was entangled in a crisis. The mass movement and the revolutionary struggle wrested from the autocracy its consent to begin reforms. Almost simultaneously preparations were made for a peasant reform, the abolition of corporal punishment, and zemstvo, university, judicial, and military reforms. Peasant disturbances increased during 1859–60. The Abstinence Movement, which engulfed some provinces, was a new form of struggle against government constraints and the system of farming out tax collection. The revolutionary situation was linked to the upsurge in the general expectation of “freedom.”

The revolutionary movement was growing, and the ties between the Russian and London centers were developing. A “proclamation plan” was worked out that was to be an appeal to all strata of Russian society: the peasants (the proclamation To the Manorial Peasants, possibly written by Chernyshevskii), the soldiers, and the progressive youth (To the Young Generation). Velikoruss (The Great Russian), a revolutionary political newspaper in embryonic form, appeared in the summer and fall of 1861. At the same time, the London center also worked out plans for an organized peasant uprising. In 1861, at the culmination of the revolutionary situation, the idea of a centralized revolutionary organization was replaced by the idea of creating a federation of the numerous revolutionary circles that had sprung up. By the end of the year the revolutionary circles had united to form the general revolutionary organization Land and Liberty, which was apparently directed both by the St. Petersburg revolutionary center and the London revolutionary center.

Meanwhile, the government was secretly preparing the Statutes Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence. On Feb. 19, 1861, Emperor Alexander II signed the manifesto, which was proclaimed in St. Petersburg and Moscow on March 5 and subsequently throughout Russia. Under the Statutes of February 19, the peasants received their personal freedom and an allotment of land, in return for which they had certain obligations to the landlord. A considerable portion of the land used by the peasants prior to the reform was taken from them; such plots were called otrezki. In purchasing their allotments, the peasants had to pay not only for the land but for their personal freedom as well. The extortionate nature of the reform provoked mass disturbances in the spring of 1861, the largest of which were the Bezdna and Kandeevka uprisings. Despite the large scope of the peasant movement, it remained spontaneous and unorganized, and in the summer of 1861 it began to recede. The peasant reform of 1861 proved to be a timely safety valve, allowing the government to surmount the crisis. The reform did not eliminate the basic contradiction between the peasants and the landlords—the contradiction in feudal manorial land tenure—and therefore “the year 1861 begot the year 1905” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 20, p. 177).

Tsarism dealt a powerful blow to the revolutionary movement by arresting Chernyshevskii, N. A. Serno-Solov’evich, and others. A series of trials began; in one particularly important case 32 persons were charged with maintaining contacts “with the London propagandists.” Despite the repression, Land and Liberty survived. In the second half of 1862, its Central Committee resumed its activity, and contacts with the London center were renewed. Although the Moscow section of Land and Liberty was destroyed, the organization’s center and numerous local sections survived.

The revolutionary situation began to ebb in the second half of 1862. But a second high wave came with the uprising of 1863 in Poland, Lithuania, and Byelorussia. The uprising, which began in January 1863, achieved its maximum scope in the first half of the year and then declined and was crushed. The split in the Russian social movement widened as the liberals deserted the revolutionary democrats once and for all during the uprising of 1863.

The revolutionary situation did not grow into a revolution: there was no class in the country capable of heading the movement and leading it to victory. Nevertheless, the revolutionary situation played an enormous role in the preparation of further struggle.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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