The democratization of the system of the national education, the appearance of a great number of specialists with higher education among the noblemen and people of other classes, considerably expanded the circle of the intelligentsia. The Russian intelligentsia was the unique phenomenon of social life of Russia, which occurrence can be attributed to the years 1830-1840. In the intelligentsia various directions of the public opinion were developed.
In the second half of 1850s, the publicity became the first display of the "thaw" which came soon after the accession of Alexander. On the 3rd of December 1855 was closed the supreme committee of censure, weakened by the censure rules. The broadest distribution in Russia received the editions "Free Russian Printing", created by A.I. Gertsen in London in the spring of 1853.
The liberal movement of the end of 1850 and the beginning of 1860 was the widest in Russia and had various shades. Liberals were acting for the establishment of the constitutional forms of government in the peaceful way, and for the political and civil freedom, and also for the education of people. Being supporters of legal forms of struggle, liberals operated through the printing and zemstvoes (local authorities). The historians K.D. Kavelin and B.N. Chicherin first stated the program of the Russian liberalism.
Big expansion of the liberal journalism and liberal notes and reforms was known at the end of 1850. The new magazine 'Russian tribune', created by M.N. Katkov became the tribune of the liberal ideas at the beginning of 1850-1860.
The rising of national revolts in the first years of reform and their severe suppression by the government rendered a certain influence to the liberal movement. Aspiring to leave frameworks of local interests and associations, the liberal figures organized at the end of the year1870 several national congresses, which the government attended rather neutrally.
In the conditions of political crisis in the beginning of 1860s, the revolutionary democrats, being the radical wing of the opposition, were growing in activity. The magazine 'Sovremennik', since 1859, became the ideological center of that direction , which was under the supervision of N.G. Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) and N.A. Dobrolyubov (1836-1861).
The strengthening of peasants' revolts during the realization of reforms in 1861 raised in the figures of the radical direction hope about the possibility of a peasant's revolt in Russia. The agitation rendered a certain influence in the development and the expansion of the student's movement, which originally showed the expression of its solidarity with the peasant's movement of the reform's period.
In the end of 1861 and beginning of 1862, a group of revolutionaries-populists (N.A. Serno-Solovievich, M.L. Mikhailov, N.N. Obruchev, A.A. Sleptsov, N.V. Shelgunov), created a secret organization of All-Russian value, 'Earth and Will', after the defeat of Decembrists. Its inspirers were Gertsen and Chernyshevky. The organization was distributing illegal literature printed in London and in secret printing houses in Russia. The preparation for the revolt, appointed for 1863, was conducted.
In the middle of 1862 the government got the support of liberals, unwrapped wide repressive campaign against the revolutionary democrats. "Sovremennik" was closed (till 1863). The leaders of radicals - N.A. Serno-Solovjevich, N.G. Chernyshevsky and D.I. Pisarev were arrested.
In 1860, on the wave of denying the existing order, among the student youth, the ideology of nihilism was distributed. There were created artels, workshops, factories, and communes hoping, through the distribution of collective work, to prepare for a socialist transformation of the society. Having failed, they broke up or passed to illegal revolutionary activity.
In the 70s there were some closed currents of the utopian socialism, which received the name of "populism". Populists believing that Russia can directly proceed to the socialist system, saw the main obstacle to the socialism in the government, and considered that the secret organization and the revolutionary leaders should lift people to revolt and result it in a victory.
In the beginning of 1870s, all over the European part of Russia rose numerous national circles. Among them the society "Chaikovtsy" (N.V. Chaikovsky, A.I Zhelyabov, D.A. Klements, S.M. Kravchinsky, P.A. Kropotkin, N.А. Morozov, М.А Natanson, S.L. Perovskaya etc.). The majority put the purpose on the prompt preparation of the peasant's revolt. At the meetings organized by them, they called not to obey authorities.
At the end of 1876 there was created a new centralized All-Russian organization of populists, the second "Earth and Will ". Its conspiration center (L.G. Deich, V.I. Zasulich, S.M. Kravchinsky, A.D.Mikhailov, M.A. Natanson, S.L. Perovskaya, G.V. Plekhanov, V.N. Figner) supervised the activity of separate groups not less than in 15 large cities of the country. Soon in the organization, two currents appeared: one was declined to the continuation of propaganda activities, and the other thought that the unique method of the revolution was terrorism. In August 1879, there was a final split.
The circle "National will" united the circles of students, workers, and officers. In the strict conspirative management entered A.I. Zhelyabov, A.I. Barannikov, A.A. Kvyatkovsky, N.N. Kolodkevich, A.D. Mikhailov, N.A. Morozov, S.L. Perovskaya, V.N. Figner, M.F. Frolenko. In 1879 members of "Narodnaya Volya" ("National Will"), hoping to cause a political crisis and to lift the population, made a number of terrorist acts. The Executive committee ('National will') took the death sentence against Alexander II in August 1879. On the 1st of March 1881 in St. Petersburg, a bomb thrown by the populist I.I. Grinevitsky fatally wounded Alexander II.