Russian Rulers: Tsar Aleksandr II 1855-81

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Emancipation of Serfs - Background

CONSTANT struggle: How to keep the peasants happy? Crimean War left peasants unhappy with army laws and French Revolution an example of Industrialisation leading to spread of new ideas. Communist Manifesto published 1848.

Tsar had a 'balancing act': How to balance Autocracy with Reform? 'The Tsar Liberator'

The Problems: 

1. The Centrality of Serdom to Russian infrastructure. 4/5 Russians were serfs. Society & State relied on them.

2. Gentry owned 1/2. a) provided jobs & policed the serfs - who would do that if emancipated? > The state would 'inherit' the millions of serfs > required other reforms. b) hostility > economic impact (required compensation) & loss of status.

Conclusion: Would be very costly!!

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Emancipation of Serfs - 'Snowball'

Other reforms arose because of the EoS:

1. December 1855 Buturlin Committee dissolved > had censored press and academia. 'Freedom of Ideas'

2. Aleksandr pardoned rebels: Petraschevsky Circle (liberal thinkers/writers), Polish Rebels, Decembrists (former soldiers)

3. Freedom to Travel 

4. 1858 Free Press. Herzen's 'The Bell' published. Widely read > spread liberal ideas > calls for more reform from Miliutin brothers (free peasants & give land - 'Liberal Emancipation') and General Nazimov (free peasants without land - 'Conservative Emancipation')

5. March 1856 'It is better to ablosih Serfdom from above, rather than wait for it to abolish itself from below.' > December 1856 Emancipation Committee led by Yakov Rostovtsev for Liberal Emancipation. > 1859 Rostovtsev died, Count Panin took over > less liberal so statutes more conservative and expensive. Editing Commission were the statute creators.

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Emancipation of Serfs - The Process

19th February 1861 Emancipation Statutes published:

1. Serfs given freedom in principle, but with a 2 year waiting period.

2. Land transfer process apart from home & garden (kept unconditionally).

3. Peasants had to pay for land over 49 years at 6% interest, while landowners were paid Interest Bearing State Bonds.

4. After 20 years, 85% of Serfs legally owned their land, but landlords kept the best land.

5. Statutes a disappointment for liberal Russians, as the peasants were still very poor and couldn't really exercise their freedoms (travel etc.)

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Emancipation of Serfs - Impact

What impact?

1. 'Broke Serfdom without breaking Russia.' Although the liberals were unhappy, the gentry (who had power) were satisfied and it was better for the peasants than it had been previously.

2. Role of Mir strengthened - were in charge of payment distributions, meaning the freedom of peasants was limited as they were tied to the Mir. Heads of Mir conservative so wasn't good for the serfs.

3. Led to more reforms out of necessity - more demands were made (given an inch, yet they took a mile) > in Smolensk, a new assembly was requested > Bezdna uprising, 102 killed - Alex wasn't ready to compromise autocracy.

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Judicial Reforms

- Relatively liberal ministers replaced others: Zamyatnin, Minister for Justice; Golovnin, Minister for Education; Valuev, Minister for Internal Affairs


  •   Nicholas I tried to partially codify the law & establish a legal profession > an attempt to take power from the landowners and Justices of the Peace (JoP), but still much corruption
  • Trial by Inquisition


  • The Russian Courier - a legal magazine that carried transcripts > brought some conformity
  • 1864 Zamyatnin introduced barristers, replaced inquisition with juries > legal system modernised (to an extent)


  • Relatively fair trial BUT mostly confined to urban areas > JoP used in vast countryside
  • Revolutionary change to legal system
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Education Reforms


  • Increasing radicalism amongst grads, govt. tried to repress > 1861 closed St. Petersburg Uni. & introduced a quota system to limit student numbers (unsuccessful at limiting spread of ideas).


  • 1864: regulated & expanded elementary (primary) schools, increased number of gymnazii (secondary schools) & introduced progymnazii (middle schools).


  • Education system modernised - more people were educated.
  • BUT the 'problem' of radical ideas spreading was unsolved.
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Army Reforms


  • Crimean defeat = backdrop > peasants unhappy with 25 year draft.
  • Dmitri Miliutin told to reform army (early 1860s) > influenced by Prussia, seen as good model.


  • Draft reduced from 25 years to 15, 9 in reserve with education for ALL in army. 
  • 15 military districts > easier to organise/mobilise.
  • Improved training for officers.


  • Education improvements.
  • Army was less of a life sentence for peasants > they were much happier!
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Local Government Reforms


  • Vacuum left by EoS - Landowners had no responsibility for serfs > who would fix roads?
  • Aleks thus wanted to extend power to elected local assemblies.


  • 1864 Zemstva introduced, 2 levels: District level, limited power as those elected would deal with very local issues, landlords 42%, peasants 38% membership. Provincial level, comprised from small proportion of district zemstvo, no national zemstvo, landlords 74%, peasants 10.5% membership.
  • 1870 extended to Duma = district zemstva in smaller cities, 8 largest cities Dumi = provincial zemstva.


  • A cheap way of extending control over Russia > not bureaucratic as no-one was paid.
  • 1st form of democracy > everyone at least represented > didn't compromise Tsar's autocracy.
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'Shift to the Right' 1866

Increase in government reaction policy.

Kropotkin (liberal anarchist): 'After Karakozov had shot Aleks. II in April 1866, the state police became more omnipotent.' > more power went to 3rd Section, led by conservative Ptyr Shuvatov.

Govt. Shake up (Only Miliutin & Von Reutern remain) Timashev repleaced Valuev, 1867 Dmitri Tolstoy replaced Golovnin > 1871 to qualify for university, one had to have attended a gymnazii with a classical curriculum - discouraged class mobility & education.

The Press

Banning of radical books & journals: The Bell & The Contemporary.

Govt. promoted nationalist, anti-polish & pro-slav writers > Katkov @ Moscow News

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The Russo-Turkish War


Growing sense of nationalism in Eastern Europe - small countries wanted independence (riots in Bulgaria, Herzegovina & Serbia)

Aleks. II thought they wanted to be Russian, thus invaded some parts of the Ottoman Empire 1877 > eventually won but made unreasonable demands > Britain & Prussia made Treaty of Berlin July 1878 - Russian territory extended but not by much. So despite military victory, Russia still beaten by West > backward.

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Industry: Railways

Background: Worldwide industrial revolutions, Russia needed to catch up (Crimean War), 19th C powered by railways.

Reform: By end of Aleks' reign, railways track 15x longer BUT started from a low base. 1861 1,600km of track > 1878 22,000km of track. 1870-73 'Railway Mania' direct investment of 53mn rubels > Rail travel x4 1865-75. 

Govt. encouraged private investment (as was common throughout Europe) but unsuccessful so provided loans 1861-76 1.8bn rubels

Impact: Coherence brought to the empire (Russia's vast size). Stimulated trade > stabilisation of prices between regions > price of grain fell in cities - 1870 St Petersburg grain price fell by 2/3, further stimulated urbanisation & industrialisation.

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Industry: Raw Materials, Metallurgy & Cotton

Raw Materials

Some progress, but not highly exploited. 1869 John Hughes 'New Russia Company' (coal) founded - exception, not rule, an example of low foreign invesment > shows Russia was still backward.


State run, based mainly in the Urals > before EoS & Freedom to Travel, had been worked by Serfs > mass exodus of labour > 30% slump in production 1860-62 - long recovery process (despite railways)


Industrial revolution > big textile boom > cotton import x10 to keep up with textiles industry. Led to creation of more efficient machinery to cope with demand.

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Nicholas I had crushed nationalism > 100+ nationalities in Russia, so constant tension.


Finnish received their own Diet 1863 > increased powers.


Confined to Pale of Settlement, but artisans, militants etc. gradually allowed out.

Polish Revolt 1863

Saunders: 'A crisis of raised expectations' - EoS & Polish rebels pardoned 1850s & 60s > Miliutin freed Polish Serfs more generously than others; given an inch, took a mile BUT property of Catholic Church confiscated & held under control of Ministry of the Interior. Ended 1864, Poland lost its administrative status, tensions remained > Warsaw Uni. taught only in Russian language 1869. Similar measures in Ukraine > Kiev Uni's geography society most disruptive, closed 1876.

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Von Reutern - Minister for Finance - 'laid groundwork for Witte.'

  • Public accounting, harder to be corrupt as it was so visible.
  • Tax farming stopped, replaced by excise tax (VAT) > stabilised prices & provided a steady income for the government.
  • State Bank introduced 1860, Municipal Bank 1862, Savings Bank 1869.
  • Still relied on State Market - no free market like UK.
  • Rubel still weak: 1864 10.6% metal vs. notes > Von Reutern restricted paper money > 1869 29% metal vs. notes BUT still not good enough for Gold Standard. 
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These revision cards provide an excellent summary of Alexander II's reign, with a great deal of detail on his main policies and military ventures.

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