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On February 19, 1861, the relatively young Tsar Alexander II did something none of his predecessors had found the courage to do: he signed a manifesto liberating the serfs.
Ninety-nine years earlier, on February 18, 1762, another royal manifesto was signed, relieving the nobility of mandatory military or governmental service and allowing them to travel abroad. As the great historian Vasily Klyuchevsky joked, the next step was to sign a manifesto liberating the serfs, but since Russians are perpetually late, it took 99 years and one day to get around to it.
On March 5, the 1861 manifesto was read aloud in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and two days later it was proclaimed across the country. This marked the dawn of a new era of representative assemblies, independent courts, the abolition of censorship, and reforms of the military.
Twenty years later, on March 1, 1881, a not-so-young Tsar Alexander II perished when a terrorist bomb tore off his leg. This was the last in a long series of attempts to assassinate the “Tsar Liberator.” Young, ideologically driven men and women bent on “saving” Russia had been making attempts on his life for most of his reign. A month later, on April 3, 1881, the leaders of the People’s Will revolutionary group that was behind the tsar’s assassination were hanged.
Sitting on the tsar’s desk at the time of his death was a signed order to convene commissions to prepare further reforms. It is safe to assume that these commissions would have proposed creating an elective body, albeit one that probably would have transitioned gradually from an advisory role to full legislative powers.
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