With Russia once again at peace with Europe, Alexander turned his attention to two immediate priorities: the emancipation of the serfs and the establishment of clear borders for the Russian Empire.
While a number of previous rulers such as Catherine the Great and Alexander I had mused about abolishing serfdom because of its immorality, Alexander II stated just 12 days after the signing of the Peace of Paris, “The present system of [owning] estates with serfs cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to await that time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.” The terms of the 1861 abolition of serfdom, however, left both nobles and peasants discontented. To the czar’s dismay, the abolition of serfdom did not bring lasting stability to his empire. Instead, there were peasant uprisings in the countryside and a growing sense among the urban intelligentsia that Alexander’s reforms were not keeping up with rapid pace of change in the Russia Empire.
Alexander was equally unsuccessful in his campaign against the people of the Caucasus, whose mere presence were undermining the security of his empire. Military tactician Count Dmitri Milyutin, who became Alexander’s Minister of War in 1861, executed an 1857 proposal to expel the Circassians to the Ottoman Empire. According to Milyutin, the removal of the Circassians would open up farmland for Christian settlers and “cleanse the land of hostile elements.”
The czar’s approval of this rapid expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire resulted in an ethnic cleansing through disease and drowning as overcrowded ferries crossed the Black Sea. The Ottomans were unprepared for the influx of refugees, and the absence of adequate shelter caused even more deaths from exposure. Those Circassians who attempted to remain in the Russian Empire and fight for their land were massacred. Sochi’s “Red Hill,” where the skiing and snowboarding events will take place during these Olympic Games, was the site of the Circassian last stand, where the Imperial Russian armies celebrated their “victory” over the local defenders.
Much of Alexander II’s efforts to treat the Circassians as a threat instead of a peaceful ally bore little fruit; the expulsion of the Circassians did nothing to create a secure border and war with the Ottoman Empire continued on-and-off until World War I and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
During the last decades of his reign, Alexander II continued to find the stability he so craved elusive, both his political and personal life. Concluding that it would be impossible to maintain a long-term Russian presence in North America, he sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, a decision that was extremely unpopular with the Russian public. His eldest son Nicholas succumbed to spinal meningitis in 1865, his marriage to a German princess had broken down, and his his hasty second marriage to his long term mistress was the root of much controversy among the Imperial family, royal court, and the Russian Orthodox church.
On March 1, 1881, Alexander II was killed when a bomb was thrown into his carriage by a member of the People’s Will revolutionary organization. Neither the abolition of serfdom nor the expulsion of the Circassian people stabilized the Russian Empire. The Romanov dynasty outlived Alexander II by less than forty years, collapsing during the reign of his grandson, Nicholas II in 1917.
Alexander II’s expulsion of the Circassian people in 1864 continues to shape Russia’s relationship with its Central Asian borderlands today. One hundred fifty years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again concerned with security in the Caucasus. Putin has increased security for the Olympics following twin bomb attacks in Volgograd last December. The continuing insurgency in north Chechnya demonstrates that Russia still has not reached a lasting, peaceful settlement with the stateless peoples along the nation’s southern border.Stability will not come to the Caucasus until Russia comes to terms with its violent past.