Conversion movement and the final agrarian reform

After their emancipation from serfdom, however, the continuing deterioration in the peasants’ living conditions found an explosive outlet in the conversion movement. Spontaneous upheavals of disappointed peasants, at times taking quite a violent turn, had already been seen in reaction to previous agrarian laws. On this occasion, mass conversions of the Estonian and Latvian peasantry to Russian Orthodoxy threatened the ruling position of the Lutheran church and hence the foundations of the Baltic Landesstaat.

Frequent crop failures in the early 1840s had created a fertile soil for all sorts of rumours amongst the peasants, who even naively hoped that the Orthodox church would free them from the corvée and the Tsar would give them land. A large role in all that was undoubtedly played by the Orthodox clergy who was busy propagating their faith in Livonia. In other Baltic provinces where the Orthodox church was not similarly active, no conversion occurred. In an extremely fervent atmosphere of the mid-1840s, no less than 64 000 Estonian peasants were converted into Orthodox faith. The conversion movement had both regional and social variations. The average conversion rate among Estonian peasants was 17%, in Pärnumaa 27.7% and in Saaremaa 29.8%. The movement also involved Latvian peasants in North Latvia. The ratio of Estonian to Latvian peasant converts was 3:2. The movement primarily attracted the poorer grades of the peasantry, farmhands and cottagers; the conversion was weakest in parishes where the Moravian congregation held a strong position.

Mass conversion itself constituted a purely social protest movement: by that time, Estonian peasants had actually accepted the Lutheran church. This was confirmed by the fact that in the 1850s and 1860s, about 35 000 Estonian peasants presented an application to the Livonian consistory asking to be accepted back into the Lutheran church. This clashed, however, with Russian laws and caused a conflict between the Baltic Germans and the tsarist state.

The conversion movement, coinciding with the first signs of Russification during the reign of Nicholas I — who always displayed an extremely friendly attitude towards the upper ranks of the Baltic nobility — was a tremendous shock to Baltic German society as a whole and directly influenced the realisation of agrarian reforms. After fierce debates in the Diets between the conservatives and the advocates of reform — the latter led by the Livonian nobleman Hamilkar von Fölkersahm — a new agrarian law was passed in 1849 in Estonia and in 1856 in Livonia. The law separated the core lands of each manor, once and for all, from the peasants’ lands, which the landlord could only rent to peasants or sell. This laid the foundations for the purchase of farms in perpetuity, and the emergence of peasant landowners.

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