Monday, January 25, 2016

Who were Russia's Benevolent Despots? (Part 3): Alexander II

Left to Right: Catherine the Great, Alexander I, and Alexander IIWith a confusion following the death of Tsar Alexander I, threats to the absolute power of the Romanovs emerged. It failed resulting to three decades of reactionary policies – only to conclude with the rise of the Tsar Liberator. Explore how Alexander II became a Benevolent Despot and became known as the Tsar Liberator.

The reign of Catherine the Great ushered in a golden era for the higher echelons of Russian society under her benevolent despotism. Her rule transcended to her later successor, Alexander I. But upon Alexander’s death, agents of liberalism and the Enlightenment that grew during Catherine the Great and brought by Napoleonic War caused serious repercussions for Russian autocracy. But years after which, Russia had another Benevolent Despot. One who answered the great issue of abolition of serfdom – Tsar Alexander II.

News of the death of Alexander I stirred confusion in the line of succession. Alexander I left no children to succeed him as Tsar and Emperor. Naturally, the next eldest brother, Grand Duke Constantine should have ascended. But Constantine had no interest in becoming Tsar, which he made Alexander known. Alexander then decided to write a secret will, known only to a select few, naming his younger brother Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich as his successor.

By the time of the death of Alexander, most knew that Constantine was the next Emperor. But after few days, the secret will was publicly announced – Nicholas was to succeed his elder brother as Tsar and Emperor. On December 10, 1825, Constantine’s official renunciation of the throne was announced. The short confusion in succession came as an opportunity for a group of young and “Enlightened” reformist army officers and nobles to cease the moment to call for the reformation of Russia's autocracy.

Liberal and Enlightenment ideas spread significantly through the ranks of nobles and army officers after the Napoleonic War. Officers and nobles, mostly young and active, went to Europe to fight Napoleon became exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. These ideas became attractive as it brings freedom of choice, movement, and expression as well as participation of all people to govern themselves and choose a path for their future.

In 1816, a group of reformist-minded Russians formed the Union of Salvation that aimed for the creation of a constitution and the abolition of the serfdom. For about a decade, they waited for their chance to make their aims realized, which came in December 1825 when they decided to show their grievances and became known as the Decembrist.

The Revolt

The Decembrist Revolt came as a clash between Enlightenment reformist and the new autocratic reactionary minded Tsar Nicholas I. On December 26, 1825, 3,000 troops in St. Petersburg who supported the Decembrist did not swore their traditional oath of allegiance to new Tsar. Instead they marched out of their barracks and into the Senate Square where they camped out. As they stayed, the troops demanded that Constantine to be the new Tsar, that a new Constitution be instituted for Russia and that serfdom should be abolished.

Nicholas, a famous reactionary, chose not to give in to the Decembrist demands and planned to end the movement. He wanted it to end bloodlessly but the situation turned too tense and in the end he ordered loyal troops to fire their cannons to the crowd. The carnage ended the Decembrist Revolt and also ended the lives of about 60 people. Although it failed, the Decembrist Revolt became a symbol for resistance against autocratic regime of the Romanovs in Russia.

Nicholas I’s Reign

The aftermath of the Decembrist Revolt resulted to a massive crackdown on Decembrist ringleaders and supporters. Hundreds of Decembrist supporters faced exile but 5 faced death. The government instituted censorship and descended upon any signs of dissent. Although Nicholas I’s reign became well known for its stability, it also became known as time of great decline for liberalism and Enlightenment ideas in Russia. But one issue, however, began to progress – the issue of abolition of serfdom.

Nicholas desired and attempted to convince nobles to support the abolition of serfdom, an age old institution that virtually equal to slavery. It became a hot topic for many liberal Russians. But Nicholas failed to abolish it during his reign. The duty eventually went to his son and successor – Tsar Alexander II “the Tsar Liberator.”

The Reign of Alexander II

Tsar Alexander II ascended as Tsar and Autocrat of all Russia in 1855. Surprisingly, as the son of one of Russia’s most reactionary and conservative Tsars, Alexander was tutored by a liberal writer named Vasily Zhukovsky. As Alexander started his reign, he initiated immediate liberal policies such as relaxation of censorship, freedom of expression, of press and tolerance to various culture and religion. He forgave the remaining exiles from the Decembrist Revolt in 1825 and allowed them to return. In 1864, he launched the Zemstvo Reform, which established local councils with powers to manage education, health and the economy in the local level. At the same, the Tsar also reformed the judiciary, making it independent and modeled after its counterparts in Europe. He introduced universal conscription, which mandated all men regardless of class to join the military. He expanded education by increasing the number of public schools and improving the quality of education in universities. For these reforms, the reign of Alexander II became known as the “Era of Great Reform.”

But his grandest reform involved the greatest social issue in Russia for centuries – serfdom.

The Emancipation Manifesto

The abolition of serfdom became the greatest issue in Russia during the Alexander’s reign. Alexander II’s great grandmother, Catherine the Great, his uncle, Alexander I, and his father, Nicholas, wanted to abolish serfdom. But intense pressure from the landed gentry and fear of rebellion thwarted any moves in freeing the serfs. Alexander II, however, saw its abolition as vital for Russia’s economy, society and morality. In economic terms, he saw the abolition of serfdom as a path towards creating a modern economy. Socially, he saw it vital for improving equality between social groups in Russia. Morally, he could not bear the idea of a man owning another man. He saw it as virtual slavery that needed to be extinguished.

In 1861, Tsar Alexander II, Autocrat and Emperor of All Russia, signed the Emancipation Manifesto, which freed all private serfs from their masters. With this act, he became known as the “Tsar Liberator” – liberator of over a million serfs.

The aftermath of the abolition of serfdom, however, was a catastrophe for millions of serfs. Serfs were free but with no land. Alexander hesitated to give them the land they farmed in fear of causing deepening discontent among the landed gentry. Serfs had the opportunity to purchase a small part of the land they once tended. But the prices of the land they planned to buy from their former landlords were higher than its market value. Even though the government provided financial assistance, numerous serfs fell in indebtedness and ultimately extreme poverty just to purchase a little piece of land. Liberation became an empty word for the serfs when their impoverish condition continued and even worsened. The failure of Alexander II to match the liberation of serfs with improvement of their situations led to a rise of discontent.

Discontent, Opposition, and Death

The disappointment in the aftermath of the emancipation exacerbated questions of his liberalism. In 1863, Alexander authorized the crushing of a Polish uprising aimed in restoring the independence of Poland from Russia. It ended when Russia defeated the rebels and tightening of Russian control over Poland.

Many then planned to make Alexander II pay for his shortcomings with his life. In 1866, Alexander II was almost shot by a radical left wing supporter. For several times, a terrorist group, known as the People’s Will, threatened the life of Tsar Alexander II. And for several times, Alexander survived.

In March 13, 1881, however, the People’s Will finally succeeded. On that day, they bombed the carriage of Alexander II in a narrow street of St. Petersburg. Alexander II survived and went out of his carriage to help the injured. The Tsar made a mistake by coming out of his carriage, which gave another member of the People’s Will the chance to drop another bomb near Alexander II. It caused an explosion that mortally wounded the Tsar. Eventually, due to his severe injuries, Alexander II, Tsar Liberator, passed away. His sudden death ended his supposed next great liberal reform – the creation of a Russian Constitution and a Russian legislature.


Alexander II’s son who succeeded him as Alexander III saw the liberal policies of his father as the cause of the rise of radical terrorist and eventually his death. This brought him to the decision to reverse most of the liberal policies and reassert Russian autocracy starting with the scraping of the plans for a constitution and a legislature.

Summing Up Alexander II’s Reign

The reign of Tsar Alexander II earned a place in the hall of fame of the Romanovs. Although, not as renowed as Catherine the Great and Peter the Great, he achieved what his late Benevolent Despots as well as his father can’t – the abolition of serfdom. But even this accomplishment came with criticism. The abolition failed to deliver prosperity or improvement to the lives of newly freed serfs, which later caused his tragic and untimely demise.

Russia’s benevolent despots – Catherine the GreatAlexander I, and Alexander II – introduced a new type of rule in Russia. They ruled with absolute power but with intentions for the improvement of the lives of their subjects – or at least the powerful once – in order to achieve their personal objectives. They promoted humanistic and liberal ideas, culture as well as intellect. 

Catherine the Great became a benevolent despot for the sake of maintaining support for his illegitimate rule and also to make what she read reality. Alexander I became a benevolent despot to deliver Russians out from the authoritarian and strict rule of his father as well as to legitimize his bloody takeover of the throne. Finally, Alexander II became a benevolent despot for his personal convictions as well as the call of circumstances. However, their benevolent absolutist regimes only had been enjoyed by the landed and privileged nobility, causing massive dissatisfaction to the majority peasants and serfs.

And so the beliefs that these despots cherished became a foundation of what resulted to the fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Catherine introduced liberal and enlightened ideas in the center of power. Alexander indirectly spread this ideas to the elite by engaging in the Napoleonic War. And Alexander II caused the radicalization of individuals that believed in the ideas of the Enlightenment which then led to revolutionaries that brought the Revolutions of 1905 and ultimately 1917, when the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and later executed.

Eventually, a true Enlightenment and liberal reform would not prevail in an autocratic society without giving up absolute power and giving sharing them with the people. Nevertheless, Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Alexander II thought that both could co-exist for the benefit of all.

Explore also:

Gleason, Abbott. "Russian Decembrist Revolt (1825)." In The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions. Edited by Jack Goldstone. New York, New York: Routledge, 1998.

Grant, Jonathan. "Alexander II, Tsar of Russia (1818-1881)." In Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800 - 1914, v. 1. Edited by Carl Cavanagh Hodge. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2008.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. 

Prominent Russians: Alexander II LIberator. RT Russiapedia (Get to Know Russia Better). Accessed on November 18, 2015.

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