The Tsar of Russia , Alexander II escaped death at the St. Petersburg Summer Gardens yesterday afternoon! The unknown man fired a shot at the Tsar but missed. The man has yet to be identified, as no more information has been leaked. What did the Tsar do in order to be despised to the point of someone trying to kill him? Could it be because of his previous reforms? Where did the Tsar go wrong?
We all know the Tsar Alexander II as a reformer, trying to catch up to the western, more advanced countries. Even as a child, he was always very liberal, unlike his conservative father, and felt that something should be done with the conditions of the
serfs in his country. He was tutored by Vasili Zhukovski, a Russian poet, and learned to speak Russian, German, French, English, and Polish. As a young man he traveled around his empire and saw the misery of his country, as well as others. In 1837, he visited 30 Russian provinces, including Siberia, where no other member of the royal family ever was, already showing him as a very controversial future emperor. As he became Tsar after his father in 1855, during the Crimean war (1853-56), where he lost to the British, French, Sardinian and Ottoman Turkish, he knew he needed to make a change in Russia’s un-industrialized society which was not able to produce modern weapons that could compete with the west. He signed the Treaty of Paris because he recognized his weakness and felt he needed to modernize his country, and get rid of the serf based economy first. As A.J Rieber, a future historian will say “Alexander was motivated by military reasons and the desire to strengthen the state through a strong modernized army. He was more interested in the maintenance of his autocracy than the actual reforms.
Whatever the reason, he started the reforms and issued the Emancipation Edict, far behind England, since Elizabeth freed the serfs in 1574. Nicholas I, his father, tried making changes in the system in 1842 and 1847, but it was hard to quickly create the middle class from illiterate serfs, which made slow progress to achieve what he wanted. The Emancipation was composed of 17 legislative acts. The serfs, which make up 90% of Russia’s population, were given personal freedom, and the state then compensated the landlords for the lost peasants, in order to not anger them. The serfs now have to repay the state another 44 years (49 years total) with a 6% interest. Whether they are better off now is debatable, as they face horrible conditions either way, now they just have to fend off for themselves. As John Grenville was say “nothing more than a cruel joke”. But on the other hand, Tim Chapman says that it’s “the single most important decree issued by any Tsar in the 19th century Russia”. Westwood agreed, saying : despite imperfections the emancipation program was an enormous step forward and no Russia ruler brought so much relief to so many.
Either way, this step was necessary into implanting the now free serfs onto further reforms. As Alexander II said: “Rather to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for it to abolish itself from below”, which perhaps simply meant he was afraid of them rioting, and eventually getting what they wanted anyway. He said, “I did more for the Russian serf in giving him land as well as personal liberty, than America did for the negro slave set free by the proclamation of President Lincoln(…)In giving him personal liberty , you have him an obligation to perform to the state which he must be unable to fulfill”.
To increase the now freed serfs’ role in society, Dmitry Milyutin, the new liberal minster of war since 1861 changed the 25 years of serving into 10. With now a more professional, smaller army with specialized military schools (kadec), people could be more productive to society once they quickly got out of the army, and can potentially work in factories, or be in any other way beneficial.
To change industry, Alexander knew he not only needed people, but money. So the new minister of finance, Mikhail von Reutern (from German nobility) created a published budget, in 1862, along with the creation of banks, which gave people private access to money. They could start their own businesses, or loans money. This is still promoting the constructions of private railways and as of this year, Russia has 5147 km of railways! It largely encouraged domestic production of, coal, oil, and textile. Not only that, but also foreign investors are now more attracted to the stable system, which also contributes to the economy, which promotes the import and export.
A few problems though still remained after the emancipation. Now that the peasants were free, nobles lost legal and judicial control over serfs. So in 1864, Nikolai Alexeyevich Milyutin, the brother of Dmitry, made liberal rural changes. He created the zemstvo system. This was composed of elected council in villages (Zemstva) and cities (Dumas) where everyone was eligible to vote, although it mostly favors the wealthy, since 41% were nobles. As A. J. Riebe will say “zemstvo- it was designed with the interest of nobility at heart”. A great step to modern society was that they now had qualified employees and experts, and could raise local taxes for their activities like local fire service or prisons. As will be said by J.N. Westwood in the future, “did a good job because they naturally looked after their own affairs“. These miniature parliaments could be a step to democracy and created skilled debater and intellectuals since they annually discussed.
The judiciary system was changed two years ago as well, and is another contributor to a changing society. Now, the trials were no longer in secret, with witnesses present, and proper judges. It is combination of English and French practice, with a present defense lawyer and jury. On top of that, the public could be present, creating judgment on the spot, and journals including views that were quite critical. This may still cause havoc in the future, as someone who is obviously guilty can be said innocent, if the crowd and jury demand it. As H. S. Watson will say “the courtroom was the one place in Russia where real freedom of speech prevailed”.
Of all the reforms Alexander II did for his people, on top of that, he was also tolerant to Jews, Finns and Poles. He released suppression and censorship for all of them, and in Finland, new journals were founded. Although constantly facing rebellion in Poland in the past, he made a mistake and gave them less strict censorship, again, caused the spread of revolutionary ideas. But they still wanted more, which caused him to be forced to crush the January uprisings that started in Poland in 1863, which lasted 18 months. He then exiled18 672 Poles to Siberia. Because of this harsh punishment, it is thought that it may have been a Polish rebel that is responsible for the assassination attempt of the Tsar.
The assassinator was a Russian student of noble blood named Dmitri Karakozov!
Details of the assassination: After shooting the Tsar but missing, he was tackled by guards, and according to an interview with one of the guards, this is what Alexander did: he walked up to him and asked “what do you want”, then Dmitri answered “nothing…(pause)….nothing”. A note was found in his pocket saying “I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…, If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the
Would could have been the motive of this student? Once the educational system was reformed, and the church no longer had control of it, the schools had the freedom of expression. This changed, since during the reign of Nicholas I, censorship was very strict. Now, schools can pick out their own syllabus, have extra curricular activities, and appoint their own staff. Still, many students thought these changes were inadequate, and the uprisings started 4-5 years ago. In 1863, changes were made, but still, the riots continued, as the young people wanted to be free of any family or university control. Alexander Turgenev called them “nihilists”.
Educated critical thinkers who’s ideas spread through the now non-censored media, could question the autocracy of the Tsar and, as seen today, may go as far as trying to kill him. The young student was fueled by the freedom of expression given to the same person he tried to murder. Many people also and spread the ideas of socialists, like or Mikhail Bakunin, so who knows who could have influenced Dmitri’s actions. No wonder David Saunders will later on come to say that “Education reforms grew student radicalism and teaching lectures appeared to be serving not only academic and economic purposes but also the promotion of political instability”
One of our journalists managed to get an exclusive interview right after it happened:
- “You must be shocked, how do you feel about this?”
- “I- I am, I never thought one of my own people would betray me… after I tried so hard to give them what they want. What shocks me the most is that he’s of noble blood, and an educated student!
- “Who did you think it was before you found out?”
- “I truly thought it was a Polish revolutionary after I crushed their January uprising 2 years ago”
- “ A few years ago you told us about a fortune tellers prophecy, that you’ll have to endure 6 more assassination attempts, do you think the prophecy will be fulfilled?”
- ” I-I hope not, I don’t want to live in fear for the rest of my life”
- “What will you do now, will this cause any change in your reforms?”
- “I honestly don’t know, I’m still in shock… but something must be done, I need time to think about it. (pause) Actually, I think I have made up my mind. I’m done with being good. I’m done with the reforms. I’m tired of trying to help this country out and how do they repay me?! They try to kill me! *walks away*
Let’s all hope for the sake of Russia’s society that during those attempts the Russian Tsar will not stop implementing his reforms. Altogether, he has set a dangerous ground for himself, as he is encircled with both liberal and conservative ministers, trying to satisfy both sides. As Hugh Seton will go on to say: “tried the best between two worlds but failed as he tried to reach an unreal compromise between autocracy and the modern reforms”. Perhaps in his heart he truly is concerned about the welfare of his people, but his need for autocracy will put brakes on his reforms. His personality could also have been a contribution to yesterday assassination: (David Saunders) “personal weaknesses – little understanding or control over his own reforms and the laws”
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