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Alexander II of Russia 1854-1881

Updated on March 4, 2014

Consider this hub a sort of brief historical overview, or beginners guide, of Russia's history over the period. I have tried to outline the problems facing Alexander II and the various reforms he implemented in small easily read chunks.


Russia was a vast empire comprising 1/5 earth’s landmass, huge variations in climate and geography, 20 different ethnic groups, many religions with a population of around 130 million. Russian orthodoxy the state religion headed by Tsar. Russia was considered a Great power, but a great power in decline.

There was very little industrialisation, only small pockets of textile factories around Moscow and St Petersburg. As well as little urbanisation and this was only in West of Country. It was an agricultural country but an agriculture country that was backward and inefficient because it relied on serf labour and there had been little mechanisation.

Infrastructure is very poor – rough roads and only 1600 miles of railway.

Social structure

Social structure is medieval – fabulously wealthy aristocracy, obsessed with court culture, bloated civil service, corrupt and promotion based on connections not merit.

The middle class is tiny (only 1% of population) and none of them are of the ‘entrepreneurial class'.

Vast majority of Russians are serfs (80%). A serf is owned by the aristocracy or the Tsar. They are unable to travel, marry without permission. To survive private plots are given out and regulated by the ‘mir’. These plots are allocated by need. For the majority of the week serfs must work unpaid on nobles’ land.

The serfs are all illiterate and uneducated.

The serfs accept the Tsar as their ‘little father’, a reference to him as a semi-divine being. They have no access to law or rights and flogging is commonplace. At anytime a noble can force conscript a serf into the army. Army service is 25 years, it is considered a life sentence and the serfs recruited are declared legally dead.

Government and Oppression

System of rule is autocracy; absolute power in the hands of Tsar; no representative assembly of any kind and no elected local government. The Tsar also controls the orthodox church.

Justice system woefully corrupt. inaccessible as no verbal evidence is accepted. Censorship overwhelming – no criticism of regime allowed, few newspapers, pre-publication approval required, books and theatres are controlled.

Political cases dealt with by secret police, the ‘Third section’ who are outside the law altogether. Exiles to Siberia is a common punishment.

Education system highly restrictive; no women, limited curriculum, no education for lower classes and mass illiteracy.

The policy of Russification is pursued constantly; suppression of Polish Nationalists and frequent pogroms of Jews.


Governmental reform – the Zemstva

Alexander II did not make fundamental changes to the Tsarist system of autocracy. He did not create any kind of democratic system or representative body at the national level nor did he limit the powers of the Tsar.

He did however produce representative government at the local level in 1864, the Zemstvo (plural Zemstva).

How did the Zemstva work?

Zemstva are elected rural local councils within which there are three electoral colleges. Nobles, townspeople and peasants. The peasant representatives are chosen by village elders(the mir). Nobility have most seats on council but not overall majority.

The Zemstva only met once a year. Appointed executive to perform functions particular functions. Such as control of public health, prisons, roads, agriculture, relief of famine, education.

Limits of the Zemstva’s powers

The Zemstva was not in control of police. It was still subject to interference by Tsar’s directly appointed provisional governors. No control of taxation. The implement of the Zemstva did not spread across Russia quickly (even by 1914 only 43 of 70 provinces had introduced them).

Often dominated by the reactionary nobility, but equally common the nobles became critical of Tsarist policy.

Despite these restrictions they made significant progress in education. Creating and running primary schools which vastly improved literacy.


Through Alexander’s reforms education was opened to all classes.

Universities experienced large growth in student numbers. Some were given greater freedom on curriculum; philosophy and western law allowed. Scholars were given permission to travel abroad, students not spied upon, liberal professors and no fees for poor students.

Secondary schools – Private schools allowed from 1863 but curriculum less restricted; history could be taught. However they were subject by to regular control by Tsarist inspectors.

Primary schools had massive growth under Zemstva.

With the Army 2-3 million learned to read.

Judicial reforms

Alexander introduces sweeping reforms; trial by Jury, judges better trained and educated. Equality before the law, defence counsel allowed, evidence debated in open court. Flogging as a punishment was reduced.

But peasants outside the system of this new system; political cases tried in special courts, the third section still active and beyond the law.

Military reform

Recruitment suspended in 1856 after which there was a much smaller intake. The new system changed serf subscription to 15 years (6 active, 9 in the reserve + 5 in the militia). Military service was also expanded to include all classes.

There was a reduction in floggings in the rank and file.

Modern equipment introduced, slowly. Officers start to be properly trained rather than just the sons of noblemen. Some promotion of non-nobles becomes possible.

The reforms had limited success; still plenty of corruption, officers nearly all aristocrats, illiterate peasants still difficult to train. They did however defeat Ottoman Empire (Turkey ) in 1877 and thus reversed humiliation of Crimea.

Economic progress - Agriculture

The emancipation of the serfs was expected to improve the efficiency and output of Russian Agriculture. To bring about an agricultural revolution like that which had preceded the British industrial revolution. It did not for a number of reasons…

  • · Redemption payments
  • · Restrictive practices of Mir – crops, methods, travel
  • · Peasant landholdings too small –due to population growth
  • · Rural gentry indebted
  • · Much of Russian agriculture subsistence

Economic progress

Tsar appointed a liberal finance minister who promoted economic development and expanded the banking system.

It is sometimes stated that there was very little economic progress under Alexander II, but ...

  • · The telegraph network in Russia expanded to 50,000 miles by 1881 , compared with 1, 300 miles in 1855.
  • · The railways grew 2,000 miles in 1855 to 14,000 in 1881
  • · By 1881 there were 5 times as many joint-stock companies
  • · The foundations of the great ‘cradle’ of the Russian coal and iron industry had been laid in east Ukraine.


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    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 6 years ago from England

      no problem. i am to please.

      i was going to do more but there hasnt been that big of a reaction to this hub...

    • profile image

      Karley 6 years ago

      This is really great! Thanks !