The Czar and the President as liberators

Russia is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of the serfs by Czar Alexander II, tying this event to what the Czar’s contemporary, President Abraham Lincoln, would do soon thereafter in emancipating America’s slaves.  From the Washington Post:

In this season of sesquicentennials, Russia is marking the liberation of 20 million serfs on March 3, 1861. That was one day before Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th president, assuming powers that he would eventually use to bring American slavery to an end. . . .

Alexander was intent on reforming the creaky Russian state, and the conservative owners of Russia’s vast land holdings passionately resisted him. Liberals couldn’t help but notice the parallels with the slave-holding plantation owners in the American South, said Andrei Yanovsky, a co-curator of the archive exhibit. In the 1850s, in fact, when censorship made it impossible to criticize conditions in Russia, newspapers and magazines devoted large amounts of space to denunciations of American slavery – and, Kurilla said, readers understood that this was a stand-in for the actual target, Russian serfdom.

His foreign minister said Alexander considered the outbreak of the Civil War to be “deplorable,” threatening the progress and prosperity that America had achieved in its 80 years of independence. The czar sent naval squadrons to New York and San Francisco as a show of support for the Union. Russia at the time was wary of British designs and feared that a Confederate victory would play into British hands. On this point he got no argument from Lincoln.

The president was under no illusions about Russian despotism – he once remarked, before going to the White House, that at least it was honest about its cruelty, compared with the hypocrisy that swirled around the American debate over slavery. For his part, Alexander seems to have been confident enough in the lasting power of the Russian royal family that he needn’t worry about befriending a republic that had cast off a king.

via Russia remembers Lincoln as it marks the freeing of the serfs.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Nathan

    There is one critical point where the comparison of slavery in America and serfdom in Russia: serfs in Russia were actually Russian citizens – ethnic Russians enslaved by other Russians. Russia’s government(s) had and continue to show an amazing disregard for the lives of its own people.

  • Nathan

    There is one critical point where the comparison of slavery in America and serfdom in Russia: serfs in Russia were actually Russian citizens – ethnic Russians enslaved by other Russians. Russia’s government(s) had and continue to show an amazing disregard for the lives of its own people.

  • Michael

    Nathan,
    That doesn’t make any sense. Why is it morally worse to “enslave” your own people than it is to enslave others? So America was morally superior because at least it didn’t bother to consider black people humans let alone citizens, therefore enslaving them is less horrific? Not buying it….

    Also, Russia freed 20,000,000 people WITHOUT war or killing anybody, while America had to kills lots to free far less. I think that shows that at least in this instance what Russia did was much more breathtaking and amazing than what America managed to do.

    Finally (although technically this weakens the above argument) serfdom is NOT the same as slavery. Many European visitors to Russia commented on the fact that Russian serfs lived at least as good of lives as their FREE European peasant counterpart, IF NOT BETTER. Their diet and lifestyle was way way better than that of an American slave.

    Russo-phobia that is so common to Americans needs to stop.

  • Michael

    Nathan,
    That doesn’t make any sense. Why is it morally worse to “enslave” your own people than it is to enslave others? So America was morally superior because at least it didn’t bother to consider black people humans let alone citizens, therefore enslaving them is less horrific? Not buying it….

    Also, Russia freed 20,000,000 people WITHOUT war or killing anybody, while America had to kills lots to free far less. I think that shows that at least in this instance what Russia did was much more breathtaking and amazing than what America managed to do.

    Finally (although technically this weakens the above argument) serfdom is NOT the same as slavery. Many European visitors to Russia commented on the fact that Russian serfs lived at least as good of lives as their FREE European peasant counterpart, IF NOT BETTER. Their diet and lifestyle was way way better than that of an American slave.

    Russo-phobia that is so common to Americans needs to stop.

  • Cincinnatus

    Michael: Wrong. The liberation of the serfs and slaves in Russia precipitated the wider social instability that led eventually to the execution of the Romanov ruling family and to the Russian Revolution itself (and thus to the murders of tens of millions of people).

  • Cincinnatus

    Michael: Wrong. The liberation of the serfs and slaves in Russia precipitated the wider social instability that led eventually to the execution of the Romanov ruling family and to the Russian Revolution itself (and thus to the murders of tens of millions of people).

  • Michael

    Sorry about the uppitiness of my last post, however, if you can sift through my arrogance and opinion, I still stand by the facts.

    So were Russians not suppose to liberate the serfs? Or are you just opposed to my perhaps too shiny view of their liberation (although I still hold it to be a better solution than America’s civil war)

    Cincinnatus, I think you’re connecting dots that are way too far apart.

    The failure of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war led to much much much more public discontent with the monarchy and waaay greater social instability than freeing serfs did and it was not in any way related to serf liberation. Russia’s initial enormous losses on the eastern front in WWI just stoked the fire as well but this discontent did not feed off of serfs suddenly being free in the 1860s.

    I guess what I’m asking is for you to connect the dots for me because it’s been a little bit since my Russian history class.

  • Michael

    Sorry about the uppitiness of my last post, however, if you can sift through my arrogance and opinion, I still stand by the facts.

    So were Russians not suppose to liberate the serfs? Or are you just opposed to my perhaps too shiny view of their liberation (although I still hold it to be a better solution than America’s civil war)

    Cincinnatus, I think you’re connecting dots that are way too far apart.

    The failure of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war led to much much much more public discontent with the monarchy and waaay greater social instability than freeing serfs did and it was not in any way related to serf liberation. Russia’s initial enormous losses on the eastern front in WWI just stoked the fire as well but this discontent did not feed off of serfs suddenly being free in the 1860s.

    I guess what I’m asking is for you to connect the dots for me because it’s been a little bit since my Russian history class.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@3), I have to agree with Michael here that I don’t exactly see the direct causation that you apparently do. Liberation of serfs → social instability → revolution → Stalin → murders of many millions.

    Seems like you could link a whole lot of other unrelated things that way.

    Like, say, liberation of serfs → social instability → revolution → Stalin → Allied victory in WWII → post-war boom. But I think we’d both agree it’s a bit silly to credit the liberation of the Russian serfs for the American post-war boom. Right?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@3), I have to agree with Michael here that I don’t exactly see the direct causation that you apparently do. Liberation of serfs → social instability → revolution → Stalin → murders of many millions.

    Seems like you could link a whole lot of other unrelated things that way.

    Like, say, liberation of serfs → social instability → revolution → Stalin → Allied victory in WWII → post-war boom. But I think we’d both agree it’s a bit silly to credit the liberation of the Russian serfs for the American post-war boom. Right?

  • Cincinnatus

    You are both correct (and I am no Russianist), but allow me to amend my statement: the liberation of the serfs was indissociably part of the instability that led to Russia’s collapse, one of what Arendt would call the “red threads” of history that ultimately “tie together” into a catastrophe. After all, if the serfs hadn’t been liberated, Russia would not have developed either a proletariat or its bourgeois foil. Nor would it have experienced the massive social dislocation that occurred much earlier in other post-feudal countries after the abolition of serfdom, etc.

    And no, I don’t think Russia was “supposed” to liberate serfs. Perhaps it was a good thing that they did, perhaps not. I don’t think one could make a universal moral claim about it, however.

  • Cincinnatus

    You are both correct (and I am no Russianist), but allow me to amend my statement: the liberation of the serfs was indissociably part of the instability that led to Russia’s collapse, one of what Arendt would call the “red threads” of history that ultimately “tie together” into a catastrophe. After all, if the serfs hadn’t been liberated, Russia would not have developed either a proletariat or its bourgeois foil. Nor would it have experienced the massive social dislocation that occurred much earlier in other post-feudal countries after the abolition of serfdom, etc.

    And no, I don’t think Russia was “supposed” to liberate serfs. Perhaps it was a good thing that they did, perhaps not. I don’t think one could make a universal moral claim about it, however.


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