Confrontation between the Government, Manor, and Village after the Abolition of Serfdom: Events of 1861–1862 in the Governorates of Vilnius, Kaunas, and Hrodna

  • Tamara Bairašauskaitė
Keywords: abolition of serfdom, inventories, rural community, rural district (volost), conflict


The abolition of serfdom was one of the most important of the great reforms of the Russian Empire carried out in the second half of the nineteenth century that sought to modernise its social and economic system. Its implementation was complicated due to social, cultural, and mental differences in different parts of the empire, although the reformers tried to take those differences into account by issuing local regulations.

The proclamation of the Manifesto of 19 February 1861 provoked a strong reaction of the liberated serfs, but the government was expecting that and preparing for the unrest. The military, police, and bureaucratic cross-communication was strengthened in all the governorates where landlords had serfs (in 43 governorates out of 51), and institutions for administering the peasants were established. After the proclamation of the Manifesto and other acts regulating the reform, issues related to the linguistic variety of the peasantry were urgently addressed (at the Governorates of Vilnius, Kaunas, and Hrodna, the legislative acts were translated into Lithuanian and Polish). Serfs of the private manors took the reform as a deceit because it went against their own vision of freedom. Transferring them to the status of temporary tenants was the main reason that provoked the unrest almost throughout the entire empire. Peasants of larger manors resisted the corvée and other labour duties inherited from the old order. The next wave of rebellion, which was weaker, came during the establishment of self-government institutions: the peasants feared the ‘new order’, which meant that their taxes increased and they were forced to submit to the village and rural district (volost) authorities that they themselves maintained.

Flashpoints of peasantry mutinies occurred in large manors and spread to the neighbouring ones. The protests spread most widely in the manors of the Kaunas Governorate, especially in the ones located near the Prussian border (Raseiniai County) and Courland; as for the Hrodna Governorate, the same happened along the border with the Kingdom of Poland. The longest munity took place at the Biržai Manor. The peasantry carried out collective actions mostly within their manors; the only exception was the town of Iwye (Ashmyany County, Vilnius Governorate) where a thousand-strong crowd gathered from several manors. When protesting against the provisions of the reform, peasants pursued the imperative of moral justice. Leaders – the authorities called them instigators – emerged, but the reasoning behind their rise often remains ambiguous. A noticeable part was played by literate peasants, and the role of former sergeants and soldiers from that stratum can also be clearly seen.

The actions of the government during the first years of the abolition of serfdom were characterised by a moderate use of force. The governorate authorities were instructed to avoid confrontation and restrict their actions to the use of explanatory measures. Government officials employed the army when words failed to work, but these military interferences were non-violent: so far, no information on the cases of using arms in the process of supressing mutinies of the former serfs in the governorates of Vilnius, Kaunas and Hrodna has been discovered. The peasants were supposed to be scared by the so-called military execution meaning that the household was to be subjected to the obligation of providing material provision to the army. The government believed that isolation (arrest, detention and sometimes temporary deportation) of the most active mutineers or application of disciplinary measures (public whipping) were sufficient to restore order in the countryside.

The position of the landowners during the first years after the abolition of serfdom remained ambiguous until the uprising of 1863–1864. They could not force the peasants to work for their manors without the help of the authorities. Leaders of the nobility and peace mediators elected from among the landowners participated in the events as officials responsible for the implementation of the reforms, and manor owners relied on the government.