Alexander III unexpectedly came to the throne in 1881 on the assassination of Alexander II. Alexander III was under no illusion that he could suffer the same fate as his father. He introduced repression of opponents as the corner stone of his reign. Alexander had three main beliefs:
1) Repression of opponents
2) Undoing the reforms of his father
3) Restore Russia’s position internationally and also her national identity, which he believed had been diluted throughout the C19th.
These were labelled ‘Russification’ and they came into being immediately he was crowned tsar in 1881. The primary aspect of Russification was to rid Russia of western ideas that Alexander III believed had weakened the nation and reduced its national identity. Alexander wanted to reclaim Russia’s ‘Russian-ness'. To achieve this he had to remove those people who had imported into Russia alien ideas that were covertly undermining his position and the national identity of Russia itself. Alexander saw no difference in what he wanted for himself and what he wanted for Russia. Russification was not new to Russia. There had been isolated examples of when this was done before. What made Alexander’s policy so different was the intensity of it after 1881 and the attempt to give it some form of academic intellectual backing.
Russification was to be carried out by the civil service and then by the governors in the regions who would use the police to carry it out at grass-roots level. Those who opposed this were to be dealt with by the police. The most central theme to ‘Russification’ was the power of the monarch. Alexander III believed that for this to be unchallenged during his reign, the reforms of Alexander II had to be withdrawn. It was not possible to reverse the emancipation of the serfs but it was possible to reverse the power of the zemstva (local councils) and under Alexander III, their powers were distinctly curbed and handed to the Ministry of the Interior.
The Ministry of the Interior had to give its permission if taxes were to be raised by the zemstva. The Minister of the Interior was also given the power to nominate peasants to the zemstva at a local level if the ones already there did not meet with the approval of the central government. In this way, the government tried to ensure that its people held power at a local level and would do what they could to support Alexander III. In 1889, the minimal powers that the zemstva had were removed; local justices of the peace were also removed and replaced by a system of land captains who were directly appointed and answerable to the Minister of the Interior. In this way, the government further extended its power at a local level. Only the Minister of the Interior could remove the land captains and at a local level each land captain was given draconian rights – sending offenders into exile, flogging and handing out the death penalty.
In a further effort to restrict what people could do, education was also reformed. The rights of universities to appoint their own professors was abolished and new legislation required the government’s approval for new syllabuses to be taught. No student was allowed to be taught History unless he had permission from the Minister of Education.
The church was also used to extend the power of the tsar. From 1881 to 1905, the Procurator of the Holy Synod was Pobedonestsev. The rule of Peter the Great had placed the church under the direct control of the government. The Holy Synod, created by Peter, was a mixture of archbishops and civil servants. The most important figure in the Holy Synod was the Procurator. The most important function of the Holy Synod was to preach obedience to the tsar; spirituality came second. This obedience was meant to be transmitted from bishops to clergy in the villages. All were meant to have the same function – preach obedience. Traditionally, what was said at confession was never divulged to a third party. Pobedonestsev changed this and information passed to a member of the church during confession was frequently passed on to the police and used as evidence against an offender.
The reign of Alexander III did a great deal to extend the power of the tsar at the expense of liberties taken for granted in Western Europe. However, it needed a like-minded man keen to involve himself in the hard work of government to succeed Alexander III if the reforms were to have a lasting impact. Nicholas II was not this type of man. Whereas Alexander III was diligent, mentally strong and was willing to work for what he wanted, Nicholas was weak, lazy and willing for others to do the work for him.