Reforms in Russia Under Tsar Alexander II: Examples & Impact Video

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  • 0:06 Reforms of Alexander II
  • 0:40 Crimean War
  • 1:54 Reform
  • 3:17 War & Assassination
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the reforms of Tsar Alexander II in 19th-century Russia. Alexander freed the Russian serfs and accelerated the industrialization of Russia before his 1881 assassination.

Reforms of Alexander II

In nature, several species of spiders eat their mothers after hatching. Though gruesome as this may be, it is not unlike the relationship some enlightened and/or reforming monarchs in Early Modern history have had with their political programs. The more freedoms or rights they grant, the more the people are likely to use these freedoms to cry for more. Such was certainly the case in 19th-century Russia for Tsar Alexander II. Alexander II enacted widespread and sweeping reforms, most notably ending serfdom, only to be assassinated by a group of nationalist terrorists.

Crimean War

Alexander II became Tsar in 1855 after the death of his father, Nicholas I. At 36, Alexander had been groomed to rule, but no amount of study could adequately prepare him for the crisis Russia was in when he took the throne. In 1855, Russia was in the midst of the debilitating Crimean War against Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire on southern Russian soil. Not only did Russia lose hundreds of thousands of citizens and soldiers in the effort, but they lost the war as well.

While Russia lost territory in the Balkans and was also forced to remove any Russian naval presence from the Black Sea, the humiliation of losing to three foreign powers in Russia itself likely hurt the worst. The failure made Alexander realize that Russia could not compete militarily or economically with the great European powers of the 19th century. Many of these countries had undergone massive industrialization in the past century and their armies were equipped with the fruits of this process - more technologically advanced weaponry that could be produced at a cheaper cost. Russia, on the other hand, still had a mainly agricultural, serf-based economy, which could not pay for the cost of large scale, 19th-century warfare.


Tsar Alexander realized the importance of industrializing if Russia would again be able to consider itself a major player in the international arena. In order to create the labor pool necessary for advanced industrial production, Alexander resolved to end serfdom in Russia, becoming the last country in Europe to end the feudal practice whereby the peasantry, while not slaves, were permanently tied to their landowner and their owner's land. Alexander's proposed reforms angered the traditional Russian landowners, even though many provisions severely restricted the practices and movements of the 22 million newly freed serfs. For example, rather than granting serfs the deeds to the land their family had farmed for generations, the former serfs were required to purchase or rent land from their former lords, often making these families far poorer than when they had been tied to the land.

While the logistics of ending serfdom in Russia certainly caused some strain, coupled with further reforms Alexander strengthened the Russian economy and modernized Russian society. Alexander built huge amounts of railroads across Russia to facilitate economic production, and Russian exports of crops and minerals skyrocketed. He introduced several key measures that allowed more freedom of the press and made public education more widely available to the Russian populace. Additionally, the boost to the Russian economy allowed Alexander to pay for military reforms, including equipping Russian troops with the latest firearms and other weaponry.

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