Born in the Austrian Empire, in present day Czech Republic, Alfons Mucha (1860 – 1939) was primarily known for his Art Nouveau posters and illustrations. Lesser known is his painting series “Slav Epic”, completed after a visit to Russia in 1913.
Among the first paintings of the series was The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia (1914), which depicts the events of 1861 when Russian serfs gained their freedom. At the time, Tsar Alexander II considered that the emancipation of the peasants would prevent any future revolts and satisfy their needs. However, the abolition left the serfs without land, while the nobles kept almost all the forests and meadows. There was great uncertainty and poverty, a situation that lingered for many decades, as was witnessed by Mucha himself in 1913.
The painting shows a crowd of Russian peasants, gathered in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, during a snowy winter, listening to an official representative reading to them the Emancipation Edict, signed by Alexander II in 1861. The peasants, dressed in ragged clothes to face the cold of winter, seem to have traveled a long way to hear the news, bringing with them the little they had. Two men and a woman have knelt in the foreground, thanking God for their regained freedom or even praying for the times ahead. To the left, a woman is holding a small child, looking frightened – her life may not change much, but the little one’s might turn better.
It’s a sad painting for what should have been a celebration. The thick fog covering St. Basil’s Cathedral suggests the uncertainty lying ahead, as well as Russia’s incapacity to help its subjects. They’re all free, but at what cost? They have no land, no means to support themselves. They will continue working for their lords for the next 2 years. The sun’s subtle radiance, beneath the fog, might provide some hope.