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The Reforms Were Half Hearted Concessions from Men Intent on Preserving the Old Ways as Much as Possible

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The reforms were half hearted concessions from men intent on preserving the old ways as much as possible.

The Russian reforms were a series of changes Alexander II made to Russia. These included the emancipation of the serfs, and reforms for the military, local government, education and censorship. Most of these reforms took place in 1864, however the emancipation of the serfs took place in 1861. Some of these reforms, such as the emancipation of the serfs were seen to be very important and helpful to Russia at the time, but others, such as the educational and judiciary reforms can be argued that they were half hearted. An example of a ‘half hearted’ reform is the military reforms of 1874-75. Conscription was made compulsory for all classes, but the nobility used substitutes to take their place. Although this was known, the government made no proper attempts to stop the nobility doing this, showing that this reform was half hearted as the nobility were never made to serve in the army before.

Arguably, the most important reform passed by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs, which took place in 1861. This abolished serfdom, and the landowners did not own the surfs anymore. Previously, around 90% of the population of Russia lived in poverty and worked for a pittance and were forced to fight in the army if their landowner needed them to. However, members of the Royal family felt that serfdom was morally and ethically wrong, and writers such as Turgenev drew attention to the plight of the serfs and the need to improve their conditions. The defeat in the Crimean War had exposed Russia to be militarily and technologically backward, and it was widely believed that serfdom was holding the industrial development of Russia back. Although these reasons for the reform suggest that the emancipation for the serfs was done for moral reasons, the Emancipation Edict suggests that the moral and economic reasons were not the main motivation for the emancipation. There had been serious peasant revolts in the past and disturbances had been increasing since the 1840’s. Also, the army was mainly comprised of serfs, so there was a fear that a major revolt may be hard for the government to contain; people were worried about how long the peasants would remain loyal if nothing was done to improve their conditions.  The peasants found the terms of the Emancipation Edict very harsh and strict, and resented the fact that they had to pay redemption payments for a period of 49 years for the land they were given as part of the settlement and had to remain on the Mir until their payments were complete. This was because they could see no reason for paying for it; they believed that the land should be theirs of right, on the grounds that the person who works on the land should own it. The ministry of the Interior was concerned that the freed serfs would become vagabonds and undermine order in rural and urban areas and didn’t want to give them proper freedom. To solve this problem, the village as a whole was made into the tax-paying body responsible collectively for redemption payments. The commune was also given control over granting permission to villagers who wanted to leave, which they were unwilling to do because the commune would have to take on the payments left behind by any peasant who left. This, in effect, was an indirect way of making sure the serfs did not get proper freedom. The fear of revolt was a powerful factor leading Alexander II to reform, suggesting that his action was merely a concession to keep the support of the peasants and remain autocracy. There is also the fact that there were many weaknesses to the Emancipation Edict, such as the fact that the land allocations weren’t divided equally and by 1878 only 50% of the peasantry was producing a surplus. The Emancipation Edict hardly led to a more mobile workforce and the agricultural methods remained old fashioned. This shows that the welfare of the serfs was not the main purpose for the emancipation and also suggests that he was more intent on preserving ‘the old ways’ as not much changed in terms of the economy.

From the Emancipation Edict came more reforms; one of the major ones being the Education reforms of 1863-64. The abolition of serfdom increased the need for basic literacy among peasants trying to run their private smallholdings, and the establishment of the zemstva provided an opportunity for change in the control and funding of education. Many positive things came out of this reform. For example, in 1863, universities were given more freedom to control their own teaching and research and were given the opportunity to govern themselves and appoint their own staff. Even women were permitted to go to these schools and universities, as they were ‘declared open to all’ regardless of class and sex. The 1864 Secondary Education Statute and the 1865 Elementary Statute reduced restrictions on the Church and the zemstva opening new schools, which led to dramatic increase in education and attendance. The number of primary schools rose from 8000 to 23,000, and the number of children in primary education rose from 400,000 to over a million. However, after 1866 the government took control over education again because the universities were increasing the number of radical and militant thinkers. The primary curriculum was still restricted, with the aim of ‘strengthening religious and moral notions and spreading basic knowledge’. At secondary level, students had a choice in what they wanted to study, but this was mainly for the professional and upper classes. This shows that this reform was made to try and keep the old ways because it was restricted for only privileged upper classes; something that had been very common before the reforms. However, after multiple assassination attempts, Alexander went back on many pf his reforms, including Education, for example he handed back control of schools back to the Church, and in 1897, the literacy rate of Russia was still just 24%. Compared to Britain’s of 90%. I do not agree that this reform was half hearted at first however because it had a very positive impact on Russia; for example, the number of students in the universities grew from 3600 to 10,000 in the 1870’s, and education was available to anyone, regardless of their gender or race, but from 1871 education was reversed back to largely what it had been before.

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