Russia - Alexander II's Reforms

"This Whole Bazaar Of Projects ... This Noise Of Cheap And Shallow Ecstasies." How Do You Account For Pobedonostsev’s Comments On Alexander II’s Reforms Of The 1860s And 70s? 

The results and character of the reign of Alexander II have been much discussed and caused great disagreement over the years. His reign was remarkable because it saw the enactment of far reaching reforms in Russian government, institutions and society, perhaps the most dramatic and far reaching changes in the history of the Russian Empire. Some have seen Alexander II as the last competent Tsar, a man who, while no genius, realised that in a changing world, reform was necessary if the regime and Empire were to survive. Conversely, others have seen the revolution of 1917 and the severe disorder of the preceding decades as stemming directly from the reforms that he inaugurated. The reforms themselves have been criticised for going too far, and for not going far enough; allowing more free expression of radical feeling while not improving the lot of the people enough to inspire greater loyalty to the regime. To decide whether comments such as those of Pobedonestsev, dismissing the reforms, are justified it is necessary to see what they replaced and how far they achieved what they were intended to.

Alexander II came to the throne at the age of 36, and was well prepared for the role. He had received a wide ranging education, designed to make him a broad minded and humane man, while giving him a realistic outlook on the world and training him in the processes of government. He remained an autocrat, ruling directly and believing he had a right to do so, but he was milder, more patient and less inclined to harsh action than his father. In character, he has been described by some historians as weak willed rather than Liberal, lacking the energy to maintain the system his father left for him, but whether through knowledge of the need for change or lack of will to resist it, he brought more relief to the Russian people than many rulers before or since. He inherited a country defeated in war, riddled with corruption and injustice and with a crumbling and antiquated system, and during his 26 year reign did much to reform and bolster the country.

The greatest of the reforms his reign saw was that which won him his reputation as the "Tsar-Liberator", the Emancipation of the Serfs. The peasants had been long identified and acknowledged as the greatest problem of the Empire, yet Alexander II’s predecessors had done little to ease the situation. Nicholas I had helped the state peasants somewhat, and said if their conditions were not improved they could rebel, but did nothing else for them. The problem of the serfs was not addressed because of the dire consequences that changing it could have. The serfs were in some ways the basis for the economic and social system of Russia, and had been for centuries. However, the idea that the serfs served the Nobility, who in turn served Tsar had long since lost validity, when Peter III broke off obligations of the nobility in 1762, and the peasants wanted similar relief.

The serfs were a dangerous force because of their sheer number, comprising a large proportion of the population, and changes in their condition could spark them into violent revolt, or conversely lose the regime the support of the landowning nobility, who received much income and influence from the serf economy. Alexander II showed his determination to grasp the nettle of the serf issue in 1856, shortly after his accession, but the Emancipation decree was not signed until 1861, such was the complexity of the issue to be addressed. It was a compromise, designed to alienate neither the nobility nor the peasants. Like most compromises in Russia, it failed to satisfy any group at all. However, it did succeed in ending the system without destroying the regime or causing civil war, something that must go to Alexander’s credit.

The freed peasants were not to be left without land - they were given much of the land they had worked before Emancipation, so that they could survive independently. They were also given far greater civil rights and were no longer the property of the landowners. 22 million people were freed from bondage to private landlords with one stroke of the Tsar’s pen. To the Soviet historians this marked the end of the "feudal" regime and the start of the "capitalist" era, which would last until 1917. It was a fundamental change that had to occur if Russia was to enter, and survive, the modern era. It greatly helped the development of industry and towns as movement became more free, and the countryside was more open to becoming market based. Of any reforms of Alexander II, this is by far the most important.

However, although this was in theory a great break with the past, in the short term it did not have great effects. Many of the conditions the peasants lived under remained under different terms. The land was controlled by the peasant communes, which restricted the freedom of the peasants to experiment and expand. They could restrict their movement and administer punishment. Control by the landlord often was substituted by control by the commune. The lands that were given were in many cases less than the peasants could live on, and so they had to work for the landowner anyway to make ends meet, especially as they had to pay 49 years of ‘redemption payments’ for their land, far more than the land was worth. This was all made worse by land hunger caused by the growing population in the countryside.

The Emancipation was achieved only with great difficulty, but eventually the system started to work. However, the peasants were never again truly settled, with disturbances continuing through until the revolution. The economy did start to expand as a result of the change and much of the injustice of Russia was removed, but the peasants still felt they had a bad deal. The relationship between Tsar and Nobility had also been changed forever - the aims were conservative, but such a radical reform could not fail to weaken the social order. The nobility had a crisis of identity as they were unsure of their role, and this led to more instability in the country. Yet through all its problems, the Emancipation was a major step forward, and many of the initial imperfections were later modified. The country was never really pacified and much tension was released by the end of serfdom, but it also helped the Empire in many ways and contributed greatly to the industrialisation of the Empire.

The second of the areas greatly reformed by Alexander was the Justice system. This was one of the bleakest areas of Russian life under Nicholas I. The multiplicity of different courts meant cases were transferred around for sometimes years before being heard. The judges were often illiterate and mostly untrained, and the court secretary often had most power as all proceedings were written down by him. The police had great authority, even being able to levy fines. Corruption was so widespread as to become the accepted normality, with the result of trials usually depending on the relative financial resources of the two sides. All evidence was written and the defendant never met the judge, meaning he could not challenge the evidence. Alexander knew this needed change, and turned to it in 1864, once Emancipation was under way. It was a major break from traditional Russian justice, but despite this and some conservative opposition, it was easily accepted and was a major relief for the people. Details of the new system included trial by jury in criminal cases, oral testimony, public trials, trained literate judges and a uniform system of courts that meant a case could be transferred only twice.

The Judicial Reform transformed the system overnight from one of the worst in the world to one of the best, most modern systems. The results of this reform seem far less ambiguous than that of the serf Emancipation. It had an immediate and definite effect and was welcomed as a blessing by most people in Russia. Only a small minority of conservatives did not welcome it as they felt justice should be handed down from rulers, not administered by society for its own benefit. Revolutionaries also came to dislike it, mainly because it made life more bearable for the people and therefore made their job more difficult. However, the reform of the judicial system, sensible and popular as it was, did had unfortunate consequences for the Tsarist regime. The lawyers enjoyed great freedom of speech in the courtroom, and as their words were reported in the papers, they became a major force voicing radical opinion, and often became revolutionaries, trained as they were in the art of persuasion - Lenin himself was a lawyer, a profession created by the 1864 reform.

Another popular reform brought in under Alexander II was the introduction of the Zemstva system of local government. These were first introduced into the countryside in 1864 and were slowly extended through the Empire. They replaced much of the role of the local landowner in the running of local government, replacing him with a system of an elected body, where the landowner had very great but not dominant representation. These were also very successful and popular, doing superb work in many areas, including advancement of public education, welfare and health, as well as local economic development and road building. They helped improve literacy rates and lower mortality rates in the areas they were introduced. There were limitations to the system - it was gradually introduced, mainly in European Russia at first - by 1917 only 43 out of 70 provinces had Zemstva. Also, their role was limited by their small tax raising powers. Like the Judicial reforms and the Emancipation, it addressed a real need, improved the lot of many people, and yet led to more disorder. They were popular but a failure to extend a similar level of participation to central government was resented by a people made more optimistic. It also showed the Russian people were capable of looking after their own affairs, as well as proving a forum for the exercise of political rights, training politicians for the future.

Another major area of reform under Alexander was the army. He had come to power shortly after defeat by the more modern European powers in the Crimean War showed the inadequacy not only of the economy, but of the armed forces. Though it remained the largest standing army, the Russians were poorly equipped, trained and motivated, yet it consumed a third of government revenue and its dominant size led to overconfidence in foreign policy, leading to foolish conflicts. Reforms brought in 1863-75 by the war minister Dmitri Milyutin changed the conscription and organisation of the army and introduced more broad education, meaning increased opportunities in the army for non-nobles to become officers. Changes to conscription meant men served less time in the forces, but could be called up if needed, leading to a stock of soldiers who could contribute to the economy and cost nothing to keep. Educated men of all classes served even less time, and the nobility were eligible to be conscripted for the first time. The thought of their sons being conscripted and serving alongside sons of peasants and workers meant that the nobles put up most of the opposition to these reforms. The army reforms were another step forward for Russia, bringing her closer to a less class based system, a more modern state where the talented, rather than the high born, would flourish. The same was true of the effects of other reforms brought in under Alexander II, especially those in education, which increased opportunities for advancement for many in society.

The reforms of the 26 year reign of Alexander II were a great chance for the Romanov Dynasty to save their empire by peaceful reform from above, but an opportunity that was not taken. In the life of Alexander II, ended by a revolutionary, there were many hopes built by reforms, hopes which were not fulfilled. The next, and final, two Tsars were harsh, reactionary men quite unwilling to accept the fundamental changes the country demanded. One of the first acts of the successor to Alexander II, his son Alexander III, was to scrap the plans his father had toyed with of constitutional changes that could have led Russia peacefully along the road to representative government. The reign became notable for its reversal of many previous reforms, such as the changes to opportunity in the army, largely on the advice of Pobedonestsev, a reactionary and hugely influential minister. Because of his influence over both Alexander III and Nicholas II, Pobedonestsev was able to ensure Russia did not receive reform just as it needed it the most. He was firmly against democracy (which he called "the biggest lie of our time") and a fanatical supporter of the Orthodox Church. His comments on the reforms of the 1860s and 1870s are as unfair as they are derisory. The reforms indicated the path that could lead to the survival of the Romanovs, but the forces they stirred up were to destroy the regime as it tried to roll the changes back again after the death of Alexander II. A continuation of the reform process would have deprived the Romanovs of their absolute power, but its discontinuation led to their overthrow in 1917 by a totally disillusioned people.


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