On March 3, 1861, an event of seismic significance occurred in the history of international emancipation. With the stroke of a pen, Tsar Alexander II freed 23 million Russian serfs. It always has been a point of pride for Russians that their great emancipation preceded the one in the United States and occurred largely without bloodshed. Adam Goodheart has written a nice piece on this event in yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times. I heartily recommend it, although I wish Goodheart had said more about the limitations of Russia’s 1861 Emancipation Manifesto.
First, the decree only freed serfs on private land. Imperial serfs, on land controlled directly by the Tsar, were not freed until 1866. Second, Russians landlords were compensated handsomely by the Tsar’s government for the loss of their land, which was given to peasant mir communities who in turn were required to make regular payments to the government for it plus interest for 49 years. The money generated was used to pay off the bonds that the government had given landlords as compensation. The compensation plan had the effect of forcing peasants to stay on the land and grow crops for sale to make their mir’s payments, something that made it hard to feed themselves and prevented former serfs from exercising their freedom with their feet. Not surprisingly, these highly unpopular payments were cancelled in the wake of the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Despite the cancellation, the emancipation plan retarded Russia’s modernization in the late nineteenth century, ultimately helping to bring on 1917’s Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union.
To be fair to the Russians, American emancipation would have its own limitations, both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and how the freedom would be limited for African Americans during and after Reconstruction. Nonetheless, to thoughtful people in early March 1861 it must seemed from Tsar Alexander’s stunning manifesto that the Confederacy was increasingly swimming against the tide of history. But it also was apparent at that point in time that American slaveholders were determined to try.