Pages from History:
Alexander II, The Tsar Liberator
Portrait of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, wearing the greatcoat and cap of the Imperial Horse-Guards Regiment, circa 1865. Artist: Unknown.
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This year Russia is marking the 400th anniversary of the Romanov imperial dynasty. The Romanov’s ruled Russia for 304 years, and during that time the country became a truly great, powerful state.
Now when the country is broadly marking the noteworthy jubilee, we would like to recall some of the memorable deeds of one of the monarch of the Romanov dynasty - Emperor Alexander II.
A highly important milestone event in Russian history is linked with his name – the liberation of the serfs in 1861, for which he received the title of Liberator.
Alexander II was born on April 17th 1818 - 195 years ago.
From the first days of his life he was honored as a future monarch, since he was the eldest in his generation of grand princes. Consequently, efforts were taken to educate him in the best possible way to prepare Alexander for his destiny. He received an excellent education and upbringing. Foreign dignitaries all noted his cordiality, affability and good looks.
His father, Emperor Nicholas I instilled in his heir the notion of inviolability of autocratic rule. Upon learning of the abdication of French King Carl Х for fear of the revolution, he told his son:
“Remember always that an emperor, endowed with the highest of rank, having received the scepter and sword from providence, should never flee in the face of revolt… The head of a monarchy and government loses himself and is disgraced by ceding even one step to a rebellion! His duty is to uphold by force his own rule and that of his predecessors. His duty is to be slain on the steps of the throne.”
Alexander II memorized his father's words, and yet, upon ascending the throne at the age of 36, already a mature man, familiar with the running of state affairs, he began by mitigating certain rules, existing under the previous reign. He was thus leading up to the main reform of his entire reign – one that was long overdue and holding back the country’s development – the emancipation of the serfs.
Sensing the restless state of mind of the landed gentry, the Emperor insisted it was better to abolish serfdom from above, without waiting for things to get out of hand and for the peasant uprisings to eradicate it from below. He addressed the landlords with an appeal: to consider how best to implement this reform, which was vitally important for the country’s future.
This set off a brainstorm in Russian society. It took all of two years to elaborate a project for the reform. Finally, on February 19th 1861 Alexander II signed a historic manifesto on liberating the peasants from centuries of serfdom with the right to purchase land from the landowner.
23 million peasants finally got the freedom they had been languishing after.
The abolition of serfdom was of tremendous importance for the future of the country. Along with their personal freedom the peasants received the right to purchase land from landowners in installments in the course of 49 years. They were also granted civil rights: to freely choose their place of residence, to trade, open factories and plants, engage in crafts.
This reform resulted in a succession of other reforms and transformations, impacting practically all aspects of society. It rendered all classes equal in the face of the law, in the right to education and in performing military duty. Abolition of serfdom gave a powerful impetus to the country’s economic and cultural development.
However, there was another side to this process: democratization of life generated a social unrest, and a desire to broaden individual freedoms to the limit. People stepped forth from the intellectual ranks who rejected the existing order of government. They were called “nihilists”. These people rejected the very necessity of the most fundamental social and political structures, such as government, family and law. Having familiarized themselves with the ideas of socialism, they embraced them and started advocating them in Russian society. In a number of Russian cities there emerged revolutionary organizations that set themselves the goal of changing the political system and introducing a constitution.
However, implementing his reforms and transformations, Alexander II had no intention of changing the monarchical rule and introducing political representation. He was convinced that autocratic monarchy was the form of government particularly suited to the Russian people. The Emperor believed Russian had not yet matured enough to embrace the existence of a constitution. Moreover, this was true not only of the common people, but the upper classes of society as well, since they had “not acquired the level of education required for a representative government.”
Carried away by his reforms, the Emperor failed to notice the dangers that threatened him and the country in general. An attempt on his life on April 4th 1866 was a harbinger of the tragic end the Emperor was destined to meet in 15 years time.
During Alexander II’s rule Russia acquired new territories.
The Russian army finally conquered the Caucuses. Minor Khanates in Central Asia – Kokand, Khiva and Bukhara, which lay on the route from Russia to China – were also annexed to Russia.
In the Far East China ceded to Russia the right bank of the Amur River and all of the Ussuri region.
In the reign of Alexander II very friendly relations were established with the USA. During the civil war between the North and the South, Russia sent to the U.S. its fleet, and its stay in Boston, New York and Philadelphia turned into an open demonstration of support for the Federal Union. In turn, in connection with the attempt on the life of the Emperor, the U.S. Congress adopted a resolution acclaiming the Russian Tsar.
In 1875 a revolt sparked on the Slav lands of Bosnia, Herzegovina and also in Bulgaria, which were under the rule of the Turks. The uprising was brutally suppressed. Emperor Alexander II demanded an end to the massacre of Christians. Finally, in 1877 Russia announced a war with Turkey.
The war for the liberation of the fraternal Slavic people ended in Russia’s victory.
For some time the war had subdued the undermining activity of the revolutionaries, but soon it once again became active. There was a steady stream of assassination attempts on the Emperor and other high officials.
On March 1st 1881 the Emperor was killed in a terrorist attack. Alexander II had learned well his father’s lesson, “perishing on the steps to the throne”.
Thus tragically ended the life and reign of the Liberator-Tsar, Reformist-Tsar, who led Russia to new achievements in history.
Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia