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Alexander II

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Alexander II

Alexander II’s reforms are said to have transformed Russia, but how much impact did he really have?

Alexander II’s reign

Tsar Alexander II was more open to change than his father, Nicholas I, and was influenced by Western liberalisation. In addition to this, the Emancipation of the Serfs was a great change for Russian society. It was necessary to reform society and government to reflect these developments, and for Russia to ‘keep up’ with the West.

How did Alexander II reform the Russian military between 1874–75?

Tsar Alexander II recognised that Russia’s military needed modernising. Russia’s status as a great power depended on its military strength, but Russia’s unexpected loss in the Crimean War showed that the army was no longer world-beating.

Under Dmitry Milyutin, Minister of War:

  • Conscription was made compulsory for all classes (including serfs and nobles).

  • Service length was reduced to 15 years, or 10 in the reserves.

  • Punishments were made less harsh.

  • Military colonies, where conscripts had lived and trained, were abandoned.

  • Modern weaponry was introduced.

  • A new command structure was established.

  • Military colleges were set up to train the non-noble officer corps.

While these were improvements, problems remained with supply and leadership. Conscription was not universal, as nobles found substitutes to serve in their place. The army struggled in the war against Turkey (1877-78) and was defeated in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05).

Alexander II Photo of Dmitry Milyutin StudySmarterA photo of Dmitry Milyutin, Wikimedia Commons.

How did Alexander II reform local government between 1864-70?

Elected local councils (zemstva, singular zemstvo) replaced the rights and obligations of the gentry.

  • They were chosen through four electoral colleges: one each for nobles, townspeople, the Church, and the serfs.

  • The electoral system was weighted so that nobles’ votes mattered most.

  • The zemstva had powers to improve public services, develop industrial projects, and give relief to the poor.

  • In 1870 these powers were extended to towns, where town councils (dumas) were set up.

  • Zemstva were mostly made up of the educated, who used meetings as a forum for government criticism and political debate.

How did the electoral colleges work?

Electoral colleges are a political system in which individuals elect others to vote on their behalf. Peasants had the right to vote for members of an electoral college. The electoral college would then vote for nominees to the zemstvo. The nobles, townspeople, and the Church would vote directly for nominees. This system reduced the weight of peasants’ votes, meaning they had less influence over the zemstva than the nobility.

Alexander II A diagram showing the electoral structure of zemstva StudySmarterA diagram showing the electoral structure of the zemstva, StudySmarter Originals.

However, zemstva powers were limited. They had no control over taxes and could have their decisions overturned by provincial governors. Governors were still responsible for appointing local officials, and for the rule of law. Zemstva membership was not representative of ordinary Russians.

How did Alexander II reform the judiciary?

Prior to 1864, a judge examined written evidence, often prepared by landowners and the police, to reach a verdict. There was no jury system, no examination of witnesses, and no lawyers. The judge's verdict was final and the accused was considered guilty until proven innocent.

The new Russian system was based on Western justice:

  • A single system of courts was set up.

  • However, volost courts (run by three elected judges and a chairman) dealt with peasant cases.

  • The accused was presumed innocent until proven guilty.

  • The accused could hire a lawyer.

  • Criminal cases were heard before a barrister and a jury of property-owning men.

  • Judges were appointed by the Tsar, and had better training and pay.

  • Local Justices of the Peace were elected every three years by the zemstva.

  • JPs were politically independent.

  • Courts were open to the public and proceedings were reported.

However:

  • The lawyers of the intelligentsia used the courts as an opportunity to criticise Alexander's regime.

  • Juries sometimes acquitted the accused out of sympathy, leading to a decree permitting political crimes to be tried by special procedures.

  • Ecclesiastical (Church) and military courts were excluded from reforms.

  • Reforms were restricted to the central provinces of Russia. They did not extend to Siberia or the Urals.

How did Alexander II reform education?

The emancipation of the serfs increased the need for literacy and numeracy among peasants, who were now trying to run their own smallholdings. The establishment of the zemstva provided an opportunity to change control of education. Under Alexander, Golovnin, the Russian Minister for Education 1862-97:

  • Responsibility for schools was transferred from the Orthodox Church to the zemstva.

  • Primary and secondary schooling was extended.

  • Schools were declared open to all, regardless of sex or class.

  • Universities could govern themselves and appoint their own staff.

These reforms increased the number of radical thinkers criticising the Russian state. Conservatives believed this threatened political stability, and so the government restricted access to education from 1866 to suppress this.

How did Alexander II's attitude to censorship change between 1858–70?

Alexander II initially relaxed press censorship:

  • Press comment on government policy was permitted.

  • Restrictions on publishers were reduced.

  • Foreign publications were permitted with government approval.

The resulting increase in press criticism led to harsher restrictions in the 1870s.

What was the effect of other religious, social, and economic reforms?

There was some attempt at reducing corruption (by investigating suspected priests) in the Orthodox Church, and conditions for Jews and other ethnic minorities improved. Mikhail Reutern, as Russian Minister for Finance, brought about economic liberalisation. However, by the 1870s hopes for Church reform or better treatment of ethnic minorities had ended. Economic liberalisation remained, but at the expense of the serfs.

What factors led to Alexander II’s reactionary turn?

From 1866, Alexander II adopted a more repressive style of governance. Censorship increased, the government reasserted its control of education and attempts to reduce Church corruption and improve the treatment of Jews and Poles were abandoned. Several factors influenced Alexander II’s change of direction.

Increasing criticism and opposition in Russia

Alexander’s reforms to universities and schools meant that the Church no longer controlled schooling, and universities became independent. This led to an increase in the number of radical thinkers who criticised the Russian government. As a result, Alexander faced pressure from the nobles and intelligentsia to implement progressive reforms.

Alexander’s relaxation of censorship and judicial reforms made criticism more widespread and accessible to the Russian public. Press editorials on government policy could be printed and previous restrictions on publishers were lifted. Opening courts to lawyers and the press gave the intelligentsia a platform to criticise the government. In some cases, a sympathetic jury acquitted the offender because they sympathised with their actions.

The historian Geoffrey Hosking argues that Alexander II faced an ‘insoluble dilemma’.¹ His reforms challenged the previous power structure, in which the Tsar’s authority was absolute and criticism was forbidden, but had not established new institutions. Russia was trapped between her need for liberalisation and modernisation, and the threat of those reforms to tsarist autocracy.

The 1863 Polish rebellion

The January Uprising was a popular rebellion against Russian rule over Poland. It had widespread support amongst artisans, urban workers, peasants, and the lower gentry. Alexander responded with a carrot-and-stick approach, granting political reforms to appease the peasants and brutally crushing the rebellion’s leaders. Key figures were executed or exiled to Siberia.

Alexander II Warsaw students in the January Uprising StudySmarterAn etched plate of Warsaw students in the January Uprising, Wikimedia Commons.

The failure of the rebellion led to intensified Russification in Poland and a return to harsh treatment of Jews and Poles. It was also a warning sign to Alexander that tolerance and liberalisation could threaten the Russian Empire.

Attempted assassinations

Alexander II survived four attempted assassinations between 1866 and 1880. The plots against him were increasingly sophisticated, with the 1879 attempt blowing up a train and a mine planted in the Winter Palace in 1880 killing 11 and wounding 30. Both the 1879 and 1880 attempts were planned by the People’s Will, a radical revolutionary group whose aim was the overthrow of the autocracy.

Alexander became increasingly paranoid and opposed to measures that might encourage radical groups, such as the relaxation of censorship and control over university education.

How did Alexander II rule in his later years?

In 1865, Alexander’s eldest son Nicholas died and his wife, Maria Alexandrovna, withdrew from public appearances. The Tsar began spending more time with his mistress Yekaterina Mikhailovna Dolgorukova, which distanced him from the reforming Grand Duke Konstantin and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (his brother and aunt).

Alexander became more persuaded by the reactionary conservatives at court, who argued that his liberal reforms had gone too far. They claimed Alexander had weakened the Church and the nobility, which he relied on to rule, and that the spread of Western ideas and minority religions was damaging Russia. This meant that while military and economic reforms continued, others were halted.

Alexander appointed a series of conservative ministers, selecting Dmitry Tolstoy as Minister for Education in 1866. Tolstoy was an Orthodox Christian who wanted to control education in order to eradicate Western ideas and anti-government criticism.

Alexander II Portrait of Dmitry Tolstoy StudySmarterPortrait of Dmitry Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoi, Wikimedia Commons.

How did Tolstoy change the education system?

  • The Church regained control of rural schools, which meant education became more conservative.

  • The zemstva’s powers over education were reduced.

  • The gimnazii schools (intended for future civil servants, merchants, lawyers, etc) had to follow a classical curriculum and stop teaching the natural sciences.

  • From 1871, only students from a gimnaziya could attend university.

  • Liberal university courses were replaced by traditional subjects.

  • University censorship increased.

  • Student organisations were controlled.

How did policing and the law change?

  • The influence of the Third Section (the secret police) increased.

  • Persecution of ethnic and religious minorities increased.

  • Searches and arrests increased.

  • In 1879, governors-general were introduced with powers to exile political offenders.

  • Public ‘Show trials’ were held to make an example of political criminals.

  • Political crimes were transferred to secret courts in 1878 after the show trial jurors kept acquitting defendants.

What changed under Count Loris-Melikov?

By the late 1870s, the army was struggling in the Russo-Turkish War, while domestically Russia was going through famine and an industrial recession. Believing that increasing democracy might reduce unrest, Alexander made Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov the Minister for Internal Affairs (equivalent to the UK’s Secretary of State).

Alexander II Portrait of Mikhail Loris-Melikov StudySmarterPortrait of Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov. Wikimedia Commons

Loris-Melikov relaxed censorship, released political prisoners, lifted restrictions on the zemstva, and removed the salt tax. The Third Section was abolished, though in practice it was replaced by the Okhrana (the Russian secret police) who were just as oppressive.

What was the Loris-Melikov Constitution?

Zemstva demands for increased powers grew, and in 1880 Loris-Melikov produced a report known as the Loris-Melikov Constitution. Despite its name, it was not actually a constitution but a report proposing the first step toward the constitutional limitation of the monarchy. It’s likely that the report’s association with constitutional change led to its title.

Loris-Melikov recommended that elected representatives of the zemstva, the town governments, and the nobility were included in debating new state decrees. Conservatives thought this threatened autocratic rule, and the intelligentsia criticised it as insubstantial ‘rubber-stamping’.

Alexander accepted and signed the report on 13 March 1881. He was killed on the same day by a bomb before the Constitution could take effect.

Alexander II’s assassination

On 13 March 1881, Alexander was travelling to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Members of the People’s Will, the radical revolutionary group who had attempted to assassinate Alexander in 1879 and 1880, were positioned along his route with bombs. The first two bombs thrown at him missed, landing amongst the Cossacks accompanying Alexander. When Alexander got out of his carriage to check on the Cossacks, he was killed by a third bomb.

Alexander II - Key takeaways

  • Alexander II reformed the military, local government, judiciary, education system, censorship, the Church, conditions for minority groups, and the economy
  • The military was modernised, a new command structure was introduced, and conscription was made universal
  • However, nobles could avoid conscription and the army struggled in wars (eg the Russo-Turkish war)
  • In local government, zemstva replaced the obligations of the nobles
  • Zemstva were voted for and had powers over public services, industry, and poor relief
  • However, the serfs' influence was restricted and zemstva were unrepresentative
  • The Russian justice system was Westernised (juries were introduced, the accused could hire a lawyer)
  • Political crimes were exempt, as were ecclesiastical and military courts
  • Zemstva became responsible for education and schooling was extended to all
  • The government reasserted control over education in 1866
  • Censorship was initially relaxed but later increased
  • Reforms to the Church and treatment of ethnic minorities did not last
  • Economic liberalisation made peasants worse off
  • Alexander began as a liberal tsar but from 1866 became more conservative
  • He reversed his reforms in education, censorship, policing and the law, and treatment of ethnic minorities
  • The Church regained control of schools, and universities were censored
  • The Third Section were replaced by the Okhrana
  • From 1878 political crimes were heard in secret courts
  • Persecution of minority groups increased
  • The Loris-Melikov Constitution widened democratic participation in response to increasing unrest
  • Alexander II died before it could take effect

1. G. Hosking and R. Service, Russian Nationalism Past and Present, 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about Alexander II

Alexander II emancipated the Russian serfs for economic, political and social reasons. The system did not support Russia's economic needs, there was a fear of of a potential uprising, and it tied in to the liberal reforms that were sweeping the country.

Alexander II’s most renowned action was arguably his Emancipation Edict in 1861. This led to freedom for Russian serfs (around half of Russia’s population) and had transformative economic, political, and social effects.

Alexander II began as a liberal ruler, introducing progressive reforms like the Emancipation of the Serfs. However, as his reign continued his views became more conservative, and he implemented more repressive reforms to maintain control. 

Alexander II was the Tsar of Russia. This gave him absolute power over the Russian Empire. He ruled as an autocratic monarch.

Alexander II’s legacy is as a reformer. His attempts at progressive reform put Russia on the path to modernisation. He is also remembered for his promotion of key Slavophiles such as Pobedonostsev, which led to their influence over Tsar Alexander III and the future of Russia.

Alexander II reformed the military, local government, judiciary, education system, censorship, the Church, conditions for minority groups, and the economy

Final Alexander II Quiz

Question

Who was Minister for War under Alexander II?

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Answer

Dmitry Milyutin

Show question

Question

Which reforms affected social/class divisions in the military?

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Answer

1. Conscription was made compulsory for all classes (i.e. not just serfs, but also nobles)

2. Military colleges were created to train non-nobles to become officers

3. Military colonies (which were primarily lived in by peasants) were abandoned


Show question

Question

Which reforms modernised the military?


Show answer

Answer

1. Modern weaponry

2. New command structure

Show question

Question

Which reforms made the military less punishing?


Show answer

Answer

1. Service length decreased to 15 years

2. Punishments were made less harsh


Show question

Question

Which 3 problems remained with the military?


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Answer

1. Poor supply

2. Poor leadership

3. No universal conscription - nobles found substitutes


Show question

Question

What were Russia’s local councils called?


Show answer

Answer

zemstva, singular zemstvo

Show question

Question

How were the zemstva elected?

Show answer

Answer

By electoral colleges - one each for the nobility, townspeople, the Church, and the serfs. The nobles’ votes had the greatest weight, and the peasants’ votes the least.

Show question

Question

Give 3 (of 4) functions of the zemstva.


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Answer

Any 3 of the following:

1. Improve public services

2. Develop industrial projects

3. Give poor relief

4. Forum for criticism and political debate


Show question

Question

What were town councils called?


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Answer

Dumas, singular duma

Show question

Question

When were dumas established?


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Answer

1864

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Question

Give 3 (of 5) limitations of the zemstva.


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Answer

Any 3 of the following:

1. No control over taxes 

2. Decisions could be overturned by provincial governors

3. Could not choose local officials

4. No control over laws

5. Membership wasn’t representative of ordinary Russians


Show question

Question

 What rights did the accused have after Alexander’s legal reforms?


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Answer

1. They could hire a lawyer

2. They were presumed innocent until proven guilty


Show question

Question

How did Alexander’s reforms increase public participation in the legal system?


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Answer

1. Criminal cases were heard before a jury

2. Courts were open to the public

3. Court proceedings were reported in local newspapers

4. The Zemstva elected an independent Justice of the Peace

Show question

Question

Which courts heard exclusively peasant cases?


Show answer

Answer

Volost courts

Show question

Question

Give 2 (of 3) limitations of Alexander’s legal reforms.


Show answer

Answer

Any 2 of the following:

1. Political crimes could be tried by special procedures

2. Ecclesiastical and military courts were excluded from reforms

3. Reforms were restricted to the central provinces of Russia

Show question

Question

Give 3 examples of Alexander’s reforms to education.


Show answer

Answer

Any 3 of the following:

1. Responsibility for schools was transferred to the zemstva

2. Primary and secondary schooling was extended

3. Schools were declared open to all, regardless of sex or class

4. Universities could govern themselves and appoint their own staff

Show question

Question

Why did Alexander’s government begin to increase censorship again?


Show answer

Answer

To limit criticism of the state and preserve political stability.

Show question

Question

Give 2 (of 3) examples of Alexander’s initial relaxation of censorship.


Show answer

Answer

Any 2 of the following:

1. Press comment on government policy was permitted

2. Restrictions on publishers were reduced

3. Foreign publications were permitted with government approval


Show question

Question

Which Russian Minister brought about economic liberalisation?


Show answer

Answer

Dmitri Tolstoy

Show question

Question

How successful were reforms to improve the Church and treatment of ethnic minorities?


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Answer

Not very -  by the 1870s hopes for lasting change had largely vanished.

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