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Preparing the "Great Reforms"


The expectations of the progressives were heightened when Alexander’s accession brought with it an amnesty for the exiled Decembrists still alive. The first years of his reign were also marked by some easing of censorship and a revival of social and political journalism. Filled with hope, Alexander Herzen from his far-away exile in London addressed his imperial namesake in an open letter published in his magazine  The Bell: 


Your Majesty, your reign begins under a strikingly happy constellation.  You have no blood stains on you , your conscience is untroubled... You did not need to announce your accession to the people with executions. There is scarcely a single example in the chronicle of your house of such a clean beginning. To be sure, my pennant is not yours:  I am an incorrigible socialist, you an autocratic emperor; yet our banners might have one thing in common, namely... - a love of the people ...  And in the name of that I am willing to make a great sacrifice. What long years of persecution, prison, exile, tedious wandering from country to country could not achieve, I am willing to do for love of the people. I am prepared to wait, to efface myself, to talk of something else, if only I have alive within me the hope that You will do the something for Russia.


Herzen’s appeal would not be wasted. Indeed, Alexander II’s reign  proved to be one of the most consistent attempts to shake up the entire structure of the Russian empire. His reforms encompassed all of the three chief spheres of the country’s life: socio-economic relations (the peasant emancipation and the land settlement); the political  sphere (the introduction of local self-government, the judicial and military reforms); education and culture (the school and university reforms and the new censorship regulations). The extent and effectiveness of the reformist policies in these various spheres may have been different, but their combined liberalizing impulse propelled Russia in the right direction, helping her overcome economic backwardness, familiarizing her educated classes with European political culture, introducing elements of legality and of the rule of law into the political system, and giving society greater independence along the lines of local self-administration. 

Alexander II addressing the nobility

The ‘architects’ of Alexander’s Reform were young, liberal-minded government officials, such as the Miliutin brothers, S. Zarudny and many others. The new tsar himself took the lead in preparing the most crucial reform of all: the emancipation of the serfs. He first made his intentions clear in an address to the nobility in Moscow in 1856 in which he tried to forestall the inevitable dissatisfaction of the landowners with the impending loss of their ‘christened property’ by pointing out that it would be preferable to abolish serfdom ‘from above’ than wait for the upheaval from below. He said: ‘the existing system of serf-owning cannot remain unchanged. It is better to begin abolishing serfdom from above than to wait for it to begin to abolish itself from below. I ask you, gentlemen, to think of ways of doing this. Pass on my words to the nobles for consideration’.

Two years later committees composed of members of the landed nobility were established in all provinces with the express purpose to study the issue of emancipation, but also in order to make the squires feel involved in the process of the preparation of a reform that was to transform so radically their traditional ways. The government’s decision to invite representatives of the nobility to contribute to the drafting of reform legislation was designed to check the growth of gentry’s spontaneous discontent and transform its displeasure with the proposed emancipation into a constructive work for the benefit of the reform. An Editing Commission, set up in 1859, examined the individual plans prepared by the committees of the nobility at the local level and produced an overall plan which was quickly adopted by the government.

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Alexander II


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