Agrarian reforms and economic innovations

The agrarian reforms were facilitated by political and social developments across Europe, primarily the agrarian reforms in Prussia and the liberation of Prussian peasants from serfdom in 1807. The landlords were forced to accept the reforms partly because of the general deterioration of the economy: one stage of agricultural development ended at the turn of the century, and in the 1820s, a pan-European agrarian crisis reached Estonia. The prices of agricultural produce plummeted, which in turn brought about a chronic shortage of money and growing debts for the landlords. The Baltic German landlords were also encouraged to carry out reforms by the Russian central authorities. Since the absolutist central power was primarily interested in the normal functioning of the state as a whole, it was to a certain extent the natural ally of the peasants against social privilege.

Through her governor general George Browne (1698–1792), Catherine II had made the first attempt to regulate the relations between Livonian landlords and peasants, but the impact of the 1765 agrarian laws remained modest. Alexander I, who ascended the throne in 1801, enthusiastically supported the reform-minded wing of the Baltic German nobility. For him, the Baltic provinces constituted an example for reform throughout Russia. The 1802 Estonian and 1804 Livonian agrarian laws in effect replaced serfdom with villeinage. The law fixed the peasants’ taxes, permitted them to possess movable property, prohibited unjustified eviction, and established parish courts to settle matters of dispute between the peasants. All these innovations were intended to diminish arbitrary actions by the landlords. But innovations which required time-consuming and expensive land surveys and setting of rates in fact never materialised.

The next stage of agrarian reform, the liberation of peasants from serfdom (1816 in Estonia and in 1819 in Livonia) took place on the initiative of the upper class and the state. It basically meant compensating the manor owners with land in return for abandoning their right to own the peasants. In the spirit of Adam Smith’s classical economic liberalism, the corporations of knights decided to free the peasants from serfdom and adopt the principles of ‘free’ contracts. These contracts failed to provide peasants with sufficient rights, and in a way even represented a step back from earlier laws on the peasantry. But the positive side to the abolition of serfdom can hardly be underestimated. Amongst other things, peasants finally gained surnames. With gradually increasing freedom of movement, country people’s social mobility and stratification increased as well. The communities created by the reforms remained under the supervision of the landlords, but allowed the peasants partial local government; carefully-devised school regulations founded the system of compulsory primary education.

Although school attendance was irregular and many children were still taught at home, by the mid-19th century the whole school system became far more stable than before (especially in South Estonia and Saaremaa). Writing and arithmetic increasingly found their way even to rural schools.

Estonia remained a predominantly agrarian country until the second half of the 19th century. During the 18th century, the development of local industry reached no further than the pre-industrialist stage, characterised by the establishment of manufactures (Räpina paper mill, glassworks near Põltsamaa, faience manufacture in Tallinn etc.). Over the second quarter of the 19th century, manufacture was being replaced by machine-based factory production. At that time, various notable enterprises were founded in Estonia, among them in 1857 Narva’s Kreenholm Textile Mills, the biggest works in all Russia.

During the decade following the abolition of serfdom, the crisis continued in the manorial economy. A free peasant was still not interested in increasing the productivity of the fields while his rent contract remained short-term. And besides, when a farmstead showed the slightest signs of prosperity, the landlords immediately tried to increase the corvée. Some more progressive landlords attempted to carry out innovations on their lands. The most significant result was the spread of potato, flax and clover cultivation. In local Baltic German society, the mood of crisis was hardly detectable: in these years, so difficult for the peasants, an almost Biedermeieresque ‘Livonian idyll’ prevailed in the Baltic provinces. The ultra-conservative regime of Nicholas I (1825–1855) permitted no critical dispute of any kind.

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