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The Emancipation of the Serfs: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the freeing of a third of Russians from serfdom in 1861.

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 1861 declaration by Tsar Alexander II that serfs were now legally free of their landlords. Until then, over a third of Russians were tied to the land on which they lived and worked and in practice there was little to distinguish their condition from slavery. Russia had lost the Crimean War in 1855 and there had been hundreds of uprisings, prompting the Tsar to tell the nobles, "The existing condition of owning souls cannot remain unchanged. It is better to begin to destroy serfdom from above than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below." Reform was constrained by the Tsar's wish to keep the nobles on side and, for the serfs, tied by debt and law to the little land they were then allotted, the benefits were hard to see.


Sarah Hudspith
Associate Professor in Russian at the University of Leeds

Simon Dixon
The Sir Bernard Pares Professor of Russian History at UCL


Shane O'Rourke
Senior Lecturer in History at the University of York

Producer: Simon Tillotson.

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