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Alexander II's Legacy

The Revolutionary Masses
The assassination of Alexander II

Only in the last year of his life was the tsar finally persuaded by the newly appointed progressively-inclined Minister of the Interior Michael Loris-Melikov (1825-1888) to take up the idea of political reform.

Loris-Melikov realized that the intransigence of the authorities alienated and radicalized the liberal circles of educated society, making them view the revolutionaries as their possible allies. The establishment of a nationally elected body of representatives was the most important concession that the government could make in order to win the liberal opposition over to its side. According to Loris-Melikovís plan, this national body was to take the form of a preliminary committee of the State Council. The committee would be comprised of elected representatives of provincial zemstvos and towns and would examine draft bills before they were passed for approval to the State Council. Moreover, ten or fifteen of these public representatives would also participate in the legislative work of the State Council itself.

In February 1881 these proposals were discussed by a special conference of senior officials presided over by Alexander. Although the notion of public representatives in the State Council was rejected, the idea of having elected representatives in a preliminary committee was approved. On the morning of 1 March 1881, the very day on which he met his tragic death at the hands of terrorists-revolutionaries, Alexander II signed the government announcement about the convocation of a preliminary committee and, speaking to the members of the royal family, declared that he had made Ďthe first step towards the constitutioní. The tragedy of Alexanderís murder was that his heir, Alexander III, rejected Loris-Melikovís scheme, and the idea of a nationally elected representative institution, which would have signified an epoch-making advance for Russia, was abandoned for a quarter of a century.

In spite of all the positive changes that Alexander IIís reforms had brought to Russia, the country remained in essence as before an autocratic monarchy with no place for either a constitution or parliament. As before, the landowners, the nobles and their children enjoyed many privileges as classes, while the rights (both civil and property) of the other estates were still restricted. The peasants in particular, despite the fact that they were now free, remained socially segregated from the rest of the population.

Alexanderís biggest failing was his refusal  to combine the abolition of serfdom in the socio-economic sphere with political emancipation of his subjects. He had abolished the slavish dependence of peasantry on landed nobility, but he did little to eliminate the slavish dependence of both peasantry and gentry on the Sovereign. By preserving the control of the commune and the State over the person of the peasant, by denying the gentry and other classes the role in government at an all-Russian level, the autocracy absolved them from civic and political responsibility and delayed the Ďcoming of ageí of Russian society.

The ĎGreat Reformsí had raised the expectations of the progressives, belonging to different sections of the population. Frustrated with the governmentís refusal to change the political structure of tsarism and deeply disappointed with emancipation settlement, more and more members of the educated classes were becoming attracted by the prospect of popular revolution as the only means to bring down the existing political system and give the mass of the Russian population real land and liberty. These two demands - land and liberty - became the rallying-cry of the Russian revolutionary Narodnichestvo - the ideological movement which formed a major focus of opposition to the policies of Alexander II.

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Alexander II


Tsarist Russia

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