Past Questions:

  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of Alexander II’s reforms.

  • “His measures of reform did not disguise his belief in the need to maintain autocratic rule.” To what extent do you agree with this view of Alexander II?

  • To what extent did Alexander II succeed in his attempts to modernize Russia?

  • To what extent did Alexander II’s policies succeed in fulfilling his aims?

  • What happened in Russia during the reign of Alexander II (1855–1881) was more of a revolution than many that went by that name elsewhere.” To what extent do you agree with the assertion that Alexander II’s policies were revolutionary?

  • Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century.

  • “Despite his apparently liberal policies, Alexander II was just as conservative as Alexander III.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

  • “Considering the difficulties he inherited, Alexander II of Russia should be praised not criticised for his reforms.” To what extent do you agree with this judgment?

  • To what extent did Alexander II’s reforms cause more problems than they solved?

  • Compare and contrast the policies of Alexander II (1855-81) and Alexander III (1881-94) of Russia.

  • For what reasons, and with what results, did Alexander II try to reform Russian institutions?

Key dates of his reign:

1855 Alexander II came to the throne in March 1855 at the age of 36

1855 - 1856 Defeat in Crimean war. The loss in Crimea showed Alexander the need to modernize in order to strengthen Russia and retain its status as a Great Power.
1861 Emancipation edict of serfs carried out
1866-First assassination attempt on Alexander's life, which makes him more conservative during the rest of his reign.
1881-The growth of radical political opposition during his reign, partly made possible by his liberal reforms, eventually led to his assassination by terrorists of The People’s Will group in 1881.

Background - i.e. personality, upbringing, circumstances in which he came to rule

Situation when Alexander came to power:

Russia had been defeated in the Crimean war (1854 - 1856). The war highlighted how the Russian army and economy was severly backwards compared to the western belligerents in the war. The loss in Crimea showed Alexander the need to modernize in order to strengthen Russia and retain its status as a Great Power.

There was increasing criticisms of the institution of serfdom that constituted the basis of Russian society and the biggest problem facing the government. There were economic arguments for its reform (with Westernizers seeing it as responsible for Russian backwardness as it acted as a brake on industrial and agricultural development through preventing enterprise and free movement of labour) and crucially military objections (with serfs serving for 25 years making urgently needed army reform an impossibility). Increasingly abolition of serfdom was seen as necessary to allow progress and modernization in Russia.

There was also significant peasant unrest and social instability, with over 350 peasant revolts between 1844 and 1854. When Nicholas I tried to recruit troops for the Crimean war from the peasantry this peasant unrest increased considerably, and the levels of violence demanded that the army had to be used to restore order.

Defeat in the Crimea and the succession of a new, younger tsar created a political climate more favourable to reform. Many people in Russia, especially intellectuals, nobles and administrators, were convinced that change was necessary and the early months of Alexander's reign saw anunusual consensus in favour of reform. Alexander II encouraged this optimism and hope for reform by relaxing press censorship and allowing free discussion of the serfdom issue. For those wanting change, Alexander's reign started well.

Notes take by Jorden Olton

Julian Madeyski & Koo Asakura's Prezi on Local Government:

Kevin Nguyen and Tess Hiestand's Prezi on Economic reforms:

Notes taken by Julian Madeyski

Historiography definitions

- Historiography
  • The study of history writing
  • Studying different schools of thought on a historical subject (great men make history; one of the schools of thought.
  • How the circumstances in which history is written affect what historians say about a subject. (hindsight) (American relations with the Islamic world; if the source is saying something before or after September 11th, 2001 it might affect the content of that article) (Having governments that tell the teachers what to teach in their class, might manipulate people’s way of seeing a certain thing).

Key Vocabulary words: Autocracy, Backwards/ Agrarian, Liberalism, Slavophil, Social Political Economical, geopolitics, nationalities or ‘ethnic minorities’.
  • 400px-Makovsky_Alexander_II_of_Russia.jpg
    Alexander II in his later years; a portrait by Konstanin Makovsky
    Alexander II Notes:

  • Alexander II took up the throne as a result of his father's death (Nicholas I) in 1855. Take to note that the Crimean War was from October 1853 to February 1856, so after his father's death, Alexander II was thrown suddenly into responsibility for a war started by the previous generation. When the Russians lost the city of Sevastopol in Crimea the military moral was in its depths and Alexander began to negotiate for peace with Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The lost war might have provided a background for Alexander II to begin reforms in hopes to change the apparent weakness coming from Russia's interior.
- Who was Alexander II?
  • Alexander was a Tsar in Imperial Russia in the mid 19th Century. His reign over the Russian Empire was a duration of 1855 to 1881. Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881 after 26 years of reign at the age of 62. Despite his assassination, the first Tsar studied in IB history played some key roles in Russia's history. His early take on reforms gave him a contradicting ideology; A Slavophil who gave birth to Western ideas in Russia. Nevertheless,the Tsar is probably most famous for the Emancipation of the Serfs and the Edict of Emancipation initiated in 1861. The Emancipation of the Serfs brought incredible social change to Russia, historians now see these changes in the form of Social Mobility, some Urbanization and Industrialization in major cities, and greater Literacy Rates among the population. The controversial motives of the Tsar are discussed among historians to this day, regardless of these questions, it's agreeable to say that Alexander II's reign was the stepping stone towards the Russia we see today.

In History we are always dealing with uncertainties, was it because of this, or was it because of this? If you can back up either school of thought with valid evidence and explanation it doesn't really matter which school of thought you choose.
  • On one hand Alexander was named the Tsar liberator, but on the other hand did he just want to hold the autocracy in the Russian Empire?
Did he make his reforms simply to make power? Simply to prevent a revolution from below? Was he frightened from the result of slavery in the United States and how it led to Civil War?
These are the types of questions historians must ask themselves and people around them.
  • Redemption Payments- Alexander II freed the Serfs from personal enslavement, but he replaced one form of slavery with another; he replaced personal slavery with financial slavery.
  • How genuine were his reforms? What were Alexander II motives with his liberal policies?
If there are no other claims with Alexander II the main question is ‘Tsar Liberator or not?’

To what extent- When you see this on an essay question, they are asking you to make an argument. For a 40 minute essay, pick a side and back it up with evidence.

Why did it take two years for the Serfs to be emancipated?
  • Financial System changes and reform
  • Russia was/is a big country, the Tsar was situated in St. Petersburg, and it would take a while for the word to get out to every single serf, to tell them that they were free. Communication was poor in the Russian Empire, very centered in the European part of the country and the more rural areas were isolated, and on the other side of the world (Warsaw to Vladivostok)
  • Alexander II’s reforms were Western and Liberal, and to a Eurasian society, accepting completely European ideas would require time.- The action of reforming the reforms; took a while for some change to take place.
    Portrait from 1870; when Alexander II was 52 years of Age. Portrail by Sergei Levitsky

“It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to await the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.”
-Tsar Alexander II (to Moscow nobility, March 1856)

  • (With these words Alexander II is picking these words for an intended audience; It’s meant for the Nobility because it sympathizes the nobility. The motives of the Tsar are however debatable, PICK A SIDE AND DEFEND IT WITH SUPPORTED EVIDENCE.)

  • Government Bonds- The Russian autocrat paid off the landlords with government bonds. When Tsar Alexander II did this, he was essentially giving the landlords an investment in Imperial Russia's future. However, because all of the reformations happening throughout the empire, investing in the government wasn't something you would do out of your own pocket at the time.
  • When you invest in a government you want continuity, and when reforms are taking place in that government you are taking a risk and thereby aren't assured your money's worth.

Random things to know:
  • The Tsar, as the political and religious leader, received huge amounts of land and ‘state peasants’ with the entitlement given to them as a cause of Nepotism.
  • When you are writing IB essays, you want to make a statement, and then give evidence and then an explanation of what is going on with the given things.
  • About 2/3 of the land owning nobility fell into debt. This was because all the free labor was now labor that needed to be paid in wages. Nobles began to question the reforms.

The Great Reforms

Notes taken by Imogen Walker and Jorden Olton


  • Alexander II – Alexander ushered in a new era in terms of who could receive education. Previously, education was only available to the richest and those who could afford private tuition. After the educational reform, primary education became available to everyone who had positive effects on Russia, such as literacy increase among peasantry and other low levels of society. Secondary education was also available for all but this could’ve been potentially dangerous for the Autocratic system Russia had in place at the time. This is because if people were given advanced education, such as the increased students allowed to study at university, they may start to question whether the system Russia had in place was adequate. Through this liberation it helped to equalize the classes and allowed students to express their views without fear of being prosecuted. Alexander could be said to be a brave man after allowing universities to give lectures on topics such as law and government.
  • Reforms– New atmosphere of toleration and reform, as seen with relaxation of press censorship, was also notable with more liberal education policies. Scholars were allowed abroad to study and a new breed of liberal professors replaced many of the conservatives in place in Nicholas I’s reign. Furthermore, poor students didn’t have to pay fees and by 1859 2/3 of students at Moscow University were exempt from fees.
    • Positive: At the call of the Elementary School Statute of 1864, a litany of elementary schools sprang up across the country, though funding was remanded to the local government, to overcome the massive illiteracy that plagued the former serfs. . The number of children attending primary school increased considerably as the zemstva played a key role in increasing the number of elementary schools. The 1863 University Statute reorganized colleges and universities into effective self-governing corporations, with considerable freedom or both faculty and students.
    • Negative: The government’s liberal policies made universities into a “powder keg” – student radicalism grew and teaching lectures “appeared to be serving not only academic and economic purposes but also the promotion of political instability” (David Saunders). School was for three to four years but most parents wanted children to learn to read and write. Consequently, the great majority of children left school at the end of two years.
  • Developments – By the early 1880s about 14% of boys between 8 and 12 attended school with the zemstvos providing 43% of the funding. Dimitry Tolstoy became minister of education, but was a conservative concerned to prevent subversion, to which aim he established a team of school inspectors. There was considerably more student radicalism but the University Reform of 1863 allowed universities more autonomy. No attempt was made to introduce universal, compulsory education until after the revolution of 1905, but the school reforms of the 1860s and 1870s began the process of bringing ordinary Russians into the contemporary world of ideas and practices. Although, many Russian educators supported a “realistic” education at the secondary level, that is, modern languages and the sciences, the government feared that modern subjects fostered radicalism or even revolution among students.
  • Censorship – The accession of Alexander II brought a social restructuring that required a public discussion of issues and the lifting of some types of censorship. When an attempt was made to assassinate the tsar in 1866, the government reinstated censorship but not with the severity of pre-1855 control. The government also put restrictions on universities in 1866 five years after they had gained autonomy. Because many liberal teachers and school officials were only nominally subject to the reactionary Ministry of Education, however, the regime’s educational achievements were mixed after 1866.
  • Nature of the problem – Education was limited to the upper classes and censorship had been harsh since the revolutionary period of the late 18th century
  • Details of the reform – Alexander Golvinin (liberal minister of education 1862-1867) gave Zemstvos the job of providing primary and secondary education.
  • Evidence of “liberation” / success
    • Schools:
      • Students from poor families now had better access to education
      • Between 1961 – 81 the number of primary and secondary schools had increase fourfold
      • ‘open to all’ – regardless of sex – class
      • Universities:
        • University regulations 1863 gave universities autonomy in educational matters and exempted their libraries from the censorship laws. Scholarships were set up growing number of students
        • By 1881 there were 2000 women in university
        • Censorship:
          • The spread of education led to a growing demand for newspapers, books and magazines
          • By 1885 there were 140 magazines in circulation
          • In 1865 Alexander issued a decree which relaxed the harsh censorship laws put in place by his father
          • In 1863 censorship under the control of the ministry of internal affairs
      • Evidence of “reaction” / failure
        • Education
          • Primary education rose but the primary curriculum with the aim – ‘strengthening religious and moral notions and spreading basic knowledge’ – restriction
          • Secondary level students had the choice of study in classics or modern subjects – ‘gymnazh’ – traditional classical education
          • Choice of profession and upper classes
          • Side effect – increasement of the number of radical and militant thinkers

  • Censorship
    • Clampdown in 1870s – increasing criticisms of authority
    • Editors subject to a certain amount of censorship
    • Still military and church censorship
    • Government were against subversion – overthrow of authority
    • At the end of Alexander’s reign, censorship was tight as before as in the reign of Nicholas
    • Mistakes in the government’s reforms – Chernyshevsky’s book of 1864 ‘What is to be done?’ – peasant rebellion – revolution – inspiration of the land and liberty group – is a guidebook to radicalism
    • Overall judgment
      • Alexander appoints a liberal to set up a new system, and then appoints a conservative to keep the more radical elements of these reforms in check.
      • Censorship may have been harsh by British standards, but had come a long by Russian standards