'Alexander III was the most successful Tsar in the period 1855-1917'. How far do you agree?

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Max P-W

'Alexander III was the most successful Tsar in the period 1855-1917'. How far do you agree?

The defeat in the Crimea in 1856 was a major wake up call for Russia and its leaders. Such an appalling military defeat highlighted not only how out-dated their army was, but also served to make clear the fact that the whole country was in desperate need of modernisation. Whilst the three last leaders of the Tsarist autocracy – Alexander II, Alexander II and Nicholas II - may have had differing priorities, they all in their own way and with their own methods attempted to push for some form of advancement and modernisation in certain areas. Alexander II pursued a bolder and seemingly more liberal policy of reform than had previously been, whilst Alexander III's reacted to this assassination of his father with his aimed to uphold 'Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality' above all else. Nicholas II attempted to emulate the aims of his father; however, his gentle and indecisive nature meant that he lacked the hardened conviction and dedication to autocracy of his father.

Given the near feudal state of Russia's economy at the time of Alexander II's ascension clearly a lot of progress did take place in Russia's economy throughout this period. Broadly, all three Tsars were pursuing similar aims in this area. Whilst emancipation of the serfs was necessary and important step towards industrialisation (as it freed up the peasants to move to towns), and in theory should have meant the use of more innovative and efficient farming techniques (as well as a move away from traditional strip farming and 3 field crop rotation methods), in practice the Abolition of Serfdom (1861) under Alexander II, was hugely limited. In particular, the fact that they were still tied to the conservative Mir (which dictated how the land was distributed an farmed), meant that growth and change were almost nonexistent. However, it must not be forgotten that serfdom was a barrier to the industrialisation of the country, and emancipation was the largest step towards improving agriculture (which was neglected under Alexander III's reign, and during Witte's 11 years as Minister of finance) until 1903, and the start Peter Stolypin's agricultural reforms. Here, once again, there was mixed success. On the one hand, in 1911, 90 per cent of households were still strip farming, and the repartitioning of arable land failed to catch on in the central regions where land hunger and overpopulation were at their worst. Additionally, only 22 per cent of peasants took control of their own land through the reforms . However on the other, the moving of 3.5 million peasants to Siberia, 27 per cent of peasants leaving communes, the double in sales of machinery, and an increase in yield of two thirds, all show that vital progress was being made, that was long overdue. Whilst agriculture may have been neglected somewhat under Alexander III, he had a different focus – currency stabilisation, and industrialisation. Perhaps most notably, this approach is exemplified by Vyshnegradsky's push to get Russia into the competitive (but lucrative) area of foreign exporting. However, Vyshnegradsky's push to 'squeeze the peasants', as he put it, and push up exports, meant that combined with the problems of overpopulation and poor weather, his policy resulted in widespread famine (the worst in the whole 19th century), and an economic dip. However, in spite of this problematic approach, the subsequent minister, Witte began a programme of desperately needed industrialisation - starting with the trans-Siberian railway (a continuation of Alexander II's railway expansion). This not only linked up large parts of the country (in particular areas of Siberia), but also stimulated internal growth (particularly in heavy industry) and helped in the creation of a national market (given the increased ease of transportation). However, in order to achieve this, investment had to come from overseas, and this in turn meant a gold standard had to be established. Whilst this did help to secure the currency, it impacted negatively on the agricultural sector, which Witte was already neglecting. However, Witte's programme led to significant long term growth (of around 8%), which lasted up to the start of the war. Moreover, later agricultural development built on his railway network, as well as on his policy of a peasant land bank, and newly available workforce meant that industry was better able to meet problems by diversifying products. On balance, whilst Alexander II took the first necessary steps to modernisation, and Stolypin under Nicholas II dealt with the neglected yet vital area of agriculture, it was Witte who had the largest and longest impact on the economy. In spite of the fact that he and his policies hung over into the reign of Nicholas, the fact that he was appointed by Alexander III, means that in this area he was most successful.

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In the same year as the emancipation act, 1861, a new Minister of War, Dmitri Milyutin, was appointed by Alexander II, for the purpose of overseeing a major overhaul in Russia's military. His aim was to shape the army into a more meritocratic body, where the officer class was far less elitist – military colleges were allowed to accept non-noble recruits, promotion became more open, and privates were enabled to rise to an officer rank on merit alone - combined with Emancipation (which Milyutin pushed for), this meant that more of the population than ever where eligible to become officers. ...

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