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E is for Emancipation

On to letter E of the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge!

E is for Emancipation

To many Westerners, particularly Americans, “Emancipation” means the freeing of slaves from slavery, more specifically black slaves in the American South, during the Civil War. But this is not the Emancipation we are discussing today, though this Emancipation takes place around the same time. Our discussion is on the Emancipation of serfs in the Russian Empire in the 19th century. This took place in several steps, depending on the place or the type of serf, starting in 1816 and ending in 1866.

First, a definition of serfdom. Serfdom is essentially a form of slavery, with a few extra rights. With the manorial estate system, serfs were bound to the piece of land that they farmed and the lord or baron who owned the land. Some of the land could be farmed for their own subsistence, while the rest of it was for the lord or baron. The serfs would also be required to undertake other work for the lord/baron as required – forestry, building roads, etc. They also paid taxes (usually in goods rather than money). The lords and barons dictated whether serfs were allowed to move or get married. Serfs could not be sold like slaves were, but if the land that they farmed was sold, they were transferred to the new owner along with the land.

The are three guberniyas to discuss when it comes to modern-day Latvian territory – almost the entirety of Kurland guberniya (bar a few small parcels of land), the southern part of Livland guberniya, and the western part of Vitebsk guberniya make up modern-day Latvia. These three guberniyas had different experiences of emancipation.

Some experiences were the same – this is when peasants gained surnames, for example. Instead of performing work for the lords and barons (though these corvees persisted in some places as well), the peasants now had to pay rents. Peasants were also allowed to buy their land from the lords/barons, though in practical terms, this was often difficult due to the high price of the land and the low income of the peasants (though this did get better over time). These high rents and high prices to buy land were the prime motivators for Latvians to set up colonies in Inner Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but that I will get to another day.

In Kurland, emancipation from serfdom started in 1817, one year later than the guberniya of Estonia (modern-day northern Estonia, southern Estonia was the northern part of the Livland guberniya). Despite this earlier emancipation, surnames did not appear to penetrate as quickly as they did in Livland. Often, the first sources for surname research on Kurland estates is the 1834 revision list.

Livland guberniya emancipated its serfs in 1819. Surnames were adopted quickly, and already made their appearance in most 1826 revision lists. Along with having the earlier collection of surnames, there is also a better survival rate of revision lists from Livland than from Kurland, though it is possible that this is due to the First World War and the widespread devastation that it caused in Kurland.

The Vitebsk guberniya was the last Latvian guberniya to gain emancipation from serfdom, at the time of the general Russian Empire decree in 1861 by Czar Alexander II. Surnames were still only beginning to make inroads in 1874 when my great-grandmother was born – I’m not even certain that I have her birth record, only a speculation based on the first names of her parents, her date of birth and her father’s occupation (which eventually became his surname). A rough estimation of the 1874 births would be that only 15% have surnames listed. By 1885, however, virtually all births have surnames listed.

Land ownership among the peasants began to grow as the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth century. Then upon independence, the new Latvian government expropriated the majority of the remaining estates, and made the land available for purchase to those who were willing to farm and didn’t already have land. Some documents that I’ve seen make mention of preference or first dibs given to soldiers who fought for Latvian independence during the War of Independence from 1918 to 1920.

Do you know when your ancestors bought out their farms? Where? Share your stories!

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