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Soviet Union

Reforms and Their Limits, 1855-92

Tsar Alexander II, who succeeded Nicholas I in 1855, was a conservative who nonetheless saw no alternative to change and who initiated substantial reforms in education, the government, the judiciary, and the military, in addition to emancipating the serfs. His reforms were accelerated after Russia's military weakness and backwardness had become apparent during the Crimean War. Following Alexander's assassination in 1881, his son Alexander III reasserted government controls.

In 1861 Alexander II proclaimed the emancipation of about 20 million privately held serfs. Local commissions, which were dominated by landlords, effected emancipation by giving land and limited freedom to the serfs. The former serfs usually remained in the village commune, or mir (see Glossary), but were required to make redemption payments, which were stretched out over a period of almost fifty years, to the government. The government compensated former owners of serfs by issuing them bonds.

The regime had envisioned that the 50,000 landlords who possessed estates of over 110 hectares would thrive without serfs and would continue to provide loyal political and administrative leadership in the countryside. The government also had envisioned that peasants would produce sufficient crops for their own consumption and for export sales, thereby helping to finance most of the government's expenses, imports, and foreign debt. Neither of the government's visions was realistic, and both the former serfs and the former owners of serfs were dissatisfied with the outcome of emancipation. Because the lands given to serfs by local commissions were often poor and because Russian agricultural methods were inadequate, the new peasants soon fell behind in their payments to the government. The former owners of serfs, most of whom could neither farm nor manage estates without their former serfs, often had to sell their lands to remain solvent. In addition, the value of their government bonds fell as the peasants failed to make their redemption payments.

Reforms of the local governmental system closely followed emancipation. In 1864 most local government in the European part of Russia was organized into provincial zemstvos (see Glossary) and district zemstvos, which included representatives of all classes. In 1870 elected city councils, or dumas, were formed. Dominated by nobles and other property owners and constrained by provincial governors and the police, the zemstvos and city dumas were empowered to raise taxes and levy labor to develop, maintain, and operate local transportation, education, and public health care systems.

In 1864 the regime implemented judicial reforms. In major towns, it established Western-style courts with juries. In general, the judicial system functioned effectively, but sometimes juries sympathized with obvious criminals and refused to convict them. The government was unable, financially and culturally, to extend the court system to the villages, where traditional peasant justice continued to operate with minimal interference from provincial officials. In addition, judges were instructed to decide each case on its merits and not to use precedents, which would have enabled them to construct a body of law independent of state authority. Under the reform, the Senate, one of the highest government bodies, adopted more of the characteristics of a supreme court, with three major branches: civil, criminal, and administrative.

Other major reforms took place in the educational and cultural spheres. The accession of Alexander II brought a social restructuring that required a public discussion of issues. Accordingly, the regime lifted some manifestations of censorship, yet in 1863 it prohibited publishing in the Ukrainian language. In 1866, when an attempt was made to assassinate the tsar, censorship was reinstated, but pre-1855 levels of control were not restored. Universities, which were granted autonomy in 1861, were also restricted in 1866. The central government, attempting to act through the zemstvos but lacking effective resources, sought to establish uniform curricula for elementary schools and to control the schools by imposing conservative policies. Because many liberal teachers and school officials were only nominally subject to the reactionary Ministry of Education, the regime's educational achievements were mixed after 1866.

In the financial sphere, the State Bank was established in 1866, and Russia's currency was put on a firmer footing. The Ministry of Finance supported railroad development, facilitating vital exports, but it was cautious and moderate in its foreign ventures. The ministry also founded the Peasant Land Bank in 1882 to enable enterprising farmers to acquire more land. The Ministry of the Interior, however, countered this policy by establishing the Nobles' Land Bank in 1885 to forestall foreclosures of mortgages.

The regime also sought to reform the military. One of the chief reasons for the emancipation of the serfs was to facilitate the transition from a large standing army to a reserve army by instituting territorial levies and mobilization in times of need. Before emancipation, serfs could not be given military training and then returned to their owners. Bureaucratic inertia, however, obstructed military reform until the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) demonstrated the necessity of building a modern army. The levy system introduced in 1874 gave the army a role in teaching many peasants to read and in pioneering medical education for women. But despite these military reforms, the army remained backward. Officers often preferred bayonets to bullets and feared that longrange sights on rifles would induce cowardice. In spite of some notable achievements, Russia did not keep pace with Western technological developments in the construction of rifles, machine guns, artillery, ships, and naval ordnance. Russia also failed to use naval modernization as a means of developing its industrial base in the 1860s.

In 1881 revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. His son Alexander III (1881-94) initiated a period of political reaction, which intensified a counterreform movement that had begun in 1866. He strengthened the security police, reorganized as the Okhrana (see Glossary), gave it extraordinary powers, and placed it under the Ministry of the Interior. Dmitrii Tolstoi, Alexander's minister of the interior, instituted the use of land captains, who were noble overseers of districts, and he restricted the power of the zemstvos and dumas. Alexander III assigned his former tutor, the reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev, to be the procurator (see Glossary) of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church and Ivan Delianov to be the minister of education. In their attempts to "save" Russia from "modernism," they revived religious censorship, persecuted the non-Orthodox and non-Russian population, fostered anti-Semitism, and suppressed the autonomy of the universities. Their attacks on liberal and non-Russian elements alienated large segments of the population. The nationalities, particularly Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, reacted to the regime's efforts to Russify them by intensifying their own nationalism. Many Jews emigrated or joined radical movements. Secret organizations and political movements continued to develop despite the regime's efforts to quell them.

Data as of May 1989

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