During much of the 1800s, tsars moved back and forth between reform and repression. In mid-century, the tsar Alexander II moved toward reform, but his death at the hands of an assassin led to a return to repression.
Alexander II came to the throne during the Crimean War. The war had broken out after Russia tried to seize Ottoman lands along the Danube River. Britain, France, and Sardinia stepped in to help the Ottomans by sending armies into the Russian Crimea, a peninsula that juts into the Black Sea.
The war, which ended in a Russian defeat, revealed the country's backwardness. Russia had only a few miles of railroads, and the military bureaucracy was hopelessly inefficient.
Russia's defeat in the Crimean War triggered widespread calls for change. Russian liberals demanded changes, and students demonstrated, seeking reform. Pressed from all sides, Alexander II finally agreed to reforms. In 1861, he issued a royal decree that required emancipation, or freeing, of the serfs.
Freedom brought problems. Former serfs had to buy the land they had worked, but many were too poor to do so. Also, the lands allotted to peasants were often too small to farm efficiently or to support a family. Peasants remained poor, and discontent festered.
Still, emancipation was a turning point. Many peasants moved to the cities, taking jobs in factories and building Russian industries. Equally important, freeing the serfs boosted the drive for further reform.
Along with emancipation, Alexander II set up a system of local government. Elected assemblies, called zemstvos, were made responsible for matters such as road repair, schools, and agriculture. Through this system, Russians gained some experience of self-government at the local level.
The tsar also introduced legal reforms such as trial by jury. He eased censorship and tried to reform the military. A soldier's term of service was reduced from 25 years to 15, and brutal discipline was limited. Alexander also encouraged the growth of industry in Russia.
Alexander's reforms failed to satisfy many Russians. Peasants had freedom but not land. Liberals wanted a constitution and an elected legislature. Radicals, who had adopted socialist ideas from the West, demanded even more revolutionary changes. The tsar, meanwhile, moved away from reform and toward repression.
The 1881 assassination of Alexander II prompted further repression by his son and successor, Alexander III.
In the 1870s, some socialists went to live and work among peasants, preaching reform and revolution. They had little success. The peasants scarcely understood them and sometimes turned them over to the police.
The failure of this movement, combined with renewed government repression, sparked anger among radicals, leading some to embrace violence. On March 13, 1881, terrorists assassinated Alexander II.
Alexander III responded to his father's assassination by returning to repression. To wipe out liberals and revolutionaries, he increased the power of the secret police, restored strict censorship, and exiled critics to Siberia.
The tsar also launched a program of Russification aimed at suppressing the cultures of non-Russian peoples within the empire. Alexander insisted on one language, Russian, and one church, the Russian Orthodox Church. Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Armenians, Muslims, Jews, and many others suffered persecution.
Russia had acquired a large Jewish population when it carved up Poland and expanded into Ukraine. Under Alexander III, the persecution of Russia's Jewish population increased.