Tsar Alexander II: A Liberal Tsar?

Did the Russian Empire ever have a liberal tsar? Tsar Alexander II certainly enacted more liberal reforms than many other tsars, but can he truly be called liberal?

Jun 26, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
wedding venue alexander ii in uniform
Tsar Alexander II in the uniform of the Imperial Horse Guards, via saint-petersburg.com


Tsar Alexander II began his reign as the Russian Empire faced a humiliating loss in the Crimean War. Aware that Russia could not compete with other major European powers, he undertook a variety of reforms meant to modernize the country. Best known for the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, he also enacted economic, judicial, educational, and military reforms, but no major political ones. Alexander II met with some success but was unable to placate the Russian people and faced several assassination attempts before the final one ended his life.


The Early Life of Alexander II

Young Alexander II pictured with his mother and sister, Maria, via saint-petersburg.com


Tsar Alexander II was born into the Russian Romanov dynasty on April 29, 1818, to his parents Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) and Princess Charlotte of Prussia (herself the daughter of the King of Prussia). He became the tsarevich, the heir apparent to the Russian throne, in 1825, when his namesake uncle, Tsar Alexander I, was assassinated.


Under his father’s reign, freedom of thought and all forms of private initiative were suppressed throughout the Empire. Personal and official censorship was commonplace, and it was a serious offense to criticize the authorities.


Alexander II received a relatively broad education, including the English, French, German, and Polish languages, under the supervision of a liberal romantic poet. In 1837, in a move that was unusual for the time, Alexander II went on a six-month tour of Russia, where he visited 20 provinces. In the next two years, he visited several Western European countries. He is said to have had a brief romance with Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1839, but nothing came of it. When visiting Darmstadt, he met Princess Marie, the 14-year-old daughter of the Grand Duke of Hesse, and told his parents that he planned to marry her. His parents were hesitant at first, but the engagement was announced in April 1840, and the then 16-year-old Marie moved to Russia in August. They married in April 1841 and went on to have six sons and two daughters.


Much Needed Reforms Take Place in the Russian Empire

The wedding of Alexander II and Princess Marie, 1841, via adini-nikolaevna.tumblr.com

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In 1855, during the Crimean War, Tsar Nicholas I died of pneumonia. The new tsar oversaw Russia suing for peace in 1856, a humiliation for the Russian Empire. Russia had shown itself to be “weaker and poorer than the first-class powers,” and Alexander II started to introduce reforms during his reign. In 1858, he removed most censorship restrictions on the media, which led to more open discussions about further reforms needed.


As previously mentioned, Alexander II is probably best known for the Emancipation of the Serfs. Preparations for the emancipation of the serfs began as early as 1857 and affected approximately one-third of Russia’s population of 67 million. Serfdom was then abolished by the Emancipation Reform of 1861, which meant that serfs gained the full rights of free citizens. They no longer had to get permission to marry, and they could also own property and businesses.


Plans for reforms to Russia’s education system began in 1858, and the main reforms came in 1863. Popular education was extended, women were allowed to attend secondary school and even audit university classes, and universities gained more autonomy. However, this autonomy was limited after small-scale student protests broke out. While no new funding was allocated, in 1864, secondary schools were reformed similarly to French and Prussian ones. Elementary school regulations still emphasized teaching by Orthodox priests.


Alexander II reading the Act of Emancipation of the Serfs, 1861, via historyofyesterday.com


In 1864, Alexander II reformed the judicial system, basing it on the French model. A new penal code was introduced, and the civil and criminal procedure systems were simplified. The judiciary was reorganized to allow for trials in open court. Judges were appointed for life, a jury system, and the creation of justices of the peace responsible for minor offenses at the local level. He also instituted changes to local self-government (zemstvo), first in rural areas in 1864 and then in larger towns in 1870—the changes to the zemstvo system allowed for elective assemblies with limited taxation rights. New rural and municipal police forces responsible to the Ministry of the Interior were also established.


Russia’s failure in the Crimean War highlighted many of Russia’s economic problems. The Empire had had problems financing the war, and the underdeveloped railway system hindered the transport of troops, supplies, and ammunition to the battlefronts. A state bank was founded in 1860, followed by municipal banks in 1862 and savings banks in 1869. These were all created under national supervision. Legislation enacted in 1862 created a Ministry of Finance and a regular national budget. The new finance minister installed a system of public accounting for government agencies and took the responsibilities of tax collection out of the hands of private farmers. The system was so improved that by 1867, Russia’s chronic budget deficit was eliminated, and from 1873 onward, budget surpluses were achieved. State-guaranteed railway bonds help to expand Russia’s rail network. Entrepreneurship also grew, with significant increases in the number of joint-stock companies, banks, railways, and factories.


Michael von Reutern, Finance Minister of the Russian Empire, 1862-1878, via timenote.info


Alexander II also enacted significant military reforms. On January 1, 1874, all social classes were included in universal conscription, not just the peasantry. The Russian states were divided into fifteen military districts, a system that was still in use over a hundred years later. Emphasis was given to the education of the officer corps and the building of strategic railways. Corporal punishment in the military was banned.


1866 Assassination Attempt

Dmitry Karakozov, Alexander II’s would-be assassin, c. 1866, via executed today.com


The first attempt to assassinate Alexander II occurred on April 4, 1866, by the nihilist Dmitry Karakozov. (There were also attempts to assassinate him in 1879, 1880, and finally and fatally, 1881.) Despite Alexander II’s reforms, many in the peasant and working classes deeply resented the nobles, government officials, the wealthy, and Russia’s authoritarian system. Karakozov, a university student, was executed by hanging a few months later. A new Minister of Education was put in charge of the universities and applied stricter controls.


After this assassination attempt, Alexander II became somewhat more reactionary. He started to replace liberal government ministers with conservative ones. Liberal university courses were replaced with more traditional curricula. In 1879, governors-general were appointed with the powers to prosecute in military courts and exile political offenders. The government even attempted to hold show trials to deter those involved in revolutionary activity, but this was abandoned after cases when sympathetic juries acquitted many of the defendants.


Catherine Dolgorukova, Alexander II’s mistress and second wife, via historyofroyalwomen.com


Another way the assassination attempt affected Alexander II was that he took a permanent mistress in 1866 (she wasn’t the first). He had first met Catherine Dolgorukova when she was just 11 in 1859 and met her again five years later in 1864. He later arranged for her to become a lady-in-waiting to his wife, who suffered from tuberculosis. The pair did not become intimate until 1866, when she “was moved by her pity” for the Tsar after the assassination attempt and the death of his oldest son, the tsarevich. Her own mother had died two months earlier.


The pair had four children together between 1872 and 1878. Alexander II’s family strongly disapproved of this relationship. When Empress Marie died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1880, Alexander II married Dolgorukova the following month. This scandalized his family, the royal court, and the Orthodox Church. Alexander II legitimized the three remaining living children he had with Dolgorukova, although they had no right to the Russian throne because they were children of a morganatic marriage. Alexander II promised to crown her Empress on August 1, 1881, but he was assassinated before this could occur.


Alexander II’s Foreign Policy


While Alexander showed some liberalism in his foreign policy, he would not permit separatism from the Russian Empire. When he became Emperor of Russia and King of Poland in 1855, he relaxed the repressive regime that had been imposed on Poland during his father’s reign. However, in 1856, he gave a speech that was taken to be a warning to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that no further concessions would be coming.


General Dmitry Milyutin, the Russian Empire’s last Field Marshal, 1885, via trtworld.com


In the January Uprising of 1863-1864 in what are now parts of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, the Russians finally crushed the rebels who wanted to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in June 1864. Hundreds were executed, and thousands were exiled to Siberia. In Lithuania, martial law lasted 40 years. The Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian languages were completely banned, while Polish was only allowed in private conversations in a limited area. Alexander II’s one concession was the emancipation of the Polish peasantry from serfdom in 1864 on more generous terms than their Russian counterparts had received.


The Russo-Circassian War was a protracted war that lasted from 1763 to 1864. Circassia had been a country to the east of the Black Sea, but over a century, an estimated 85-97% of the population (up to 1.5 million people) were either killed or exiled to the Ottoman Empire. The final battle occurred in Alexander II’s reign. This war was nothing short of ethnic cleansing, and very few Circassians left agreed to surrender and resettle within the Russian Empire. Alexander II endorsed a top Russian military general’s stance that “eliminating the Circassians was to be an end in itself – to cleanse the land of hostile elements” in 1857. In 1861, he made this general, Dmitry Milyutin, his Minister of War.


The Finns were treated much better than the Polish-Lithuanians and the Circassians were. In 1863, Alexander II initiated reforms in Finland, increasing its autonomy within the Russian Empire. Finland even received its own currency. Alexander II also elevated the Finnish language from a language of the common people to a national language equal to Swedish. Finland had been part of Sweden until 1809, and encouraging Finnish nationalism can be seen as an attempt to weaken Finland’s ties with Sweden.


The US Treasury check for $7.2 million that paid for the purchase of Alaska, via obamawhitehouse.archives.gov


The Russian Empire had a colony in North America, primarily in Alaska, from 1799 to 1867. Initially prospering from the fur trade, by the mid-1850s, the colony was in decline. Most settlements had been abandoned by the 1860s, so Alexander II sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. Another motivating factor for the sale of Alaska was that it would be impossible to defend in a war against Britain, given that Canada was still a British territory at the time.


Near the end of Alexander II’s reign, the Russian Empire fought the Russo-Turkish War from 1877 to 1878. This war was fought between an Eastern Orthodox coalition of the Russian Empire, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria had rebelled against Ottoman rule in 1876, but the Great Powers could not reach a final agreement at the Constantinople Conference at the end of the year.


Alexander II led the way in trying to find a diplomatic solution. He got the Great Powers to agree to neutrality in the case of a war between the Russian and Ottoman Empires (to protect the Russian Empire from another disaster like the Crimean War). As a result of winning this war, the Russian Empire regained territorial losses it had suffered in the Crimean War and re-establish itself in the Black Sea. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro declared independence from the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria became an independent state for the first time since 1396, and Alexander II is even today referred to as the “Tsar Liberator” in Bulgaria. The military reforms from earlier in the decade had helped the Russian Empire improve its performance in the Crimean War, but the army still had many shortcomings.


The End of Alexander II’s Reign

Alexander II, 1881, via unofficalroyalty.com


While Alexander II had endorsed some liberal reforms, particularly in the first decade of his reign, he always maintained that it was his God-given duty to rule as an autocrat. He repudiated any calls for a constitution that would place limits on his authority, and he rejected any kind of Parliament or Duma that would perform duties that only he could perform. Finance Minister Michael von Reutern resigned in 1878 after the Russo-Turkish war reversed some of the measures that had led to his successes. After surviving assassination attempts in 1879 and 1880, Alexander II was assassinated in Saint Petersburg on March 13, 1881.


As he had typically done for years on Sundays, the tsar went to the Mikhailovsky Manège to attend the military roll call. There were three bombers (from the Narodnaya Volya or “People’s Will” movement) in the crowd that day. The first threw his bomb, which killed one of the Cossacks protecting the tsar and seriously wounded the driver and people on the pavement. However, the tsar’s bulletproof carriage was only damaged and the emperor emerged shaken but unhurt. Once out of his carriage, a second bomber threw his bomb at Alexander II’s feet. Several people were wounded to varying degrees, but Alexander II had had his legs torn away, his stomach ripped open, and his face mutilated. The third bomber never used his bomb.


Alexander II was carried to the Winter Palace, where almost exactly twenty years earlier, he had signed the edict that emancipated the serfs. Members of his family came to see him in his last minutes, and when the physician attending him was asked how long it would be, Dr. Botkin replied, “Up to fifteen minutes.”


The assassination of Alexander II on March 13, 1881, via www.saint-petersburg.com


Alexander II’s death marked the end of reform in the Russian Empire. Just before his death, he had given approval to conservative reforms that he felt might be the first step towards a constitution. His oldest surviving son, the new Tsar Alexander III, put an end to any such reforms. Once again, civil liberties were repressed in Russia, police brutality returned, and the tsars’ secret police, the Okhrana, was used to root out suspected rebel groups and arrest protestors. Both Alexander III and his 12-year-old son, the future Tsar Nicholas II, were present on the day that Alexander II was killed, and both vowed that the same fate would not befall them.

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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.