Revolutionary Movements of Russia: Political, Economic & Social Reform

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  • 0:02 19th-Century Russia
  • 0:35 Background
  • 1:47 Alexander I
  • 3:27 Crimea & Reform
  • 5:25 Regicide & After
  • 7:09 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'll explore the tumultuous domestic history of 19th-century Russia, where czars opposed radical nationalists and periods of liberal reform alternated with periods of violent political suppression.

19th-Century Russia

In life, sometimes it takes something big to happen before we are able to recognize underlying problems. For example, your car might have several things that need to be fixed, but it isn't until it dies on the side of the highway that you are forced to realize this. Just like your car, it wasn't until something big happened - in this case a major war - that the leaders of 19th-century Russia realized there were major problems in the country. Afterward, Russian leaders enacted a series of reforms to address the country's social and economic issues.


Despite the modernizing reforms of Peter the Great in the early 18th century, Russia still lagged behind its European contemporaries at the start of the 19th century. The country's economy was still heavily based on agriculture. Nearly a third of the Russian people (roughly 22 million out of 70 million) were still landed serfs, a vestige of medieval government which essentially tied farmers and peasants to the land. Serfdom had been abolished elsewhere in Europe in previous centuries, but in Russia it remained.

Additionally, while other European governments had developed representative assemblies with at least a small say in the affairs of state, Russia was still largely ruled by the absolute and unchecked power of its czars. Even those people in Russia who were not landed serfs experienced far less rights and freedoms than citizens of the rest of Europe. Opportunities for upward mobility were hampered by Russia's late arrival to the Industrial Revolution, which was increasing wages and decreasing the cost of products across Europe. Indeed, at the close of the 19th century, Russia was only beginning to embrace the industrial advances that Great Britain had implemented at the century's outset.

Alexander I

This Russian Empire was ruled in 1801 by the newly-crowned Czar Alexander I. Alexander had been raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great, to embrace the liberalism and enlightened philosophy prevalent in the rest of 18th-century Europe. Considering this, there were reasons for Russians who wanted reform and change to be optimistic. Initially, Alexander made good on this promise, relaxing laws on censorship, allowing some serfs to buy their own freedom, and prohibiting torture. The education system was reformed, giving the population greater access, and the bureaucracy was shrunk and standardized to improve its efficiency.

After the Napoleonic Wars, however, Alexander's opinion of reform changed. It was thought at the time that the French Revolution and its subsequent empire under Napoleon Bonaparte were the direct result of the growth of nationalism and the spread of Enlightenment-era ideals like republicanism and liberalism. The nobility across Europe, including in Russia, did their best to tamp down nationalism and other sources of popular rebellion. As a result, Alexander reversed several of his previous reforms, reintroducing censorship of the press and ending his plans for the drafting of a Russian constitution.

The sudden sickness and death of Alexander I in 1825 led to a small revolt by former military men upset with the government's treatment of its veterans and also the slow pace of liberal reform. The Decemberist Revolt, as it has become known, was quickly crushed by Czar Nicholas I. The revolt caused the already conservative Nicholas to remain wary of liberal reform throughout his reign.

Crimea and Reform

The next wave of reform in 19th-century Russia occurred in response to the Crimean War, from 1853 to 1856. The war began due to Nicholas I choosing to occupy Ottoman territory in the Balkans. Great Britain and France rushed to Ottoman aid, resulting in a protracted, bloody conflict. Russia eventually lost the conflict, though not due to any significant military defeats. Russia lost the Crimean War largely due to its inferior, serf- and agriculture-based economy's ability to provide enough tax revenue to pay for the costly conflict.

This reality, coupled with the accession of the far more liberal monarch, Alexander II, instigated further reform. The press was granted complete freedom and education programs in the country were expanded even more than they had been previously. Alexander II's largest measure, however, came in 1861 when he abolished serfdom. The move was highly controversial; he was encouraged by Russia's growing group of liberals, but Alexander angered the landowners and aristocrats who largely surrounded Alexander at court.

In order to try to please both sides, Alexander II created a long, highly detailed document which described the exact parameters for the freeing of the serfs. While the serfs were all to be free, they were not to be given the land on which they had likely worked their entire lives, but instead were given the opportunity to buy it. Few, if any, serfs had the money to do this.

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