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Alexander the Emancipator - The Birth and Death of Reform in Tsarist Russia

Updated on July 4, 2012
Tsar Alexander II, "The Liberator"
Tsar Alexander II, "The Liberator"

“When the Tsar has a cold, all of Russia coughs.” – Russian proverb

Tsar Ivan IV, "Ivan the Terrible"
Tsar Ivan IV, "Ivan the Terrible"

A Legacy of Absolutism

The true potency and consequence of feudal absolutism is nowhere more evident than in the history of Russia, that vast and severe land which Churchill famously called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Russia's tsarist tradition was one of vested despotism, as evident in even the nation's earliest years. To understand this tradition, we can look at Ivan the Terrible as an excellent example. In 1547, he became the first ruler of the Russian people to fully shake off the shackles of foreign Mongolian rule, claiming the crown of tsar, the Russian term for “Caesar”. His reign was infamous for its terror and brutality, and Ivan is considered by many to have been a complete madman. With the death of his wife he became steadily unstable, and began to condemn and persecute the nobility around him. He created a new arm of the military, who were encouraged to rape, loot and kill in the tsar’s name. His manic behavior came to a head when he murdered his own son in a fit of rage. Yet, through all of this, his right to rule was never really in question, and in Russian culture and folklore he remains to this day a popular figure, for uniting Russia and expanding its empire.

Such is the power of absolutism, where a ruler can torture and murder at a whim, terrorize his people with a ruthless militia, even kill his own heir, and the populace will accept it as an inevitable, infallible reality.

Enlightened Despotism

This kind of absolutist authority did not always have such dire results. Peter the Great is renowned for modernizing Russia around the turn of the 18th century, and Catherine the Great is revered for her pursuit of Enlightenment values. And there is another monumental, yet lesser-known ruler in Russia’s fascinating past, a man who truly shook the foundations of the land, and brought about perhaps the most pivotal changes in its history.

Alexander II ruled from 1855 to 1881 as Russia’s most “liberal” tsar, a seemingly paradoxical term. While his father Nicholas I was a ruthless absolutist ruler, wholly intolerant of the revolutionary ideas coming in from the west, young Alexander recognized that Russia’s future greatness depended on forsaking its feudal past. To this end, he enacted many judicial and social reforms, weakened a bloated aristocracy, and stream-lined the military. Most importantly of all, Tsar Alexander II did something which completely redefined the empire, transforming the nature of Russia more than any ruler before or after him. He did something which challenged hundreds of years of rigid, divine tradition, something which astounded the populace, enraged the elite, and gave him the title of Liberator.

He freed the serfs.

Tsar Nicholas I
Tsar Nicholas I

Alexander II - A New Kind of Tsar

Alexander Nicolaevich, eldest son of Tsar Nicholas I, would take his father’s throne in the wake of one of the most oppressive reigns in Russia’s history. In 1825, at the very beginning of his rule, Tsar Nicholas had confronted the revolutionary faction known as the Decembrists, a group of soldiers who had been influenced by the liberalism of the French Revolution. After suppressing the Decembrist uprising, Nicholas made a fateful decision. Liberalism must be ruthlessly extinguished in Russia, by whatever force necessary. To his son Alexander he said, “In Europe the ruler must have the art of being sometimes fox, sometimes lion. That is what General Bonaparte taught politicians. In Russia, he must be only the lion.” (Radzinsky, 37) Nicholas was indeed the lion. He reinforced his own unwavering, absolutist rule, enacted strict censorship, and created a secret police whose job it was to root out any traces of rebellion.

When Nicholas I died, his son Alexander took the crown, and had a decidedly different perspective on Russia’s autocratic tradition. He possessed a compassion that was quite unusual for his position. For example, while Nicholas still ruled, Alexander had visited harsh Siberia, where prisoners and exiles were sent to do hard-labor for their crimes, usually until their deaths. While there, he witnessed a group of Decembrists exiled for their attempted coup, and was moved by their pitiful condition. He asked his father to relieve their suffering. Nicholas would not forgive them, but he agreed to transfer them to the Caucasus. (Radzinsky 62-63) This minor victory illustrates a key philosophical difference between Alexander and his heritage. On the throne, Alexander II would attempt to rule with understanding and kindness, though this would do nothing to prevent his eventual downfall.

As a ruler, Alexander was more concerned with improving his homeland than fulfilling imperialistic ambitions. His father Nicholas I, in his devotion to monarchical traditions and abhorrence of rebellion, had played a prominent role in the suppression of the Revolutions of 1848, particularly in nearby Hungary and Prussia. He had thereby gained a reputation as an international gendarme, preserving autocratic peace against the new liberalism. In 1854, surely emboldened by this inflated ego, he instigated the ill-fated Crimean War, which resulted in immense casualties and helped to set the stage for World War I. The war ultimately highlighted the weaknesses of Russia’s military and infrastructure, and degraded its international image and morale. When Alexander became tsar one year later, he immediately realized the folly of his father’s traditional, expansionist mindset. He negotiated a peace treaty, announcing to his people: “Let good internal order be affirmed and achieved (in Russia); let truth and mercy reign in her courts; let a longing for education and every useful activity develop everywhere with fresh vigor and let each and every person with justice for all be protected under the rule of law and universal justice, and let the fruits of the labor of the innocent be enjoyed in peace.” (Zakhorova)

Freeing the Serfs

To this end, Alexander II, with the aid of his ministries and advisors, achieved the reform which would make him a legend in history. Serfdom had existed in Russia practically since the land had been settled, but was not official policy until the reign of Tsar Alexei in 1649. A combination of devastating famine, dynastic rivalry and civil war had led to a period known as the “Times of Trouble”. During this chaotic era, peasants were able to run away from land and debts without reproof or consequence, thus worsening the economy and adding to the overall anarchy of the land. Tsar Alexei’s solution was to impose a new law code which attached serfs to the land, thus making them property of the landholding nobility. Over time, there were some uprisings in opposition to this tradition, such as rebellions led by folk-heroes like Yemelyan Pugachev and Stenka Razin. However, for the most part, both the serfs and the nobility would obediently play their socioeconomic roles, the serfs stoically accepting their lot.

Although Alexander II was likely moved by compassion as well, the primary motive he had for emancipating the serfs was to avoid a rebellion. His observance of his father’s reign and the Revolutions of 1848 had taught him a valuable lesson, which he expresses in this famous line addressed to the Russian nobility: “It is far better that this come from above than from below.” (Zakharova) Alexander knew that he would not be able to continue with his plans to reinvent Russia until he solved the question of serfdom. He began to circulate a notice proclaiming the virtues of a free peasant class, implying his intentions to landholders and nobility. Then, in 1861, two years before American president Abraham Lincoln would end African-American slavery in the U.S., Alexander II of Russia issued a law of emancipation.

"Alexander II Proclaiming the Emancipation of the Serfs" by Gustav Dittenberger, c.1861
"Alexander II Proclaiming the Emancipation of the Serfs" by Gustav Dittenberger, c.1861

The Great Reformer

After the liberation of the serfs, Alexander wished to concentrate the country’s energy towards other domestic reforms. On the local level, Alexander allowed the creation of new, representative governments, although these municipal bodies maintained the power of the land-owning elite, and did little to change the lives of most people. There were also radical changes made to the justice system, most significantly the implementation of public trials by jury. This created a new professional class of defense lawyers, which would play a future role in the fomentation of revolutionary ideas. A new State Bank was established to ensure financial stability, and efforts were made to improve and expand infrastructure. With the embarrassment of the Crimean War still a fresh memory, military reforms were also a major concern. The most sweeping change was to require military conscription from all classes, not only the poor. War minister Dmitrii Miliutin described the prevailing sense of duty and usefulness towards the military when he proclaimed, “Military service is a kind of national elementary education.” (Hosking 300) The nobility could no longer shirk this national responsibility. Additionally, the practice of corporal punishment was banned and education emphasized, with literacy being required of all troops. This marks a clear shift in Russia’s national priorities and philosophy.

Education for all of Russia’s citizens became paramount. Before Alexander’s rule, education was restricted to the upper classes. He appointed a new, liberal minister of education, who gave local governments the responsibility of setting up schools that would be open to members of all classes. The number of schools and universities quadrupled, and for the first time, former serfs and women were encouraged to acquire an education. The suppressive censorship of Nicholas I was also relaxed, allowing for a period of increased artistic output that some call the Russian Renaissance. During this time, great authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev created timeless masterpieces. Newspapers and journals began to thrive. In an ironic twist, it is likely that this increased availability of education and media also played some part in the increasing revolutionary fervor, which had continued spreading among intellectuals. These radicals would soon become militant in pursuit of their goals, and Alexander would personally bare the brunt of their rage.

Terror and Assassination

The Decembrists faced by Nicholas I were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as far as revolutionary undercurrents in Russia. There were growing populist movements which sought everything from socialism to constitutionalism. Despite of, or perhaps because of Alexander’s radical reforms, members of all strata of society grew restless. The upper classes were angry about changes which threatened their power and wealth, while the lower classes were angry about the new, cumbersome debts that came along with their freedom. The end of serfdom had caused agricultural production to plummet, causing a massive economical crisis. Many of the tsar’s appointees proved to be ruthless and tyrannical men, further degrading his own popularity. Not content with the pace and breadth of the tsar’s reforms, and feeding off of the general unrest and dissatisfaction of the populace, a terrorist group called “The People’s Will” believed revolution would only be possible with the physical removal of all authority. There were six attempts on Tsar Alexander II’s life, each adding to a national atmosphere of fear. One terrorist got close enough to Alexander’s inner circle as to detonate a bomb in the dining room of the Winter Palace. “We are living through terrible times” wrote the composer Tchaikovsky, and he couldn’t have been more right. (Crankshaw, 255) Alexander miraculously survived each attempt on his life, except of course, the seventh and last. On March 1st, 1881, a man approached his armored carriage and threw a bomb to the ground. Alexander was uninjured in the blast, but he unwisely stepped out of the carriage to help with the ensuing chaos. Then, a second man approached, with a second bomb, and Alexander’s luck finally ran out.

The assassination of Alexander II had the exact opposite effect as the revolutionaries intended. At the time of his murder, Alexander had in fact been en route to deliver a radical new proposal for an elected parliament, a proposal which would have truly revolutionized Russia and brought it into modernity. However, the terrorists of The People’s Will had inadvertently crushed that possibility. Even worse, rather than the populist revolution they had hoped for, the assassination instead ushered in a renewed era of strict despotism, and nullified many of the reforms the Liberator Tsar had brought about. The new tsar, Alexander III, was not like his father. One of his first acts in power was to destroy his father’s proposal for a parliamentary government. He had witnessed his father’s death first-hand and, like Nicholas I, became a firm believer in unwavering absolutism. Alexander III increased censorship once again, suppressed civil liberties, brought back the ruthless secret police, and returned Russia to the grips of a strict autocracy. Because one of the terrorists was Jewish, a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms swept Russia, condoned by the new tsar. The zeal of terrorism had caused the Russian empire to take several steps backwards, and the era of liberal reforms led by Alexander II became little more than a sad and ironic chapter in its history.

The assassination of Alexander II
The assassination of Alexander II

Works Cited:

Edward Crankshaw. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution, 1825-1917. (New York: Viking Press, 1976)

Geoffrey Hosking. Russia and the Russians: A History. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

Edvard Radzinsky. Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Larissa Zakharova. “The Government and the Great Reforms of the 1860s”. University of Oregon.


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    • CASE1WORKER profile image


      7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      A great piece of writing ; I look forward to reading more


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