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Reforms, Civil Liberty and Nihilism: Czar and Reformer Alexander II (1818-1881) started to modernize Russia - and fell Victim to the troubled Times

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Terrorism isn’t a new invention. In the 2nd half of the 19th cent. political murder became a common tool. Anarchists attempted five times on czar Alexander’s II life, before the last assault cost his life. This podcast is telling the story.

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Russia. We are in the year 1881 A.D.

 

Few rulers have done more for the freedom and prosperity of their people than the Russian Czar Alexander II. Alexander was born in 1818. In 1855 he succeeded his father to the throne. It was a terrible time for Russia.

 

Russia had allowed itself to become involved in the Crimean War. It was fighting Great Britain and France on the Black Sea coast, who were supporting the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War revealed what the Russian elite had been claiming for some time: Russia was hopelessly underdeveloped. It had nothing with which to fight the industrialised great powers.

 

Alexander II got to work. In 1861 he issued a law that gave the serfs civil liberty. He modernised the education system and criminal law. He abolished corporal punishment and reformed the administration. And of course, Alexander II supported any companies who were ready to industrialise Russia.

 

They came readily, since the emancipation of the serfs had given them cheap labour. Many former serfs moved from their villages to the cities and looked for other, better paid, work. But a new misery replaced the old one.

 

Many people lost their roots. In the city there was no protective village community which could help in the worst emergencies. Hunger, cold, illness, those who weren't among the economic winners lived on the bread line. Many idealistic people were appalled at the consequences of the emancipation of the serfs. They blamed the state, a state that only supported the rich and the powerful.

 

Authority, that seemed to be the big problem. No Russian government had ever given its writers and thinkers so much freedom. This is why such a large resistance movement was able to develop. Its members were soon named Nihilists, after a novel by Ivan Turgenev.

He wrote about these people: a Nihilist is a person who does not bow to any authority, does not accept any principle on faith however prevalent that principle may be.

 

Most Nihilists vehemently opposed violent change. But of course there were also extremists amongst them.

 

The first assassination attempt on the czars occurred on 4th April 1866. A Russian student aimed a weapon at the czars to shoot. But a peasant who happened to be approaching, knocked the weapon out of his hand. The Czar was uninjured. But it had broken his will to reform. Alexander stopped looking for reconciliation again. He alienated himself from his people.

 

The second assassination attempt took place in Paris. Again the Csar was uninjured, unlike many officials and dignitaries in Russia. A wave of terrorism battered St. Petersburg and Moscow, which cost a vast number of lives.

 

But the Csar was also still being targeted. He survived another two assassination attempts. The fifth was the last, it cost him his life.

 

Of course this did not improve anything. Alexander II was succeeded by his son Alexander III. He vowed to destroy the liberal movement. Needless to say, he did not succeed.

Oppression became part of everyday life. This was another step towards the Russian revolution. But even that could not really improve the fortunes of the poor and the powerless.