Reform and reaction in Russia

reform and reaction
Russia’s reformist tsar of the 1800s, Alexander II

Tsarism was confronted with several revolutionary groups and reformist movements during its three-century history. The 1800s, in particular, was a period of reform and reaction. A mid-19th century military defeat led to some change in Russia – but the assassination of a tsar in 1881 was followed by a period of brutal reaction.

The Decembrists

The first significant threat to tsarist autocracy came in December 1825 when army officers led an uprising against the new emperor, Nicholas I.

The Decembrist revolt, as this uprising became known, was more an attempted palace coup than a legitimate democratic revolution. Nevertheless, the Decembrist rebels were liberal in their political views and their uprising threatened the integrity of autocratic tsarism.

The Decembrist uprising, in which 3,000 men were involved, was eventually crushed by Nicholas I – but it prompted him to examine the empire and its tensions.

The Crimean War

Russia was also unsettled by the Crimean War of 1854-56. Triggered by imperial tensions and disputes over control of the Holy Lands, Russia was confronted by three powerful empires: France, Britain and the Ottomans (modern-day Turkey). Much of the fighting took place on Russian territory, on the Crimean peninsula in the northern Black Sea.

The Crimean War was a disaster for the homeland. Russia put almost three-quarters of a million men into the field and more than 200,000 of them were lost.

The conflict also exposed Russia’s lack of industrial and technological development in comparison to her enemies. Lacking railway infrastructure, improved weaponry and other developments like the electric telegraph, the Russian military could not match the British or French in a major conflict.

The reformist tsar

Tsar Alexander I died in March 1855, almost 18 months into the Crimean War. His son and successor, Alexander II, was appalled by the outcomes of the war. The new tsar immediately began to modernisations and reforms. At the top of his list was the abolition of serfdom.

Serfdom was, in effect, a form of slavery where serf-peasants were bonded to the land. Alexander hoped that by dismantling this archaic system, agricultural production could be revitalised and made more efficient. It would kick-start Russia’s transformation from a backward agricultural economy into a modern industrial and capitalist economy.

The idea of bringing an end to serfdom was hardly new. It had been suggested several times before but was always resisted by the conservative land-owning nobility, who benefited from the profits and status generated by serfdom.

The 1861 emancipation

reform and reaction
An artist’s impression of Alexander II releasing the serfs in 1861

Alexander II finally acted in 1861, signing a decree that ruled a line through serfdom. A process of land redistribution was commenced but the detail was left in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats and, in some cases, the land-owners themselves.

As a consequence, the reallocation of Russian land was hardly fair. Russia’s serfs became free peasants but they were given a stark choice: either leave their land or commit to a 49-year state mortgage. They had, in effect, traded one form of bondage for another.

Meanwhile, Alexander agreed to other liberalisations of Russian society. Among them were the creation of representative bodies called zemstva or zemstvos, in effect a form of local council for villages and provinces. These zemstva were given authority to deliver education, dispense charitable relief and other services.

Alexander II the ‘reformer tsar’ also ordered the reformation of the army and navy, the implementation of new legal processes and an overhaul of the penal code.

Revolutionary activity

But while Alexander’s reforms satisfied some, they did not go far enough for radical revolutionaries, who demanded more significant and meaningful changes.

Rather than being placated by the reforms of the 1860s, the amount of anti-tsarist dissent and unrest actually increased. Populist activists called Narodniki ventured into rural areas to circulate revolutionary ideas and impel the peasants to take action. By the 1870s, Alexander’s reformist spirit had dwindled and he was forced to impose repressive measures.

Russia’s fate was sealed with a blood-curdling event on the streets of St Petersburg. As the tsar was driving in his carriage, he was assassinated by members of a radical fringe group called Narodnaya Volnya (‘People’s Will’). Almost blown in half by a bomb, the dying tsar was carried into the Winter Palace, to be given the last rites in front of his horrified family. The liberal-minded tsar breathed his last – and so did 19th-century Russian reformism.

Alexander III the reactionary

The Church of the Spilled Blood, erected on the site where Alexander II was fatally wounded.

The murder of the tsar was met with horror both within Russia and around the world. Its perpetrators hoped Alexander’s assassination would frighten the ruling dynasty into more extensive reforms – but it had the reverse effect, creating a period of conservative reaction.

The dead tsar was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, a giant of a man with a fearful temper and intimidating manner. Alexander immediately ordered the winding back of most of his father’s reforms and liberal policies.

He expanded and strengthened the broad policy of ‘Russification’, which imposed the Russian culture and values on the peoples in the empire. Thousands of Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns and others were forced to learn or use the Russian language. A fervent anti-Semite, Alexander encouraged if not ordered the harassment of Russia’s five million Jews, banning them from some areas and prohibiting their participation in local elections.

Alexander also reduced the authority of the zemstva, placing villages and communes under the control of government officials. He also reformed then expanded the Okhrana (secret police) and stepped up persecution of potential revolutionaries and assassins.

The seeds of industrialisation

There were some progressive policies under Alexander III’s reign but these were almost exclusively economic. The most tsar’s appointment of Sergei Witte as finance minister in 1892 was significant.

Adept at luring foreign investment in Russia, Witte helped to stimulate the mining and petroleum industries while funding the construction of factories and infrastructure.

Ironically, the largest sources of foreign capital in Russia were investors from France and Britain, its foes in the Crimea. French capitalists, wealthy from an industrial boom in their own country, invested almost 700 million francs in Russian joint-stock companies during the 1890s.

Witte also set about expanding Russia’s transportation system, organising the construction of the much-needed Trans-Siberian Railway and other key projects. As the Russian economy grew and industrialised, it drew thousands of landless or disenchanted peasants into the cities to work in factories and plants.

When Alexander III died in 1894 and the throne passed to his eldest son Nicholas II, the cities of European Russia were undergoing significant growth and change, stimulated by industrialisation. There had been no corresponding political modernisation, however – no reduction in autocratic power, no elected assembly, no improvement in civil rights and no improvements or protections for the rights of workers.

A historian’s view:
“Conventional wisdom in Russian economic history attaches great significance to the reforms of the 1860s. For Soviet historians, the reform era is a watershed marking the transition from feudalism to capitalism. For many non-Soviet historians, the reform era ushered in the transition from traditional to modern society.”
Peter Gatrell

1. The 1800s was a century of reform and reaction in Russia. It was marked by the emancipation of serfdom, revolutionary violence and reactionary policies.

2. Defeat in the Crimean War exposed Russia’s lack of development in relation to its European neighbours. These outcomes became the catalyst for long-awaited reforms.

3. The reign of a new tsar, Alexander II, brought with it the emancipation of serfdom. After centuries of being bonded to the land, Russia’s serfs were freed, though only in name.

4. Despite his reformist policies, Tsar Alexander II was murdered by populist revolutionaries in 1881. The new tsar, Alexander III, ordered a wave of reaction and repression.

5. In the late 1800s, Russia also underwent a period of economic modernisation and industrial growth, led largely by Sergei Witte and funded with government incentives and foreign investment.

Citation information
Title: “Reform and reaction in Russia”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: May 24, 2019
Date accessed: August 07, 2023
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