The revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were preceded by a century of reform and reaction in Russia. The 19th century was a tumultuous one for the empire, full of demands for change, attempts at reform and uncertain outcomes. The first significant threat to tsarist autocracy came in December 1825, when army officers led an uprising against the new emperor, Nicholas I. The Decembrist revolt, as it became known, was more attempted palace coup than a legitimate democratic revolution – nevertheless the Decembrist rebels were liberal in their political views. The Decembrist uprising of 3,000 men was eventually crushed by the tsar, however it prompt him to examine the empire and its tensions.
Russia was also unsettled by the Crimean War of 1854-56. Triggered by imperial tensions and disputes over control of the Holy Lands, Russia was confronted by three powerful empires: France, Britain and the Ottomans (modern-day Turkey). Much of the fighting took place on the Russian territory, on a peninsula in the northern Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine. The Crimean War was a disaster for the homeland. Russia put almost three-quarters of a million men into the field and more than 200,000 of them were lost. The conflict also exposed Russia’s lack of industrial and technological development in comparison to her enemies. Lacking railway infrastructure, improved weaponry and other developments like the electric telegraph, the Russian military could not match the British or French in a major conflict.
The disastrous outcomes of the Crimean War prompted the tsar, Alexander II, to consider reforms, particularly the abolition of serfdom. By bringing an end to this medieval concept, in effect a form of bonded slavery, Alexander hoped that agricultural production could be modernised and made more efficient. This would assist the transformation of Russia from a backward agricultural economy into a modern industrial and capitalist economy. The idea of bringing an end to serfdom was hardly new. It had been suggested several times before but was always resisted by the conservative land-owning nobility, who benefited from the profits and status generated by serfdom.
In 1861 Alexander II acted, signing a decree that ruled a line through serfdom. A process of land redistribution was commenced – however the detail was left in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats, and in some cases the land-owners themselves. As a consequence, the reallocation of Russian land was hardly fair. Former serfs were now free peasants but they were given a stark choice: they could either leave their land or commit to a 49-year state mortgage. In effect, they had traded one form of bondage for another. Meanwhile, Alexander agreed to other liberalisations of Russian society. Among these were the creation of representative bodies called zemstva, in effect a form of local government in villages and provinces, given authority to dispense education, charitable relief and other services. The ‘reformer tsar’ also ordered the reformation of the army and navy, the implementation of new legal processes and an overhaul of the penal code.
But while Alexander’s reforms satisfied some, they did not go far enough for radicals, who demanded political change at higher levels. The amount of anti-tsarist dissent and unrest actually increased after the reforms of the 1860s. Populist activists called Narodniks ventured into rural areas to circulate revolutionary ideas and to impel the peasants to take action. By the 1870s Alexander’s reformist spirit had dwindled and he was forced to impose repressive measures. Russia’s fate was sealed with a blood curdling event on the streets of St Petersburg. As the tsar was driving in his carriage, he was assassinated by members of a radical fringe group called Narodnaya Volnya (‘People’s Will’). Almost blown in half by a bomb, the dying tsar was carried into the Winter Palace, to be given the last rites in front of his horrified family. The liberal-minded tsar breathed his last – and so did 19th century Russian reformism.
The murder of the tsar was met with horror, both within Russia and around the world. Its perpetrators hoped that it would frighten the ruling dynasty into more extensive reforms – but it had the reverse effect. The dead tsar was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, a giant of a man with a fearful temper and intimidating manner. Alexander immediately ordered the winding back of most of his father’s reforms and liberal policies. He expanded and strengthened the broad policy of ‘Russification’, which imposed the Russian culture and values on the peoples in the empire. Thousands of Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns and others were forced to learn or use the Russian language. A fervent anti-Semite, Alexander encouraged if not ordered the harassment of Russia’s five million Jews, banning them from some areas and prohibiting their participation in local elections. He reduced the authority of the zemstva, placing villages and communes under the control of government officials. Alexander III also reformed then expanded the Okhrana (secret police) and stepped up persecution of potential revolutionaries and assassins.
There were some progressive policies under Alexander III’s reign but they were almost entirely economic. The tsar’s appointment of Sergei Witte as finance minister in 1892 was significant. Witte, adept at luring foreign investment in Russia, helping to stimulate the mining and petroleum industries, while funding the construction of factories and infrastructure. Ironically, the largest sources of foreign capital in Russia were investors from France and Britain, its foes in the Crimea. Witte also set about expanding Russia’s transportation system, organising the construction of the much-needed Trans-Siberian Railway and other key projects. As the Russian economy grew and industrialised, it drew thousands of landless or disenchanted peasants into the cities to work in factories and plants. When Alexander III died in 1894 and the throne passed to his eldest son Nicholas II, the cities of European Russia were undergoing significant growth and change, stimulated by economic modernisation. But there had been no corresponding political modernisation: no reduction in autocratic power, no elected assembly, no improvement in civil rights or the rights of workers.
1. 19th century Russia was probably the only major power to retain a strong autocracy and semi-feudal social structure.
2. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War exposed its lack of development and was the catalyst for long-awaited reforms.
3. Alexander II emancipated Russia’s serfs and initiated other reforms, though they did not satisfy radical elements.
4. In 1881 Alexander II was murdered. The new tsar, Alexander III, ordered a wave of reaction and repression.
5. In the late 1800s Russia also underwent a period of economic modernisation and industrial growth, led largely by Sergei Witte and funded with government incentives and foreign investment.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Reform and reaction in Russia” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/reform-and-reaction-in-russia/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].
Alexander II held the title ‘Liberator’ due to his leading role in the radical reforms that took place in Russia from 1855. The Tsar greatly benefited from Russia’s autocratic style government and took the drastic changes as a way of preserving this. Russia was beginning to fall behind in comparison to other powers, e. g. in the delay of abolishing serfdom. This was highlighted after a humiliating defeat at the Crimean War in 1856, after losing on home ground, with poor military and training becoming apparent. This loss acted as a major catalyst for change in Russia.
To have of fundamentally transform Russia, Alexander II would have to have improved Russia socially, politically, militarily and economically. The abolition of serfdom was phased over a period of 20 years, considering how in 1861, 50 million of the 60 million inhabitants of Russia were peasants, 23 million of them being serfs. When in 1861 all serfs were given freedom, all control their owner had was lost. They were allowed to keep their own cottages and surrounding land, and often were hired by their previous landlord to work on their farmland.
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Morally, granting freedom to 23 million people could be considered a fundamental transformation of Russia. However, Alexander II experienced economic and political disadvantages. While serfs had the right to their own land, surrounding land they had to buy. The small strips of land could be all an ex-serf would have, and in situations where landlords would keep surrounding land, serfs would be in a worse situation. Due to a lack in education and training, the ex-serfs would be unable to manage their land. The economy was therefore affected, with up to a 23% decline in agricultural holdings in some parts of Russia.
Serfs would be tied to a village by the redemption paymentsthat were spread over 49 years. This contradicts Alexander II’s invention of expanding people’s culture by issuing passports. Passports caused additional problems as due to this and other effects of emancipating the serfs, other developments that could have taken place in Russia were hampered. While the emancipation of the serfs was a step in the right direction for Alexander II fundamentally transforming Russia, he failed to follow through and it was too little if Russia was to again be on the same level as other powers.
A reason Alexander II faced difficulties could be due to the lack of education in Russia at the time. How could the people of Russia move forward if only a very limited number knew how? The Russian government held back on education, due to a fear of new ideas spreading which would contradict that of the autocracy or orthodox church. However, soon Russia’s lack of education was clearly holding them back, as while England founded universities in the 13th century, they were not founded in Russia until the 18th century.
While Britain lead the world in the industrial revolution, Russia remained immensely unproductive, with peasants constantly tending to their fields to create enough substance to provide. Russia was already at a disadvantage agriculturaly due to Russia’s poor soil and inconsistent weather. Education was widely extended as a follow up the emancipation of the serfs. Schools were declared open to all and secondary schools and universities grew. By giving peasants an education, Russia could hopefully industrialise increase productivity: Russian farmers could no longer sell the huge quantities necessary to supply the western countries.
However, despite universities being given greater independence, revolutionary disturbances in the 1870s led to the state interfering with the autocratic government retaining the right to decline applications. It could therefore be considered Russia’s education wasn’t fundamentally transformed as AlexanderII wasn’t willing to fully commit to everyone having a right to a full education, Alexander kept tim continuation of the autocracy as the main priority. Censorship reforms also had limited success but was held back by the government’s hesitancy towards criticism.
By 1865 the press was allowed to discuss government policy and foreign publications were allowed into Russia (albeit only under political approval). The relaxation of censorship encouraged education also as the number of published books grew by ten times more by 1894, even matching British and American outputs combined. Although tight censorship returned, judicial reforms led to a more educated public as the conduct of trials became known. Russia’s previous judicial system was chaotic and cruel, and kept extremely secret from the public.
It suited the maintenance of serfdom and was in line with Russia’s autocratic government as the estate holder and was sole decider of the fate. By reforming the judicial system, Alexander II saw to transform the process in a fair and practical service. The new system made various classes more equal, higher classes were no longer given separate courts with different punishments and judges would no longer be bribed or abused as they were better trained with a more worthwhile salary.
Moreover, by reducing the cruelty of the sentences, Russia could begin a transformation in which the Russian public could less resent their country and it made a major contribution to the modernisation of Russia. However the system was still flawed as true equality between the rich and poor was not reached: juries were still made up of wealthy men with prejudice over the poor. As a recurring theme, Alexander II limited trials in that the bureaucracy could intervene and still have the final verdict.
The judicial reform of 1864 was indeed a crucial step in integrating Russia’s poor and wealthy groups but in the end they still remain vastly separate. Russia’s nobility dominated the courts when instead Alexander II should have aimed to secure a more universal system where each of his people could be represented. The necessity of military reforms became apparent after the defeat in the Crimean War and then again after the emancipation of the serfs drastically reduced conscription and therefore the size of the army.
Previous reforms could be considered to have made the military reforms easier as by making the Russia a fairer, better place to live then the military’s problem of a less than patriotic army could be solved. With a more systematic army with smaller divisions and better planning, the Russian army could be more prepared for defence. Alexander II put Dmitri Milyutin in charge as he introduced a number of reforms over a 20 year period. The military was given far more advanced weapons, proper training and promotions became more open in an attempt to make leadership more effective .
The biggest change, and most significant step towards a fundamentally reformed Russia, was in conscription. By ending the conscription of children and convicts and cutting conscription for men over 20 from twenty five years to six, Milyutin created a more motivated army. However, these reforms grew great criticism, notably from the merchants and nobility, where the idea of service was terrifying. This shows Alexander slowly attempting to close the social gap. In addition, the new army acted as a significant saving in government spending, lessening the strain on Russian economy.
It also acted in restoring some of Russia’s international reputation, lost after the Crimean War. In conclusion,Alexander II’s effort cannot be denied as he implemented a wide range of reforms but could not maintain them to the full extent. When it comes to Russia’s backwardness, Alexander II made little effect as other powers were so greatly advanced and his reforms were too little and too late. For example, despite exemplary efforts in the military, compared to Britain’s renowned army, Russia couldn’t compare.