Monarch Profile: Czar Alexander II of Russia
On September 7, 1855 Czar Alexander II was crowned “Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias” in a grand and solemn Orthodox ceremony. His distaste for military adventures was certainly impacted by the fact that he came to the throne at a time when Russia had lost the Crimean War and it had fallen to him to agree to the peace terms imposed by the Allies, primarily the British and French empires. The importance of this was quite significant. Czar Alexander II had seen his father stand as the champion of traditional authority in Europe. He had extended help to the Austrian Empire in suppressing rebellion and had offered it to others only to see these same powers collude against Russia, on the side of Ottoman Turkey, or at least take no action to come to the aid of Russia. Not only did this defeat sour Alexander II on the subject of war but it also caused him to take a more pragmatic and less idealistic view of foreign affairs than his father had. There was to be no ‘brotherhood of monarchs’ among the crowned heads of Europe and so, Alexander II would play the diplomatic game and seek to gain what advantage for his country he could and align himself with those powers most similar to Russia in their values, politics and system of government.
As a result, not long after taking the throne, Czar Alexander II began instituting a series of reforms such as abolishing corporal punishment, allowing for elected judges and encouraging local self-government. Because of this, some historians have labeled Alexander II a “liberal” but he was far too sensible a man for that. Rather, it was his belief that the autocracy could be maintained as part of a modern state and his reforms were aimed at making Russia more efficient, more effective and more prosperous. He had supported the strict defense of the autocracy of his father and never wavered in that position, however, he thought that with the proper changes Russia could advance to the level of countries like Britain and France which had triumphed over Russia due to how backward Russia was in terms of industry, infrastructure and the state bureaucracy. In general, it was his ministers who carried out these reforms though the Czar did deal personally with some he took a particular interest in and he was instrumental in settling disputes between his top officials.
The other act for which Czar Alexander II remains most famous is his emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This was a dramatic change for the Russian Empire but it was not so radical as many people think. A number of Russian monarchs, including his father Nicholas I, had wanted to end serfdom but never felt able to. Numerous conservative voices had, for some time previously, advocated abolishing serfdom on the orders of the Czar as a preferable alternative to having it end by means of a massive servile insurrection that might bring down the monarchy and destroy the Russian Empire entirely in the process. Liberals lauded Alexander II for this action but it stirred up considerable resentment on the part of the aristocracy and land owners. Nor was it a smooth transition, which is to be expected considering how deeply engrained serfdom was in Russia. The Czar took the ultimate step of freeing the serfs and insisted that they be given land to sustain themselves once they were free. Unfortunately, the landowners inflated the value of the land and the peasants had to go into considerable debt to the government to pay for it. Because of the way it was handled, Alexander II had to issue further reforms, dismiss a number of the ministers responsible for it and deal with a certain amount of unrest.
On the world stage, the policy of Alexander II was to end the isolation the Russian Empire had been in since the end of the Crimean War, though to do so carefully. His greatest rival remained the British and while he was on friendlier terms with Prussia (being the son of a Prussian mother) the north German kingdom was then in no position to be of much help. During the American Civil War, some feared that the biggest and bloodiest conflict in the western hemisphere might draw the Old World into conflict as well. With the British and French empires being seen as sympathetic to the southern Confederacy, Russia had little choice but to foster good relations with the United States. Expansion in Asia was also underway at this time and there, again, the British were the primary opposition to Russia. 1861-62 saw the Russian Imperial Navy wintering in New York so that, in the event of war with Britain and France, the Russian fleet would be free to prey upon their ships in the Atlantic rather than being stuck in the ice blocked ports of the Russian coast. San Francisco, California also received a visit from the Russian navy.
Polish nationalists began orchestrating anti-Russian demonstrations in 1860 and some terrorist attacks, such as an outbreak of arson in St Petersburg, were blamed on Polish forces. Initially, Czar Alexander II responded in a conciliatory fashion by granting the Poles greater autonomy within the Russian Empire but this failed to satisfy the dissidents. They wanted nothing less than the restoration of complete Polish independence and this eventually escalated to outright rebellion in 1863 when Russian authorities tried to conscript the Polish leaders of this movement into the Imperial Army. When the rebellion spread to parts of Lithuania, Belorussia and Ukraine, Czar Alexander II abandoned his earlier effort at appeasement and reverted to brute force. The military was sent in to crush the rebellion, Polish officials were sacked and replaced by Russian officials and the teaching of the Russian language in Polish schools was made compulsory. Contact between Poland and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Rome was cut off and Ukrainian books were banned. Great Britain, France and the Austrian Empire were seen as being sympathetic to the Poles and thus antagonistic toward Russia and this caused a real concern that Russia could, again, be drawn into war.
Russian expansion in Asia also prompted ill-will from the French as well as the British. Since the Crimean War settlement had effectively blocked in Russia from the west, expansion to the east, toward the Pacific seemed the only available option. Russia extracted treaties and territorial concessions from the Chinese, expanding Russian territory and leading to the establishment of Vladivostok in 1860. The British were becoming increasingly friendly with Japan, had extensive influence in China and the French, around this same time, were expanding in Southeast Asia and briefly became involved in Korea. Neither welcomed Russia as a competitor in East Asia and the tension this caused helped prompt the Czar to sell Alaska to the United States. Russian power also expanded in Central Asia, which alarmed the British, and the Caucasus which alarmed the Turks and Persians. By that time, however, Prussia was rising rapidly as a force to be reckoned with again, though this was potentially a double-edged sword for Russia. In the end, Czar Alexander II chose to shun the newly republican France for an alliance with the German and Austrian emperors though relations between Russia and Austria would never be very trusting or cordial.
Czar Alexander II obtained a favorable peace from the Turks but the war effectively ended the “Three Emperors League” as Austria objected to Bulgaria falling within the Russian sphere of influence and the Germans, under Bismarck, took the side of their Austrian brethren against the Russians so that many in Russia, particularly the Pan-Slav activists, felt robbed of the fruits of their victory. Russia would never be friendly with Germany and Austria-Hungary again and in the years to come would align with her former enemies of Britain and France, forming what would become the battle lines of the First World War. And, at the same time, Alexander II faced nothing but hardship on the home front. Attacks by revolutionary radicals included shootings and bombings and this prompted the Czar to take repressive measures, a change in attitude from his earlier efforts to encourage support for the throne through reforms and concessions.
Throughout his reign, most epitomized by his emancipation of the serfs, Alexander II had endeavored to be a monarch of mildness and reason. Yet, his reforms angered the traditional elites while winning no support for the Crown from the liberals and certainly none from the revolutionaries. The lessons of his life were not lost on his successor Czar Alexander III. His father had extended a hand and had been brutally murdered for it. From that time on, a return to strict discipline and harsh repression would be the order of the day. On the world stage, the Russian Empire had expanded but, to the eyes of the Russians at least, had been betrayed by first Napoleon III and then by the Germans and Austrians. Alexander III would firmly plant himself in opposition to the Germans and Austrians, even if that meant an alliance with republican France, the ideological opposite of the Russian Empire at every level. So it was that the reign of Czar Alexander II, beginning with granting greater freedom, emancipation for the serfs and efforts at reconciliation, ended with the battle lines of World War One being formed and the assertion by his son and later grandson that reforms to win over liberals was a wasted effort and that only strength and stern measures would preserve the Russian Empire.