V. I.   Lenin

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Fall of Serfdom

Published: Rabochaya Gazeta, No. 3, February 8 (21), 1911. Published according to the Rabochaya Gazeta text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 87-91.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
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February 19, 1911, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of serfdom in Russia. Everywhere preparations are under way to celebrate this jubilee. The tsarist government is taking every precaution to ensure that only the most reactionary views regarding the so-called “emancipation” of the peasants are put forward in the churches and schools, in the barracks and at public lectures. Circular letters are being rushed from St. Petersburg to all parts of Russia, instructing all and sundry institutions not to order for distribution among the people any books and pamphlets other than those published by the National Club, i.e., by one of the most reactionary parties in the Third Duma. In some places overzealous governors have even gone so far as to dissolve committees organised without police “guidance” (for instance, by the Zemstvos[2]) for the celebration of the anniversary of the Peasant “Reform”; they are being dissolved for showing insufficient willingness to conduct the celebrations along the lines demanded by the Black-Hundred government.

The government is worried. It sees that no matter how downtrodden, intimidated, backward and ignorant a worker or a peasant may be, the mere mention of the fact that fifty years ago the abolition of serfdom was proclaimed nevertheless stirs and agitates people repressed by the Duma of the landlords, of the nobility, people who are suffering more than ever before from the petty tyrannies, violence and oppression of the feudal-minded landowners and of their police and bureaucrats.

In Western Europe the last survivals of serfdom were abolished by the Revolution of 1789 in France and by the   revolutions of 1848 in most of the other countries. In Russia, in 1861, the people, who had for centuries been kept in slavery by the landowners, were unable to launch a wide spread, open and conscious struggle for freedom. The peas ant revolts of those days remained isolated, scattered, spontaneous “riots”, which were easily suppressed. The abolition of serfdom was effected, not by an insurrectionary people, but by the government, which realised after its defeat in the Crimean War[3] that it was no longer possible to maintain the system of serfdom.

It was the landowners themselves, the landowning government of the autocratic tsar and his officials, that “emancipated” the peasants in Russia. And these “emancipators” manipulated matters in such a way that the peasants entered “freedom” stripped to the point of pauperism; they were released from, slavery to the landowners to fall into bondage to the very same landowners and their flunkeys.

The noble landowners “emancipated” the Russian peas ants in such a way that more than a fifth of all the peasant land was cut off and taken away by the landlords. The peas ants were compelled to pay redemption money, i.e., tribute to the former slaveholders, for their own peasant land drenched with their sweat and blood. The peasants paid hundreds of millions of rubles in such tribute to the feudal lords, thus lapsing into ever greater poverty. Not content with grabbing peasant land and leaving to the peasants the worst and sometimes entirely worthless land, the landowners frequently laid traps for them—they divided up the land in such a way as to leave the peasants either without pastures, or without meadows, forests, or water for their animals. In most of the gubernias[1] of Russia proper the peasants, after the abolition of serfdom, remained in the same old state of hopeless bondage to the landowners. After their “emancipation” the peasants still remained the “lower” social-estate, tax-paying cattle, the common herd over whom   the authorities set up by the landowners lorded it at will, from whom they exacted taxes, whom they flogged with birches, manhandled, and humiliated.

In no other country in the world has the peasantry, after its “emancipation”, experienced such ruination, such poverty, such humiliations and such outrageous treatment as in Russia.

But the fall of serfdom stirred up the whole people, awakened it from age-long slumber, taught it to seek its own way out, to wage its own fight for complete freedom.

The fall of serfdom in Russia was followed by an increasingly rapid development of cities, and factories, mills and railways were built. Capitalist Russia was advancing to replace feudal Russia. The settled, downtrodden serf peas ant who stuck firmly to his village, had implicit faith in the priests and stood in awe of the “authorities” was gradually giving way to a new generation of peasants, peasants who had worked as seasonal labourers in the cities and had learned something from their bitter experience of a life of wandering and wage-labour. The number of workers in the big towns, in the factories, was constantly on the increase. Gradually the workers began to form associations for their common struggle against the capitalists and the government. By waging this struggle the Russian working class helped the peasant millions to rise, straighten their backs and cast off serf habits.

In 1861 the peasants were only capable of “riots”. In the decades that followed the Russian revolutionaries who made heroic efforts to rouse the people to struggle remained isolated figures and perished under the blows of the autocracy. By 1905 the Russian working class had gained strength and had matured as a result of the years of strike struggles and the years of propaganda, agitation and organisation carried on by the Social-Democratic Party. And the Russian working class led the whole people, the millions of peasants, into revolution.

The Revolution of 1905 undermined the tsarist autocracy. Out of a mob of muzhiks repressed by feudal slavery of accursed memory, this revolution created, for the first time in Russia, a people beginning to understand its rights, beginning to realise its strength, For the first time, the   Revolution of 1905 showed the tsarist government, the Russian landowners and the Russian bourgeoisie that mil lions and tens of millions of people were becoming citizens, were becoming fighters who would no longer permit anyone to treat them like cattle, treat them as a mob. The real emancipation of the masses from oppression and tyranny has nowhere in the world ever been effected by any other means than the independent, heroic, conscious struggle of the masses themselves.

The Revolution of 1905 only undermined the autocracy; it did not destroy it. Now the autocracy is venting its rage on the people. The landowners’ Duma serves only to oppress and repress the people all the more. Discontent and anger are again rife everywhere. That first step will be followed by a second. The beginning of the struggle will have its continuation. The Revolution of 1905 will he followed by a new, a second, revolution. The anniversary of the fall of serfdom serves as a reminder of, and a call for, this second revolution.

The liberals whine: we need “another February 19”. That is not true. This kind of talk is worthy only of bourgeois cowards. No second “February 19” is possible after 1905. There can be no “emancipation from above” of a people which has learned (and is learning—from the experience of the landowners’ Third Duma) to fight from below. There can be no “emancipation from above” of a people which has been led, even if but once, by the revolutionary proletariat.

The Black Hundreds understand this, and that is why they are afraid of the anniversary of 1861. As Menshikov, that faithful watchdog of the tsar’s Black Hundreds, wrote in Novoye Vremya: “The year 1861 failed to prevent 1905”.

The Black-Hundred Duma and the fury with which the tsarist government is persecuting its enemies is not preventing but hastening the new revolution. The grim experience of 1908–10 has taught the people to take up the fight again. The workers’ summer strikes (in 1910) have been followed by the students’ winter strikes. The new struggle is gaining momentum perhaps more slowly than we would wish, but surely and inevitably.

The revolutionary Social-Democratic movement, while purging itself of the sceptics who have turned their backs on the revolution and the illegal party of the working class, is mustering its ranks and welding its forces for the impending great battles.


[1] Gubernia, uyezd, volost—Russian administrative-territorial units. The largest of these was the gubernia, which had its subdivisions in uyezds, which in turn were subdivided into volosts. This system of districting continued under the Soviet power until the introduction of the new system of administrative-territorial division of the country in 1929–30.—Ed.

[2] Zemstvos—local government bodies introduced in the central gubernias of tsarist Russia in 1864. Nobility played the leading part in them. Their functions were limited to purely local economic problems (hospitals and road-building, statistics, insurance, etc.). Their activities were controlled by the gubernia governors and the Minister of the Interior, who could overrule any of their decisions disapproved by the government.

[3] The war between Russia and the coalition of England, France, Turkey, and Sardinia in 1853–56.

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