Reformation by the Tsar Liberator

In 1861, Alexander II instituted one of his first reforms, emancipating all of Russia’s serfs and declaring that no Russian man could be sold. This was necessary for industrializing and developing the country, but was not appreciated by the landowners or the serfs. His next significant reform was the institution of the zemstvos, a new local council that was more authoritative than the committees they replaced.

Ironically, the change received with the greatest enthusiasm actually only benefited a small minority; the systematic effort to educate the masses and raise the pitifully low level of literacy. In short order, the Tsar and General Dmitri Milyutin changed many facets of the military, such as reducing the length of service and enforcing universal conscription. Since Russia remained a police state, the Tsar’s efforts to westernize the court system by encouraging an independent judiciary and introducing jury trials, were only partially successful.

Despite Alexander’s attempts to abolish the ethnic constraints, intolerance of Jews and other racial minorities in Russia remained. The reign of Alexander also was one of tremendous self-expression in Russia for great writers who were allowed to return from exile. Russian literature and journalism became more unrestricted and honest because the Tsar relaxed the censorship that was especially prevalent under his repressive father, Tsar Nicolas I.

Alexander II had grand changes that he, with the help of many important people around him, tried to force upon the people. On the other hand, the unappreciative citizens were malcontented, either because the Tsar did not carry the reforms far enough or because they wanted different changes. Throughout his reign, Alexander II survived many assassination attempts by various revolutionary groups, all with different aspirations for Russia, ultimately to be killed by the radical People’s Will in 1881.

Alexander’s predecessor, his father, Tsar Nicolas I, died toward the end of the Crimean War, leaving his son a country in cultural bondage and economic despair. One of Alexander’s first orders of business as Tsar was to end the conflict with the Ottoman Empire, France, England, and Sardinia by signing the Treaty of Paris in 1856. Alexander was not as devoted to military fighting and international politics as was his father; he concentrated more on domestic problems. The new Tsar accepted the loss in the war, which was essential because Alexander could not begin instituting his reforms until the fighting ceased. The defeat also forced Alexander to acknowledge that Russia could and must industrialize and change its policies to catch up with the western powers that had defeated them. Alexander recognized “The western wind which was blowing…against the institution of slavery.”1 The rest of the continent had already abandoned slavery, and serfdom in Russia had to be abolished if Russia was to continue being economically competitive.

On March 3, 1861, Tsar Alexander II and an executive committee established the Emancipation Act to abolish serfdom. This achievement ended years of debating, but it was not satisfying to the landowners or the serfs. The dissolution of serfdom in Russia was first proposed by Catherine II, then initiated by Alexander I, and was the top priority of Alexander II after the Crimean War.2 Since he was a child, Alexander believed that the ownership of serfs was contrary to the teachings of the Bible, and spoke of this idea to his father.3 Alexander faced the same problem that his father did; he could not simply eliminate serfdom by an imperial decree because of the numerous opposing interests in Russia, especially the landowners.

On top of the pressure to westernize his country, Alexander II fretted for the Russian people that “‘If we do not liberate the slaves, self-liberation will set in from below,”4 or through a revolt by the serfs. Compounding the problem was the fact that shortly before all of the forced workers were freed, there had been tremendous industrial developments in Russia, which caused the obrok system to become widespread. Under this system, many serfs worked in factories and on railroads, earning a little money for themselves, but also paying such large annual tributes to their owners that the owners were getting rich off of their serfs, instead of their land.5 Including their families, four-fifths of Russia’s population were freed by the Emancipation Act of 1861, which went into effect March 17 of that year. That is 48 million serfs, half of them privately owned, and the other half state owned, obtaining their freedom unaccompanied by free land.6 The day the Act became effective, hundreds of thousands of landowners were forced to surrender their serfs with no compensation, and at least one-third of their land for only meager compensation, in the form of money and bonds from the government.7

Just after the emancipation in 1861, The New York Times8 For the serfs, the emancipation did not seem like a great change because their traditional life was not transformed overnight. For the most part, they lived in the same shacks, in the same villages, farmed with the same primitive methods, and still worked to pay off debts, which were now owed to the government, instead of their masters.9 Most peasants were illiterate, uneducated, and could not understand the terms of the Emancipation Act and what was required of them in order to pay off their debts on the land. Village communities called mirs, which were run by local elders, assisted the government by collecting the large installment payments that the peasants were forced to pay for the land on which they lived. These payments were very difficult for the peasants to make, and most of them fell behind on their debts, and did not become owners of their land outright until either they had fully paid for it or, in 1906, when the Russian government reluctantly cancelled their debts. Still they obtained from the Emancipation Act their rights as citizens, equal protection under the law, the right to education, the right to buy and sell property, the opportunity to marry without interference by a landlord, and most importantly, it brought an end to human property in Russia. After this extraordinary accomplishment, Tsar Alexander II came to be referred to as “liberator of the people,”10 which Dostoevsky acknowledges in his epic novel The Brothers Karamazov. The Russians realized, as did the rest of the world, that the Emancipation Act “prompts and necessitates other changes”11 to the country. commented, “The Nobles loudly protest that they will suffer greatly by the change, and that the indemnity they receive cannot possibly make up for the loss.”

Predictably, more changes followed. In 1864, the first important development came to Russia after the emancipation; Alexander established zemstvos, or local self-governing councils that gave nobility more power. Similar committees were already in place, but their decisions were not authoritative and their jurisdiction was vague. The zemstvos, whose effectiveness varied from district to district, had clear responsibilities such as maintenance of infrastructure, fighting fires, suppressing revolutionary attacks against the Tsar, assisting the military and civil administration.12 The zemstvos also worked with Alexander II to spread popular education. The majority of Russians agreed with the writer Leo Tolstoy who declared, “‘Progress in Russia…must be based on popular education.'”13 The main goals of the Tsar and zemstvos were to raise the literacy level of the peasants to make them smart enough to be better soldiers and to vote responsibly. Together, they opened schools and encouraged people of all social classes to become educated. In spite of their efforts, however, only a small number of lower class people took advantage of the opportunity, and the majority of Russians remained uneducated and illiterate.14 Reforms in the military, which were carried out by the Tsar and General Dmitri Milyutin, also promoted education. For example, under Alexander II, the length of service in the military was reduced from 25 years to six years of active duty, nine in the reserves, and six with the colors for those soldiers with no formal education. Duty with the colors was progressively reduced with a soldier’s educational qualifications such that a university-educated man could enlist for only six months.15 The first of many other successful reforms in the military that went into effect under Tsar Alexander II was ridding the army of humiliating corporal punishment such as forcing a soldier to run the gauntlet until he fell dead of exhaustion, improving medical services, and instituting universal conscription that made all men, including those in the upper-class, liable for service at the age of 20.16

Alexander’s plans to westernize and improve Russia went beyond the zemstvos, popular education, and the military. The Tsar also attempted to westernize the court system. In 1862, a plan was submitted to Alexander outlining improvements that he wanted to make to the legal system that would benefit former serfs, such as impartiality of judges and equality of all citizens under the law. In 1866, courts were opened under these new reforms. Lifetime judicial appointments were made so judges did not have to worry about repercussions for their rulings. Also, all cases were heard publicly and trials by jury were conducted in the most important cases.17 In spite of Alexander’s efforts toward these improvements, the Tsar remained above the law, and Russia continued to be a police state such that the new courts were often bypassed to evade consequences for illegal actions by the aristocracy and nobility.18

Alexander II did more to help the Jews and various other racial minorities than any other Tsar before or after him, but anti-Semitism was still prevalent in Russia and many disabilities remained. He allowed Jews to attend universities and permitted for the appointment of the first Jewish professor. With increased participation of Jews in commerce and the industrialization of Russia, the Tsar was prepared for the emergence of a Jewish aristocracy of intellectualism and wealth, but he was not ready to eradicate all incapacities against them.19 Because of the disabilities Alexander abolished, Jews were able to live in Russian towns, but were still barred from owning land except through trade and from residing in central and eastern Russia.20

Also during Alexander’s reign, censorship of works by journalists and authors was relaxed. The term of Tsar Nicolas I was “called the ‘Censor’s Reign of Terror'”21 because of the strict control exercised over the writers’ works under penalty of being sent, as was Fyodor Dostoevsky, to Siberian prison camps. The period of Alexander’s rule was that of the greatest self-expression in Russia because authors returned from Siberia and others, like Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenief, wrote their most famous works.22 Russian newspapers were allowed to discuss international and domestic politics, including the serf problem, but some subjects that Alexander II believed could be dangerous to the country were still banned.23 After an assassination attempt in 1866, Alexander became more rigid about the content of the press.

The diverse people of Russia did not realize how much Tsar Alexander II had changed the country, and they wanted more changes that would benefit their selfish needs. Even after Alexander excused Dostoevsky from prison in Siberia and loosened censorship, the writer was not grateful and told editor and publisher A.S. Suvorin that he would not make any effort to save the life of Alexander, even if he had a clear opportunity to do so.24

Alexander Herzen, an exiled revolutionary who published the influential newspaper Kolokol (The Bell) that was banned in Russia, made three principal demands of Alexander II; emancipation of the serfs, abolition of corporal punishment, and relaxation of censorship. The Tsar made these three reforms, but Herzen, like most Russians, remained unsympathetic and unappreciative of the Alexander’s efforts.25 From Alexander’s reign of great self-expression, destructive and extreme forces such as Slavophiles, Nihilists, and Marxists were able to emerge and pose threats to the Tsar’s life. After numerous assassination attempts on the Tsar’s life, Alexander II was killed on March 14, 1881 by an explosion set off by the revolutionary group The People’s Will. Reportedly, in his pocket was a draft of a constitution on which he had been working and had hoped to implement within a month.26 The People’s Will was a radical group that wanted popular representation in government and the freed serfs to own their land and not be forced to pay for it in installments. This terrorist band and many others like it believed that the Tsar was not pushing his reforms far enough.

Tsar Alexander II made substantial reforms in Russia that affected all her people, but he could not please everyone. The Tsar’s efforts were designed to catch up with the West, but the reforms were only partially successful relative to what Alexander intended. The people were not satisfied by the Emancipation Act, which the government had been working on for almost 100 years, and was finally passed by Alexander II trying to rid his country of the immoral institution that was illegal in most European countries. Russians also did not embrace the Tsar’s attempt to legitimize the judiciary system and abolish disabilities of minorities and Jews partially for the reason that Alexander did not fully commit to those reforms. Alexander II was successful in accomplishing his goals for the military and instilling an effective local self-government, but Russians did not take advantage of the opportunities that Alexander provided for popular education. The writers of the day did not even care for the Tsar, though he had relaxed censorship instilled during the strict reign of Nicolas I. Tsar Alexander II did attempt material and necessary reforms upon Russia and made tremendous improvements upon the backward nation that lost the Crimean War. On the other hand, the people were not prepared to accept them, thus his reforms either were not appreciated or not at all what the people thought they needed.


Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace. New York: The Viking Press, 1976.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. In Great Books of the Western World. Vol. 52. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britanica, Inc., 1952.

Graham, Stephen. Tsar of Freedom. New York: Archon Books, 1968.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. In War’s Dark Shadow. New York: The Dial Press, 1983.

Schapiro, Leonard Bertram. Russian Studies. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.

Tessendorf, K. C. Kill the Tsar. New York: Atheneum, 1986.

“Emancipation of the Russian Serfs.” New York Times 26 March. 1861: 5.

“Emancipation in Russia.” New York Times 3 April. 1861: 4.


1 Stephen Graham, Tsar of Freedom (New York: Archon Books, 1968) 26.

2 “Emancipation of the Russian Serfs,” New York Times 3 April. 1861: 4.

3 Graham 3.

4 Graham 34.

5 Graham 35.

6 Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace (New York: The Viking Press, 1976) 168.

7 Crankshaw 169.

8 Emancipation of the Russian Serfs,” New York Times 3 April. 1861: 4.

9 Crankshaw 169.

10 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett, in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 52, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britanica, Inc., 1952) 125.

11 “Emancipation of the Russian Serfs,” New York Times 3 April. 1861: 4.

12 Graham 115.

13 Graham 112.

14 Graham 113.

15 Crankshaw 186.

16 Crankshaw 185.

17 Graham 119-120.

18 Leonard Bertram Schapiro, Russian Studies (New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books Viking Penguin Inc., 1987) 41-42.

19 Schapiro 267.

20 Graham 123.

21 Graham 52.

22 Graham 51.

23 Graham 121.

24 W. Bruce Lincoln, In War’s Dark Shadow (New York: The Dial Press, 1983) 255.

25 Graham 53.

26 Graham 309.

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