Saturday, 28 January 2017

Russia: autocracy, war, and terrorism

The extent of the country 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Russia was geographically the world’s most extensive country and its empire was expanding. From 1809 it controlled Finland and in 1815 the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was subsumed into Russia. In 1800 Georgia was annexed. In 1859 the rest of the Caucasus was conquered and the Chechen hero Imam Shamil captured. In 1860 the Amur and Maritime provinces were acquired from China and Turkestan from Persia in 1875. Turkmenistan was annexed in 1881. The Pacific port of Vladivostok was founded in 1860. The only territory lost was Alaska, which was sold to the United States in 1867 for $8 million.

The Russian Empire, 1914

The economy 

This vast area was sparsely populated with only two major cities, St Petersburg the capital, and Moscow but the population grew from 68 million in 1850 to 124 million in 1897 and nearly 170 million in 1914 (compare with just under 143 million in 2006). Agriculture remained primitive with the three-field system still the norm, though Russia was exporting grain to pay for the manufactures she needed. The Russian iron-smelting industry dated from the eighteenth century. The second major industry was cotton-spinning.

Russia was one of the few countries to retain serfdom. Serfs were not slaves, and they had rights as well as duties, but they were not free agents. Fundamentally, it obliged the peasant farmer to work without pay on certain tasks or for a specific number of days per week, on the landowner’s estate. In some areas these obligations had been commuted to an annual rent, but they were not free to marry whoever they pleased and they were still subject to corporal punishment. They could be bought and sold along with the land they rented or owned.


Russia was officially an autocracy headed by a tsar who ruled by divine right. There was no tradition of opposition or protest. Alexander I (1801-25) was for a while greeted as a reforming tsar. He founded a state school system, granted a constitution to Poland, abolished torture and lessened censorship. But towards the end of his reign he revoked many of his reforms. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Nicholas I (1825-55), who savagely put down the Decembrist and Polish uprisings. He increased the powers of the police and tightened censorship, though he also alleviated some of the conditions of the serfs by prohibiting their sale without land.  He died in the middle of the Crimean War. 


The vast territory of Siberia was opened to Russia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It came to serve two purposes: as a source of minerals and as a prison. In 1880 there were 8,000 people in ‘administrative exile’ there. By 1897, out of a Siberian population of 5.7 million, more than 300,000 were exiles.

From the prison in Tobolsk, prisoners would walk for twelve weeks without a rest day the 1,560km to Tomsk. It was another 590km from Tomsk to Krasnoyarsk, 1,050 more to Irkutsk and a further 1,600 to the silver mines at Nerchinsk. Some exiles took two years to reach their destination. Their sentences began from their time of arrival rather than departure. The prisoners included mass murderers, ‘vagabonds’, political dissidents, the wives of dissidents. (These grim details are taken from Daniel Beer, The House of the Dead, reviewed in The Times, 9 July 2016. But for another, less gloomy, view of Siberia, see this review in The Guardian.)


Alexander II, photographed with his wife
the Empress Maria, and his son
the future Alexander III

Alexander II (1855-81) succeeded his father during the war. His reign witnessed wide-ranging attempts to modernise and reform Russia. In 1856 he resolved to emancipate the serfs, telling the nobility of Moscow in March 1856,
‘it is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below’.
The main work of reform was carried out in the ministry of the interior, where the most able officials, headed by the deputy minister Nikolay Milyutin, were resolved to get the best possible terms for the peasants. But the bulk of the landowning class was determined, if it could not prevent abolition of serfdom, to give the freed peasants as little as possible. 

The settlement, proclaimed on Feb. 19 (March 3, New Style), 1861, was a compromise. Peasants were freed from servile status, and a procedure was laid down by which they could become owners of land. The government paid the landowners compensation and recovered the cost in annual ‘redemption payments’ from the peasants. In many respects, the terms were unfavourable. In the north, where land was poor, the landowners were compensated not only for the loss of their serfs and also for the loss of the share that they had previously enjoyed of the peasants’ earnings from non-agricultural labour. In the south, where land was more valuable, the plots given to the peasants were very small, often less than they had had for their own use when they were serfs. Emancipation was a huge reform but at the same time it fell short of the hopes of the idealists. 

 Further important reforms followed the emancipation. A new system of local elected assemblies (zemstvos) was introduced in 1864. The zemstva were empowered to levy taxes and to spend their funds on schools, public health, roads, and other social services, but their scope was limited by the fact that they also had to spend money on some of the tasks of the central government. In 1864 Russia also received a system of law courts based on European models, with irremovable judges and a proper system of courts of appeal. Justices of the peace were instituted for minor offences; they were elected by the county zemstvos. A properly organised, modern legal profession now arose. During the first years of Alexander II's reign there was some demand from a liberal section of the nobility for representative government at the national level. The tsar and his bureaucrats refused to consider this: there was to be no challenge to the principle of autocracy. The decision against a national assembly deprived Russia of the possibility of public political education such as that which existed, for example, in contemporary Prussia, and it deprived the government of the services of hundreds of talented men. 

Foreign policy 

Alexander II’s foreign policy was a continuation of his father’s, with the advance into Asia proceeding. After Austria’s refusal to help Russia in the Crimean War relations were very strained. However the friendship seemed restored when Bismarck secured the foundation of the Three Emperors’ League (Dreikaiserbund) in 1873. 

The Russo-Turkish War 

Twenty years after defeat in the Crimea, Russia was back in the Balkans. The opening was provided by three simultaneous revolts in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Bulgaria. In May 1876 following the murder of 136 Ottoman officials in Bulgaria over 20,000 Christians were massacred by soldiers in what became known as the Bulgarian Horrors. This inspired a furious pamphlet from the British politician W. E. Gladstone, who demanded that the Turks depart ‘bag and baggage’ from the provinces they had profaned. 

Abdul Hamid II

Under pressure from pan-Slavs at his court,  Alexander II felt he had to protect the Christians of the Balkans. On 8 July 1876 Alexander and the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph met at Reichstadt near Berlin and agreed to divide the Balkans in the event of a collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In October 1876 he new sultan, Abdul Hamid II promised a constitution. 

Nevertheless in April 1877 the Russians invaded Ottoman territory on the Danube and in Armenia. By January 1878, in spite of stiff Turkish resistance, they had reached Constantinople. The Turks were forced to accept the Treaty of San Stefano which created an independent ‘Big Bulgaria’ which would clearly be under heavy Russian influence. The terms of the treaty alarmed Britain, where there was an outbreak of ‘jingoism’, and Austria. In response the Congress of Berlin was called, with Bismarck as ‘honest broker’ to revise the treaty and curtail Russian ambitions. It was the last occasion when the great met to settle their differences. The treaty’s terms were:

  1. Bosnia and Herzegovina were handed over to Austrian occupation.
  2. Bulgaria was split in three. 
  3. The independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania was recognised. 
  4. In a secret agreement with Turkey Britain was allowed to occupy Cyprus.

The Congress postponed war for a generation but helped to create the tensions that led to the First World War. Russia was humiliated and the aspirations of the Balkan peoples were not fully realised. The Austrian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was to be a hugely significant event. 

More repression 

Alexander’s reforms aroused fierce opposition from conservatives and revolutionaries while the suppression of the Polish revolt in 1863 alienated liberals. In 1866 there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life which led to a clamp down on reforms. On 1 March 1881 Alexander was assassinated by  a terrorist group called the People’s Will. You can hear a discussion of this on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time'. All the main leaders of the group were caught by the police, and five of them were hanged.

The magnificently restored Church of the Spilt Blood stands on the site of Alexander's assassination in St Petersburg. 

 His son, Alexander III (1881-94) was a reactionary, devoted to autocracy, Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church, who undid his father’s policies. The universities lost their autonomy, the independence of the courts was sapped and the zemstvos were remodelled and lost many of their powers. 

This reactionary policy was continued by his son Nicholas II 1894-1917). The census of 1897 revealed that there were over 100,000 policemen and 50,000 men in the security gendarmerie, deploying a formidable range of spies and informers. In 1880 there were 8,000 people in ‘administrative exile’ in Siberia. 

Irving Berlin
All religious minorities came under attack, but the Jews most of all. In 1880 about 4 million of them lived in the Pale, the tract of Poland and western Russia to which they were confined by law. 700.000 more were driven into it in the next ten years. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century 2 million Jews left Russia. A series of pogroms between 1903 and 1906 left 2,000 Jews dead and increased the number of emigrants. In 1891 Leah and Moses Baline left for the United States with their three year old son Israel Isadore. He became very famous! 

Industrial growth 

In 1892 Sergei Witte became Finance Minister. Believing that ‘a great power cannot wait’ he abandoned liberal economics for direct state intervention in order to prime the country’s industrialisation. Between 1894 and 1902 two thirds of government expenditure went into economic development. Russia’s industrial production increased dramatically becoming the fifth largest in the world by 1914. The government encouraged private banks and its decision to adopt the gold standard kept the economy stable. 

 In 1891 construction began on the 5,000 mile long Trans-Siberian Railway. This enabled Russia to export cheap grain to the west. Much of the money for investment came from abroad. In 1900 one third of the capital of private industry in Russia was in foreign hands. By 1914 French investors held 80 % of government debt securities. The British invested most heavily in mining and new oilfields. In spite of this, most Russians grew poorer. There was a famine in 1891-2 followed by a series of crop failures. There was widespread discontent in the countryside and in the industrialised areas. And with no indigenous liberal tradition in Russia many of the disaffected intelligentsia turned to extreme parties like the Marxist Social Democrats.

Nicholas II 

Nicholas II (1894-1917)

Nicholas succeeded his father in November 1894. Later that month he married the German princess Alix of Hesse (Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna). His reign was a disaster for himself and for Russia. In 1904 she gave birth to a male heir after four daughters - but the longed-for son was a haemophiliac.  

The Russo-Japanese War

In January 1904 Russia went to war with Japan. The most dramatic event of the war the Battle of Tsushima, 27 May–28 May 1905 when the Japanese fleet under Admiral Togo, numerically inferior but with superior speed and firing range, shelled the Russian fleet mercilessly, destroying all eight of its battleships.

Russian soldiers retreat after the Battle of Mukden, February 1905

Bloody  Sunday

The news of the fall of Port Arthur in January 1905 led to a strike in St Petersburg, which in turn led to a petition to the tsar asking for political as well as economic reform. On 9 January the security forces opened fire on a peaceful crowd, killing 130 people. 

A Soviet reconstruction of Bloody Sunday

The Dumas

The result of ‘Bloody Sunday’ (was a series of riots and strikes which forced Nicholas into concessions. On Witte’s advice he issued on 17 October a manifesto announcing a Duma (Parliament) the extension of the franchise and the granting of real civil liberties. Witte became Chairman of the Council of Ministers. A constitution was issued on 23 April, providing for two chambers, but it came from the tsar who retained ‘supreme autocratic power’. Witte was kept on until he had secured a huge international loan to bail out the government and then dismissed before the Duma. 

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Dumas were a disappointment. The first two were dissolved by the tsar because he saw them as too radical. After the 1907 electoral reform the third Duma, elected in November 1907, was largely made up of members of the upper classes and radical influences in the Duma had almost entirely been removed. The fourth Duma was in session at the outbreak of war. Whatever their limitations, however, the Dumas introduced the idea of constitutional and representative government. Russia was less repressive and more economically advanced in 1914 than in 1800.


  1. Russia was governed by an autocratic tsar who believed he was divinely appointed to rule. He accepted representative government grudgingly and did his best to undermine it.
  2. Nicholas II continued the repressive policies of his father, Alexander II, but his government was unable to stamp out revolutionaries.
  3. Nevertheless the Russian economy was expanding rapidly, and foreign investors were pouring money into the country.

No comments:

Post a Comment