In 1855, when Alexander II, son of Nicholas I, came to power as Tsar of Russia he was faced by many problems. Russia, being the backwards place it was needed reform. The gap between the noble class and the peasant class was enormous and causing problems. The serfs were being treated horribly; the legal system and educational system were in desperate need of changes. There were also governmental issues that needed to be addressed. Russia could use as much reform as possible; Alexander II saw these needs and made every effort to fulfill them in the name of fatherland.
In 1859, there were more than 40 million peasants enslaved to either private landowners or the state, others served as servants on the estates of the nobles. These serfs were the private property of their owners, often beaten for no or little reason. They had no freedom; it was up to their owners to consent any proposed marriages. Since 1649, when serfdom was legally established as a means of attaching peasants to the land of the nobility, serfdom had been a key factor in making the noble families wealthier and making it impossible for the serfs to break out of their enslavement.
Although when Alexander II became Tsar he made it clear that he was not desperate to emancipate the serfs, but did make it known that freeing the serfs would be in the greater interest of Russia. He stated “it is better that emancipation come from above than wait for it to come from below”1, this showed that he felt whether he went about emancipating the serfs or not, they were inevitably going to get their freedom one way or another. The emancipation which solved problems for a short period of time caused disturbances which eventually broke out with force in revolts of 1905. By 1861, and with great effort, Alexander II succeeded in what has been called “the greatest single piece of state-directed social engineering in modern European history”2.
After the liberation of the serfs, Alexander II continued to make many further reforms. The most urgent reform facing the Tsar after the emancipation act was the reform of the legal system. After concluding peace in the Crimean war, Alexander had made it his first promise in the manifesto of March 19 1856 to reform the legal system. He set up a commission in late 1861 to transform the system. On October 10, 1862 the principles of this reform were made public, and in November 1864 the changes were put into practice. The results were nothing short of a complete transformation of the Russian legal system. Tribunals were made public, jury’s were adopted for most criminal cases, Judges more respected, the procedure in the courts was simplified and defendants were given the right to a lawyer in their defence.
Abolishing serfdom led to a problem in rural areas. Whereas when the nobles had authority over the serfs, they served as an authoritative group, now with the serfs free of the nobles, there was need for rural policing. As the serfs got a taste of freedom, they naturally wanted more. To quell any uprisings Alexander introduced, under the ministry of the interior, rural policing. These policing groups were successful in suppressing peasant uprisings after their emancipation and were the first step to developing the somewhat self-governing bodies called zemstvos.
Zemtvos were introduced at both district and provincial levels. The national council claimed that these groups were set up in order to allow people of all classes to participate in making decisions on local affairs. However, this did not deem altogether true. People of all classes could participate in all of the meetings but when it came to voting, the votes were weighted according to how much money and land a particular person had. This was considered redemption, for the freeing of the nobles’ serfs. Even though the zemtvos were taking orders from a variety of different ministries, they managed to successfully reform the health and education systems in rural areas. From the time the first zemstvos were introduced in 1855, approximately 1000 new elementary schools were built each year and the condition of hospitals were drastically improved until the end of Alexander’s reign.
Over the years of his rule, Alexander’s liberal outlook on things changed. At the beginning of his rule he was keen to liberalise Russia. This is obvious is how he went about removing old censorship laws, he gave the universities more space to teach as they wished, allowed formerly banned journals into the country, and even writers that were exiled in previous years were allowed to have their works circulated amongst the Russian population. This pro-liberalistic attitude could only hold on for so long. Because of revolts in Poland in 1863, where he had established liberal reforms, which lasted an entire year and an attempt on his life on April 4, 1866 Alexander referred to reactionary measures. The attempt on his life by a young student called Karakozov was taken as a result of liberal education. Old censorship laws were put back in place and the teaching of science which was thought to promote questioning of authority was banished in elementary schools. The power of the zemstvos was restricted and the Tsar ruled in very autocratic way.
Alexander II, who will always be remembered for freeing the serfs, left a much greater mark, for the better, by reforming the legal system. If he had not been assassinated in 1881, and unable to complete the plans for a constitution he could well have been remembered more rightfully as the “Tsar Liberator”. Although he did fail in a bid for a constitution he did deal with other problems that faced him from the time he succeeded the throne, but perhaps not quite as well as he could have. For not for his coming to reactionary measures and going back on several successful liberal reforms he would have been remembered as a much more successful liberalist. He did give Russia its first delocalised and reprehensive level of the government; he failed in staying strong to his liberal beliefs that were so evident earlier in his rule. Even though, Alexander II did not successfully solve many of the problems that he faced, he did narrow the gap between classes, he brought welcome changes to the position of Tsar and if he had not been made victim of giving a little could well have been remembered as an even greater Tsar.