In 1857 the Emperor Alexander II first raised the question of emancipation, and declared it was time for it to be accomplished. As might have been expected, the idea of emancipation met with great opposition from different sides. Yet the opposition was directed not so much against the personal emancipation of the serfs as against the appropriation to them, when liberated, of the land they held. The proprietors, assembled in different committees which were established all over the empire to discuss the matter, ended even by giving up their right of possession in the person of the serf, and, mentioning only their right to the land occupied by the peasants, claimed pecuniary indemnities if that land were delivered to them. The honorable gentlemen whom the Emperor intrusted with this important task, forming a committee ad hoc, declared from the first as a principle that the emancipated peasants must have land, about in the same quantity as they had hitherto, occupied, on condition of a pecuniary indemnity to be paid to the proprietors. That principle prevailed, thanks to the Emperor's firmness.
During the discussion of that question in Russia, I published several writings on the matter. My chief purpose and warmest desire being to secure to the peasants as soon as possible their personal freedom and complete liberty of labor, I proposed a method of emancipation, claiming the entire property of their homes; that is to say, cottages and orchards and a small quantity of arable land, and that without the slightest indemnity from them to their masters, which was to be left to the Government. A sum of about two hundred million dollars, according to my calculation, would have been sufficient for it.
Meanwhile I inherited a small landed property, inhabited by about four hundred persons of both sexes. I hastened to put in practice my method. I abandoned one-third of the land, including their houses, to the peasants, and let them the two remaining thirds for a certain sum of money. In my agreement with them it was settled that, if the emancipation which the Government was preparing (1859) turned out more advantageous to them, they were to accept it in preference to mine. It is needless to add that, when the official emancipation was proclaimed, the peasants and I found it more advantageous and adopted it. If I were to compare the two methods, I should say that mine tended chiefly to the liberty of the peasants' person and labor, and that of the Government to give them a quantity of land sufficient for their subsistence.
The great inconvenience of this last method was that it obliged the peasants to pay a heavy rent to redeem their land, and that during forty-nine years! Nevertheless, their passion to possess land was so strong that they cheerfully submitted to such hard conditions. The redeeming rent (rente de rachat) was to be paid by the peasants, either in money, according to an estimate fixed by law, or by work done for the proprietor, i.e., by corvees. This last mode of payment, sanctioned by law only for a short period, disappeared more and more every day, so that the majority of the peasants no longer worked for the proprietors, but paid their rent in money.
I can say more: About two millions of peasants were entirely liberated with regard to the proprietors, thanks to an immediate payment of the redeeming rent. In such cases their annual rent (redevance) was capitalized, and the Government gave the proprietor an obligation for the amount of the capital, which bore five per cent. interest, and was to be redeemed in the course of forty-nine years by annual drawings (tirages); the peasants then to pay their redeeming rent to Government, and thus become free and independent proprietors. For some time both peasants and proprietors seemed to find this proceeding the most profitable, and agreements of this kind became more and more frequent every day.
I can hardly say how happy I was when I saw for the first time my dear, beloved, and deeply respected Russian peasants free at last, and proprietors of the land they had till then cultivated as serfs! What a change! The same creatures, serfs yesterday, became men, conscious of their human dignity; their aspect, their language, are those of free men. In the mean while, in getting rid of their serfdom, they preserved their usual good sense, wisdom, and bonhomie; no impertinence, no arrogance whatever can be detected in them; they are full of self-respect, yet polite. I saw them discussing with the authorities some business of theirs. They maintained their new rights, and, when wrong, never hesitated to acknowledge it.
Every district and every chef-lieu had every year an assembly of deputies who named a permanent committee for three years. This committee was charged with the municipal administration, under the control of the assembly. Everyone was called by law to the election of the deputies. It happened in many places that the peasants were the more numerous and could therefore dispose of all the places in the administrative committee. They were so informed. "No," was their answer; "we want one or two members of the committee taken from among ourselves; they will watch over our interests. As for defending them, as for action, the nobles we name will do it better than we, for they are more learned than we are." In one of the assemblies the nobles, moved by the tact and moderation of the peasants, insisted and almost forced a peasant to become president of the administrative committee of the district. When the salary of the members of the committee had to be decided, the peasants usually considered it too high for them, and, letting the nobles and the merchants have it, got it diminished by one-half for themselves.
All the district assemblies, after voting for the formation of the administrative committee, named the deputies for the larger assembly in the chief town in the province, which in its turn chose among its own members the members for the provincial administrative committee. The central committee seemed to interest the peasants less than those of the districts, and this too is owing to their modesty and moderation.
Another field was offered by the new law to the activity of the peasants in the local or municipal tribunals. The law united several rural communes in one canton (volost). Each canton, each commune, chose an ancient, assisted by a conseil. In every canton was a tribunal to judge the peasants' affairs. Ancients and judges were elected by peasants; noblemen were not submitted to these tribunals, but it has happened that some of them preferred having their difficulties with peasants settled by municipal judges rather than by the usual tribunals. This jurisdiction, established merely for peasants, had great importance, owing chiefly to the privilege of deciding not only according to general law, but also according to local customs. Opportunities were not wanting for the good sense of the peasants to show itself in these municipal tribunals and councils, and the success of the institution was clear to everyone.