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Great Reforms in Russia

The decade of the 1860s is considered the Era of Great Reforms in Russia, its beginning marked by the emancipation of the serfs. As Freeze writes, the era was as important to the eighteenth century as the reforms of Peter the Great in the seventeenth and the revolution of the early twentieth (Freeze 101). The sources generally agree that forces leading to reform include Western influences and the "public disgust with an often arbitrary, inefficient, and corrupt bureaucracy," but the shocking defeat of Russia in the Crimean War was the major cause, for it "persuaded Alexander II . . . that without basic internal change the Russian Empire could not hope to maintain its hard-won position as a major world power" (Cracraft 313).

The reforms which followed the liberation of the serfs in 1861 included

the new liberal censorship regulations (1865), the establishment of a new organ of self-government called the zemstvo (1864), reorganization of urban government (1870), the radical reconstruction of the judiciary after Western models (1864), and a complex series of measures to improve the army, church, police, education, and many other public and private institutions in the empire (Freeze 101).

As Freeze adds, the reforms were significant not only for their direct impact on the lives of Russians and the fundamental institutions of Russian society, but also because of the process of those reforms: "Society, not just the bureaucracy, was summoned to help draft and implement these reforms" (Freeze 101). This inclusion of the people was hardly a democratic occurrence, but the people contributed to the process of social change in a meaningful way for the first time since Catherine's reign one hundred years earlier. The nobility and their "corporate assembles" maintained a superior position in society, but their opposition to the emancipation of the serfs (Freeze 103) did not prevent that liberation, and Freeze concludes that many groups...

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