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The first of the reform cycles lasted from the 1690s to the 1850s and is described by Lieven as Ďcatching up with Louis XIVí. Its aim was to make Russia the equal of the other great European absolute monarchies which dominated  the continent in the eighteenth century.  The best-known figure associated with this cycle is Peter the Great, who by defeating the Swedes made Russia a European great power.  But the attempt to catch up with Russiaís European neighbors would achieve full success only later in the eighteenth century, in the reign of Catherine the Great. By the end of the century Russia had secured the position as one of the continentís three or four greatest military powers and was universally recognized abroad as the equal of Habsburg Austria or Bourbon France. 

The Defense of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. By F. Rubo

Alexander Iís defeat of  Napoleon further increased his countryís prestige, and in the first half of the nineteenth century Russia was generally perceived to be the continentís leading military power. However, it was during that time when under the impact of the industrial revolution the factors which determined a countryís power were undergoing fundamental change. Capitalism was transforming agrarian societies of the leading European states, revolutionizing their industrial bases and increasing urban populations. The persistence of traditional institutions, and serfdom in particular, now seemed to place Russia behind other countries of the continent. By the close of Nicholasí reign the picture of a powerful Russia, dominating the international order, had disappeared. As Russia fell behind the rate of development of other nations, so her foreign policy became less successful, declining from the tremendous triumph over Napoleon to the disaster of the Crimean War.

The Crimean War had demonstrated Russiaís military and economic weaknesses to the Russian government in a shocking and humiliating fashion. Russiaís ruling circles  were compelled to accept the fact that in the second half of the nineteenth century it was no longer possible to retain serfdom and manage without a rationally organized legal system,  local self-government, or a modern army, and at the same time, continue to aspire to the status of a leading European power. As a result, the government initiated the second great cycle of modernization, which lasted from the 1850s to the 1970s. Lieven describes it as ĎRussiaís attempt to remain a great power in the smokestack eraí. The renewed process of catching-up with the West, begun by the imperial regime and interrupted by the First World War and the revolution, was completed under the communist government. Stalinís industrialization and the routing of the Nazi Germany in 1945 marked the Soviet Unionís achievement of great-power status in the industrial era.

By the 1970s the Soviet Union had achieved seemingly assured superpower status through military parity with the USA.  Not since the days of Nicholas I  had Russian power been rated so high at home or abroad.  Realities were, however, as deceptive in the Brezhnev era (1964-1982) as they had been in the reign of Nicholas I. The factors of power in the world were changing quickly.  In Nicholasís day it had been the spread of the industrial revolution in Western Europe which had jeopardized Russiaís status as a great power. Under Brezhnev it was the revolution of the micro-chip and the computer. Gorbachev (1985-1991) initiated the third great cycle of modernization from above in order to catch up with Russiaís Western competitors in the new era of the scientific and technical revolution.

The description of Russiaís development of the last three centuries in terms of the three cycles of modernization allows to see more clearly the place and the significance of Alexander IIís ĎGreat Reformsí within the entire perspective of Russian modern and contemporary history. It also helps to demonstrate some striking parallels between Alexanderís era of the ĎGreat Reformsí and the era of Gorbachevís perestroika 130 years later. In both periods a new generation of young, reforming politicians launched sweeping changes from above after a prolonged era of political oppression and economic stagnation. The results, however, were expressly different: in one case, the reformed system survived for another 60 years; in the other case, it collapsed.

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Alexander II


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
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Alexander I
Nicholas I
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The Revolutionary Movement
Appearance of Marxism
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