The Russian Empire
Russia in the 1860s and 1870s was in a great upheaval. Its ruler, Tsar Alexander II, had negotiated the end of the Crimean War in 1856, ending four years of conflict between Russia and an alliance comprising England, France, Sardinia and Turkey. Russia, at the time one of the greatest powers in Europe, had wanted to seize control of the Balkans and other territory that had been controlled by Turkey, but had been stopped temporarily by Turkey and her allies. Although the war was over, the “Eastern Question” still loomed over the region, and Russia still wanted to acquire access to the Mediterranean Sea, and to expand the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. As part of the settlement that ended the Crimean War, Turkey agreed to enhanced tolerance for Christians within its borders.
In 1861, Alexander began a series of dramatic social reforms. Until that year, about one third of the population of Russia were serfs, or indentured servants who worked for a landowner. They were not slaves, but not entirely free either. Dostoevsky’s father had almost one hundred serfs attached to his country estate; they received accommodations and a share of the land’s yield in exchange for manual labor. Alexander issued the Emancipation Edict of 1861, abolishing the system of serfdom, freeing all the serfs, and requiring landowners to make land available for the serfs to purchase. Alexander also weakened his own power, introducing zemstvo, a modest form of self-government similar to a local assembly. The zemstvo organized and controlled local institutions including health care and education, and elected representatives to a regional body.
These reforms led to chaos and confusion, as well as to real improvements in the lives of many people. As the former serfs struggled to succeed in the new political and economic climate, the wealthy and the educated minority protested the destabilization and the erosion of their own influence. Fearful of losing his own power, Alexander II grew more conservative, causing further confusion.
Dostoevsky and others believed that autocratic rule, or government by one tsar (also spelled czar), was necessary and right. They called for a return to the old system of an established peasant class, a single authority, and a central role for the Orthodox Church. By the end of the 1870s, repression had grown and had been countered with the formation of terrorist groups whose goal was the assassination of Alexander. In 1880, dynamite was exploded in the Winter Palace where Alexander was expected to be. Alexander was not harmed, but dozens of others were hurt, and ten guards were killed. Other attempts followed.
It was in this climate that The Brothers Karamazov was written and published. In The Russian Dagger: Cold War in the Days of the Czars, Virginia Cowles quotes Dostoevsky telling the editor of the Russian Times “that tragedy was in the air. ‘You said that there had been some clairvoyance in my Brothers Karamazov . .. Wait till you have the sequel… I shall make my pure Aliosha join the terrorists and kill the Czar.'” Two months later Alexander was assassinated in another explosion at the Palace. Two more repressive tsars followed before the Russian Revolution overthrew tsarist government in 1917.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.