Russian History


Reforms and Their Limits, 1855-92

Tsar Alexander II, who succeeded Nicholas I in 1855, was a conservative who saw no alternative but to implement change. Alexander initiated substantial reforms in education, the government, the judiciary, and the military. In 1861 he proclaimed the emancipation of about 20 million privately held serfs. Local commissions, which were dominated by landlords, effected emancipation by giving land and limited freedom to the serfs. The former serfs usually remained in the village commune, but they were required to make redemption payments to the government over a period of almost fifty years. The government compensated former owners of serfs by issuing them bonds.

The regime had envisioned that the 50,000 landlords who possessed estates of more than 110 hectares would thrive without serfs and would continue to provide loyal political and administrative leadership in the countryside. The government also had expected that peasants would produce sufficient crops for their own consumption and for export sales, thereby helping to finance most of the government's expenses, imports, and foreign debt. Neither of the government's expectations was realistic, however, and emancipation left both former serfs and their former owners dissatisfied. The new peasants soon fell behind in their payments to the government because the land they had received was poor and because Russian agricultural methods were inadequate. The former owners often had to sell their lands to remain solvent because most of them could neither farm nor manage estates without their former serfs. In addition, the value of their government bonds fell as the peasants failed to make their redemption payments.

Reforms of local government closely followed emancipation. In 1864 most local government in the European part of Russia was organized into provincial and district zemstva (sing., zemstvo), which were made up of representatives of all classes and were responsible for local schools, public health, roads, prisons, food supply, and other concerns. In 1870 elected city councils, or dumy (sing., duma ), were formed. Dominated by property owners and constrained by provincial governors and the police, the zemstva and dumy raised taxes and levied labor to support their activities.

In 1864 the regime implemented judicial reforms. In major towns, it established Western-style courts with juries. In general, the judicial system functioned effectively, but the government lacked the finances and cultural influence to extend the court system to the villages, where traditional peasant justice continued to operate with minimal interference from provincial officials. In addition, the regime instructed judges to decide each case on its merits and not to use precedents, which would have enabled them to construct a body of law independent of state authority.

Other major reforms took place in the educational and cultural spheres. The accession of Alexander II brought a social restructuring that required a public discussion of issues and the lifting of some types of censorship. When an attempt was made to assassinate the tsar in 1866, the government reinstated censorship, but not with the severity of pre-1855 control. The government also put restrictions on universities in 1866, five years after they had gained autonomy. The central government attempted to act through the zemstva to establish uniform curricula for elementary schools and to impose conservative policies, but it lacked resources. Because many liberal teachers and school officials were only nominally subject to the reactionary Ministry of Education, however, the regime's educational achievements were mixed after 1866.

In the financial sphere, Russia established the State Bank in 1866, which put the national currency on a firmer footing. The Ministry of Finance supported railroad development, which facilitated vital export activity, but it was cautious and moderate in its foreign ventures. The ministry also founded the Peasant Land Bank in 1882 to enable enterprising farmers to acquire more land. The Ministry of Internal Affairs countered this policy, however, by establishing the Nobles' Land Bank in 1885 to forestall foreclosures of mortgages.

The regime also sought to reform the military. One of the chief reasons for the emancipation of the serfs was to facilitate the transition from a large standing army to a reserve army by instituting territorial levies and mobilization in times of need. Before emancipation, serfs could not receive military training and then return to their owners. Bureaucratic inertia, however, obstructed military reform until the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) demonstrated the necessity of building a modern army. The levy system introduced in 1874 gave the army a role in teaching many peasants to read and in pioneering medical education for women. But the army remained backward despite these military reforms. Officers often preferred bayonets to bullets, expressing worry that long-range sights on rifles would induce cowardice. In spite of some notable achievements, Russia did not keep pace with Western technological developments in the construction of rifles, machine guns, artillery, ships, and naval ordnance. Russia also failed to use naval modernization as a means of developing its industrial base in the 1860s.

In 1881 revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. His son Alexander III (r. 1881-94) initiated a period of political reaction, which intensified a counterreform movement that had begun in 1866. He strengthened the security police, reorganizing it into an agency known as the Okhrana, gave it extraordinary powers, and placed it under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Dmitriy Tolstoy, Alexander's minister of internal affairs, instituted the use of land captains, who were noble overseers of districts, and he restricted the power of the zemstva and the dumy . Alexander III assigned his former tutor, the reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev, to be the procurator of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church and Ivan Delyanov to be the minister of education. In their attempts to "save" Russia from "modernism," they revived religious censorship, persecuted non-Orthodox and non-Russian populations, fostered anti-Semitism, and suppressed the autonomy of the universities. Their attacks on liberal and non-Russian elements alienated large segments of the population. The nationalities, particularly Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, reacted to the regime's efforts to Russify them by intensifying their own nationalism. Many Jews emigrated or joined radical movements. Secret organizations and political movements continued to develop despite the regime's efforts to quell them.