Why did Alexander II Emancipate the Serfs in 1861?

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Why did Alexander II Emancipate the Serfs in 1861?

The emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II in 1861 was the inevitable result of a rising tide of liberalism in Russia, supported by the realisation that Russia’s economic needs were incompatible with the system, and driven by the fear that that without reform the state itself could be shattered by revolution. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean war was also a major influencing factor as “Defeat in the Crimean war laid bare Russia’s weakness, so well conceived reforms were set in train and permitted the birth of politics…  Russian tsars had learned little during the century: at its end, they were still claiming to be absolute rulers.”

        Alexander II came into power in 1855, as the successor of Nicholas I. He started his reign in a difficult position, as the defeat of the Crimean war in 1854 cast a shadow over the beginning of his reign. The peace treaty of Paris finally drew a conclusion to the war in 1856, Russia ultimately being defeated by Britain and France, leaving the Russian state feeling weak and vulnerable. The Russian war effort had been characterised by the bravery of the soldiers, but poor military performance and incompetence in the military leadership “The Crimean war with its record of official incompetence and the heroism of the serf army… put a seal on the matter.”

        However, “the new reign opened with a blaze of hope.” Many were optimistic about the new power in Russia. As a child, Alexander had been given a very liberal education. His main tutor had been V.A. Zhukovsky, poet, humanist and friend of Pushkin. Zhukovsky’s teachings were said to have “exercised a liberal influence over his young pupil until manhood”. Alexander’s tutors were said to be, in general, “more enlightened and imaginative than the mood of the times”. Their influence played a key role into Alexander’s decision to emancipate the serfs, as his liberal approach in the first half of his reign was the result of his tutors’ influence and the education he had been given. This focussed more on the arts and literature than military strength and rule – his father’s preferred influence. Nicholas I did not approve of the teaching Alexander II was given by Zhukovsky, but never dismissed him. This was probably due to influence from his wife, a keen supporter of Zhukovsky.

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        Alexander also had many liberal friends. He was firmly in the “Decembrist circles”, even after the conflict between his father and the Decembrists. Feelings towards the autocracy and Russian monarchy within that group were so strong it is perhaps surprising that Alexander stayed alive. However, his connections in and around the Decembrists meant that he had a clear and precise understanding of their situation and knew exactly what it was they were protesting about. An eminent example of this liberal support and influence came from a landowner A.I. Koshelyova. He told Alexander that “The abolition of the right to dispose ...

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This is an excellent response that covers all major, possible motivations for emancipation and uses historiography really well to support the points made. It is focused and cogent throughout. 5 out of 5 stars.