Alexander ii's Other Reforms

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Alexander II's Other Reforms

The Emancipation of the Serfs removed a social system which had been in place since the Middle Ages. With Feudalism dismantled, the Tsar had to introduce a new system of local government. Remember that the nobility had been in charge of local affairs on their estates under the system of serfdom. A new body was now needed to take care of such matters as the:

  • maintenance of roads and bridges

  • upkeep of hospitals, prisons

  • promotion of industry and agriculture

  • prevention of famine

  • responsibility for public health and education,

  • the welfare of the poor.

These new organisations, called Zemstva, were introduced in 1864. Zemstva were elected local government assemblies rather like our local councils. All classes could elect members to the Zemstva but the voting system was structured to heavily favour the nobility. In 1866, 74 per cent of all delegates in Zemstva were nobles - clearly they were still the dominant class in local government. However, there were now also representatives of the middle-classes in the Zemstva. Doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses all took part in local government for the first time.

The power of the Zemstva was limited from the start. Zemstva were introduced slowly and central government never funded them properly or gave them much power. In all areas of their concern the government retained a powerful means of control. Provincial governors had the power reverse decisions if they felt they were going against the wishes of the government. The bureaucracy was hostile to the Zemstva from the start and denied them adequate funds to carry out local improvements or to introduce changes.

Despite all of these restrictions Zemstva soon became a powerful voice in Russian life and a place where people could express critical opinions on the government. Because of this they became a powerful anti-tsarist meeting place.

Legal Reforms
Before 1864 the courts in Russia were very corrupt and bribery was common. They were often staffed by judges who had little or no legal training. This system was replaced by a system which more closely resembled the Western system of justice. The new system meant that:

  • cases were heard in open court in front of juries and the judiciary became independent of the government

  • lawyers had to have some legal training and people were now allowed to hire a defence counsel

  • judges were better trained and better paid to end corruption

  • legal floggings as punishment were cut down.

But, once again, the government limited the authority of the new court because:

  • government officials could only be put on trial with the permission of the government

  • certain types of crime had to be tried before military courts

  • peasants had to be tried in special courts outside the new system.

A shortage of trained lawyers meant that these reforms were slow to come into being. The police, especially the secret police, remained powerful and acted outside of the law. The government continued to have a lot of influence over the judges.

Military Reforms:
The failure in the Crimean War led to a series of military reforms that took place between 1863 and 1875. Alexander put his Minister for War General Milyutin in charge of these changes. In an attempt to get a smaller, better trained, better led, better equipped and more mobile army Milyutin made the following changes:

  • conscription was now open to all classes not just the peasants

  • length of service dropped from 25 years to 6 years

  • better officer training was introduced and the promotion of non-noble officers was introduced

  • a broad system of education for all soldiers was introduced

  • the administration of the army was reorganised.

Similar reforms were made in the navy.

Education and Censorship
The government also extended primary and secondary education. Students from poor families now had better access to education. The spread of education led to a growing demand for newspapers, books and magazines. By 1855 there were 140 magazines in circulation. In 1865 Alexander issued a decree which relaxed the harsh censorship laws put in place by his father.

Exercise: Written exercise
Look at each reform. Choose two and answer the following questions.

  • Which group benefited most from this reform?

  • Which lost power or prestige?

  • What ideas were behind the reforms and what ideas limited them?

Email your answers to your teacher.

Assessing the Great Reforms
How successful were the 'Great Reforms"? Alexander had undertaken a radical overhaul of social, economic, political and military issues but he did not intend this to affect his autocratic power as a Tsar. His system of reform has been criticised because of its limited nature. Alexander weakened the power of the aristocracy and changed the position of the masses. These painful and important changes had do be made to modernise Russia. Many historians identify the contradictions between granting this series of reforms while refusing to allow wider sections of society to take part in the process of government. Even in the Zemstva which many hoped would lead to further participation in government, he was determined to prevent this. These contradictions caused Alexander's reforms to increase discontent.

The reforms led to an appetite for more reforms and this was to cause more problems in the future because:

  • peasants felt cheated by land reforms and their economic conditions did not improve

  • nobles lost part of their land and access to income from owning serfs and their powers had been replaced by Zemstva.

  • legal and military reforms were spoiled by continuing corruption and the slow pace of reform

The government gained most from the reforms because:

  • feudal taxes previously paid to the nobles were replaced by redemption taxes paid to the government

  • legal reforms extended government control in the countryside

  • Zemstva came increasingly under the control of the government.

In the long term the tsarist regime would pay heavily for the inadequacies of the reforms. While government power increased after 1861 so did discontent among wide sections of the community. Revolutionary groups were formed to force the government to bring in further reforms. Out of this discontent the seeds of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were born. It has been suggested that if Alexander had made the constitutional reforms he promised these revolutions may have not have happened.

Exercise: Written exercise
Using the information in this lesson summarise, in point form Alexander II's major reforms:

  • list the main difficulties experienced by the zemstva

  • historian Lionel Kochan said, "...the [the zemstva] developed into a genuinely liberal force, constantly at odds with the tsarist bureaucracy". Explain in your own words why the zemstva became a centre for anti-tsarist opinion.

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