Jul 23, 2007

Book Review: Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, 1801-1881

Alexander I of Russia, Александр I ПавловичSaunders, David
London: Longman, 1992, 386 pages

Russian Tsar Alexander I

David Saunders is a Professor of Russian history at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform reflects the author’s lengthy interest in the history of the Russian Empire. The period in question, argued Saunders, is less attractive to historians due to its lack of a “linear theme,” and he also suggested that Soviet-era scholars faced political pressure to avoid researching the idea that Romanov rulers ever sought practical solutions to the social and political problems of the Empire. Saunders also noted that he toyed with the idea of titling the book with the phrase “Reform, Reaction, and Reform” to illustrate the pendulum-like swings of political activity in Russia during the nineteenth century.

After a brief discussion of the legacies of the reigns of Catherine II and Paul I, Saunders began his analysis of the reign of Alexander I. In general Saunders mirrored traditional accounts of the “enigmatic Tsar,” illustrating the contradictions inherent in a liberal-minded monarch who also exhibited reactionary streaks. The author attributed Alexander’s inability to achieve substantial social and political reforms to the “sheer complexity of the social problems facing” the Russian monarch.

One of the factors cited by Saunders for the political stagnation of Alexander was the instability in a nation with a history of palace coups and assassinations, and the Tsar had only look at the fate of his own father to see how quickly political winds might change in St. Petersburg. Moreover, argued the author, Alexander came to the throne during the ascendancy of Napoleon, and this fact caused the Russian tsar to focus much of his time and energy on military matters. Finally, an important consideration in the evaluation of Alexander’s accomplishments, argued Saunders, was the relative backwardness of Russia in 1801. The Russian state, despite its historical reputation for an imperious bureaucracy, contained less than one-third as many civil servants as Prussia per capita. By 1800 only 70,00 students were receiving education in primary schools, and at best literacy rates in 1797 among Russians ten and over was slightly under seven percent of the entire population.

Alexander’s reign, though, should not be viewed as an abject failure simply because sweeping reforms never occurred, maintained Saunders. The author lauded Alexander’s four-tier education system in 1803-1804, especially in the “devolution” of power to local educational authorities. Alexander’s Free Agriculturalists Law of February 1803, which granted serfs the right to buy their freedom and to purchase land, while only benefiting some 47,000 serfs, nonetheless gave weight to the precedent that emancipated serfs needed land to survive. While Russia suffered considerable military setbacks during the Napoleonic campaigns, Saunders noted that Alexander nonetheless eventually triumphed over the French emperor, and he argued that Russian authority in 1815 “was so great that they could have imposed their blueprint for the post-war world on their allies.” Finally, while the constitutional reforms for Russia pondered by Alexander were not enacted, Saunders argued that Alexander gave momentum to the idea that there should be legal limits placed on Russian absolutism.

Portrait of the Decembrist revolt, 14 December 1825Portrait of the Decembrist revolt, 14 December 1825

The Decembrist uprising of 1825 provided Saunders material for an intriguing look at the transition from the reign of Alexander to Nicholas I. The author assigned some of the blame for the failed revolt in part on Alexander, both for his failure to make public the manifesto transferring succession rights from Konstantin to Nicholas as well as to the late tsar’s role in the “broadening of the country’s horizons and the growth of Russian self-confidence in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.” Alexander, argued Saunders, brought Russia fully into European affairs and promoted modernization and Western political traditions, but did not comprehend the level to which these actions would inspire domestic reformists and radicals.

Saunders argued that, while some historians have overstated the importance of the Decembrist revolt, the failed coup did bring lasting effects. Nicholas, noted the author, learned more about Russia in the months of investigations than other tsars had learned during the entirety of their reigns. Moreover, argued Saunders, the threat of revolution forced Nicholas to make some concessions, and the Decembrists brought into public view ideas that had largely remained below the surface of Russian politics. Finally, the Decembrists understood the directions in which Russia was moving, and their actions set an example for the “next generation of thinking Russians.”

Saunders took a somewhat contrarian position on the legacy of Nicholas II, whose reign has been roundly criticized by historians and contemporaries as repressive and belligerent:
Yet Nicholas was not a blind reactionary. Though hostile to dramatic change, he thought seriously about the country’s administrative and social structure. The energy he displayed at the beginning of his reign was far from wholly destructive. The investigation of the Decembrist uprising had positive as well as negative ends in view.
Nicholas, argued Saunders, showed a willingness to put order into Russian law, a subject in which his reformist predecessors had expressed interest. His acceptance of an 1846 statute for St. Petersburg became the basis for the general municipal reforms of Alexander II in 1870. Despite a historical legacy suggesting that Nicholas did little for the plight of the serfs, Saunders held that his reign saw some significant initiatives toward mollifying conditions for those in servitude; among the accomplishments of Nicholas I included an 1827-28 constraint on the right of the gentry to send serfs to Siberia, the 1834 reduction in serfs’ terms of military service from twenty-five to fifteen years, and 1845-46 regulations limiting the rights of the gentry to subject serfs to corporal punishment.

Russian Tsar Alexander IIRussian Tsar Alexander II

Similarly, Saunders seemed less than willing to accept the historical legacy of Tsar Alexander II as the Great Emancipator. The Russian tsar was a cautious conservative, argued the author, who only begrudgingly came to recognize that serf emancipation was the only way to avoid social upheaval, and if Alexander II was truly a radical reformer, he would have immediately freed the serfs in the midst of the domestic crises following Russian losses in the Crimean War. Pont by point, Saunders addressed the precursors to emancipation often cited as evidence that Alexander II fully intended to free the serfs from the day of his coronation:
His speech to the representatives of the Moscow gentry in 1856 was tame, his creation of a secret committee in 1857 was the traditional way to sweep calls for change under the carpet, the Nazimov Receipt envisaged a form of emancipation that would have severely damaged the peasantry, the relaxation of censorship in January 1858 was short-lived and the provincial tour of 1858 represented yet another futile attempt to persuade nobles to accept a measure they were bent on resisting.
Moreover, argued Saunders, the eventual terms of emancipation mitigated the positive social effects associated with the freeing of the serfs; the author pointed to high rents paid by the “temporarily” obligated peasants to the gentry, the 49-year peasant mortgages to the state, and the practice of “trimming” peasant landholdings as evidence of the lack of benevolent intentions toward the serfs among the Tsar and his advisors.

The author organized the text in a thematic fashion, while following a roughly chronological approach to the individual chapters. The material contains extensive endnotes for each chapter, and Saunders provided a cross-referenced index that is quite comprehensive for the period covered in the book. Illustrations are limited to a handful of maps and a family tree of the Romanovs, and clearly the author’s focus was on providing historical summaries and an introduction to the historiographical debates surrounding the themes of the individual chapters. Much of the source material for Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform is from document collections and secondary texts, though Saunders made use some primary archival sources in his research.

Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform is ideal for advanced non-specialists and informed general readers, but casual students without much background in Russian history might get lost in this book. Still, the book is to be recommended especially for its inclusion of an excellent chapter on nineteenth-century Russian intellectual history, as well as for the author’s ability to weave throughout the text thematic threads like the evolution of Russian attitudes toward serf emancipation.


Mad Jack said...

So have you finished the new Harry Potter book yet?

historymike said...

Oy vey!

I have yet to read even the first Harry Potter book, MadJack.