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Alexander III (1881-94)

In 1881 revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. The man who now ascended the throne of Russia was in the full flush of magnificent manhood. Alexander III (r. 1881-94), son of Alexander II, was thirty-six years of age, and of powerful physique. His education had been chiefly military. He was a man of firm and resolute rather than large or active mind. He was profoundly religious, and had a deep sense of his responsibility.The assassination of Alexander II. by the terrorists made a profound impression on his son and successor, and determined the general character of his rule.

Peace was the unspeakable blessing which it lay in his hands to bestow on millions of his fellow creatures. That he did bestow it upon them, not without effort and sacrifice on his own part, was his high and his enduring praise. Whether his policy towards his own subjects was as beneficent as his policy in foreign affairs is a different matter. Whatever its fruits, for good or evil, at least it was inspired by the same lofty motives and pursued with the same unflinching sense of duty.

His manifest belief was that the whole art of government was to go plodding along. He was not a great reformer, still less was he an enemy of reform. He took his crushing burden as he received it, selected the best men he could find for the labors of administration, and then left the huge machine of State to grind out as much happiness for the people, and prosperity for Russia, as it was in its nature to produce. Every part of it performed its allotted task without any thought on his part of structural alterations. In so far as the Czar gave any personal bias to the work, it was only to accentuate its character of a government of Russia by the Russians. He was intensely patriotic in this sense.

It shortly became clear that he possessed a strong, inflexible character, that he was a thorough believer in absolutism, and was determined to maintain it undiminished. Alexander III, who had never sympathized with liberalism in any form, entered frankly on a reactionary policy, which was pursued consistently during the whole of his reign. He could not, of course, undo the great reforms of his predecessor, but he amended them in such a way as to counteract what he considered the exaggerations of liberalism.

Alexander III was not well educated, and entertained no sympathy with the culture of western Europe. In his narrow but pertinacious way he sought throughout his reign to correct what he considered the too liberal tendencies of his father. In his opinion, Russia was to be saved from revolution and anarchy, not by parliamentary institutions, such as obtained in Great Britain and France, but by great principles indigenous to Russia and the natural pride of every Russian patriot: autocracy, Slavic nationalism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Strenuously the new tsar maintained autocracy. Vigorously he pushed the process of "Russification" — exalting the influence of the Slavic race and of the Orthodox religion. Devoted to these policies, he was hardly aware of yet another and an unofficial force that was transforming his country General during his reign, — the introduction into Russia, on a character- large scale, of the Industrial Revolution, the building of railways, the saving of capital, the shift of population from country to town, and the growth of a middle class and of a working class that jointly would do in time for Russia what earlier Nihilists and Socialists and Terrorists had aspired most vainly to do — temper Russian autocracy with Western Liberalism. These three things, then, — maintenance of autocracy, "Russification," and the Industrial Revolution in Russia, — are the great landmarks of the reign of Alexander III.

Alexander III was a typical Czar, without any special talents, blindly devoted to reaction, absolutism, and the narrowest conception of the Church, surrounded by dull and servile flatterers and leading the narrowest personal life, absorbed in trivialities and drink. His most influential adviser was his former tutor, Pobyedonostseff, later for many years Procurator of the Holy Synod, a man who abhorred the liberal ideas of western Europe, and who insisted that Russia must preserve her own native institutions untainted, must follow without deviation her own historic tendency, which he conceived in a strictly nationalistic sense. The orthodoxy of the Greek Church, the absolutism of the monarch, were the fundamental tenets of his belief, no coquetting with western ideas of representative government and religious and intellectual freedom.

Konstantine Pobedonostsev (1827-1907) had studied law at Petrograd, had risen slowly from one rung to another on the ladder of public service, had been professor of civil law in the university of Moscow, had tutored the sons of Alexander II in the theory of jurisprudence and administration, and had been rewarded in 1880 by appointment to the responsible and lucrative post of secular chairman of the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church ("Procurator of the Holy Synod"). This man, who had tremendous influence on Alexander III, developed a veritable philosophy of reaction. In speech and publication he was always insisting that the newer political and social institutions of western Europe were radically bad in themselves and totally inapplicable to Russia. To him parliaments were nothing but breedingplaces of the most selfish and sordid ambitions; newspapers existed primarily to disseminate falsehood; secular education was both dangerous and immoral; limited monarchy was a "vain fancy," and trial by jury was simply a means of practicing the "arts of casuistry." Pobedonostsev had a few choice words to say about liberal democracy and the free press. "In theory, the elected candidate must be the favorite of the majority; in fact, he is the favorite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting." Pobedonostsev was sceptical of the value of a free press. "The press is one of the falsest institutions of our time. ... The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great majority of readers ... is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured for any editor who provider for the satisfaction of these hankerings." As Pobedonostsev pointed out, "The journalist ... derives his authority from no election, he receives support from no one. His newspaper becomes an authority in the State, and for this authority no endorsement is required. ... How often have superficial and unscrupulous journalists paved the way for revolution, fomented irritation into enmity, and brought about desolate wars! ... It is hard to imagine a despotism more irresponsible and violent than the despotism of printed words." "If all representatives of the people were saints," wrote the reactionary philosopher, "a parliamentary regime would be the very best kind of all; but as popular representatives are usually of a more than doubtful morality, a parliamentary regime is the worst." To the Western novelties which he condemned, Pobedonostsev found a counterpoise in the respect of the masses for institutions developed slowly and automatically during the past centuries of national life. For Russia, therefore, he believed that the chief function of government was to preserve he autocracy and to foster among the people traditional veneration for the offices of the national Orthodox Church. Alexander III initiated a period of political reaction, which intensified a counter-reform movement that had begun in 1866. In a short time the great reforms of Alexander II were largely undone. The peasants were put back under the control of the local upper classes as much as possible. In 1886 it was decreed that breach of contract by a Russian laborer should be a criminal offence, thus binding the lower classes with stricter economic control. More important still, in 1889 the local elected magistrates were replaced by officials known as Land Captains, to be appointed by the provincial governor from among the upper classes of the neighborhood, and they were given not only judicial but also administrative functions, so that they had practically unlimited authority over the peasants, ruling them at the behest of the central government. In this way the administration of justice sank back into the evil state of a generation before. About the same time the character of the zemsivos, or provincial assemblies, and the dumas, or councils of the cities, was changed, by increasing the representation of the upper classes and diminishing that of the lower, and then taking from the assemblies thus altered much of their power.

He strengthened the security police, reorganizing it into an agency known as the Okhrana, gave it extraordinary powers, and placed it under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Dmitriy Tolstoy, Alexander's minister of internal affairs, instituted the use of land captains, who were noble overseers of districts, and he restricted the power of the zemstva and the duma. Alexander III assigned his former tutor, the reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev, to be the procurator of the Holy Synod and Ivan Delyanov to be the minister of education. In their attempts to "save" Russia from "modernism," they revived religious censorship, persecuted non-Orthodox and non-Russian populations, fostered anti-Semitism, and suppressed the autonomy of the universities. Their attacks on liberal and non-Russian elements alienated large segments of the population. The nationalities, particularly Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, reacted to the regime's efforts to Russify them by intensifying their own nationalism. Secret organizations and political movements continued to develop despite the regime's efforts to quell them.

Under the sway of his own instincts and his indignation at the insolent demand of the Nihilists that the murderers of his father be not punished as they were merely "executors of a hard civic duty" ; influenced, too, no doubt, by the general horror which that event inspired, and the warm evidences of loyalty which it called forth, Alexander assumed an attitude of defiant hostility to innovators and liberals. His reign, which lasted from 1881 to 1894, was one of reversion to the older ideals of government and of unqualified absolutism. The terrorists were hunted down, and their attempts practically ceased. The press was thoroughly gagged, university professors and students were watched, suspended, exiled, as the case might be. The reforms of Alexander II were in part undone, the zemstvos particularly being more and more restricted, and the secret police, the terrible Third Section, being greatly augmented. Liberals gave up all hope of any improvement during this reign, and waited for better days.

Local self-government in the village communes, the rural districts and the towns was carefully restricted, and placed to a greater extent under the control of the regular officials. The reformers of the previous reign had endeavored to make the emancipated peasantry administratively and economically independent of the landed proprietors; the conservatives of this later era, proceeding on the assumption that the peasants did not know how to make a proper use of the liberty prematurely conferred upon them, endeavored to re-establish the influence of the landed proprietors by appointing from among them "land-chiefs," who were to exercise over the peasants of their district a certain amount of patriarchal jurisdiction. The reformers of the previous reign had sought to make the new local administration a system of genuine rural self-government and a basis for future parliamentary institutions; these later conservatives transformed it into a mere branch of the ordinary state administration, and took precautions against its ever assuming a political character. Even municipal institutions, which had never shown much vitality, were subjected to similar restrictions. In short, the various forms of local self-government, which were intended to raise the nation gradually to the higher political level of western Europe, were condemned as unsuited to the national character and traditions, and as productive of disorder and demoralization. They were accordingly replaced in great measure by the old autocratic methods of administration, and much of the administrative corruption which had been cured, or at least repressed, by the reform enthusiasm again flourished luxuriantly.

In a small but influential section of the educated classes there was a conviction that the revolutionary tendencies, which culminated in Nihilism and Anarchism, proceeded from the adoption of cosmopolitan rather than national principles in all spheres of educational and administrative activity, and that the best remedy for the evils from which the country was suffering was to be found in a return to the three great principles of Nationality, Orthodoxy and Autocracy. This doctrine, which had been invented by the Slavophils of a previous generation, was early instilled into the mind of Alexander III by Pobédonostsev, who was one of his teachers, and later his most trusted adviser, and its influence can be traced in all the more important acts of the government during that monarch's reign. His determination to maintain autocracy was officially proclaimed a few days after his accession. Nationality end Eastern Orthodoxy, which are so closely connected as to be almost blended together in the Russian mind, received not less attention.

Complete Russification of all non-Russian populations and institutions was the chief aim of the government in home affairs. Even in European Russia the regions near the frontier contain a great variety of nationalities, languages and religions. In Finland the population is composed of Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking Protestants; the Baltic provinces are inhabited by German-speaking, Lettspeaking and Esth-speaking Lutherans; the inhabitants of the south-western provinces arc chiefly Polish-speaking Roman Catholics and Yiddish-speaking Jews; in the Crimea and on the Middle Volga there are a considerable number of Tatarspeaking Mahommedans ; and in the Caucasus there is a conglomeration of races and languages such as is to be found on no other portion of the earth's surface. Until recent times these various nationalities were allowed to retain unmolested the language, religion and peculiar local administratÍod of their ancestors; but when the new nationality doctrine came into fashion, attempts were made to spread among them the language, religion and administrative institutions of the dominant race. In the reigns of Nicholas I. and Alexander II. these attempts were merely occasional and intermittent; under Alexander III they were made systematically and with very little consideration for the feelings, wishes and interests of the people concerned.

The local institutions were assimilated to those of the purely Russian provinces; the use of the Russian language was made obligatory in the administration, in the tribunals and to some extent in the schools; the spread of Eastern Orthodoxy was encouraged by the authorities, whilst the other confessions were placed under severe restrictions; foreigners were prohibited from possessing landed property; and in some provinces administrative measures were taken for making the land pass into the bands of Orthodox Russians. In this process some of the local officials displayed probably an amount of zeal beyond the intentions of the government, but any attempt to oppose the movement was rigorously punished.

Of all the various races the Jews were the most severely treated. Under Alexander III began the persecutions of the Jews. The chief home of the Jews in the late 19th Century was Russia. Out of about eight and a half million Jews in Europe, over five million lived in that country. The Russian Jews had long been restricted to Poland and to the contiguous provinces of Lithuania, called the Pale of Settlement, formerly a part of Poland. The great majority of them had long been confined to the western and south-western provinces. In the rest of the country they had not been allowed to reside in the villages, because their habits of keeping vodka-shops and lending money at usurious interest were found to demoralize the peasantry, and even in the towns their numbers and occupations had been restricted by the authorities. But, partly from the usual laxity of the administration and partly from the readiness of the Jews to conciliate the needy officials, the rules had been by no means strictly applied. As soon as this fact became known to Alexander III he ordered the rules to be strictly carried out, without considering what an enormous amount of hardship and suffering such an order entailed. He also caused new rules to be enacted by which his Jewish subjects were heavily handicapped in education and professional advancement.

The Tsar believing in a policy of Russification of all the varied elements and races of the Empire, looked with disfavor upon a people which held fast its own religion and spoke its own language and maintained its own customs. Under Alexander II the restrictions upon Jewish residence had not been rigorously enforced, and many were living outside the Jewish Territory. These were now ordered back, although suffering and hardship were the inevitable result. Anti-Jewish riots broke out in many places, costing many lives. The Government gave but slight protection; indeed, in many cases the officials appeared to encourage the outbreaks, so popular was Jew-baiting. To keep Jews out of the liberal professions decrees were issued limiting the number of Jews who might attend the secondary schools and universities-to from three to ten per cent. of the total enrollment according to the region, even though in some of these districts they formed a third or a half of the population. Utterly miserable and insecure, tens of Jewish thousands left the country. The great Jewish emigration emigration to the United States dates from this time.

In Russia the autocracy of Alexander III was maintained at a fearful sacrifice of national well-being. No matter how upright and benevolent the autocrat personally might be, he himself could not know first-hand all the needs of his hundred million subjects, nor could he alone execute his manifold decrees throughout the length and breadth of his enormous domain. In all these matters he had to trust to the honor and honesty of his chief ministers and of a vast hierarchy of lesser officials, military, financial, judicial, and administrative. Even a tsar of genius could not be proof against the incompetence or the corruption of a taxcollector, a judge, a police agent, or a distant governor. And Alexander III was not a genius.

Then, too, in a country where wealthy nobles were accustomed to exercise political control over large numbers of poor and ignorant peasants, where a powerful military clique were in the habit of dominating the rank and file of a numerous army, where the ordinary officials both in church and in state were traditionally arrogant and thoroughly imbued with a notion of their irresponsibility save to a far-above and far-away master whom they seldom or never beheld, in such a country negligence in administration and dishonesty in financial transactions were bound to flourish. Alexander III's policy of repression only exaggerated the evils of Russian autocracy. The officials became more and more sycophantic; the wider their fields of activity, the narrower grew their vision. As in France before the Great Revolution, incompetence promoted corruption, and corruption fostered incompetence. And the bulk of the Russian people, though dumb under oppression, suffered miserably.

Under the system of protection adopted by Alexander II, and continued and increased by Alexander III, industries of a modern kind began to grow up. A tremendous impetus was given to this development by the appointment in 1892 as Minister of Finance and Commerce of Sergius de Witte, one of the most salient personalities in recent Russian history. Witte believed that Russia, the largest and most populous country in Europe, a world in itself, ought to be self-sufficient, that as long as it remained chiefly agricultural it would be tributary to the industrial nations for manufactured articles. But that the process of building up the nation's industries might be rapid, it was essential that a large amount of capital should be invested at once in the various industries, and this capital Russia did not possess. One of the cardinal features of Witte's policy was to induce foreign capitalists to invest in Russian factories and mines. All this created a considerable body of rich "industrials" of the middle class, of capitalists, in short, a rich bourgeoisie which would not permanently be content with entire exclusion from political power or with obsolete, narrow, illiberal forms of government.

On 01 November 1894 Alexander III died, and was succeeded by his son, Nicholas II, who, partly from similarity of character and partly from veneration for his father's memory, continued the existing lines of policy in home and foreign affairs.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2019 10:16:51 ZULU