On March 2, 1861, exactly six years after he ascended the throne, Tsar Alexander II signed the Emancipation Reform of 1861, emancipating the serfs of Russia and finally ending a practice that most of the rest of Europe had abandoned centuries ago. This act, one of the first and most liberal of Alexander’s reforms, freed more than 23 million people and allowed them to marry without having to gain consent and own properties and businesses.
Earlier attempts to end serfdom in Russia had been blocked by the nobility, who stood to lose quite a lot by having the serfs freed. But when Russia got its ass pretty well kicked in the Crimean War, people started to realize that maybe the empire was a little backward. In order to develop politically and industrially, they needed to free the serfs so they could buy land and the country could actually start to develop a market economy. Alexander II supported the reforms and forced the nobility to go along with them, using the fact that most of them had mortgaged their estates to state banks as leverage.
Naturally, the serfs weren’t freed overnight. The legislation included a transition period of two years, during which the serfs would work for the landlords as before, and the landlords kept hold of a lot of forests, roads, and rivers and charged fees to access them. Still, it was better than living in perpetual slavery, although the implementation wasn’t as smooth as many hoped (there were some uprisings, the landowners were compensated with government bonds that quickly lost value, and many serfs were given less land than they needed to survive). Sadly, freeing the serfs and implementing other liberal reforms designed to drag Russia into the modern age didn’t save Alexander. He was assassinated on March 13, 1881. At the time of his death, he was drafting plans for an elected parliament, known as a Duma. That would have to wait until the 20th century. His freaked out son, Alexander III, tore up the plans and revoked many of his father’s liberal reforms. The serfs, however, remained free.
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