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Reforming Russia

The reforms of Peter the Great (see Chapter 10) helped Russia progress some. However, the resistance of the Russian nobles and subsequent czars to succumb to westernization went a long way toward preventing further progress. Furthermore, the geography of Russia, so far removed from the rest of Europe, kept Russia isolated and insulated from much of Western culture. Developments in western Europe, both political and technological, took a long time to appear in Russia, and Russian leaders, unlike Peter the Great, did not strive to bring new ideas into Russia. As a result, Russia once again lagged behind western European nations.

Nineteenth-century Russia resembled a Europe from centuries gone by far more than it resembled its contemporary neighbors. Even by 1850 industrialization had yet to truly make its way into Russia, which still depended on an inefficient if not obsolete agrarian economy. Russia employed a system of serfdom long after the rest of Europe had moved beyond feudalism. Lords bought and sold serfs as they had for hundreds of years. Most farmers still used their serfs in the open-field system, also left over from the Middle Ages.

Russia hadn’t caught up with the rest of Europe politically, either. There were no revolutions of 1848 in Russia. Very few liberals called Russia home, and the wave of liberalism and nationalism dissipated before it made it that far east. Russia was still an empire that incorporated many nationalities and ethnicities. Therefore, Russia’s main concern was not changing the government but holding together the many peoples under the Russian umbrella.

Russia got its wake-up call in the 1850s when it fought the Crimean War. Until then, France had the responsibility of protecting Catholic holy sites in the Ottoman Empire, and Russia was in charge of the Eastern Orthodox holy sites. In the early 1850s, a dispute arose between the Ottomans, the French, and the Russians. Russia, led by Czar Nicholas I (1796-1855), occupied a few small Ottoman principalities, which Nicholas didn’t think anybody but the Ottomans would mind, since Russia had helped some nations squash their revolutions in 1848.

Nicholas was wrong. He found himself fighting the French and the British, who jumped at the chance to prevent this strong power from creeping in from the east, along with the Ottomans. When Austria threatened to join the fight, Russia withdrew from the area along the Danube River. Britain and France continued warring against Russia and finally forced a treaty in 1856 with Nicholas’s successor, Alexander II (1818-1881).

The military defeat, which included the loss of the entire Russian fleet on the Black Sea, made Alexander and his ministers realize that Russia had to change or be totally left behind.

The So-Called Great Reforms

The single greatest challenge facing Russia at the beginning of Alexander’s reign was to revamp the backward system of serfdom. What would they do with the serfs if they were freed? Alexander decided to emancipate the serfs and give them land—for a price, of course. In 1861, he signed the law that ended serfdom throughout Russia. The former serfs were given land, but they had to pay hefty prices and the land was often of poor quality.

Alexander recognized the dilemma, so he made each village collectively responsible for the sum of the payments of the village families. His hope was to prevent a growing class of peasants who could not afford land. He also hoped to create a sense of unity among the peasants. Actually, by making the peasants financially responsible to the villages, Alexander effectively restricted the peasants from movement.

Alexander also introduced a new system of local government to increase the Russian people’s participation in government. The zemstvo, made up of representatives from towns, noble landowners, and peasant villagers, was an assembly meant to deal with local issues. However, they turned out to be more bureaucratic than anticipated and never led to more liberal reform as liberals and peasants had hoped. Other reforms instituted by Alexander include a revamping of the judicial system with a civil and penal code similar to the French Code Napoleon. Alexander also reformed the army, the navy, and the police force. These reforms were much more successful than the ones designed to help the peasants.

Would You Believe?

Alexander II survived several assassination attempts, including an assassin wielding a handgun, an explosion on the tracks near his train, and a bomb beneath his dining room.

Throughout his reign, Alexander remained relatively liberal. There had even been talk between Alexander and one of his chief ministers about the possibility of creating some form of parliamentary body. However, after several assassination attempts, Alexander’s enemies finally caught up with the emperor. Russia had seriously suppressed various nationalist movements throughout the empire, and Polish nationalists in particular were mad. A group of Poles threw hand-made grenades or bombs at Alexander as he drove through St. Petersburg.

Upon Alexander’s death, Alexander III (1845-1894) took over and brought the reforms to an end. Alexander III had three main goals for Russia. He wanted to increase Russian nationalism, which he attempted by outlawing languages other than Russian and establishing Russian schools in the non-Russian areas of the empire. He wanted to strengthen the Eastern Orthodox Church, so he eliminated as many remnants of Polish, German, and other cultures as he could. Finally, he wanted to secure and increase the autocratic power of his position, which he did through a number of repressive actions and the undoing of reforms that Alexander II, his father, had started.

Catching Up with the Rest of Europe

Both Alexander II and Alexander III realized that Russia needed to modernize. Modernization required industrialization. In the early 1860s, the gigantic Russia had less than 2,000 miles of railway. Over the next 20 years, the government subsidized the construction of railroads, increasing them tenfold. This allowed for faster transportation of goods within Russia and allowed Russia to export vast amounts of valuable grain. Factories and entire industrial towns popped up along the railways, and with them a new group of workers developed. Russia was on its way to becoming an industrialized nation. However, even late in the nineteenth century, the Russian economy still struggled. Alexander III appointed Sergei Witte (1849-1915) to do something about the sluggish economy.

During his tenure with the Russian government, Sergei Witte served as finance minister, transportation minister, and director of railways. With his background in railway transportation, Witte knew that the strides Russia had made in developing the railroads were important but still insufficient.

Would You Believe?

Witte's one failure was in the administration of the peasant economy. Under his administration, the condition of the rural peasants worsened and peasant unrest ensued.

Under his leadership, Russia doubled its mileage of track yet again. Witte knew Russia needed more industrialization, so he encouraged foreign investors to come to Russia to build factories and manufacturing centers. By doing this, Russia did not have to spend its own money to build factories. Foreign investors footed the bill and Russians went to work producing cheap goods for Russian consumers.

The plan worked brilliantly. Witte encouraged protective tariffs to bolster the Russian economy and protect Russian goods. He also put Russia on the gold standard, an economic system in which the value of a nation’s currency is based on a fixed amount of gold. When several nations use the gold standard, exchange rates are essentially fixed. This enabled Russia to more actively and efficiently participate in international trade. By the turn of the twentieth century, the once-backward nation of Russia had become one of the world’s leading steel-producing nations and an industrial force in Europe. Sergei Witte cannot receive enough credit for this miraculous transformation.

The Least You Need to Know

Liberal revolutions in Prussia, France, Italy, Poland, and Austrian holdings were short-lived because revolutionary factions couldn’t agree on their next steps.

Louis Napoleon was elected president in France after the 1848 revolution. His appeal to the masses eventually resulted in the French people’s endorsement of him as Emperor Napoleon III.

Cavour used nationalism, combined with clever politics, to unify Italy.

Bismarck, like Cavour, used nationalism and a policy of “blood and iron” to unify German states under Prussian leadership.

Alexander II, taking the defeat in the Crimean War as a hint, instituted liberal reforms in Russia including freeing the serfs and codifying the legal system. By building railroads and encouraging Western investment, Russia managed to become an industrial power by 1900.

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