Russia: Reaction, Reform, and <named-content content-type="print">Revolution</named-content><named-content content-type="electronic">Expansion</named-content>

Reaction, Reform, and <named-content content-type="print">Revolution</named-content><named-content content-type="electronic">Expansion</named-content>

Liberal ideas gained influence among the Russian aristocracy and educated bourgeoisie despite Alexander I's growing intransigence. They found an outlet in the unsuccessful Decembrist Conspiracy of 1825 (see Decembrists), which sought to prevent the accession of Nicholas I. Under Nicholas (reigned 1825–55), Russia became the most reactionary European power, acting as the “policeman of Europe” in opposing liberalism and helping Austria to quash the Hungarian revolution (1848–49). Russian Poland, nominally a kingdom ruled by the Russian emperor, lost its autonomy after an unsuccessful rising there in 1830–31.

A clash of interests between Russia and the Western powers over the Ottoman Empire led to the Crimean War (1854–56), which revealed the inner weakness of Russia. Alexander II (reigned 1855–81), who acceded one year before the war ended, passed important liberal reforms during the first decade of his reign, after which time he became increasingly conservative. Just as he seemed to be entering another liberal phase, Alexander was assassinated in 1881. Among his reforms, the liberation (1861) of the serfs (see Emancipation, Edict of) was the most far-reaching, but significant changes were also made in local government, the judicial system, and education.

During the second half of the 19th cent., Russia continued its territorial expansion, and industrialization was accelerated. The remainder of the Caucasus was acquired and pacified; the territories of what is now the Central Asian Republics, including Turkistan, were taken during 1864–65; and the southern section of the Far Eastern Territory (see Russian Far East) was acquired from China. Russia thus reached the frontiers of Afghanistan and China and the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Vladivostok was founded in 1860; in the early 20th cent. it became an important naval base. The Trans-Siberian RR (constructed 1891–1905) opened much of Siberia to colonization and exploitation.

Alexander III (reigned 1881–94), who succeeded Alexander II, pursued a reactionary domestic policy, guided by the influential Pobyedonostzev. Alexander was followed by Nicholas II (reigned 1894–1917), the last Russian emperor, a generally incompetent ruler surrounded by a reactionary entourage. However, there was considerable financial and industrial development, directed largely by Count Witte. Russia, having suffered a severe diplomatic setback at the Congress of Berlin (see Berlin, Congress of, 1878), eventually abandoned the Three Emperors' League with Germany and Austria-Hungary and in 1892 entered into an alliance with republican France. This alliance led to the Triple Entente (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente) of England, France, and Russia.

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