To what extent did the reforms of Alexander II achieve his aims

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To what extent did the reforms of Alexander II achieve his aims?

When Alexander II became the new tsar, Russia was only recovering from the failure of the Crimean War. The war exposed the weakness and backwardness of Russia’s economic structure and over-reliance on the serfs. For that reason, after accession to the throne, Alexander immediately tried to reform the whole country from the ground up beginning with the Russia’s  greatest reform in the 19th century-the emancipation of the serfs. Alexander II had a vision of  westernized, industrialized and educated Russia that would be on par with major world powers. He brought profound change that led to much more socially and economically stable Russia. However his reforms didn’t go smoothly as he would have wished. From outside they could look as successful, but at closer inspection many of them were nothing more than empty, symbolic reforms that didn’t work over long term. Alexander II had given out impression of modern Russia, but he failed to carry his reforms properly.  Alexander II’s aim was to modernize the stagnating Russian empire, but at the same time he wanted to preserve autocracy. The problem however was that these two aims were contradictory to each other. There was a fundamental inconsistency in Alexander’s decisions which eventually led to downfall of the reforms. Nonetheless, his dedication, endeavor and courage to change the situation in the Empire, undoubtedly makes him a great leader and reformist. Alexander II took all the necessary steps and prepared a platform for future modernization of the country.

The first problem Alexander had to face was the serfdom question. By the mid-19th century, there were around 53 million serfs in the Russian Empire making up 90% of the whole population. The serfs were laborers, who were forced to work on the fields of laborers, in return for their protection and the right to work on their land. The peasants were bound to the land and so were in other words legally owned by the landlords. They formed the lowest social class of the Russian society. Apart from executing them, the landowner could treat his serfs as he liked. The serfs lived in dreadful condition; the majority of them lived on the edge of starvation. However after the Crimean War, things started to change. The war showed many Russian internal problems and deficiencies. Slowly many Russians come to accept that some sort of reform was unavoidable, if their nation was to progress. Serfdom became an easy target; it became convenient to use serfdom as the reason to explain all of the Russia’s problems: military incompetence, food shortage, industrial backwardness. Even though many times they were oversimplified generalizations, there was still some truth in it. Alexander II eventually decided to abolish serfdom. There were many reasons that persuaded Alexander to do so. First there were simply moral reasons. Since the times of Nicholas I, who described serfdom as “an evil that needed to be addressed”, intellectuals believed that this “slavery” bondage was morally wrong and inhumane and not to the standards of modern society. Serfdom also slowed the economy of the whole country as it was preventing the economic development by restricting free labor and entrepreneurship. For these reasons, it was better to have serfdom dismantled. In 1857, believing that “it is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for it to abolish itself from below”, Alexander set up a secret committee to abolish serfdom under the chairmanship of Prince Alexei Orlov. By 1858, the committee was making little progress and so Alexander gave up all secrecy and instead began a personal tour around the country, during which he delivered many speeches in favor of emancipation of the serfs. Alexander wanted to help the serf, seeing their suffering for long generations, but also made clear that the landowners’ concerns are the most important. The Emancipation Edict was finally announced on 19 February 1861. It however applied only to privately owned serfs (serfs owned by the state had to wait until 1866). Serfs were now free to marry anyone, own property and start their own business. But it were mainly the landowners, who profited from the emancipation. They were compensated very highly by the state. The freed serfs had to continue their labour service for another 2 years. After that they had two ways, how to get gain the legal title to their land: they could either pay 49 year redemption tax to the state at 6% interest, collected by the local mir, or continue working 30 to 40 days a year on the lord’s land. This new cooperation between the state and the landowners was a huge achievement. The emancipation of the serfs also opened the door to modernization and further reforms in legal system, the army, local government, education and the Church. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Edict must be considered as unsuccessful. After the emancipation, the peasants were given very little land and the one they received was of poor quality. This was seen as unfair to many peasants. They believed that, because they had worked the land for such long time, it should now belong entirely to them without paying any redemption taxes. This led to many peasant uprisings such as Bezdna Unrest in 1861. Due to high redemption taxes, the peasants also had to sell many of their crops. The mirs kept the peasants tied to landowner’s land and controlled them by rules. The reform wasn’t successful as Alexander II intended, it certainly didn’t create the modern society.

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After the Emancipation Edict, further reforms were needed to fill the gaps in the social and administrative structure of Russia that were left by the emancipation of the serfs. These new reforms were also accelerated by the rising pressure to bring Russia closer to the modern, western world.  This gave more influence to the reformers like Dmitri Milyutin. After the humiliation in the Crimean War, modernizing the state of the army was very crucial. The minister of defense, Dmitri Milyutin, was responsible for this change. Between 1833 and 1855, more than one million conscripted peasants died due to various combination ...

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