How secure was the Tsar’s power up to 1904?

This essay will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the last three Csars of Russia: Alexander II (1855-1881), Alexander III (1881-1894), Nicholas II (1894-1917). Furthermore it will investigate the consequences of autocratic rule over such a large, industrially under-developed and diverse country. The Fundamental Laws (published during the reign of Nicholas II in 1906) made explicit what such autocracy meant, for example, Law 5 states “Supreme Autocratic Power belongs to the Emperor of all Russia”. Married to Fundamental Law No 1 “The Russian State is one and indivisible” it left little room for argument or misunderstanding amongst either native Russians or any of her satellites. Nicholas himself was determined to uphold his father’s views on autocracy and believed in his divine right to rule. This would ultimately lead to disaffection and anarchy which despite high politics, industrialisation and revolution is more likely the result of those factors identified and so succinctly described by Aleichem above.

The ‘poor’ – in this case the serfs – were a pressing problem for Alexander II. After the rule of his father Nicholas I, Russia was in a position of “political, economic and intellectual stagnation” (Christian:Imperial ; Soviet Russia (1997)). Although Alexander II was not really a liberal, his advisors amongst the nobility were and during the early part of his reign there was a new atmosphere of freedom particularly in debate. There was so much to be done that it was difficult to decide what to do first. All types of reform, political, social and economic seemed equally pressing. As Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace stated:

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“Gradually, however, it became evident that precedence must be given to the question of serfage. . .So long as serfage existed it was a mere mockery to talk about reorganising Russia according to the latest results of political and social science. How could a system of even handed justice be introduced when millions of the peasantry were subject to the arbitrary will of the landed proprietors? How could agricultural and industrial progress be made without free labour? … All this was generally felt by the educated classes …”

(Wallace’s Russia to 1905)

Alexander II knew (as his father had) that serfdom was the root of Russia’s economic backwardness. Thus, in 1861, the serfs were freed.

Such a step, coupled with many other reforms, amongst which the most popular were the release of the surviving Decembrists and other rebels from exile, a revision of the censorship regulations, a cancellation of outstanding and overdue taxes and an increase in tolerance towards Poland and the Catholic Church served to strengthen the Csar’s position and earned him the title of the ‘Csar Liberator’. However, the basic autocratic nature of Alexander’s rule did not lend itself to reform and he was well aware that this liberalism may have consequences.

Alexander did not relish his choice to free the serfs but knew that without change the army could not be modernised, industry could not develop rapidly without a plentiful supply of free labour and this could only be possible if the serf masses were freed from the land. He was well aware of the power of an organised serfdom. As early as 1856, he said: “…the existing order of serfdom cannot remain unchanged. Its is better to begin abolishing serfdom from above that to wait for a time when it will begin to abolish itself from below…”

Although, as we have seen, Alexander was known at the early part of his reign as the ‘Tsar Liberator”, the reforms did not go far enough. The first part of his rule was a time of unique intellectual activity in Russia with the emergence of great Russian writers such as Dosteoyevsky. However, intellectual freedom coupled with the relaxation of censorship led to open criticism of autocracy, especially amongst the young. Some of these groups espoused violence as a means of forcing change. These calls for further reform and direct challenges to the Csar himself – such as the assassination attempt of 1866 – brought an end to the period of liberalisation and reform and a growth in the rise of revolutionary groups

By 1866 Alexander had returned to repression and had re-introduced aspects of the ‘Nicholas System’ including; censorship of the press, tight government control of education, restrictions on travel and further reductions in the powers of the zemstva. In short a re-introduction of the police state. This led to a strengthening of revolutionary groups such as “The People’s Will”. This was a terrorist organisation which resorted to acts of violence to get rid of the government. They assassinated many government officials, some government ministers and eventually Alexander II himself but they failed to bring about a revolution. Such groups were mainly made up of young, noble or wealthy members of the increasing middle-classes. There was general agreement among the intellectual leaders of Russian society on the need to end the system of autocratic government and to limit the powers of the Tsar. Strangely, despite Alexander’s fear, the peasants were suspicious of such groups who wrongly believed that the peasants only needed leadership to rise up against the landowners and the government.

In 1874 over two thousand university students made a massive effort to cause this uprising. In a movement called “To the People” they left the cities and went to live in the countryside with the peasants. Their slogan was “Land and Liberty”. They made little impact on the peasants who did not understand or sympathise with their aims. The peasants had always been loyal to the Tsar. They blamed the landowners and the bureaucrats for their miserable conditions. The Tsar was known as the ‘little father’ and the peasants believed that he was deeply concerned for their welfare. Writing in 1915, Haskell gives one an idea of this duality of feeling regarding the Csar: “…my father loved his Csar. He taught us to call him the Little Father” (Katrinka: The Story of a Russian Child by Helen Eggleston Haskell. 1915) countered by: “…another child had written to the Czar, the Little Father, as they call him, and for their pains more than one has felt the knout and the Cossack’s whip” (same source).

Such duality mirrored Alexander II’s reign. He began as a liberal tsar but when his attempts at reform brought about demands for further reforms, he returned to the repressive system of the past. This return to repression led to the growth of secret, revolutionary organisations pressing for political reform. After a number of attempts on his life, Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

Following the assassination of his father, Alexander III was determined to wage war against all political opponents. He was helped by the fact that most ordinary Russians shared his feelings and turned against revolutionary groups. Alexander III was an imposing figure, over six feet tall and physically strong. He relished his autocratic power and believed that the old ‘Nicholas’ system was the best way to rule Russia. He was thought to be unimaginative and sincere but not very bright. To secure his power, Alexander III reduced access to education so that enrolment in high schools fell and appointed ‘land captains’ in rural areas in 1889 with the power to whip and persecute the peasants for minor offences. This earned him bitter resentment from the peasants who felt that they were again being treated like serfs. Furthermore he reduced the powers of the zemstva in 1890 in favour of increased landowner control over local government, exiled, hanged or imprisoned members of revolutionary groups (which weakened them for about ten years) and used the new secret police, the Okhrana, to spy on any group opposed to the Tsar. In this way Alexander III preserved the peace in his empire during his reign and his bleak period of repression seemed to bring stability to Russia during a period of industrial growth.

It is ironic that under this repressive regime industrialisation really began to take off in Russia. Under his Finance minister Sergei Witte the Russian economy grew by 8% in the 1890s. Following a famine that claimed many lives in 1891 and foreign activity on Russia’s borders the Csar was forced to adopt the ambitious and costly programmes of Witte. He was the minister of finance and amongst his policies he advocated foreign loans, heavy taxation of the peasants and the development of a Trans-Siberian railroad. These policies were aimed at modernising the country but even though the Trans-Siberian railroad was a massive undertaking most analysts view it as a great economic loss for the already weakened economy.

Although Alexander III’s intensification of the counter-revolution begun by his father in 1866 served to secure his position the seeds of future problems were being sown. His strengthening of the Okhran (under Dmitriy Tolstoy) gave it massive powers. Tolstoy restricted the power the zemstva and his actions, together with those of Pobedonostsev and Delyanov who revived religious censorship, persecuted non-Orthodox and non-Russian populations, helped to develop anti-Semitism, and suppressed the influence of the universities. Their attacks on liberal and non-Russians began to alienate many sections of the population. Many of the individual nationalities, such as the Polish, the Finnish and most of the Baltic States reacted badly to the government’s attempts to ‘Russify’ them (in accordance with the still to be published Fundamental Law No 1). This intensified their nationalism and turned them against mother Russia. In addition many Jews emigrated or joined radical or revolutionary groups who, though fragmented during the early part of Alexander III’s reign, were regrouping.

Thus, secret organizations and political movements continued to develop despite the regime’s efforts to quell them. This became apparent when a member of the People’s Will, Aleksandr Ul’yanov attempted to assassinate Alexander III. He was arrested and executed which greatly influenced his brother Vladimir who, after his conversion to Marxism, changed his name to Lenin. Therefore, following the early death of Alexander III in 1894 at the age of 49, the legacy left to Nicholas II was not encouraging.

Nicholas II was well aware of the legacy of unrest left by his father but, equally, he was intent on maintaining the principle of autocracy. Part of his coronation speech (1894) makes both points clearly:

“I am informed that recently in some zemstva [local assemblies] voices have made themselves heard from people carried away by senseless dreams about participation by members of the zemstva in the affairs of internal government; let all know that I, devoting all my strength to the welfare of the people, will uphold the principle of autocracy as firmly and unflinchingly as my late, unforgettable father”

Nicholas II was young, 26, when he became Csar and he relied heavily on his advisers. Three of the chief advisers were Pobedonostsev, Witte and Plehve. Plehve was the director of the Csarist Russian Police (later Minister of the Interior) and as such was responsible for suppressing much of the political opposition to the Csar. Pobedonostsev had lost much of his influence after the death of Alexander III although Nicholas did hang on to the Russification policy (even extending it to Finland). However, Nicholas disliked the idea of systematic religious persecution although his weakness of character left him impotent in the face of his stronger ministers and advisers. Reluctantly, he allowed Sergei Witte to continue to expand Russia’s industry in the 1890s, but seemed unaware of the social and economic distress in the countryside and the new cities.

Thus, from the start of his reign, Nicholas decided to rule as an autocrat and not to make changes to the political or social system. Like his predecessors Nicholas ruled with the support of two powerful groups; the army and the Orthodox Church. He also had a system of secret police used to spy on any possible unrest. So the autocratic system at the end of the 19th Century still relied on force to survive. With the help of his ministers, the church and the army, who all helped to limit resistance to his rule, it is possible to list the ways in which Nicholas II secured his position as Csar:

Most of the peasants were controlled by ‘mirs’ which were under land captains appointed by the Csar.

The Zemstva controlled local areas and, as we have seen, the Csar had warned them of their ‘senseless dreams’ of involvement in government.

Local governors could arrest opponents of the regime, ban individuals from government, charge heavy fines, censor publications and control the police

10,000 police were dedicated to stopping political opponents of the Csar

Okhrana (secret police) also suppressed political opposition

Loyal Cossacks (cavalry) were prepared and ready to kill rebels.

In addition, secret agents of the Okhrana (working under Zubatov, their chief) set up the Mutual Assistance League of Workers in which they became leaders of the union and attempted to persuade the workers not to make demands for higher wages and better working conditions. Although this would ultimately prove unsuccessful it was another example of control and subversion.

It is also important to remember that many of the peasants, particularly the better treated workers on royal land, still held to the concept of the Csar as the ‘little father’ and laid all their problems at the door of the bureaucrats – not Nicholas.

That said, it is obvious that such oppressive methods must foster opposition to the Csar and even Nicholas himself was to admit how unprepared he was for his role, writing in his diary: “What is going to happen to me, to all Russia? I am not prepared to be the Csar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to minister”. Amongst problems he faced were opposition from the middle class, who wanted a parliament and king (constitutional monarchy) as in Great Britain. More serious was the threat of social revolutionaries.

Such revolutionaries, often violent, wanted to take over land from the nobles and re-distribute them to the peasants. They assassinated officials and Okhrana agents and started to gain wide support in both urban and rural areas. Amongst the (eventually) more significant opposition was the Social Democratic Party who were followers of the philosophy of Karl Marx. In 1903 they split into the Bolsheviks (under Lenin) and the Mensheviks. Although both factions were illegal and had many supporters arrested and executed, the Bolsheviks actively sought revolution – the Mensheviks did not. In addition, the appointment in 1902 of the reactionary Plehve as Minster of the Interior – where he secretly organised Jewish pogroms whilst suppressing advocates of reform – was disastrous and fuelled the fires of revolution. Plehve survived three assassination attempts over the next two years and was killed by the fourth (1904).

Csar Nicholas II was made fully aware of the situation in his country when he received a letter from the writer Tolstoy in 1902, part of which states:

“The numbers of the regular and of the secret police are continually growing. The prisons are overcrowded with convicts and political prisoners. At no time have religious persecutions [of the Jews] been so cruel as they are today. In all cities and industrial centres soldiers are employed and equipped with live ammunition to be sent against the people. Autocracy is an outdated form of government….”

Despite this, Nicholas remained isolated from his people. Conditions for the peasants in Russia in the early 1900s was miserable, brutal and often short. The Industrial Revolution had not started in Russia until the 1880s but by 1900 Russia had the fifth largest economy in the world. It produced more oil than any other nation and some of its factories were the largest in the world. However, in certain respects Russia was still living in the past. Eighty per cent of the population were peasants still living in villages and farming using out of date methods such as wooden ploughs. About fifty per cent of the population were illiterate. Their conditions had not improved much with Emancipation. A rapidly growing population meant that their plots of land had to be divided among more people as families grew. Low agricultural productivity and the increasing sub-division of their land meant that increasing numbers of peasants could not support their families. When crops failed they faced starvation. Most peasants were in debt to their landlords to pay for their farms. Taxes were levied on goods not income and this made life even harder for the poor. Many peasants began to move to the cities and towns in search of work. As one observer noted: “Very often the peasants do not have enough allotment land and cannot during the year feed themselves, clothe themselves, heat their homes, keep their tools and livestock, secure [keep] seed for sowing and, lastly pay all their taxes and debts.” (Published in L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 1966)

The peasants who moved to urban areas fared little better. Workers in the overcrowded slums of the cities earned wages so low that few could afford decent housing. Many workers and their families lived in shared accommodation or in cold, unhealthy, overcrowded barracks provided by their employers. In smaller factories the workers slept by their workbenches. They, like the peasants, had to bear the burden of heavy taxation on food and goods. There was no system of social welfare and, as they were not allowed to form trade unions, no one to deal with their problems. Strikes were not uncommon but these were unsuccessful because there were always workers so poor that they would work under any conditions. The government, which owned the largest factories, was aware of the growing discontent among the workers and was worried about so many living so close together as socialist agitators began to spread ideas of revolution among the poor. Special police were sent by the government to spy on the workers.

As Hasler quotes in The Making of Russia (1969): “The apartment has a terrible appearance, the plaster is crumbling, there are holes in the walls, stopped up with rags. It is dirty. The stove has collapsed. There are legions of cockroaches and bugs . . . No double window frames and so it is piercingly cold. The lavatory is so dilapidated [old and damaged] that it is dangerous to enter and children are not allowed in. All apartments in the house are similar.”

Such conditions obviously left the victims ripe for indoctrination by activists and opponents of the Csar. Disillusionment led to a growth in workers organisations. For example, in 1903 Father George Gapon, a priest from St Petersburg, formed the Assembly of Russian Workers (it quickly grew to 9000 members). 1904 was an even worse year for workers Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike and the first seeds of revolution were planted.

As we have seen Nicholas II was determined to rule as an autocrat in the manner of his father, Alexander III and his great grandfather Nicholas I. He believed that Russia needed strong, autocratic rule to hold the empire together. However, he lacked the strength of character and decisive nature of the true autocrat. The details of government bored him and he preferred to leave these to his advisers. He disliked unpleasant facts about the state of his country and his people so he chose to listen only to those advisers who would cover up the true state of affairs. Nicholas buried himself in the life of his family and neglected affairs of state.

Subsequently, a disastrous war with Japan (1904-1906) would end in defeat and widespread revolution in 1905 would almost cost him his throne, Nicholas was forced to introduce reforms. He promised Russia a Duma, an elected parliament. Although he remained firmly in charge, he promised to allow the parliament some say in the government of the country. This was enough to placate the liberals and some of the moderate revolutionaries. But this was a chance lost. Nicholas had no intentions of sharing power with his people and made this plain in 1906 when he introduced the “Fundamental Laws” giving him complete power over the Duma.

Nicholas II was to reap the seeds of dissolution sown by his father Alexander III and by the failure of his grandfather Alexander II to take his early reforms to their natural conclusion. Russia was given a taste of liberalism under Alexander II and it was snatched back by his father. Additionally, Russia remained backward and didn’t grasp the potential of industrialisation quickly enough or the shift in economic power that it presented. Both peasants and industrial workers were overburdened with taxes as a result of the need to support an economy weakened by the reluctance of the Csars and their ministers to devolve power to outlying areas of their own land and satellite states such as the Baltics, Finland. and Poland. Like his father and grandfather, Nicholas was reluctant to share power with his people marking his own reign with a series of disasters, none of which he dealt with effectively, and ended with revolutions which resulted in his death and that of his family.