How successful was Alexander II in transforming Russian Society

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How successful were Alexander II’s reforms in transforming Russian Society?

Despite being donned ‘The Great Reformer’ by various historians, there are two sides to the opinion of Alexander II. Although he emancipated the serfs, brought about military, government, judicial, educational, censorship, economic and church reforms, society was unsatisfied. E. Radzinsky, author of ‘Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar’ suggested that he was ‘two-headed’, with one head for reform, the other for the past, which may be proven in his retracting of reforms due to fear of how much power the people of Russia were acquiring, yet in terms of transforming society, through change and modernising, he was successful.

In 1861, just 6 years after coming to power, Alexander II emancipated the serfs. Such an action was revolutionary, yet he was not without his reasons. He assured a group of Moscow noblemen that “it is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below”. The Ukase meant serfs were free men, they could marry, create businesses, have rights and own property without need of approval from the landowner who previously owned them. They could keep the land they previously farmed and the landlords received compensation from the loss of land. This was a huge undertaking, to completely change the Russian system of serfdom, and it brought about enterprise and the seeds of modernisation.

Following this reform, Alexander II set out to change even more. Local governments were set up, called the ‘zemstva’, and they could improve public services and administer relief. Towns were now represented by ‘Dumas’ and the electorates understood the town’s issues, so could improve education and local welfare. In the zemstva, liberals were able to discuss the running of the country - a nod towards the western government system. The relaxing of censorship, which had even begun before the emancipation, meant western ideas would spread further. Foreign works were permitted and Russia saw far more books and newspapers published, from a meagre 1836/year in 1,855 to 10,691 in 1964. There were new regulations; no longer did every title of a book need to be checked before being published. Wider reading meant greater education, whilst the emancipation meant that a greater number needed to be educated. The zemstva allowed these educational changes to be funded. Alexander Golovnin was appointed the Minister of Education in 1962, and under him, for the next 15 years education was transformed. In 1970, schools adopted an ‘open for all’ policy. Women and all races could attend secondary school. Between 1856 and 1880, the number of primary schools almost tripled and during the 1870s, the number of students at university did also. The zemstva took over the church’s educational responsibility in 1864, leading to more liberal and modern thinking. The educational reforms lead to all communities being brighter, encouraging further business and free education lead to social mobility and opportunity. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Pyotr Valuev set up the Ecclesiastical Commission in 1862 to investigate church organisation and practise. The church, as a powerful weapon of the government had to retain the loyalty of the people, especially after the abolition of serfdom. In 1868, reforms meant the most talented and educated priests could be promoted within the church, and furthermore, Russia began to accept Polish Catholicism and relaxed her stance on the Jews and promoted the Finnish language.

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A hugely important reform was economic. After the defeat in the Crimean war, Russia needed to earn back worldwide respect. Mikhail von Reutern, the Minister of Finance from 1862 – 1878 ensured there were taxes, budgets and a watch on government spending. Tax-farming was abolished, whilst banks were allowed credit facilities. Subsidies were spread to encourage the creation of railways and foreign investment in Russia was encouraged. The mining and cotton industries also thrived and national growth did too. This was a big step towards modernisation, exports meant industry and railways meant transport, which also assisted the moving of modern ...

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