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How valid is the view that the reign of Alexander II achieved nothing of significance for Russia?

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How valid is the view that the reign of Alexander II achieved nothing of significance for Russia? Hailed as the "Tsar-Liberator" during his reign, Alexander II, often thought of as one of the most enlightened Tsars in Russian history, made great headway in modernizing his country. His sweeping and liberal reforms were celebrated as visionary and in a majority of cases improved the conditions of the people and government, on both at local and national scale. However, historians still debate to what extent these reforms actually benefited Russia and whether, in fact, Alexander's reign were doomed from the outset. The situation in Russia was such that it could almost be called "medieval" rather than a modern world power. Feudalism was still practiced in the Russian provinces - serfs were owned by the nobility and forced to farm their land the profits from which were paid to the nobles. The gentry, much like in medieval Europe, ruled heavy-handedly over the peasants and exploited them to the extent were civil unrest became commonplace. Russia also lacked any form of industry - technologically, it was far inferior to its European rivals. There was no established iron or steel industries and the lack of a railway system made communication throughout the vast Russian Empire almost impossible. This also diminished the Tsar's influence. There were also problems in local government, education and the legal system. The Russian Army was made up of conscripts, serving 25 years, and was hugely ill-equipped and out-dated, resulting in the Russian defeat in the Crimea at the hands of the more advanced Europeans. Although massive in size and unwielding, the army lacked effective leadership, training and armaments necessary for warfare in the modern era. In the age of heavy artillery and the first military aircraft, Russia continued to deploy cavalry armed with sabers! The problems of the economy, such as poor trade and unstable currency also meant that effective rule was almost impossible. ...read more.


But in general, the reforms created a much better and more effective army. The decrease in size and length of service meant that the military's role became much more important in foreign policy and reduced the heavy financial burden on the State coffers. Another area of domestic policy in Imperial Russia which was crying out for reform and change was economic development. Under Alexander II, there was a noticeable, yet slow, increase in industrial development. The factory workforce increased from a mere 86,000 to almost 1.5 million by 1887 since the emancipation of the serfs resulted in a huge, unemployed workforce. Coal production boomed as new deposits of minerals were exploited and this lead to a massive increase in iron and steel production, especially in the Urals and Donets Basin, producing materials necessary to create armaments, infrastructure and the ever-more important railways. The railway network became central to the Russian policy of industrialization. Although begun by Alexander's father, Nicholas I, railway expansion did not really take off until the great reforming Tsar addressed the issue. During his reign, the track jumped from 1,100 km to over 22,000 km and government subsidies into this expansion was increased. Freight traffic carried by the railways underwent a similar explosion and in the same period it climbed from 3 million tons to 24 million tons. Many foreign investors from Europe established thriving businesses in Russia, including the Swedish Nobel brother, who built a massive oil extraction complex in Baku. Russia became an exporter and less reliant on foreign trade - by 1890, 80% of Russian locomotives were built in Russia itself. The growing population meant that there was a growing demand for manufactured goods. This caused a massive increase in revenue of the State and wealth of the Russian Empire through a steep increase in economic development, brought about by Alexander's reforms and investment. However, there was a fragile peasant market since many of the freed serfs were still dependant on the harvest to provide for them. ...read more.


It was the Tsar's pressure on the freedom of the Press that helped form anti-governmental and terrorist groups often lead by students, such as The Land and Liberty Movement and The People's Will, the latter being responsible for Alexander's assassination in 1881. In conclusion, it is irrefutable that during Alexander's reign, he achieved many reforms which often led to great prosperity for the Russian Empire. In economic, social and military policy, he succeeded. Russia's economy grew to a massive size. Her military was, although still comparatively backward, much better organized and effective. Local government was more powerful and sense of democracy had begun to descend on the people of Russia. It is a fair assessment that Alexander laid the bulwark of future reforms and improvements to the Empire and made the first step towards modernizing the nation. However, he was fighting a constant running battle among the nobility and gentry - this battle was fought between the Slavophiles, who rejected the ideas of reform and wanted a more conservative policy to exist in Russian domestic affairs, and the Westernizers or Modernizers, who sort a much more reformed and much more democratic Russia. Alexander was a committed reformist, but it seems he lacked the political metal to pursue a virulent policy of improvement and change against the Slavophiles. He instead choose a route of partial reform, no doubt hoping to maintain stability in government and among the gentry and not cause a political split or, even worse, promote civil war. Instead of combating the Slavophiles and forcing them into line, he tried to appease both sides which only undermined him politically and he appeared indecisive and a poor leader. Although celebrated as "Tsar-Liberator", many historians feel that if Alexander had pushed through his reforms with more force, a stronger and more powerful Russia would have emerged. Alexander's fear of a Slavophile rebellion caused by his reforms was his major fear in his reign - it is ironic then that it was those who sort greater reform that would eventually assassinate him and end his reign of half-attempted reform. ...read more.

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