Alexander II, 'the Liberator', succeeded to the Imperial throne of Russia in 1855, when Tchaikovsky was a teenager at school in the capital, St Petersburg.
After successfully handling the immediate fallout from the Crimean War and negotiating peace, he set about modernising the regressive Empire he had inherited with a series of liberal reforms. His first and perhaps greatest achievement was to pass a law (1861) emancipating serfs, the poorest class of agricultural workers historically 'owned' by their landlords, who were now granted the right to buy the land on which they worked, while landowners were compensated with government bonds. He went on to instigate local self-government, reorganize the judicial system and armed forces, expand the railway network and abolish capital punishment.
Under his rule the arts flourished. Music conservatories opened in St Petersburg and Moscow, to the immense benefit of Tchaikovsky who studied at the first and taught at the second. Impecunious scholars could enrol at the 'Free School of Music', so-called as tuition was free. It was founded in St Petersburg the same year as the Conservatory (1862), by Mily Balakirev who, with the other members of the so-called 'Mighty Handful' (Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky's teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), cultivated a modern nationalist school of composition. In the world of painting, the self-styled 'Wanderers' (Vassily Perov, Ivan Kramskoi, Nikolai Ge and, most notably, Ilya Repin) challenged the prescriptive limitations of academicism (classical subjects), preferring to paint realistic portrayals of peasantry and landscape. And with their pioneering efforts at storytelling, poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov had paved the way for a 'golden age' of literature that now reached fruition with the realist dramas of Alexander Ostrovsky and the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy, who brought unprecedented levels of depth, subtlety and psychological realism to their chosen genre.
Nevertheless for some liberals Alexander's changes did not go far enough, and his ill-judged attempts to 'Russify' the Empire effectively ranged from oppression (banning national groups labouring under Russian rule from using their own language, e.g. Poles) to out-and-out ethnic cleansing (brutally crushing the Circassion people of North Caucasus). Ultimately his policy towards foreigners was his undoing. Having survived several assassination attempts he was killed in 1881 with a homemade grenade thrown by a Polish nationalist who himself died in the attack. Alexander's son, Alexander III, proved much more autocratic and, despite being a music lover, reversed many of what he considered to be the over-liberal reforms of his father.
© Madeleine Ladell/BBC
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