How far should the first period of Alexander I’s reign (1801-1815) be seen as liberal and the second half (1815-1825) be seen as repressive?

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Last updated: May 2, 2019

Alexander I’s reign is often split into two sections, liberal first half and repressive second half.

Throughout Alexander’s reign he had liberal intentions, and his reign began with a liberal flourish, repealing the repressive policies of his father, allowing liberal ideas to spread, looking into the emancipation of the serfs and commissioning Speransky to draw up a constitution. However, even in this supposedly liberal half of the reign Alexander accomplished relatively little, being too weak to force through any legislation. It then became more repressive, when Alexander turned his attention to foreign policy, leaving Arakcheyev in charge at home, allowing repression in the form of military colonies, and education reform.Alexander’s reign began with promise of liberal reforms. In 1801, he repealed almost all of the harsh policies that had been passed by his father Tsar Paul, who had been a reactionary. He freed all of the political prisoners Paul had taken, and also allowed those who had been exiled to return. Furthermore he made the use of torture illegal, and abolished the secret police in 1802, allowing people greater freedom. He also allowed foreign ideas into the country, such as having a book on reform by Jeremy Bentham translated into Russian, and allowed the nobility to travel, which had previously been illegal, as previous tsars had been afraid that the spread of ideas, which could destabilise their position as autocrat, but Alexander encouraged it.

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Alexander also had liberal ideas in law, and appointed commission to codify the law, which was in disarray, this would allow for better justice to be passed. Improving the education system was another liberal move he made, opening three new universities, and forty secondary schools, leading to an educating system that looked far more like that of Western Europe.Furthermore he confronted the difficult question of emancipation of the serfs. Alexander was aware of the problems caused by serfdom, and many of his advisors from the unofficial committee urged him to emancipate them. However the Russian nobility was very powerful, and had been known to remove tsars who went against their interests, which meant he could not emancipate them all at once, so he attempted to improve their situation, gradually leading up to their emancipation.

Firstly by banning the advertisement of serfs in 1801; and then improving their position clarifying the law, and legalising the voluntary emancipation of serfs in 1803, this eventually led to the emancipation of forty-seven-thousand serfs by 1825. He did manage to emancipate some of the serfs in non Russian provinces, such as Estonia. The number of serfs that were emancipate may have been a small proportion of the population of serfs, but it showed his liberal intention, in a difficult role of autocratic ruler, and he did achieve his goal on a minor scale, but failed to force it through in its entirety.In 1807 Alexander appointed Speransky as the chief advisor on the reform of government. He came up with a very liberal draft constitution in 1809; this included an elected assembly, a written constitution and civil rights. If this had been put in place it could have changed the entire history of Russia could have been different, however Alexander failed to implement it this. Alexander did implement some of Speransky’s policies, for example the reorganisation of government ministries. Some of the existing ministries were abolished, such as the ministry of commerce, while the ministries for the army and navy were combined, and others were reformed.

Also the council of state, which had been part of Speransky’s proposal, was made the chief advisory to Alexander. Even though he could ignore their advice it was a step towards liberal reform.However, as Alexander became more involved in foreign policy he became less and less interested with the situation at home. He had been crucial in bringing down Napoleon, which had given him a sense of a divine mission to accomplish in Europe. Also his involvement in the putting down of Napoleon made him fear the liberal ideas which he had previously liked.

This led to an increase in censorship and an increasing influence from the Orthodox Church. Consequently, literature, poetry and theatre amongst other things were made illegal, and the secret police was expanded to enforce the censorship.Education, which he had expanded early in his reign was repressed, he appointed Golitsyn, who had been the over procurator on the holy synod, meaning he was deeply religious. He believed that devout orthodoxy was the remedy to liberal ideas and was interested in getting as many Russians to read the bible for themselves so that they would reject liberal ideas. He himself was quite liberal but he did not have the strength to control the many conservative ministers under his control, leading to repressive policy. It was nicknamed the ministry of darkness, as the policies issued by the Tsar were taken at face value, and often implemented too harshly, for example a book on poisonous mushrooms was forbidden, as mushrooms were the main food of the orthodox priests ate in lent. Universities also suffered, as well as having their books censored, liberal lecturers were sacked, often replaced by substandard tutors.

Studying abroad was prohibited, and courses were narrowed, so courses like philosophy could not be taught as it promotes questioning.Something that was despised by the Russian people was the military colonies. In theory they seem to be an improvement, as they had sturdy buildings, and facilities such as schools and hospitals, however, the costs outweighed the benefits. It was set up to reduce the cost, and improve the efficiency of the state peasants as well as providing somewhere to store a standing army which could be called up if Russia was threatened. There was a large army in 1815, as there had been conscription to fight against napoleon, and integrating them back into normal villages was dangerous as they had met dangerous western ideas. The soldiers disliked it as they resented the farming work, as they felt it was below them, after they had served the country.

Equally the peasants resented this, as they disliked the strict routine, and the uniformity of the colonies, as they were instructed on everything, form who to marry, and when to reproduce, if women failed to meet the required number there were fines in place.In Alexander’s defence, outside of Russia, he did often offer liberal reforms in countries he liberated outside of the Russian empire, for example, when he gained Poland in the congress of Vienna, he did grant a constitution, and he demanded that the charter be issued by Louis XVIII in France. Furthermore, at the time of his death he was still considering the emancipation of the serfs, and the plans for a constitution had not been completely shelved, they had just taken a back seat, as the growing unrest and wave of revolutions across Europe pushed him further into his position as an autocrat.In conclusion Alexander was full of ideas of how to reform Russia, but he was torn between his position as an autocrat, and his liberal intentions, which created an indecisive monarch who was too weak to force through his liberal ideas. The liberal flourish at the beginning of his reign was not followed up with results, and projects that were started in his liberal period were never completed or thrown out, for example, codifying the law and Speransky’s constitution.

His main problem was that he became distracted by foreign affairs, spending large amounts of time abroad, leaving ministers with instructions which they wrongly interpreted, leading to repressive policy such as schools, and the military colonies.It is true that he himself did become more reactionary, as he saw countless monarchs suffer revolution and overthrow in Western Europe, and he desired theses ideas to be crushed, as he had no wish for such action to happen in Russia. Overall the first part of his reign his liberal intentions shone through but came to little actual change, but in the second half it was tainted by his fear, and his lack of involvement in domestic policy.

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