Alexander II (1818-1881) was emperor of Russia from 1855 to 1881. He is called the "czar liberator" because he emancipated the serfs in 1861. His reign is famous in Russian history as the "era of great reforms."
Eldest son of Nicholas I, Alexander was born in Moscow on April 17, 1818. Vasili Zhukovski, the poet and courtier, was his principal tutor. Alexander spoke Russian, German, French, English, and Polish. He acquired a knowledge of military arts, finance, and diplomacy. From an early age he traveled extensively in Russia and abroad; in 1837, for example, he visited 30 Russian provinces, including Siberia, where no member of the royal family had ever been. Unlike his father, Alexander had experience in government before he acceded to the throne. He held various military commands and was a member of the state council (from 1840) and of the committee of the ministers (from 1842); during Nicholas's absence Alexander acted as his deputy.
Alexander's political philosophy eludes precise definition. However, there is ample evidence to indicate that he was an admirer of Nicholas's autocracy and bureaucratic methods.
Before he became czar, Alexander was not sympathetic to emancipation. He changed his mind because of Russia's technological and military backwardness in the Crimean War and because he believed that the liberation of the serfs was the only way to prevent a peasant uprising. Through a burdensome arrangement in which local commissions made studies and reported their findings to the government, an emancipation law was eventually formulated and proclaimed in 1861.
The new law stated that serfs were free to marry, acquire property, engage in trades, and bring suits in courts. Each estate proprietor had to prepare within a year an inventory determining the area of land actually in the possession of the peasants and defining the annual payment or services due from the liberated serfs. Each peasant household received its homestead and a certain amount of land (generally the same amount the family had cultivated for its own use in the past). The land usually became the property of the village commune, which had the power to redistribute it periodically among the households. The government bought the land from the owners, but the peasants had to redeem it by payments extending over 49 years. The proprietor kept only the portion of his estate that had been farmed for his own purposes.
The emancipation law of 1861, which liberated more than 40 million serfs, has been called the greatest single legislative act in history. It was a moral stimulus to peasant self-dignity. Yet there were many problems. The peasants had to accept the allotments, and generally they did not receive enough land and were overcharged for it. Since they became obligated for the payment of taxes and redemption reimbursements, their mobility was greatly limited. The commune replaced the proprietor as master over the peasants. The settlement, however, was on the whole liberal, despite some unsolved problems and the agrarian crises that emerged in part from its inadequacies.
Because the emancipation of the serfs ended the landlords' rights of justice and police on their estates, it was necessary to reform the entire local administrations. The statute of 1864 created provincial and district assemblies, which handled local finances, education, scientific agriculture, medical care, and maintenance of the roads. The elaborate electoral system dividing voters into categories by class provided substantial representation to the peasants in the assemblies. Peasant and proprietor were brought together in order to work out local problems.
During Alexander's reign other reforms were initiated. The cities were granted municipal assemblies with functions similar to those of the provincial assemblies. The Russian judicial system and legal procedures, which were riddled with inequities, were reformed. For the first time in Russian history, juries were permitted, cases were debated publicly and orally, all classes were made equal before the law, and the court system was completely overhauled. Censorship was relaxed, and the universities were freed from the restrictions imposed on them by Nicholas I. The army, too, was reformed by Gen. Dimitri Miliutin, military schools were reorganized along liberal lines, and conscription was borne equally by all social groups.
Despite all these reforms, Alexander II became the target of revolutionaries in 1866. Terrorist activity continued throughout the 1870s. The underlying reasons were the lack of far-reaching social and constitutional reforms; the bloody suppression of the peasant uprisings, especially the slaughter of Bezna; the Polish insurrection of 1863 and its bloody defeat; and the general ultrareactionary trend of official policies. Conservatives and nationalists were welcomed by the Czar, but the liberals were alienated. The radicals went underground and espoused the cause of political and social revolution. A member of a terrorist group murdered Alexander II on March 1, 1881.
Encroachments begun under Nicholas I against Chinese territory in the Amur River valley were regularized by treaty in 1860. The Russians successfully repressed the Polish uprising of 1863. In 1877 Alexander went to war against Turkey on behalf of the rebellious Balkan Christians of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria.
Two full-length biographies of Alexander II are E. M. Almedingen, The Emperor Alexander II (1962), and Walter M. Mosse, Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia (1958; rev. ed. 1962). Jerome Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia, from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (1961), is a comprehensive study of the social and economic conditions of rural Russia from earliest times to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Geroid T. Robinson, Rural Russia under the Old Régime (1932), begins where Blum's book stops, and it discusses the peasant question from the emancipation act to the Revolution. George Fischer, Russian Liberalism, from Gentry to Intelligentsia (1958), traces the evolution of liberal forces from 1855 to 1905 as a transition from domination by the gentry to domination by professional groups. Hugh Seton-Watson, The Decline of Imperial Russia, 1855-1914 (1952), is a thorough and well-balanced survey of both internal and foreign policies.
The most thorough narrative of prerevolutionary Russian history available in English, particularly good for the 19th and 20th centuries, is Michael T. Florinsky, Russia: A History and Interpretation (1953). Alexander A. Kornilov, Modern Russian History from the Age of Catherine the Great to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1917; trans. 1943), gives an excellent picture of internal policies in the 19th century.