SECTION THREE: Government and Tsars: Alexander II and Alexander III as rulers; attitudes to and imposition of autocracy; key developments

AQA Part one: Autocracy, Reform and Revolution: Russia, 1855–1917

How did Alexander II rule?

Alexander II had considerable problems during his reign. It was clear to most of Russia’s ruling class that the country had been shown to be weakened by the Crimean War. Alexander was more willing to entertain reform than his father or grandfather, but he had to be careful of the Russian nobility too.

When previous Tsars had faced challenges to their rule or even been deposed, it hadn’t been the peasantry who had been the chief threat, it had been the landowning nobles. They were the most powerful interest group in Russia and even though there were some who recognised that Russia had to change, they didn’t want to sacrifice their own wealth and power to bring this change about.

Alexander II wanted to modernise aspects of Russian government and society, such as the judiciary, education and local government, but these reforms were for the purpose of strengthening Russia and the autocracy. Alexander did not see the reforms as part of the creation of liberal democracy in Russia and the only constitutional reforms that he had planned were scrapped after his assassination in 1881.

Alexander had to negotiate with the nobility regarding his plans to end serfdom. Many nobles knew that they would be financially ruined if they lost their supply of free labour. Lots of noble families had accumulated debt over many years as the land became less and less a source of easy revenue. They demanded to be compensated for the loss of the serfs and the government decided to pass the cost of this compensation on to the peasants in the form of decades of debt.

This outcome suggests that Alexander II’s ambitions were constrained by the political realities of Russia itelf. He was unable to defy the nobility on their demands for compensation and had no desire to reform the autocracy into a constitutional monarchy with a government that might have been more able to bring about radical and far reaching change.

For a one page study overview of the period click here

How did Alexander III rule?

Alexander III was educated by the arch conservative and religious thinking Konstanin Pobedonostsev. Long before his father’s murder at the hands of the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya, he had decided that Alexander II’s approach to ruling Russia was wrong.

The abolition of serfdom, in Alexander III’s view, had been a disaster and whilst it couldn’t be undone, the rule of the aristocracy could be returned to the countryside. The landowners had lost the right to treat the serfs like property and were unable to arbitrarily punish them after 1861. However, when Alexander III introduced Land Captains to the countryside in 1889, replacing the old justices of the peace, he gave the nobles powers over the peasants that were similar to those they exercised during serfdom.

Whilst the role of land captain was technically open to anyone, the nobles took up the role more often than not. Since the emancipation of the serfs, peasant self government through the institution of the Obschina or Mir (the village collective), had developed. The purpose of the land captains was to reduce the level of peasant self government and to give the captains control over entire districts (volosts). The land captains tended to be the more poorly educated of the nobles and the job often attracted men who wanted to re-assert their power over the peasants. Land captains were often brutal, giving extra judicial punishments and they were deeply resented by the peasants.

Alexander III was far more autocratic in his manner and outlook, but managed to combine his domineering personality with a degree of competence and political understanding. He believed that Russia should be based on three all powerful ideas:

  • Russian Nationalism
  • Orthodoxy
  • Autocracy

He deliberately weakened the power of the Zemstvo to organise and provide resources for the Russian people (one direct consequence of this was that the Zemstvo found it more difficult to respond to the Volga famine of 1892).

He instituted the policy of Russification (see the next section for more on this) in the belief that Russian culture and language would hold together a disparate empire more effectively than his father’s liberal ideas.

Alexander III was also one of the most anti semitic of the late Romanov Tsars. He instituted the May laws of 1882 which:

  • prevented Russian Jews from settling outside towns and cities (except for those already living in Jewish agricultural colonies).
  • Banned Jews from buying property by preventing banks lending money to them.
  • Banned Jews from doing business on Sundays or any Christian holiday.

Later, Jews also needed special permission to work as lawyers, were limited in their numbers as army doctors and were banned from selling alcohol. In 1891, all Jews were forced to leave Moscow.

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