It was said that freed peasants would not work. But, despite volleys of predictions that they would not work if freed, despite volleys of assertions that they could not work if freed, the peasants when set free, and not crushed by regulations, have sprung to their work with an earnestness and continued it with a vigor at which the philosophers of the old system stand aghast. The freed peasants of Wologda compare favorably with any in Europe. And when the old tirades had grown stale, English writers drew copiously from a new source—from La Verite sur la Russie—pleasingly indifferent to the fact that the author’s praise in a previous work had notoriously been a thing of bargain and sale, and that there was in full process of development a train of facts which led the Parisian courts to find him guilty of demanding in one case a blackmail of fifty thousand rubles.
All this argument outside the empire helped the foes of emancipation inside the empire. But the Emperor met the whole body of his opponents with an argument overwhelming. On March 5, 1861, he issued his manifesto making the serfs free! He had struggled long to make some satisfactory previous arrangement; his motto now became: Emancipation first, arrangement afterward. Thus was the result of the great struggle decided.
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.