AQA Part one: Autocracy, Reform and Revolution: Russia, 1855–1917
Alexander II came to power during the Crimean War following the death of his father Nicholas I. Alexander is often referred to as the Tsar liberator because of his emancipaton of Russia’s serfs. However, the extent to which he can realistically be thought of as a liberal or a moderniser is a matter of historical debate. Alexander had no interest for most of his reign in reforming the autocracy, the one institution in Russia that made change virtually impossible. His reforms (see below), were not designed to create a more liberal Russia, instead, they were the necessary steps that Alexander believed needed to be taken in order to enable the regime to survive. Alexander believed that unless serfdom was ‘reformed from above’ the serfs themselves would ‘reform from below’ – by which Alexander meant that the country risked revolution at some point in the future.
Emancipation of the serfs
During the 19th Century, serfdom was abolished across much of Europe and Alexander believed it was key to helping the country develop towards a more economically and militarily powerful nation.
Serfs were effectively the property of the landowners, and whilst they couldn’t be transported and sold in quite the same way that slaves could, serfdom was very similar to slavery in several key regards.
Serfs were forced to work for free for their landowners and were not permitted to leave the land they worked on. Serfs could be punished arbitrarily by the landowner and had no rights to land of their own.
The hopes that the serfs had for freedom were immense, but emancipation if anything led to further hardships. The landowners were compensated by the state for the loss of free labour and the newly emancipated serfs were forced to pay decades of debt to the government as a result (only cancelled in 1905).
In addition to this, many land owners ensured that Russian serfs were given the most unproductive land once they were set free, keeping the ‘black earth’ land which where the soil was most fertile, to themselves.
In the decades after the emancipation, unrest in the countryside actually increased.
Attempts at domestic and military reform
Alexander II’s education reforms show us the extent of the Tsar’s liberalism. He began to reform Russia’s school and university education from 1858 onwards, Russia’s education system was a poorly organised patchwork of institutions before this point. When Alexander relaxed censorship and control over Russia’s universities, he allowed a new generation of students to study science, philosophy and law. The result was a more politicised student body who protested against the petty conservative rules and regulations imposed on them. Alexander quickly reversed some of his more progressive educational ideas and returned universities to being conservative institutions. During this time, Alexander did expand school provision across Russia and make it easier for girls to attend school.
Local Government Reforms:
Alexander II also made significant reforms to the system of local government in Russia. He introduced a system of elected local councils, known as zemstvos, which were responsible for local administration and the provision of public services. The Zemstvos quickly became dominated by the more liberal members of the aristocracy and Russia’s small middle class, who saw governing the country in a modern and organised way in the interests of the peasants as their patriotic duty.
From 1864 onwards Alexander II also made important reforms to the judicial system in Russia. He introduced the principle of judicial independence, and the principal of legal equality between parties on trial. He also introduced the concept of trial by jury, but his two successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II both permitted extra-judicial punishment (through land captains) undermining the new legal processes Alexander had pioneered.
Alexander was acutely aware of Russia’ military weakness. He instituted a series of reforms which included:
Some of the key military reforms implemented by Alexander II include:
- Conscription: Alexander II introduced universal conscription for all social classes (previously it had just been something that the landowners imposed on the peasants). This allowed the Russian military to expand and modernize, and it made it easier to mobilize large numbers of troops in times of crisis. Branding and flogging soldiers was banned.
- Military academies: Alexander II established a number of military academies to train officers and improve the professionalization of the military. These academies were modeled on Western military schools and emphasized technical and scientific subjects.
- Modernization of weapons: Alexander II also oversaw the modernization of the Russian military’s weapons and equipment. He introduced new rifles, artillery, and other modern weapons, and he established a system for the production and procurement of military supplies.
- Military reorganization: Alexander II also implemented a number of reforms to the organization of the military. He introduced a system of military districts, which were responsible for the administration and training of troops, and he established a general staff to oversee the planning and execution of military operations.
In 1877 the Russian Army inflicted a devastating defeat on the Ottoman Empire, largely as a result of these changes.