Compare and contrast Alexander II and Alexander III

7 July 2016

Although they were father and son, the reigns of Alexander II and Alexander III took off in completely different directions. Alexander II was committed to his empire by vowing to reform Russia, making it more in line with nineteenth-century western society. His son, on the other hand, was the unprepared tsar, whose actions were literally reactions to his father’s unexpected assassination. Consequently, Alexander II went down in history as much more productive in the field of domestic policy; in dealing with revolutionaries; and in his foreign policy than his son Alex III would ever be.

1855 was a tough time for Alexander II to take the throne. Russia was in the middle of a costly war which they were losing, liberals were pushing hard for reform, and nobles were in fear of losing their power. On the home front, people were looking for change, and Alexander was their best hope. In 1856, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, he gave a speech promising Russians a new era of peace.

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To the dismay of the nobles, Alexander also hinted towards the end of serfdom, saying that it was better “to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below.

” Having made multiple visits to gubernias, or provinces, he kept himself familiarized with domestic issues. Because of his many travels, he relied heavily on his advisers and used bureaucratic methods to solve enormous problems facing the nation such as emancipation, which he signed into law in 1861. Although the standard of living for peasants remained at a low, the abolishing of serfdom was a great step forward, as it let to other reforms, including the zemstva government, the opening of schools to all classes, and the easing of censorship.

After the assassination of Alexander II, the liberal ministers resigned, and conservatives took their posts. This, coupled with the shock of his father’s demise, influenced Alexander III, and he became stubborn and unimaginative. His reign became known as the “Era of Counter-Reforms,” as he tried his best to undo all the liberal reforms his father had put into place. Alexander III’s stance on domestic issues came as no surprise. As a youngster, he was tutored by Konstantin Pobodonestev, a conservative, forceful man who strongly opposed Western ideology.

Pobodonestev’s ideas and beliefs rubbed off on the young boy, and he blamed his father’s liberal-minded reforms as the cause for his murder. Seeking to strengthen the autocracy, he gave officials the power to declare a state of emergency, and to arrest or fine anyone unreliable. He also cleverly cut off schools by setting up discriminatory admission rules, against women, poor families, and the Jews. He then forced the expansion of Russian culture and language by forcing everyone in the nation to speak, write, and think in Russian; otherwise known as Russification.

Alexander III preferred having as much control as possible over his people, something he did not have in common with his father. Despite all the work Alexander II did toward reforming Russia, the “Era of Great Reforms” left one crucial aspect unaltered: the power of the emperor. The intentional neglect of this was what kept the reforms from realizing their true potential. This led to dissatisfaction, which encouraged repression, terror, and most importantly: revolution. The first was the Polish Rebellion, caused by the failure of Russian authorities to suppress Polish nationalism.

Although the Poles failed, other minorities sprung up for their voice to be heard. On April 2, 1879, a terrorist shot at but missed Tsar Alexander. These violent acts of terror split apart Russian radicals. People that approved of such actions formed an organization named the People’s Will. Those who opposed terror called themselves the Black Partition. Alexander II did little to suppress these groups, however, and eventually fell victim to members of the People’s Will, bleeding to his death on March 13, 1881. Because of the way his father was killed, Alexander III was very cautious when it came to revolutionaries.

He made it very clear to his government that he wanted to rid Russia of everyone associated with revolutionary views. Alexander abandoned the plans his father had of creating a constitution, and believed that only absolute autocracy could fight the revolution. Subsequently, repressing the revolutionaries became a recurring theme for Alexander III’s reign. The Treaty of Paris, which signified the ending of the Crimean War, was Alexander II’s first important foreign-policy act. The result of the treaty was unfortunate because Russia lost important territories, and the Black Sea became neutral territory.

This was a huge blow to Russian influence in that region. Russia then tried to turn things around, with the help of France. Alexander II met with Napoleon III multiple times to coordinate agreements. However, in 1863, the French emperor gave moral and diplomatic support to the Polish insurrection, which soured Franco-Russian relations. With the diplomatic assistance of Otto von Bismarck, war with France and Britain was avoided. Bismarck also helped Russia recover parts of what it lost from the Crimean War, however, Alexander was not yet content.

He tried to recover the remainder of his losses: the province of Bessarabia and the influence in Turkey, but this led to the Turkish War of 1877-78. Although the war ended in disappointment because it did not increase Russian prestige in the East, Alexander II was able to recover Bessarabia. Lastly, the Treaty of San Stephano, which extended Russian influence into the Balkans, was of little benefit. The other Great Powers urged Russia to modify it at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and as a result, Russia had less influence in the Balkans.

The foreign policy of Russia underwent some major changes directed by Alexander III. Relations with Germany began to fall through because the tsar was suspicious that Bismarck was plotting hostile designs against Russia. Hence, Russia sought an alliance with France, and wanted to create a counter- alliance against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy. However, his unsure feeling that France would not provide stability resulted in prolonged negotiations. It was not until 1895, after Alexander III’s death, that France and Russia were referred to as allies.

One could argue that both Alexander II and Alexander III did what they thought was the best for their nation. While Alexander II took to reform to modernize the country, his son based his reign solely on reactions to his father’s assassination, and carried out his policies with great caution. As a result of this, Alexander II fared better than his son in the critical areas of domestic policy, in dealing with revolutionaries, and in foreign policy. Unfortunately for both rulers, they could not imagine the eventual grand revolution that would later take place in Russia.

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