Guid Essay

Guid Essay

Lack of Political Reforms by Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II as a Decisive Factor in the Fall of Tsarism – Free Essay Example

From 1801-1917, Tsarist autocracy was the political system of the Russian empire; it stemmed from the idea that the Tsar’s had the divine right to rule, i.e. that the Tsars obtained power through God instead of through the consent of the Russian people. The system had been in place since the time of Peter I (1682-1725), who had removed the independence of princes and boyars but came to an end in 1917. The Tsar ruled by decree and appointed second-tier officials and administrators to aid him, but power ultimately was his. During the period, many states like Britain and Russia modernized their politics but Russia’s rulers attempted to cling onto this system despite a changing world. When tsarism fell in 1917, it is arguable that the main cause for this was Tsar’s refusal to political adapt or reform, resulting in revolution that toppled the Romanov dynasty. Furthermore, when Tsars did reform, they often did it half-heartedly and as a result, the reform itself was damaging to the institution of Tsarism.

During the early part of the period most challenged to the Tsar were from the nobles who wanted greater autonomy and calls for reform were limited to this minority. In 1825, the Decembrists were one of the first revolutionary groups that challenged the Tsar’s authority. The group put forward liberal values and aimed to threaten and challenge the basis of Tsarist autocracy. Although the Tsar, with military support, ultimately quelled this, it was a warning shot for the rest of the period as Tsars would go on to face considerably more opposition calling for political reform.

The problem of a lack of political reform (or sometimes, political reform itself) really became apparent at the point of Alexander II. Alexander received the throne when Russia was in a state of increasing problems. It had become clear that Russia needed some kind of reform to bring it up to speed with its competitors in western Europe. Nicholas I, before dying, told his son “I am not handing over the command in the good order I should have wished, and I am bequeathing you much worry and distress. Hold onto everything”. Alexander, at least initially, attempted to solve many of the problems such as widespread inequality and backwardness through reform. In 1864, Alexander II established a new form of local government, the Zemstva, which provided local serviced such as health and education. However, this new institution only damaged the image of the Tsar; the Zemstvas heavily criticized the policies introduced under the Tsar. Moreover, the Zemstva did not treat all groups equally, local taxation continued to favor the nobility rather than the peasantry, resulting in further inequality and division within Russian’s society. This amount of reform was insufficient to satisfy many within society. From the reign of Alexander II, opposition groups were increasingly active within Russia; there was major increase in revolutionary activity, influenced by Western ideas like Marxism and democracy. In 1866, there was a failed attempt to assassinate Alexander II in St Petersburg. As a result of this, a few months later, several nobles and minsters suggested to Alexander that he need to tighten restrictions on his reforms as they felt Russia was becoming too westernized culturally and the Russian people were increasingly demanding reform. As a result, Alexander replaced his liberal minister with more conservative personnel. However, by appointing reactionary ministers, this only further agitated oppositions groups calling for political reform. Although curbing the reforms that initially gave him the nickname ‘Tsar Liberator’ was meant to lower people’s expectations, the cat was already out of the bag. By giving some reform and then cutting it off, it is possible that Alexander worsened opposition as he had already shown that there could be some compromise with Tsarist autocracy.

In the reign of Alexander II, there were two main groups that opposed autocratic power: The People’s Will and the Populists. The People’ Will was an extreme group that believed that Russia needed to end Tsarism and completely revolutionize the country in order to improve. The People’ Will group challenged the Tsar government and aimed to assassinate leading members of the Tsarist state; later, in 1901-1905, the People’s Will was responsible for a wave of political assassinations. On the other hand, there was a less revolutionary group called ‘The Populists’, they believed the use of reform should focus on improving the life of the peasant commune. Many peasants supported this view and they used peaceful protest to protest the government. The Populists disliked autocratic rule and wanted to replace it with a system of government based on independent peasant community and local democracy. A key event that suggests the reason for the Tsars ultimate down was arguable through a lack of political reform was the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 by the People’s Will. This demonstrates that autocratic power angered the Russian people to extent that they resorted to violent protest in order to improve their poor living conditions. The fact they associated this with the Tsar’s rule highlights the dissatisfaction and instability in Russian society. The reign of Alexander II shows clearly that a lack of political reform would be a huge problem for maintain Tsarism as small amounts of reform would clearly not be enough to placate opposition. Furthermore, by reforming in small amount, Alexander II made the mistake of showing the Russian people that autocracy was not necessarily unaccountable.

After the assassination of Alexander II, his son Alexander III stepped up with a more conservative outlook, intending to strengthen autocracy. Alexander III rapidly began with counter-reform, limiting the power of the Zemstva through the institution of land-captains who were answerable to the Tsar’ government, as well as other semi-independent institutions like universities. Another key part of his reign was the enforcement of Russification to ensure that the Russian language was being practiced and taught across the country. In doing so, this discriminated against Jews and various other minority groups that were not originally Russian or did not psychically demonstrate Russia values. this further limited the independence of principalities like Poland within the Empire and further motivated those calling for reform. It is also ironic that many of the eventual revolutionaries in 1917 would be Jews who were alienated by these reforms. To enforce these kinds of counter-reforms, Alexander III’s reign became very authoritarian, and one could argue this shows in fact a lack of control over Russia. Alexander III did not attempt to solve the problems within Russian society and had to resort to force and repression to maintain his power. This is evident through the increased censorship of things like universities and newspapers, as well as the introduction of the Okhrana in 1882; the Okhrana was a secret police force who had the power to question and challenge any individual who seemed likely to commit a crime. Similarly, whilst Alexander II initially reformed local government, his son introduced an Act in 1891 which reduced the peasants’ vote in elections, again demonstrating that Alexander III was afraid of the peasants’ opposition to his power. Whilst the reign of Alexander III was less violent than his father, this was only due to the amount of repression he enforced during the period, opposition grew angrier but was less able to act. The Tsar refused to attempt to solve any problems through the political reform that was necessary and instead revolutionary feeling was allowed to grow under the surface, ready to come out in the open when there was a Tsar less able to repress it.

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The problems associated with a lack of political reform under Alexander II and Alexander III became very clear in the reign of Nicholas II. Alexander III passed on the throne to his son, who was a less natural autocrat. Because of this, the growth of revolutionary groups only further increased, this is evident in the growing strength of the Populist group. In 1893, the Populist group were placed on trial for spreading propaganda attacking the Tsar’s government as well as influencing rebellious behavior against the Tsar. Throughout Nicholas’ reign, he continuously tried to ignore the necessity for political reform. It is clear that a lack of political reform was a key aspect of Tsarism’s downfall when looking at the events of 1905. The 1905 Revolution was sparked by Bloody Sunday, a peaceful protest led by Father Georgy Gapon, mostly against working conditions. A petition was presented asking the Tsar for “equality of all persons, without exception, before the law”, to “give orders without delay to representatives of all classes in the land to meet together” and on the “principle of universal suffrage”.

However, during the reign of Alexander II, although he used repressive reforms to maintain Tsarism’s autocratic power, he also, in the early part of his reign sought some political reform notably through the emancipation of the Serfs in 1861. Alexander first introduced his concern with giving a speech to a number of noblemen in 1856. Within a year, a committee was set up by the Tsar to learn about the issues and problems with rural serfdom. His reasoning for emancipation can be clearly linked to a desire for political reform, however, it is also evident that this reform was with the main intention of preserving Tsarist autocracy. During the speech, he claimed that “it is better to begin abolishing serfdom from above than to wait for it to abolish itself from below”. Nicholas II demonstrated political reform through the introduction of the October Manifesto on 30th October 1905: a promise that he would not legislate without the consent of an elected parliament. Nicholas’ use of political reform in response to the revolution was arguably successful as it at least put the brakes on revolution and opposition to Tsarism. Following on from the October Manifesto, the Tsar introduced the Duma, an elected legislative body. There were four Dumas established between 1906 and 1917 and they were to some degree a limitation on Nicholas’ autocracy. Another thing that might suggest that a lack of reform could have limitations as the main reason for Tsarism’s fall is that opposition to Tsarism as a political system was not that common. The majority of the peasantry were not angry or upset towards Tsarism but instead towards their on-the-ground experience of exploitation by landlords and corrupt local officials. For example, the French traveler Astolphe de Custine gave an account from 1839 where peasants attacked locals explicitly in the name of the Tsar: “Our father desires our deliverance’, cried the returned deputies on the borders of the Volga; “he wishes for nothing but our happiness; he said so to us, himself: it is, then, only the nobles and their agents who are our enemies, and who oppose the good designs of our father! Let us avenge the emperor!”. Calls for political reform were mostly made by either middle-class liberals or, in the second half of the period, by urban workers.

Nevertheless, ultimately, however, we can see across all these Tsars that a lack of political reform or political reform done half-heartedly, was the decisive factor in their downfall. The emancipation of the serfs, for instance, was very poorly done. One major issue was that the majority consisted of conservative landowners, and this prevented accurate and correct feedback, despite this, plans for emancipation were followed out. As a result, in 1859, the Chief Committee revised the plans presented by the committees which was then forwarded to the State Council and finally, signed off by the Tsar in 1861. The final print aimed to satisfy the intention of all four groups; the liberals, the conservatives, the government bureaucrats, and the landed nobility. However, the peasants, who it would affect, were given no say and had in fact been left out of the decision-making. Another major issue with the emancipation policy was its heavily restricting and complicated rules; in order for Serfs to gain and own land, they had to encounter a complicated processed that took a very long time and in the end cost more money than many of the serfs could afford. The land the serfs were promised was owned by landlords, moreover, the ‘emancipated’ serfs would still have to work for their landlords in order to pay the government back for the next 49 years; ‘redemption payments’. This redemption to both the landlords and the government highlighted how the peasants’ lives were not improved and the Tsars attempt to revolutionize and modernize the peasantry only left the peasants in the same poor conditions. Alexander II believed the emancipation would help stop the social poverty in Russia, however, the peasantry still remained divided from the nobles and ministers, demonstrating how Alexander II’s attempt to politically reform was ineffective and only caused additional problems. Furthermore, emancipation had been intended to cure Russia’ most basic social weakness, the backwardness and want into which serfdom cast the nation’ peasantry. In fact, though an important class of well-to-do peasants did emerge in time, most remained poor and land-hungry, crushed by huge redemption payments. It was not until the revolutionary year of 1905 that the government terminated these payments. By then, the peasant loyalty that the emancipation was intended to create could no longer be achieved.

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