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The Accession of Alexander II

The Revolutionary Masses

As a young man, Alexander had not shown himself to be more liberal than his father Nicholas I. However, many analysts agree that he had had the advantage of a more enlightened and humanitarian upbringing under the tutorship of excellent teachers and mentors including the Russian poet Vasili Zhukovsky.  

 
Prince Alexander (on the right) with his father, Nicholas I, in 1854. By B. Villevalde

Being the heir apparent of the Russian Emperor, Alexander prepared himself very seriously for his future vocation. For almost twenty years from the day he came of age to the day he ascended to the throne, he was very actively engaged in the running of the state. His father introduced him into top governmental agencies, such as the Senate and Synod, the committee of ministers and even the State Council. He frequently deputized for Nicholas in the Tsarís absence.  In 1848 he carried out a variety of diplomatic tasks at the courts of Vienna, Berlin and other European capitals. Thus he gained extensive experience in the affairs of state - military, diplomatic and legal. 

His accession to the throne on 19 February 1855 came at a very difficult time for Russia. The situation on both the foreign and domestic fronts looked extremely grave. The obvious failures of the Russian army in the Crimea were demoralizing for the entire nation. Therefore, the first task facing the new ruler was to end the Crimean campaign as quickly as possible on terms which were more or less acceptable, and this did indeed soon took place.

The defeats of the Crimean War led to a critical re-examination of Russian institutions. Serfdom was blamed for the backwardness of Russiaís military industry as well as the ignorance and poor health of the armyís rank and file, who were conscripted serfs. Moreover, the labor of serfs could no longer be considered economically efficient. It was clear that serfdom had become a drag on Russiaís economy. In addition, a series of liberal-minded writers, philosophers, historians and literary critics, starting with Alexander Radishchevís inflammatory book, put the moral case against serfdom. Their work aroused moral concerns of the educated classes over the condition of millions of their countrymen - fellow-Christians - who were exploited and treated like slaves. By the end of Nicholasí reign educated members of the nobility accepted that serfdom was morally indefensible.

The discussion circles which appeared in the 1840s and 1850s had brought together the more enlightened representatives of educated society and progressive members of the bureaucracy and thus provided a forum for the exchange of ideas, knowledge and practical experience necessary for the success of the impending reform. After Alexanderís accession, liberal-minded intellectuals, including both prominent Westernizers and Slavophiles, were brought into government departments to help reform-minded civil servants draw up plans of Russiaís transformation. All this partly helped  overcome the alienation of the intellectual elite from the officialdom, typical of Nicholasí era. 

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Alexander II

 

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