The Opinion of the Masses

In the chapter “In the Wake of Emancipation”, David Saunders explains the reforms of the 1860s. These include the military, church, education, courts, and the press. According to Saunders, the probable reasons for the Tsar halting the process of such reforms were most likely the grief over the death of his eldest son in 1865 followed by the assassination attempt in 1866, as well as his focus of “changing balance of power in Europe” due to Prussia’s victory over Austria in battle (Saunders 263-64). Further, Saunders states that while there is a possibility that Alexander could have been satisfied enough to cease his reformations, there could also be evidence that he “was not much of an innovator in the first place” (264). The argument against the tsar is something I find interesting, since according to Saunders, Alexander is also known as the “Tsar Liberator.” With this in mind, as well as what we as historians know to be the future of Russia, could it be possible that some of these views of the tsar only occurred after the end of the monarchy in Russia? While there were no doubt supporters as well as those who did not offer their support, could the latter have been brought about more after the fact? Or do you think that many of such opinions on these reforms as well as the leader that made them were of the times? Why or why not?

3 Replies to “The Opinion of the Masses”

  1. This is a good question to raise as I felt that Saunders was being a little harsh on Alexander II’s “Great Reforms.” I believe that at the time of the reforms and afterwards contemporaries have both praised and condemned Alexander II’s reforms. But generally, history has looked favorably on Alexander II’s reforms. As you mentioned, these reforms were given the title “Great Reforms” and Alexander II is known as “Tsar Liberator.” But Saunders is writing in 1992 (one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union). The time that he is writing may also indicate why he is skeptical of Alexander II’s reforms. But no matter how unsuccessful, clunky, or small Saunders believes Alexander II’s reforms are, he acknowledges that they did change Russia, “Conceptually limited, poorly executed, incomplete, unsustained, and insecure, the measures enacted by Alexander II nevertheless transformed the Russian Empire” (Saunders 269). While “Great” may be an over-exaggeration for the reforms of Alexander II, he still changed the order of Russia and set it on the track for further change.

    1. I agree with Erik. It is a good question to ponder, but I do think that Saunders made some good points to back up his argument. I agree he may have been too harsh, but he mentions a lot of reasons for his negativity on Alexander II. He writes about how others viewed Alexander II. On page 205, he writes, “The tsar could be cold, however–‘he trusted neither himself nor others and therefore lacked the ability to attach anyone to himself'”(205). He writes about the caution Alexander II took while taking these reforms while the country was slowly falling apart. After the Crimean war, Russia was struggling financially. There was already pressure from intellectuals for reform when Nicholas was tsar (211). Continuing on, after the discontent of the people, Alexander II took 6 years to abolish serfdom, and his plan had faults. He took those years to acknowledge past failures and tried to carefully build a plan that would work. However, the laws of 1861 allowed surfs to hold lands but where still indebted to the nobles(233). So, although Alexander II was able to emancipate the surfs, I do agree that Saunders may have been tough, but he made good points as to why he is not fond of the tsar.

  2. I believe that the term “Tsar Liberator” came to fruition after Alexander II’s death. Alexander published “The Emancipation Manifesto” in 1861, and in the manifesto we learn that Alexander wanted to wait two years to implement his plan to free the serfs. At the time he was relying heavily on the nobility to facilitate this change. Alexander throughout his manifesto seemed to overly compliment the nobility in what seemed like an attempt to appease the nobility. Regardless, at the time of the emancipation the nobility would have been upset about the serfs being freed. And other Russian peoples were upset with the autocracy which explains why Alexander was assassinated in 1881. Through this, up until his death it seems as though Alexander was disliked and it was not until Russia had a large nationalist movement were the Russian people able to see the beginning of the change that he started and call his reforms great and dub him as the liberator.

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