C) Alexander III (1881 - 1894)


  • Alexander III came to the throne abruptly in March 1884, aged 36, after his father's assassination at the hands of The People's Will.  As the second son of Alexander II he had not been educated and prepared for the Tsardom as a child, until 1865 when his elder brother died and he became heir to the Tsardom.  Then the conservative figure of Konstantin Pobedonostev played a vital role in shaping his thinking about the role and function of the Tsar. 

  • Alexander was a conservative by nature and was the physical emodiment of the traditional idea of what a Russian Tsar was supposed to be, both in figure and in his actions.  At 1m 95 he was forceful, strong and capable of being an angry bully towards those who opposed him.  His suspicion of Western ideas and fashions was shown by his wearing of a thick beard in traditional Slavic fashion.    

  • The traditional view of Alexander III has been of a conservative reactionary, with historians and commentators contrasting Alexander as the repressive opposite of his father, the 'Tsar liberator'.  However, while there is some truth in this - Alexander III was in many senses a conservative who hoped to stop further political liberalisation - such a view tends to oversimplify the more complex truth that consitutes the reign of the Tsar liberator's son. 

Context of Alexander III's succession: reasons to be conservative?
  • His father's assassination by radical terrorists reinforced his natural conservatism.  Alexander III was shocked and appalled by the terrorists' disloyalty, but like many conservatives in Russia he tended to blame his father's death on his moderate aims for reform.  In a sense, the reactionary tone of most of Alexander III's reign can be understood largely as a response to the assassination of his father.

  •  Alexander III was greatly influenced in his outlook by the ideas of Pobedonostsev, his reactionary tutor.  Pobedonostsev was a perceptive critic of Western values, who argued that the democracy and liberalism adopted in Western Europe offered only illusory freedoms and as alien foreign ideas should not be adopted in Russia.  He believed that all opposition should be ruthlessy crushed and that freedom of the press and constitutions represented threats to the state.  Pobedonostsev proposed the strengthening of autocracy and tradition rather than further reforms, and supported the Orthodox religion and Russian nationality against any other religions or nationalities in the Russian Empire.  As Alexander III's tutor, elder and intellectual superior, Pobedonostsev exerted a considerable shadow over the Tsar's reign.

  •  The generally chaotic nature of the Empire as a whole following Alexander II's death suggested the need for strong leadership to steady the country.  Indeed, while it is easy to object to some of Alexander III's policies, it should also be remembered that Russia was still significantly backwards in many senses, administratively primitive and economically weak.  This is the context of Alexander's stern, authoritarian policies. 

Alexander III as "conservative reactionary": the evidence and arguments in favour of this view
  • Given his political convictions and his wish to send a clear message to opponents of Tsardom, Alexander III started his reign with a strong statement of conservative reaction.  The terrorists responsible for his father's death were executed, and 10,000 suspected opponents across the country were arrested.  Greater censorship was re-introduced and his father's plans for a written constitution and further reform were immediately scrapped. 
  • The conservative nature of Alexander's rule shown in his early actions as Tsar was confirmed and given formal shape in his "Manifesto of Unshakeable Autocracy" issued to the nation in April 1881.  This document clearly showed the influence of Pobedonostsev in its rejection of democracy and further reform, and the intent to have "full faith in the justice and strength of the autocracy" that he believed God had bestowed upon him.  This manifesto (and possibly also the fact that he took his motto as that of Nicholas 1's: 'Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality') made Alexander III extremely unpopular with Russia's educated Westernized population, and liberal government ministers of his father's reign resigned in protest (including Loris-Melikov).
Between 1881 and 1894 Alexander III and his government followed a series of policies that made conservative adjustments to his father's reforms in the 1860s:
  • Local Government: radical plans to destroy the zemstva completely were dropped, but the introduction of Land Captains and changes in the voting system served to strengthen autocracy and the position of the nobility in the countryside and reduce peasant self-government.  The Land Captains were introduced in 1889, and as they were drawn solely from the nobility, had total authority in local administration and could thus override the authority of the zemstva they contradicted Alexander II's earlier local government reforms.  Similarly, given the conservative dislike of democracy and elected assemblies, new laws were introduced in 1890 and 1892 to alter the electorate and reduce the popular vote in rural and urban elections - for example, in St Petersburg the electorate was reduced by 2/3 from 21,000 to 7,000 following these reforms.

  • Peasantry and social policy: the peasants experienced the Land Captains and other aspects of Alexander's rule as so repressive that some feared that he planned to re-instate the institution of serfdom.  A clear example of this repression, that shows Alexander's fear and attempt to control them, was his move in 1893 to ban peasants from leaving the Mir, placing a complete restriction on their freedom to move and strengthening the control the Mir exerted over individual peasants. 

  • Powers of the State and repressionfollowing the assassination the 1881 Statute of State Security gave the government more powers to pursue revolutionaries.  This gave the state the power to declare any part of the country under "extraordinary protection" and thereby ban public gatherings, close schools and universities and charge and individual for political crimes.  The powers of the Secret Police were also extended to allow them to imprison suspected opponents of the state without trial, and conditions in prisons were made more severe. 

  • Censorship was increased, as the government attempted to limit the circulation of 'harmful' ideas in newspapers, books and libraries, and education came under closer government control in the attempt to further limit opposition and revolutionary ideas.  Universities lost some of the independence granted to them under Alexander II, while the raising of school fees was a deliberate ploy to keep lower-class children out of primary and secondary education.   Podenostsev believed firmly that education for peasant children was both a waste of time and resources, depriving their parents of help at home while failing to prepare them for their future lives in agriculture.

  • Russification and anti-semitism: under Podonostsev's influence and position as the Procurator of the Holy Synod (state head of Orthodox Church), a strict policy of Russification was followed towards the non-Russian groups of the empire.  This policy of suppressing local cultures and promoting Russian characteristics was not invented by Alexander III, but it was appllied with new determination in his reign.  Worse affected by this cultural nationalism was the Jewish population, who faced anti-semitic prejudice and oppression.  Anti-semitic legislation banned Jews from the civil service, limited their education opportunities and where they could live, while the government was happy to encourage violence and pogroms against Jewish communities as a means of diverting popular discontent.  

The case against: evidence that opposes the view that Alexander III was a "conservative reactionary"
Although there is clearly no shortage of evidence of Alexander III's conservatism, it would be wrong to dismiss him completely as a backward-looking reactionary.  He was well aware of the need to modernize Russia's economy, and in this sphere his reign saw some impressive, and even progressive, change.  Though he resisted social and political change wherever possible, he didn't reject reform completely, and some of his economic policies built on the work started by his father when he emancipated the serfs.
  • Alexander III's first Minister of Finance, Nikolai Bunge, was a reforner who introduced important changes between 1881 and 1887.  He created the Peasants' Land Bank in 1882 to help peasants purchase their own farms, whcich wad so successful that by 1904 peasants had bought 1/3 of the nobility's land.  He also abolished the Poll Tax, paid only by peasants, in 1886, which helped to reduce the financial burden the peasants faced.   

  • Faced with the expansion of major cities and an increase in urban strikes, Bunge tried to reduce the appeal of socialism by offering limited concessions to the workers in the shape of laws to protect their rights at work.  Between 1883 and 1885 he introduced laws to improve working conditions for women and children, and in 1886 there was further labour legislation concerning payment and dismissal to protect the workers.  However, it should also be noted that there were only 300 inspectors for the whole of Russia so there was little way of acutally enforcing these laws, which were therefore largely ineffective. 

  • Bunge's replacement as Finance Minister, Ivan Vyshnegradsky, was less interested in social reform and workers' rights and focused entirely on industrializing Russia at whatever the cost.  He launched a huge export drive of grain and secured an important French loan to fund this industrialization drive, and by 1892 the Russian state had a budget surplus for the first time ever - though this was achieved at massive social cost.  Between 1881 and 1894 coal production in Russia almost doubled, while the production of pig-iron was more than double - clear indications of a successful industrialization drive. 

Broad results and consequences of Alexander III's policies:
  • Supporters of Alexander III argued that his firm policies allowed a period of stability which allowed the Russian state to be strengthened and for Russian pride to be restored after the turbulence of the 1860s.  According to this view, the lack of revolutionary disturbances during Alexander's reign was seen as proof that his repression of opposition had been successful, and these supporters celebrated Alexander III as a great peacemaker.  

  • However, while an appearance of peace might be true in the short term, in the longer-term this was a fragile illusion - repression would only encourage the growth of further and more extreme opposition to the Tsarist regime.  The clearest example of this is the case of Lenin: the execution in 1887 of his elder brother, Alexander Ulyanov, for his role in a bomb plot to kill Alexander III, played an important role in driving the 17 year old Vladimir Ilyich Ulanov towards political radicalism and revolutionary Marxism, which would in due course have massive consequences for the future of Russia and the fate of the Romanov dynasty.

  • While successful economic policies led to improved government finances during Alexander's reign, this was achieved at massive social cost.  In particular, Finance Minister Vyshnedgradsky's focus on exporting grain to fund industrialization - in his words, "we must go hungry, but export" - contributed to the severe famine of 1891-2 that cost the lives of between 1.5 and 2 million peasants.  Politically, the government's failure to respond effectively to relieve the suffering caused by the famine encouraged support for revolutionary opposition movements, while the important role played by the zemstva in managing the relief effort demonstrated a new 'responsible' liberal strand of opposition to the Tsardom, which in turn led to pressure for greater democracy.

  • Overall, Alexander III's reforms of the 1880s and 90s served to strengthen traditional social estates (ie. the nobility) and undermine his father's reforms of the 1860s, which satisfied conservatives.  In this sense, the traditional view of historians of Alexander's reign as one of repression and reaction is at least partly correct, though it might also be pointed out that stabilizing the state would have been an essential task for any ruler to carry out following the dramatic assassination of 1881, and Alexander's strengthening of the autocracy allowed Russia to improve her international position.

  • Furthermore, it would be a mistake to characterize Alexander III purely as a conservative reactionary.  His economic policies saw Russia make important progress towards becoming a modern, industrialized nation, and in economic terms it can be argued that Alexander III was at least as great a reformer as his father was socially and politically. 

  • Ultimately his greatest failure lay in his refusal to modernize Russia socially and politically to fit the changing realities of a modern, industrializing nation.  When the government should have been adjusting itself to the new economic situation, Alexander III clung to and strengthened autocracy, a system of rule developed for an illiterate nation of peasants, which was no longer entirely the case in the 1880s.  This failure to reform autocracy created great tension which would ultimately push the country towards crisis and contribute to the collapse of Tsardom in 1917.

  • Another fatal legacy left by Alexander III that contributed towards the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was the idealized vision of Tsarism, with its staunch and inflexible commitment to autocracy, that he imparted to his son, Nicholas II, who would inherit the throne upon Alexander's death in 1894 and rule as the last ever Tsar. 

Comparing and contrasting Alexander II (the Tsar Liberator, great reformer etc.) and Alexander III (the great reactionary): some food for thought
  1. Should you be given the fairly typical exam question that asks you to compare and contrast the reigns of Alexander III and his father, rather than repeating the standard view that simply contrasts Alexander II the 'Tsar Liberator' with Alexander III the 'conservative reactionary' you might want to consider the following, slightly more interesting lines of argument to try and impress the examiner with.  Of course, in some ways Alexander III did indeed reverse his father's reforms, BUT:

  • Though Alexander II might have liberated the serfs and made some 'liberal' reforms in the 1860s, in many ways he was just as much of a reactionary as his son.  (Think back to the limitations of Alexander II's reforms, his disillusions with the response to the reforms and his imprisoning of political opponents!)  With this in mind, it is difficult to maintain that Alexander II was actually much of a liberal at all, so that this part of the contrast with his son collapses.  Indeed, it can be argued that both shared and pursued similar aims: strengthening the autocracy and improving Russia's international standing. 
  • Though Alexander III did undermine the limited social and political reforms made by his father in the 1860s, his policies in the 1880s and 90s made important steps towards the economic modernization of Russia, particularly in relation to industrialization.  In some respects, it might even be possible to argue that the traditional view can be turned on its head and that Alexander III was a reformer where Alexander II was a reactionary - though you must be careful not to take this too far, you need to preserve a balanced view and a sense of perspective in your answer.  Keep your argument closely pinned to the evidence you can support it with in your essays!

Chris Haffenden,
Aug 6, 2010, 6:44 AM