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 of people like objects or like cattle is as much our revolution as theirs”. The influence of these friends must have played a vital role in his views on emancipation, which combined with Zhukovsky’s teaching must have predisposed Alexander in favour of emancipation.
However, although Alexander was good friends, and even protector of some of the “wild critics of the regime”, and was also a critic himself, he stayed constantly loyal to the autocracy. This is where Alexander’s Conservative side becomes important and must be considered. His famous, striking statement “it is better to abolish serfdom from above rather than await the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below” shows that Alexander knew serfdom posed a threat to his regime. Alexander feared a revolution from the serfs. However he also wanted to protect the autocracy. Instead of emancipating from the position of “tsar liberator”, he did it from the decisively conservative and selfish stance of not wanting anything to interfere with or even overthrow the autocracy, or jeopardise his position and the divine rights of the tsar.
A revolution would have meant giving up the tsar’s unique autonomous control of the country, which was not something Alexander was prepared to do. After extensive tours of Russia, often stopping in desolate little villages, Alexander knew what the situation was like for those swamped by poverty. He was sympathetic and could empathise with the sufferers: “The boy himself shrank from violence and was easily moved to pity by the sight of misery.” But Alexander was still prepared to do anything to appease the masses to avoid revolution.
Another popular explanation as to why Alexander emancipated the serfs was that he wanted to modernise Russia “Raising the productivity of the Russian economy was one of the main motives for embarking on the emancipation of the serfs.” After the 1861 emancipation, he introduced many other reforms in the military, legal system, local governments, education system and in the way of censorship. He introduced local legal authorities, significantly relaxed censorship, abolished corporal punishment, established new education institutions and set up district assemblies in 1864. All these extra reforms put the emancipation into a seemingly liberal context.
However, the reforms could also have been introduced to try and revolutionise the economic system of Russia. Russia still had no trains, and was a pre industrial agricultural country. Alexander had many dealings with other countries, and so saw how many other countries worked. Russia’s backward economic system was something Alexander knew he had to change, and this would need reform: “Russia was undeniably economically backward in comparison with every other great power”. However, he wanted to modernise without losing his autonomous position, therefore knew he had to handle reforms like emancipation with care and balance.
On the other hand, Alexander could have just been trying to make the economic conditions better for the poorest in society. On his extensive tour of Russia, Alexander was entertained at many high class banquets and parties, but would often dismay his hosts by “insisting on unscheduled stops, not once but many times, in godforsaken villages of whose existence they were barely conscious and whose inhabitants they regarded as something less than human. They were human to Alexander.” This shows Alexander had a genuine care for and interest in the “normal” people of Russia, again casting Alexander in a liberal light in his reasons for emancipation.
However, in contrast, the economic revolution which was bought by these reforms was in fact strengthening the tsars and autocracy, making his reforms and the emancipation essentially conservative. The changes were actually more economical than political, “To suppose that Alexander meant to give Russia a constitution and was only prevented by either the selfish conservatism of the land owners or the foolish violence of the revolutionaries is a myth.” It is this which plausibly suggests that Alexander was never really planning to change anything to any reforming extent, but just wanted to appease all members of society.
This leads on to the point that Alexander may have wanted to emancipate the serfs as he realised that the system of serfdom had outlived its usefulness in his society, and wanted to prevent further far sweeping changes which could arise if he ignored the situation. A revolution amongst the serfs would trigger many other groups in Russia to protest and revolt about issues they were unhappy with, possibly leading to the autocracy being overthrown.
In conclusion, although Alexander’s reign seemed to start off liberally, there are many aspects of it which point to the conclusion that he conducted the emancipation from an essentially conservative stance. As his time as tsar progressed and after repeated assassination attempts, his attitude turned continuously more conservative. The second half of his reign being noticeably far more conservative than anyone first expected of the once liberal and understanding young tsar.
Although Russia’s defeat in the Crimean war cast a dark cloud over the beginning of his reign, Alexander still had a liberal and kind outlook and attitude, which possibly made him underestimate the rising tide of unrest in Russia. His naivety was a disadvantage to the young tsar. As his reign carried on, his subjects got increasingly more desperate and this caused an increase in their revolutionary activities.
However, through the evidence presented in this essay, it is to be concluded that it was the realisation that Russia’s economic system, if is was to be modernised as it needed to be to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe, would not be compatible with the system of serfdom. However, Alexander wanted to avoid any other far sweeping changes across the country, to do with his autocratic rule or the state of the nobility – things which all would have been jeopardised by continuing the system of serfdom, as a revolution would have been inevitable.
Alexander knew that the possibility of a revolution was very real and not far away without reformatory action. Liberalism within Russia was at its peak during Alexander’s reign as censorship regulations had been lifted considerably. We have to remember than Alexander’s predecessor, Nicholas I, had also touched upon the idea of emancipating the serfs. It was something which had been proposed for a while, so the fact that Alexander actually performed the emancipation can be seen more as a political necessity rather than a reforming zeal.
Therefore, in conclusion, it was a mixture of the increasing liberalism in Russia rising to its peak, the defeat in the Crimean war, the need for economic reform and the fear of revolution which ultimately lead Alexander to emancipate the serfs. Given the evidence, it can also be concluded that despite his liberal influences, in the final analysis, it was a conservative act on his part.
The Russian Empire 1801 – 1917, Hugh Seton-Watson
The Fall of the Russian Monarchy, Bernard Pares
Russia 1917 – 1941, Martin McCauley
The Shadow of the Winter Palace, Edward Cranks
Russia – People and Empire 1552 – 1917, Geoffrey Hosking.
The end of Imperial Russia 1855 - 1914, Peter Waldron
Russia 1917 – 1941, pg. 3, Martin McCauley.
The fall of the Russian Monarchy, pg. 43, Bernard Pares.
The shadow of the Winter Palace, pg. 163, Edward Crankshaw.
The shadow of the Winter Palace, pg. 164, Edward Crankshaw.
Zapiski A.I. Koshelyova (Berlin 1884) 5th appendix pg. 32, taken from The Russian Empire 1801 – 1917, pg. 334, Hugh Seton – Watson.
The shadow of the Winter Palace, pg. 154, Edward Crankshaw.
Russia – People and Empire 1552 – 1917, pg. 338, Geoffrey Hosking.
The end of Imperial Russia 1855 - 1914, pg. 38 Peter Waldron.
The shadow of the Winter Palace, pg. 158, Edward Crankshaw.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
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.