Tsar Alexander II (1855 - 1881) - 'Tsar liberator'?

Past Questions:
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of Alexander II’s reforms. (Nov 2010)

  • “His measures of reform did not disguise his belief in the need to maintain autocratic rule.” To what extent do you agree with this view of Alexander II? (May 2010)

  • To what extent did Alexander II succeed in his attempts to modernize Russia? (Specimen paper)

  • To what extent did Alexander II’s policies succeed in fulfilling his aims? (Nov 2009)

  • What happened in Russia during the reign of Alexander II (1855–1881) was more of a revolution than many that went by that name elsewhere.” To what extent do you agree with the assertion that Alexander II’s policies were revolutionary? (May 2009)

  • 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)

  • “Considering the difficulties he inherited, Alexander II of Russia should be praised not criticised for his reforms.” To what extent do you agree with this judgment? (May 2007)

  • To what extent did Alexander II’s reforms cause more problems than they solved? (Nov 2006)

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

  • For what reasons, and with what results, did Alexander II try to reform Russian institutions? (May 2005)


Key dates of his reign:

1855 Alexander II came to the throne in March 1855 at the age of 36

1855 - 1856 Defeat in Crimean war. The loss in Crimea showed Alexander the need to modernize in order to strengthen Russia and retain its status as a Great Power.
1861 Emancipation edict of serfs carried out
1866-First assassination attempt on Alexander's life, which makes him more conservative during the rest of his reign.
1881-The growth of radical political opposition during his reign, partly made possible by his liberal reforms, eventually led to his assassination by terrorists of The People’s Will group in 1881.

Background - i.e. personality, upbringing, circumstances in which he came to rule


However, Alexander was less of a disciplinarian than his father and was more open to the arguments of others around him. Deeply influenced by defeat in Crimean war and by liberal ministers he embarked on extensive political, social and economical reforms during his reign.

Situation when Alexander came to power:

Russia had been defeated in the Crimean war (1854 - 1856). The war highlighted how the Russian army and economy was severly backwards compared to the western belligerents in the war. The loss in Crimea showed Alexander the need to modernize in order to strengthen Russia and retain its status as a Great Power.
There was increasing criticisms of the institution of serfdom that constituted the basis of Russian society and the biggest problem facing the government. There were economic arguments for its reform (with Westernizers seeing it as responsible for Russian backwardness as it acted as a brake on industrial and agricultural development through preventing enterprise and free movement of labour) and crucially military objections (with serfs serving for 25 years making urgently needed army reform an impossibility). Increasingly abolition of serfdom was seen as necessary to allow progress and modernization in Russia.
There was also significant peasant unrest and social instability, with over 350 peasant revolts between 1844 and 1854. When Nicholas I tried to recruit troops for the Crimean war from the peasantry this peasant unrest increased considerably, and the levels of violence demanded that the army had to be used to restore order.
Defeat in the Crimea and the succession of a new, younger tsar created a political climate more favourable to reform. Many people in Russia, especially intellectuals, nobles and administrators, were convinced that change was necessary and the early months of Alexander's reign saw an unusual consensus in favour of reform. Alexander II encouraged this optimism and hope for reform by relaxing press censorship and allowing free discussion of the serfdom issue. For those wanting change, Alexander's reign started well.

Nature of Alexander's rule:

i) an early liberal phase committed to reform (c. 1855 - 1866), and (ii) a later conservative phase (c. 1866 - 1881), in which he turned against his earlier reformism.

Key aims as Tsar:

Alexander's general programme of reforms can be understood in relation to his desire to strengthen and consolidate the tsarist autocracy. It should not be forgotten that Alexander's childhood readings in history had firmly embedded his belief in his own autocratic powers as tsar. In support of this view there is Alexander's comment to the nobles in 1856 that it "is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below." Rather than any liberal desire to emancipate the serfs, this suggests a pragmatic concern with maintaining the powers of the tsarist state in a time of complex challenges.

In carrying out his reforms, Alexander hoped to secure Russia's position as a great power following the humiliation in the Crimea, through improving the position of the Russian state both internally and externally. He hoped for a peace and stability in the countryside, with a prosperous and contented peasantry, and for a degree of industrial growth that would strengthen and modernize the army and the economy.
Methods and policies to achieve these:

Emancipation Edict (February, 1861):
  • Serfs granted personal freedom within 2 years, allowing them to own land, marry without interference, use law courts and set up their own businesses.
  • Freed peasants were granted ownership of their houses and the plot of land they had worked on.
  • Each serf was guaranteed a minimum size of allotment, but 75% of serfs received allotments 20% smaller than the land they worked before and 80% of the size considered necessary to feed a peasant family.
  • The government then compensated landlords for land lost to peasants, on a very high valuation of the land. Freed serfs were to repay the state this in the shape of ‘redemption dues’ over 49 years at 6% interest.
  • The local mir was made responsible for collecting and paying the redemption taxes, and thus exercised considerable control over each peasant.
  • State serfs were granted the same terms, but the transition period was 5 years not 2 and they generally received larger plots of lands. Household serfs came out worst of all: they received no land, just their freedom.

Evaluating successes and failures of emancipation:

· Viewing the emancipation as a 'success' or a 'failure' depends very much on what criteria it is judged against.

  • + Viewed in legal terms of rights and liberties, the emancipation was a monumental success: 40 million Russians were liberated overnight, and Russia made a dramatic break with its social and economic past to an extent unparalleled in nineteenth-century Europe.
  • - Immediate impact of the emancipation was lessened by practical problems of implementing the reform at local level. As the process was dependent upon the support of the nobility, it was often slow and carried out in a way that favoured the interests of landowners at the expense of the peasants.
· - Land settlements were thus unfavourable to the peasants: areas granted to the peasants were too small, and landlords charged inflated prices. This left peasants with less land than before, paying redemption taxes beyond the productive value of the land for land they thought was theirs by right. Furthermore, former domestic serfs who hadn’t previously worked the land didn’t receive any land at all under the terms of the Edict. In the short to medium-term, then, the emancipation probably (and ironically) actually worsened the wealth and living standards of former serfs in many cases.
· - Though freed from the landlord, peasants were still under control of the mir (peasant commune), which could restrict travel and freedom of enterprise in the village. The mir tended to be backwards looking in terms of perpetuating traditional farming techniques: by sharing land inefficiently in narrow strips, it helped to prevent the transformation of former serfs into individual peasant land owners.
· - Emancipation therefore failed to solve industrial backwardness: lacking land, facing economic difficulties and often prevented by the mir from being able to leave the village for towns, the peasants were not transformed into a new class of prosperous consumers.
· + On balance, even if emancipation did not improve peasants' living standards in the short term it did lead to over 85 % of former serfs becoming landowners in some shape or form within 20 years of the reform. Furthermore, historian David Christian argues that emancipation was a success in achieving its immediate objectives: peasant disturbances were reduced for the next 40 years, and serfdom was abolished without provoking an immediate major rebellion.

Alexander II's further reforms
  • As serfdom had been central to the functioning of the Russian state before 1861 (in terms of the military, political, administrative and social structure of the country), its repeal demanded a further series of reforms to enable to tsarist system of government to operate effectively.
Legal Reforms
  • Previously local legal issues had been handled by the landlord in his position of owner of the serfs. With no lawyers or juries in courts, and presumed guilty until proven innocent, the poor had little chance of securing justice.
  • In 1864 Alexander introduced a modern Western-style system that aimed to be an independent judiciary that was "equal for all our subjects". This included the introduction of juries, judges to be well-paid to avoid bribery and courts open to the public.
  • + Possibly the most liberal and progressive of Alexander's reforms, this new system offered Russians the chance of a fair trial for the first time. The court-rooms offered many from the rising intelligentsia a new and exciting career option, and the court-rooms enjoyed considerable freedom of expression. As Hugh Seton-Watson argues, "the court-room was the one place in Russia where real freedom of speech prevailed"
  • - However, it should also be noted that political cases were removed from these courts and the Secret Police could still arrest people at will. On balance, though, these were remarkable reforms.
Local Government Reforms
  • With the abolition of serfdom removing the legal basis of gentry’s control of the peasantry, Alexander saw the need for changes in the governmental system. In 1864 local government assemblies calledzemstvawere set up, followed by urban assemblies calleddumasin 1870.
  • These zemstva were potentially a radical liberal measure towards a system with a degree of local self-government - a radical measure in a centralist autocracy. However, Alexander intended them to support the traditional system of government rather than to move away from this. In effect, Alexander was appeasing local nobility by giving them some local political power in response to their perceived loss of status with the serfs' emancipation.
  • + 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. These local officials therefore had the chance to engage in Russia's real social problems.
  • - On the other hand, and revealing the clear limitations of this new form of 'local power', the police remained under central control, the provisional governor could overrule all zemstva decisions, the zemstva were permanently short of money, which limited their practical options, and the voting system was heavily weighted towards local landowners (they were far from democratic institutions!), which made it easy for the conservative nobility to and their interests to dominate assemblies.
Army Reforms
  • Given that the military humiliation in the Crimean was effectively the catalyst to Alexander's reforms, modernizing Russia's army was seen as crucial.
  • Carried out by the liberal Minister of War,Dmitri Milyutin, these military reforms included reducing the length of service for conscripts from 25 years to 6 years in service (and 9 years in reserve) and introducing universal military service for all males over 20 (no longer allowing the wealthy to escape this).
  • + Milyutin's reforms made the army more civilized and efficient - training and discipline no longer included brutal punishments, and shorter services meant that the army was no longer a 'life sentence'.
Education Reforms
  • New atmosphere of toleration and reform, as seen with relaxation of press censorship, was also notable with more liberal education policies.
  • Important university reform meant that universities were given much greater autonomy in their affairs (1863): lectures on European law and philosophy were allowed, scholars were allowed abroad to study and a new breed of liberal professors replaced many of the conservatives in place in Nicholas I’s reign. Furthermore, poor students did not have to pay fees, and by 1859 2/3 of students at Moscow university were exempt from fees.
  • + The number of children attending primary school increased considerably as the zemstva played a key role in increasing the number of elementary schools. Between 1856 and 1878, the number of children in primary school more than doubled from 450,000 to over 1 million.
  • - The government's liberal policies made universities into a "powder keg" - student radicalism grew and teaching lectures "appeared to be serving not only academic and economic purposes but also the promotion of political instability" (David Saunders).
Economic Reforms
  • Crimean defeat demonstrated that economic modernization was an urgent priority - military failure and inefficiency clearly had its roots in the backwardness of the Russian economy in relation to those of the European Great Powers. In particular, the government focused on trying to develop railways and increasing coal and iron production and pursued a more vigorous policy of industrialization than Nicholas I did.
  • + The Russian railway system developed from 1,600 km in 1861 to over 22,000 in 1878 (though this was still small compared internationally and given Russia's immense size). This growth in railways helped to provide the empire with greater internal coherence (through improved communications) and to stimulate internal trade ( chiefly though reducing the price of grain in the key cities of the north, which in turn encouraged urbanization and further industrialization).
  • + There were considerable increases in oil and coal production and new industrial areas were emerging, though much of these were dependent upon foreign investment (such as the Nobel brothers).
  • + Steady population growth led to a growing market in the countryside for manufactured goods - however, this 'peasant market' was extremely fragile as it was dependent on a good harvest, and transport difficulties still hindered further market development.
  • - One area that saw little reform was the government's taxation policies - the peasants were still forced to bear the heavy burden of the poll tax, which the gentry were exempt from and which rose by 80% over Alexander's reign.

Successes (from whose perspective?) Failures (from whose perspective?)

To be able to evaluate the successes and failures of Alexander II's reforms, we have to view them from someone's perspective. I will view the successes and failures from firstly Alexander's perspective and then later from the "people's" perspective (the people, which the reforms had effects on).

Alexander II:

His main aims were to 1) hold on to autocracy by liberal reforms and 2) make Russia a great power.

His first aim was clearly not achieved by his liberal policies and the emancipation of the serfs, as in the end, Alexander was assassinated by political radicals who wanted to overthrow Tsardom. Half-hearted reforms (legal + local government) upset the liberals (who wanted more freedom) and the conservatives (who resented loss of power). Educational reform + relaxation of the press etc. backfired and generated opposition to the Tsar instead of support. The liberation of the serfs had serious flaws and did not improve the situation of the serfs in Russia. In short, Alexander II's reforms did not achieve their intentions of stablizing Russian politics and did ultimately lead to Alexander's death.

However, his second aim of making Russia a great power was partly achieved through economic reforms, as every great power is in need of an industrial economy. During Alexander's reign Industry developed + railways system developed intensly. The overall industrial output of the country rose significantly. However, the progress was uneven, and in 1881, Russia was still an agricultural economy. The Tsarist taxation system had not either changed and prevented Russia's economy from expanding.

"People's" perspective:

In many ways the reforms of Alexander II were great successes for the Russian people. Even though they were limited and were intended to strengthen autocracy, they still opened up Russia's political and social climate. For example, liberation of serfs, the establishment of Dumas and Zemstvo and introduction of a western educational system all marked a significant step away from the tradtional Russian authoritarian rule and paved way for a more modern and democratic Russia.

Overall assessment of Alexander II and historiography

Responses to Alexander II's reforms and the**growth of opposition**

Instead of strengthening and stabilizing the regime, Alexander’s reforms led to greater political opposition: trying to choose a delicate middle path Alexander upset both conservatives (resenting loss of influence) and liberals (wanted reform to go further). On the one hand, the reforms led to a ‘crisis of rising expectations’: Alexander's reforms had raised hopes which he could not fulfill without undermining the autocracy, in particular calls for a national assembly (parliament) and a written constitution defining and limiting the Tsar’s powers. On the other hand, his later reactionary impulses that attempted to reduce and damper these expectations only angered reformers further and encouraged the growth of radical extremism against the state.

Furthermore, the freer and more open political atmosphere of the reforms, and the toleration of Western liberal ideas in the university lecture-rooms, led to the growth of a more radical opposition who demanded fundamental changes to Russian autocracy and society, particularly among students influenced by the growing flood of radical ideas in this period.
Having made key reforms in the 1860’s Alexander effectively stood at the crossroads between autocracy and liberal reform, but he opted against further reform and remained firmly committed to autocracy in the later stage of his reign.
Indeed, following the growth of opposition to his regime (including terrorism and assassination attempts of Alexander himself) and with the more radical political climate of the 1870's, Alexander enacted a series of more conservative measures that some historians have described as a reactionary "swing to the right" in contrast to his earlier "liberal" reforms.

Key examples of Alexander's repressive policies between 1866 and 1881 are: liberal reforming ministers in his government were replaced with conservative ministers who opposed further reform. There was also less freedom of the press and greater censorship. Also, following the first assassination attempt in 1866, the Secret Police ("Third Section") were given greater powers to arrest and clamp down on radicals.
Some historians have argued that Alexander's 'conservative shift' and his ending of reforms can be related directly to the first assassination attempt on the tsar's life made in 1866 byDmitri Karakozov, a disillusioned student radical. According to this argument, this radical act shocked Alexander II into taking more repressive action against opposition, and he spent the rest of his reign increasingly disillusioned with reform and conservative in outlook. So in this interpretation, Alexander's reign can effectively be split into two distinct phases: (i) an early liberal phase committed to reform (c. 1855 - 1866), and (ii) a later conservative phase (c. 1866 - 1881), in which he turned against his earlier reformism.

However, as Jonathan Bromley points out, this 'early liberal/late conservative' argument, switching with the first assassination attempt in 1866, is too simplistic, as it ignores the fact that the later part of Alexander's reign also included various liberal measures. For instance, in response to revolutionary political violence of the late 1870's Alexander responded both conservatively, with execution of radicals. Indeed, far from Alexander being a bitter conservative in 1881, just before his assassination he had agreed in principle to one of the reformers and radicals' key demands: a national assembly (parliament). Ironically then, Alexander II was assassinated by radicals just as he had conceded further, and potentially far-reaching, liberal reform for Russia.

Historiography: how far does Alexander II deserve the title of ‘Tsar liberator’?

· The key historiographical debate concerning Alexander is how far he deserves the title he received of being the 'Tsar Liberator'. The central issue that historians have disagreed upon is what Alexander's motives were in carrying out his reforms? Does it make sense to refer to Alexander II as a 'liberator'?
Some historian have denied Alexander’s role as a great reformer and liberal.
· What evidence do they support their argument with? They point out that Alexander was motivated by a desire to strengthen autocracy not replace it. As W. Bruce Lincoln claims,the concept of the state embodied in the person of the autocracy was in no way altered”.
Other historians have stressed the military benefits of reform, also beneficial to the ruling class, in explaining the motivation for reform. A.J. Rieber goes as far as stating that the emancipation and reform process was motivated solely by military considerations and the desire to strengthen and protect the state through a strong, modernised army.
Most historians now agree that Alexander was not cynically exploiting reform for political advantage, and instead argue that the inconsistent nature of his reforms can be related to the specific strengths and weaknesses of Alexander’s character: sometimes brave, sometimes confused and not especially intelligent: “the laws which freed the serfs emerged from a process that the Tsar barely understood and over which he had only partial control ” (David Saunders).
· As an autocrat he recognized his duty to try and fix a system that had clearly failed Russia in the Crimea, yet he was not sure as to the best way to do this, and he became scared whenever he saw potentially radical consequences to his reforms. Thus Hugh Seton-Watson saw Alexander at the crossroads between autocracy and modern liberal constitutional development, and judged him a failure for seeking an unrealistic compromise between the two and refusing to abandon autocracy.