The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.

8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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