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How the reformers persuaded Alexander II

September 30, 2011

There is a tendency to see politics in imperial Russia sub specie aeterni, which helps in situating epochal events such as the emancipation in terms of their causes and consequences, but in doing this something of the contingency of politics is lost, the elements of chance are removed, and outcomes appear preordained. The victory of a more radical emancipation can easily seem inevitable, with human agency counting for little in the historical process. But contingency has its place in imperial politics as much as anywhere else. (588)

So writes Shane O’Rourke, arguing that Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (aunt of Alexander II, sister-in-law to the two previous emperors) had a hand in making sure the emancipation of the serfs actually happened and that it happened in as pro-peasant a form as it did. Historians know her for devising in 1856, with Nikolai Miliutin, a plan to liberate her own 15,000 serfs on terms similar to those of 1861, also designed chiefly by Miliutin (585, 594). But they don’t give her enough credit for what she did after the new tsar didn’t immediately embrace her plan. She arranged for her allies on the Editing Commission to meet Alexander at her salon, which both gave them a chance to subtly convince him of their views and showed her other guests that they were in the tsar’s good graces (600-03). To bind the members of the commission together (into a “sacred battalion”), she invited some of them to live in her palace on Elaginskii Island (598-99). She had been close to Nicholas I, who had told her late in his life that he regretted not freeing the serfs and hoped his son would manage to, which she told Alexander (593-95). (It emerges that Nicholas I not only wanted, on some level, to emancipate slaves, but also appreciated music and culture more than his son, in whom he inspired an intense respect.)

Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna by Karl Briullov, 1829

The Grand Duchess’s role has been underestimated, according to O’Rourke, on the one hand because her sort of political machinations leave little written record except in the memoirs and letters of the handful who knew of them, and on the other hand because of the biases of various historians. Soviet historiography not only privileged vast impersonal historical forces over the actions of individuals, but was especially willing to ignore female individuals (585). It’s impressive that O’Rourke managed to stitch together such a coherent and persuasive story about Elena Pavlovna, but if personal relationships are as important to imperial politics as he says, it makes me despair of ever understanding anything: imagine how many conversations were not recorded in anyone’s memoirs, or were shown in a false light.

Besides memoirs and quite a few prerevolutionary Russian historians, O’Rourke cites several more recent books I’d like to read: Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (2009); Richard Stites, Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia (2008, 2005); David Moon, The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1762–1907 (2006, 2001); L. G. Zakharova, Самодержавие и отмена крепостного права в России 1856–1861 (1984); and Daniel Field, The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 1855–1861 (1976).

See Shane O’Rourke, “The Mother Benefactress and the Sacred Battalion: Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the Editing Commission, and the Emancipation of the Serfs,” The Russian Review 70.4 (2011): 584-607 (gated).

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