To what extent was Alexander II a Tsar liberator?

Alexander II did introduce a number of reforms, whichwerequite
revolutionary for that period of time. Many historians therefore believe
that Alexander II deserves the title ‘Tsar Liberator’. Views of Alexander
II do, however, differ to a great extent, When regarding Alexander II
Saunders says “his enthusiasm for change lasted a mere four years, it may
be that his reputation as the ‘Tsar liberator’ is ill deserved” 1this
strongly suggests that Alexander II was not a liberator. However, as
Bideleux says “Alexander II came to be known as the ‘Tsar liberator on
account of his resoluteness in freeing millions of Russian serfs through
the 1861 Emancipation Act”2 although Alexander II did free serfs this does
not solely justify the title ‘Tsar liberator’ Alexander may have freed the
peasants but it wasn’t complete freedom. Many historians believe that
Alexander II cannot be called a “Tsar Liberator” as he did not pass reforms
out of a genuine desire to liberate, but to remain in power and keep the
peace instead. Historians also argue that Alexander II remained a very
determined autocrat who was not willing to let go of his inherited
autocratic powers. There is no doubt that Alexander was not willing to let
go of his autocratic powers and although he made significant reforms in
areas such as education and the military he was not a liberator.


Alexander has been called a liberator due to his reforms of serfdom. It is
important to realise that Serfdom was an economic institution and an
instrument of social control that had been seen as the norm, therefore for
Alexander II to change this system can be seen as a liberal reform. However
when you look closer at the terms of the emancipation edict it looks less
of liberation, this is due to the fact the peasants had to pay redemptions
fees for 49 years and never gained sufficient land for their needs. Equally
the reasons behind emancipation were not to liberalise the peasantry. Only
through Emancipation could Russia modernise following thedisastrous
failure that was the Crimea war, if this was the only reason behind
Alexander II’s decision and not to liberate one may have difficulty in
describing Alexander II as a ‘Tsar liberator’.


One reason why Alexander II’s title as ‘Tsar liberator’ is called into
question is the controversy regarding redemption payments. The major
difficulty was the charging of redemption payments to compensate the
nobility for loss of land and labour which was part of the emancipation
edict. Redemption fees were a major financial burden on the peasants and
critics use this to prove that the Emancipation was a failure. “The
sovereign has betrayed the hopes of the people; the freedom he has given
them is not real and is not what the people dreamed of “1 this implies that
Alexander II was not a liberator because they were not fully liberated.

However Bideleux disputes this and presents statistics that redemption dues
came down to about 2% of agricultural output 2 Bideleux implies that the
redemption fees were not as harsh thus Alexander II may be seen as a
liberator. These statistics by Bideleux are somewhat selective as in the
fertile black soil regions of the Ukraine no doubt these figures were
feasible but this was not the case in many other areas where redemption
fees were onerous. Therefore on balance redemption fees were a major factor
in the Emancipation edict not being a true liberation since without the
means to be financially and economically independent many peasants could
not be called liberated.


When considering the extent to which Alexander II was a Liberator,
historians do not question the liberation of the peasants from landowners.

They question the terms of the Emancipation edict itself. Zaionchkovsky
says “There can be no doubt that the reform defrauded the peasants… the
most onerous conditions of all were the termsofredemption…the
allotments obtained by the private peasant through the reform were for the
most part entirely inadequate…” 3 Zaionchkovsky was writing this in 1978
as a soviet historian during Communist rule. He is therefore unlikely to be
supportive of reform undertakenbytheTsaristregime.Bideleux
contradicting this interpretation says “Overall in 43 provinces of Eastern
Russia serfs received 96% of the land that they previously farmed for their
use” 1 this implies that Alexander II was a liberator because the peasants
gained land, but he isn’t showing the full picture as he only talks about
43 provinces in Eastern Russia and not Russia on the whole Bidelux also
fails to mention that”the ‘cut offs’ withheld by land lords were
particularly large in the fertile ‘black earth’ regions and were a source
of intense and lasting bitterness” 2. Although Bideleux attempts to show
Alexander II as a liberator, it can be clearly seen that Alexander II’s
emancipation edict was not liberation as David Saunders says, “peasants
nevertheless remained the poorest and the most heavily exploited section of
the population” 3. Overall it appears that a large number of peasants did
feel cheated by the Emancipation. The main problem was the allocation of
land and that it could be said that peasants found the land that they were
given was insufficient for their needs and many found the redemption fees
onerous. Some peasants did noticeably benefit from the Emancipation such as
the Kulaks but the majority didn’t. It appears that Alexander II’s edict
did fall short in many areas and that although ‘free’; serfs had no
economic freedom to allow truly independent lives. Thus to call Alexander
II a liberator on the basis of his emancipation edict does seem to be
unjust.


Alexander II has been called liberator due to the Emancipation edict, which
gave freedoms to marry and freedom from ownership. However these freedoms
were undermined by the powers of the Mir. The Mir’s main roles were the
collection oftaxesincludingredemptionpaymentandalsothe
redistribution of land. Critics say that in some respects the Mir replaced
the landlord in terms of controlling personal freedom as Watson says “
their personal freedom of movement and choice of occupation were tightly
constrained by the commune (Mir)”1. Evans and Jenkins say that the
commune “replaced the gentry in terms of controlling the lives of peasants
and their independence” 1 suggesting that Alexander II was not a liberator.

However others argue that as it was peasant elders controlling the commune
and therefore other peasants, and so at least peasants were controlling
themselves. However there is no doubt that even with the powers of the Mir
the serfs generally had more personal freedom after Emancipation, although
in terms of prosperity they may not have seen any improvement. Therefore
aspects of Alexander II’s emancipation edict were liberating notably the
creation of the peasant commune, but only to a certain extent. The
emancipation didn’t give economic liberation which means that Alexander
II’s claim as a Liberator must be questioned.


When you compare Alexander II’s emancipation edict to the emancipation of
the American Negro’s the case against calling Alexander II a ‘Tsar
liberator’ is however strengthened. This is supported by Seton Watson who
states the 1861 edict was”a great achievement when compared to the
Emancipation of the American Negro ” 2 Seton Watson is writing this
comparison favourably and one can draw comparisons between the two events.

Both Emancipation’s occurred at similar points in the 19th century however,
like Alexander II’s Emancipation edict, Abraham Lincoln’s liberation of
Americas Negro’s perhaps was notional freedom. Although the American Negro
was free to marry, to travel and free from any form of ownership, he was
still without freedoms enjoyed by most white Americans. American Negro’s
were liberated but not given economic and political rights to make this
liberation work in practice. Indeed, when set against the American model,
Alexander II’s edict has similarities, both Russian serf and American slave
were free but lacking economic independence, Negro’s were denied the vote
in many cases while serfs lived in an autocracy. But to compare the 1861
edict favourably as Seton Watson does is perhaps to miss avital
difference. Lincoln was not liberating Americanslavestoachieve
industrial progress or to keep the lid on unrest, which could overthrow
autocratic power. His driving force was one of morality and therefore
Lincoln perhaps meets the title ‘Tsar Liberator’ more fully than Alexander
II
A reform that suggests that Alexander does deserve the title ‘Tsar
liberator was the setting up of Zemstvo’s. However there are different
interpretations concerning the reform as W Mosse describes “With the
Emancipation law the authority of thesehereditarypolicemasters
disappeared; measures had to be taken to replace it”1 to call the
aristocracy “hereditary police masters” is an extreme, but the point that
there was a need for a decision making body regionally was very true.

However as Watson says, “The local knowledge of the Zemstvo’s enabled them
to do a good job” 2 and was not just replacing the roles of “hereditary
police masters”. Mosse says “the new Zemstvo’s statute was the logical and
inevitable outcome… the ‘consolation prize’ offered to the nobility for
the losses of 1861″ 2. Although a lot of the previous landowners were a
part of the Zemstvo’s it is rather critical of Mosse to say that the
Zemstvo’s were created to keep the landowner and aristocracy content with
the Tsar.


It is worth noticing the Zemstvo’s made a number of reforms in education
making it a liberal reform and was not just the consolidation prize to the
aristocracy after the Emancipation edict. However this reform could be seen
to be less of a liberation because Alexander II declined to create a
national assembly based upon the local Zemstvo’s “when petitioned by the
Moscow Zemsva’s the tsar replied that these were senseless dreams” 4 this
refers to the case when the Moscow Zemstvo asked for a national Parliament
this shows us the limitations of him being a liberator as he was not
willing to let go of his autocratic powers. However the creation of
Zemstvo’s can be seen to be the start of self-government by the people of
Russia; what it resulted in was the beginning of liberation, and therefore
Alexander II maybe called a liberator by some but due to the unintentional
nature of this reform it does not prove the case that Alexander II was a
liberator.


Education reforms were quite a liberal move by Alexander Il move as W Mosse
says ” In 1856, elementary schools in the empire numbered about 8000. By
1880 the number reached 23,000 in European Russia alone” 1, this statement
by Mosse seems to be correct to an extent as the amount of money that were
spent on not just elementary education but on education on the whole
increased throughout the reign of Alexander II, a lot of this money was
spent by the regional Zemstvo’s that was set up. But to call Alexander a
‘Tsar liberator’ just because he made liberating reforms in the education
system would be an exaggeration as one may question his purpose. Education
reforms were a brave step for the Tsar and the mark of a true liberator
because educated people are more dangerous to an autocrat, they can read
subversive pamphlets and they can read books by people with different
ideas, however to industrialise Alexander II needed a literate workforce.

It is worth knowing post 1866 he also reduced university autonomy to regain
control 2 so he may be seen as more of an autocrat then a liberator when
regard to education reforms. Alexander IImaintainedcontrolover
educational establishments to reduce the threat to his autocracy which
therefore suggests that Alexander II was not a ‘Tsar liberator’.


In the area of judicial reform Alexander II can be seen much closer to the
idea of a ‘Tsar liberator’. Hugh Seton Watson says, ” …The court- room
was the one place where real freedom existed” 3 Although judicial reform
was still incomplete as the judicial reforms didn’t cover military courts
or church courts. Judicial reform meant that ordinary people had some means
of obtaining independent justice4 through the new system of a judiciary
where previously they didn’t and on balance, judicial reforms went further
in terms of liberation than many of Alexander II’s other measures as W
Mosse says “the new courts remained a lasting memorial to Alexander II and
a symbol of the new sprit which was beginning to pervade Russian life”1.

Thus Alexander comes closer to the idea of a ‘Tsar liberator’ when looking
at his judicial reforms.


The military reforms were also considers a success in terms of liberal
reform as the armed forces were humanised and became less brutal, peasants
were also given more freedom within the forces. W Mosse Said, “it was a
great humanitarian reform which completely altered the spirit of the
Russian army and navy”2 W Mosse is right to claim that the military reforms
altered the spirit of the Russian army, However as Sidney Harcave puts it “
impressive as were the efforts to make such changes, they could not
transforms the Russian army unless the changes were endorsed and pursued
cooperatively by all concerned: that was a condition which, unfortunately,
did not prevail” 3 Harcave is saying that these reforms that according to
Mosse ‘altered the spirit of the military’ had the ability to transform the
military but did not because a lack of interest in them. The aristocracy
remained dominant in the higher ranks of the army. However military reforms
can be seen as a real achievement for Alexander II. There were undisputable
improvements such as the reduction in years from 26 years to 6 years for a
soldier. There was also an improved system of conscription and there were
changes in the equipment used by the Russian army. Although this was
radical change the system was still not perfect, however as Alexander II
humanised the military and tried to make the system more equal he comes
closer to the ‘Tsar liberator’ ideal in this area than some other aspects
of his reign.


Alexander II could be considered less of a liberator in the case of dealing
with Poland as P Nevile puts it ” when faced with opposition, Alexander II
retreats into repression” 4 this is certainly true to an extent in the case
of Poland. There was the Polish uprising which was defeated and a policy of
Russification was imposed upon the state of Poland, this policy included
the imposition of the Russian language in all schools and also banning
Polish on the borders of Russia. Harcave says “It soon became evident that
in acquiescing to the new polish policy, Alexander was taking a significant
step to the right”1, in what happened in Poland after the Polish uprising
Alexander certainly did move to the right as Harcave suggests and in doing
so was not a liberal and therefore cannot be deemed a ‘tsar liberator’
dealing with Poland.


The Emancipation edict proved that Alexander II was a reformer but lacked
the temperament and determination to be a liberator. Alexander II did pass
military and judicial reforms that had the potential to liberate, but
Alexander II was not a true liberator as ” Although Alexander II was
prepared to make major changes in some areas to modernise Russia he was not
willing to give up any of his autocratic powers” 2 this statement made by D
Moon is an accurate statement as throughout his reign Alexander II upheld
his inherited autocratic powers.


Alexander II does deserve credit for his willingness to attempt reform
which sets him apart from most tsars. However, he failed to reform to the
extent of a true liberator. ” Alexander II in the end succeeded after
immense labours in making the new Russia an incomplete and uncomfortable
dwelling where friends and opponents of innovation felt almost equally ill
at ease” 3 this statement by Mosse is certainly true in terms of the
Emancipation of the serfs, although it is perhaps not the case with
military or judicial reform were these reforms came to be seen as
liberating to a certain extent. However in seeing Alexander II’s entire
programme of reforms, Mosse perhaps isaccurateasAlexanderII
intentionally limited his reforms in order to maintain his autocratic
power, and support from the aristocracy thus limiting true liberation. As
Georgivna Zakharova says Alexander II’s reforms were not designed to
“improve the lot of the people, develop the principle ofelective
representation, or lay the foundations of a state ruled by law … but to
entrench autocracy, strengthen military power, and expand the empire for
the sake of Russia’s greatness as Alexander II and his closest understood
it” 1, this quote is taken from a soviet historian therefore she is
unlikely to be supportive of reform undertaken by the Tsarist regime which
may be the reason why she has such a view, however the fact that she
implies that Alexander II reforms were not a liberation, but the reforms
were actually carried out in his own interests is true to an extent. A more
accurate statement would be the one by Seton Watson who states “Alexander
II stood at the crossroads between autocracy and liberal reform, having
whetted the appetite for the latter he chose the former” 2. This can be
seen to be the most appropriate summation to this particular question;
Alexander II came close to being a liberator but in fact only succeeded in
beginning reform.


———————–
1. David Saunders, Russia in the age of reaction and reform1801-1881 page
264
2. Robert Bideleux, Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs
(article)
1 Mikhailov and Shelgunov extract from to the younger generation, a
pamphlet 1861 taken from P Oxley Russia from Tsars to Commissars 1855-1991
page 28
2 Robert Bideleux Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs (article)
3 Zaionchkovsky extract from the abolition of serfdom in Russia 1978 taken
from Peter Oxley Russia from Tsars to Commissars page 29
1 Robert Bideleux Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs (article)
2 Edward Acton Russia The Tsarist Soviet Legacy page 66
3 David Saunders Russia in the age of reaction and reform 1801-1881 page
264
4 HS Watson The Russian Empire page 401
1 David Evans, Jane Jenkins Years of Russia and the USSR, 1851- 1991 page
38
2 Seton Watson extract from European history Morris T 1848-1945 page 83
1 W Mosse Alexander II and the modernisation of Russia page 92
2 HS Watson The Russian Empire page 193
3 W Mosse Alexander II And The Modernisation Of Russia Page 90
4 P Nevile Tsar Alexander II Liberator Or Traditionalist? (Article)
1 W Mosse Alexander II and the modernisation of Russia page 95
2 In 1866 there was an assassination attempt on the Tsars life by a
university student, this led to a period of reaction
3 HS Watson taken from Years of Russia and the USSR, 1851-1991 David Evans,
Jane Jenkins page 43,
4 independent justice existed because a western system of a judiciary was
put into place, where by cases would be decided by a group of people and
not just by the judge
1 W Mosse Alexander II and the Modernisation of Russia Page 91
2 W Mosse Alexander II and the Modernisation of Russia Page 95
3 Years of the last golden cockerel the last Romanov tsars 1814-1917 Sidney
Harcave page 190
4 P Nevile Tsar Alexander II liberator or traditionalist? (article)
1 Sidney Harcave Years of the last golden cockerel the last Romanov tsars
1814-1917 page 201
2 D Moon Defeat in war leads to rapid Russian reforms: benefits undermined
by restrictions (article)
3 Mosse taken from David Evans, Jane Jenkins Years of Russia and the USSR,
1851-1991 page 37
1 Donald J.Raleigh, M.E Sharpe taken David Evans, Jane Jenkins Years of
Russia and the USSR, 1851-1991 from page 25
2 Seton Watson taken from Morris T, European History 1848-1945 page 84

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