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Results of the "Great Reforms"

The Revolutionary Masses

In trying to balance the interests of nobles and peasants, while retaining its own powers intact, the Russian government could satisfy neither of these major classes of traditional Russian society. 

Alexander II

The reforms accelerated the process of the economic decline of the nobility, which lost the basic privilege of serf-ownership and thus a guaranteed income gained through the exploitation of serf labor. The payments nobles received in return for the land the government forced them to sell meant little in the long run: a substantial part of them went to repay old debts. Many nobles found it hard to adapt and to learn businesslike habits of mind. Some preferred to sell more of their land than to economize. By 1911 nobles owned only half of the land that was theirs in 1862. The reforms had created a rift between government and nobility which believed that its interests had been ignored.

As for peasants, the immediate benefit of the reform was that they received their personal freedom. However, the land settlement went against the peasants’ traditional belief that the land should belong to those who farmed it. The minimal allotment of land which the former serf-owners were obliged to provide to their peasants, so that they could feed themselves, had to be redeemed by whole decades of hard labor. Most peasants were dismayed by the prospect of paying for land they had always believed to be theirs by right. Moreover, the prices for land were fixed at a level well above its free market value.

In effect, the government made former serfs pay for their personal freedom as well as for their land.  Most important of all, the land settlement sold peasants less land than they had used before the reform. This created the problem of land shortage which was compounded by the rapid growth of village population during the next half century. Their deep dissatisfaction with the land settlement notwithstanding, the peasants must have felt they had gained something through the reform, for their disturbances which had continued for so long under serfdom greatly diminished in scale and number in the forty years after 1862.

The paradoxical nature of Alexander’s ‘controlled liberalization’ was that alongside new institutions, remnants of the old regime survived - most obviously of course the autocracy. The Emperor believed that with the abolition of serfdom, the problem of slavery and barbaric dependence of certain classes people on others  had been resolved.  He did not accept that his social and economic reforms should be accompanied by radical reforms of the political system, that the monarchy itself should  change. Although  progressively-minded members of the nobility urged him to ‘crown his reforms with a constitution’ and to concede parliamentary or semi-parliamentary institutions, the reforming tsar resolutely refused to listen to such pleas.

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Alexander II


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