General History of Russia – Part Two

Alexander I

Catherine’s grandson ALEXANDER I, who succeeded to the throne after the brief reign (1796-1801) of his unbalanced father, PAUL I, intended to give regular institutional form to the results of the social and cultural evolution of the 18th century. The first years of Alexander’s reign were marked by intensive efforts at reforming the administration and at expanding the educational facilities. Although the reforms did not bring about constitutionalism or limit the autocracy, they did inaugurate rapid bureaucratization with better trained officials.

Russia’s involvement in the NAPOLEONIC WARS proved in some ways an impediment to the normal evolution of the country. NAPOLEON I’s invasion of Russia in 1812, although ending in his own defeat, was hardly a victory for Russia. The wars proved costly, and the ultimate political gains (Finland, penetration into the Caucasus) were rather slim despite Alexander’s diplomatic role after 1815 (notably in the HOLY ALLIANCE). On the other hand, the reconstruction of devastated territories along the route of the French invasion and of Moscow (largely destroyed by fire during the French occupation) gave great impetus to an economic takeoff and involved entrepreneurial initiatives by peasants and urban commoners. It resulted in a rapid expansion of textile manufactures and the building trades, which generated capital and resources for later Russian industrialization.

During the wars the younger generation of educated society had acquired self-confidence and a desire to be of use to their country and people; upon the return of peace they tried to put their ideals into practice. Unavoidably, this led to a clash with a government that was loath to give society genuine freedom and that, after 1815, became more restrictive and obscurantist. Secret societies were organized under the leadership of progressive officers, and, on the sudden death of Alexander I in December 1825, they tried to take over the government. This abortive insurrection of the DECEMBRISTS traumatized Alexander’s successor, his brother NICHOLAS I, into a policy of reaction and repression.

Nicholas I

Nicholas I’s reign, however, was by no means static, and it proved seminal in many respects. In spite of strict censorship, the golden age of Russian literature occurred with the work of Aleksandr PUSHKIN, Nikolai GOGOL, the young Fyodor DOSTOYEVSKY, Leo TOLSTOI, and Ivan TURGENEV. Accompanying this literary flowering, discussion circles sprang up in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in which the intelligentsia debated Russia’s identity, its historical path and role, and its relationship to western Europe (the SLAVOPHILES AND WESTERNIZERS represented the two main lines of interpretation that emerged).

Nicholas was unfavorably disposed to the humanities and limited admissions to the universities, but he promoted technical and professional training. During his reign a number of technical institutions of higher learning were founded, and state support for needy students in professional schools was expanded. By the end of the reign a cadre of well-trained professionals and officials had been prepared to carry out reforms. Nicholas’s government also brought to a successful conclusion the codification of laws (1833; the achievement of Mikhail SPERANSKY), which enabled an orderly and systematic economic development of the country. The building of railroads was initiated, the currency was stabilized, and protective tariffs were introduced. As a result private enterprise was activated, especially in consumer goods (textiles), in which even peasant capital and skill participated. These developments only served to underscore the backward nature of an agrarian economy based on serf labor. Nicholas was well aware of this, but, fearing political and social disturbances, he did not go beyond discussions in secret committees and the improvement of the administration of state peasants.

All the while, however, his government encouraged middle-rank officials to collect accurate and comprehensive data on Russia’s economic and social condition. The Imperial Geographic society sponsored expeditions and statistical surveys that eventually provided the government with information needed to undertake reforms.

The government’s timidity was conditioned not only by fear of a peasant uprising and a distrust of the nobility but also by its international policies. Nicholas’s reign was for the most part peaceful, although Russia did participate in securing Greek independence (1828-29) and in curtailing Turkish power in the Black Sea. Nicholas also acted as the “gendarme of Europe” when he crushed the Polish insurrection of 1831-33 and helped Austria subdue the Hungarians in 1849. The empire further expanded in the Far East (in the Amur River valley). At the end of his reign Nicholas embroiled Russia in the CRIMEAN WAR (1853-56). Although the immediate cause of the war was a dispute over the guardianship of the Holy Places in Palestine, underlying the conflict was the EASTERN QUESTION, the prolonged dispute over the disposition of the territories of the fast-declining Ottoman Empire. The Russians fought on home ground against British and French troops assisted by Sardinian and Austrian forces. The course of the war revealed the regime’s weaknesses, and the death (1855) of Nicholas allowed his son, ALEXANDER II, to conclude a peace (the Treaty of Paris, 1856) that debarred Russian warships from the Black Sea and Straits.

Alexander II and Emancipation of the Serfs

Russian society now expected and demanded far-reaching reforms, and Alexander acted accordingly. The crucial reform was the abolition of serfdom on Mar. 3 (N.S.), 1861. In spite of many shortcomings it was a great accomplishment that set Russia on the way to becoming a full-fledged modern society. The main defects of the emancipation settlement were that cancellation of labor obligations took place gradually, the peasants were charged for the land they received in allotment (through a redemption tax), and the allotments proved inadequate in the long run. The last was a consequence of demographic pressures due to the administrative provisions of the act that restricted the mobility of the peasants and tied them to their village commune, which was held responsible for the payment of taxes; the former serfs remained second-class citizens and were denied full access to regular courts. Nevertheless, 20 million peasants became their own masters, they received land allotments that preserved them from immediate proletarization, and the emancipation process was accomplished peacefully.

Three other major reforms followed emancipation. The first was the introduction (1864) of elected institutions of local government, zemstvos, which were responsible for matters of education, health, and welfare; however, the zemstvos had limited powers of taxation, and they were subjected to close bureaucratic controls. Secondly, reform of the judiciary introduced jury trials, independent judges, and a professional class of lawyers. The courts, however, had no jurisdiction over “political” cases, and the emperor remained judge of the last resort. Finally, in 1874, the old-fashioned military recruiting system gave way to universal, compulsory 6-year military service.

Taken together, the reforms marked the end of the traditional socioeconomic system based on serfdom, and set Russia fully on the path to an industrial and capitalist revolution that brought problems of urbanization, proletarianization, and agrarian crisis in its wake. In part the difficulties resulted from unpreparedness and reluctance on the part of landowners (and many among the intellectual elites) to make necessary adjustments in their economic practices and social attitudes; but they were also caused by government policies that hindered the emergence of a genuine capitalist bourgeoisie and industrial labor force.

The impetus for reform was thwarted and arrested by external and domestic events. Externally, the Polish rebellion of 1863-64 gave pause to the government and, by exacerbating nationalistic feelings, strengthened the conservative opposition to further reforms. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 undermined the financial equilibrium, and chauvinistic passions were aroused when the Treaty of San Stefano, which greatly increased Russian influence in the Balkans, was substantially revised by the Congress of Berlin . At home in the 1860s radical university students and nihilist critics such as Nikolai CHERNYSHEVSKY voiced dissatisfaction with the pace and direction of the reforms. Radical associations were formed to propagandize socialist ideas, and student youth “went to the people” in 1874-76 to enlighten and revolutionize the peasantry. Repressed by the government, the young radicals turned to terrorism. Eventually a group of NARODNIKI (populists) called the People’s Will condemned the emperor to death, and after several dramatic but unsuccessful attempts they killed him on Mar. 13 (N.S.), 1881.

Alexander III

Alexander II’s violent death inaugurated the conservative and restrictive reign of his son ALEXANDER III. Nonetheless, the process of social and economic change released by the reforms could not be arrested. Now society proved more dynamic and took the lead in the drive for modernization and liberalization; the government, on the other hand, incapable of giving up its autocratic traditions, acted as a barrier. The deepening agrarian crisis–dramatized by the famine of 1891–turned the active elements from criticism to overt opposition. At the same time, industrialization energetically pushed by Sergei WITTE, minister of finance (1892-1903), brought in its wake labor conflict, urban poverty, and business cycles.

Expansion and Russian Nationalism

The acquisition of CAUCASIA, under Nicholas I, had required lengthy and difficult campaigns against mountain populations using guerrilla tactics to defend themselves. During the reign of Alexander II, largely on local military initiative, the independent or autonomous Muslim principalities of CENTRAL ASIA were brought under Russian control and turned into virtual colonies for economic exploitation and peasant settlement.

Paralleling the south and southeastward expansions of the empire, the governor-general of Siberia, Nikolai N. Muraviev, forced China to relinquish control over the lower course of the Amur River (Treaty of Aigun, 1858), opening up the Pacific shore to Russian penetration and settlement. The Russian Empire thus increased its territory and developed a genuinely colonial approach to the newly incorporated lands and peoples. With the possible exception of Georgia (incorporated early in the 19th century), native leadership was not absorbed into the Russian nobility or cultural elite, as had been the case in earlier conquests. New administrative practices developed in these territories with the help and participation of the military resulted in the imposition of oppressive rule and socio-economic discrimination against the native populations.

The Slavophile-Westernizer debates over the nature of Russian national identity in the 1830s undoubtedly contributed to a more aggressive and self-centered sense of Russian nationalism, which received strident expression during the Polish revolt of 1863 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. It prompted the government to embark on a consistent policy of Russification and harsh repression of nationalist movements among the non-Russian peoples of the empire. Imperial decrees restricted the use of the Ukrainian language and the privileged status of the Germans in the Baltic provinces. Paradoxically, the actions against the Baltic Germans encouraged the growth of nationalist feeling among the Latvians and Estonians, whom the Germans had dominated. The suppression of the Polish uprising of 1863 was followed by energetic Russification measures aimed at eliminating the Polish language and Polish culture from public life.

Under Alexander III, discriminatory laws against Jews, involving residential restrictions and limited access to secondary and higher education, were reinforced and harshly applied. At the same time, the government did little to control pogroms or anti-Jewish riots. Hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated to Western Europe and the United States, and many who aspired to professional education and cultural assimilation were driven into the arms of radical political parties.

These policies continued unabated under Alexander’s son Nicholas II, whose government also curtailed Finland’s traditional autonomy.

Nicholas II

Nicholas succeeded his father in 1894. The new emperor soon dashed society’s hopes for political and social reform. To deflect attention from the worsening social situation and to neutralize the revitalized revolutionary movement, especially among the workers, the government embarked on imperialist adventures in the Far East, provoking a war with Japan (1904-05). Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, although the peace terms (Treaty of Portsmouth, 1905) were less onerous thanks to the mediation of U.S. president Theodore ROOSEVELT and Japan’s exhaustion.

The war triggered widespread disturbances within Russia, including rural violence, labor unrest (in Saint Petersburg troops fired on a large crowd of demonstrating workers; Bloody Sunday, Jan. 22, 1905), and naval mutinies (most notably, that led by sailors of the battleship Potemkin in Odessa, June 1905). The turmoil of the RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF 1905 culminated in the general strike of October, which forced Nicholas II to grant a constitution. Russia received a representative legislative assembly, the DUMA, elected by indirect suffrage. The executive, however, remained accountable only to the emperor. Limited as its powers were (the suffrage was further restricted in 1907), the Duma made the government more responsive to public opinion. From 1906 to 1911 the government was directed by Pyotr STOLYPIN, who combined repressive action with land reforms to improve the position of the peasants.

The new political activity contributed to the remarkable upsurge of Russia’s artistic and intellectual creativity (called the Silver Age) that lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The Silver Age marked Russia’s coming of age as a contributing participant in Western culture. This happened, first of all, because of the high level of professionalization attained by Russian scholars, scientists, and artists. The process had been initiated in the filed of humanities under Alexander I and was confined at first to the nobility. The reign of Nicholas I marked Russia’s take-off in science and scholarship within the framework of the universities and the Academy of Sciences. In the 1860s prominent Russian scientists such as N. I. LOBACHEVSKY and D. I. MENDELEYEV received full recognition in the West.

After the reforms of Alexander II, the needs of the zemstvos, the new judicial system, and of the rapidly developing industrial system produced an exponential increase in the number of technicians and professionals in such areas as law, medicine, engineering, agronomy, and statistics. Professional associations aimed at playing an active role in shaping government and public policies in their fields for the benefit of society.

By the first decade of the 20th century Russia had moved to the forefront of scholarly and scientific progress; the contributions of Russian scientists in such areas as chemistry, aeronautics, linguistics, history;, archaeology, and statistics were universally recognized.

Equally significant was the renaissance of religious life, and growing interest in the question of church involvement in social problems. Reformist laymen and clergy demanded greater independence for the church, calling for a national church council to address the needs and define the character of Russia’s ecclesiastical institutions. Closely allied to the religious renaissance was the development of the personalist-existentialist school of Russian philosophy by N. A. BERDYAYEV, N. O. Lossky (1870-1965), L. Shestov (1866-1938), and others.

Last, but not least, the Silver Age witnessed an extraordinarily creative outburst in the arts. The composer Igor STRAVINSKY, ballet impresario Sergei DIAGHILEV, and the painter Wassily KANDINSKY each had a strong influence on the emergence of avant-garde modernism before and after World War I. In the same period, CONSTRUCTIVISM and SUPREMATISM were original Russian contributions to abstract art.

Thus the years 1905-14 were a period of great complexity and ferment. To many this feverish intellectual creativity, which had its social and political counterpart in rural unrest, industrial discontent, revolutionary agitation, and nationalist excesses (for example, the pogroms against the Jews), proved that the imperial regime was nearing its inevitable end, which the outbreak of war only served to delay. On the other side, liberals and moderate progressives saw in these phenomena harbingers of Russia’s decisive turn to political democracy and social and economic progress, which was abruptly stopped in 1914.

In any event Russia went to war in August 1914. Determined to prevent further Austro-Hungarian encroachment in the Balkans, the Russian government rallied to the support of Serbia when Austria-Hungary declared war on that Balkan nation. Russia’s alliance with France and Britain¬† and Austria-Hungary’s with Germany helped transform the local Balkan conflict into WORLD WAR I. The strains of that bloody and disastrous conflict produced a breakdown of both the political system and the social fabric in Russia. Food riots in Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) and other cities toppled the monarchy in March (N.S.; February, O.S.) 1917.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917

Following the abdication of the emperor the Duma established a provisional government, headed first by Prince Georgy Lvov (1861-1925) and later by Aleksandr KERENSKY. The government’s authority was challenged, however, by an increasingly radical Soviet (council) of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies, and it could not stem the tide of disintegration. Eventually agrarian unrest, mass desertions at the front, turmoil in the cities, and disaffection of the non-Russian nationalities gave the Bolsheviks ¬†¬† under Vladimir Ilich LENIN an opening to seize power in November (N.S.; October, O.S.) 1917. Thus the second of the two RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONS OF 1917 occurred, leading to the establishment of the UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS.


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