Tsar Alexander III (1881 - 1894) - 'the great reactionary'?

Past Questions:

  • Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century. (May 2008)

  • “Despite his apparently liberal policies, Alexander II was just as conservative as Alexander III.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (Nov 2007)

  • Compare and contrast the policies of Alexander II (1855-81) and Alexander III (1881-94) of Russia. (May 2006)


Key dates of his reign:
  • 1881- Assassination of Alexander II and Alexander III comes to the throne at the age of 36 in March 1881.
  • 1881, April- "Manifesto of Unshakable Autocracy".
  • 1881, Statute of State Security (gave govt. powers to pursue revolutionaries).
  • 1882- Peasants' Land Bank.
  • 1886- Abolishment of the Poll Tax.
  • 1889- Land Captains introduced.
  • 1891-92- Famine.
  • 1894- dies!

Background - i.e. personality, upbringing, circumstances in which he came to rule
  • Alexander III was the second son of Alexander II and thus had not been prepared or educated to take over the throne. When his older brother however died in 1865, he became the heir to Tsardom.
  • His father had oppointed the conservative Konstantin Pobodonestev as his tutor and shaped the conservative thoughts of Alexander III from early age.
  • He had a forceful character, conservative and strongly opposed western ideas.
  • Alexander blamed his father's death on the reforms he had made earlier in his life and strengthened the autocratic element of AIII's reign.
  • Greatly influenced by his tutor who believed that all opposition should be ruthlessly crushed and freedom of press and constitutions represented a threat to the state.
  • Russia was still significantly backwards and economically weak when AIII came to the throne and needed to some drastic changes!

Key aims as Tsar:
  • His "Manifesto of Unshakable Autocracy" issued in April 1881, showed rejection of democracy and further reform and the intent to have "full faith in the justice and strength of the autocracy".
  • Wanted to strengthen the autocracy and eliminate the opposition that had arisen from his father's reform.
  • However, also saw the urgent need to modernize and improve economically to become a Great Power.

Methods and policies to achieve these:
  • The terrorists responsible for his father's assassination were executed and a further 10,000 suspects were arrested.
  • Censorship was re-introduced and his fathers plans for a constituent assembly were immediatly crushed.
  • Local Government: Land Captains were introduced in 1889 to strengthen autocracy and position of the nobility on the countryside- taken only from the nobility, had local authority over administration and could overrule all zemstva's decisions! New laws introduced in 1890 1992 to reduce popular vote in rural and urban areas- in St.Petersburg the electorate was reduced by 2/3 following these reforms.

  • Peasantry and social policy: Some feared, due to the repressive nature of AIII's reforms, that he was going to re-institute serfdom but instead gave more power to the mir- 1893, banned peasants from leaving the mir and strengthened the power the mir had over the individual.
  • Power of the state and repression: The Statute of State Security was issued in 1881 and gave govt. more powers to persue revolutionaries. Gave right to ban public gatherings, close schools and universities and charge individuals for political crimes. Allowed them to imprison suspected opponents of the state without trial and conditions in prisons made more severe.

  • Censorship: education came under tighter control of the government and granted most of the independence gained under AII's rule. The tutition fees were raised to exlude lower-class children from primary and secondary education; believed this was a waste of time!

  • Russification and anti-semitism: The policy of suppressing national minorities was harshly put into action and the worst off were the jews who were constantly faced with progroms and oppression. The state encouraged violence against the Jewish population as a way to divert popular discontent.

  • Economic: Created the Peasants' Land Bank in 1882 to help the peasants purchase land and was so successful that by 1904 the peasants had bought 1/3 of the nobility's land. Also abolished the Poll Tax which was payed only by the peasants in 1886.
  • Offered limited concessions to the workers by introducing laws in 1883 and 85 to improve working conditions for women and children and in 1886- labour legislation payment and dismissal to protect the workers.

Successes (from whose perspective?)
  • The abolishment of the Poll Tax and the Peasant Land Bank helped to reliev the financial burden of the pesantry after the Emancipation of 1861 and reduced, to some extent, opposition and unrest in the countryside.
  • The Finance Minister was determined to industrialise Russia ta what ever cost and by 1892, Russia had a surplus budget for the first time ever- however achieved at a massive social cost (e.g. famine of 1891-92 where 1.5-2 million peasants died).
  • Between 1881 and 1894, The coal production in Russia had almost doubled and the production of pig-iron was more than double.
  • Supported of AIII argued that his reign was a period of stability which allowed the state to be strengthened and for Russian pride to be restored after turbulence of 1860s.
  • Lack of revolutionary disturbances showed that his repression of opposition had been successful.

Failures (from whose perspective?)
  • The laws to improve working conditions were extremely ineffective as there were only 300 inspectors for the whole of Russia.
  • FAMINE 1891-92.
  • Refusal to modernize Russia socially and political to to fir the realities of a modern, industrialized nation was his greatest mistake that would ultimately push the country into a crisis (1917).

Social+ Political:
  • The oppression during AIII's reign would only encourage further and more extreme opposition to the Tsarist regime and seen in Nicholas II's reign.
  • Clearest example is the execution of Lenin's brother in 1887 which led him towards political radicalism and revolutionary Marxism.
  • Finance Minister's focus on exporting grain to fund for industrialization: "We must to hungry but export"- famine and govt. failure to respond effectively to relieve suffering encouraged support for revolutionary opposition movements.
  • The new role played by the Zemstva in managing this relief led to new liberal opposition and in turn greater pressure for democracy.

Overall assessment of Alexander III and historiography
  • His failure to reform autocracy to fit the changing economy created great tension that would ultimately lead to the 1917 revolution and permanent end to Tsardom.

Compare and contrast Alexander II as the "Great reformer" with Alexander III as the "Great reactionary:
  • Even though AII emancipated the serfs, he could be seen as just as much of a reactionary as AIII: the limitations with his reforms were aimed to strengthen the autorcracy and and was not much of a liberal at all! Both had the aims to strengthening and holding on to autocracy.
  • Alexander III's policies in 1880s ans 1890s made important steps towards economic modernization and industrialization! Follwing on from his father's earlier reforms- even though reactionary in social and political terms- reformer in economic terms!
  • However, since both Tsars refused to limit their own authority and position- can be argued that neither of them were much of a reformer due to their refusal to change the political structure of Russia- Tsardom!!