To what extent was Alexander II a Tsar liberator?

Alexander II did introduce a number of reforms, which were quite revolutionary for that period of time. Many historians therefore believe that Alexander II deserves the title ‘Tsar Liberator’. Views of Alexander II do, however, differ to a great extent, When regarding Alexander II Saunders says “his enthusiasm for change lasted a mere four years, it may be that his reputation as the ‘Tsar liberator’ is ill deserved“ 1this strongly suggests that Alexander II was not a liberator. However, as Bideleux says “Alexander II came to be known as the ‘Tsar liberator on account of his resoluteness in freeing millions of Russian serfs through the 1861 Emancipation Act”2 although Alexander II did free serfs this does not solely justify the title ‘Tsar liberator’ Alexander may have freed the peasants but it wasn’t complete freedom. Many historians believe that Alexander II cannot be called a “Tsar Liberator” as he did not pass reforms out of a genuine desire to liberate, but to remain in power and keep the peace instead. Historians also argue that Alexander II remained a very determined autocrat who was not willing to let go of his inherited autocratic powers. There is no doubt that Alexander was not willing to let go of his autocratic powers and although he made significant reforms in areas such as education and the military he was not a liberator.

Alexander has been called a liberator due to his reforms of serfdom. It is important to realise that Serfdom was an economic institution and an instrument of social control that had been seen as the norm, therefore for Alexander II to change this system can be seen as a liberal reform. However when you look closer at the terms of the emancipation edict it looks less of liberation, this is due to the fact the peasants had to pay redemptions fees for 49 years and never gained sufficient land for their needs. Equally the reasons behind emancipation were not to liberalise the peasantry. Only through Emancipation could Russia modernise following the disastrous failure that was the Crimea war, if this was the only reason behind Alexander II’s decision and not to liberate one may have difficulty in describing Alexander II as a ‘Tsar liberator’.

One reason why Alexander II’s title as ‘Tsar liberator’ is called into question is the controversy regarding redemption payments. The major difficulty was the charging of redemption payments to compensate the nobility for loss of land and labour which was part of the emancipation edict. Redemption fees were a major financial burden on the peasants and critics use this to prove that the Emancipation was a failure. “The sovereign has betrayed the hopes of the people; the freedom he has given them is not real and is not what the people dreamed of “1 this implies that Alexander II was not a liberator because they were not fully liberated. However Bideleux disputes this and presents statistics that redemption dues came down to about 2% of agricultural output 2 Bideleux implies that the redemption fees were not as harsh thus Alexander II may be seen as a liberator. These statistics by Bideleux are somewhat selective as in the fertile black soil regions of the Ukraine no doubt these figures were feasible but this was not the case in many other areas where redemption fees were onerous. Therefore on balance redemption fees were a major factor in the Emancipation edict not being a true liberation since without the means to be financially and economically independent many peasants could not be called liberated.

When considering the extent to which Alexander II was a Liberator, historians do not question the liberation of the peasants from landowners. They question the terms of the Emancipation edict itself. Zaionchkovsky says “There can be no doubt that the reform defrauded the peasants… the most onerous conditions of all were the terms of redemption…the allotments obtained by the private peasant through the reform were for the most part entirely inadequate...” 3 Zaionchkovsky was writing this in 1978 as a soviet historian during Communist rule. He is therefore unlikely to be supportive of reform undertaken by the Tsarist regime. Bideleux contradicting this interpretation says “Overall in 43 provinces of Eastern Russia