On the Path to Reform: The State Peasant Question in the Secret Committees of Nicholas I
This article considers the background of state peasant reform, its ideological sources, and practical outcome. The Great Reforms are not described as a single act but as a long process reflecting the complex character of Russian modernisation. With reference to previously unstudied documents, both official and private, the author analyses Nicholas I’s policy regarding the peasant question. It was based on the principle of gradual social change and the rejection of a single abrupt abolition of serfdom. It also focused on laying the foundations for future emancipation. The committees of 6 December 1826 and 1828 maintained the idea of a complex reform based on transforming the management of state peasants through a gradual and controlled change of their status. The committee of 1835 also drafted a programme of changes in state-owned villages. The author regards the reform of state peasants as a comprehensive process reflecting the progressive character of the social and economic development of Russia: it was aimed at rationalising income-generating systems of land management and use, taxation, and the administration of state-owned villages. Despite the differences between the drafts worked out by the secret committees of 1826, 1828, and 1835, they can be characterised by certain similarities, i. e. their strategic aims (the strengthening of the Russian state). Thus, they included the development of the legal status of state peasants and state control of all the spheres of their lives. The article pays close attention to the model of the two-pronged reform formulated by M. M. Speransky and perfected by P. D. Kiselev. Although the methods proposed to solve the peasant question did not rely on the peasant population, they were aimed at eliminating the extreme features of serfdom, thus illustrating the desire of the autocratic government to nurture bourgeois social relations. The official reform of the agrarian sphere of the second half of the 1820s and the early 1830s was characterised by its consecutive incremental nature and the modernisation of the social structure and state management at the central and local levels.
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