With the accession to the throne of Alexander II (1855) the opposition to the autocracy – which under Nicholas I still assumed a completely clandestine form and manifested itself mainly through the activity of relatively few intellectual circles, as for for example, Petraševskij’s Fourierist circle, dissolved in 1849 – suddenly manifests itself as a current spread throughout Russia. On the one hand, by the will of the new Tsar, the repressive apparatus of the autocracy is slowed down, official support for the informing system is almost waned, major reform projects are launched, on the other hand the intelligentsiatraditionally accustomed to waiting for reforms from above, gave great credit to the emperor and overestimated his will and capacity for initiative. The Crimean War, so unhappily ended, had helped to shake confidence in the autocracy; By now believing that they are not running any risk, vast sections of the population decisively affirm what they had not had the courage to say aloud until then: the desire for legislative reforms, for social reforms, for a freer cultural life.
Even if the era of “liberalism” did not come, as many had hoped, by now the autocracy had been weakened: all its offensive returns, even the violent ones, in the following decades, will have a transitory aspect, contradicted by the opposite necessity to come to a compromise with the more moderate elements of the opposition.
Instead of becoming, as the followers of the autocracy had hoped, a continuer of the work of Nicholas, instead of becoming the great renovator, as some of the “revolutionaries” themselves had deluded themselves, Alexander II will try to strike a cautious middle ground, always willing to carry out some eclectic reform project (for the too rapid realization of which many opponents of tsarism, no less eclectic after all, than Alexander, will instead have to pay in person with long years in prison).
The long-awaited liberation of the peasants (1861) arouses a real wave of enthusiasm, echoed by Herzen himself, from exile. About twenty million peasants were in fact freed and obtained the “right to land” at the price of redeeming it with money; given the serious economic situation of the peasants, the state wanted to favor the operation with an immediate advance that the “liberated” would have compensated in forty-five years. In addition, an administrative reform takes place (1864): the zemstvo is created, a body intended to look after local interests: elementary schools and libraries for the people, agriculture, taxes, hygiene, etc. The judicial reform (1864) aims to achieve a clear separation of the judiciary from the administrative power, the publicity of the sessions, a greater possibility of defense for the accused; finally, it introduces the jurors into the procedure. At the same time, women’s education was boosted and a military reform was made (1874) which had general recruitment as its basis.
But, if these reforms – in an atmosphere of freedom of discussion that was not known in the past – release new energies, they nevertheless have the defect of often coming late or stopping halfway. Above all, the emancipation of the peasants, from which men of all currents had expected miracles, quickly shows quite different effects from those expected: the “free” peasant in many cases worsens his own economic and social position, the new agrarian legislation does not it decreases, but the causes of bloody conflicts between peasants and bosses increase.
It is in these years that the middle class in Russia is strengthening: it is precisely Alexander’s reforms that give it a notable boost; journalists, doctors, agronomists, teachers, judges, quickly become aware of the strength deriving from their increased number. This so-called intelligencijalives in a country where a large part of the feudal regime is still standing: therefore he fights around 1870, in different conditions, however, battles that recall those fought by the Western bourgeoisie in 1789 and 1848. The ideas in vogue in the West arrive in their most simplistic and coarse forms; the eighteenth-century Enlightenment merges with Moleschott’s materialism, on the other side of the fence Hegel and Schelling are merged by the followers of the autocracy to the myth of Byzantineism. Universities are populated by largely extremely poor students, eager to know the latest discoveries in science, energetic and strong-willed in the demand for their economic and political postulates: in this way the universities (and then also the gymnasiums) become hotbeds of continuous turmoil which, with short pauses, they will last until the world war. Thisintelligencija feels the moral duty to fight for the rights of the “people”, whether he wants to lead them to liberation, or whether he despises the “crowd” and attributes to himself only the task of leading the revolutionary struggle.
The generation called “nihilists” (the definition is Turgenev’s, and was never accepted by any revolutionary group) wants to make a clean sweep of the past: they are students, ignited by an enthusiasm of neophytes and primitives who sometimes surpass their teachers, Černyševskij, Bakunin, Nečaev, Dobrolyubov, Pisarev, etc. From “science” alone, from empiricism alone “truth” is expected; with a naive attitude, art and philosophy are banned as useless; the coarseness of ways is often considered proof of “progressivism” and affinity with the people. The “practice” is detached from the “theory”; but in the revolutionary “practice”, the individual finds at least in part that freedom which vulgar materialism and superficial determinism deny; the concept of freedom, confused and abstract in the minds of many “nihilists” acquires a concreteness and seriousness through the sacrifices endured. Alessandro Herzen will try to build a bridge between Westernism and the need to adapt Western ideas to Russia; he will try to fight against gross empiricism by appealing to free will; he will affirm a balance, a seriousness of study and culture that his younger “nihilist” adversaries do not possess: but among the “nihilists” there is an absence of compromises that gives them strength and capacity for proselytism; Herzen hopes for the emperor’s reforms and at the same time works among the emigrants for the diffusion of the clandestine press in Russia, coming to displease revolutionaries and moderates over time. Shortly after Herzen,narodni è estvo): the primitive agrarian community (ob š č ina), the numerous surviving elements of archaic economy seem to them a great advantage for the realization of “socialism”; they fail to make the living problem of a freedom that is continually developing and renewing itself felt; with the mentality of late physiocrats (campaign “as opposed to” city “) they speak of a socialism which they then continually confuse with residues of primitive or in any case pre-capitalist economy; they mix Hegel with Darwin, Kant with Comte, without many original and new ideas, not even for the Russian environment of that time.
But it is all a more intense ferment of life that Russia had not yet known. Thousands of students go to the people (especially the peasants) to “explain the truth to them”: but in all this slightly over-the-top propaganda activity the “people” appear as the subject of their own liberation which the intellectuals seem to want to take charge of. Thousands of these propagandists are arrested. They are not only poor students of petty-bourgeois origin, but sons and daughters of generals, governors, etc., who participate in the “crusade”. They are still inexperienced in the “trade”: the indifference of the peasant masses towards too abstract preaching as well as the vigorous repression of the police soon put an end to the “crusade”
In 1876 several intellectuals (who believed that the lack of organization had caused the numerous failures) formed the association zemlja i volja (Land and freedom). A new period begins in the history of the Russian Revolution.