March 3, 1861: Alexander II of Russia issues the Emancipation Reform of 1861.

For centuries after the fall of the Kievan Rus’, varying percentages of Russia’s peasant population were bound as serfs to their landlords and land. Serfdom became widespread practice in Western Europe several hundred years before the system spread to Russia and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. In 1649, Tsar Alexis issued (through parliament) the Sobornoye Ulozheniye, a law code designed to replace the older 1497 code enacted by Grand Prince Ivan III; it defined the status of serfs for the subsequent three centuries and tied their lives and livelihoods on the landowners and nobles on whose land they worked. This code was issued toward the beginning of the rule of the House of Romanov after the turbulent and miserable period known as the Time of Troubles, not coincidentally - in tying the serfs to landowners the code made these same masters subservient and loyal to the new dynasty of tsars.

Serfdom in Russia was on the decline by the 1800s, although serfs still made up an impressive portion of the population; of the around 60 million people living in Russia at the time of the emancipation, the majority were peasants and approximately half of those peasants were considered serfs. Fleeing was a criminal offense, and serfs, despite some reforms, still possessed few rights and were barely distinguishable from slaves. The Emancipation Reform of 1861 was created and passed mindful of the events that had directly preceded - the Revolutions of 1848, initiated by a disgruntled working class, and the Crimean War, which had been an astonishingly embarrassing failure for the Russians and seemed, at the time, to demand the creation of an army composed of free Russians, not serfs. In 1856, Tsar Alexander II delivered a famous speech to representatives of the countrýs nobles in which he declared

… the existing condition of owning souls cannot remained unchanged. It is better to begin to destroy serfdom from above than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below.

Of course, those responsible for creating the legislation that would bring this abolition about were landowners and masters of serfs, and therefore heavily invested in the future status of serfs. The resulting Emancipation Manifesto granted serfs the rights of free citizens as well as the opportunity to buy land from their previous masters, but, for the most part, freed serfs received insufficient, nearly unfarmable land, while their landlords received financial compensation from the government and the choice of which portions of land to keep and sell. While the reforms were impressive in scale - larger than the freeing of American slaves during the same period, and accomplished without civil war - it is also often considered a failure. At the time of its implementation, it disappointed the privileged, the peasants, and progressive reformers alike.

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