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To what extent were economics the primary factor for reform in Russia under Tsar Alexander II?

In order to assess whether economics were the most important factor for reform in Russia under Tsar Alexander II, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II must be considered. There is contention as to whether economics were the primary motivation for the edict. Some historians such as Darby have argued that it political. As a piece of legislation, the emancipation edict is in substance a political act. While Darby has argued that Alexander was “determined to have emancipation” and to live up to his title as ‘Tsar liberator’ it is unlikely that Alexander would have favoured reform. “Alexander II was not by nature a reformer” Kochan and Keep argue, and that he “had the wit to realise that substantial changes were necessary if the Russian autocratic state was to survive”. Indeed, the Tsar’s autocratic regime had been continually threatened in the period 1800-1860, where 1467 revolts had occurred. Reform may therefore be seen as a political response to the challenge represented by the peasant revolts. However there is a distinct economic logic behind the emancipation reforms. Lynch has commented that Russia was both “economically and socially backward” in 1861 when compared to her European neighbours. The objectives of the emancipation reforms, Lynch argues was two-fold. It was to provide “…Russia economic and social stability... for industrial and economic growth”. So while in the short term social stability was sought, this was a means to economic ends, namely, industrialisation. From an economic perspective serfdom was detrimental to the economic growth. Serfdom tied people to the land which prevented the free flow of labour and obstructed the introduction of modern methods of agriculture. The emancipation edict’s success may be inferred from the increase in the industrial workforce from 860,000 in 1860 to 1,320,000 1887. The free-movement of labour granted the freedom to move labour from the land to the city. It may be said therefore that while the emancipation was political in its intentions it provided the economic conditions that allowed for growth. However the question gives little scope of the contextuality of the edict. For a more accurate account of the history of emancipation act in Russia, the Crimean War must be considered as well as its political and economic implications for Russia.

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