How successful were the attempts by Alexander II to reform Russia? 

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Last updated: April 30, 2019

After the brutal and extended Napoleonic wars, Russia was perceived as a powerful state that managed to repel the armies of the great Napoleon I. Despite this military success, Russia remained domestically backwards economically, politically and socially. The Crimean war had revealed true weaknesses in the Russia industrial sector. Reforms urgently needed to be instigated if Russia was to become part of the modern European nations.Amongst all Russian Tsars, it would be fair to describe Alexander II as a pioneer.

His father Nicholas I recognised the importance of reforming Russia but feared the consequences of doing so, as Tsars Peter III and Paul I had both been assassinated by unhappy nobles. However, Alexander II most notorious restructuring was to be the emancipation of the serfs. The noble’s ownership of serfs was at the heart of all Russia’s economic problems. Alexander II ordered the serfs to be freed in 1861. This was to mark the fist real effort from any Russian Tsar to reform an outdated system. By freeing the serfs Alexander II forced the Aristocracy to sell of their land and to take up jobs, thus making an effort to end unfair in heritage and promoting, to a certain extent a meritocracy. Serfs were also to suffer less cruel treatment at the hands of greedy landlords.

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They were given the right to marry, trade and worked as they pleased.The reforms brought to serfdom triggered other key reforms such as Zemstva. This consisted in appointing rural local council at district and provincial levels. This policy encouraged liberals to be appointed to the councils such as teachers and scientists. This resulted in better education and public health during the 1980’s.

A key success that can be linked to the emancipation of the serfs was that 40% of the local councils were elected by peasants. This allowed local representatives to respond to the needs far better than the central bureaucracy.In addition to the political and administrative reforms, Alexander also brought in important legal reforms, he established clear hierarchies in courts and implemented a new system which ensured that judges were better paid and better trained.

More importantly defence counsels were allowed and legal flogging was curtailed. These reforms were accepted by the public and were successfully applied. Once again, this policy can be linked to Alexander’s reforms concerning the serfs. This new justice system allowed the poorer members of society to be given sympathetic hearings.In addition to giving the poor more rights, Alexander II seriously attempted to re-instilled financial stability in a post-Crimean war Russia.

By freeing the serfs he gave them the opportunity to work on transport and industry. Transport was significantly improved, by the end of his reign the total amount of railways in Russia extended themselves to 22,000km which was a notable improvement when compared to the 1,100km before the reforms.In order to further loosen the economic burdens on Russia, Alexander reformed the army. He did this mainly to cut the expenditure for it was a costly and unpopular army, especially after a bloody and unsuccessful war in Crimea. The preposterously long military service was reduced from 25 to 6 years. Promotion by merit and better training were introduced as well as a new military code.

Whether it was Alexander or the Crimean war that reduced the army’s size, it was smaller and more efficient. The military reforms were also a way of improving literacy, military education helped 2-3 million soldiers to become literate between 1870 and 1890.Alexander’s liberalisation of the army was followed by new policies on national minorities that were previously heavily persecuted.

The Finnish language was encouraged and their was even a slight move towards toleration of Jews. By liberating the serfs Alexander made an impressive move (for the times) towards some sort of liberalism. This led to the birth of Russian political journalism which also encouraged fair trials as it would criticize the justice system. Alexander encouraged this area of the media to grow, consequently more and more people became involved in publications.

At first sight many of Alexander’s reforms may be considered success. However there were key flaws in many of his reforms. The most obvious of which concerns the emancipation of serfs.

Despite being given freedom from their previous owner, they were still under the control of the Mire. Alexander II failed to realise that simply declaring the serf’s freedom was insufficient. The Russian society itself was still restricting their freedom, they were not given any land from the state, most of the time the serfs were forced to buy land of nobles at extravagant prices they could not afford.In addition to this, all non-state land was given to nobles, maybe to appease their anger at loosing their free labour. This demonstrates Alexander’s weak and indecisive character. The rare pieces of land that the serfs obtained were often owned by the Mir. This organisation regularly collected tax from the unfortunate workers. Because of their financial strain peasants often lost the right to woods and these were declared to be the nobles and lords private properties.

Alexander II also failed to understand how dependant the serfs were of their nobles. Despite having to work in appalling conditions, they were still provided with lodgement and food (no matter how little). After their emancipation their were so many free serfs ready to be employed that this resulted in many not receiving jobs and this was to be the start of a series of famines. This was made worse as the state and nobles made increasingly great claims on grain production, leaving the serfs with very little. Additional financial strain was imposed on the serfs as they were made to pay redemption payments during 49 years.Due to the numerous weaknesses in the serfdom reforms, consequently many of the other reforms were less successful than they first appeared to be. Maybe the serfs had a say in their legal affairs, but the state often meddled with justice as government officials could only be tried under special conditions.

The major expectations in education were never fulfilled. The government increased its control over schools and students suffered a period of prosecution during 1861. The economy still suffered from the poor education system and their was a lack of entrepreneurial spirit.Despite all the shortcomings in his reforms and his personality, Alexander II founded the beginnings of industrial transformation that speeded up in the 1890’s as well as being responsible for planting the seeds to liberalism in Russia.

Even though the emancipation of the serfs was nothing more than a symbol, it promoted liberalism and was an attempt to give equal opportunities to all. Even if he was unsuccessful in reforming the economy, few leaders in Russia have been, difficult environmental conditions and un-commercial peasants were at the heart of Russia economic failures. One is forced to draw the conclusion that despite several failures Alexander II was making progress and attempted to steer Russia in the right direction, his reforms may not have functioned, but his ideology was the correct one.

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