Does Alexander II truly deserve the title of liberator? To liberate is to set free (a group or individual) from legal, social or political restrictions. There is evidence to suggest that he disliked serfdom. Even his father, Nicholas I, believed that serfdom was an “evil palpable to all,” and Alexander II was certainly even more liberally educated than his father.
His arguably most fundamental reform was the emancipation of serfdom in 1861. As he said, “It is best to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it abolishes itself from below”. This quote demonstrates his realization that reform was needed. Many saw serfdom as Russia's biggest handicap in development into a new modern era, to be the equal of other European powers. There were many conflicting viewpoints as to whether to abolish serfdom or not. Some argued that to abolish serfdom would be a "blow to morals and the security of the state." Others argued that if serfdom was not abolished then Russia would never catch up to the rest of Europe in terms of economic growth. Also, because serfs were the only people, aside from peasants, involved in agriculture it was not possible for Russia to move into new methods of agriculture. As the majority of the army was made up of conscription serfs, who were poorly trained, it was almost impossible for there to be a fully competent army while serfdom survived. The number of Peasant and Serf revolts was rising and Alexander II saw that one of the ways to reduce these was to eliminate serfdom. He was largely successful in ushering in the end of serfdom and freeing millions of Russians, thus reinforcing his title as liberator but arguably he was unsuccessful in truly satisfying and recognizing the actual needs of the peasants themselves. The limited nature of the reform proved that the Tsar’s government was incapable of meeting the needs of ordinary Russians and ironically, incited only more revolutionary and terrorist activity. However, whether viewing the emancipation of the serfs as a success or failure depends on which criteria it is judged against. For example, if viewed in terms of legal rights and civil liberties then the emancipation was extremely successful. With the abolition of serfdom removing much of the gentry’s control of the peasantry, Alexander realized the urgent need for changes in the governmental system. In 1864 local government councils called the Zemstvas was created, followed by urban councils called Dumas in 1870. These were responsible for maintaining public health, prisons, roads, agriculture and education. This encouraged civic responsibility among serfs. It also provided new opportunities for locals to participate in political affairs as any member from any social class could become Zemstvo. These local officials therefore had the chance to engage in Russia's real social problems. The actual influence of the Zemstvas and Dumas was quite small as the police remained under central control and the provisional governor and the Tsar could overrule all Zemstva decisions. Furthermore, the zemstva were always short on money because they received no central funding. Despite all this, the undertaking of further reforms such as education would not have been successful without the aid of the Zemstvas and the Dumas. Overall, it did set in motion a new governmental system to modernize Russia.
The Crimean war exposed Russia to the necessity of reforming the army. Alexander didn’t play a large role in reforming the army; instead the reformation was carried out by his minister of war, General Dmitri Milyutin. Milyutin analyzed the causes of Russia's defeat in the Crimean War and from this he thought of several ideas for military reforms. His ideas were approved by Alexander, who appointed Milyutin to be his minister of war in 1861. He reduced the length of service for conscripts from 25 years to 6 years and 9 years in the reserve and 5 years in the militia. He also introduced universal military service...
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