How far does Alexander II deserve the title ‘tsar liberator’?
Tsar Alexander II ruled Russia from 1855 to 1881, implementing several large-scale reforms, ranging from the emancipation of serfdom in 1861 to the variegated reforms of von Reutern, as well as the improved treatment of the Poles, Finns and Jews. However, the dichotomous question of intent and motive behind these reforms has formed many schools of thought. Whilst the conventional view is that Alexander II was a liberator, with good intentions but poor execution of reforms, Soviet historians posit the opposite (hardly surprising given their political agenda to justify the Bolshevik revolution), that Alexander II was motivated purely by economic and military concerns, rather than for the good of the people. Historians such as A.J Rieber concur, pointing to the Crimean War’s humiliating exposition of Russia’s military weakness as a catalyst for reform. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider whether Alexander II ‘deserve(s)’ praise with the title ‘tsar liberator’. Evidently there were several factors amalgamating to provoke reform, but if Alexander II genuinely intended to benefit his people, as is the paternalistic role of the tsar, then indeed he deserves the title.
The emancipation of serfdom in 1861 has been described as ‘the single greatest liberating measure in the whole history of Europe’ by M.S Anderson. Indeed the end of serfdom marked the end of a feudal structure which had been in place for centuries, so in this regard Alexander II deserves praise for such a bold move for reform. However, some historians argue this move was not so much bold, rather inevitable. They point to Alexander II’s determination to ‘abolish serfdom from above’ rather wait for it to ‘abolish itself from below’, which implies the tsar was not a ‘liberator’, but an autocrat keen to preserve power before the forces of revolution swept the autocracy from below. Hence one can concur with Hugh Seton-Watson’s view; that Alexander II faltered at a crossroads between continuing with autocracy or a new constitutional liberal rule. Likewise, Mosse argues the tsar was simultaneously ‘a disappointing liberal and an inefficient autocrat’.
After the Crimean War of 1853, Russia had been left humiliated on an international stage and it’s nobility/landowning class heavily in debt, unable to progress with outdated agricultural methods. Yuriy Samarin summarised this as Russia’s ‘internal weakness’. Furthermore was the stagnation in industrial development and the sharp increase in population (and subsequent internal consumption). Hence, considering these contextual factors, one can conclude that the emancipation was motivated by economic, military and practical concerns, rather than the paternalistic ‘liberating’ instinct of Alexander II. Thus one can align with the Marxist historian perspective of evaluating structural and long-term factors, and subsequently accredit this with the ultimate emancipation of the serfs. There is also the issue that emancipation of serfdom, contrary to name and intention, led to worse conditions for peasants and nobles alike. Although many disgruntled peasants did ultimately move to cities, hence catalysing the gradual urbanization and drive in industry that would make Russia one of the great powers by the end of the 19th century, in general peasants were left poorer than before emancipation. Faced with high redemption payments and land prices, amalgamated with ‘obligatory serfdom’, peasants were not only struggling to survive, but subject to the same bondage that they had experienced before emancipation. Also considering the repression and control within communes, overall the emancipation of serfdom cannot, contrary to M.S Anderson’s perspective, be called a ‘liberating measure’. Hence, in this regard, the emancipation of serfdom in 1861 does not credit Alexander II with the title of ‘liberator’.
Although Alexander II’s emancipation of serfdom was not particularly ‘liberating’, by contrast his treatment of the ethnic minorities – Jews, Finns and Poles – was certainly liberating. After decades of imposition of Russian culture, Alexander II made Finnish the sole official language in Finland, allowed the founding of several Finnish journals and created a new currency for Finland. Contravening decades of use of force rather than co-operation to deal with Finnish calls for independence, Alexander II truly was a bold tsar to take such an anomalous ‘liberating’ approach. Similarly, Alexander II’s treatment of the Jews defied a legacy of anti-Semitism in the history of autocracy in Russia. Whilst Catherine the Great confined Jews with the ‘Pale of Settlement’ in 1791, Alexander II boldly allowed Jews to attend university and contribute to Russia’s commerce and industry. Although Jews were largely still banned from owning land or living in central and eastern Russia, their rights were much improved. Hence, overall, regarding the treatment of Finns and Jews, Alexander II can be fully credited with the title of ‘tsar liberator’, contravening decades of reactionary and autocratic response to minorities in order to make more conciliatory reforms.
However, despite early promising concessions, it was most notably with the Poles that Alexander II demonstrated most explicitly his perpetual determination to uphold autocracy and his fear in the face of confrontation (regarding reforms). Alexander II began kindly, relaxing restrictions on Catholicism and freedom of expression, whilst also permitting the formation of the nationalist ‘Agricultural Society of Poland’ movement among Polish nobles. Soon, however, nationalist demonstrations manifested after Alexander’s refusal to Polish demands for a separate constitution. The blasé response of ‘point de reveries, Messieurs’ (no daydreaming gentlemen) sparked protest, and led to the Polish rebellion of 1863, which was eventually crushed by Russian troops. This hasty retraction of conciliation, conflated with an explicit resolute grasp on autocracy (firm denial of constitution in Poland evidences this) indicates Alexander II, in the Poles’ case, had not even an intention of continuing ‘liberating’ measures. Thus, despite kind treatment of most minorities, Alexander II ultimately displayed the conventional tsarist fixation with autocracy, a reiteration of the ‘alternation between enthusiasm and apathy’ which Crankshaw exacerbates.
Of Alexander II’s failures, clerical reform was notable in that Alexander II established many precedents in the form of commissions, but never entirely followed through with legislative action or physical reform. Although Alexander II appointed Valuev (minister of interior) to establish commissions to examine practices by the strongly influential Russian Orthodox Church and it’s ‘poverty and lack of skill of the rural clergy’, as Ivan Belliustin put it, few changes manifested. More competent priests were able to rise up the church hierarchy more easily, but overall Alexander II did little for clerical inability, as his impulse for reform began to dwindle. This incomplete reform exemplifies Alexander II’s incompetence and flaws in character which ultimately superseded his good intentions to take ‘liberating’ measures.
To conclude, Alexander II was not a ‘tsar liberator’ insofar as his good intentions were almost always halted by desire to maintain autocracy, and in any case Alexander II’s flaws and incognizance prevented many reforms becoming successful. This can perhaps be best indicated by his creation of the zemstva, only to refer to it as a ‘consultative voice’. This indicates a paternalistic responsibility to give voice to his people, but in reality keep the zemstva restricted, and loyal only to him. Can Alexander II be blamed for his determined grasp on autocracy? No, he had been preceded by the Romanov dynasty which had ruled in an autocratic fashion for centuries. However, to recall Hugh Seton-Watson’s crossroad analogy, Alexander II failed to choose either efficient autocracy or constitutional liberal reform, and this precisely is the reason for the failed reforms and subsequent pervasive discontent in the 1870s, culminating in his assassination in 1881.