Russia 1855-1917

Looking at Alexander II's Reforms and how successful they were

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Why was there need for reform?

There were many reasons for why reform was so greatly needed in Russia. Life in Russian villages in 1855 made it extremely difficult for the government to modernise and keep up with other European powers. Serfdom meant that 80% of the Russian population were illiterate consequently making it extremely difficult to introduce new agricultural technology. Furthermore, Serfs had no personal freedoms and could be bought, sold or exchanged - splitting up families and increasing the suicide rate in Russia.

The loss of the Crimean War only further highlighted how Russia needed reform. The army was shown to be disorganised with unreliable and weak leaders and the limited communications over the vast land made it difficult to transport food and munitions.

Folllowing the war Russia's economy suffered the backlash of a fluctuating currency and as winter struck hard poverty spread in masses. Something had to be done.

Finally, Russia had a weak, inefficient bureuacracy. Delays meant the government progress was always slow.


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Emancipation of the Serfs

  • Feb 1861 - had to be done by spring planting,
  • 22.4 million serfs given personal liberty,
  • New freedoms,
  • Redemption Payments,
  • The role of the commune
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Reforming the government

  • 3 classes of voters - landowners, wealthy townspeople and peasants,
  • Established elected assemblies on the district level,
  • Each class voted separately,
  • In the first elections: 43% nobles, 38% peasants and 19% other classes ,
  • Only applied to Eastern Russia,
  • The zemstvos had the authority to impose limited taxes on real estate and ,business; authorise work on roads, local construction and local welfare but had no police powers,


  • First opportunity for peasants to speak out,
  • Slow to take action,
  • Nobles still dominated due to fixed voting,
  • Earlier on in the process only 10% of those eligible voted,
  • Three class system constructed according to wealth,
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Legal reforms

  • 1862 work started on new legal code,
  • Open trials, jury system, independent judiciary, justice of the peace system to handle petty offences,
  •  Judges paid good wages,
  • Judges had to have certain qualifications,
  • Amount of bribes fell,
  • System therefore less corrupt,
  • Did not apply to the peasantry,
  • Juries could not handle cases involving treason,
  • 'Special courts' were set up for 'terrorists',
  • Third Section remained,
  • Censorship was another issue - partially lifted but not completely,
  • All books over 10 pages subject to preliminary censorship,
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Education reforms

  • Harsh measures of Nicholas I were repealed,
  • Schools were now open to children of all classes,
  • Religion was no longer a bar to entrance,
  • Higher literacy rates,
  • Faculties had the authoirty to control their own admissions,
  • Admissions were liberalised,
  • Women were allowed to become teachers,
  • Literacy rates rose to an all time high,
  • Easer to modernise,
  • More educated peasants began to learn in detail about the policies of Alexander II and opposition rose,
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Army reforms

  • The Crimean War exposed Alexander to the necessity of reform of the army,
  • Earlier the bulk of the army came from urban poor or the peasantry who served for 25 years, where discipline was harsh,
  • Reform established military schools to train officers, including specialist schools,
  • Still the nobility dominated the officer ranks,
  • 1874 - universal military service - conscription extended to all men eligible to serve at 20,
  • Following active service a reserve committment was required,
  • Length of service decreased from 25 to 15 years,
  • Better trained army improved literacy rates,
  • Extremely harsh punishments were abolished,
  • Really successful? Two losses at war following reform - Turkey and Japan,
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Evaluation of Alexander II's reforms

Overall I think that Alexander's reforms were extremely successful in transforming Russian society; Russia could finally expand and industrialise, the people of Russia were better educated and Serfs could no longer be bought or sold like objects. Although many peasants were still in harship, locked within a semi-feudal state, I think that at the time these reforms really did show promise of a new, re-vitalised Russia. It is therefore only on reflection, when we see the following counter-reforms of his son Alexander III and the losses at war with Turkey and Japan, that we can question how successful Alexander II's reforms were in changing Russia for the long-term.

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