Tsar Alexander II, an influential and significant figure in Russian, and therefore world history is widely regarded as a pioneering liberator of serfs and a powerful reformist. The extent to which he deserves his title of ‘Tsar Liberator’ can be evaluated by his fulfillment of said role – a liberator being defined as “a person who liberates a person or place from imprisonment or oppression”. Alexander II pushing for reformist measures at the beginning and end of his reign with the aim of freeing the serfs of generational oppression, and understanding the need for almost complete economic and social – and even military and administrative – change contributes to his legacy as ‘Tsar Liberator’. On the other hand, however, Alexander’s methods of achieving his aims certainly left much to be desired – leading many historians, and most significantly, civilians of the time to believe that the change he pushed for was entirely self-interested and merely symbolic. Despite him advocating the abolition of serfdom, the Emancipation statute of 1861 that granted them this freedom was drafted entirely by nobles, and was therefore completely beneficial only to these aristocrats, and gave serfs “freedom” and “rights” only in theory.
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Alexander II’s main claim to the title of ‘Liberator’ is the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. He was aware that Russia was in desperate need of strengthening, and his recognition of the need for reforms was crucial in an autocracy where the tsar had near-absolute power. Amongst the many freedoms granted to serfs during Tsar Alexander’s reign, they were granted freedom from their owners, the right to own land, and freedom of movement – rights that had thus far only been talked about and agitated, but not actively granted. That a ruler with absolute power was inclined towards reforms of a system that had thus far helped him subjugate many of his subjects was revolutionary and unheard of, which is what Tsar Alexander II hoped the peasants would see and be grateful for. However, while granting the serfs freedom in theory, the emancipation of the serfs did not truly fulfil its obligations. The drafting of the Emancipation statute of 1861 was limited entirely to nobles with no input from the people it would truly affect – the serfs. Despite Alexander claiming that it was of utmost importance to “abolish serfdom from above [rather] than to wait for the time when it begins to abolish itself from below”, it is easy to argue that the changes he brought about were self-interested and with the goal of preserving his absolute rule, rather than with a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the serfs. Because it was solely nobles involved in the creation of the Emancipation statute, almost all clauses – while on the surface seeming generous and beneficial to the serfs – were extremely beneficial to the nobles. It allowed for them to be paid compensation for the “loss of land” to the serfs, and for them to enter the serfs into what were essentially generational debt-traps till as late as 1905, while also choosing which land they wished to keep for themselves and naturally choosing the best and leaving the worst to the serfs. The emancipation resulted in peasants’ freedom from nobles, and gave birth to a new, rich class of peasants called Kulaks, granted them the freedom of movement between Russia and other countries – mostly Germany and America, and gave them stronger representation and autonomy via the strengthening of the Mir, and also freed them from the fear of doing military service. However, it also resulted in unbearable and crippling tax burdens and debts – with the peasants having to pay an average of 134% of the free market price of land, loss of security with the removal of landlord security, famine due to subpar plots of land, and therefore continued discontent. Overall, the Tsar’s emancipation reforms didn’t truly give serfs any sort of true liberation.
The abolition of the gentry’s control over the serfs required a new system of local governments. To this end, a system of elected rural local councils, called zemstva were implemented under the chairmanship of liberal reformer, N.A. Milyutin. The zemstva were given limited powers to approve local community projects, such as roads, prisons, public health, education etc. This gave serfs a certain level of autonomy from the Tsar as decisions that affected them directly were now being made by regulatory bodies closer to home – the zemstva’s local knowledge “enabled them to do a good job where a St. Petersburg official would have failed.” (Westwood). This also resulted in there being more concern regarding local issues, and liberal doctors and teachers who were appointed became focal points and leaders of serf mobilisation for reforms that would come later in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the zemstva were effectively figureheads who hardly did much for local communities – with nearly all problems stemming from the fact that they were dominated by the nobility. Provincial governors had the ability to reverse any decisions of the zemstva if considered to be ‘contrary to the law or the welfare of the state’, leading to apathy within the zemstva’s and hardly any incentive for change. This reform didn’t even lead to a more democratic, fair national assembly as many liberals had hoped for three reasons – first, that reactionary landowners feared a loss of their social privileges; second, that officials felt it a threat to their power and prestige; and third – and most insightful into the psyche of higher classes of the time – progressives didn’t believe that ex serfs/landowners were educated enough to take part in an assembly of people and were willing to stay with an autocratic system until they believed differently. Overall, the establishments of zemstva lead to a feeling of independence and autonomy within the peasant classes, but in the long run, it became clear that they were redundant as they were still very much controlled by state ideology. What made them beneficial to the peasants – their proximity and therefore familiarity with local issues – became the very thing that led to zemstva being used as instruments of censorship and repression later on, in the Tsar’s reactionary phase.
In 1864, Tsar Alexander II introduced a far more modern and progressive judicial system. In a society in which bribery and corruption – especially in the justice system – ran rampant, and people were denied their basic freedoms, the Tsar understood that in order to truly make the emancipation of serfs long-lasting he had to modernise and crack down on the judicial system. Where there was originally a system of separate courts for different classes, he introduced a system of equality before the law by abolishing these courts. He replaced unqualified and often uneducated judges with those who were better trained and disincentivised rampant bribery and corruption that was a result of low salaries by ordering their pay to be increased. Under these reforms the justice system became far more transparent and humane – evidence would now be considered in the open, defence counsels were allowed, trial by jury for criminal cases was introduced and press coverage of cases was allowed, while inhumane sentences and punishments were ordered to be reduced. However, a number of issues continued to exist even after judicial reforms. Trained lawyers were lacking especially in the first few years, and governmental influence was still ever-present as it was the state that controlled promotions and postings. The separately established volost courts continued to reinforce the idea of peasantry being separated from and therefore inferior to the rest of society, and universal trial by jury was not enforced, both of these factors resulted in people not truly being treated equally before the law, despite these reforms seeming to grant them this equality. Despite many flaws, the modernisation of Russia is owed largely to these reforms as they furthered the – albeit minimal – freedoms granted to serfs, while also setting the precedent for a far more transparent, progressive nation.
It became glaringly clear after the Crimean War of 1856 that the current social system was extremely harmful to the development of the country, and in fact, catalysed ll the reforms that were brought about – most significantly the military reforms. They were one of the most significant reforms introduced by Alexander II, as they symbolised the transition of Russia from a feudal state to a developed one, and were a turning point in the modernisation of Russia. The nobles and the landowners alike realised that the system of serfdom was only pushing Russia further into the cesspit of backwardness as forced conscription of serfs lowered the morale and therefore efficiency of the most important symbol of Russian power – its army. There were many reforms introduced to technology and weaponry, but relevant to whether or not the Tsar deserves the title of ‘Liberator’ centres around the specific reforms that affected soldiers. Military colleges were introduced and officer corps properly trained. Promotions to positions of leadership became far more meritocratic rather than being based on nobility and background alone. The Military Code was reviewed, bringing changes to the military courts’ procedures as an extension of judicial reforms. The most significant change effected by Dmitri Milyutin, Minister of War, 1861-81, was the abolition of serf-based conscription. His belief was that a smaller, better-trained army would be far more effective and far less expensive. To this end, he ended the practice of drafting convicts into the army, reduced the size of annual conscription to 100, reduced the length of military service, and improved morale by reducing capital punishment. Despite these reforms that aimed to make military service and obligations fairer, the system still remained heavily favoured towards aristocrats. The practice of sending substitutes to “represent” aristocrats in military service was commonplace, and the army was still based on the conscription of peasants, reducing the efficacy of these reforms. While the military reforms weren’t perfect, their effectivity certainly manifested in the form of Russia going from losing the Crimean Wars in 1856 to beating Turkey in 1877. However, the limitations of reform also revealed themselves in the facts that Russia won against Turkey – a considerably weak country – after months of bitter fighting, and then suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese.
Education and discourse were made far more accessible for serfs, and with popular education being extended and censorship law repealed, the peoples’ horizons were expanding. Alexander II’s educational reforms increased the number of primary and secondary schools throughout the country, declaring them accessible to all classes, and even women. Universities were given independence in 1863, and the number of university students grew from 3600 to 10000. The relaxation of censorship laws caused a spread of political discourse and therefore awareness, while education being more accessible made ex serfs far more empowered. However, the increase in knowledge and awareness only increased the discontent of the peasants with the existing power structure. This led them to revolt, which in turn caused the Tsar to become a reactionary during the middle years of his reign and tighten censorship again. Furthermore, the government still had the right to ban student organisations and veto university appointments – two powers that were exploited during the Tsar’s reactionary phase. It is clear therefore that with the level of education rising, so did the discontent amongst the working classes, leading to a crackdown on the very thing that made them aware of the failings of the system. The Tsar’s actions certainly set the foundation for mental liberation and elevation but were eventually a burden too.
Overall, Tsar Alexander does not deserve the title of ‘Tsar Liberator’, because, despite his actions which were seen as progressive’ and ‘reformative’, Tsar Alexander’s interests in liberating the serfs were purely self-interested, and therefore ineffective, and even harmful, in the long run. He only agitated for change before the 1860s because he recognised that peasants were getting increasingly disillusioned with the current system of serfdom such that it posed a threat to his absolute power – there were 712 peasant uprisings in the span of just 26 years. The only reason reform became a reality instead of a vague concept that existed with no real motivation to realise it was because the Tsar realised that Russia had even lost the one thing they were able to and did take pride in – their military. The Russian Army losing because if its ineptitude and lack of moral was a wake-up call to the Tsar and nobles alike that they wouldn’t be able to maintain power for long if they allowed the country to continue as it was. Why shouldn’t the fact that the Tsar brought about these reforms, even if for the wrong reasons justify his title of Tsar Liberator? Firstly, it is because of this malintent and half-heartedness, that the reforms, though introduced and implemented were far less effective than hoped – and in some cases even harmful to serfs. Secondly, even though the Tsar instigated the reforms, many of them were formed and drafted and thought about in detail only by other members of the nobility, such as Miyutin and his military reforms. Therefore, credit for these reforms certainly shouldn’t go to Alexander.
Quite simply, Tsar Alexander II does not deserve the title of ‘Tsar Liberator’ as neither his motives nor the effects of his reforms aligned fulfilled the goal of liberating the Russian people.