Why did Alexander Emancipate the Serfs and to whose benefit?

Various debates over the reasons for the emancipation of the serfs have been put forward by historians. They include military, social, political, educational and economic reasons, and each has a strong case. It is not known precisely why Alexander emancipated the serfs, but the strong sense of duty he had towards the preservation of the state meant that, once he had decided that emancipation was necessary for the welfare of the autocracy, little could be done to prevent it.

The emancipation itself was certainly stimulated, at least in part, by the Crimean defeat to France and the United Kingdom. The Tsar was well aware of the drawbacks of Russia’s huge standing army and the costs of maintaining this in peace time. The lack of a reserve also hindered the Russian cause when it came to war, and the defeat in Crimea served to prove to Alexander that the Russian army was highly inefficient; something needed to be done. The hierarchy of Russia was such that the nobility and autocracy constantly feared rebellion and revolution; the cause of these, they feared, would arise from Western ideas filtering into the empire. Because of this, the serfs were forced to complete a twenty-five year conscription if they were required for the army, this way very few would return to spread the news of revolution to their villages. If serfdom was abolished then this would make way for a vast amount of army reforms to both modernise the army whilst reducing costs, two important factors for an increasingly competitive Europe. This, of course, would benefit the Russian state as a whole, but specifically Alexander as it would increase his personal power dramatically to be the only autocratic leader of a European power when that European power could again challenge all others with a modern and efficient army.

Linked to the efficiency of the Russian army was the need for new industry and technology, as well as a greater expansion of the rail network. Emancipation would allow for a greater interest in business as well as a lack of worry about the spread of western ideas which would prompt an increase in investment from wealthy European businessmen. As the serfs were required to pay money for their freedom, and this money was in turn given to banks by the heavily indebted nobility, banks also became major investors in Russian industry. The banks were definitely major benefactors of the emancipation. Though Alexander and his aids would not have entirely foreseen this progress they would have predicted it and will have known that serf emancipation would lead to a sharp rise in industry.

The fear of revolution was another prominent reason for emancipation. Alexander said to the nobility in a famous speech in 1856 that it was better for the emancipation of the serfs to come ‘from above’ than ‘from below’. This shows us that he clearly foresaw rebellion and that serf emancipation was heavily influenced by his fear. Alternatively, it has been argued that he was simply saying this to win over the Russian nobility, as the fear of rebellion and civil war would have been far greater than the worry of losing their power over the peasant classes. From either viewpoint the eradication of serfdom is shown to have happened largely for the benefit of the upper classes, not for the moral guilt of keeping people in poverty and slavery. In fact, this moral realisation was well acknowledged by the Tsars prior to the reign of Alexander, the reason they ignored it was for fear of compromising their own power.

On the face of it, it seems that we can include the gentry with the Tsar and the state in the benefiting from the emancipation of the serfs. However, when we analyse the reality of the aristocracy’s situation we can see that they did not actually benefit at all. Although they were given bonds which were sellable on the stock market in compensation for the emancipation, they lost their main source of income and these bonds were, in reality, little relief to the already financially burdened gentry. Not only did they lose their free source of labour, the serfs, thus increasing their costs of living and earning, but they