Tsar Liberator’, Alexander II

Tsar Alexander II earned the unofficial title ‘Tsar Liberator’ from the Russian serfs when he introduced the Edict of Emancipation in 1861. This was an Edict that gave the serfs their freedom and enabled them to become free citizens.

At the time of Tsar Alexander II coming to the throne, there was a great demand for change in Russia. Reformation was seen as essential to Russia’s survival in the modern European world and Tsar Alexander II knew this. During his reign Alexander II reformed things such as the judicial system, the military and local governments but also, in some ways, contradicted his reform and introduced some reactionary measures which included reviving exile to Siberia and restricting zemstvos from communicating with each other. These reactionary methods may not have been too welcome in a society where there was a great demand for change.

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Tsar Alexander II reformed many important things that improved people’s lives greatly, but there is still a lot of evidence that shows Alexander had failed to satisfy the people.

One main sign that people are not dissatisfied is unrest, for instance in 1861 there were 499 incidents of serious rioting. 1861 was also the year that the Emancipation Edict was introduced. The fact that there were unexpected ‘conditions’ to the edict such as redemption payments and organisations such as the Mir, may have been one reason for unrest at this time.

Tsar Alexander II had two main groups of opposition. These were The Moderates and The Extremists. The Moderates were influenced by western and Russian ideas. They believed in the importance of parliament (a western idea) and inherited a belief of progress. They were also influenced by Alexander Herzen. Herzen was an advocate of social reform and believed the Russian peasantry would become a revolutionary force and, after overthrowing the nobility, would create a socialist society. He also worked with Mikhail Bakunin (a man whose ideas influenced The Extremists) on The Bell which was a journal in England. The two then later smuggled this into Russia and distributed it to those who favoured reform.

The Moderates aim was to achieve a socialist society based on peasant units. They favoured peaceful methods to try to achieve their aim. Herzen had called for a ‘to the people approach’ and this was represented in 1874 when around 3000 educated young people went to live, dress and work as peasants in a movement known as ‘Going to the people’. Their aim was to educate the peasants so that they could gain their own freedom and equality but the movement was a failure as the peasants saw them as lunatics so didn’t object when the government arrested them.

The Extremists were influenced by the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin was regularly in trouble with the law and had been sentenced to death twice. The first was during the Dresden insurrection in 1849. He was then reprieved and extradited to Austria where he was wanted for his role in the Czech revolt in 1848. He was once again found guilty and sentenced to death. This sentence was then changed and he was passed onto the Russian government who later exiled him to Siberia. He managed to escape from Siberia and went to London where he met Alexander Herzen.

The Extremists preached violence and destruction and their aim by doing so was to revolutionise society. As opposed to the moderates, they used arson and assassination to create chaos as a method to achieve their aim.

The Extremists had movements such as ‘Land and freedom’ and ‘Peoples Will’ which both used terrorist tactics and the latter’s main aim was to assassinate the Tsar.

In 1866 an assassination attempt was made on Alexander and another followed the following year. Both of these attempts had an impact on Alexander and he went through a period of reaction.

“Alexander felt the need for more security…The Tsar began to retreat from public life….This reactionary force, coupled, as some saw it, with the lack of any major new reforms, led to a gradual growth in revolutionary activity.”

(Russia 1815 – 1881 by Russell Sherman)

This quote shows the effects of assassination attempts on the Tsar (more security around the Tsar was not surprising) and it also shows that during this period of the Tsar being less prominent, the revolutionary force grew. This may have been because of a need for change and, as the quote states, there were no new major reforms to satisfy this need so this could have caused the revolutionary force to grow.

Tsar Alexander II may have failed to satisfy the people because even though he introduced many major reforms, they had limited aims. For example, the Emancipation edict. From the serfs point of view it may have looked like The Tsar was introducing it for the well being of the people but in fact, it was introduced for quite selfish reasons. The Tsar was afraid of the peasants starting a revolution and overthrowing the existing political and social system. Plus, this was what Alexander Herzen (from the Moderates – opposition to Alexander II) was intent on. Tsar Alexander II himself said to the nobles:

“It is better to begin abolishing serfdom from above than to wait for it to begin to abolish itself from below.”

This clearly shows he was worried and knew something needed to be done. This therefore proves that Emancipation edict was introduced for self preservation, not for the good of the people. If it had been introduced for different reasons then the Tsar may have wanted to do more to improve the lives of the peasants rather than, in effect, making the peasants pay for their freedom through Redemption payments, which they could clearly not afford.

There is a lot of evidence to agree with the statement but there is also evidence to challenge it – evidence that shows Alexander II did satisfy the growing mood for change by the time of his assassination.

During the time Alexander was Tsar he made many significant reforms that all improved the lives of the people in some way. The reformation of the army, justice system, education system and creation of zemstvos all caused some improvement. The military reform made it so not only serfs were drafted like before but a subscription for all classes was created. The justice system now recognised the peasants as having a legal identity as opposed to their ‘justice’ being controlled by their owner. The government also created thousands more elementary schools. In 1856 there were 8000 elementary schools in Russia, whereas 24 years later there were 23,000 elementary schools. This meant that education was more accessible to the peasants.

Serfdom had been abolished and all those who were previously serfs were now free and also given land, whereas in the USA when the slaves were freed they were only given land. This was also at a much later date to when the Russian serfs were freed, so for the time it was a very generous ‘deal’. To be dissatisfied with these reforms suggest unrealistic expectations from the people. For an autocratic Tsar these were far reaching and influential.

One final and very important reform was the Loris Melikov proposal. This was a proposal to create an elected body that could advise the Tsar and suggest laws. Nothing like this had ever been suggested before. The Tsar had always traditionally made decisions by himself and been solely in charge of the country. A proposal such as this was a positive step to creating a more representative system of the people and this proposal may have saved Tsarism. Tsar Alexander agreed to this proposal and signed it on the morning of his assassination. So because of the death of the Tsar this plan was later abolished.

There is much evidence to agree with the statement of Alexander failing to satisfy the growing mood for change in Russia by the time of his assassination in 1881, but there is also a lot of evidence to disagree with the statement. One important point is that his assassination doesn’t mean that the whole of the Russian population wanted him dead, it may have just been one group of people who had this thought. Tsar Alexander II’s increasing popularity may have been the cause of his death.

For example, if people such as Alexander Herzen had the belief that the Russian peasantry would start a revolution then Alexander becoming more popular would be the opposite of what they would want. The Tsars high popularity would mean that the people’s demand for a revolution would decrease day by day. Alexander’s assassination may have been because his opposition groups saw it as the only possible way of gaining their socialist society. On the whole the evidence seems to suggest that Alexander II satisfied the mood for change with all of the reformation that took place, even though some reaction also took place.

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