Alexander II. – saviour or scourge?

Three days ago, on the 13th of March 1881, Russian tsar Alexander II. Romanov was assassinated by a bomb in Saint Petersburg.

He was a reformer who changed Russian society in many ways and in spite of the fact that he tried to liberalize Russian Empire, he was despised by many. This is supported by the fact that there were five assassination attempts before the successful sixth one. His death will mourned by some, and celebrated by some. Who was really this emperor and how should his legacy be remembered?

He took over the throne from his father Nicholas I. in 1855 during a hard time when Crimean war was raging. He took the place as tsar at a mature age of 36. In his youth he travelled across Russia and gained valuable experience. That is also why he was described as „the best prepared heir the Russian throne ever had „.[1]

Russia was defeated in the Crimean war and was cruelly showed that it wasn’t on the same level as the western countries. Its army was poorly equipped because of under-developed industry in Russia. The soldiers were starving and ill due to lack of money to finance the huge army. Surely, Alexander II. saw those problems and that’s why he decided to challenge them.

Undoubtedly the biggest reform by Alexander II. was the abolishment of serfdom. He himself said: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for it to abolish itself from below.”[2] He saw the tension in Russian society and opted out for a big change. He declared the Emancipation edict in February 1861. It granted personal serfs freedom within two years. For state serfs this period was five years. Both of these also received some land after being freed. Household serfs, however, received no land upon their liberating.

Here we can see the first problem of the abolishment of serfdom. Although it was a great act, and it certainly was an enormous step towards modernising Russian society, it also had its weaknesses. If we take the size of Russian land into consideration, it is obvious that it took a long time to spread the new declarations by the late tsar and to implement it. The fact that nobles and landlords were reluctant to let their serfs go also took part in prolonging the abolishment of serfdom.

The amount of time which implementing this change took was not the only drawback. As the late tsar himself said: “… everything that was possible to do to protect the interests of landowners – has been done.”[3] It can be drawn from this that Alexander II. did not want to aggravate the nobility taking away their serfs and giving them bad conditions. This was a logical thing to do, however, it was not very good for the serfs. Settling the ownership of lands was unfavourable to the serfs. They only got small pieces of land and it was overpriced. They have to pay off their debt for the land to the landowner for 49 years with 6% of interest charge added on. Taking the average lifespan in Russia, 35 years, into consideration, it is safe to claim that this debt has to be paid off by more than one generation of the newly freed serfs.

Lastly, even though the serfs were freed from their landlords, they still have to remain in a mir (the village commune). Mir collects taxes, can restrict travel or entrepreneurships. They keep control over how the farming land is distributed and their ideas about farming techniques are quite old-fashioned and inefficient. So the ex-serfs are now controlled by the mir. “Whatever emancipation may have offered to the peasants, it was not genuine liberty.”[4]

This doesn’t mean that abolishment of serfdom offered only despair and misery. There are cases of ex-serfs, who are now called kulaks, who sold off their lands. They were lucky, moved to the towns and started enterprises there or found an employment there. They managed to produce surplus for export, earned money and now form a subclass of wealthy peasants. So we can see that some really profited from the emancipation.

This is a quote from Nikolai Turgenev , a Russian economist, on abolishment of serfdom: “I can hardly say how happy I was when I saw for the first time my dear, beloved, and deeply respected Russian peasants free at last, and proprietors of the land they had till then cultivated as serfs! What a change! The same creatures, serfs yesterday, became men, conscious of their human dignity; their aspect, their language, are those of free men.”[5]

Another reform done by Alexander II. was a military reform. This is closely related to the failure in Crimean war and also the emancipation of the serfs. Before this reform, Russian army, though numerous, was not well organized, equipped nor trained. The military conscription applied to serfes only and they had to serve 25 years in the army. There are a few problems with this. Firstly, since there was such a long serving time, there were many soldiers in the army. But there was no money to support them. They lived in horrible conditions, ill and hungry. There was also no money to finance their training and equipment. Those are some of the reasons why Russian army was in such a sorry state.

What has been done to change it? The main actor of those reforms was a man called Dmitri Alekseyevich Milyuitn, who was the Russian ministry of war from 1861 to 1881. He is known for his analysis of the Crimean war catastrophe and was appointed by the late tsar to reform military. His military reforms were pretty witty.

First step, taken in 1859 before Milyuitin was appointed, was the reduction the conscripts to only 16 years. This gave the men opportunity to work on their landowners’ fields and it was useful for the economy.

The first important part of his reforms was adopted in 1863. With this reform the corporal punishment was ended. No more mindless flogging, beating and killing. In 1864 new military schools were established and focused on the students not being only from the nobility. Consequently the ranks in military were based not on money, but on merit. In 1875 military conscription became mandatory for all men equally. The length of military became based on education, varying from 6 months to 6 years.

Those reforms led to making Russian army better. “Milyutin’s reforms made the army more civilized and efficient.”[6]

Legal reforms also took place in Russia. Russian legal system was not working very much before. It was full of corruption, was done secretly and by unprofessional people. Can you imagine spending years in prison without ever being told what were the charges against you? This was reality for the citizens of Russia until Alexander II.’s reforms came.

His legal reforms introduced totally new legal system to Russia. It is based on the examples of Britain and French, and is considered to be very progressive and modern. Juries were established and judges were professionally trained and paid more to avoid corruption. Another important fact is that the trails are open for public and media started to popularise the trails and interfere with them. Those reforms brought freedom to the courtrooms. “The courtroom was the one place in Russia where real freedom of speech prevailed.”[7]

But as we’ve already seen with the Emancipation edict, not everything was always perfectly nice even though it may appear that way. The catch of the legal reform was that it’s taking its time being established and it has yet to spread throughout the whole vast land of Russia. Additionally, the Secret Police, third sector, can still remove cases from the court and have people arrested whenever they want. So in case I never publish anything after this article, you know what happened to me.

Other reforms of Alexander II. included lessing censure which led to people being able to discuss more openly, changes in the education system, making it available for more people by introducing scholarships and orienting schools towards more practical education by separating it from the church a bit. He innovated the local governments by creating zemstva (local government assembly) and later dumas (local government assembly in town). “The zemstvas and dumas had local power over public health, prisons, roads, agriculture, and education, which provided new opportunities for local political participation in ways they had not previously been possible.”[8]

Dumas and zemstva were a step towards democracy and towards modernisation of Russia. However, their funding was limited and the elections for representatives in dumas and zemstva were mostly only for the nobility. This way the “mini-parliaments” retained the previous conservative nature.

The legal, education and local government reforms all played a role in creating skilled debaters with critical thinking. Late tsar lessened the censorship and it let people speak, discuss question. This is a very important change, however it might have led to creation of opposition and eventually led to the assassination attempts.

We could see a change in the late tsar’s politics after the first assassination attempt. Although he still did some reforms, he was much more cautions. The shock and fear may be why he switched ministers of education and internal affairs for conservatives.

Alexander II. was a man full of controversies. Liberal or conservative? Decisive or easily-manipulated? Saviour or scourge? His reign was certainly not an easy one and his reforms have forever changed Russia. He is surely a man to be remembered by many generations.


History book for IB



[3] History book for IB