Alexander II did introduce a number of reforms, whichwerequiterevolutionary for that period of time. Many historians therefore believethat Alexander II deserves the title ‘Tsar Liberator’. Views of AlexanderII do, however, differ to a great extent, When regarding Alexander IISaunders says “his enthusiasm for change lasted a mere four years, it maybe that his reputation as the ‘Tsar liberator’ is ill deserved” 1thisstrongly suggests that Alexander II was not a liberator. However, asBideleux says “Alexander II came to be known as the ‘Tsar liberator onaccount of his resoluteness in freeing millions of Russian serfs throughthe 1861 Emancipation Act”2 although Alexander II did free serfs this doesnot solely justify the title ‘Tsar liberator’ Alexander may have freed thepeasants but it wasn’t complete freedom. Many historians believe thatAlexander II cannot be called a “Tsar Liberator” as he did not pass reformsout of a genuine desire to liberate, but to remain in power and keep thepeace instead. Historians also argue that Alexander II remained a verydetermined autocrat who was not willing to let go of his inheritedautocratic powers. There is no doubt that Alexander was not willing to letgo of his autocratic powers and although he made significant reforms inareas such as education and the military he was not a liberator.
Alexander has been called a liberator due to his reforms of serfdom. It isimportant to realise that Serfdom was an economic institution and aninstrument of social control that had been seen as the norm, therefore forAlexander II to change this system can be seen as a liberal reform. Howeverwhen you look closer at the terms of the emancipation edict it looks lessof liberation, this is due to the fact the peasants had to pay redemptionsfees for 49 years and never gained sufficient land for their needs. Equallythe reasons behind emancipation were not to liberalise the peasantry. Onlythrough Emancipation could Russia modernise following thedisastrousfailure that was the Crimea war, if this was the only reason behindAlexander II’s decision and not to liberate one may have difficulty indescribing Alexander II as a ‘Tsar liberator’.
One reason why Alexander II’s title as ‘Tsar liberator’ is called intoquestion is the controversy regarding redemption payments. The majordifficulty was the charging of redemption payments to compensate thenobility for loss of land and labour which was part of the emancipationedict. Redemption fees were a major financial burden on the peasants andcritics use this to prove that the Emancipation was a failure. “Thesovereign has betrayed the hopes of the people; the freedom he has giventhem is not real and is not what the people dreamed of “1 this implies thatAlexander II was not a liberator because they were not fully liberated.
However Bideleux disputes this and presents statistics that redemption duescame down to about 2% of agricultural output 2 Bideleux implies that theredemption fees were not as harsh thus Alexander II may be seen as aliberator. These statistics by Bideleux are somewhat selective as in thefertile black soil regions of the Ukraine no doubt these figures werefeasible but this was not the case in many other areas where redemptionfees were onerous. Therefore on balance redemption fees were a major factorin the Emancipation edict not being a true liberation since without themeans to be financially and economically independent many peasants couldnot be called liberated.
When considering the extent to which Alexander II was a Liberator,historians do not question the liberation of the peasants from landowners.
They question the terms of the Emancipation edict itself. Zaionchkovskysays “There can be no doubt that the reform defrauded the peasants… themost onerous conditions of all were the termsofredemption…theallotments obtained by the private peasant through the reform were for themost part entirely inadequate…” 3 Zaionchkovsky was writing this in 1978as a soviet historian during Communist rule. He is therefore unlikely to besupportive of reform undertakenbytheTsaristregime.Bideleuxcontradicting this interpretation says “Overall in 43 provinces of EasternRussia serfs received 96% of the land that they previously farmed for theiruse” 1 this implies that Alexander II was a liberator because the peasantsgained land, but he isn’t showing the full picture as he only talks about43 provinces in Eastern Russia and not Russia on the whole Bidelux alsofails to mention that”the ‘cut offs’ withheld by land lords wereparticularly large in the fertile ‘black earth’ regions and were a sourceof intense and lasting bitterness” 2. Although Bideleux attempts to showAlexander II as a liberator, it can be clearly seen that Alexander II’semancipation edict was not liberation as David Saunders says, “peasantsnevertheless remained the poorest and the most heavily exploited section ofthe population” 3. Overall it appears that a large number of peasants didfeel cheated by the Emancipation. The main problem was the allocation ofland and that it could be said that peasants found the land that they weregiven was insufficient for their needs and many found the redemption feesonerous. Some peasants did noticeably benefit from the Emancipation such asthe Kulaks but the majority didn’t. It appears that Alexander II’s edictdid fall short in many areas and that although ‘free’; serfs had noeconomic freedom to allow truly independent lives. Thus to call AlexanderII a liberator on the basis of his emancipation edict does seem to beunjust.
Alexander II has been called liberator due to the Emancipation edict, whichgave freedoms to marry and freedom from ownership. However these freedomswere undermined by the powers of the Mir. The Mir’s main roles were thecollection oftaxesincludingredemptionpaymentandalsotheredistribution of land. Critics say that in some respects the Mir replacedthe landlord in terms of controlling personal freedom as Watson says “their personal freedom of movement and choice of occupation were tightlyconstrained by the commune (Mir)”1. Evans and Jenkins say that thecommune “replaced the gentry in terms of controlling the lives of peasantsand their independence” 1 suggesting that Alexander II was not a liberator.
However others argue that as it was peasant elders controlling the communeand therefore other peasants, and so at least peasants were controllingthemselves. However there is no doubt that even with the powers of the Mirthe serfs generally had more personal freedom after Emancipation, althoughin terms of prosperity they may not have seen any improvement. Thereforeaspects of Alexander II’s emancipation edict were liberating notably thecreation of the peasant commune, but only to a certain extent. Theemancipation didn’t give economic liberation which means that AlexanderII’s claim as a Liberator must be questioned.
When you compare Alexander II’s emancipation edict to the emancipation ofthe American Negro’s the case against calling Alexander II a ‘Tsarliberator’ is however strengthened. This is supported by Seton Watson whostates the 1861 edict was”a great achievement when compared to theEmancipation of the American Negro ” 2 Seton Watson is writing thiscomparison favourably and one can draw comparisons between the two events.
Both Emancipation’s occurred at similar points in the 19th century however,like Alexander II’s Emancipation edict, Abraham Lincoln’s liberation ofAmericas Negro’s perhaps was notional freedom. Although the American Negrowas free to marry, to travel and free from any form of ownership, he wasstill without freedoms enjoyed by most white Americans. American Negro’swere liberated but not given economic and political rights to make thisliberation work in practice. Indeed, when set against the American model,Alexander II’s edict has similarities, both Russian serf and American slavewere free but lacking economic independence, Negro’s were denied the votein many cases while serfs lived in an autocracy. But to compare the 1861edict favourably as Seton Watson does is perhaps to miss avitaldifference. Lincoln was not liberating Americanslavestoachieveindustrial progress or to keep the lid on unrest, which could overthrowautocratic power. His driving force was one of morality and thereforeLincoln perhaps meets the title ‘Tsar Liberator’ more fully than AlexanderIIA reform that suggests that Alexander does deserve the title ‘Tsarliberator was the setting up of Zemstvo’s. However there are differentinterpretations concerning the reform as W Mosse describes “With theEmancipation law the authority of thesehereditarypolicemastersdisappeared; measures had to be taken to replace it”1 to call thearistocracy “hereditary police masters” is an extreme, but the point thatthere was a need for a decision making body regionally was very true.
However as Watson says, “The local knowledge of the Zemstvo’s enabled themto do a good job” 2 and was not just replacing the roles of “hereditarypolice masters”. Mosse says “the new Zemstvo’s statute was the logical andinevitable outcome… the ‘consolation prize’ offered to the nobility forthe losses of 1861” 2. Although a lot of the previous landowners were apart of the Zemstvo’s it is rather critical of Mosse to say that theZemstvo’s were created to keep the landowner and aristocracy content withthe Tsar.
It is worth noticing the Zemstvo’s made a number of reforms in educationmaking it a liberal reform and was not just the consolidation prize to thearistocracy after the Emancipation edict. However this reform could be seento be less of a liberation because Alexander II declined to create anational assembly based upon the local Zemstvo’s “when petitioned by theMoscow Zemsva’s the tsar replied that these were senseless dreams” 4 thisrefers to the case when the Moscow Zemstvo asked for a national Parliamentthis shows us the limitations of him being a liberator as he was notwilling to let go of his autocratic powers. However the creation ofZemstvo’s can be seen to be the start of self-government by the people ofRussia; what it resulted in was the beginning of liberation, and thereforeAlexander II maybe called a liberator by some but due to the unintentionalnature of this reform it does not prove the case that Alexander II was aliberator.
Education reforms were quite a liberal move by Alexander Il move as W Mossesays ” In 1856, elementary schools in the empire numbered about 8000. By1880 the number reached 23,000 in European Russia alone” 1, this statementby Mosse seems to be correct to an extent as the amount of money that werespent on not just elementary education but on education on the wholeincreased throughout the reign of Alexander II, a lot of this money wasspent by the regional Zemstvo’s that was set up. But to call Alexander a’Tsar liberator’ just because he made liberating reforms in the educationsystem would be an exaggeration as one may question his purpose. Educationreforms were a brave step for the Tsar and the mark of a true liberatorbecause educated people are more dangerous to an autocrat, they can readsubversive pamphlets and they can read books by people with differentideas, however to industrialise Alexander II needed a literate workforce.
It is worth knowing post 1866 he also reduced university autonomy to regaincontrol 2 so he may be seen as more of an autocrat then a liberator whenregard to education reforms. Alexander IImaintainedcontrolovereducational establishments to reduce the threat to his autocracy whichtherefore suggests that Alexander II was not a ‘Tsar liberator’.
In the area of judicial reform Alexander II can be seen much closer to theidea of a ‘Tsar liberator’. Hugh Seton Watson says, ” …The court- roomwas the one place where real freedom existed” 3 Although judicial reformwas still incomplete as the judicial reforms didn’t cover military courtsor church courts. Judicial reform meant that ordinary people had some meansof obtaining independent justice4 through the new system of a judiciarywhere previously they didn’t and on balance, judicial reforms went furtherin terms of liberation than many of Alexander II’s other measures as WMosse says “the new courts remained a lasting memorial to Alexander II anda symbol of the new sprit which was beginning to pervade Russian life”1.
Thus Alexander comes closer to the idea of a ‘Tsar liberator’ when lookingat his judicial reforms.
The military reforms were also considers a success in terms of liberalreform as the armed forces were humanised and became less brutal, peasantswere also given more freedom within the forces. W Mosse Said, “it was agreat humanitarian reform which completely altered the spirit of theRussian army and navy”2 W Mosse is right to claim that the military reformsaltered the spirit of the Russian army, However as Sidney Harcave puts it “impressive as were the efforts to make such changes, they could nottransforms the Russian army unless the changes were endorsed and pursuedcooperatively by all concerned: that was a condition which, unfortunately,did not prevail” 3 Harcave is saying that these reforms that according toMosse ‘altered the spirit of the military’ had the ability to transform themilitary but did not because a lack of interest in them. The aristocracyremained dominant in the higher ranks of the army. However military reformscan be seen as a real achievement for Alexander II. There were undisputableimprovements such as the reduction in years from 26 years to 6 years for asoldier. There was also an improved system of conscription and there werechanges in the equipment used by the Russian army. Although this wasradical change the system was still not perfect, however as Alexander IIhumanised the military and tried to make the system more equal he comescloser to the ‘Tsar liberator’ ideal in this area than some other aspectsof his reign.
Alexander II could be considered less of a liberator in the case of dealingwith Poland as P Nevile puts it ” when faced with opposition, Alexander IIretreats into repression” 4 this is certainly true to an extent in the caseof Poland. There was the Polish uprising which was defeated and a policy ofRussification was imposed upon the state of Poland, this policy includedthe imposition of the Russian language in all schools and also banningPolish on the borders of Russia. Harcave says “It soon became evident thatin acquiescing to the new polish policy, Alexander was taking a significantstep to the right”1, in what happened in Poland after the Polish uprisingAlexander certainly did move to the right as Harcave suggests and in doingso was not a liberal and therefore cannot be deemed a ‘tsar liberator’dealing with Poland.
The Emancipation edict proved that Alexander II was a reformer but lackedthe temperament and determination to be a liberator. Alexander II did passmilitary and judicial reforms that had the potential to liberate, butAlexander II was not a true liberator as ” Although Alexander II wasprepared to make major changes in some areas to modernise Russia he was notwilling to give up any of his autocratic powers” 2 this statement made by DMoon is an accurate statement as throughout his reign Alexander II upheldhis inherited autocratic powers.
Alexander II does deserve credit for his willingness to attempt reformwhich sets him apart from most tsars. However, he failed to reform to theextent of a true liberator. ” Alexander II in the end succeeded afterimmense labours in making the new Russia an incomplete and uncomfortabledwelling where friends and opponents of innovation felt almost equally illat ease” 3 this statement by Mosse is certainly true in terms of theEmancipation of the serfs, although it is perhaps not the case withmilitary or judicial reform were these reforms came to be seen asliberating to a certain extent. However in seeing Alexander II’s entireprogramme of reforms, Mosse perhaps isaccurateasAlexanderIIintentionally limited his reforms in order to maintain his autocraticpower, and support from the aristocracy thus limiting true liberation. AsGeorgivna Zakharova says Alexander II’s reforms were not designed to”improve the lot of the people, develop the principle ofelectiverepresentation, or lay the foundations of a state ruled by law … but toentrench autocracy, strengthen military power, and expand the empire forthe sake of Russia’s greatness as Alexander II and his closest understoodit” 1, this quote is taken from a soviet historian therefore she isunlikely to be supportive of reform undertaken by the Tsarist regime whichmay be the reason why she has such a view, however the fact that sheimplies that Alexander II reforms were not a liberation, but the reformswere actually carried out in his own interests is true to an extent. A moreaccurate statement would be the one by Seton Watson who states “AlexanderII stood at the crossroads between autocracy and liberal reform, havingwhetted the appetite for the latter he chose the former” 2. This can beseen to be the most appropriate summation to this particular question;Alexander II came close to being a liberator but in fact only succeeded inbeginning reform.
———————– 1. David Saunders, Russia in the age of reaction and reform1801-1881 page264 2. Robert Bideleux, Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs(article)1 Mikhailov and Shelgunov extract from to the younger generation, apamphlet 1861 taken from P Oxley Russia from Tsars to Commissars 1855-1991page 282 Robert Bideleux Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs (article)3 Zaionchkovsky extract from the abolition of serfdom in Russia 1978 takenfrom Peter Oxley Russia from Tsars to Commissars page 291 Robert Bideleux Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs (article)2 Edward Acton Russia The Tsarist Soviet Legacy page 663 David Saunders Russia in the age of reaction and reform 1801-1881 page2644 HS Watson The Russian Empire page 4011 David Evans, Jane Jenkins Years of Russia and the USSR, 1851- 1991 page382 Seton Watson extract from European history Morris T 1848-1945 page 831 W Mosse Alexander II and the modernisation of Russia page 922 HS Watson The Russian Empire page 1933 W Mosse Alexander II And The Modernisation Of Russia Page 904 P Nevile Tsar Alexander II Liberator Or Traditionalist? (Article)1 W Mosse Alexander II and the modernisation of Russia page 952 In 1866 there was an assassination attempt on the Tsars life by auniversity student, this led to a period of reaction3 HS Watson taken from Years of Russia and the USSR, 1851-1991 David Evans,Jane Jenkins page 43,4 independent justice existed because a western system of a judiciary wasput into place, where by cases would be decided by a group of people andnot just by the judge1 W Mosse Alexander II and the Modernisation of Russia Page 912 W Mosse Alexander II and the Modernisation of Russia Page 953 Years of the last golden cockerel the last Romanov tsars 1814-1917 SidneyHarcave page 1904 P Nevile Tsar Alexander II liberator or traditionalist? (article)1 Sidney Harcave Years of the last golden cockerel the last Romanov tsars1814-1917 page 2012 D Moon Defeat in war leads to rapid Russian reforms: benefits underminedby restrictions (article)3 Mosse taken from David Evans, Jane Jenkins Years of Russia and the USSR,1851-1991 page 371 Donald J.Raleigh, M.E Sharpe taken David Evans, Jane Jenkins Years ofRussia and the USSR, 1851-1991 from page 252 Seton Watson taken from Morris T, European History 1848-1945 page 84