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Inconclusive Reform


The series of modernization attempts, inaugurated by the ‘great reforms’ of the 1860s and 1870s until the Revolution of 1917, are a clear illustration of this pattern. The ‘great reforms’  were an attempt on the part of the government of Alexander II to overcome Russia’s weakness which had been so patently revealed by the Crimean War. The reform impulse came from the liberally-minded aristocratic intellectuals who had debated the main parameters of the reform during the preceding decade. The preparation and implementation of the reform was entrusted to a group of progressively-thinking members of government bureaucracy. The ‘great reforms’ abolished serfdom and opened the way for ‘bourgeois’ transformations in the economy and in the judicial system.  

Alexander II 

However, Alexander II’s reforms were incomplete. Russia remained a country with an autocratic form of government, no genuinely representative institutions were set up, no unified government on Western lines established (the ministers did not work jointly, as a cabinet, but reported individually to the Tsar). The traditional system of social estates was preserved, as was the communal land-holding, which hindered the modernization of agriculture. 

Moreover, within the government bureaucracy itself the opponents of the reform process gained the upper hand over its supporters with the result that the reforms were not only stopped but to some extent even reversed by the couterreforms of the 1880s-1890s. The triumph of the conservatives was epitomized in the propagation of the official doctrine of ‘people’s autocracy’ which extolled Russia’s political system as the most perfect in the world. The political system based on autocracy, the agricultural economy based on the survivals of serfdom, the rigid  regulation of the economic and social life which constrained the freedom of the individual could hardly result in the type of economic modernization and social transformation which Russia needed in order to close the gap with Western Europe.

The terrible famine that struck the Russian countryside in 1891-92 impelled the government to reassess the situation and to embark on a new series of reforms in the second half of the 1890s. The new reform had been masterminded by the minister of finance Sergei Witte who was in favor of the government’s active involvement in directing the industrialization process and who regarded the concentration of unlimited power in the hands of the state as Russia’s great advantage which would help the government accomplish the reform. Witte promised that in a decade Russia would catch up with the leading European countries in the level of its economic development. Indeed, Witte’s policies (such the establishment of a gold standard, the encouragement of foreign investment, etc.) accelerated the economic development of the country. However, the impact of the world economic crisis, the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905-7 forced the government to curtail its experiment of speedy industrialization.

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The End of an Empire


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
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Nicholas I
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Appearance of Marxism
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Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
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