He was a keen reformer, made significant moves towards regaining Russia’s position as an ally.
His reform programme gained him the name ‘Tsar Liberator’ as it was so far reaching, more so than any seen previously.
The Crimean War was the cause of his reforms.
The brutal defeat of Russia during this war emphasized a need for significant reform as many as 500,000 Russian soldiers died due to poor health, illness and disease that sparked due to their ‘serf’ status. They were so harshly defeated because the British, French and Turkish forces they were fighting didn’t have armies of serfs and had advanced weaponry and machinery.
Modernization was sought in the end of serfdom, liberalization of the legal system, education and military reforms.
War was a major catalyst in these changes – although this should not be over exaggerated as talks had already been made prior to the war about a possible emancipation, as Alexander stated he would rather ‘reform from above’.
Military – suspended recruitment in 1856, abolished military colonies, made every man over 20 whom were medically fit liable to conscription, reduced length of service from 25 to 15 years.
Education – promotion of private schools, overhaul of curriculum, set up an inspection system, allowed Jews into higher education
Political – reduced censorship on publishers and writers, Trial of the 50 in 1877 after the assassination attempt made in 1866 showed he was still ruling autocratically but slowed down his radical reforming, 1864 Zemstva, 1870 Dumas set up for towns and cities, introducing of juries to criminal cases, removed restrictions on Jews, 1866 State Bank placed currency on firmer footing.
Social – Emancipation was controversial, sounded good on paper but in reality the peasants were worse off as they had 20% less land and the redemption payments were at 6% interest over a period of 49 years, higher than the typical life expectancy of a peasant. The emancipation was made with the idea that peasants would migrate to industry and hoped it would reduce the number of peasant revolts. Emancipation was not a success as peasant riots increased. Freed the Decembrists; political prisoners, similar to the Provisional Governments amnesty of political prisoners.
Economic – Reutern reforms (1862 – 1878) encouraged foreign investment and expertise, construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, rail lines grew to over 20,000km.
Alexander was notable for promoting railway construction during the ‘Great Spurt’. Changes in agriculture came from land reform in the emancipation of the serfs.
Reforms made were the most far reaching since Peter the Great. They couldn’t have worked because there was unrest and a huge wave of opposition that wasn’t being dealt with. Poll tax increased by over 80%. There was no popular representation and the reforms simply didn’t go far enough, although ironically Alexander’s direction of restoring autocracy failed in that this period of leadership can be seen as the eventual downfall of Tsarism in 1917. It revealed the corrupt nature of tsarism.
Opposition to Alexander II was enormous, peasant violence was increasing, and the Mir was exposed as a brutal community. The Peoples Will was the biggest opposition and they assassinated Alexander II in 1881.
In response to opposition Alexander II initially used the Third Section to exile opponents but switched to a less radical body in the form of the Okhrana. Opposition was not as effective as
Alexander II stuck closely to autocratic principles especially after the attempt on his life in 1866. He was a willing reformer, but his policies were still carried out with the need to preserve autocracy in mind.
Administration - The Tsars used a Council of Ministers as a main link, the Imperial Council of State that advised the tsar on legal and financial matters, a Committee of Ministers and the Senate.
Peasants – generally abused/neglected but under Alexander II he tried