Alexander II reigned for twenty-six years and in this time, created several reforms. Although these reforms were apparently beneficial for the Russians, many assassination attempts were made on the Tsar, as a result of newly forming ideas that believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society and government through terrorism and assassination. The reforms that Alexander made, in his opinion was serving to create a better army. The reason for his determination to reform the army was due to the Crimean War, which was being fought when the throne passed from Nicholas I to Alexander. The Russians suffered an embarrassing defeat as a result of their army’s incompetence, corruption and the use of uneducated and unmotivated serfs. It was clear that the Russian’s serf-based economy and army could not compete with the industrialized nations of France and Britain. The Russian defeat in the Crimean War, marked the beginning of Alexander’s reign, and made his main aim to improve the Russian army. To do this however, he had to make several other reforms first.
To most of the world, Russia was viewed as hopelessly backward. Many knew that reform was a necessity, therefore, when Alexander came to power in 1856, he had one great advantage. Many understood that change was needed, however, they did not know how. Russia became divided into two groups. The Slavophiles and the Westernizers. Each group and had different views on how Russia should be reformed. The Slavophiles believed that under a different leader, (Peter), Russia had fallen into a state of disarray. They wished to “re-establish the ancient union between government and people…upon the lasting foundation of truly basic principles.” They believed that Peter had destroyed this sacred merger, and they wanted to see it re-established. The Westernizers wanted Russia to be run more like the Western countries such as Germany and France.
One of the major reforms that Alexander focused on to improve the army was the abolishment of serfdom. Nicholas I believed serfdom to be a ‘flagrant evil’. As a result, he established nine different secret committees to investigate how it could be abolished. Alexander II had served in one of these committees, however none had achieved anything. This was mainly down to the complexity of the situation, which none really understood. The gentry argued that they would loose a lot of money if the peasants were given land when freed. However, the peasants knew that freedom without land would be pointless, and they would be left at the mercy of landlords. When Alexander ascended to the throne, he abolished serfdom, and set out to improve their lives, including educating them, and creating “Zemstvos” Legal reforms, academic free speech and relaxation of censorship and travel restrictions were also part of these successful reforms.
The Emancipation Manifesto was released on March 3rd, 1861. This proposed seventeen legislative acts that included the freedom of the serfs. All peasants were now able to buy land of their landlords. This system worked by paying the landlord an advance payment, and the recovering of it from the peasants in “rescue expenses”.
The creation of Zemstvos marked another of his reforms. In 1864, Alexander allowed each district to set one up. Zemstvos were local councils that were elected by the wealthy, and given power to provide roads, schools and medical services.
Alexander also made several other reforms such as an improved public government in 1870 and universal military training four years later. These reforms were successful in building Russia a better army. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Russia emerged as the victor as a result of Alexander’s army reforms.
However, these reforms can also be seen as failing as they made foreign problems facing the Russians much worse. The emancipation did not improve the living standards of the peasants. In some regions, the peasants could not acquire any land for twenty years! Many were forced to pay a lot more then the land was actually worth. By 1900, roughly 85% of the Russian people lived in the countryside and earned their living from agriculture. The nobility owned the best land, and the vast majority of peasants lived in poverty. As the country became more industrialized, the political system was placed under even more strain. The lower classes began to attempt to gain more freedom which helped spark off fears of a revolution, and the beliefs that society would needed to change, and this modification could be obtained through terrorism and assassination. As Russia became more modern, larger and far more complicated, the true worthlessness of Tsarist rule became more and more apparent. Liberals and radicals wanted a parliamentary democracy and the freedom of expression which most European states had were severely unhappy.
In conclusion, Alexander’s reforms were successful, as they did improve the army, but the different reactions from the parties led to severe rebellion and the eventual assassination of Alexander II in 1881.