The Problems facing Alexander III in 1881
When Alexander became Tsar, Russia was in crisis following the assassination of Alexander II. Supreme political authority was still in the hands of the Tsar, but there were immense challenges facing Alexander III as he suddenly became Tsar of the world’s largest country, covering a quarter of the world’s land surface. Although known as the ‘Russian’ Empire, it compromised a large number of ethnic groups, with the Russians making up only half the population. It was the Russians, however, who completely dominated the political and economic system.
Alexander III faced the problem of keeping this large multi ethnic empire together. At the same time, he needed to maintain his own supreme political power – which was difficult, because his father, Alexander II, had begun reforms which raised expectations of major change within Russia.
Russia was also one of Europe’s Great Powers; and Alexander III faced pressures from some of his advisors to reform his empire and to make it more like western and central Europe. This would involve reforming the autocracy, allowing an elective parliament to share political power with the Tsar. People who held these views were known as ‘Westerners’. Other advisors, known as Slavophiles, suggested that Russia develop along its own unique lines. They wanted the Empire to be autocratic and dominated by the Russians because, they believed, it was the authority of the Tsar that held this large and diverse Empire together.
How could Alexander III restore order, and set Russia on a course of political, social and economic stability?
Part of Alexander’s problem was the legacy left by his father. The assassination of the father horrified Russian society – and appalled his son. Throughout most of his adult life the future Alexander III had not been involved in political. However, he had made it known that he did not approve of his father’s modernising policies, and in 1881, when he became Tsar he launched Russia on a return to conservatism and so brought an end to further political reform. By the 1870s it seemed that Russia was on the road to becoming a modern European state similar to the other Great Powers such as Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Amongst the educated classes it was felt that the emancipation of the serfs and political reform and judicial reform would be the beginning of major political change, which would end the Tsarist autocracy in national government. The reforms already include the creation of elective local government, the zemstva, in 1864, and trial by jury in 1870.
But the rise in expectation was dashed by the restrictions placed on the freed serfs and the modest nature of political reform. As a result, disillusioned radicals amongst the educated classes began to believe that he only way to truly modernise Russia would be the eradication of Tsarism itself. The organisation ‘People’s Will’ was formed in 1879 for this purpose. Through the late 1870s senior Tsarist officials were murdered. The ultimate act against the Tsarist system was to assassinate the Tsar himself. Between 1879 and 1880 four unsuccessful attempts were made on the Tsar’s life. Ironically, in 1881 when Alexander II was assassinated he was on his way to sign a decree to allow a form of elective national government.
Repression and Reaction
The assassination of the Tsar threatened the entire social and political system of the Russian Empire. At the top were members of the landed aristocracy and senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The aristocracy did not have popular support from the Russian people and the senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church derived much of the power from the Tsar, so a threat to the Tsar meant a threat to their position as well. So when Alexander III launched a campaign of repression it had widespread support from the upper levels of Russian society and from Slavophiles.
How does this representation help us to understand the social structure of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century? What message is the cartoon trying to send out?
Tsarist Russia, as shown by the 1897 census (%)
Ruling class (Tsar and government)
Upper class (landed classes, higher clergy)
Middle class (merchants, factory owners etc)
Industrial working class
In Russia, those who wanted reform ranged from moderates to extremists. Moderates included liberals who supported peaceful political change, Liberals wanted to allow freedom of the press and a national parliament elected by the educated and wealthy.
Extremists took many forms. Some, like People’s Will, were nihilists – they just wanted to destroy the Tsar’s rule and give power to the people without any clear plan as to how this might work in practice. Others wanted political and economic power handed to the peasants. In areas like Poland, nationalists wanted to create their own national state, outside the Russian Empire. The one thing they all had in common was the desire to change the political system. To Alexander III, it was clear that all those who supported political reform should be repressed.
The first casualties in the campaign of repression were Alexander II’s liberal ministers, M.T. Loris-Melikov and N.P. Ignatiev, who left office. In their place came Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. As the Tsar’s chief minister and leading official of the State Church, Pobedonostsev welded immense power and influence. He was the person who masterminded Alexander III’s Manifesto, which was issued at the end of April 1881 – just five weeks after the Tsar
The Manifesto declared that absolute political power resided in the Tsar. An unbending conservative; Pobedonostsev believed the basis of political and social stability lay in support for autocracy, the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism. However the immediate task of Alexander III’s new government was to destroy the terror organisation, the People’s Will. In the wake of the assassination, the government introduced the Statute of State security, which set up government-controlled courts to try governmental opponents, without the need for a jury. Those convicted faced possible execution, and thousands were exiled to Siberia. Although these courts, which helped maintain political stability, were only meant as a temporary measure, they stayed in existence until the end of the Tsarist rule in 1917.
The government also took action to prevent the spread of radical, and even liberal, ideas. Press freedom was severely restricted, with fourteen major newspapers being banned between 1882 and 1889 for displaying ‘liberal’ tendencies. Foreign books and newspapers were also rigorously censored by the Okhrana (the secret police) in order to prevent dangerous foreign ideas, such as democracy and parliamentary government, reaching the Russian people.
The universities were a particular area singled out for strict government supervision. University fees were increased to exclude all but the very wealthy, and in 1884 the universities lost their self-government and came under government control. Universities across Russia were temporality closed in 1889 because of student demonstrations against governmental control.
However these repressive policies did not destroy the People’s Will and other extremist groups. They continued to operate underground, and in 1887 they even made an attempt to assassinate Alexander III. In the crackdown that followed, the Okhrana arrested, and subsequently executed, a university student called Alexander Ulyanov, the elder brother of the future Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. In April 1917 Lenin wrote an eight line autobiography which stated:
My name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. I was born in Simbirsk on 10th April 1870. In the spring of 1887, mu older brother Alexander was executed by Alexander III, for an attempt on his life.
Alexander III’s repressive policies clearly had a dramatic long-term effect on his own dynasty. In 1918, on Lenin’s orders, Alexander III’s son, Nicholas II and his entire family were murdered by the Bolsheviks.
Increased Central Control
No aspect of Russian society seemed untouched by central government control. Pobedonostsev began to undo many of the reforms introduced by Alexander II. In 1889 the government created the post of ‘Land Captain’ to enforce local laws, replacing the locally elected justices of peace. Land Captains were members of the landed classes and were directly appointed by the Minister of the Interior. In the following year, 1890, Land Captains were made members of the local governmental bodies – the zemstva. In addition, the franchise to the zemstva was restricted, to ensure that the landed classes had the most political power. Doctors and school teachers, for instance, were no longer allowed to seek election. In 1892 these restrictions were extended to towns and cities. All these changes reversed many of Alexander II’s reforms of 1855 – 1881. Russia was now the most repressed state in all Europe – with strict press censorship, virtually no legal political activity and wide ranging police powers to deal with all those who criticised the Tsarist autocracy.
One area of particular interest to Pobedonostsev was religious control over education. He put all zemstva primary schools under Church control, and introduced restrictions to ensure that the sons of peasants and workers did not have the opportunity to enter secondary school.
The government also interfered with the trial by jury system, after a radical extremist, Vera Zasulich, was acquitted in a jury trial in 1878. She had shot dead the hated police chief of St Petersburg in broad daylight, but the jury’s verdict reflected widespread public dislike of the repressive
policies introduced under Alexander III. To prevent any further ‘wrong’ verdicts, from 1890 the government exercised the right to choose juries.
By the time of Alexander III’s death, in 1894, Pobedonostsev had turned the clock back in terms of social and political reform. Much of the work of the Tsar Liberator had been undone. Russia was firmly back under the control of the Tsar, the landed classes and the Russian Orthodox Church.