In the 1800s, serfdom was a popular and predominant phrase that meant servants on the land. Serfdom was part of the broader system called feudalism, and this was a system made up of higher class princes and knights owning a system made up of middle class artisans and serfs who were considered the lower class. Serfs pledged to work for the prince and on his province in exchange for basic living needs such as a house, food, and clothing. Make no mistake, however, as serfdom was a cruel system that kept the power at the top. What’s more, feudalism was a system that was said to be extremely decentralized. There was no ruling figure who could keep these princes in check, and this caused endless war amongst the princes who wanted to take each other’s land. Unfortunately, the serfs often fell victim to this war, and they were often seen as expendable by the leadership of the province. Before we go any further, however, let’s talk about what was happening during the 1840s and early 1850s. During this time, revolutions were popping up all across Europe only to fail and become mere uprisings. During this time, people started to view the world in a more competitive manner, and this caused politicians to adopt Realpolitik, or tough politics with the objective of showing strength. In terms of serfdom, it was only a matter of time until it was completely ended. In Russia, the people were feeling the pain of being behind in terms of technology and innovation, and this fueled the changes that we saw taking place during the 1850s. In the main book, we are told that this was time of hard politics and the fall of the idea of balanced powers. From here on for a very long time, we’d see instances where countries competed with each other rather than cooperated. Moreover, this cooperation was called the Concert of Europe, and the chapter covering this time definitely lays out the reasons as to why this was ended that match up with the source book. “Defeat in the Crimean War not only blocked Russia’s territorial ambition but also made the need for meaningful reform” (Hunt 726). The unification of Italy and Prussia are two common examples cited by historians, and Russians seeing these widespread geopolitical changes could have impacted their own desire to see change. “Bismarck …provoked war in France” which ultimately led to the unification of the Prussian state due to the unity that facing France brought (Hunt 733).
One of the primary sources in the textbook was Peter Kropotkin’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionist.” In this, he looks at how Russia came to abolish serfdom. It’s important to note that manufacturing and labor was everything to an economy back then, and forcing the serfs to stay attached to their respective princes hurt the innovation and labor force in Russia. Russia was also facing major defeats against European powers, and this caused the people to realize that changes had to be made. Tsar Alexander II decided to issue what is now called the Emancipation Manifesto in 1961. This Manifesto made serfdom illegal. Engineer Kropotkin was in the midst of all of this change, as he was a peasant who described what people were like after this signing and how society changed. He said that he was surprised by the lack of protests from the nobles and how easily the peasants eased into their new way of life. Kropotkin believes that freedom was the sweetest thing that could have happened. However, it was ironic that the serfs said they were “free,” as they still had to agree to harsh guidelines that would surely leave them in financial ruin for a long time. This was really done to appease the nobels. In fact, these serfs may have been worse off afterwards if they couldn’t find work. Therefore, while the abolishment of serfdom can be seen as a positive and the equivalent to the abolishment of slavery, we need to remember that there were positive and negative short term consequences that surfaced afterwards (Lualdi 171). Anyways, it’s important to understand that this was a time of consolidation and unification.
Analyzing the source further, it seems as if Kropotkin was trying to tell his own people something. More specifically, it seemed as if he was trying to tell future Russians the true story behind what happened and how surreal the moment was for the serfs. In the United States, we talk a lot about the abolishment of slavery. This seemed like a similar moment, not just because oppressed people were being freed, but also because the entire system that society was built on came crumbling down. Perhaps Kropotkin was surprised by what he saw. He mentions how surprised he is by the ability of his fellow peasants to adapt to what has happened. He most likely expected there to be more violence and resistance, but there didn’t seem to be much. As for Kropotkin himself, I believe that he was a serf who was in the feudal system, and this caused him to have a resentment towards the elites. However, he seemed as if he was more reflective than the average serf. In other words, he realized that freedom wasn’t exactly free, and that he’d still be strapped down by excessive rules that were put in place by the signing. After slavery was abolished, we went a very long time with the system still being against African Americans. Perhaps this is what it was like in Russia after serfdom was abolished. The reason why I connect these two things is because it is important to gain a perspective and connect one’s own country’s history with another time in history. This can usher in a new level of understanding and perhaps empathy.
- Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins, A Macmillan Education Imprint, 2016.
- Lualdi, Katharine J. Sources of The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins, 2012.