Alexander II Tsar Liberator Essay Research

Alexander II : Tsar Liberator? Essay, Research Paper

To first assess what the question really asks, we have to extrapolate on the meanings of the word “liberator”. The official definition of the word “liberate” is “to set at liberty: free; “i. We are then drawn to the meaning of the word “free”. This can have many meanings. But, in my opinion, the most important are those that follow: it can mean having the legal and political rights of a citizen, enjoying civil or political independence, the capability of choosing for oneself without restriction from another. So if we are again to contemplate the nature of this title, we can take it to mean several things. These are as follows: that the effect of the Tsar’s actions was to endow his people with freedom. This freedom means several things: that they had the liberties and rights of free men, that they were now free to act as they wished, they were free from certain massive restrictions such as want to a certain degrees, and that they were also able to choose their own path without political or economic interference. Another major presumption we have to make is that we are not merely contained to the serfs: we need to discuss the lateral impact of the social changes. These social changes affected many different peoples and groups in different ways. But by far the largest upheaval was that of the effect of the emancipation on the serfs. Perhaps the clearest argument for the accolade of “Tsar Liberator” going to Alexander is his involvement of the emancipation of the serfs. In 1861, the emancipation edict was decreed. In theory it gave perfect freedom to the millions of Serfs and State Peasants. But on closer inspection this was not true. The real terms of the emancipation edict give peasants a limited amount of freedom in terms of rights, but in other arenas they would see new restrictions imposed. They were now given free legally, and had the right to trade, act as they wished, and marry whom they liked. This in itself is a monumentous achievement, and if we think in this vein, then yes, Alexander should be deemed the Tsar Liberator. The argument is even more compelling when we think of the freedom they gained from the brutal, oppressive landlords. The cases of landlords such as Saltykova, who brutally tortured her subjects, were bound to never happen again, as would the exiling of serfs to Siberia. But although in these areas, the serfs did gain freedom, in other arenas they lost them. Beforehand the peasants had complete job security. They had all the access to common ground, to woods and to grazing land, and good fertile soil. The exploitation they suffered was only very little, and seldom. Only one hundred and seven peasants were sent to Siberia every year, out of a serf population of twenty millionii. Sexual exploitation was the exception, not the rule. According to one British traveller to Russia in the nineteenth century, the lot of the Russian Peasant was “more enviable than our own.”iii After emancipation, they lost many of their rights. Beforehand, they could farm as much land as they wished. However, after emancipation, the edict decreed that they were to be given one third of the land they had previously farmed. As this was to be chosen by the landlord, who did not have altruistic motives behind him, the serf was given the most infertile land possible, and even this was limited in quantity. But this land was not free. The serf would have to pay over the odds for the land, and for the loss of his “industrial” production through Redemption Payments. These crippling costs meant that the situation they were in was virtually the same as before. They were tied to the land, and could not leave until they had paid off these excessive fines. This was assured by the Mir, which I shall deal with later. To compensate for this, one would expect that the freedom one would receive would be “beneficial” and worthwhile, when compared to how they previously lived. But often this was not the case. To explain this, we need to look at how the peasants lived at these times. The peasant population at this time was divided into two categories: the “Serfs” and the state peasants. The state peasants constituted around half of the population in the north, which then diminished towards the European landsiv. In theory both groups were both tied to the lands, but again in practice this was not the case. Although they were not free to travel and although they had not owned their own lands until 1937, they had long since acted as though they did. They were able to exercise a sizeable degree of freedom within their own area, as long as they paid their taxes and stayed within the confines of the local Russian legal system, which in the form of the local government officers, were often partial to a bribe. The situation for state peasants was vastly different. Under the strict confines of the Mir, the landlord and the noble, they were tied completely to the land. Their freedom was mitigated against mainly by the collective Mir, which made nearly all decisions in the Serf’s life. All of these decisions were made by an elected “Elder” whose decision was final, and whose authority could not be questioned. A sizeable proportion of the peasants merely continued living in the same houses, worked the same fields, but gave their produce not to the Landlord but to the Mirs. One of the subsequent limits on freedom was the introduction of the Mirs. These were introduced almost universally in Russia to compensate for the lateral impact of the Edict. The limits on freedom during the reigns of the Mirs meant that there were still excessive limits on freedom. The powers the Mirs had over the peasants were evidently far-reaching: the introduction of internal passports and the centrally controlled planning for local areas was an example of this. Although the peasants were now free to participate in the aforementioned arenas, peasants that previously did not have the Mirs now saw a large part of their freedom lost by the universal introduction of them. The next freedom that I outlined in my lead paragraph was that of freedom of actions. This would encompass free speech, freedom of press, freedom of censorship and freedom of worship. We assume that on the first front, i.e. that of freedom of actions, that this means to act within the law. This was one front on which there is little debate: it is clear that Alexander II did introduce an independent, unbiased judiciary, which did give a platform for freedom within the law. However, although in the majority of cases this was true, political cases were not tried to the courts. Political radicals were not given the opportunity for a fair trial, and were still subject to arrest without cause. Thus, in this field, the majority of the population were given and freedom of action by the new judiciary and the legacy of the Cantonal courts. The courts also allowed for unprecedented freedom of speech. The establishment of the Russian bar now meant that the Russian people had an articulate voice through which to speak, and through which to make their voices heard. However, as I have said before, this was limited to non-political trials. The relatively liberal culture initiated by the political thaw during Alexander’s reign meant that now political prisoners were free to return from exile in Siberia, and that people above the peasantry were now allowed foreign travel. The Russian people were now also free from the medieval tortures allowed beforehand. This liberalism was even extended to the hated Jews and sectarians, who were given more equality. An extension of the freedom of action is the freedom to govern oneself. The Zemstvo were created to institute this on a national scale. These local councils created by Alexander II in order to be responsible for local affairs. The urban incarnations of the Zemstvo, the Dumas, followed quickly after. The Zemstvo allowed for many more freedoms – by initiating a series of successful reforms in the fields of education, health, hygiene, agronomy and local crafts, the local people had freedom of want to a certain extent. In conclusion, the freedom of the Russian populace to a certain extent was gained. But, maximum possibility of freedom was not achieved. While in theory, for many people, they did become freer through the emancipation edict, independent judiciary, the Zemstvo, and the liberal atmosphere, in other ways their freedom was restricted. The Mirs, the redemption payments and the lack of free political speech meant that for many people the only thing that had changed was the actual name of the people who ruled them. However, it is clear to see that the Tsar did initiate a series of huge reforms, which would serve to bring freedom to more and more people as time went on. Certainly, in his time, people did become more “free” and in my opinion were to a certain extent “liberated” by the Tsar. i Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1994 ii Eric Wilmot, The Great Powers 1814-1914 (1992) P168 iii Russell Sherman, Russia 1815-81 (1992) P. 58 iv Russell Sherman, Russia 1815-81 (1992) P. 55


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