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Despite being donned ‘The Great Reformer’ by various historians, there are two sides to the opinion of Alexander II. Although he emancipated the serfs, brought about military, government, judicial, educational, censorship, economic and church reforms, society was unsatisfied. E. Radzinsky, author of ‘Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar’ suggested that he was ‘two-headed’, with one head for reform, the other for the past, which may be proven in his retracting of reforms due to fear of how much power the people of Russia were acquiring, yet in terms of transforming society, through change and modernising, he was successful.
In 1861, just 6 years after coming to power, Alexander II emancipated the serfs. Such an action was revolutionary, yet he was not without his reasons. He assured a group of Moscow noblemen that “it is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below”. The Ukase meant serfs were free men, they could marry, create businesses, have rights and own property without need of approval from the landowner who previously owned them. They could keep the land they previously farmed and the landlords received compensation from the loss of land. This was a huge undertaking, to completely change the Russian system of serfdom, and it brought about enterprise and the seeds of modernisation.
Following this reform, Alexander II set out to change even more. Local governments were set up, called the ‘zemstva’, and they could improve public services and administer relief. Towns were now represented by ‘Dumas’ and the electorates understood the town’s issues, so could improve education and local welfare. In the zemstva, liberals were able to discuss the running of the country – a nod towards the western government system. The relaxing of censorship, which had even begun before the emancipation, meant western ideas would spread further. Foreign works were permitted and Russia saw far more books and newspapers published, from a meagre 1836/year in 1,855 to 10,691 in 1964.
There were new regulations; no longer did every title of a book need to be checked before being published. Wider reading meant greater education, whilst the emancipation meant that a greater number needed to be educated. The zemstva allowed these educational changes to be funded. Alexander Golovnin was appointed the Minister of Education in 1962, and under him, for the next 15 years education was transformed. In 1970, schools adopted an ‘open for all’ policy. Women and all races could attend secondary school. Between 1856 and 1880, the number of primary schools almost tripled and during the 1870s, the number of students at university did also.
The zemstva took over the church’s educational responsibility in 1864, leading to more liberal and modern thinking. The educational reforms lead to all communities being brighter, encouraging further business and free education lead to social mobility and opportunity. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Pyotr Valuev set up the Ecclesiastical Commission in 1862 to investigate church organisation and practise. The church, as a powerful weapon of the government had to retain the loyalty of the people, especially after the abolition of serfdom. In 1868, reforms meant the most talented and educated priests could be promoted within the church, and furthermore, Russia began to accept Polish Catholicism and relaxed her stance on the Jews and promoted the Finnish language.
A hugely important reform was economic. After the defeat in the Crimean war, Russia needed to earn back worldwide respect. Mikhail von Reutern, the Minister of Finance from 1862 – 1878 ensured there were taxes, budgets and a watch on government spending. Tax-farming was abolished, whilst banks were allowed credit facilities. Subsidies were spread to encourage the creation of railways and foreign investment in Russia was encouraged. The mining and cotton industries also thrived and national growth did too.
This was a big step towards modernisation, exports meant industry and railways meant transport, which also assisted the moving of modern military weapons and soldiers, Russia was moving forward. Ttaxation was fairer now, and that idea of equality spread to the judicial system. In 1864, Dmitrii Zamyatnin modelled a new system on western ideas. There were different types of courts, Volost courts to deal with emancipation, minor offences and the like, with judges who were elected unbiased peasants. The judges were paid more, which meant there was less corruption in the system, and careers in law began to emerge with the greater education system.
Open courts meant the public could view sentencing and be deterred from crime, and the press were free to document court cases. Surprisingly, the issue that triggered many reforms such as economic and the emancipation due to the shame in Crimea was the last to be brought about. The military reforms began in 1874, a while after the defeat.. Milyutin, the War Minster, recognised the importance of having a smaller, more professional army as opposed to a large and untrained one. Being in the army was no longer a punishment, and for some a career, as nepotism was stopped by military colleges. The length of service was reduced by 10 years to just 15, and class had nothing to do with whether or not you were conscripted. This all lead to reduced government expenditure on the military, and a small victory against Turkey in 1877.
Despite the huge impact of Alexander II’s reforms, they did not all transform society, especially as he withdrew several in years to come. Emancipation did not stop any discontent from the lower classes, as following the Ukase, there were 647 riots in 4 months. Many had less land than before, and were forced to pay ‘redemption payments’ for 49 years at a 6% rate of interest. The nobility were not satisfied either, and by 1905, 50% of the remaining land had been sold, as profits fell. Other reforms were also not without fault.
Zemstvas and Dumas never truly had the demands of the peasants fulfilled and they had no greater power. The Provincial Governors, who were appointed by the Tsar, could overrule any decision and by 1914, still only about 60% of provinces had a local government. This caused limitations in all other reforms. The economy remained relatively weak, and despite the open courts in the judicial system, government budgets were definitely not open for public viewing. 66% of government revenue came from indirect taxation and with the changing value of their currency, the rouble; Russia was still not financially stable.
The church was certainly not transformed greatly, as if it lost its power, so would the tsar. Clerical poverty was still rife and not all priests were educated. The church still censored media, as did the military and both religious and military courts were not reformed. Unlike the rest of the courts which now had a jury, any political or important crimes were dealt with by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and revolutionaries were still arrested by the Third Section, with peasants still being treated with a degree of inequality in the courts.
Educational and Censorship reforms also incited rebellion, with greater opportunity to spread radical ideas or even to spread general intelligence, which meant the government was threatened. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also still held the right to fine and prevent some publications in the media. The Military reforms were not without drawbacks either. Illiterate peasants (of which there were still vast numbers, despite the spread of education) could not benefit from the new training, and officers were still largely the product of nepotism. The army was still in essence peasant conscription and despite the railways, supply was far from perfect, as the trains were slow to develop and spread.
Alexander II, the man with whom Queen Victoria herself fell in love with, the ‘tsar liberator’ and the man who transformed a system that had not changed for 300 years was certainly ‘the great reformer’. He revolutionised almost every aspect of Russian society, and despite the fact that it may not have lasted, he still managed to begin modernisation for Russia. He could never satisfy the whole country. Before his death, there were many attempts on his life, and many were close. But he brought about greater equality, rights and hope. He showed the Russian people that change was possible, and strengthened the economy. Even though he grew scared of the nationwide liberation, the Loris-Melikov constitution is proof enough that he didn’t want the country to stay oppressed. Even on the day he was killed, he tried to transform Russia.