Russian Emancipation Proclamation

Russian Emancipation Proclamation

St. Petersburg, Russia, March 3, 1861

Four thousand miles from where President-elect Abraham Lincoln was counting down the final hours before his inauguration, the leader of a very different nation prepared for the most momentous day of his reign. Czar Alexander II rose before dawn and, dressed in his favorite cherry-red dressing gown, stood contemplatively by the window, watching the pale light grow in the square outside the Winter Palace. This morning he would set 23 million of his subjects free.

Emancipating a Russian Serf




Emancipating a Russian Serf


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There were both similarities and differences between the two versions of servitude. Russia’s serfs were bought and sold, although never on anything like the scale of America’s domestic slave trade. And serfs, too, were viciously flogged and sexually exploited; had few legal rights; and could make hardly any important decisions without their masters’ permission.

Russian Serfs Plowing Fields on the Steppes




Russian Serfs Plowing Fields on the Steppes


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On the other hand, serfs were customarily required to labor for their masters only three days a week; the rest of the time they were free to work for their own benefit; Russian law even mandated certain minimum allotments of land for each family. (Unlike American slaves, they could also own real estate with their masters’ consent.) Serfs had not, of course, been kidnapped from their native country and thrust into the horrors of the Middle Passage. And the relatively static nature of Russia’s economy and society meant that serf families were far less vulnerable to sudden, arbitrary separations and dislocations.

Russian Serfs Using Thatch from their Roofs to Feed Livestock During a Famine, 1890s




Russian Serfs Using Thatch from their Roofs to Feed Livestock During a Famine, 1890s


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