For what reasons and with what results did Alexander II try to reform Russian institutions? The ascension of Alexander II coincided with Russia’s defeat at the hands of the British and French in the Crimean War. The defeat had exposed Russia’s weakness and backwardness in comparison with more advanced nations like Britain and France. This prompted Alexander to embark on a series of reforms to “modernize” Russia. This essay will identify the causes and consequences of this period of reform.
Although the peasants were grateful for their freedom, essentially they resented the terms of the Emancipation statutes and there were some serious disturbances following their implementation. Liberals were disappointed by the changes and although the government was aware of this, it declined to take the reforms further fearing “noble resentment would turn into noble antagonism”. However, despite its flaws, it has been argued that Emancipation was a moral improvement. M. S.
Andersen claims that “the grant of individual freedom and minimum of civil rights to twenty million people previously in bondage was the single greatest liberating measure in the whole history of Europe”. Alexander II has thus also been known as the “Tsar Liberator” and indeed Emancipation was an enormous step forward and opened the door to modernization. Further administrative reform was needed as a consequence to the emancipation of serfs. The abolition of the legal and judicial control of the gentry over their serfs required a new system of local government. Rural district and provisional assemblies known as the Zemstva were established.
Their functions included the administration of primary education, public health, local industry and the maintenance of infrastructure. Alexander II understood that improving the living conditions of the peasants decreased the risk of widespread unrest. However he also saw these Zemstva as props for the autocracy and they were not truly democratic. The vote weighed more heavily in favour of local landlords making it easy for the conservative nobility to dominate these assemblies. However, many resented the growing popularity and control that lawyers were gaining.
Conservatives regarded justice as “something dispensed by rulers rather than something administered by society for the benefit of society”. It was evident that by introducing Judicial Reform the government had undermined its power and had “cut a great deal of ground from under its own feet”. Despite this, even revolutionaries deprecated the new system either claiming that it was a new system of exploitation for the bourgeoisie or simply opposing it on the principle that its success would make revolution less likely. Nevertheless, Judicial Reform was undeniably a great innovation and one of Alexander’s most forward thinking reforms.
One of the world’s better legal systems was created and for the first time Russians had the possibility of a fair trial. However, some historians argue that although the reform process began to slow down, the main reforms had already been implemented and established and Russia was far more stable now than it had been when Alexander came to power. In fact, he was set to embark on a new set of reforms in 1881 when he was assassinated. His assassination by a group of Social Revolutionaries unfortunately led to severe oppressive measures being imposed by his successor, Alexander III.