Alexander II was thirty-seven years old when he succeeded to the throne. The war oppressed Russia, and he felt that peace must be concluded. But Russian diplomacy loves the tortuous path. The first proclamation of the czar announced that he promised "to accomplish the plans and desires of our illustrious predecessors, Peter, Catherine, Alexander the Well-beloved, and our father of imperishable memory." It was hoped that this would cause the other powers to propose peace, on account of the expense of the war. Indeed, a conference was proposed and took place at Vienna, but the demands of the allies were not so modest as Russia expected; hence the war continued, and with it the siege of Sebastopol.
The Danube territory was lost to Russia since, on the 2nd December 1854, Austria had undertaken to defend it, and Prussia had agreed to help Austria. But Sebastopol was stubbornly defended. In the latter part of August 1855, 874 guns vomited death and destruction upon the doomed city where the Russians lost 18,000 men. The French had dug fifty miles of trenches during the 366 days of the siege, and 4,100 feet of mines before a single bastion. In one day 70,000 bombs and shells were fired into the town. On the 8th of September the assault was ordered, and Sebastopol fell.
Again Russia tried what boasting would effect. Gortchakof declared to whoever chose to believe him that he would not voluntarily abandon the country where Saint Vladimir had received baptism, and the official newspaper announced that the war was now becoming serious, and that Sebastopol being destroyed, a stronger fortress would be built. This meant that Russia was anxious to secure favorable terms. The war had cost 250,000 men, and Russia's credit at home was in a bad condition. Austria offered the basis of an agreement which was accepted by Russia, and on the 25th of February, 1856, a Congress met at Paris. Five days later the Treaty of Paris was signed. Russia renounced the right of protecting the Christians in the Danubian principalities, and restored the delta of that river. The Black Sea was opened to merchant vessels of all nations, but closed to all warships, and no arsenals were to be constructed on its shores. The sultan agreed to renew the privileges of his Christian subjects, but with the understanding that the powers should not find cause to interfere. It was a hard blow to Russia's prestige, and indefinitely postponed the execution of making of Russia the restored Eastern Roman Empire.
Alexander, in many respects, was the opposite of his father; he seemed more like his uncle in his younger days when he earned the surname of Well-beloved. It may be, however, that Alexander was but the executor of his father's instructions, after doubt began to torture him. It is known that Nicholas had seriously considered the emancipation of the serfs. Alexander took it up in earnest. There were two serious difficulties, namely, the compensation to be allowed to the serf owners, and the extent of the soil to be allotted to the serfs. It must be remembered that, although the peasant had become resigned to serve the landowner, his proverb: "Our backs are the owner's, but the soil is our own," showed how stubbornly he held to the conviction that it was his own land which he cultivated, however little profit he derived from his toil. For once the tchinovnik dared not interfere; public opinion had so strongly condemned their incompetence and dishonesty that the Russian official was glad to efface himself; the landowners, on the other hand, showed little enthusiasm. They knew what their revenues were, but not what they would be under altered circumstances.
Soon after the Treaty of Paris had restored peace, Alexander addressed his "faithful nobles" at Moscow, inviting them to consult about the proper measures to be taken with the view to emancipation. When this produced no results, he appointed a Committee, "for the amelioration of the condition of the peasants." The nobles of Poland, seeing what was coming, declared themselves ready to emancipate their serfs. The czar gave his consent and the ukase containing it was sent to all the governors and marshals of the nobility "for your information," and also "for your instruction if the nobles under your administration should express the same intention as those of the three Lithuanian governments."
The press supported the czar, and for that reason was allowed an unusual freedom of expression. The plan was formed to reconstruct and strengthen the national mir. This was favored by a number of large landowners who saw in this plan the beginning of constitutional liberty. The czar directed that committees be appointed to examine the scheme.
There were at this time 47,000,000 serfs, of whom 21,000,000 belonged to private landowners, 1,400,000 were domestic servants, and the rest Crown peasants who possessed greater privileges and enjoyed some degree of self-government. Their local affairs were administered by the mir and an elected council with an elder as executive. They were judged by elected courts, that is juries, either in the mir court or in that of the volost (district).
Forty-six committees composed of 1,336 land and serf-owners, assembled to discuss the future of 22,500,000 serfs and of 120,000 owners. These committees declared in favor of emancipation, but could not agree upon the allowance of acreage or the indemnity to the owners. Another committee of twelve was appointed, presided over by the czar, but there Alexander met considerable passive opposition. The czar made a journey through the provinces, where he appealed to the nobles, warning them that "reforms came better from above than below." After his return another committee superior in authority to the one existing and composed of friends of emancipation was called. Its members, inspired by the czar, drafted laws whereby emancipation was to proceed at once, and stringent laws were made to prevent the free peasant from again becoming a serf, and to make of him a proprietor upon payment of an indemnity. On the 3rd of March, 1861, the emancipation ukase was published.
The scheme, as is evident, was fraught with difficulty. A stroke of the pen by the hand of the czar could set free millions of serfs, but all the czar's power stopped short of endowing the serf with the dignity and responsibility, which are the freeman's birthright. For more than a century and a half, the moujik had been a beast of burden, toiling as he was bid, and finding recreation only in besotting himself with strong drink whenever he could find the means to indulge. Mental faculties, save such as are inseparable from animal instinct, had lain dormant; moral perception was limited between the knout on one side, and gross superstition on the other. Could such a being be intrusted with life and property? When the serf, brutalized by generations of oppression, should come to understand that he was free to do as he pleased, and that the hovel where he and his brood were styed was his to do with as he pleased, what could he be expected to do? Would he not seize the opportunity to indulge in his favorite craving, and, having sold his property, swell the army of homeless vagabonds?
The mir was the only means to prevent this, and mir meant serfdom under another name. The landowners disposed of their land, or of so much as was required to support the peasants, not to individuals but to the mir. To indemnify the owners, the mir could secure a loan whereby the debt was transferred from the owner to the government, and the mir was responsible for its payment as well as for the taxes. The moujik, as part of the mir, was responsible to the community for his share of the debt, and was not allowed to leave his village without a written permission from the starost or elder. He was, therefore, in a worse position than before the emancipation because in time of distress it was his lord's interest to support him, whereas after it he had to deal with a soulless government that demanded the taxes regardless of circumstances. The mir might succeed so long as the peasant remained in a state of tutelage; education only could lift him out of this,—but this means was not considered by the government.
But whatever may have been Alexander's intentions, the men charged with their execution had no sympathy with the moujik. The question never occurred to them: How shall we raise the peasant from his degradation? The problem before them was, how he should be made to support the State, as he had done before. The Russian statesmen had no conception of the truth that the wealth of a State is guaged by the prosperity of the people.
As to the serf, he did not consider that a boon had been bestowed upon him. The soil and the hovel were his, descended to him from his forbears! Why, then, should he pay for them? He clung to this idea with all the stubbornness implanted by a sense of justice upon a limited intelligence. It had been hammered into his head that the Little Father at St. Petersburg was conferring a favor upon him, and this was within his limited conception; but when he heard what the favor was, the only solution which his cunning brain could devise was that the nobles had cheated the czar, or that there had been some juggling with the ukase. Thus grave disturbances occurred. In one district, that of Kazan, 10,000 men rose at the call of the moujik Petrof, who promised them the real article of liberty. Troops were called out and a hundred peasants besides Petrof were shot. Similar disturbances occurred in other provinces. The poor moujik did not know that he was saddled with a debt which neither he nor his children could hope to pay but he did know that he was charged with a debt which he had not incurred.
Nevertheless, the emancipation was a step forward. Under the liberal impulse then rushing irresistibly over Russia's broad level the upper classes clamored for reforms. They asked for the re-establishment of the douma as the beginning of a constitutional government, but the czar was not prepared to grant this, and he was right because under existing circumstances the peasants would have to be disfranchised,—and there is small choice between an autocracy and an oligarchy.
It is to be regretted that the reforms in the judicial system, introduced by Alexander in the ukases of 1862 to 1865, have since been rescinded. Secret examinations were displaced by open sessions of the courts, and criminal cases were decided by juries; the police was forbidden to examine the accused, which duty was placed into the hands of a qualified judge. Appeals could be taken to a higher court, and the Senate acted as a Supreme Court in the last resort. Apart from this system was the justice of the peace who adjudged ordinary police cases, acted as an arbitrator, and decided civil suits when the amount involved did not exceed 500 rubles ($250). No appeal could be taken in cases involving less than thirty rubles in civil suits, or fifteen rubles or three days' prison in police offenses. If an appeal was taken the case was brought, not before a higher court, but before the collective justices of the peace of the district, whose verdict could be set aside only by the Senate.
The Russian goubernii, governments, were divided into districts (ouiezdi). The imperial ukase of 1864, created zemstvos or district assemblies composed of representatives of the landed proprietors or gentlemen; or rural communes or mirs, and of the towns. These representatives were elected every three years. The assembly appointed an executive committee which is in permanent session, but the zemstvo assembles once a year. Its duties are strictly limited to local affairs, such as keeping roads and bridges in repair; to watch over education and sanitation, to report on the condition of the harvest, and to guard against the occurrence of famine. Above the district zemstvo is the goubernkoé zemstvo or provincial assembly, whose members are elected from the district zemstvos. Its duties embrace the estimate of the provincial budget, and a general supervision over the districts.
Alexander was kindly disposed and meant to do well. He showed it by removing the barriers erected by his father between Russia and western Europe. Foreigners in Russia were granted civil rights, and Russians were allowed to travel abroad. The universities were relieved of restraints and Jews who had learned a trade could settle where they pleased. All these reforms were so many promises of a new era for Russia.
Alexander soon found out that his concessions only served to create demands for more. The trouble began in Poland, where the news of Nicholas' death was received with relief, if not with joy. Great hopes were entertained from the new czar; besides, the Europe of 1855 was very different from that of 1825: monarchs had learned the lesson that the people possessed inalienable rights. Italy had shaken off the encumbrance of a number of princelings,—and was the better for it; Austria had been compelled to grant self-government to its Hungarian subjects; why, then, should Poland despair of recovering its independence?
It was Poland's greatest misfortune that her best sons were always divided in opinion; many of them, moreover, thought that Poland's cause should command the sacrifices of every people. They forgot that their country owed its downfall to itself and that, whereas people might express their sympathy, it cannot be expected that they shall neglect their own business for the sake of other people. Some of the leaders expected that the czar would grant them self-government, and Alexander might have done so after some time; but others demanded not only independence but that Russia should restore the parts which she had owned for so many years that they had become parts of the empire. The czar dared not grant such a request, because it would have produced a revolution in Russia, besides a war with Austria and Prussia, since those powers owned part of Poland. He was, however, willing to grant important concessions and did so. In February 1863, an insurrection broke out, and Russian troops were dispatched to subdue it. The Russians acted with great cruelty, so that England, France, and Austria protested on the 17th of June. Russia, knowing that Prussia would come to her assistance paid no attention, and in 1866, Russian Poland became a part of Russia. The Russian language displaced the Polish, and Poland is no longer even a name; it is a memory and a warning,—nothing more.
Quite different was Alexander's treatment of Finland. In 1863, he convoked the Diet of that grand dukedom, where nobility and people appreciated the degree of liberty which they enjoyed. The government did not interfere with the national language or religion, but took measures that neither should spread in Russia.
Alexander's concessions raised the expectation of a constitution among those who knew what the word implies, including the students at the universities. These institutions were closed. The provincial zemstvos exceeded their authority. That of Tver demanded the convocation of the three Estates; that at Toula discussed a national assembly. Was it Alexander or his court and ministers who bore the responsibility for the suppressive means that were employed? It may be that the attempts upon his life, by Karakozof in 1866, and by the Pole Berezofski at Paris in 1867, embittered him. But his kindly feeling and love for his people, taken in conjunction with a later event, warrant the belief that he was ignorant.