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Great Reforms (Russia)


great reforms timeline
emancipation of the serfs
other great reforms

Between 1861 and 1874, Alexander II, tsar of Russia (r. 1855–1881), decreed major reforms of Russia's social, judicial, educational, financial, administrative, and military systems. His program came to be known as the Great Reforms. These acts liberated roughly 40 percent of the population from bondage, created an independent judicial system, introduced self-governing councils in towns and rural areas, eased censorship, transformed military service, strengthened banking, and granted more autonomy to universities. Alexander II accomplished this program in a mere thirteen years with the assistance of his brother Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, reform-minded bureaucrats, and conservative state servitors who placed loyalty to the tsar above their policy preferences.

The Great Reforms introduced a period of rapid social and economic development that was unrivaled in Russian history, save for the rule of Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725). Several key principles shaped the reforms: liberation of peasants from centuries of personal bondage, legality as an antidote to arbitrariness and caprice in judicial and administrative systems, greater openness (glasnost) in official and civil affairs, and civic engagement of all members of society. The overall goals were to accelerate economic development and restore Russia's military dominance as a Great Power after its sobering defeat in the Crimean War (1853–1856). That defeat forced recognition that Russia's bonded and illiterate soldiers, with their outdated weapons and tactics, were no match for the soldiers western European powers put in the field with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution behind them.

great reforms timeline

1855: Alexander II becomes tsar of the Russian

Empire 1856: Russia concedes defeat in the Crimean War

1861: Emancipation of proprietary/seigniorial serfs and establishment of volost courts

1862: State Treasury created; state budget hence forth published

1863: Emancipation of appanage peasants; univer sity statute; abolition of dehumanizing corporal punishments in military

1864: Zemstvo statute; judicial reform

1865: Temporary regulations on censorship

1866: Emancipation of state peasants; creation of State Bank

1874: Universal military service statute


Historians have long debated the causes for the Great Reforms. Marxist historians of the former Soviet Union identified economic crisis in the serf economy and increasing peasant disorders before 1861 as proofs of the "crisis of feudalism" and the rising political consciousness of the working masses. Other late Soviet historians, such as Peter A. Zaionchkovsky and V. A. Fedorov, and most Western scholars argued that the serf economy was not in decline, although it had little potential for dynamic growth, and that the "rebellions" were rarely mass actions, but often individual acts of passive resistance. Intellectual historians have pointed to the rise of abolitionist and reform sentiments among critics of serfdom and state corruption. The first criticisms dated to the late eighteenth century, when such works as Alexander Radishchev's A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790) appeared, pointing not only to serfdom's abuses but also judicial and administrative corruption. Such writers as Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) and painters as Alexei Venetsianov (1780–1847) also depicted Russia's bonded peasants in a sympathetic light, stressing their human dignity. Defeat in the Crimean War, however, proved decisive in moving Alexander II and such leading figures as Peter Valuev, minister of the interior, to initiate fundamental changes.

emancipation of the serfs

The cornerstone of the Great Reforms was the emancipation of Russia's peasants. They fell into three groups. The proprietary or seigniorial serfs were the property of individual landowners and lived in conditions of virtual slavery; Alexander II proclaimed their liberation from personal bondage on 3 March (19 February, old style) 1861. The appanage peasants lived on the personal properties of the Romanov family; Alexander II granted them personal freedom in 1863. They received land allotments in 1863 and were placed on forty-nine-year redemption payments in 1865. The state peasants lived on state lands under state administrators; they received freedom in 1866.

The core "freedom" the peasants received was the elimination of the personal, arbitrary, and capricious power of their noble and state masters. Members of the noble landowning estate and the tsar's agents could no longer buy and sell peasants, mortgage them for cash, order their daily labors, determine whom and when they married, move them from one estate to another, break up families, beat them, claim sexual rights over them, exile them to Siberia, impose both police and judicial authority over them, demand that they gather forest products such as berries for their masters' larders, or decide who would enter military service for virtually their entire adult lives.

The emancipation legislation involved a land reform that transferred as much as half of the nobility's land to the peasants. The reformers tried to design this transfer so that it would not cause dangerous instability in the countryside. They also tried to soften the economic blows to the nobility and to guarantee that peasants would continue to produce crops and pay their taxes. These aims led to restrictions on the peasants and opportunities for economic coercion for the gentry; the peasants' freedom was thus ambiguous.

Except for household serfs and those peasants who chose to accept a free "pauper's allotment" of one-quarter the size of other allotments, emancipated peasants received land for which they had to pay the state redemption payments scheduled for forty-nine years. Land went not to individual peasants, but to officially constituted communes, whose peasant leaders oversaw land distribution and took on some of the functions (e.g., collecting taxes) that serf owners had formerly executed. The legislation prohibited emancipated peasants from leaving their designated communes for nine years; after 1870, they could leave, but only with the approval of the commune's leadership.

Many peasants were disappointed not to receive land freely, and most former serfs received less land than they had cultivated before the emancipation. Their land usually did not include critical forest, meadows, or access to waterways. Most land transfer settlements inflated land prices, and thus redemption payments. Former state peasants generally received more land than they had previously cultivated. Many former serfs subsequently had to enter into extortionate agreements with their former masters, rendering labor in exchange for access to the lord's forest, to water sources, and to meadows.

Despite peasants' frustrations and protests, land shortages, and failures to meet their tax and redemption payment obligations, two facts point to the emancipation's positive impact: the population of the Russian Empire, which was more than 80 percent peasant, exploded in the post-emancipation years in demographic testimony to the improving health of the liberated peasantry, especially children; and peasants began to buy more land from the nobility in the succeeding decades. By 1905 peasants had purchased over 25 million hectares (62 million acres) of land.

The reformers included a specifically peasant court (the volost or township court) in the emancipation legislation to free peasants from their former masters' judicial tyranny, while providing a hybrid judicial institution that instructed peasants in the law. The courts had peasant judges who decided petty civil disputes according to customary law, while referring to the state code of laws (with the assistance of a literate clerk) to ensure that their decisions did not violate statutory law. The township courts underwent reform and expansion in 1889 and survived until the end of the imperial era. By 1900, hundreds of thousands of peasants were taking their disputes to these courts each year, making knowledgeable use of the court's procedures.

other great reforms

Progress toward the rule of law, publicity or transparency of judicial proceedings, and civic engagement also characterized the judicial reform of 1864. This reform established an independent judiciary, introduced trial by jury for criminal cases, opened court sessions to the public, and established justices of the peace. Peasants were included among those eligible to serve as jurors, and the publicity of court sessions enabled journalists to report on cases. Court records reveal that most juries had peasant majorities, because members of the nobility tried to avoid burdensome jury duty. Justices of the peace existed in rural areas until 1889 and in cities until 1917. They also attracted hundreds of thousands of cases by the turn of the century.

The zemstvo reform of 1864 addressed the need for new systems of local administration. Serf owners and state administrators had been largely responsible for overseeing public works and welfare. True to the reform principle of public engagement, the reformers designed local district and provincial councils, the zemstvos, with locally elected delegates from peasant communes, the ranks of landowners, and towns. The councils were made responsible for economic and social welfare of their region. These organs of local self-governance proved successful in public health programs, elementary education, fire insurance, and statistical bureaus. They also became a crucible of Russian liberalism, because zemstvo employees developed confidence in their living knowledge of rural Russia's needs. The zemstvos ultimately proved fertile ground for opposition to the tsarist regime. A municipal reform of 1870 established town councils, similar to the zemstvos, which were even more successful.

Two additional reforms of the 1860s supported higher education and expanded freedom of the press: the University Statute of 1863 and new "temporary" regulations on censorship in 1865. The guiding figure in the university reform was A. V. Golovnin, the minister of education from 1861 to 1866. The new statute took shape against the backdrop of increasing student activism. Despite their refusal to grant students more rights, the reformers granted university professors considerable autonomy over curriculum, hiring and promotion, and internal university judicial proceedings. The state also increased the universities' budgets and provided scholarships for graduate students and scholars to study abroad. Other educational reforms opened secondary education to any student who could pass the entrance exams, regardless of social estate. The University Statute did not open universities to matriculation by female students.

The increasing numbers of educated Russians had more to read after the government eased censorship in 1865. A rapidly expanding number of journals and newspapers resulted, from serious political and literary endeavors to sensationalist papers that specialized in gruesome crimes and scandal. The "temporary" regulations lasted into the twentieth century.

The Great Reforms also addressed economic development and the military directly through banking measures and the military reform of 1874. Under the leadership of Mikhail Reitern, the minister of finance, the state established the State Bank. During the 1860s it also began to publish the annual budget (a further embodiment of the principle of transparency), centralized state finances in the newly formed State Treasury, and supported commercial banking through subsidies to encourage investment. The policy worked: sixty commercial banks opened in Russia between 1864 and 1874; they helped finance Russia's subsequent industrial development.

The military reform of 1874 was the last Great Reform. Dmitri Milyutin, the minister of war from 1861 to 1881, spearheaded reforms in the army, while Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich did so for the navy. Milyutin oversaw the elimination of class-based service (peasants serving under noble officers), overcentralized military administration, antiquated weapons, and tactics that favored parade-ground precision over agile fighting skills. In 1863 he persuaded Alexander II to abolish dehumanizing corporal punishments that had characterized military service. Over the next ten years, Milyutin reduced service from twenty-five years to fifteen, revised officers' education, brought military judicial procedures into line with the 1864 judicial reform, improved provisions for soldiers, created military districts in the empire to decentralize administration, sponsored open debate through military journals, and developed programs to provide basic literacy to peasant soldiers. The percentage of literate soldiers rose from under 10 percent to 50 percent by the end of the 1860s. On 13 January (1 January, old style) 1874 Alexander II announced Milyutin's most dramatic reform: a universal military service statute, which required every male citizen to serve for up to fifteen years on active and reserve duty in what thus became a citizen army, rather than one based on class. The higher the recruit's education, the lower was his term of active service.


As a consequence of the Great Reforms, the nobility lost two key defining features of their status: ownership of other human beings who provided them free labor and freedom from military service. As the zemstvos and reformed courts took root, landowning gentry also lost their dominant roles in rural life, even finding that their former serfs could sit in judgment over them in jury trials. Emancipated peasants, however frustrated by the terms of the land reform, took advantage of the courts and zemstvos to pursue their interests and engage in public life. Many became landowners themselves. Expanded educational opportunities through zemstvo schools, universities and institutes, and military service increased literacy among the peasantry and stimulated the growth of professions among the other social estates. The Russian Empire continued to be a predominantly agricultural, illiterate, and rural society (over 80 percent of the population still lived in the countryside in 1897), but state-sponsored industrialization and urbanization provided opportunities for all layers of society. By 1913 the Russian Empire was in the top tier of world economies.

The Great Reforms, however, did not alter the political structure of the empire. The Russian tsar remained an autocrat, above the law and without any formal constraints on his personal will. The tension between the social and economic transformations the Great Reforms introduced and the persistent patriarchal paternalism of the autocratic system worsened after 1881 when radical populists assassinated Alexander II, the "Tsar Liberator." Ultimately, Russian citizens as heirs to the Great Reforms would reject their tsar's continued treatment of them as dependent children in need of paternal direction.

See alsoAlexander II; Russia; Serfs, Emancipation of.


Primary Sources

Frierson, Cathy A., ed. and trans. Aleksandr Nikolaevich Engelgardt's Letters from the Country, 1872–1887. New York and Oxford, U.K., 1993. Most influential eyewitness account of rural relations in the countryside in the first two decades after emancipation.

Secondary Sources

Burbank, Jane. Russian Peasants Go to Court: Legal Culture in the Countryside, 1905–1917. Bloomington, Ind., 2004. Definitive study of township courts in late imperial era.

Eklof, Ben. Russian Peasant Schools: Officialdom, Village Culture, and Popular Pedagogy, 1861–1914. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986. Definitive account of zemstvo educational programs.

Eklof, Ben, John Bushnell, and Larissa Zakharova, eds. Russia's Great Reforms, 1855–1881. Bloomington, Ind., 1994. Anthology of articles by Russian, American, and British scholars.

Emmons, Terence. The Russian Landed Gentry and the Peasant Emancipation of 1861. London, 1968.

Emmons, Terence, and Wayne S. Vucinich, eds. The Zemstvo in Russia: An Experiment in Local Self-Government. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Anthology of articles on various zemstvo programs.

Field, Daniel. The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 1855–1861. Cambridge, Mass., 1976.

Frieden, Nancy Mandelker. Russian Physicians in an Era of Reform and Revolution, 1856–1905. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Definitive study of zemstvo public health programs.

Frierson, Cathy A. "All Russia Is Burning!" A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia. Seattle, Wash., 2002. Includes chapters on zemstvo fire insurance and village planning programs.

Hoch, Steven L. "On Good Numbers and Bad: Malthus, Population Trends, and Peasant Standard of Living in Late Imperial Russia." Slavic Review 53, no. 1 (1994): 41–75.

Kucherov, Samuel. Courts, Lawyers, and Trials under the Last Three Tsars. New York, 1953.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia. DeKalb, Ill., 1990. Excellent study of origins, details, and impact of the reforms.

Moon, David. The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1762–1907. London, 2001.

Worobec, Christine D. Peasant Russia: Family and Community in the Post-emancipation Period. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Wortman, Richard S. The Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness. Chicago, 1976.

Zaionchkovsky, Peter A. The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia. Edited and translated by Susan Wobst. Gulf Breeze, Fla., 1978. The premier late Soviet study of emancipation.

Cathy A. Frierson

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