19 February 1861: Russia emancipates 23 million serfs

From the 12th century onwards, serfdom had been a key feature of Russian life. In contrast to European feudalism, where serfs only tithed a portion of their crops to their masters, they effectively worked full-time for their master.

Initially, serfs had the right to leave their master’s property at certain times of the year, but this was stopped in 1597. Further changes in 1649 gave masters almost total control over their serfs, turning them into de facto slaves. They were even bought and sold between landowners.

Because serfs didn’t own the land they worked, they had little incentive to improve it. Restrictions on mobility hampered the development of industry. At the same time, serfs, who accounted for a third of the population, grew increasingly angry, with 712 uprisings between 1826 and 1854.

There had been several previous attempts to reform serfdom. A 1797 law limited direct work for a master to three days a week, and an 1801 law banned the sale of individual serfs. However, these laws were generally ignored.

The tipping point finally came when the relatively liberal Alexander II became Tsar. After studying the issue for several years, on this day in in 1861 he issued a declaration emancipating 23 million serfs on privately owned estates. Those on state-owned estates were freed in 1866.

While the serfs were now allowed to buy land from their former masters, the state loaned rather than gave them the money,. This left families with huge debts, which were only cancelled in 1907. At the same time, common land was given to the nobility. As a result, the nobility still controlled 50% of all land, while peasants only owned 20%, ensuring that Russia was still an unequal society, and laying the ground for the Russian Revolution.

Also on this day

19 February 1674: Treaty of Westminster gives New Amsterdam to England

The Treaty of Westminster, signed on this day in 1674, gave New Netherland – and its capital New Amsterdam – to England. Read more here.