In recent historical perspectives, Alexander II has been described as the Tsar Liberator, the man who freed and ‘modernised’ Russia. Alexander II succeeded to the throne in 1855, at the height of the Crimean War, a war which clearly portrayed the strong backwardness of Russia in comparison to countries such as England and France. It was due to this that the newly appointed Tsar proposed several new reforms to modernise Russia, to be at the same stage of Western countries. This essay will be focusing on whether Alexander deserves the title of the Tsar Liberator and whether he truly freed Russia.
The first move Alexander II made to free Russia was the idea of emancipating the serfs within Russia. In 1861, Alexander issued his Emancipation Manifesto which proposed seventeen various things that would all contribute to freeing the serfs. Serfs were granted a personal freedom of two years, when full freedom would then be granted. Farming serfs were given plots of land in accordance to the size of their family to look after. Landowners got paid compensation in return for giving peasants pieces of land. The serfs would also get wages for working, something which had never occurred in Russia before. Alexander thought giving the serfs freedom would give me a wider range of support. This therefore, supports Alexander’s current reputation. He was the ‘Tsar Liberator’ as he liberated the serfs and gave them their freedom.
However, peasants were not actually given full freedom and were bound by several terms of their ‘freedom.’ To begin with, the serfs were not just given plots of land, but had to pay for them. Landowners generally sold land for 134% more than it was actually worth, and regardless to selling it for extortionate prices, they gave the peasants the bad and infertile land and kept the good farming land for themselves. Additionally, peasants lost the right to forage in the forests, use grazing land and any woods that surrounded their land. They had to pay for any resources needed, including logs. Therefore, even though the serfs were now free, they were often bound by economic difficulties.
Due to the new expenses of natural resources and infertile pieces of land, serfs generally received less land than they originally had and experienced numerous economic difficulties. Also, this liberation of all serfs and granting them the access to farming land which they would be paid for was not true for all serfs. Domestic serfs were given freedom, however, they received no land and found it hard to find new jobs, leading to many serfs being unemployed and in a worse state than they were originally in. Many things had to change as a result of the emancipation of the serfs, seeing as they now had a new ‘freedom’.
As a result of liberating the serfs, a new system of law and order had to be created to replace the landowners which originally sorted such matters. A system of elected councils known as the zemstvo were introduced. The governor, appointed by the Tsar, was in control of taxes, appointing officials and had to maintain law and order. The Zemstvo were a local assembly introduced during the major liberal reforms during the reign of Alexander II. Each district elected representatives who had control over the education, roads and agriculture of that region. The zemtvo helped the Tsar increase his liberal image. However, not much was done to change the existing social order. The nobility controlled 75% of the zemstvo compared to only 10% held by peasantry.
Therefore it is impossible to say that Alexander was the ‘Tsar Liberator’ as Russia was still not liberal and the peasantry were still classed to be below the nobility. The vote of a noble person was worth forty of a peasant vote. Even though this voting system was a large step, it was still rigged and was mostly controlled by those the Tsar considered loyal. For the reform to be completely liberal, the governmental reforms would have led to a national assembly, however, Alexander II refused to surrender his autocratic control. Originally, the zemstvo did not gain much public support either. Nevertheless, the zemstvo was to become much more important and successful in the near future.
For example, in 1914, the zemstva were the main people who helped with the production of war goods in preparation for World War I. regardless, Alexander II had laid the foundations for future success. Therefore, in conclusion, Alexander II was not a liberator as his reputation suggests, as social order did not change and voting systems were corrupt. Therefore, he cannot be called the giver of freedom as peasants were still bound by the constraints of the social order. Yet, the introduction of law and order to Russian life was not the only reform Alexander II introduced to ‘liberate’ Russia.
The introduction of the zemstvo was only one of the reforms put forward by Alexander II. After ‘freeing’ the serfs and introducing a new local government, Alexander II proceeded to reform the education, military and legal systems. Before the reforms, the judicial system was chaotic. However, Alexander reformed the whole of the legal system. No longer were there different courts for different classes, equality was introduced for all classes. Judges were to be better trained and paid higher wages to prevent bribery and the abuse of power that once occurred. All of these reforms were introduced to make the legal system fair by making the peasantry equal to the nobility. However, although this was what was theoretically meant to happen, the optimistic outcome did not always occur. Bribery still happened, regardless of how well paid the judges became. Judges still accepted money of people who offered it, mainly being the nobility.
Therefore, the legal system was still not legitimate. Also, these reforms were not introduced to all provinces in Russia, for example, the legal system was still chaotic in the Caucus region. The military was also changed as a result of Alexander’s reforms. Modern weapons were introduced and officers were given proper training. Convicts were no longer drafted into the army, thus strengthening it ass before, convicts jeopardised potential wins for the military. The length of service was also decreased from what was originally a death sentence, and generally lasted longer than life expectancy itself to 15 years active service and 10 year leave in reserve. This reserve was vast and could be mobilised whenever required. Additionally, these military reforms restored Russia’s international reputation as well as Alexander’s as ‘Alexander the Great,’ both the country and its Tsar regained their powerful reputation from when they lost it during the Crimean War.
However, these reforms were strongly opposed by the nobility and merchants of Russia who disliked the prospect of service in the ranks. Therefore, whether Alexander deserved his reputation in this case is simply a matter of principle and social order. Nobility would have disagreed with this recent reputation, whereas the peasant s may have supported it for giving them some of their life back without having to spend it all in military service. Therefore, for some, he was a liberator, yet for others, he got them involved in things they didn’t want to. Finally, Alexander II also made many reforms to the education system. The standard of teaching was improved and education was generally extended out to all classes, increasing the number of schools and pupils in Russia as a result.
Secondary schools extended the most with doubling numbers to 800,000 in the 1860s after allowing females to enrol into their schools. The number of university students was also previously allowed to rise and as a result, universities had more graduates and were given a greater independence in 1886. It was no longer just the nobility that were allowed to attend universities, but all classes went. Due to a relax in censorship, lectures were also permitted on European government and Philosophy. The new university statute gave universities more autonomy. However, the education reforms, as with all the other reforms, did not change the selected area into a completely liberal system. The government retained the right to veto any university appointments or ban any student organisations. Many universities were also closed as a result.
Therefore, this was not a liberal move, anything the universities did could be reversed by the government, with the Tsar keeping his autocracy, not liberating the education system at all. Nevertheless, Alexander did produce these reforms to begin liberalising Russia and even if they did not modernise Russia immediately, they laid the foundations for the future. Also, these reforms were more significant and liberal than any other reforms other Tsars implemented. Therefore, when looking at these reforms, it is valid to say he was the ‘Tsar Liberator.’ However, these reforms did not last forever. When the number of university students went up, so did the opposition towards Alexander II. This was when he began to change his reforms.
Alexander II could not have been the ‘Tsar Liberator,’ otherwise he would not have faced constant opposition after he introduced his numerous reforms. By 1855, there were over 140 magazines in circulation, containing new, revolutionised ideas. Alexander’s reforms failed to satisfy his critics amongst the liberal and social ranks. The relaxation on censorship meant that criticising the Tsar became much easier. Also, the increase in the number of Russian citizens going to universities meant the country’s top intelligentsia were being exposed to revolutionised, westernised ideas. Many opposition parties wanted equality, rather than the nobles experiencing favouritism as a result of the new reforms. In 1862, a manifesto was written by student radicals, suggesting a revolution was the only solution to the country’s problems.
During the reign of Alexander II, there were high levels of peasant and student unrest. A student revolutionary group called Land and Liberty, later regrouped as the People’s Will, were the original terrorists of Russia. They attempted to assassinate Alexander II, assuming that if they got rid of him, they would get the liberal reforms they really wanted, such as the introduction of a constitution that provided elections and the end to censorship. Several attempts were made to end the Tsar’s reign. After the first attempt to kill him, Alexander reversed his reforms, as he assumed they were what caused the public backlash. Censorship was once again tightened and the number of students allowed to go to university declined.
He changed to a rule of repression. However, just after he was assassinated, he was planning to produce another reform, granting the Russian people a constitution. However, this was never passed as he was killed first. Therefore, if Alexander really was the ‘Tsar Liberator’ he wouldn’t have accumulated such opposition from liberal students, and after he realised he had such opposition, he changed his stance. However, just before he was killed, he attempted to pass his final reform, the most liberal one of the lot. However, as he was killed before it was announced to the Russian public, it was never passed within his reign, so he cannot be classed as a liberator as he died before he had chance to be.
Therefore, this essay concludes that although Alexander II maintained a generally liberal course throughout his reign, he does not deserve the title ‘Alexander the Great’ or the ‘Tsar Liberator.’ This is mainly due to his failures. Although his reforms were meant to liberate Russia, they never went to plan and often backfired, causing a decline in liberalism and an increase in opposition. However, if he had not have been assassinated, it is questionable as to whether he would have deserved the title then. Just before his death, he was proposing one of his most liberal reforms yet and maybe if this had gone though, he truly would have been the Tsar Liberator. However, it is not possible to say he was with the reforms that he passed as they generally lead to the citizens of Russia wanting more.