Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

17 The Reign of Alexander II (1855-1881)
EMANCIPATING THE SERFS

THE SUCCESSION of Alexander II brought a ray of hope to the people of Russia, and with the conclusion of peace came a feeling that the nation had entered the inevitable and long awaited Era of Great Reforms. Even the bureaucracy realized that it had reached a turning point of history, and unless they chose the indicated course voluntarily, fate would drag them mercilessly. Too long had the government resisted the choice; now it must carry out a revolution from above before it erupted from below.

By nature Alexander II was neither a liberal nor a reformer. As heir apparent he had been cautious, conservative, and hesitant about any measure that tended to curb the rights of the gentry or would specifically define the obligations of the serfs toward their landlords. He was an avowed believer in autocratic rule, a philosophy that had been taught him by his father and also by his tutor, the eminent poet and supporter of the monarchy, V. A. Zhukovsky. And yet historical circumstances placed upon him an inevitable task which he had to carry out if he wished to save his realm from total catastrophe. This he came to understand perfectly, common sense compelled him to think so, and for this reason as soon as peace was restored Alexander began to devote his entire attention to internal problems.

But how to go about them? Should problems be solved with the aid of a national assembly at which representatives of all classes would be permitted to voice their opinions, or should reforms be delivered ready-made by a benevolent bureaucracy? Here Alexander was torn between fear of stirring up a hornets' nest and reliance upon a dour bureaucracy that gave rather cautious support to the projected reforms. This division left deep marks on the Era of Great Reforms.

Legislation was most urgently needed, it was naturally felt, on the agrarian question and the institution of serfdom. Alexander II at first hoped to persuade the gentry to initiate action leading to abolition by their own decision, but this he soon came to realize was a hopeless task. There was no alternative then but to take the decisive step himself.

For a better understanding of the momentous events dating from 1861, it must be remembered that the great reforms, although responding to pressure from the masses and from deep rooted problems, were carried out

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