of the Great Reforms
The reign of Alexander II ( 1855-1881) marks a turning point in Russian history. This period saw a series of far-reaching reforms that profoundly altered almost every aspect of national life. The first of these reforms was the most necessary and the most difficult one--the abolition of serfdom. After its enactment had changed social and administrative conditions in rural areas, other reforms became necessary and were enacted in 1864, namely the introduction of local self-government (zemstvo) and a reorganization of the judicial system on the basis of modern requirements. Finally a military reform in 1874 established universal military service and brought about a reorganization of the army. The chief architect of these vital changes, the tsar-liberator, was not, however, a reformer by birth, and largely because of his inner conflicts the new state structure was left tragically incomplete when he died.
Emperor Alexander II was born in Moscow April 17, 1818, the son of Grand Duke (later Emperor) Nicholas Pavlovich and Charlotte, the daughter of King Frederick William III of Prussia and the sister of the future German emperor William I. In 1841 Alexander married a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt, the future empress Maria Alexandrovna, reinforcing the dynastic ties that subsequently influenced his foreign policy.