This essay will focus on the reforms of Alexander the Second. The desire for reform was huge amongst the discontent Russian people. Nicholas had made a few reforms, particularly in the region of serfdom. Apart from the more remembered reforms banning the auction of serfs and the splitting of families, he also introduced reforms in the 1840s allowing a few hundred families freedom. However considering there were 22 million privately owned serfs in Russia at this time it shows the ineffectiveness of his reform and his more reactionary than reformist attitude.
Alexander inherited a country on the verge of defeat in the Crimea; a country isolated in Europe; and which was dangerously weak. Politically Russia had an autocracy, unlike most of Europe, which survived largely due to the uneducated masses and the repression of any western thinking. Socially and economically Russia was hugely backward, particularly when compared to the industrialising European powers, with serfdom as a root of these problems. The major reform that Alexander is remembered for is the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861.
In effect this reform freed all state and privately owned serfs. The emancipation was introduced as at the time Serfdom was becoming socially unacceptable both within Russia and internationally where serfdom was seen as a blot on Russia’s reputation. Serfdom was also seen as the prime cause of Russian inefficiency. It was also noticed that other reforms were not possible whilst serfdom existed. Several key provisions were required were the emancipation to work. As all non-state owned land was declared to be the property of the nobles, peasants could not be given land they had to buy it.
To combat this the state introduced funds from which the peasantry could borrow. In return for this money they had to pay back redemption payments. These took 49 years to be completed and were so high that many had to mortgage land back to the nobles in order to keep up their repayments. Another problem caused by emancipation was that the areas of land granted to the serfs were too small, and many families had to rent extra land just to survive. A population explosion put extra pressure on the land and soon demands for a second emancipation grew.
The mood amongst some Russians is demonstrated by this manifesto published at the time of emancipation: “… we do not want privileged classes to exist. We do not want a nobility and titles. We want the land to belong to the nation and not to individuals. ” This was taken from a revolutionary manifesto, and therefore must not be taken to be representative of the views of all the people, but it is known that support for revolutionary movements was growing at the time. The Zemstva were local, rural councils, which had around 40% of members elected by peasants.
These organisations were far better equipped to deal with local needs than the central bureaucracy and they had an important impact on education and public health. Although the Zemstva were seen as inadequate compared to their Western counterparts it must be realised that this was a huge step forward by the Russians. The problems with the Zemstva were that the voting rights, at both local and provincial level were weighted heavily in favour of the Lords, meaning that the nobility still controlled local affairs. The system was also only slowly introduced with only 43 of 70 provinces having a Zemstvo by 1914.
The next logical reform was of the legal system. The old system, which operated like the witchcraft trials in Europe with a conclusion made almost before the trial itself, was abolished and in the new system defence councils were allowed. Judges were better trained and paid and were not removable from office by the government. Lower courts were established to replace the serf owner as local magistrate, but these still operated outside the new system. These reforms however were seen as the most thorough of the reforms, with the JP courts finally giving the poor a fair hearing.
The most bizarre of the reforms made were the combined tempering of censorship and the introduction of autonomy for the universities. The introduction of autonomy of the universities allowed growth of the Russian intelligentsia, which would allow for growth of the middle and entrepreneurial classes having the effect of boosting the economy. There was also an expansion in primary and secondary education, with bias against poor students reduced. From 1865 the press were allowed to discuss government policy, which meant that there was a growth in educated public opinion.
This increase was due in part to the growth in the number of educated people, and therefore and increase in those who would be potentially critical of Tsardom. This criticism of Tsarist abuses led to a tightening of censorship, leading to yet greater criticism and an overall growth in discontent. The next of the reforms was really a change in attitude. The places where this occurred were towards Poland following the 1863 revolt. Since Poland had been deprived of its army since 1831 following a previous revolt under Tsar Nicholas the only resistance was held up by a guerrilla group.
However after Alexander had stamped out this resistance he realised that concessions were required to if there was to be stability. The Polish peasants were given emancipation under better terms than the rest of the Russian population. However this was an exception, Poland became a part of another province and lost its separate administrative status. In 1865 the property of the Catholic Church was confiscated and the church itself was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior.
These decrees merely added to the mutual hatred between the Russians and the Poles. Finland was another place where this change of direction was demonstrated: the Diet was a local elected assembly, which became accepted under Alexander, and the use of Finnish was encouraged. This was successful until Russification under Alexander the III. Policy towards the Jews was also liberalised- there were some groups of skilled Jews who were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement where most Jews lived.
However soon after these reforms were made, Alexander stopped reform in these areas, particularly Poland and ideas for more were rejected leaving the Poles in a discontent state, with revolts leading to repression. Reform of the military effectively banned the use of conscription as a punishment. Military service was extended to al, but was reduced from 25 years to just 6, making it less of a death sentence. However the rank of officer was still largely the privilege of the Aristocrats. The army introduced a program of education, helping to spread literacy.
It was also the only major reform, which did little to weaken the Tsars authority. The emancipation was a reform, which was socially and economically necessary. Although it freed the peasants from their original masters, most remained tied to the land or the mir, meaning the reform did little to popularise Tsardom as little changed. The Zemstva allowed the peasants somewhere to complain to nearer than the corrupt central bureaucracy, but voting power was in the hands of the Lords, so the peasants had little say in a system that had minimal impact on their lives.
The reform of the legal system was the best thought out and made the peasants lives much easier, this was a reform that did improve public opinion of the tsar. The tempering of censorship and introduction of autonomy for the universities was a reform that was a huge risk, it had the effect of making people aware of the other ideas circulating in Europe and also allowed criticism of the Tsar, which lead to negative public opinion and ultimately repression.
The change in attitude worked while it lasted, particularly in Finland, making the Tsar a more popular ruler than before. As said above the reform of the military was one of the few that posed no threat to the Tsars position. The reforms that the Tsar made had several effects, but overall did little to popularise Tsardom in the state it was, particularly in the light of a growing intelligentsia.