The Emancipation of Serf and Slave in Russia and America

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this mini exhibit highlights a very few of the vast number of narratives and studies focused on the history and analysis of serfdom in Russia and slavery in America, and the abolition of both. There were fundamental similarities between Russian serfdom and American slavery, and significant and complex differences. The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto of Tsar Alexander II and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln are the two seminal documents which underscore any discussion of the great social and political upheavals and reforms that took place in mid-19th century Russia and America.

Liberation of the Peasants by B. Kustodiev

Liberation of the Peasants by B. Kustodiev

The ceremonial preamble, Alexander II’s Emancipation Manifesto of 1861 (drafted by Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow), preceded hundreds of pages of statutes spelling out the terms of the abolition of serfdom (worked on since 1858 by dozens of gentry committees and governmental commissions). Through it, more than 23 million serfs were freed, allowed to own property, to buy land assigned to them from their previous owner’s estates, to marry without consent, to trade freely and own businesses, to sue in courts, and to vote in local elections.

Russia provides ample confirmation of Tocqueville’s classic observation that “the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways”. As Terence Emmons writes, “The emancipation was probably the greatest single piece of state-directed social engineering in modern European history before the twentieth century. Its ultimate aim was to fortify social and political stability; in fact it produced serious stresses and strains, of both a short-and a long-term character, in the social and political fabric… Totally unaccustomed to taking directives from without, the government assumed the initiative in preparing the emancipation and a series of related reforms, with no intention of allowing public interference in its deliberations… The epoch of the great reforms was a decisive moment in the history of the Russian landed gentry… Probably the single most important political result of the struggle between the government and the gentry over emancipation was the disintegration of faith in enlightened despotism and the turn by many to the belief that the desired reforms could come only through popular participation in government.” (Terence Emmons. “The Emancipation and the Nobility.” In: Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860-1860s. NY: Oxford University, 1994: 441-45.)

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation by J. W. Watts

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation by J. W. Watts

In contrast, the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order of the Commander in Chief, was issued as a war measure, and limited to freeing more than 3 million slaves in the ten states that were still in rebellion. It was only with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished (1865), followed by the 14th Amendment (citizenship rights and equal protection under the law, 1868) and the 15th amendment (prohibition of the denial of the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude, 1870).

The exhibit, located on the Second Floor Reading Room of the Joseph Regenstein Library, runs from September 20 through December 31, 2013.

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