The Counterreforms of the 1880s and 1890s refer to the body of domestic policies adopted under Tsar Alexander III as an ideological response and reaction to the transformations of the earlier Great Reforms undertaken by so-called "enlightened" bureaucrats with the tacit approval of the assassinated Tsar Alexander II. They were also a response to radicalism growing out of the reform milieu. The conservatives believed the Empire was threatened. Whereas the Great Reforms of the period 1855–1881 in the broadest sense intended to renovate the body politic and instill new principles of self-government, rule of law, citizenship, and even to introduce at the very end a veiled form of elite representation in the legislative process, the counterreforms of the new Tsar and his conservative advisers within and outside the bureaucracy aimed to reverse such changes and to reassert traditional autocracy and nationhood and the more manageable and corporatist society organized by legal estates. Immediately after Alexander II's assassination in March 1881, the new government moved quickly to remove Loris-Melikov and remaining reformers from the government. On April 29, 1881, the Tsar declared that Russia would always remain an autocracy. The reform era was over.
The counterreforms were ushered in by the laws on state order and the pacification of society of August 14, 1881. These laws, sponsored by Minister of Internal Affairs, N. P. Ignat'ev, provided for two types of martial law (condition of safeguard and extraordinary safeguard) that gave the police and administration enhanced powers above and beyond those residing in the new judicial system. These decrees remained in force until just days before the February Revolution of 1917. On August 27, 1882, the government introduced "temporary rules on the press," which gave more censorship power to the administration. Minister of Internal Affairs D. A. Tolstoy then introduced a new University Statute on August 23, 1884. This effectively repealed university corporate autonomy and bureaucratized the administration of higher education. It also placed limits on higher education for women. Finally a cluster of three major acts placed new administrative restrictions on the institutions of self-government, the zemstvos and town dumas. These laws of June 12, 1890 (zemstvo) and June 11, 1892 (town duma) changed the electoral laws to favor the gentry in the case of the zemstvos and large property owners in the cities. Many recent voters in town and countryside alike were disenfranchised. In addition new bureaucratic instances were established to shore up administrative control over self-government. This would call forth opposition in the form of a zemstvo movement that would be instrumental in the 1905 Revolution. Perhaps most symbolic of all the counterreforms was the notorious act of July 12, 1889 that created the Land Captains (zemskie nachal'niki ). These were appointed government officials in the countryside who combined administrative, police, and judicial authority. The aim was once again administrative control, this time over the relatively new peasant institutions and indeed over peasant life in the broadest sense. Control rather than building a new society from the grassroots was the central point of these counterreforms. The counterreforms and their supporting ideology extended into the reign of Nicholas II, making it that much more difficult for the regime to solve its social and political problems. They in fact made revolution more likely. The counterreforms co-existed uneasily with more forward-looking economic policies even during the reign of Alexander III.
See also: alexander iii, nicholas ii