Alexander II: Liberator or Traditionalist?
During the Tsarist reign of Alexander II (1855 – 1881), Alexander implemented a number of reforms that were destined to change the Russian social system. These reforms were the result of Russia’s humiliating military defeat in the Crimean war, as it awakened Alexander to the need for far reaching reforms in order to bring Russia up-to-date with the rest of Europe. However as these reforms were implemented a number of social and political issues arose which resulted in the death of Alexander before he could accomplish his dream of a modernised Russia. But was modernising Russia really Alexander’s intention? Did he really deserve the title ‘Liberator’?
The first and perhaps most ambitious reform to be attempted by Alexander was the emancipation of the serfs. In the words of Alexander II at the end of the Crimean war: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it abolishes itself from below”. The Tsar had hoped that landlords would take the initiative in the matter of the abolition of serfdom, but by 1857 when they had shown no inclination to do so, a committee was formed to consider the matter.
The committee consisted of the Tsar, high-ranking government officials and a very limited amount of private landowners. The resolutions formed within the committee were finally put into place when the Tsar signed the Ukase, abolishing serfdom in 1861. While the abolishing of serfdom sounds like liberation, some of the conditions of this reform are almost contradictory. For example, “Rights of land ownership were to be conferred upon the village community, of which the peasant proprietor was a member, NOT upon the individual peasant.” Hence the result of this reform was “The peasant, although free, was still tied to the land through his communal membership.” Meaning the reform still technically carried the Russian tradition of workers being bound to the land on which they worked. So how could Alexander...
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