Alexander II became Czar of Russia near the end of the Crimean War, and he signed the treaty to end the war. He ruled from 1855 until he was assassinated in 1881. Because of Russia's crushing defeat in the Crimean War Alexander implemented several changes to modernize Russia. These changes started in 1861 when he signed the Emancipation manifesto which freed the serfs. To ensure continued loyalty of the landed classes Alexander was forced to require the newly freed peasants to repay their former overlords. To ensure that the peasants would not rebel he established zemstvos (village councils) to oversee peasant repayment to their former masters. The government started a long series of loans and grants to the peasants who would repay their masters who would pay the government. This convoluted system met with mixed results and ultimately led to his unceremonious assassination.
During the last twenty years of his reign (1861-1881) the Russian Empire underwent extensive reforms militarily, judicially, economically, and politically. His military reforms included reducing conscription from twenty five years to five years, banning brutalization of conscripts by non commissioned officers, increasing pay, and attempting to better living conditions in the barracks of the Imperial Army and Imperial Fleet. His judicial reforms included reducing the number of court systems from twenty two to five (military, Tax, Ecclesiastical, Commerce, Criminal) and drafting a law code that was considered by 1871 to be one of the most progressive in all of Europe. In his political reforms he eased censorship and Tsarist Russia saw an unprecedented era of freedom of speech which was unfortunately curtailed in the late 1870s after several attempts on his life.
These village councils, in addition to seeing the newly emancipated peasantry's repayments to their former masters, had an even greater side effect. They were in many ways the origin of popular democracy in Russia, and had it not been for the untimely and tragic assassination of Alexander II they may have eventually led to something resembling a parliamentary democracy. Depending on the landowner, the power of these councils were either very small or very great. Many established public education systems and used the collected funds of the village to send the most gifted students to Russia's eight universities. Oddly, many of the students who rose to prominence and earned university education became less than 20 years later some of the heads of Russia's more sinister revolutionary and anarchy movements.
Terrorism and Downfall
Alexander's reforms eventually caused his downfall. Like Russian leaders since Peter I Alexander was forced to struggle with the paradox that as he reformed his nation, he lost his power to reform (this is a lesson that would be seen again under Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev). Starting in the mid 1870s several terrorist groups sought his downfall as they feared his reforms would either end the prospect of revolution, or that they would end short of where they needed to go. Several assassination attempts were made on his life including blowing up his apartments in the Winter Palace (the official residence of the tsar). These attacks led to a crackdown on many of his reforms and with suppression came more acts of terror. In the most ironically tragic turn of events Alexander was killed by a bomb on Sunday March 1 (O.S), 1881 just hours before he was going to sign a proclamation declaring rule by an advisory council (a rudimentary parliament) and a constitution.
Alexander's legacy was the abolishment of serfdom and the dawn of the age of Revolution that would culminate in the downfall of Russia's monarchy in March, 1917 and the birth of the Soviet State in November of that year. Abolishing the system enabled his grandson Nicholas II to greatly grow the Russian economy from 1907-1914 as well greatly expand the literacy rate. His reforms ultimately toppled the Russian Monarchy much like Gorbachev's reforms would topple the Soviet regime some 100 years later.
Edvard Radzinsky's Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar.