Society - Politics
By: - at June 28, 2013

The Fall of Tsarist Russia

Tsarism in Russia, developed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and was characterized by a single leader’s despotic rule over the entire population. The Tsar was a ruler who had absolute control over all issues. He was the final authority on all matters, including the religious, and delegated power only to those who would make decisions and carry out orders according to his wishes. Tsarism was extremely popular among the majority of Russian individuals for many years, and it was the members of the aristocracy, instead, who were blamed by the public for Russia’s economic crisis.

Map of Russia

The breakdown of this system was the result of many tensions that built up over centuries and escalated in the final years of the autocratic government system. Russia’s strict social hierarchy distinguished and ostracized the working classes from the opulent aristocratic landowners that presided over them and thus, produced a mass of impecunious individuals who had no means of recovering from their penury. In order to preserve his volatile position as Tsar Alexander II attempted minor reforms to the nation’s economy, social system as well as the governmental structure. Despite the numerous improvements initiated by Alexander II (such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1961), he was assassinated and his son, Alexander III, assumed the role of Tsar as his successor. The new tsar, Alexander III, was extremely reserved and disliked some of the liberal decisions made by his father. Throughout his reign, he fought no wars and was subsequently labeled “ The Peace-maker”. After his death in 1894, his son Nicholas II ascended the throne of Russia as the final tsar of Russia.

The economic strain and the lack of support of the illiberal and monocratic Tsarist regime led to many insurrectionist notions arising from the peasant and urban working classes. This therefore contributed to the almost inexorable downfall of the Tsar. The public discontent with both the employment, and living conditions of the working class, as they endeavored to survive extreme poverty, gave rise to many revolutionary ideas and led to subsequent rebellion.

The Tsars
Tsarist Russia was the only true autocracy remaining in Europe, during the time just before the revolutions. The Tsar believed he had been chosen by God and was not required to hold elections nor listen or heed the reeds or opinions of his “subjects”.

Tsar Alexander II

Tsar Alexander II:
Tsar Alexander the Second

Despite the conventions of society and the severity of the political despotism, Tsar Alexander II, under the pretense of altruism, approved many reforms to improve the nation’s political, economical and social needs. Alexander II desired some amelioration and positive reformation in order to stabilize the nation’s unrest and, in 1861, he announced the passing of an “Emancipation Manifesto” which suggested 17 judicial acts that would liberate the Russian serfs. He declared that the maintaining of private serfs would be prohibited and that all serfs would be permitted to purchase land from their proprietors. In addition to this, Alexander introduced various local government reforms in 1864, which were called a Zemstva. This Zemstva provided each district with a council that possessed the authority to construct roads and schools and supply medical services. The Tsar reformed the military, the previously prevalent social hierarchy as well as both the political and educational systems. Alexander’s focal motivations in modernizing the nation was to ensure the preservation of the Tsarist autocracy but, as his reforms were not radical enough, he was eventually assassinated by a fanatical insurrectionist group entitled “People’s Will” on March 1, 1881; he was succeeded by his son Alexander III. Thus, the reign of Alexander II provided the country with a renewed power and prominence and is therefore a significant contribution to the strengths of the Tsarist regime.

Tsar Alexander III
Russian Tsar Alexander 3In juxtaposition to his father’s reformist notions, the reign of Alexander III marked a period of political and social repression in Russia as a reaction to the witnessing of his father’s murder. Alexander III empowered and reorganized the nation’s secret police into the severe and brutal Okhrana and positioned it under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This particular political office limited the power of the Zemstva and the legislative power of the governing body, the Duma. In order to protect the nation from what he considered to be the detrimental impact of modernism, Alexander III placed strict value on the oppression of all heterodox religions and non-Russian individuals. He also repressed all forms of autonomy and extensively promoted anti-Semitism. Alexander instated a policy of Russification in which all inhabitants of the nation, regardless of their background, were expected to adhere to the conventions of Russian society and begin to speak and act Russian. In blatant opposition to the Tsar’s demands, many radical underground political organizations and movements continued to develop. Alexander III died from liver disease on October 20, 1894 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Nicholas II. The severe repression that was prevalent during the autarchy of Alexander III therefore increased the flaws that were existent within the Russian Tsarist system.

Effects of Nicholas II’s Poor Leadership on the Collapse of the Tsarist Regime
Russian Tsar Nicholas 2The autocratic reign of Tsar Nicholas II caused dissatisfaction within society and feasibly provided numerous motives for the lower and working class Russians to yearn for a more egalitarian political structure. Nicholas II was married to Alexandra, a German princess who was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. She was a traditionalist and an indefatigable defender of totalitarianism who entreated her husband to defy all demands for governmental amelioration. Due to his belief that a small victorious war would subdue the nation’s political unrest as well as his desire to expand the Russian empire, Nicholas attacked the Japanese empire. The Japanese eventually defeated Nicholas’ military reducing the reputation of the Tsarist regime and sparking a number of reactionary groups to evolve. Alexander’s unwillingness to modernize Russia and his attempts to repress all seditious groups contributed to the many weaknesses of the Tsarist system and ultimately led to the Russian Revolution that occurred later, in 1917.

The aristocracy, the traditional supporters of the Tsarist regime, began to lose respect for the Tsar. Nicholas II’s ineptitude to govern the nation was revealed in his association with Rasputin (an alleged “mystic” and the adviser to Nicholas, who was unpopular with the public) as well as his violent decisions concerning the nature of the suppression of the social unrest on Bloody Sunday (January 1905) where soldiers fired at random into a crowd of peaceful protesters. This display of poor leadership caused approximately 92 deaths and resulted in the wounding of over one hundred people. Another demonstration of defective leadership was his decision to disband the constitutional government after the 1905 Revolution. The intelligentsia began to maintain that they could no longer depend on the Tsar to heed their requirements and interests. The realization of his inadequacy and the discontentment of the influential social classes with the nation’s politics, was instrumental in creating the ultimate doom of the Tsarist system.

In these ways, Nicholas’ reign as Tsar was doomed to a climacteric extent by 1914 due to social, economic and military reasons. The recognition of his inadequacy to rule by the entirety of society and the loss of respect for him by the influential classes significantly contributed to the eradication of the dictatorial regime. Additionally, the appalling living and working conditions of the urban workers as well as the penury of the peasantry ultimately resulted in the formation of revolutionary groups that opposed the authoritarianism of the Tsar. Further, despite the economic and agrarian reforms initiated by Witte and Stolypin, WWI forced Russia into an economic recession with harsh food shortages, social unrest and economic tension that eventually generated the downfall of the Tsar’s draconian rule.

Impact of Socio-economic Antagonism on the Collapse of Tsarist Rule
Russian LandscapeThere was not enough fertile land to meet the demands of Russia’s growing population. The majority of Russian land was inapposite for farming. During the Tsarist rule, Russia was a predominantly agrarian nation and therefore, its lack of adequate farming land was a significant strain on the economy. Russia was extremely underdeveloped, using inefficient agriculture methods and were far behind Britain, who had already undergone agricultural revolution a century before. In a similar way, Russia was falling further behind other western nations in terms of industry. It was in desperate need of industrialization and modernization in order to gain more economic stability, generate the military resources required to maintain Russia’s position as a major world power and create employment for the surplus rural population. This, however, was unfeasible with Russia’s flawed system of government.

The Effects of Russia’s Social Hierarchy on the Failure of Autocratic Rule
The uncompromising feudal system that was existent within Tsarist Russia was a significant flaw that contributed to the many failings of the dictatorial regime. Russia was governed by a single autocratic ruler who distributed power among individuals of the aristocracy. Tsars would employ these landed patricians to supervise the enforcement of laws and would also utilize the military to forcefully subdue any rebellions or discontent with the totalitarian political system. The aristocracy controlled approximately 50% of the nation’s capital but was comprised of only 1% of the country’s population who dominated prominent positions within the military and government. The other classes within the system were excluded from politics due to their social status and lack of education.

Additionally, the bourgeoisie were small in number and, despite their relative affluence and standard of living, they had no influence on the nation’s government. Many were dissatisfied with their exclusion from affairs of state and, thus, sought after a more progressive and liberal Russia. In conjunction with this, the urban workers made up about 10% of the Russian population. They were moderately educated and were concentrated in the larger, more industrial cities where they were influenced by many radical, insurrectionist notions of an egalitarian society. The serfs or peasantry were subsistence farmers and comprised over 80% of the nation’s population. They had egregious living and working conditions and were over-taxed at an rate which made it virtually impossible to pay taxes.

The strict hierarchical structure caused a significant amount of unrest within the lower, repressed classes whose autonomy and political rights were unrecognized. The preponderance of the Russian populace were dissatisfied with their exclusion from affairs of state and, thus, sought after a more progressive and liberal Russia. The primitive feudalistic system that subsisted within Tsarist Russia was therefore a crucial foible that was instrumental in adding to the abundant imperfections of the oppressive dictatorial system of government.

Effects of the economic strain caused by WWI
Russian Military WW1The social and economic tension originating from the first World War caused the downfall of the Tsar to a momentous extent. The socially unpopular war revealed the egotism and expertness of the upper echelons of society as well as the amoral military leadership. The incompetent training of the soldiers resulted in substandard leadership and a military that was unprepared for modern warfare. The war also produced mass food shortages, economic strain and formal social recognition of the inadequacy of the Tsar and the military leadership. The result of this, as well as the loss of morale that occurred due to a monumental defeat by Germany in the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914.

Reforms of Stolypin and Witte
Alternatively, the reforms of Pyotr Stolypin and Sergei Witte could potentially have preserved Nicholas’ autarchic regime until their replacement by a series of nonentities whose single policy was that of repression.

Transsiberian RailwaySergei Witte was the Finance Minister from 1892 until 1903. Witte’s objective, to maintain the existing Tsarist despotism, was attempted to be reached by means of modernization. He desired to modernize the Russian economy to equal the degree of industrialization of the Western nations. In order to achieve this, he invited many foreign, skilled workers to Russia to advance the entirety of its financial, social and military systems. Witte also initiated the extension of the railways and directed the construction of the prominent Trans-Siberian Railway. Despite these positive reforms, Witte’s policies relied heavily on foreign loans and investments and did not heed the agrarian needs of the peasantry. This ephemeral higher standard of living created by Witte’s advancements as well as the period of brief economic boom eventually resulted in a recession which caused significant dissatisfaction within the urban working class. Further, the worldwide economic crisis meant that there was no market for Russian industrial goods and led to further unemployment. Following this, the poor harvests in 1900 and 1902 caused extreme dissatisfaction amongst the workers.

Pyotr Stolypin was made Prime Minister by Tsar Nicholas II in 1906. He held the belief that action needed to be taken in order to stabilize Tsarism, in the years subsequent to the 1905 revolution. He desired to provide universal education in Russia by 1922 and to clamp down on insurrectionists. In 1906, 21,000 individuals were exiled and 1008 were executed by hanging; the noose began to be referred to as “Stolypin’s necktie.”  Stolypin’s reforms included the introduction of a Duma, a legislative body elected by a select group of individuals and the modernization of agriculture by dissolving the mir system of farming and passing land from communal holding to individual possession. He was assassinated by a Social Revolutionary in 1911, therefore eliminating the last probable savior of the Tsarist system.Russian Tsar Flag

Although some reforms and rulers that were in place during the Tsarist regime in Russia were positive, many had a detrimental impact upon Russian society, economy and eventually, the Tsars themselves. The flaws that were prevalent within the Tsars’ system of despotism were the origin of the disintegration of the existing social structure, the widespread discontent with the system of government and the declining economy of the nation. The severe feudalistic hierarchy, the penury of the serfs and lower classes and the social and political repression strongly overpower the minor reforms instituted by Alexander II and led to the ultimate downfall of Tsarism in Russia.





The Fall of Tsarist Russia


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