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“As they said before February 19th…”

April 30, 2012

Petr Gorskii, April 1863:

It’s the expression “as they said before February 19th” that caught my eye. That’s the date of the 1861 manifesto emancipating most privately held slaves in Russia. Obviously that’s a watershed in Russian history, but I hadn’t realized the date had become this kind of phrase, like “4th of July” or “Cinco de Mayo” or “8 марта.”

This graph shows the frequency of various dates in the Google Books Russian collection from 1800 to 2000. The top line is January 1.  The green and red lines near the bottom are December 25 and March 8. October 25, the yellow line, jumps up after 1917. The blue line is February 19, which goes higher than I would have guessed after 1861. It stays above October 25 well into the Soviet period and doesn’t really come back to the pack until the 1960s or 1970s.

Much of what’s going on here, I suspect, is that people said “October” instead of “October 25” when talking about the Bolshevik takeover. Still, it illustrates how big a deal the 1861 emancipation was, and how much it was viewed as a clear before/after moment, rather than part of a long process of change involving several reforms.

Speaking of February 19th, a contributor to the English Wikipedia article about the emancipation writes “household serfs were the worst affected as they gained only their freedom and no land.” This explains why one of Tolstoi’s peasants calls the manifesto “the paper that says house servants get kicked out and sent to live under a bridge for their pains.”

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