Historical Background

Emancipation of the Serfs

On February 19, 1861, the Emancipation Edict was instated. This was one of Alexander II’s most far-reaching reforms that essentially liberated 22.8 million serfs. These serfs represented nearly forty percent of the European Russian population. Arguably, the desire for economic reform was the primary motivation behind the emancipation. It was determined that hired laborers were more profitable than enslaved laborers. This economic backwardness, which was almost non-existent in Western Europe, was also believed to be a problem that contributed to Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. The suffered defeat underscored Russia’s need for military reform, something that would be difficult to achieve while serfdom existed.

Despite the rationale behind emancipating the serfs, the nobility were still opposed to it. They believed that emancipation would negatively affect their social status and lead them to economic ruin. Alexander II decided to implement the emancipation gradually, through several stages, so as not to incite a revolution through such abrupt changes. The first stage was a two-year waiting period. Estate owners still had judicial control over the peasants, but the peasants were granted personal freedom. During the 2nd stage, which began in 1863, owners lost judicial control over the peasants and were expected to begin the redemption process. Redemption was essentially the act in which an estate owner would allow peasants to purchase the title of their land. Until this right was granted though, peasants were forced to continue to pay feudal dues. Since estate owners did not want to forfeit this form of income, this stage lasted until the government instated obligatory redemption. In 1881, twenty years after the Edict was introduced, only twenty percent of freed serfs had not yet begun the process of redemption.

The Adolescent takes place in the 1870s during the initial stages of the Emancipation of the serfs. Arkady is the illegitimate son of a household serf and master.


Mayer Amschel Rothschild laid the foundation of the family fortune as financial agent for Elector William I of Hessel-Cassel. His five sons, Amschel Mayer, Salomon, Nathan Meyer, Karl, and James were all international investment bankers holding offices in the major European cities of Frankfurt, London, Paris, and Vienna. The family amassed much of their fortune by acting as creditors to major European governments. In 1822, Emperor Francis I of Austria made all five brothers barons because of their position as one of the chief financial powers of the world.

Mayer Amschel was particularly adamant about keeping the fortune within the family. His will explicitly stated that none of his daughters or son-in-laws could play any role in the family business. He also encouraged his sons to marry within the family, so as not to spread out the family’s wealth. James, for example, married the daughter of his brother, Salomon.

One of the most famous legends surrounding the Rothschild family fortune has to do with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. The outcome of this decisive battle would determine the economic fate of the British Empire. If the British won, the British consul’s value would increase dramatically, and if the British lost, its value would plummet to unknown depths. As a result of the many Rothschild agents scattered throughout Europe, Nathan was able to acquire advanced knowledge of Napoleon’s defeat and buy up large amounts of British consuls. When Wellington’s victory was finally announced, the price of consuls skyrocketed and Nathan was able to make a significant contribution to his family’s already enormous wealth.

Arkady desire to become Rothschild refers to James Rothschild, who headed the family’s bank in Paris. James died a few years before Dostoevsky began writing this novel.


Cowles, Virginia. (1973). The Rothschilds, A Family of Fortune. New York: Crawley Features.

Eklof, Ben & Reid Gagle. (1983). “Emancipation of Serfs.” In The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. (Vol. 23). Gulf Breeze Florida: Academic International Press.

Lottman, Herbert R. (1995). The French Rothschilds. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc

“Rothschild.” (2004). Retreived May 3, 2004. http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/r/rothsch.asp