Alexander II came to the throne in March 1855 at the age of 36, having been well prepared and trained to take over from his father, Nicholas I. Historian Lionel Kochan described him as "the best prepared heir the Russian throne ever had".
On his deathbed Nicholas famously told Alexander to ‘hold on to everything!’ and Alexander was committed to retaining the autocratic powers of the tsardom.
However, Alexander was less of a disciplinarian than his father and was more open to the arguments of others around him. Deeply influenced by defeat in Crimean war and by liberal ministers, Alexander II undertook extensive reforms of Russian society and government. In particular, he emancipated the serfs, which has been described by Tim Chapman as "the single most important law or decree issued by any tsar in nineteenth-century Russia" and is generally seen as one of the most significant social reforms of the nineteenth century.
Yet, the fundamental inconsistency between Alexander’s commitment to autocracy and his moves towards liberal reform isolated him from both reformers and conservatives alike. The growth of radical political opposition during his reign, partly made possible by his liberal reforms, eventually led to his assassination by terrorists of The People’s Will group in 1881.
Situation when Alexander II came to power: what problems faced the new tsar of the Russian Empire?
Defeat inCrimean war (1854 - 1856, fought on Russian territory against British, French and Turkish troops over territorial control over the Holy Land) exposed how serious Russia’s problems were in terms of communications (only 60,000 of its 1 million soldiers summoned to battle), industry (unable to equip Russian troops with the modern weapons used by British and French soldiers), administration (corrupt and ineffective) and the military (poorly equipped and suffered huge losses due to illness and disease). Such embarrassing proof of Russian backwardness in relation to the Western powers challenged the Slavophiles' argument that Russian greatness was best maintained through autocracy and the status quo. The loss in Crimea showed Alexander the need to modernize in order to strengthen Russia and retain its status as a Great Power.
Increasing criticisms of the institution ofserfdom that constituted the basis of Russian society and the biggest problem facing the government - how to deal with this? Moral objections to serfdom existed (with even Nicholas I having recognized it as “an evil” that needed to be addressed), alongside economic arguments for its reform (with Westernizers seeing it as responsible for Russian backwardness as it acted as a brake on industrial and agricultural development through preventing enterprise and free movement of labour) and crucially military objections (with serfs serving for 25 years making urgently needed army reform an impossibility). Increasingly abolition of serfdom was seen as necessary to allow progress and modernization in Russia, but the question was how was this to be done?
There was significant peasant unrest and social instability, with over 350 peasant revolts between 1844 and 1854. When Nicholas I tried to recruit troops for the Crimean war from the peasantry this peasant unrest increased considerably, and the levels of violence demanded that the army had to be used to restore order.
Defeat in the Crimea and the succession of a new, younger tsar created a political climate more favourable to reform. Many people in Russia, especially intellectuals, nobles and administrators, were convinced that change was necessary and the early months of Alexander's reign saw an unusual consensus in favour of reform. Alexander II encouraged this optimism and hope for reform by relaxing press censorship and allowing free discussion of the serfdom issue. For those wanting change, Alexander's reign started well.
What were Alexander II's aims in embarking upon his social and political reforms?
Historians have been divided over Alexander's motives for emancipating the serfs (see historiography section below for further details), but his general programme of reforms can be understood in relation to his desire to strengthen and consolidate the tsarist autocracy. It should not be forgotten that Alexander's childhood readings in history had firmly embedded his belief in his own autocratic powers as tsar. In support of this view there is Alexander's comment to the nobles in 1856 that it "is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below." Rather than any liberal desire to emancipate the serfs, this suggests a pragmatic concern with maintaining the powers of the tsarist state in a time of complex challenges.
In carrying out his reforms, Alexander hoped to secure Russia's position as a great power following the humiliation in the Crimea, through improving the position of the Russian state both internally and externally. He hoped for a peace and stability in the countryside, with a prosperous and contented peasantry, and for a degree of industrial growth that would strengthen and modernize the army and the economy. In a nutshell, Alexander wished to chart the delicate middle-path of making the changes necessary to modernize Russia without losing the support of the conservative nobles who supported the Romanov autocracy. Given the far-reaching and complex nature of the reforms' effects, it is an open question as to how far Alexander's reforms created more new problems than they solved old ones (see below for further discussion of these effects).
In short, and to summarize, Alexander II wished to modernize Russia as a means of strengthening the autocratic tsarist state. He wanted to achieve the social and economic modernization of Russia, with all the benefits this would bring for the state, without allowing the political modernization of allowing greater power to 'civil society' and the wider population beyond the government (esp. the educated middle class and intelligentsia) as had already occurred in Western Europe. Put simply, he wanted to have his autocratic cake and eat it!
The process of emancipating the serfs: what obstacles did Alexander face, 1855 - 1861?
Though Nicholas I had recognized the 'evil' of serfdom, and the government had been aware of the problem for at least 50 years, little had been done to tackle the issue due to the following reasons:
The hostility of the nobility and the landowners to such a measure prevented reform. As their financial and social status depended on how many serfs they owned, these groups were reluctant to lose status and wealth in favour of the peasants. As the tsar relied upon the nobility to rule the country he could not afford to lose their support by forcing through this reform against their will.
The stability of the Russian social system was deeply dependent on the institution of serfdom, and their were fears from the nobility and Slavophiles that emancipating the serfs would lead to chaos and anarchy if the peasants were to be freed from the control of their serf-owning masters.
Trying to resolve these complex issues and agree on a law to emancipate the serfs involved a long process of reaching compromise with the different powerful interests that feared they would lose out, and it took Alexander five years to complete his Emancipation edict from March 1856 to February 1861. As the above obstacles suggest, the central issues at stake were land and control: should the serfs be freed from their feudal obligations? How was society to be kept under control without these obligations? Should the serfs be given any land? Should the nobles be compensated for the loss of their land? How should this be paid for given the poverty of the country following the Crimean war? When should any such measure take effect?
Ultimately, given the autocratic nature of political power in Russia, Alexander must have exercised a personal commitment to emancipating the serfs (whatever his motives in doing so), as any changes or reforms were obviously dependent upon his approval to be implemented. Without his consent, no reform would have been possible. Facing social and economic problems and the Crimean defeat, Alexander chose to listen to reformers and personally played an important role in bringing about this major reform.
Details of the Emancipation Edict (February 1861)
Serfs granted personal freedom within 2 years, allowing them to own land, marry without interference, use law courts and set up their own businesses.
Freed peasants were granted ownership of their houses and the plot of land they had worked on.
Each serf was guaranteed a minimum size of allotment, but 75% of serfs received allotments 20% smaller than the land they worked before and 80% of the size considered necessary to feed a peasant family.
The government then compensated landlords for land lost to peasants, on a very high valuation of the land. Freed serfs were to repay the state this in the shape of ‘redemption dues’ over 49 years at 6% interest.
The local mir was made responsible for collecting and paying the redemption taxes, and thus exercised considerable control over each peasant.
State serfs were granted the same terms, but the transition period was 5 years not 2 and they generally received larger plots of lands. Household serfs came out worst of all: they received no land, just their freedom.
Responses to emancipation
Emancipation was both criticized and praised at the same time. Prince Kropotkin, a serf-owner and anarchist, said that peasants met the reforms with 'enthusiasm' and celebrated their liberation. However, other radicals hoping for greater change argued that the reforms pleased no-one.
Peasants tended to be dissatisfied with what they saw as the shortcomings of the deal - i.e. they thought the land they worked was theirs by right and did not see that they should have to pay landlords for it. There were in total 647 incidents of peasants rioting following the Edict, with a notable example in Bezdna (where a peasant urged his fellow serfs to seize land for themselves, and was then arrested and executed for his part in the disturbances that followed).
Nobility resented their loss of social importance and felt betrayed that Alexander II had not fully consulted them in the process of drawing up his final draft.
Effectively, then, the nobility were angered by what they saw as a radical document while the peasants were disappointed by what they say as a moderate document. This clearly shows the difficulties Alexander and his ministers faced in trying to emancipate the serfs.
Evaluating the emancipation: what were its successes and failures?
As Terry Morris and Derrick Murphy point out, viewing the emancipation as a 'success' or a 'failure' depends very much on what criteria it is judged against.
+ Viewed in legal terms of rights and liberties, the emancipation was a monumental success: 40 million Russians were liberated overnight, and Russia made a dramatic break with its social and economic past to an extent unparalleled in nineteenth-century Europe.
+ Some historians (Hugh Seton-Watson, David Moon) have compared emancipation favourably with USA’s abolition of black slavery in 1865 as it guaranteed land to the former serfs and did more to guarantee the personal freedom of those liberated than occurred in the States.
- Immediate impact of the emancipation was lessened by practical problems of implementing the reform at local level. As the process was dependent upon the support of the nobility, it was often slow and carried out in a way that favoured the interests of landowners at the expense of the peasants.
- Land settlements were thus unfavourable to the peasants: areas granted to the peasants were too small, and landlords charged inflated prices. This left peasants with less land than before, paying redemption taxes beyond the productive value of the land for land they thought was theirs by right. Furthermore, former domestic serfs who hadn’t previously worked the land didn’t receive any land at all under the terms of the Edict. In the short to medium-term, then, the emancipation probably (and ironically) actually worsened the wealth and living standards of former serfs in many cases.
- Though freed from the landlord, peasants were still under control of the mir (peasant commune), which could restrict travel and freedom of enterprise in the village. The mir tended to be backwards looking in terms of perpetuating traditional farming techniques: by sharing land inefficiently in narrow strips, it helped to prevent the transformation of former serfs into individual peasant land owners.
- Emancipation therefore failed to solve industrial backwardness: lacking land, facing economic difficulties and often prevented by the mir from being able to leave the village for towns, the peasants were not transformed into a new class of prosperous consumers.
+ On balance, even if emancipation did not improve peasants' living standards in the short term it did lead to over 85 % of former serfs becoming landowners in some shape or form within 20 years of the reform. Furthermore, historian David Christian argues that emancipation was a success in achieving its immediate objectives: peasant disturbances were reduced for the next 40 years, and serfdom was abolished without provoking an immediate major rebellion.
Alexander II's further reforms
As serfdom had been central to the functioning of the Russian state before 1861 (in terms of the military, political, administrative and social structure of the country), its repeal demanded a further series of reforms to enable to tsarist system of government to operate effectively.
Previously local legal issues had been handled by the landlord in his position of owner of the serfs, while the formal legal system was characterized by secrecy and corruption. With no lawyers or juries in courts, and presumed guilty until proven innocent, the poor had little chance of securing justice.
In 1864 Alexander introduced a modern Western-style system that aimed to be an independent judiciary that was "equal for all our subjects". This included the introduction of juries, judges to be well-paid to avoid bribery and courts open to the public.
+ Possibly the most liberal and progressive of Alexander's reforms, this new system offered Russians the chance of a fair trial for the first time. The court-rooms offered many from the rising intelligentsia a new and exciting career option, and the court-rooms enjoyed considerable freedom of expression. As Hugh Seton-Watson argues, "the court-room was the one place in Russia where real freedom of speech prevailed"
- However, it should also be noted that political cases were removed from these courts and the Secret Police could still arrest people at will. On balance, though, these were remarkable reforms.
Local Government Reforms
With the abolition of serfdom removing the legal basis of gentry’s control of the peasantry, Alexander saw the need for changes in the governmental system. In 1864 local government assemblies called zemstva were set up, followed by urban assemblies called dumas in 1870.
These zemstva were potentially a radical liberal measure towards a system with a degree of local self-government - a radical measure in a centralist autocracy. However, Alexander intended them to support the traditional system of government rather than to move away from this. In effect, Alexander was appeasing local nobility by giving them some local political power in response to their perceived loss of status with the serfs' emancipation.
+ The zemstvas and dumas had local power over public health, prisons, roads, agriculture, and education, which provided new opportunities for local political participation in ways they had not previously been possible. These local officials therefore had the chance to engage in Russia's real social problems.
- On the other hand, and revealing the clear limitations of this new form of 'local power', the police remained under central control, the provisional governor could overrule all zemstva decisions, the zemstva were permanently short of money, which limited their practical options, and the voting system was heavily weighted towards local landowners (they were far from democratic institutions!), which made it easy for the conservative nobility to and their interests to dominate assemblies.
Given that the military humiliation in the Crimean was effectively the catalyst to Alexander's reforms, modernizing Russia's army was seen as crucial.
Carried out by the liberal Minister of War, Dmitri Milyutin, these military reforms included reducing the length of service for conscripts from 25 years to 6 years in service (and 9 years in reserve) and introducing universal military service for all males over 20 (no longer allowing the wealthy to escape this).
+ Milyutin's reforms made the army more civilized and efficient - training and discipline no longer included brutal punishments, and shorter services meant that the army was no longer a 'life sentence'.
New atmosphere of toleration and reform, as seen with relaxation of press censorship, was also notable with more liberal education policies.
Important university reform meant that universities were given much greater autonomy in their affairs (1863): lectures on European law and philosophy were allowed, scholars were allowed abroad to study and a new breed of liberal professors replaced many of the conservatives in place in Nicholas I’s reign. Furthermore, poor students did not have to pay fees, and by 1859 2/3 of students at Moscow university were exempt from fees.
+ The number of children attending primary school increased considerably as the zemstva played a key role in increasing the number of elementary schools. Between 1856 and 1878, the number of children in primary school more than doubled from 450,000 to over 1 million.
- The government's liberal policies made universities into a "powder keg" - student radicalism grew and teaching lectures "appeared to be serving not only academic and economic purposes but also the promotion of political instability" (David Saunders).
Crimean defeat demonstrated that economic modernization was an urgent priority - military failure and inefficiency clearly had its roots in the backwardness of the Russian economy in relation to those of the European Great Powers. In particular, the government focused on trying to develop railways and increasing coal and iron production and pursued a more vigorous policy of industrialization than Nicholas I did.
+ The Russian railway system developed from 1,600 km in 1861 to over 22,000 in 1878 (though this was still small compared internationally and given Russia's immense size). This growth in railways helped to provide the empire with greater internal coherence (through improved communications) and to stimulate internal trade ( chiefly though reducing the price of grain in the key cities of the north, which in turn encouraged urbanization and further industrialization).
+ There were considerable increases in oil and coal production and new industrial areas were emerging, though much of these were dependent upon foreign investment (such as the Nobel brothers).
+ Steady population growth led to a growing market in the countryside for manufactured goods - however, this 'peasant market' was extremely fragile as it was dependent on a good harvest, and transport difficulties still hindered further market development.
- One area that saw little reform was the government's taxation policies - the peasants were still forced to bear the heavy burden of the poll tax, which the gentry were exempt from and which rose by 80% over Alexander's reign.
+/- On balance, though Russia made important steps towards industrialization and economic modernization during Alexander II's reign, the rate of development was still slow and uneven and Russia remained relatively backwards in this area.
Responses to Alexander II's reforms and the growth of opposition
Instead of strengthening and stabilizing the regime, Alexander’s reforms led to greater political opposition: trying to choose a delicate middle path Alexander upset both conservatives (resenting loss of influence) and liberals (wanted reform to go further). On the one hand, the reforms led to a ‘crisis of rising expectations’: Alexander's reforms had raised hopes which he could not fulfill without undermining the autocracy, in particular calls for a national assembly (parliament) and a written constitution defining and limiting the Tsar’s powers. On the other hand, his later reactionary impulses that attempted to reduce and damper these expectations only angered reformers further and encouraged the growth of radical extremism against the state.
Furthermore, the freer and more open political atmosphere of the reforms, and the toleration of Western liberal ideas in the university lecture-rooms, led to the growth of a more radical opposition who demanded fundamental changes to Russian autocracy and society, particularly among students influenced by the growing flood of radical ideas in this period.
The growth of dissatisfaction and opposition to Alexander for not continuing the process of reform that he had started, and his failure to deal with radical political opposition, eventually led to his assassination by terrorists in 1881.
Why did Alexander II's reforms slow down after 1866? Was there a shift from "reform to reaction"?
Having made key reforms in the 1860’s Alexander effectively stood at the crossroads between autocracy and liberal reform, but he opted against further reform and remained firmly committed to autocracy in the later stage of his reign.
Indeed, following the growth of opposition to his regime (including terrorism and assassination attempts of Alexander himself) and with the more radical political climate of the 1870's, Alexander enacted a series of more conservative measures that some historians have described as a reactionary "swing to the right" in contrast to his earlier "liberal" reforms.
Key examples of Alexander's repressive policies between 1866 and 1881 are: liberal reforming ministers in his government were replaced with conservative ministers who opposed further reform, including the reactionary Dmitri Tolstoy who as Education Minister clamped down on the universities' independence and introducing tougher entrance requirements. There was also less freedom of the press and greater censorship. Also, following the first assassination attempt in 1866, the Secret Police ("Third Section") were given greater powers to arrest and clamp down on radicals, and by the 1870's the country's prisons were full and an estimated 150, 000 opponents were exiled to Siberia in Alexander's reign.
Thus by 1880, historian W.E. Mosse has suggested, Alexander was "isolated from the Russian people, unpopular with the educated public, and cut off from the bulk of society and the Court. His fate had become a matter of indifference to the majority of his subjects". This lack of support and popularity can be explained largely in terms of Alexander's inconsistency and his contradictory policies.
Some historians have argued that Alexander's 'conservative shift' and his ending of reforms can be related directly to the first assassination attempt on the tsar's life made in 1866 by Dmitri Karakozov, a disillusioned student radical. According to this argument, this radical act shocked Alexander II into taking more repressive action against opposition, and he spent the rest of his reign increasingly disillusioned with reform and conservative in outlook. So in this interpretation, Alexander's reign can effectively be split into two distinct phases: (i) an early liberal phase committed to reform (c. 1855 - 1866), and (ii) a later conservative phase (c. 1866 - 1881), in which he turned against his earlier reformism.
However, as Jonathan Bromley points out, this 'early liberal/late conservative' argument, switching with the first assassination attempt in 1866, is too simplistic, as it ignores the fact that the later part of Alexander's reign also included various liberal measures. For instance, in response to revolutionary political violence of the late 1870's Alexander responded both conservatively, with execution of radicals, and liberally with the appointment of a liberal Minister of the Interior,Loris-Melikov. The Loris-Melikov ministry replaced the reactionary Tolstoy, abolished the Third Section and persuaded Alexander II to make the most fundamental reform of his reign.
Indeed, far from Alexander being a bitter conservative in 1881, just before his assassination he had agreed in principle to one of the reformers and radicals' key demands: a national assembly (parliament). Admittedly, this was only a limited step away from autocracy, as a partly-elected body with some members still appointed by the tsar, but it could conceivably "have been the beginning of the establishment of a parliamentary system in Russia" (Soviet historian, P.A. Zaionchkovsky). Ironically then, Alexander II was assassinated by radicals just as he had conceded further, and potentially far-reaching, liberal reform for Russia.
Rather than two separate phases, of reform and then reaction, Bromley argues that Alexander's reign can be viewed as a consistent attempt to enact a more or less coherent programme of "controlled reform". Reforms did slow down after 1866 but this did not mean a shift from reform to reaction. Instead, states Bromley, the essentials of a limited programme of reforms had been achieved and "it was time for the state to exert some discipline to keep the process under control".
Historiography: how far does Alexander II deserve the title of ‘Tsar liberator’?
The key historiographical debate concerning Alexander is how far he deserves the title he received of being the 'Tsar Liberator'. The central issue that historians have disagreed upon is what Alexander's motives were in carrying out his reforms? Does it make sense to refer to Alexander II as a 'liberator'? Important to think about here is what does the term 'liberator' mean or imply? A fully-formed Western liberal that believed in individual liberty and representative government? Or perhaps something more limited, such as emancipating those formerly held in legal bondage?
Some historian have denied Alexander’s role as a great reformer and liberal.
What evidence do they support their argument with? They point out that Alexander was motivated by a desire to strengthen autocracy not replace it. As W. Bruce Lincoln claims, by the end of his reign and even after all of his reforms “the concept of the state embodied in the person of the autocracy was in no way altered”.
Soviet historians also rejected Alexander's title of 'liberator' and claimed that he emancipated the serfs to benefit the nobles rather than serfs, as a way of providing them with income and thereby regenerating the landowning class. This view stresses the economic reasons for emancipation, and argues that there was a "crisis in the servile economy": i.e. that the economic system of serfdom was not functioning and failure to reform it could have led to either a mass rebellion or economic collapse.
Why do Soviet historians argue this? Because as Marxists these historians place a greater emphasis on the role of long-term, structural economic factors rather than the role of individuals and their decisions (i.e. Alexander's) in explaining historical events. They also had a clear political agenda to justify the Bolshevik revolution and the consolidation of the Communist State, which meant that they tended to also regard any attempts to reform the tsarist system as doomed to fail as it was a backwards and repressive system.
The problem with the Soviet argument, then, is that it presupposed a Marxist interpretation of the past and found evidence that fitted with and confirmed this view, rather than first looking at the evidence and then forming a balanced view. Western historians, such as Jerome Blum, have disputed the basis of the 'economic crisis' argument put forward by the Marxists that suggested the Russian economy was in crisis and that landlords were severely indebted by inefficient agriculture and the serf system. Blum argued instead that serfdom remained profitable for both nobles and serfs and there was no 'crisis' that forced Alexander's reforms.
Some historians have even stressed the military benefits of reform, also beneficial to the ruling class, in explaining the motivation for reform. A.J. Rieber goes as far as stating that the emancipation and reform process was motivated solely by military considerations and the desire to strengthen and protect the state through a strong, modernised army. This is probably going too far, but it does point to the strategic concerns that influenced Alexander, which speaks against any simple view of him liberating the serfs simply due to moral/ altruistic/ liberal, reasons.
Most historians now agree that Alexander was not cynically exploiting reform for political advantage, and instead argue that the inconsistent nature of his reforms can be related to the specific strengths and weaknesses of Alexander’s character: sometimes brave, sometimes confused and not especially intelligent: “the laws which freed the serfs emerged from a process that the Tsar barely understood and over which he had only partial control” (David Saunders).
As an autocrat he recognized his duty to try and fix a system that had clearly failed Russia in the Crimea, yet he was not sure as to the best way to do this, and he became scared whenever he saw potentially radical consequences to his reforms. Thus Hugh Seton-Watson saw Alexander at the crossroads between autocracy and modern liberal constitutional development, and judged him a failure for seeking an unrealistic compromise between the two and refusing to abandon autocracy.
David Saunders, a recent authority on this period of Russian history, offers a more balanced assessment of Alexander’s achievements: though his reforms didn’t solve all of Russia’s problems, they did cause far-reaching change. As Saunders concludes, even if his reforms were “conceptually limited, poorly executed, incomplete, unsustained and insecure, the measures enacted by Alexander II nevertheless transformed the Russian Empire”.