Emancipation and reform

Defeat in Crimea made Russia’s lack of modernization clear, and the first step toward modernization was the abolition of serfdom. It seemed to the new tsar, Alexander II (reigned 1855–81), that the dangers to public order of dismantling the existing system, which had deterred Nicholas I from action, were less than the dangers of leaving things as they were. As the tsar said to the nobility of Moscow in March 1856, “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below.” The main work of reform was carried out in the Ministry of the Interior, where the most able officials, headed by the deputy minister Nikolay Milyutin, were resolved to get the best possible terms for the peasants. In this they were assisted by a few progressive landowners, chief among whom was the Slavophile Yury Samarin. But the bulk of the landowning class was determined, if it could not prevent abolition of serfdom, to give the freed peasants as little as possible. The settlement, proclaimed on February 19 (March 3, New Style), 1861, was a compromise. Peasants were freed from servile status, and a procedure was laid down by which they could become owners of land. The government paid the landowners compensation and recovered the cost in annual “redemption payments” from the peasants. The terms were unfavourable to the peasants in many, probably most, cases. In the north, where land was poor, the price of land on which the compensation was based was unduly high; in effect, this served partly to compensate the landowners for the loss of their serfs and also for the loss of the share that they had previously enjoyed of the peasants’ earnings from nonagricultural labour. In the south, where land was more valuable, the plots given to the peasants were very small, often less than they had been allowed for their own use when they were serfs.

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It is arguable that the main beneficiary of the reform was not the peasant and certainly not the landowner but the state. A new apparatus of government was established to replace the authority of the serf owner. From the ispravnik, the chief official of the district, who in 1862 ceased to be elected by the nobility and became an appointed official of the Ministry of the Interior, the official hierarchy now stretched down to the village notary, the most powerful person at this level, who was assisted by an elder elected by an assembly of householders. The lowest effective centre of power was the village commune (obshchina), an institution of uncertain origin but great antiquity, which had long had the power to redistribute land for the use of its members and to determine the crop cycle, but which now also became responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of the government.

Further important reforms followed the emancipation. A new system of elected assemblies at the provincial and county levels was introduced in 1864. These assemblies, known as zemstvos, were elected by all classes including the peasants, although the landowning nobility had a disproportionately large share of both the votes and the seats. The zemstvos were empowered to levy taxes and to spend their funds on schools, public health, roads, and other social services, but their scope was limited by the fact that they also had to spend money on some of the tasks of the central government. In 1864 a major judicial reform was completed. Russia received a system of law courts based on European models, with irremovable judges and a proper system of courts of appeal. Justices of the peace, elected by the county zemstvos, were instituted for minor offenses. A properly organized, modern legal profession now arose, and it soon achieved very high standards. The old system of endless delays and judicial corruption rapidly disappeared. There were, however, two important gaps in the system: one was that the Ministry of the Interior had power, regardless of the courts, to banish persons whom it regarded as politically dangerous; the other was that the courts for settling disputes between peasants were maintained and operated on the basis of peasant custom. Their institution by Kiselev in the 1840s had been a well-intentioned reform, but their continuation after emancipation meant that the peasants were still regarded as something less than full citizens.

During the first years of Alexander II’s reign there was some demand from a liberal section of the nobility for representative government at the national level—not for full parliamentary rule, still less for a democratic suffrage, but for some sort of consultative assembly in which public issues could be debated and which could put before the emperor the views of at least the educated section of the Russian people. The tsar and his bureaucrats refused to consider this, above all because they saw constitutional reform as a slippery slope that would lead to the disintegration of state and empire and to class war between landowners and peasants. The principle of autocracy must remain sacred; such was the view not only of bureaucrats but also of men such as Nikolay Milyutin and Yury Samarin, both of whom rested their hopes for the progressive reforms they so ardently desired on the unfettered power of the emperor. Their attitude was essentially that of Pavel Stroganov at the beginning of the century, that the sovereign must not have “his arms tied” and so be prevented from realizing “the plans which he had in favour of the nation.” The decision against a national assembly in the early 1860s was a negative event of the greatest importance: it deprived Russia of the possibility of public political education such as that which existed, for example, in contemporary Prussia, and it deprived the government of the services of hundreds of talented men.

Revolutionary activities

The emancipation was received with bitter disappointment by many peasants as well as by the radical intellectuals. The serfs’ view of their relationship to the landowners had been traditionally summed up in the phrase, “We are yours, but the land is ours.” Now they were being asked to pay for land that they felt was theirs by right. During the 1860s small revolutionary groups began to appear. The outstanding figure was the socialist writer N.G. Chernyshevsky; the extent of his involvement in revolutionary action remains a subject of controversy, but of his influence on generations of young Russians there can be no doubt. In 1861–62 revolutionary leaflets were distributed in St. Petersburg, ranging from the demand for a constituent assembly to a passionate appeal for insurrection. The Polish uprising of 1863 strengthened the forces of repression. An unsuccessful attempt on the tsar’s life in 1866 led to a certain predominance of extreme conservatives among Alexander’s advisers. Nevertheless, there were still some valuable reforms to come. In 1870 the main cities of Russia were given elected municipal government (on a very narrow franchise), and in 1874 a series of military reforms was completed by the establishment of universal military service. This was the work of Dmitry Milyutin, the brother of Nikolay and like him a liberal, who was minister of war from 1861 to 1881.

In the 1870s revolutionary activity revived. Its centre was the university youth, who were increasingly influenced by a variety of socialist ideas derived from Europe but adapted to Russian conditions. These young people saw in the peasantry the main potential for revolutionary action. In 1873–74 hundreds of the youth, including women, “went to the people,” invading the countryside and seeking to rouse the peasants with their speeches. The peasants did not understand, and the police arrested the young revolutionaries. Some were sentenced to prison, and hundreds were deported to remote provinces or to Siberia. It became clear that no progress could be expected from overt action: conspiratorial action was the only hope. In 1876 a new party was founded that took the title of Zemlya i Volya (“Land and Freedom”). Some of its members favoured assassination of prominent officials in reprisal for the maltreatment of their comrades and also as a means to pressure the government in order to extract Western-type political liberties. Experience also had shown them that, while the peasants were physically too scattered to be an effective force and were in any case too apathetic, the workers in the new industrial cities offered a more promising audience. This faction was opposed by others in the party who deprecated assassination, continued to pay more attention to peasants than to workers, and were indifferent to the attainment of political liberties. In 1879 the party split. The politically minded and terrorist wing took the name Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) and made its aim the assassination of Alexander II. After several unsuccessful attempts, it achieved its aim on March 1 (March 13, New Style), 1881, when the tsar was fatally wounded by a bomb while driving through the capital. All the main leaders of the group were caught by the police, and five of them were hanged.

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Shortly before his death the tsar had been considering reforms that would have introduced a few elected representatives into the apparatus of government. His successor, Alexander III (reigned 1881–94), considered these plans. Under the influence of his former tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the procurator of the Holy Synod, he decided to reject them and to reaffirm the principle of autocracy without change. In 1882 he appointed Dmitry Tolstoy minister of the interior. Tolstoy and Pobedonostsev were the moving spirits of the deliberately reactionary policies that followed. Education was further restricted, the work of the zemstvos was hampered, and the village communes were brought under closer control in 1889 by the institution of the “land commandant” (zemsky nachalnik)—an official appointed by the Ministry of the Interior, usually a former officer or a local landowner, who interfered in all aspects of peasant affairs. The office of elected justice of the peace was abolished, and the government was authorized to assume emergency powers when public order was said to be in danger. By this time Russian public officials were better paid and educated, and less addicted to crude corruption, than they had been in the reign of Nicholas I, but they retained their arrogant contempt for the public and especially for the poorer classes. The discriminatory laws against Jews and members of dissenting Christian sects remained a source of widespread injustice, hardship, and resentment.