Reform and reaction in Russia

Russia’s reformist tsar of the 1800s, Alexander II

The revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were preceded by a century of reform and reaction in Russia. The 19th century was a tumultuous one for the empire, full of demands for change, attempts at reform and uncertain outcomes. 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 it became known, was more attempted palace coup than a legitimate democratic revolution – nevertheless, the Decembrist rebels were liberal in their political views. The Decembrist uprising of 3,000 men was eventually crushed by the tsar but it prompted him to examine the empire and its tensions.

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 the Russian territory, on a peninsula in the northern Black Sea in what is now Ukraine. 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 disastrous outcomes of the Crimean War prompted the tsar, Alexander II, to consider reforms, particularly the abolition of serfdom. By bringing an end to this medieval concept, in effect a form of bonded slavery, Alexander hoped that agricultural production could be modernised and made more efficient. This would assist the transformation of Russia 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.

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

In 1861 Alexander II acted, 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. Former serfs were now free peasants but they were given a stark choice: they could either leave their land or commit to a 49-year state mortgage. In effect, they had traded one form of bondage for another. Meanwhile, Alexander agreed to other liberalisations of Russian society. Among these were the creation of representative bodies called zemstva, in effect a form of local government in villages and provinces, given authority to dispense education, charitable relief and other services. 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.

“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, historian

But while Alexander’s reforms satisfied some, they did not go far enough for radicals, who demanded political change at higher levels. The amount of anti-tsarist dissent and unrest actually increased after the reforms of the 1860s. Populist activists called Narodniks ventured into rural areas to circulate revolutionary ideas and to 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.

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 that it would frighten the ruling dynasty into more extensive reforms – but it had the reverse effect. 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. He reduced the authority of the zemstva, placing villages and communes under the control of government officials. Alexander III also reformed then expanded the Okhrana (secret police) and stepped up persecution of potential revolutionaries and assassins.

There were some progressive policies under Alexander III’s reign but they were almost entirely economic. The tsar’s appointment of Sergei Witte as finance minister in 1892 was significant. Witte, adept at luring foreign investment in Russia, helping 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. 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 economic modernisation. But there had been no corresponding political modernisation: no reduction in autocratic power, no elected assembly, no improvement in civil rights or the rights of workers.

1. 19th century Russia was probably the only major power to retain a strong autocracy and semi-feudal social structure.

2. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War exposed its lack of development and was the catalyst for long-awaited reforms.

3. Alexander II emancipated Russia’s serfs and initiated other reforms, though they did not satisfy radical elements.

4. In 1881 Alexander II was murdered. 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.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Reform and reaction in Russia” at Alpha History,, 2018, accessed [date of last access].