Alexander II deserved the epithet Tsar Liberator', how far do you agree with this statement?
‘To liberate’ means to set free from imprisonment or bondage and from social and economic constraints or discrimination. Alexander II is known as the ‘Tsar Liberator’ due to the emancipation of the serfs that took place during his reign and because of the many more liberal reforms he brought about, for example in the army and within education. He introduced a programme of reforms that was undoubtedly the most radical and far reaching of any attempted by a previous Tsar or a European government in the 19th century. However, a profound paradox ran through this programme. While it introduced a degree of personal and legal freedom previously unknown in Russia, it did so by an act of the monarch’s autocratic will. It can be argued that his motives were not so noble or moral. The reforms did not achieve the anticipated results and were unsuccessful in combating the problems of the peasants.
Russia’s humiliating defeat at the Crimean war in 1855 was one of the most important factors for the introduction of the Edict of Emancipation. No longer could Russia hold her head high like she had done for the previous hundred and fifty years. There was little morale, and they did not keep up with military advances that were achieved by the British and the French. Alexander II was made more aware by the Crimean war of the faults in social and governmental systems of Russia. The early months of Alexander’s reign saw an unparalleled degree of discussion in intellectual, noble and administrative circles, and an unusual consensus in favour of change. The peasantry, too was in a state of unusual agitation. Under these pressures Alexander may appear less as a far-sighted reformer than as a dutiful ruler forced to confront challenges of great complexity.
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Alexander’s motives for granting emancipation are questionable. There were many motives behind the edict of emancipation, that show that liberating the serfs was not the priority of the edict, indeed it was also seen as a way of strengthening the Tsar’s autocracy. Serfdom was seen as a threat to the stability of the country. As Alexander II himself remarked: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for a time when it begins to abolish itself from below”. The Tsar was also motivated by his desire to benefit his noble supporters rather than the serfs. His motives were to entrench the autocracy, strengthen military power, and expand the Empire for the sake of Russia’s greatness. He also had military and economic motives. The emancipation was needed to rejuvenate the army and develop the industry of the country. Therefore, Alexander’s reforms were as much as in his own interest as they were in the peasants’.
Alexander's first task it appears was that of freeing the Serfs. The Emancipation Act of 1861 granted personal freedom but in stages. After a two year period during which serfs negotiated land allotments due to them in conjunction with the imperial manifesto, they would be free and able to subsist on small plots that were taken from their owners’ land holdings. The consequences of such an act had not been fully thought out and the first edict was not followed quickly by others giving the peasants complete personal freedom, outright land ownership or the means to acquire more land and cultivate it effectively. There was not enough land to allow every serf to support himself and yet the government imposed heavy taxes and debts on the serf; the idea being that the serf could pay for the land in installments. The peasants had to repay (redemption dues) the state over a forty-nine year period for the compensation paid to landowners by the regime at the time of emancipation. This was impractical because many could not support themselves and their families on what they cultivated, let alone pay the government taxes. The domestic serfs who had not previously worked the land did not receive land under the terms of the edict. They had to find other employment which included working in the slowly industrializing sector or metallurgy. The emancipation of the Serfs should have meant a degree of equality i.e. citizenship, right to have legal representation, trade on the market or be involved with politics. However the edict of 19 February 1861 certainly did not accomplish these things and most policies such as the tax system and passport reform were postponed. Freedom is always better than slavery, yet freedom without the ability to acquire property or upward social mobility imposes a new kind of slavery. It is a little wonder that for years after the 1861 act, peasants still believed that the real emancipation was still in the future. Ironically many were far worse off after the emancipation than they had been before. Clearly, his reforms did not create any ‘liberating effect’ on peasants.
Emancipation not only failed the peasants, it angered the nobility from whom it had taken power and it led to bitter criticism of the Tsar concerning injustice in land allocation and compensation for land owners. What is more, it led to heightened antagonism towards the government on the part of intellectuals and philosophers.
It can be argued that the emancipation of the serfs was a major factor in the later industrial boom. However, skilled labour as a pose to the cheap masses was required, and often workers had to be hired from abroad to meet the needs of the slowly expanding industry. Emancipation did not solve the problem of industrial backwardness. The inadequacy of peasant land holdings ruled out the rapid rise of a prosperous class of peasant consumers. The Governmental reforms did not help to create a landowning class with the funds for substantial industrial investment.
As well as the emancipation, many other of Alexander’s reforms were unsuccessful, or in any case limited as ‘liberal’ reforms, and it is clear that although Alexander was prepared to carry out these reforms, it was only as much as was necessary in order to maintain his power over the empire. The voting system of the newly created zemstva was structured to heavily favour the nobility. In 1866, 74% of all delegates were nobles. Their powers were limited. It depended on police and corn officials to carry out its measures, and any measures carried out could easily have been ignored by provincial governors. This meant that the reform of local government barely met its aims, and it was introduced so slowly (with only 43 out 70 provinces having a Zemstvos organisations by 1914) it was fairly insignificant. The creation of the zemstva system did not lead to the formation of a national parliament in Russia. After the Russo – Japanese war of 1904-5 it was clearly evident that the military reforms were not yet effective. Effects of the legal reforms were also slow in effect, due to a shortage of trained lawyers and the conflict of judiciary and autocracy. Furthermore, the third section was still powerful and the police still acted outside the law, political radicals were still not given a fair trial and peasants were not included in the new system. Even though the economic reforms were successful, they were reactionary in motivation. Jews were still treated badly with many of their schools shut down after 1863. Even after introducing these reforms, Alexander II ultimately reverted to reactionary policies. He was apprehensive about introducing too many liberal reforms and losing his autocratic power.
His reforms drew criticisms from many sections of the political spectrum. He soon adapted reactionary policies, starting by crushing the Polish revolt of 1863. The policy of Russification was introduced and censorship was renewed. The universities of Poland were closed and Polish was banned in schools and government. The Catholic Church was replaced by the Russian Orthodox Church. Similar policies were introduced in Finland, Ukraine, Armenia and the Baltic states. Such policies do not indicate towards a just ruler or a ‘liberator.’
The growth of radical opposition, ranging from nihilism to populism suggests that the reforms had a counter-effect on people. The position of the Tsar was seriously threatened with the rise of terrorism. Such outcomes makes one question the efforts of the Tsar. Were the reforms just half – hearted concessions? The popular opinion during 1870-81 seems to suggest that people did not believe him to be a ‘liberator’.
In conclusion, after all these aforementioned reforms, the concept of the state embodied in the person of the autocrat was in no way altered. The political system that initiated these reforms, supposedly to strengthen its own position, had collapsed within 60 years of their introduction. It is, therefore difficult to view these reforms as successful. Even though Alexander II went further than any other Tsar and liberated 40 million from slavery, there were other ulterior motives. The reforms did not have the desired impacts and the Russian society became worse off than before. Furthermore, his assassination by terrorist group indicates the discontent among people. Hence, it would be ignorant to honor him with the title of ‘Tsar Liberator’.