Konstantin Kavelin and the Struggle for Emancipation: A Case Study of the Westerners’ Role in the Foundation of Civil Society in Imperial Russia

Curtis Richardson


This essay explores the emergence of civil society in Imperial Russia in the 1840s and 1850s through an analysis of the role of the public in the preparation for the emancipation of the serfs before the government made the commitment to manumit the serfs. To do so, the essay considers the role of the Westerners, specifically one of the leading Westerners, the legal historian Konstantin Kavelin, from archetypical abstract thinker into political activist within the circumscribed parameters of autocracy in Imperial Russia. Kavelin and his allies, both within and without the bureaucracy, developed reform programs in the harsh years in Russia from 1848 until 1855 in the hope that a time more propitious for reform would come thereby enabling them to act in concert with the government. The Westerners played a vital role in providing the necessary intellectual underpinnings for the Great Reforms, in disseminating these ideas to the public, and in working closely with reformist bureaucrats in their specific preparations. Kavelin‘s efforts, primarily his proposed drafts and contacts, proved pivotal in facilitating the emancipation preparations that led to the legislation and implementation of the reform. This preparatory work of the late 1840s and 1850s bore fruit when the Russian state emancipated the serfs in 1861. The aspirations for a partnership with the government however failed to materialize.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/cbp.2010.151


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