Alexander II, the second son of Nicholas I was born in 1818. It is true but sad to say that the only significant reforms made in Russia in all the nineteenth century were carried out by him; yet his reward at the age of seventy-one was to be murdered.
As a boy and young man he liked to imitate his father’s admiration for autocracy, and announced that he had not the least intention of allowing any of the Czar’s powers to be diverted into a popularly elected parliamentary assembly, when he, too, became Czar. The surprising reforms probably came about because of the unsuccessful Crimean War (q.v.), which clearly showed the world that Russia was not the all-powerful military nation she aspired to be. Chiefly, there was the lack of money, a direct result of a ‘serf-based’ economy in a largely agricultural state.
Alexander became Czar in 1855 at thirty-seven. His reforms started in 1861, to everybody’s surprise, especially the great landowners’. The ‘Emancipation of the Serfs’ was interesting enough, but led to further change, such as the structure of local government, the army and the judicial system, all of which had been based on serfdom – another word for imposed slavery of the agricultural working classes.
The new Czar discovered massive corruption in local government and corrupt, expensive and slow local courts. Alexander introduced new courts managed by a Justice of the Peace not usually selected from the area, providing cheap, quick and impartial justice because being a stranger meant less blackmail, bribery and other forms of corruption. At a much higher level judges were specially trained and paid well, for the same reasons; juries were sworn in for the first time following the British system, and trials were held in public, which included (selected) members of the Press. Russia rocked back on its heels, but the new system held, and lasted as long as there was monarchy in Russia.
The army began proper training, with arms drill and parades. Army schools appeared to make soldiers (for the first time) literate and numerate. Conscription was introduced in 1874. Army service was reduced from 25 years (!) to 6 with 9 in the reserves. Huge advances in education were made at all levels – secondary education being open to all classes. Self-governing universities were opened and up to 80% of the newly educated went on to them.
Finland, which was ‘under the protection’ of Russia, was ruled with the advice and consent of the Diet, which was elected! This was the only part of the Russian Empire where Alexander permitted this to happen. Poland, for example, was repressed as a matter of course following a revolt in 1863.
Railways were promoted as they were the key to advance in the coalmining, iron-working and engineering industries. By 1881 Russia had 14,000 miles of track, whereas in 1855 she had only 600. Trade was made easier with Western Europe by linking manufacturing and grain-productive areas to great ports like Odessa. Banking was enlarged and encouraged, and a central Treasury with official budgets were seen for the first time.
It was not all Success with a capital S however: In the Crimean War Alexander was sure Austria had betrayed him so he mistakenly supported Prussia’s lead in the unification of Germany; He denied the Black Sea Clauses of the Congress of Vienna, taking immediate advantage of the Franco-Prussian War; he made war against Turkey in 1877 and made important gains at the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878. Many of these had incidentally to be given up again at the Berlin Congress. China, thought Alexander, was weak and so during the Taiping Rebellion he seized the Amur-Ussori region which greatly extended the Russian Pacific coastline. He was pleased to see China being forced to accept this at the Treaty of Beijing (Pekin). Russia conquered the Muslim cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara between 1868 and 1876. She began the approach to Afghanistan, which worried British ministers very much as this meant a direct threat to British India. Under Alexander II expansions and reforms made Russia one of the great imperial powers. In fact the only territory she surrendered was Alaska, which she sold to the USA in 1867.
As usual, neither reforms nor enlargement were popular in Russia. Discontent did not end, even with positively socialist reforms made almost before Socialism existed. Populism and its associated movements arose, and soon turned to terrorism. Alexander II’s well-planned and executed reforms from A to Z resulted in his assassination in 1881.
Alexander III was born in 1845; he grew to be a very big man physically, always impressive. He thoroughly disapproved of his father Alexander II’s reforms because he thought they had made the monarchy weak. He determined to indulge in no more liberalism or nonsense like education for the poor masses. He was reactionary through and through, rejecting any further reform, and limiting the effectiveness of reforms which had been established before his reign. His own tutor, a man with a name difficult to pronounce or spell, regarded democracy as ‘the biggest lie of our time’.
When Alexander became the third Czar of that name in 1881 he instantly set about his ‘counter-reforms’: they began with ‘temporary regulations’ which were never repealed. These gave officials the right of ‘arbitrary arrest’ if ‘public order’ was ‘threatened’. It does not require much imagination to see the meaning of this. If a person disagreed with an official of the government, he or she was likely to be imprisoned, exiled or worse. The free universities founded by Alexander II were no longer free – they were brought under government control in 1884.
Saying that the peasants were always uneasy, difficult and revolution-prone, ‘land-captains’ were appointed by local nobles to control any ideas of self-government. The nobles themselves had their position, authority and powers increased. Jews were attacked and their property confiscated. If you were not a proper member of the Orthodox Church you were persecuted. Russian was made the single language in schools throughout the multi-national Empire.
Strangely enough, Alexander III occasionally used his mind and he abolished the poll tax on peasants, and also founded a Peasants’ Land Bank. Under a new Finance Minister Russia’s industrial boom began in the 1890s. The Trans-Siberian Railway was constructed, a non-luxury Russian predecessor of the Orient Express and the Blue Train.
His foreign policy was cautious and nervous. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 8 had ruined Russia’s financial position. There was also fear that another war might bring about revolution. Those that thought this were of course quite right. But Russia did go to war with super-powerful Austria-Hungary because of the Bulgarian Crisis (1885/6).
After the fall (long-awaited) of von Bismarck (q.v.) German policies towards Russia hardened. Alexander III thought France was the answer and concluded the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894. The Emperor who did more to bring about the Russian Revolution than any other died in his bed in the same year. He was forty-nine years old.