Born 29 April 1818, Alexander II came to the throne, aged 36, following the death of his father, Tsar Nicholas I, in February 1855. Although a believer in autocracy, the reign of Alexander saw a number of fundamental reforms. Russia’s disastrous performance during the Crimean War of 1853-56, in which Russia’s military inferiority, weak infrastructure and a backward economy, based on serfdom, was exposed, confirmed for the new tsar the need to modernize his empire.
Alexander instigated a vast improvement in communication, namely expanding Russia’s rail network from just 660 miles of track (linking Moscow and St Petersburg) in the 1850s to over 14,000 miles within thirty years, which, in turn, aided Russia’s industrial and economic expansion.
Alexander’s reformist zeal restructured the judicial system, which included the introduction of trial by jury. Military reform saw the introduction of conscription, the reduction of military service from 25 years to six, and the establishment of military schools. He expanded Russia’s territory in the east, in Central Asia, up to the borders of Afghanistan, much to the worry of the British government.
Emancipation of the Serfs
But reform only opened the eyes of what could be, thus came the demand for greater reform, which brought about a number of active groups demanding reform and revolution. Thus, on 3 March 1861, Alexander II issued what seemed on the face of it the most revolutionary reform in Russia’s history – his Manifesto on the Emancipation of the Serfs. The edict freed 23 million serfs from their bondage to landowners and the ownership of 85 per cent of Russia’s land was wrestled from private landowners and given to the peasants. The landlords, understandably, opposed such a sweeping change but were told by the tsar, ‘It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below’.
But the high ideals of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs fell very short of its ambition. The 15 per cent of land the landowners held onto was, invariably, the best, most sought-after and the peasants had to buy back their land from the nobles, usually at an inflated price. Those unable to afford the cost, which was virtually all, were given a loan by the government, repayable at 6 per cent over 49 years. The peasant, freed from serfdom, was no better off and no happier.
But Alexander’s reforms did not extend to democracy and he resisted all calls for parliamentary or freedom of expression – it remained illegal to criticize the tsar or his government. Frustrated by the tsar’s autocracy, anti-government groups formed and met in clandestine, many prepared to use violence to achieve their aims. On 20 April 1879, Alexander survived an assassination attempt when a 33-year-old revolutionary and former schoolteacher, Alexander Soloviev, shot at him five times but missed. Soloviev was hanged the following month.
A year later, on 5 February 1880, Stepan Khalturin, a carpenter working within the tsar’s Winter Palace, planted a bomb beneath the tsar’s dinning hall timed to go off at the time Alexander was expected to sit for dinner. But a late guest that evening delayed the start of dinner. The bomb killed several staff but the tsar was unharmed.
The People’s Will
But on 13 March 1881, the tsar was not so lucky. A group calling themselves the People’s Will threw a bomb at the tsar’s carriage as it drove through St Petersburg. Initially unharmed, Alexander, against advice to stay in the carriage, emerged to check on his wounded guards. A second bomb was thrown, this one severely wounding him. He was carried back to the Winter Palace, with both his legs blown away and his stomach ripped open, where he died. He was 62. The tsar’s son (Alexander III) and 12-year-old grandson (Nicholas II) were witness to Alexander’s violent end. As future tsars they never forgot.
Ironically, Alexander II had just, hours before his death, put his signature to a draft decree to establish a parliament, a Duma, the first step towards a constitutional monarchy. He knew that the emancipation of the serfs had failed, and that his reforms, although laudable, merely created the demand for greater reform. Thus, by their very action, the terrorists had unwittingly aborted any chance of constitutional reform. Instead, they got a new tsar, Alexander’s son, Alexander III, who immediately tore up his father’s parliamentary proposal, undid his reforms and intensified the level of repression.
The new tsar’s Manifesto on Unshakable Autocracy, issued within two month’s of his father’s death, summed up Alexander III’s view on how Russia should be ruled. Liberalism and democracy were signs of weakness. For the benefit of all, his people needed to be ruled with a firm hand and the nation needed to be more Russian. Ethnic languages and nationalistic tendencies were repressed. The vast empire was to be subject to the new tsar’s Russification and autocratic rule.
The tsar intended to start teaching his son the art of statesmanship once Nicholas had reached the age of 30. But on 1 November 1894, aged only 49, Alexander III died of kidney disease. His son was still only 26. Thus, following the death of his father, Nicholas was thrust unprepared into the limelight. Fearful of the responsibility that was now his to bear, he reputably asked, ‘What will become of me and all of Russia?’
Learn more about Lenin and the Russian Revolution in The Russian Revolution: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60, and as downloadable audio.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.