How successful was Alexander II in dealing with opposition to his regime?
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Judging by the fact that Alexander was assassinated in 1881 by People’s Will, one would assume that he failed – completely- to overcome opposition to his regime, however he ruled for over 25 years and managed to keep his opposition under control during that time using several different methods and measures which will be discussed in this essay. The first measure he took shortly after he came to power was to emancipate the serfs in order to modernise Russia and finally bring social stability after years of chaos and fighting to keep up with the West. The Emancipation Edict was passed in 1861 but was better known as the “Great Disappointment” due to the fact that state serfs had to wait until 1866 to be freed, and as a result of the redemption tax serfs had to pay back to their former owners for the loss of labour and as payment for the allotments they received at emancipation. The serfs also could not keep the land they had worked – day and night – on and ended up getting bad quality land most of the time as their former owners kept the fertile, good quality land, and this unfair distribution of land led to even more hostility and disappointment.
Mirs were set up to provide uniformity and stability. They were responsible for the allocation of land and they had special village courts, which ensured that the peasants remained separate and denied the full equality of other citizens, despite supposedly being “free”. In order to maintain stability in a time of major social change, a further period of reform followed. There was a creation of a new local government – the zemstva –which were the district and provincial councils. Dumas were also set up as urban counterparts, representing ordinary people for the first time, sparking a great hope for social development. There was also judicial reform. In 1864, a trial by jury and public trials were introduced, making corruption in law a thing of the past (for a very short amount of time) however in 1878, the jury acquitted a terrorist due to sympathy so after that, political crimes were dealt with in “special courts”, showing the state was choosing to remain secret, encouraging hostility, and therefore, opposition.
Relaxation of controls on education and revolutionary military reforms (for example, serving time was reduced from 25 years to 9 years) did not help either, since people were still bitterly disappointed as a result of the government still making the wealthy elite a priority, especially in high ranks in the army and any form of secondary education. This disappointment led to hostile forces being unleashed. These were revolutionary forces, the biggest and most significant example being Populism. After Populism failed in 1879 (for the reason that their method was to “go to the people” and the majority of these people were peasants, who chose to remain faithful to the Tsar) and split into two groups, the opposition to the regime suddenly became more radical.
People’s Will, the more extreme of the two groups, worked by undermining government officials by killing them and advocating several other violent methods. They declared that the Tsar should agree to a constitution if he did not want to be removed, which he, of course, denied. This led to the group carrying out several attempts to assassinate him before 1881. Groups such as People’s Will, or any opposition, were dealt with by the Third Section by using exile and imprisonment as fear tactics. Show Trials were set up in the 1870s to show the public that criminals will not be left to roam the streets and that opposition to the regime was futile.
However, the judiciary was sympathetic and many criminals were acquitted, meaning that Alexander had failed to fulfil the reform expectations he had raised and in consequence, despite the government’s repressive measures, revolutionaries plotted to kill the Tsar which they succeeded in doing in 1881. In conclusion, Alexander II recognized the need to introduce reform from above to try and control the demand for change from below. He failed to reform and his opposition continued to grow, leading to his death in 1881. However, the failure of Populism in 1879 suggests that he still had the loyalty of the masses (peasants) hence why the Tsarist system remained intact until 1917.