Great Reforms in the 1860s


Photograph of Alexander II

During the reign of Alexander II from 1855 to 1881, the state passed a series of reforms that covered the most basic areas of need in Russian society. The emancipation of serfdom occurred in 1861 which abolished the owning of peasants. The Emancipation document asserts that those freed have “personal and property rights” just as any free city dweller. They also received some land to provide for themselves from the landowner but in return the peasant had to pay them in either labor or money. Another document on state peasants declares that land was given to peasants according to utilization and must pay a state tax. The state also addressed the administration of the village community, defining the composition and duties of the village assembly and volost’ administration. In addition, there are statutes that reform the roles of local government and judicial institutions. The local government had a higher priority to focus on welfare and needs of the poor as well as other public institutions. Judicial reform defined their jurisdiction, specific roles, and their qualifications in order to be a member of a judicial institution.

The fact that peasants had to repay the landowner with work or money is incredibly similar to what they had to do before serfdom, called the obrok or barshchina. After the emancipations, owners still own all their land but peasants continued to rent the land the used. This is also similar to the “state obrok tax”, so not only did they have to pay the landowner but also the state in the form of taxes. We also see a similarity to other reforms by having the local governments focus on welfare, education, and public health. With these refors, Alexander II is trying to reinsert the reforms, some of which Catherine tried and failed to enact during her reign.

What is the purpose of reverting to the obrok system which was used before serfdom?

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


An Enlightened Monarch

Catherine establishes many new reforms for establishing the bureaucracy as well as containing the power of the nobility. With the military commanders set up by Peter the Great removed after his death, Catherine establishes a new system for governing the massive expansion of land that is Russia. She appoints the leaders for these provinces, so they are loyal to her and thereby she centralizes her power. What makes these reforms Enlightened however are the responsibilities she gives to these governors, as well as the fact that she is writing all of these, taking an active role in her governance. These administrations are expected to establish welfare systems, build bridges and roads for the people, as well as education, orphanages, and poor houses. ((Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 242)) It was not simply just a way for her to control Russia, but she reflects what Peter did in establishing things for the good of the Russian people, not only her own power. The Enlightenment ideals that clearly had a hold on Catherine’s mind are shown here as she seeks to educate her people, and take care of them but also the absolutist ideals of autocratic rule. The picture shown at the bottom demonstrates how Catherine wanted people to know that she was actively involved in the process of writing the law as well as enforcing it.

Catherine demonstrates a tremendous amount of skill by allowing the nobles to have a small amount of power and in return she stays on the throne. ((Kaiser 245)) Her vision of uniting Russia under her rule to become a more educated state, as well as one that took care of it’s people is shown in her law codes and charters. While she undoubtedly put many people in serfdom, she sees the majority of this going towards the glory of the state. By establishing schools and a welfare system throughout the country, she is making Petersburg closer to everyone through a more progressive way. This is truly enlightened as she realizes that Russia must move forward, but she also preserves many of the traditions as she knows her legitimacy is shaky.

How does her vision compare and contrast with the vision of Peter the Great?




Peter the Great’s top-down reforms

Peter the Great sought to create a nuanced hierarchy of the Russian population. This goal is evident in his system of ranks and orders, which outlines military grades and created a new basis for determining social status. The system represents Peter’s efforts for top-down modernization of his population: he believed that by catering to the needs of the elite classes and bringing them up to pace with Western Europe, he would create a class of leaders that would then bring change to the common and peasant classes. To borrow a term from the Reagan administration, Peter executed his reforms with the belief that an organized court, military, and bureaucracy would create a “trickle-down” effect of lawfulness and order among his whole population.

This “trickle down” system of modernization meant that Peter had to identify and differentiate between the members of the upper, middle, and lower classes of the population. In order to mobilize his administration, he also had to create a hierarchy of command and different grades of civil servants. The Table of Ranks explain the duties of each rank and create a pecking order within the army, navy, and civil sectors. Such a system ensures that each member of the state and political structures know their place within a larger system of governance, eliminating any reasonable grounds for challenging the authority of those with higher power.




Food for thought….Were Peter’s reforms more successful than Reaganomics?

Peter The Great

Peter the Great was a formidable leader, creating an era of heavy changes in Russia as it began to Westernize through his multiple reforms. However, the majority of his reforms tend to focus on social hierarchy and importance of having or obtaining a title for oneself. For example, the Table of Ranks “expressed new definitions of nobility and opened up new avenues of achieving it” ((Kaiser and Marker 228)) in order to suppress the boyars and other nobility from the previous years. Peter the Great desire to create different ways to either obtain nobility or move up the social ladder can be understood as a way to get rid of the old system set in place or as a way to implement western culture in Russian life through the notion of the class system.


Through the enforcement of the Table of Ranks, the chin system was set in place, a “system of rank ordering and niche assignment” ((Kaiser and Marker 232)) . This rank-ordering system created a competition within the people of Russia to try and be the closest to the tsar; the Table of Ranks made it clear how all offices were to interact with each other. Even more importantly, the Table of Ranks “indicated [the officer’s] proximity to the Emperor” (Kaiser and Marker 233). Peter the Great also created ways to give certain people positions higher up in the office, through “birth, time spent in office, or because of skills or actions valued by the Emperor” (Kaiser and Marker 234). Peter the Great’s reforms focused heavily on establishing a social hierarchy in order to continue Westernizing Russia.

CIA Intelligence Assessment: Rising Political Instability Under Gorbachev

3 Points:
  1. December 1988, Gorbachev delivered a “watershed” speech at the United Nations that demonstrated his growing liberalization efforts. All of these efforts would create a less intrusive force in the eastern bloc, as shown be attempts to decrease the military forces prevalent there and the amounts of armaments used.
  2. President Bush saw these as empty promises; pointing out how despite the perception that Gorbachev was creating opportunity for the people in the Soviet Union, their standards of living remain very low- similar to as they were under Stalin. He says that economic issues (he frequently describes it with the word “stagnate”) and political differences from what the people enjoyed under Brezhnev, has caused unrest within the people.
  3. Bush predicts that this unrest from the populous will cause a threat to Gorbachev’s control, and that “the next several years promise to be turbulent” because of the idea that there will be a split in leadership under Gorbachev between those that want to continue these reforms and those that do not.
2 Questions:
  1. Why did the Bush administration think that accepting Soviet reforms would “divide the US from its NATO allies” if they should also want a less aggressive military presence from the USSR?
  2. What was the Soviet response to this criticism of their leader and his liberalization efforts?
1 Observation:
  1. Even when presented with liberalization from the USSR, the United States and its NATO allies still appear to distrust the sincerity of it. The description notes that the Bush administration was divided on whether to accept these as genuine efforts or to question if this was simply a ploy to make the US more accepting of Soviet actions. After creating a “strategic review” of the foreign policy on this issue, it is evident that the US determined a cautious stance towards these actions, overall questioning the efforts of the USSR to alter its stances from the past.
Link to the specific section: