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American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination$

Amanda Brickell Bellows

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781469655543

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469655543.001.0001

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(p.215) Epilogue
American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination

Amanda Brickell Bellows

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

The conclusion compares the fiftieth anniversaries of the abolition of Russian serfdom and American slavery in the early twentieth century. Russians and Americans celebrated these occasions through public ceremonies, the construction of monuments, the production of commemorative objects, and the publication of books and articles. In both countries, people expressed different opinions about the causes and consequences of emancipation, revealing that abolition’s meaning remained contested.

Keywords:   Abolition, Emancipation, American slavery, Russian serfdom, Monuments, Ceremonies, Commemorative objects, Anniversaries

The fiftieth anniversaries of the abolition of Russian serfdom and American slavery provided two disparate nations with opportunities to reflect on their twin legacies of bonded labor. In 1911, Russia celebrated Tsar Alexander II’s issuance of the Emancipation Manifesto with ceremonies, the construction of monuments, the production of commemorative objects, and the publication of books and articles about serfdom. Just two years later, Americans similarly observed President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation through public celebrations, exhibitions, and special publications.

Russia’s rural and urban subjects alike observed the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in 1911. Manufacturers produced colorful candy wrappers depicting a benevolent Tsar Alexander II surrounded by his grateful peasant subjects and collectible mugs featuring quotations from the Emancipation Manifesto.1 On February 20, Moskovskii listok (Moscow Sheet) published a special issue commemorating emancipation in which journalists reported that crowds of city dwellers had gathered around the Kremlin’s cathedrals. There, banner-bearers laid wreaths at the foot of a monument to the “Tsar-Liberator,” Alexander II.2 Nearby, the merchants of Okhotnyi Riad, a central street in Moscow, dedicated a statue to Alexander II. Adorned with the images of Orthodox saints, the monument displayed an inscription that clearly marked the occasion, which read, “This holy icon is built by the traders of Okhotnyi Riad in memory of the realization of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the peasants from serfdom by the Emperor Alexander II on February 19, 1861–1911.”3 Moskovskii listok also featured striking images of statues honoring Alexander II that were erected by peasants from the Lublin Province, which is situated in present-day Poland.4 The body of Christ hung from one of the three crosses that ornamented the bases of the monuments, a symbol that connected Alexander II’s bodily sacrifice to that of Jesus in the way sympathetic Americans similarly linked President Lincoln’s death to that of Christ.

Commentators and scholars also publicly engaged in historical reflection about the abolition of serfdom in books and articles. During the Revolution of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II issued a document known as the October Manifesto (p.216) that promised, among other concessions to a discontented populace, “to grant to the people the inviolable framework of civil liberty on the basis of the integrity of the individual, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, and association.”5 In the years that followed, intellectuals and journalists enjoyed the increased ability to freely express themselves in the public sphere about controversial topics including the consequences of the abolition of serfdom. While some spoke positively of emancipation, others focused on its shortcomings. Illustrated magazines like Novoe vremia (New Time) and Golos Moskvy (Voice of Moscow) approached the occasion from a historical perspective by featuring photographs of former serfs, or “living witnesses of the era of serfdom,” that were accompanied by text describing their prior positions or current occupations.6 Additional publications crafted a narrative of national advancement that touted Russia’s progress. For example, the popular St. Petersburg daily newspaper Gazeta-kopeika (Kopek Gazette) argued that emancipation helped enserfed individuals and strengthened the country.7 It was necessary to free the serfs “from the darkness of ignorance,” the publication contended, so the peasantry could “find themselves” and bring about Russia’s subsequent development as a modern nation.8 Furthermore, the newspaper characterized the liberation of the serfs as “an important turning point” in the fields of “industry, commerce, law, science, and art, all areas that could only develop on the basis of free labor and humanity.” Ultimately, Gazeta-kopeika concluded, the emancipation of the serfs led to the creation of a “new Russia,” a country that could follow the path of modernization “traversed by the other civilized peoples of the world.”

The elaborately illustrated jubilee album Krepostnichestvo i volia (Serfdom and Freedom), produced by the A. A. Levenson publishing house in 1911, similarly promoted a narrative of national advancement.9 In the album’s introduction, the anonymous author praised Tsar Alexander II for his beneficence in liberating the serfs.10 He declared that the nineteenth of February “has been and will always remain in the eyes of the Russian people a day of the manifestation of the greatest care and love of the Russian monarch for his people, a day of mercy, of humaneness, the dawn of happiness, when a ray of progress and culture penetrated through the fog and darkness of the prereform era.”11 Here, the author characterized the abolition of serfdom as an act of generosity that not only brought joy to the peasantry but also ushered in a new age of modernity that benefited the entire nation. Reflecting on the peasantry’s condition in 1911, the author saw the present moment as one of opportunity. He encouraged Russia’s rural residents to adopt new habits by investing their labor in their land and exercising their newfound political (p.217) freedoms in Russia’s “highest state legislative institutions” in order to successfully “embark on the broad path of free labor in union with knowledge and culture!”

By contrast, other educated Russians plainly refuted the optimistic, teleological narrative that portrayed Russia as steadily advancing toward a brighter future. For instance, Muscovite Ivan Sytin, a publishing entrepreneur who heralded from the peasant estate, released a six-volume history of serfdom and its abolition in 1911 to mark the fiftieth anniversary.12 Titled Velikaia reforma: Russkoe obshchestvo i krestʹianskii vopros v proshlom i nastoiashchem (The Great Reforms: Russian Society and the Peasant Question in the Past and Present), the illustrated work described the conditions peasants endured during serfdom and the post-emancipation era. Its editors, however, commissioned essays by liberal scholars who presented a critical view of serfdom and argued that the tsar’s post-emancipation reforms failed to secure for the peasantry a good quality of life.13 In the introduction to the first volume, editors A. Dzhivelegov, S. Melʹgunov, and V. Picheta explicitly condemned the peasantry’s condition in 1910, arguing that the abolition of serfdom led to “an increase in the shortage of arable land … [and] the acceleration of starvation, which became constant companions of village life.” Furthermore, they lamented the fact that these events had not been historically connected to the “foundations of the reforms, with their vagueness and cowardice, with their stingy philanthropies and their thoughtful attention to landowners.”14 By directly criticizing the government’s inability to uplift the peasantry after emancipation and by linking the abolition of serfdom to the more recent problems that still plagued Russian society, particularly evident in the Revolution of 1905, they offered an alternative historical narrative to that which idealized the emancipation of the serfs.15 Velikaia reforma was ultimately a financial success for Sytin, who considered the project to be one of his most significant and personally meaningful endeavors.16

A final way in which Russians interpreted the abolition of serfdom in 1911 was by politicizing the occasion to advocate radical change. Revolutionary activist Vladimir Lenin, writing from abroad, addressed readers in the Rabochaia gazeta (Workers’ Gazette) in an article titled “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Fall of Serfdom.” He criticized the tsarist government for promoting only “the most reactionary views regarding the so-called ‘emancipation’ of the peasants” in schools and churches out of fear that “the mere mention of the fact that fifty years ago the abolition of serfdom was proclaimed” might provoke the “people repressed by the Duma of the landlords, of the nobility, people who are suffering more than ever before from the petty tyrannies, (p.218) violence and oppression of the feudal-minded landowners and of their police and bureaucrats.” By contrast, Lenin presented a more radical interpretation of the events of 1861, arguing that they served as a kind of failed revolution. He contended that the peasantry, “who had for centuries been kept in slavery by the landowners, were unable to launch a widespread, open and conscious struggle for freedom” and the government manumitted them from one form of slavery to another in which their subjugation by landlords persisted. Fortunately, Lenin believed, the peasantry’s migration to urban centers provided them with a new self-consciousness and enabled them to “straighten their backs and cast off serf habits.” Led by “the Russian working class,” he continued, the peasantry participated in 1905 in an unfinished revolution. Lenin presciently predicted that the “Revolution of 1905 would be followed by a new, a second, revolution” and concluded that “the anniversary of the fall of serfdom serve[d] as a reminder of, and a call for, this second revolution.”17

The diversity of opinions that Russian intellectuals expressed about the causes and consequences of emancipation suggests that the meaning of abolition remained contested in 1911. Despite their differing perspectives, Lenin, Sytin, and others similarly recognized that the fiftieth anniversary provided an essential opportunity for the promotion of revisionist historical narratives, the critiquing of contemporary governmental policies, and the encouragement of reform or revolution in Russia. Tsar Alexander II’s liberation of the enserfed population ultimately generated significant problems that remained unsolved five decades later and contributed to the government’s downfall during the Revolution of 1917.

Shortly after Russians engaged in their retrospective exercise, Americans similarly cast a critical eye toward the events of the past half century. Although African Americans had historically celebrated “Juneteenth” or “Freedom Day” during the years following their emancipation, the fiftieth anniversary of the issuance of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and its enactment prompted celebrations on an even larger scale.18 The New York Times reported that African Americans gathered at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., where they participated in a choral jubilee on September 22, 1912.19 In New York City, the Philharmonic Society commemorated the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation with a special concert on New Year’s Day during which it played pieces by Antonín Dvořák and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, works that the Times argued “incorporate[d] into artistic music the spirit of the negro folk-song.”20

(p.219) Elaborate celebrations were also held between 1913 and 1916 in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, Richmond, and Louisville.21 In New York City, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and a group of New York State commissioners staged the Emancipation Proclamation Exposition to celebrate black progress in innovative ways.22 Held October 22–31, 1913, the exposition featured exhibits that explored African history as well as the lives of African Americans.23 A rare archival photograph from the exhibition reveals the construction of a massive Egyptian temple surrounded by palm trees and covered in hieroglyphs, a display that likely connected the history of black Africans to that of ancient Egypt.24 The highlight of the exposition was Du Bois’s pageant, “The Star of Ethiopia,” an artistic depiction of transnational black history that incorporated African American spirituals and honored prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.25 Approximately 350 actors performed the pageant for 14,000 audience members over the course of three days. Although critics produced mixed reviews of Du Bois’s pageant, “The Star of Ethiopia” traveled to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia for additional performances in subsequent years. New York City’s Emancipation Proclamation Exposition and other pageants across the country primarily attracted African American visitors, many of whom used the occasion to reflect on the gains and losses in the struggle for liberty during the preceding half century. The lack of white participation, by contrast, signaled whites’ unwillingness to publicly remember the abolition of slavery and the pervasiveness of racist attitudes during the Jim Crow era.26

Whites’ focus on national reconciliation at the expense of black civil rights also resulted in a dearth of statues dedicated to the abolition of slavery, particularly when compared to the proliferation of monuments depicting Confederate generals and soldiers during the early twentieth century.27 Monuments to President Lincoln, however, were more common. Proposed in 1909, one hundred years after his birth, Nebraska’s Lincoln Monument was unveiled in September 1912 on the grounds of the state capitol in Omaha, where a crowd of people gathered.28 The sculpture depicts the figure of Lincoln standing alone, with head bowed; no figures of African Americans were included in the design. Like the Russian monuments commemorating serfdom’s abolition through representations of the Tsar-Liberator rather than through depictions of the peasantry, most American sculptures of Lincoln similarly depict him as a redemptive figure. Consider, for instance, Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial (1876), which depicts a partially dressed enslaved man stooping beneath Lincoln’s outstretched hand.29 Although (p.220) African Americans raised the funds for its construction, white Americans chose its paternalistic, subordinating design, one that Kirk Savage aptly describes as an “unfortunate juxtaposition” that is “not really about emancipation but its opposite—[white] domination.”30 Indeed, whites’ efforts to resecure their control over the black population through political legislation, intimidation, and outright violence at the turn of the twentieth century help explain the absence of monuments commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of slavery’s abolition. The construction of statues praising black advancement would have been at odds with whites’ goal of retaining power over African Americans in a changing nation.

Americans also saw the fiftieth anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation as a chance to promote dueling narratives about the meaning of emancipation, Reconstruction, the social absorption of African Americans, and black achievements. Newspapers and journals like the New York Times and the Outlook printed special articles that touted black advancement, citing an abundance of data relating to property ownership rates, aggregate wealth, and literacy.31 Writing for the nation’s first illustrated black periodical, the Indianapolis Freeman, journalist Dr. M. A. Majors lauded the progress African Americans made during the half century that followed the abolition of slavery. He praised black advancement in the fields of education, business, and politics, declaring, “As we gaze through the dark gloom into the past … and offer comparisons with other races condemned as [the African American] has been to a life of serfdom, all history suffers for a single sentence to prove that any other race so enchained … to all the graces … in fifty years challenge[d] … the makers of civilization themselves.”32

Educator Booker T. Washington, president of the National Negro Business League in 1912, similarly commended black progress by promoting “Fiftieth Anniversary Week,” a time when states could host expositions revealing what the league called “the progress in commercial, professional, moral, intellectual, and religious directions made by the race.”33 Acutely sensitive to the racial tensions of the era, however, Washington sought to balance his twin goals of highlighting African American achievements and achieving interracial harmony. He described the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation as an occasion for “the kind of celebration that will [not] exasperate the white people of the South or remind them in an offensive way about slavery … [but] a celebration so conducted that both races will feel interest in it.”34 Washington’s words indicated his fear that whites might perceive the idea of black progress as threatening; therefore, he urged readers not to disrupt the unequal racial status quo that defined Jim Crow America.

(p.221) But the more optimistic narratives offered by men like Majors and Washington did not go unchallenged. Indeed, other commentators reflecting on the occasion emphasized the ways in which African Americans living in the United States remained oppressed. For example, author James Weldon Johnson lamented the injustices of Jim Crow America and referenced the sacrifices African Americans had made since slavery’s abolition in his poem “Fifty Years: Written on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.”35 Published in the New York Times on January 1, 1913, the popular composition was reprinted in the New York Age one month later. In it, Weldon urged African Americans to claim the rights of citizenship that were not only delineated in the Fourteenth Amendment but also earned through centuries of toil, arguing, “This land is ours by right of birth,/This land is ours by right of toil;/We helped to turn its virgin soil,/Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.”36 Johnson concluded his poem by adopting a hopeful tone; he encouraged readers to strive for freedom and equality in an era of segregation, disfranchisement, and violence: “Full well I know the hour when hope/Sinks dead, and round us everywhere/Hangs stifling darkness, and we grope/With hands uplifted in despair./Courage! Look out, beyond, and see/The far horizon’s beckoning span!/Faith in your God-known destiny!/We are a part of some great plan.”37

Other writers similarly acknowledged the social injustices African Americans still faced in the early twentieth century. The anonymous author of an editorial in New York’s Independent, a progressive magazine that supported the abolition of slavery during the mid-nineteenth century, argued that while the Emancipation Proclamation “opened an era of national history,” the document “did not immediately give to the freedmen an equality of privilege, and it has not yet wholly done so.”38 William H. Lewis, the first black assistant attorney general and the son of a freedman, argued that it was imperative for early twentieth-century Americans to continue fighting to secure civil rights for African Americans. In a speech to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1913, Lewis contended that African Americans’ transition from slavery to freedom was incomplete. He asserted that Americans still viewed one another through the lens of race, a category enshrined in law that produced for African Americans what Lewis understatedly called “vexatious annoyances of color” that contributed to their “present disadvantages and inequalities.”39 As a result, he boldly proclaimed, “The duty of the hour is to unshackle [the Negro] and make him wholly free.”40 For Lewis, Johnson, and others, the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation served as a moment to call for action.

(p.222) Americans viewed the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation as an occasion during which they could connect the past to the present. While some emphasized a narrative of progress and achievement, others identified the problems that still plagued the nation. As in Russia, different groups of people disputed the meaning of emancipation and advanced particular visions of abolition in writing and art that alternately ignored, celebrated, or critiqued the reforms of the Civil War and postbellum era. Their viewpoints subtly lent support to or undercut the political policies of the era that helped or hindered black advancement and effective social absorption.

The sudden advent of World War I (1914–1917) forced Russia and the United States to quickly turn their attention from history and their present domestic affairs to the conflict that engulfed Europe. With great effort, both nations mobilized their subjects and citizens in the fight to defeat the Central Powers, although the fall of the tsarist government during the October Revolution of 1917 resulted in Russia’s exit from the global fight and descent into bitter civil war. After Russian and American troops returned home from abroad, they entered societies that had changed in their absence. The Bolshevik Party consolidated its power in 1922 and established the Soviet Union, a socialist country founded on a new class system based on Marxist principles that replaced the estate system of the previous centuries. Traditional divisions between peasants, clergy, and the nobility were exchanged for new hostilities between impoverished peasants and wealthy peasants, Communist Party members, workers, and police.41 By contrast, social divisions in the United States continued to fall in part along racial lines, but African Americans’ experiences serving their country abroad produced in many renewed passion in the fight to exercise their civil rights at home.42 White Americans responded to challenges to their political, economic, and social control with violence during the “Red Summer” of 1919, when race riots and other forms of brutality engulfed cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C. Thus, racial prejudice continued to impede the processes of social absorption and the attainment of rights for African Americans in the United States, whereas the Soviets’ new focus on Marxist class categories tore down old estate barriers but created new allies and enemies out of different social groups.

After World War I, cultural production played as much of a role in the reconstruction of two disparate countries as it did during the years following the abolition of serfdom and slavery. But the modes of representation differed significantly from those previously employed by Russians and Americans. During the late 1850s and early 1860s, Russian and American poets, authors, and playwrights incorporated sentimental themes into their respective genres of (p.223) literature to rouse ambivalent populations to action in the fight to abolish serfdom and slavery. Two decades later, when the descendants of landowners and slaveholders came of age, these writers produced an abundance of historical fiction that idealized relations between serfs, enslaved African Americans, and owners and defended the prior generation’s enserfment or enslavement of large segments of the population. Artists visually represented peasants and freedpeople in periodicals and oil paintings to deliver messages to audiences about national identity and notions of citizenship, while businesses incorporated images in advertisements to convince particular consumer groups to buy their products. By the turn of the twentieth century, peasants and African Americans took on a growing role in crafting and disseminating self-representations in literature and visual culture that drew from firsthand experience.

During World War I, however, the U.S. and Russian governments recognized the power of cultural representations and strove to generate support for civic causes through wartime propaganda. In the postwar era, the state-controlled Soviet government sought to achieve its goal of creating new identities for its citizens by deploying idealized representations of peasants and workers in visual culture.43 At the same time, Americans and Russians of all backgrounds increasingly represented themselves and others in new forms of technology such as radio, television, and film that offered exciting audio-visual possibilities. While shows and movies featured new portrayals of peasants and African Americans, many nineteenth-century archetypes reemerged as well, a phenomenon that attests to the durability of earlier cultural representations. The abolition of serfdom and slavery may have seemed increasingly distant after World War I, but Russians and Americans continued to grapple with questions of race, class, and national identity through cultural production. (p.224)


(1.) S. Siu i Ko., “Shokolad iubileinyi v pamiatʹ osvobozhdeniia krestʹian, 1861–1911,” Moscow, Russian National Library Ephemera Collection; Inna Kerasi, “Hermitage Volunteers and the Abolition of Serfdom,” State Hermitage Volunteer Service, http://benevole.ru/en/2016/03/03/hermitage-volunteers-and-the-abolition-of-serfdom/, accessed May 9, 2017.

(5.) “17 oktiabria posledoval manifest,” Runivers, https://www.runivers.ru/Runivers/calendar2.php?ID=61707&month=&year=, accessed September 8, 2018.

(6.) Novoe vremia 40 (February 19, 1911): 18; supplement to Golos Moskvy, February 19, 1911, 8.

(7.) “19 fevralia 1861 g.–19 fevralia 1911 g.,” Gazeta-kopeika (St. Petersburg), no. 929 (February 19, 1911): 1.

(10.) The unsigned introduction may have been published by the editor, V. V. Funke.

(12.) Carla Cordin, “1861 as a Russian and Soviet ‘Lieu de mémoire,’ Narrating and Commemorating the Abolition of Serfdom” (talk delivered at a conference at the University of Basel, October 28–30, 2011).

(p.266) (16.) Cordin.

(17.) V. I. Lenin, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Fall of Serfdom,” Rabochaia gazeta, no. 3, (February 8 [21], 1911), trans. R. Cymbala, Lenin Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1911/feb/08.htm, accessed May 3, 2019.

(18.) “Juneteenth” celebrations originated in Galveston, Texas, in 1866, when formerly enslaved African Americans celebrated Union major general Gordon Granger’s announcement of their liberation on June 19, 1865.

(19.) “Negroes Celebrate: Attend Services throughout the Country on Emancipation Anniversary,” New York Times, September 23, 1912, 3.

(20.) “The Philharmonic Concert: Commemoration of Emancipation—Brahms’s Double Concerto Played,” New York Times, January 3, 1913, 9.

(24.) “New York Exposition 1913,” box 14, folder 152, Photographs of Prominent African Americans Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

(25.) W. E. B. Du Bois, “The National Emancipation Exposition,” Crisis, November 1913, 339–341.

(27.) For a comprehensive analysis of the number and type of Confederate monuments erected in North Carolina between 1890 and 1930, see Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/, accessed May 2, 2019.

(28.) “Standing Abraham Lincoln Sculpture,” Nebraska State Capitol, https://capitol.nebraska.gov/standing-abraham-lincoln-sculpture, accessed May 3, 2019.

(29.) For further analysis of this sculpture and others, see Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves.

(31.) “Half a Century of Freedom,” Outlook 101, no. 7 ( June 15, 1912): 321, American Periodicals, ProQuest; “Some Facts as to the Progress of the Race,” Outlook, November 8, 1913, 534; J. C. H., “The Negro Has Accomplished Much since Emancipation,” New York Times, September 22, 1912.

(32.) Dr. M. A. Majors, “Illinois National Half-Century Anniversary of Negro Freedom, 1865–1915,” Indianapolis Freeman, December 20, 1913, 8.

(35.) James Weldon Johnson, “Fifty Years: Written on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation,” New York Age, February 11, 1915, box 68, folder 343, James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University.

(38.) “Fifty Years of Emancipation,” Independent, September 19, 1912, 682.

(p.267) (39.) “William H. Lewis Delivers a Masterly Address before the Massachusetts General Assembly,” Washington Bee, February 15, 1913, 4.

(42.) For a comprehensive analysis of African American military service during World War I, see Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles.