Carl Peter Watts examines a set of reforms which held out the prospect of modernising Russia but whose failure paved the way for revolution.
Alexander II’s ‘great reforms’ stand out as among the most significant events in nineteenth century Russian history. Alexander became known as the ‘Tsar Liberator’ because he abolished serfdom in 1861. Yet 20 years later he was assassinated by terrorists. Why did Alexander introduce a programme of reforms and why did they fail to satisfy the Russian people? This article will demonstrate that the reforms were a direct response to Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. They were intended to liberate Russian society from some of its most archaic practices, improve the economic and military efficiency of the war and preserve the existing socio-political structure by a process of modification. The essentially conservative nature of Alexander’s reforms is betrayed by the continuity in policy from the reign of his predecessor Nicholas I (1825-1855). Yet this conservatism, far from guaranteeing the safety of the aristocracy, jeopardised the stability of Russia because it left a 50-year legacy of social and political dissatisfaction to Alexander’s successors.
Emancipation: The Fundamental Reform
The need for reform was evident well before the reign of Alexander II. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 occurred just as Nicholas I acceded to the throne. Although it was unsuccessful, the uprising demonstrated that the autocracy could not continue to ignore demands for reform indefinitely. The condition of the peasantry was perhaps the most prominent weakness in Russian society. The Pugachev Revolt (1773-75) had served as a reminder of the threat that a dissatisfied peasantry could represent. Nicholas I introduced a series of minor reforms which improved the conditions of state and crown peasants and which were intended to serve as a model to the dvoriane (nobility) as to how they should treat their private serfs. Most landowners, however, took little notice of these measures and continue to extract feudal dues and labour services from their serfs without regard for their welfare. It is clear that Nicholas I abhorred serfdom: in 1842 he declared to the Council of State: ‘There can be no doubt that serfdom in its present situation in our country is an evil…[It] cannot last forever … The only answer is thus to prepare the way for a gradual transition to a different order…’ However, the conservatism of the autocracy was such that it would not compel the dvoriane by abolishing serfdom unilaterally. It took the shock of Russia’s disastrous performance in the Crimean War, the concomitant death of Nicholas I and the accession of Alexander II to alter the situation.
Alexander II had served on the committees of inquiry into serfdom and he was acutely aware of the weakness of the Russian state. Defeat by Britain and France now demonstrated that Russia was lagging behind her European counterparts. In the autumn of 1856 Yuriy Samarin, a prominent Slavophile, articulated the concerns of political society when he wrote that 'We were defeated not by the external forces of the Western alliance but by our own internal weakness.' Criticisms of serfdom were echoing from many quarters. General Dimitry Milutin, later Minister for War (1861-1881), advised the new Tsar that reform of the Russian army was impossible while serfdom continued to exist. Only by reforming the very foundations of Russian society could effective military capacity be restored and great power status recovered Serfdom was also condemned as economically inefficient. K. D. Kavelin, a liberal university professor, wrote a critique of serfdom in 1856 in which he observed that 'In the economic sphere, serfdom brings the whole state into an abnormal situation and gives rise to artificial phenomena in the national economy which have an unhealthy influence on the whole state 'organism of the state’. It was argued that serfdom