Emancipation of the Serfs

Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto, an 1873 painting by Grigory Myasoyedov
Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto, an 1873 painting by Grigory Myasoyedov

Historical Context

Two years before Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the United States, the Russian Tsar moved to abolish its system of peasants and serfdom. The need to reform Russia's backward economy was well understood by intellectuals in the Empire, especially given that serfdom had declined in Western Europe hundreds of years before.

Previous Tsars had attempted to emancipate the serfs in the earlier part of the century but never succeeded, partly because the conservative elements of Russian society were deeply opposed to freeing them. Alexander II announced in 1856 his intention to abolish serfdom, and he did so in a proclamation issued on 3 March 1861 [O.S. 19 February]

Despite this, the condition of the serfs did not automatically improve, and many were still bonded through debts and rent to either the government or their previous landlords, while many had their freedom but no land. Nevertheless the emancipation of the serfs was an important part of Russian history.

Painting Info


Artist: Grigory Myasoyedov
Location painted: Russia

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Related Events

  • 1861-03-03 Alexander II of Russia signs the Emancipation Manifesto, freeing serfs and granting them the full rights of free citizens [O.S. Feb 19]

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