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The Educational Blog (q/theeducationalblog)Why did the Russian Empire fall?
The Empire of Russia (1721–1917) ended in 1917 with the proclamation of a Republic, one of the many consequences to have emanated from a catalyst event known foremostly as the “February Revolution” (March, 1917), in which the Russian people, having previously placed their last hopes in a constitutionally restrained Romanov Dynasty (1613–1917), finally liberated Russia from the Tsarist regime, and replaced it instead with a provisional government.
The events which transpired in those early days of 1917 – make no mistake – was not a one off occasion. Instead, it was a culmination of years of compounded upon, additional neglect, anger and frustration at a perception that change had failed, and failed where it was due, promised and obligated. The events of March 1917 had its roots in an earlier insurrection, the “1905 Revolution” (Jan.-Jul, 1905) which saw the final abolishing of an absolutist regime, and its replacement with a more “enlightened” Constitutional Monarchy instead.
When that had occured, the nation as a whole seemingly rejoiced as one in unison to put it sharp and shortly. They believed that now that their Tsar, Nicholas II (Николай II Алекса́ндрович) had had nominal limits placed on his power, their beloved “Little Father” of Russia would actually begin to hearken to the plights of his people and reign accordingly, but alas, after 12 years of void and complacency, the Tsar just had to go. This much was true. And that was exactly what happened. Thus ended the Russian Empire, and into the dustbin of history with it went also a 300 year old dynasty.
A map of the expansive Russian Empire (Российская Империя) at its heights in 1866 under the reign of Alexander II (Алекса́ндр II Никола́евич) with a total land area of 23.7 million km^2 (dark green indicates de facto held territories, light green references the Russian spheres of influence. Source:):
A vast oversimplification though? Perhaps. To truly understand the fall of Imperial Russia during the Early 20th Century, it will probably help to examine all of the Late Imperial Era firstly, including the preconditions to the 1905 Revolution, itself a precursor to the February Revolution which finally ended the Russian Empire. Obviously, this means that it will be downright impossible for me to even think about writing a short answer. So then, sit down, buckle up and enjoy the show I guess.
As per usual with all my serious answers, I will write this response in terms of chapters, the contents of which are all presented below as follows (you can also just skip down to the conclusion for a “TL;DR” if you’re short on time):
- Chapter I: “Precondition”: Context of Russia Prior to the 1905 Revolution
- Chapter II: “Change”: An Empire of Absolute Disharmony
- Chapter III: “All in Vain”: The Failures of Romanov Russia
- Chapter IV: “Renunciation”: The Fall of the Imperial Russia
- Conclusion (TL;DR)
- Offline Sources Utilized
- Online Sources Utilized
Chapter I: “Precondition”: Context of Russia Prior to the 1905 Revolution
Revolutions, all revolutions in fact can be represented mathematically using one simple equation, presented down below as follows:
Revolution = Preconditions + Precipitants
They are the fuel and the fire essentially. And Russia to be extremely blunt, by the late 19th Century was a land filled to the brim with revolutionary preconditions. Some of these circumstances, were unfortunately out of human control. Others however, were not. All of which shall be discussed throughout the entirety of this chapter regardless.
Anyways, geographically speaking, Russia was a vast land. It spanned approximately 8,000 km from Poland to the further edges of Siberia along the Western Pacific, and 3,000 km also from its furthest points on a North-South axis. Covering 11 time zones, this meant that whensoever the Sun had just set in the West, it was merely rising in the East. As a result, it would often take days if not weeks for orders (and news) to travel from one end of the empire, to the other.
5 different vegetation zones existed, a huge portion of which were redundant for roughly 6/12 months for any given year, as an equally huge portion of the Empire froze over, thanks to temperatures which dropped to as low as -40 degrees celsius.
Köppen climate types of Russia (note the varying climates which still exist in a downsized Russian Federation (1991- Present Day) today):
The implication of these matters? Food would always be a perpetual issue for the Imperial Government, speaking of which were unable to always communicate effectively over large distances with anyone it needed to. This led to a domino chain effect, which made it yet even more difficult to coordinate strategic efforts aimed at military defence, itself also disadvantaged with regards to the Imperial Russian Navy (Российский императорский флот), for whom it was not always possible, or if so, desirable to travel Eastwards in the event of an emergency.
Major projects which needed to be completed (eg. the Trans-Siberian Railway), given the long distances and therefore funds needed to complete the project, could therefore never be undertaken by a local administration, forcing the Central Government to intervene regularly. In turn, this arguably lead the Tsarist regime to intervene more in the lives of commoners, than would otherwise be considered healthy.
Demographically, the Empire of Russia was a multi-ethnic state, which by itself is of course no issue, but Russia’s problem was actually that there lacked a state of ethnic harmony. In a population, as registered by Imperial Russia’s first National Census in 1897 of 126 million people (the largest in Europe), there existed apart from the Russian majority also, no less than 60 major ethnic minorities. Germans, Jews, Tatars and Armenians were merely some of these said groups.
A genuine colour portrait (1904) depicting an ethnic couple from Dagestan (a region that is geographically located in the North Caucasus):
Despite being a multicultural and multilingual empire, and despite such a status quo having existed for quite a while, what deeply concerned the Central Government by that point in time, was a feeling of being deeply “overwhelmed” in one’s own country. The Russian people they argued, not only made up less than half of the Empire’s population, but was also reproducing the slowest. If things did not change, then what was to become the fate of Russia?
And the minorities also did have a past record of nationalistic tendencies they argued… so this was surely unacceptable. Without intervention, the stability of the Russian Nation would be under threat. Alexander III (Алекса́ндр III Алекса́ндрович), who was Tsar at the time, thus proposed an agenda known as “Russification” (Русификация), which was intended to assimilate the ethnic peoples of the Empire into one single group, the “Great Russians”, a group which was proclaimed to be tied together both by a common language and culture.
To cut a long story short, Russification for the most part failed to achieve most of what it so desired, a sense of national unity and ethnic harmony. Ethnic minorities subjected to a persecution and alienation resulting from Russianization, not only didn’t really have much of a reason to feel more Russian than previously, but now also resorted to radical nationalism, in the form of extreme and revolutionary violence to make clear their dissatisfactions at the new status quo.
An illustration of a Jewish man (representing all Russian Jews), literally bearing the bundle of “Oppression” on his back, bogged down further by the weights of “Murder” and “Deception” to name a few:
Socially speaking, Russia was a dual country. On the one hand, its most well to do sometimes rivalled, other times even surpassed their Western European counterparts with regards to comfort living. Russia was also an established scientific and cultural great power.
Regarding literature for example, author Leo Tolstoy (Лев Толсто́й) was advancing the cause of Russia through many masterpieces, including the world renowned novels, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”.
Similarly with regards to science, a Russian physicist, Emil Lenz (Эмилий Ленц) was the first to propose meanwhile, the existence of an eponymous concept known as “Lenz’s Law”, describing the tendency of an induced current, resultant of a change in magnetic field to flow in a specific direction such, that it was able to create its own magnetic field, which in turn worked to oppose the change that originally produced it.
All in all, Russia’s highest echelons were definitely not inferior to any of their “prestigious” Western counterparts. With regards to the rest of Russian society however, the same could not be said to hold true. By the Late Imperial Era, Russian society was split into 5 major social classes, the Ruling Class, the Upper Class, the Middle Class, the Working Class and the Peasantry, with each one strictly defined, and with little room for social mobility allowed also.
Indeed, the following in fact was the true face of Russian society by the times of the 1897 National Census:
Great wealth, and great poverty were the embodiment of Russian society towards the end of the 1800s, and dawn of the 20th Century.
At any given time in the last days of the House of Romanov, the vast majority of Russia in the form of the Peasantry, who made up more than 80% of the Empire’s population, were barely making ends meet with subsistence farming (if they were even lucky to have done so), poorly educated and had a low standard of living in general.
A Ukrainian revolutionary, Sergey Kravchinsky (Серге́й Кравчи́нский) once especially noted the poor living conditions of the Peasantry:
“It is difficult to conceive of more exhausting work… when moving the hay… the peasants do not allow themselves more than six hours rest out of twenty-four… they hardly ever eat meat… the ordinary run of villagers, during eight months out of twelve, eat bread mixed with husks, pounded straw or birch bark… a whole third of our peasantry has become landless rural workers in modern Russia.”
A group of Russian Peasants during the early 1900s:
To make matters worse, there already existed a state of limbo with regards to pro-people policies concerning the Peasantry. Decades earlier in 1861, a collection of great reforms from the highest levels of Russian society was implemented, in the form of the “Emancipation Edict” (Крестьянская реформа 1861 года) aimed at eliminating serfdom throughout Russia.
Though well intentioned and significantly successful (40 million peasants were liberated, and given their own homes and patches of land for free), still it was not enough for the vast majority of Russia’s impoverished.
Farming, rather than being a profitable activity as it was in Britain and elsewhere at the time, due to inefficient techniques (ie. a “Three-Field System” rather than Crop Rotation and Animal Fertilization) saw to it that, the Peasantry’s plight would continue to stay omnipresent, when disasters such as the famine of 1881, swept 17 provinces of the Empire, and claimed the lives of thousands.
Imperial failure to respond effectively, further exacerbated widespread discontent and mistrust in the capabilities of the Central Government to solve such an issue. Of course, rumours which claimed that the Tsar’s Administration was withholding food, did not help much towards this regard either.
The Peasantry’s urban counterparts however, the next 4% of Russia in the form of the Working Class, also did not really have it much better either. Russia was industrializing towards the later half of the 1800s, this was good news. As a consequence, much of the Peasantry, seeking paid wages and better jobs, flocked en masse towards the centers of population, Moscow (Mосква) and St. Petersburg.
A table clearly depicting the growing populations of St. Petersburg and Moscow from years 1881–1914 partly as a result of internal migration from the countryside, into the urban centers (Source: Lynch, Michael. (2000). Reaction and Revolution: Russia 1881–1921, Hodder & Stoughton):
But alas, the promised land was all but a lie. They were suffering from a common illness still omnipresent all over the world to this day, a notion that “the grass was greener on the other side”. It was not, as government factory inspectors quickly discovered on one particular routine checkup at the fall of the 19th Century:
“The air is rotten with the stench from factory smoke… and the filth in gutters and organic wastes on streets and squares. The interior of most workers’ living quarters are just as bad… Inside they are extremely dirty and crowded with tenants… Work at the mills never stops, day or night.
Many of the workers in the steel mills are… literally “working with fire”. For when steel is smelted, the metal is heated white-hot for stamping and rolling rails… the intensity of flaming light is undoubtedly harmful to the eyes… there are two twelve-hour shifts a day… The shops where tobacco is chopped and dried are so filled with caustic dust and nicotine fumes that I had spasms in my throat and my eyes watered… According to my observations 181 industrial establishments, only 71 pay their workers regularly.”
In cloth factory number 48 which is typical of such establishments… there was no ventilation at all… moving around these machines is extremely hazardous, and accidents could easily happen to the… most careful of workers.”
The next 1.5% of Imperial Russia, was made up of the “Middle Class”. Possibly the broadest class there was at the time, wealthy industrialists and educated individuals collectively known as the “Intelligentsia” made up the middle section of Russian society. Theirs was a particularly interesting position. They were neither high, nor low. And that, was what made them dangerous, and the epitome of “class conflict” with regards to the rulers of Russia, and their nobility.
A photo of one particular Kyiv based intelligentsia (the “Hyromada of Kyiv”):
The basic theory of Modern Economics states that not only do we have “unlimited desires”, but that the “more we have, the more we shall demand” also. This was true of the Middle Class. What defined the Upper Classes however, was perfectly encapsulated in a particular American film 13 years ago, “all who have power are afraid to lose it”. If not for their numbers and lack of unity, the Middle Classes would surely overthrow the the Old Regime no?
Except that they couldn’t, since they were hated both by lower and higher sections of society alike. The Peasantry and Urban Worker were envious of their prosperity, and the Nobility of their education and future potential. Though this particular class was in disharmony, still many of the intelligentsia in particular, noted the plight of workers and peasants, fuelling anti-establishment tendencies. An educated but wealthy class with nothing to lose, and everything to gain, this was the volatile “X-Factor” and all parties involved knew it.
A 1911 newspaper graphic showcasing the class conflict which was observed to have existed between various segments of Russian society, published by the “Union of Russian Socialists” (Союз социалистов-революционеров-максималистов):
Then there were the Ruling and Upper Classes themselves. Tax exempt, maximized privileges, unrivalled incomes, supernaturally low workloads and supreme fear of anything which had the potential to threaten their power, the Nobility, Church and State all in one sat at the apex of the Russian Empire, comprising 12.5% of the population.
Those loyal to the Tsar were placed up in high positions, and each group already wealthy, seeked still to further their wealth by way of petty, and meaningless competition with one another. This was done by perpetual monitoring of any potential rivals to ensure that even those within the same class with the means to challenge them, would ultimately be unsuccessful.
At the very highest point of the prosperous classes, was the Tsar of Holy Russia himself, Nicholas II. Nicholas more often than not in hindsight, has often been cited as fundamentally “good” man by many historians alike. This was true on a personal, and individual level. However, as ruler of Mankind’s second largest empire ever by total land area? The same cannot be said for this one particular aspect. It was not so much malevolence, but rather incompetency which ultimately defined his reign.
A photograph (1892) depicting Nicholas II, last Tsar (then Duke) of Imperial Russia:
The major issue with the Tsar, was that he did not want to be one and yet, still stubbornly refused to dismantle the “office” of autocracy in favour of a more pluralistic world. God was the being he reasoned, whom has appointed over Russia the blessings of a monarchy, and thus such an institution could not be revoked under any circumstances.
This particular opinion, he made clear as Historian Richard Pipes argues:
“Nicholas was committed to absolutism in part because he believed himself duty-bound by his coronation oath to uphold this system, and in part because he felt convinced that the intellectuals were incapable of administering the empire.”
And yet, what was his response upon being announced as the successor to his then recently deceased grandfather, Alexander III? Chiefly the following lines:
“What is going to happen to me and to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers.”
A portrait of Nicholas II’s grandfather, Alexander II who was assassinated when a bomb was thrown into his carriage, eventually killing him later (the importance of this event further saw to Nicholas’ unwillingness to become Tsar):
Historians also seem to disagree on what it was exactly, that made Nicholas II an arguably poor ruler. John Hite for one insists that it was weakness on part of the Tsar which led to a failure to reform successfully, whilst Orlando Figes rejects such remarks and stresses that the Tsar’s unwillingness to back down from ruling full stop, despite clear indicators that he was unfit for service, was what was truly to blame.
Speaking of which politically, at the center of it all was the pervasive idea of autocracy. Russia was quite a traditional nation in this regard, when compared to its Western European peers. Once upon a time, all countries in Europe had had some form of Absolute Monarchy or another, centered around a Feudal System. But whilst the West became more democratic, representative and liberal, Russia had no desire to follow suit.
Instead, the contrary was what occured. In 1832, a set of edicts collectively called the “Set Laws of the Russian Empire” (Свод законов Российскои империи) was announced, which asserted in favour of the unlimited, autocratic powers of the Tsar by whom, “God himself commands his supreme power to be obeyed.” And more and more as the years went by during the final days of the Russian Empire, this became quite problematic both externally and internally.
Napoléon Bonaparte’s failed invasion of the Empire of Russia in 1812, provided for the existence of 2 simultaneous effects. The first one, was resultant of the Russian military victory over their French counterparts. The victory was crucial, because it reaffirmed the Russian belief in the innate appropriateness of autocracy, courtesy of being buoyed by a combination of both pride and nationalism alike.
An artist’s impression of Napoléon’s retreat from Russia:
The second effect, though not a direct one, included the rapid acceleration of a phenomenon which had in fact existed before, and that was the steady influx of Western European ideas into Romanov Russia itself. For merely 29 years prior, the French Revolution (1789–99) had occured, inspired by latest developments in modern thinking. And now, these very same Enlightenment Era (1715–89) ideals, were flowing into Russia also.
The parties most affected by this influx, would had to have been the Russian Nobility themselves. Many of these well travelled nobles, influenced by what they had read by the likes of Baron de Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau alike to name a few, begun to question the effectiveness of autocracy. And in doing so, they begun to also suggest as an alternative, the idea that Russia should modernize and enact change, in accordance with the more progressive Western ideologies.
And so Russian society essentially became quite divided at an internal level, which in time gave rise to a quasi-identity crisis. “We are Russian, yes? But is the Russian ethnicity ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’?” And so you had a dual country with regards to this aspect also, a clear Russian majority, but a “Westernized” elite. This would prove not only to be a serious issue, but a historically recurring theme which would of course last all the way up until the early 20th Century for sure.
An artist’s impression of the Russian nobility during the “heydays” of the Empire:
And what happened there, concerns the external aspect of Russia regarding reform. Russia was very much involved in Continental European matters, and so naturally it did end up facing political pressure (much like modern Russia does today still in fact), regarding foreign demands to reform domestically. Liberal France, and Democratic Britain desired a new Free Russia in their own image essentially, but this was completely unacceptable to Nicholas II for reasons covered previously, despite the hopes of all opposed.
Russia was to stay an autocracy, now and forever. And this was a huge part of the problem. Nicholas II failed to understand the plights of his people under the reins of Autocracy, and could not truly comprehend why they would be dissatisfied at such “perfect” system. In reality, all elements of this Autocracy- of which there were 4 major ones – had truly proved to be anything but useful.
Russian Bureaucracy, was one of these said harmful elements of Romanov Autocracy, and already, this was encapsulated rather well by a Russian proverb which existed at the time:
“Any stick will do to beat a thief but only a rouble will help you with an official.”
The First Emperor of Russia, Peter the Great (Пётр Вели́кий) had attempted to modernize the country (already) during his reign by introducing a highly competent civil service to administer the furthest corners of his empire. Alas, no matter how successful such an attempt was initially, it was all in tatters by the mid-1800s.
A portrait of Peter I (Пётр I), First “Emperor of All Russia” (Император Всероссийский):
An inherent flaw which existed regarding the bureaucracy by this point in time, was political corruption. To be a Russian bureaucrat during the Imperial Era meant not just only a vast yet stable income, but also no small amount of prestige as well. This prestige was showcased visually, as all civil servants were allowed to don a special distinct uniform which acted to not so modestly advertise his special status.
Naturally, there existed no incentive for these privileged bureaucrats to accept change where it was most needed. They were understandably opposed to any pro-people reform which benefited the majority, (and at their own expense) desiring instead to maintain their tall standing in Russian society.
And again, Pipes has much to say on this matter regarding the Russian Bureaucrat:
“… on being admitted to the civil service, a Russian official swore loyalty, not to the state or the nation, but to the person of the ruler. He served entirely at the pleasure of the monarch and his own immediate superiors.”
The corrupt and inefficient nature of the bureaucracy made it pointless to actually challenge the status quo, unless the challenger happened to also have been well connected within the Civil Service itself, self serving individuals which could of course be bribed with a near certain rate of success. As a result, Tsar Peter’s reforms were all but redundant by the times of Nicholas II.
Aside from this, Provincial Governments were also another autocratic feature which served to oppress the Russian peoples. Local governments were perhaps the lesser of the four evils, as they were supported by the existence of local councils, or “zemstvos” (земство), which sometimes possessed a significant amount of progressively minded individuals, as they were elected.
An artist’s impression of a zemstvos convention in session:
However this was the exception rather than the norm, the self-interested nobility was still the backbone of the Imperial Administration throughout all 96 Russian provinces. And though progressive individuals inundated the zemstvos, all governors were appointed directly from up top by the Tsar. Overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) so, governors tended to also be noblemen.
And of course, they too were quite corrupt as their bureaucratic counterparts. The thing was that in theory, the governors would be accountable to the Ministry of the Interior, but since in reality, not only were they close to the Tsar (being nobles and all), but that they were also the Central Government’s main intermediary with regards to the vast expanse of Russia outside of the major cities, there was little resistance to the desires of these noble governors.
And whensoever for one reason or another, a unfavourable demand headed their way from St.Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург), they could be easily swept under a rug with little or no repercussion. Naturally, it should not come as a surprise to anyone then the grievances of the Russian people remained largely unsolved throughout the Late Imperial Era.
And to make matters worse, post the 1860s, the provincial governors were also able to create their own laws in addition, whensoever they wished too. This was the phenomenon of “arbitrariness”, and it led to inconsistent and often, self-interested decision making amongst the local ruling classes.
But apart from that, yet another instrument of the Russian Autocracy was surely the Russian Orthodox Church also. All three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have historically tended to have a strong influence on political matters. Until “recently” in many countries, there was for the most part no distinction between the Church and State.
A photograph depicting the world renowned St.Basil’s Cathedral (opened 1561 AD), a time enduring symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church:
The Orthodox Church was no exception in this matter. Religion remained a very crucial part of an average Imperial Russian citizen’s life, especially if one was part of the Working or Peasant Class. To labour in painful toil the entirety of one’s life was a suffering that many had to deal with. Russian Christianity took this pain away by insisting in the validity of the words of Christ, Redeemer of Mankind.
As a result, in Russian society (but also anywhere else in Europe up to a certain period), there was a vast majority of people who placed their faith in organized religion. That was for Christianity in general. The Orthodox Church specifically however, became more than religion in the case of Russia, but was used to represent Russian culture, and was instrumental in reinforcing the notions of a distinct Russian identity, that was different from that of the Western European counterparts, who by that time were either Roman Catholic or Protestant of sorts.
And unfortunately for the Russian people, their State knew all this and more, and thus used it wholly to their advantage. The Church was placed under the control of the Imperial Administration at the dawn of the Empire in 1721, and was forced to pledge allegiance as part of their oath to the Tsar in order, “to defend, unsparingly all powers, rights and prerogatives belonging to the High autocracy of his Majesty.”
Now whilst not even a Tsar could officially intervene in matters of faith, he was however allowed to appoint a individuals loyal to the throne, into positions as high up and important as that of the “Procurator of the Holy Synod” (обер-прокурор), allowing him to keep a watchful eye on the Church. Even if the people were dissatisfied with the status quo, the “Divine Right of Kings” combined with the power of the Church was enough to persuade them to contemplate otherwise.
Members of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, convening in 1911:
And of course by the late 1800s, the Church was being used to support ultra-conservative values. Political change opposed by Nicholas, was likewise condemned by the Church. Autocracy on the other hand, which was particularly encouraged by the Tsar, was also “mysteriously” supported by the Church by way of happy “coincidence”. Efforts at political change were thus opposed and negated in this way.
And last but not least of the people’s sorrows with regards to Autocracy, was also the Secret Police for sure. A standard police force of course did exist, for purposes relating to general law and order, but they were often quite limited in numbers considering the vastness of Russia, in terms both of geography and demography.
And so of course imminently with the passing of time, to consolidate their power, the Tsars of Russia had secret police forces every now and then. The ones of particular interest by the late 19th Century, included the “Okhrana” (Охрана) and the renowned quasi-militiamen known as the “Cossacks” (козаки́), the former who specifically dealt with political crimes against the state.
Infamous for their use of many morally dubious, and unconventional methods, the Okhrana were a force that was feared throughout the entirety of the Russian Empire. In their efforts to defend the House of Romanov against any internal threats which had even a remote chance of arising, they used torture to extract information, arbitrarily arrested anyone they deemed a threat to the Tsar, and often detained political prisoners indefinitely, until their said tasks had been completed.
A group photograph of several members of the Okhrana in St.Petersburg:
For all these factors and more, none however were as so important a precondition to Revolution, as was the Russian attempt at Industrialization. Modernization was the most significant revolutionary precondition, not because it was a factor in itself, rather it was due to the fact that it existed as what was essentially a “force multiplier”. Whatever was already there before, be it bad or good, was intensified. The good became the great, and the bad became the extra extra not so great.
The need for urgent yet meaningful change, first came about in the form of what was essentially a rude awakening to the Romanov Administration: the “Crimean War” (1853–56). Internal strife within the borders of Russia’s long time rival, the formerly impervious Ottoman Empire (1299–1922) saw to the first independent Orthodox Christian nation within the Balkans. Enter Serbia post their Revolutionary War of Independence (1804–35), and enter several more Slavic nationalist groups within Ottoman territories, vying for a sense of national self-determination.
Enter also powerful Russia, effectively “World Police” (of Europe) post the “Congress of Vienna” (1815), which upheld the values of a European peace in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). The Empire of Russia had long considered itself to be the “Mother of the Slavs”, it was the self-proclaimed defender of the Slavic peoples, Slavic culture and therefore by extension Orthodox Christianity. The Ottomans, who were not only preventing Slavic independence, but were also majority Muslim, therefore simply had to go.
And with martial forces from the House of Osman bogged down across several fronts alike, now was the time to strike. And so naturally the Russians struck in the pivotal year of 1853 in the midst of summer. To cut a long story short, the war ended in disaster for Russian forces, who ended up drawing the ire of a combined Anglo-French force also. And in the end, the Allied armies, superior in almost every way possible, contracted a combined casualty count merely half of that suffered by the Russians, despite possessing a force of 600,000, as opposed to Imperial Russia’s 900,000 strong.
A painting, “The Siege of Sevastopol” by Russian painter, Franz Roubaud depicting said battle during the Crimean War:
To say that it was an embarrassment to the Russian Empire, would be a huge understatement. The war was not only punishing in terms of contracted casualties, but also revealed several fundamental flaws within the Russian military itself. Left with an inefficient transport system, poor supplies, an uneducated and corrupt military leadership, antiquated combat styles and a lack of industrial and social sophistication, the war was over long before it even really begun, truth be told.
And so in the aftermath of the tragedy that was the Crimean War, the Romanov Administration finally decided in favour, of embarking upon a series of serious reforms at long last. Industrialization was pursued as a distinct government policy under Alexander II all throughout the 1870s, but was not significantly enhanced until the 1890s under the watchful eye of successor, Alexander III.
Presumably much to the disappointment of liberal elements within Russian society however, the Tsar did not make his reforms universally applicable to all aspects of Russian society, equally. He rejected a sense of social and political reform, fearing its potential to undermine the Romanov Autocracy, but possessed a more favourable attitude towards the technological, economic and military modernization of Russia however, through Industrialization in the Western European sense.
For the Tsarist regime, with the horrors of the Crimean War still fresh in mind, Industrialization was also viewed particularly as a way to promote military growth and strength. The resulting efforts however, would ultimately prove to have far reaching consequences which permeated to all significant echelons of Imperial Russia.
This rapid industrialization period was known as the “Great Spurt”, and was overseen by an ambitious individual serving as the Empire’s Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte (Серге́й Ви́тте), a portrait of whom can be seen below as follows (photo taken in the early 1880s):
His mission? To specifically modernize the Russian State strictly in line with the successes of Western Europe through rapid Industrialization. A secondary objective was to do this whilst protecting National Industry also. With a task this immense, Witte (and rightfully so) felt completely overwhelmed. He was a highly competent econometrician, who understood both mathematics and market mechanics alike, but to even begin to complete such an ambitious project… he required immediate assistance. And this was so.
Foreign advisers were brought in left and right from all over the Industrialized World, advisers which proved to be useful in the long run, as they allowed Witte to understand Western Industrial planning and techniques.
As for the Russian Economy itself, sooner than later, he believed that the only way forward was for the Empire to adopt a mixed economy; “State-Run Capitalism”. It was a special type of economic system, which though operated on the principles of Classical Economics, as advocated by Scottish economist, Adam Smith, featured both heavy government regulation, and significant government control over the “Factors of Production” (Land, Labour and Economic Capital).
A Russian Factory (Economic Capital) from the 1890s:
Armed with these weapons and more, Witte prepared for war. Firstly, foreign capital (financial as opposed to economic capital) in the form of development loans were permitted, in order to simultaneously facilitate the growth of Russia’s natural resources on one hand, and the development of industry on the other.
Secondly, Russia’s national currency, the “Rouble” meanwhile was placed on the “Gold Standard” (allowing it to be traded for gold), which acted towards promoting a low valued currency relative to foreign counterparts, in order to spur Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the Empire.
And thirdly, Witte in line with the ideology of State-Run Capitalism, advocated in favour of protectionism which lead to his announcement that all foreign produced goods were henceforth to be limited on the Russian market, whilst many several tariffs were imposed likewise to protect the development of Russian industry.
On paper at least, the Russian Economy was booming. By the 1905 Revolution, Russia was already accounting for at least 8% of Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By the late 1890s, a vast majority of new plants and factories in St.Petersburg were already being financed using foreign based funds, usually from France. Similarly, by year 1900, already half of Russian Heavy Industry was foreign owned, all whilst the Empire was the 4th largest producer of steel in the world, and 2nd largest yet still with regards to petroleum production.
A chart comparing the Growth of National Products in six separate European countries over a period of 15 years from 1898–1913 (Source: Lynch, Michael. (2000). Reaction and Revolution: Russia 1881–1921, Hodder & Stoughton):
New railways allowed transport to be brought unto the furthest corners of the Empire, allowing factories, dams and mines amongst many other infrastructure projects to be constructed all throughout the Imperial Russia. All in all, the Industrial Economy of the Russian State, came to progress more in merely one decade than in the entirety of the previous century.
This much was true, as Historian Abraham Ascher further recounts below as follows:
“The national budgets from 1903 to 1913 indicated that the government received more than 25 per cent of its income from various holdings. Russia’s economic progress in the eleven years of Witte’s tenure as minister of finance was, by every standard, remarkable. Railway trackage virtually doubled, coal output in southern Russia jumped from 183 million poods in 1890 to 671 million in 1900.”
But at the end of the proverbial day, that’s all it was, progress… on paper. In reality, for all the gains which had been accrued under the wise guidance of Minister Witte, a significant portion of this reform was surely in vain. With rapid modernization for one, came rising prices, taxes and interest rates – all burdens too much for the vast majority of Russia’s citizens to bear, the Peasantry in particular. Speaking of which, Agriculture, their main way of living, was still left relatively unprotected and undeveloped.
Industrialization was also quite unevenly distributed, and the positive effects thereof were mainly felt in the wealthy West, which sure, was where most of Russia lived, but it meant that the entirety of the East; Siberia was left in the shadows of progress in the meantime, left behind by a world which cared not for their plights. To repair such issues, Witte proposed an infrastructure corridor to link the two horizontal halves of Russia together, in the form of the “Trans-Siberian Railway” (Транссибирская магистраль).
9,289 km of railway, laid side by side from Western Russia, to the Easternmost fringes of the Empire. It was hoped that such a project would not only facilitate, but encourage immigration from West to East and vice-versa. How much of a success it was was not important, what was crucial was just how expensive it was, acting to further diminish funds which Russia could not afford to expend.
A map of the Trans-Siberian Railway at the dawn of the 20th Century:
Witte’s attempts at industrialization at the time, imminently sooner than later also faced significant, domestic based opposition which acted to further slow reforms yet still. Conservative elements within Romanov Russia, fiercely opposed Witte’s reforms, arguing that for all his supposed “progress”, it was null because Heavy Industry was being developed at the expense of Light Industry and of course, Agriculture (and rightfully so) as well. Worse still, this development was being done with too much reliance on foreign capital.
And this Industrialization furthermore, to an extent was only really beneficial at a material level, and even then really only on a national level, benefiting those who were already wealthy beyond belief. It did little to solve the plights of the Peasantry, or the Urban Worker, and often in fact, the contrary was quite true. Industrialization as asserted earlier, was proportional to the number of workers which existed in Russia. When Industrialization accelerated, so too did an increase in city based wage labourers occur. And this was the source of all issues.
The force multiplier of industrialization was most evident regarding the plight of the Urban Working Class. Given the rapidly diminishing marginal returns on Agricultural Production due to many circumstances, hundreds and thousands of Peasants had flocked to the cities seeking to become wage labourers. This migration provided a ready made industrial labour force, acting to facilitate the desired growth of industry on one hand, but soon another issue was becoming increasingly clear.
The lack of incentive for the Capitalist classes to actually invest in new capital, acted to further make life hard for an already labour wearried Working Class. Profit maximization was the chief goal in a Market Economy, and so the Proletariat suffered accordingly, working 14, 15 hour days for minimal returns. Something which was only exacerbated by a lack both of legal workplace protection and trade unions of course. Thus begun a state of “wage exploitation”.
A photograph depicting the Capital of Russia, St.Petersburg in the year 1900:
Russian Industrialization was also unfortunate enough to have taken place during the late 1800s and early 1900s, a period of time in which world wide economic booms, were quickly met with equivalent developments towards the opposite ends; busts and contractions. This lead to a failure to further fulfill rising class expectations, which once more acted only to contribute to growing public discontent with the Romanov regime; discontent which would later prove to be irreversible during the 1905 Revolution.
And this showed to, the number of industrial strikes which had to be suppressed militarily rose from merely 19 in 1893, to 522 in 1902. In a span of 9 years in other words, the number of industrial strikes had risen approximately 27.5 times over. Even taken out of context, such a number anywhere in the world, and in any country would not be considered “good”. But worse, it just had to happen in 20th Century Russia. And yet still, meaningful change was not on the Imperial agenda.
The last hope of the regime, Industrialization did not have all the intended effects it was thought to be able to invoke. Instead, the people were enraged, and angrier than ever:
“Every day we must hear, now here, now there, that a man has died and our bloodsuckers continue to stuff their pockets, giving no consideration to the men who have died, whose families have lost their breadwinner… they have reduced the government, which is always on the side of the capitalists, to reduce the number of holidays in the year…
Comrades they have fooled us, they had fed us long enough on our blood and sweat. Our only salvation can be the Friendly Workers’ Unions, against which nothing can stand.”
If change would not come to Russia, then the people’s hand would be forced. The preconditions to Revolution had all been set. In every major aspect of Russian society, oppression was the order of the day, deceit, corruption and lies were the language of authorities, all whilst the forgotten and de facto enslaved were many in number. Russia had hit rock bottom.
This much was clearly true. The odds in favour of revolution were higher than ever before. Why one had not in fact begun earlier, was a pure stroke of luck in itself truth be told, all factors considered and accounted for. Nonetheless, change on the horizon soon became imminent anyway, within those early years of 20th Century Russia.
Chapter II: “Change”: An Empire of Absolute Disharmony
And so this was ultimately the Russia which entered into the new century itself.
A vast, powerful and formidable behemoth, whose mere mention amongst the Western powers would invoke a sense of unyielding dread. And yet, at the same time beneath the shiny veneer of Russian might and prowess, there remained only weakness. Faced with several fundamental issues, most of which were internally inflicted, the Russian Empire was a different creature altogether when compared to its Western European peers.
And yet, it was determined to be anything but different still. The quasi-identity crisis was still in existence after all; “Was Russia an Eastern or Western country?” This was the decades old dilemma which had still yet refused to die. And nowhere was this more clear than with regards to Russian attempts to conform to the norm of the Early 20th Century, the “Spirit of Imperialism”.
Russia thus, much like France or Britain to name a few, was therefore attempting to expand its sacred territories. And of particular interest to the Tsarist regime by this point in time, were surely the eastern lands bordered by Siberia itself. In this regard, the Trans-Siberian Railway, was also a move on Russia’s part, to expand towards this area, intending for Western migration to Siberia, to quickly “beef up” their presence in the Far East.
A map of the Empire of Russia in Northeast Asia during the Early 20th Century:
As such, Russia now had its sights thus on two separate countries, Joseon Korea (1392–1897) on the one hand, and the rapidly decaying Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) on the other. Both which could in no way effectively resist Russian power, even if they joined forces. Which by the way is no conjecture, since by that point in time, Russia had already defeated Qing China several times over previously. So it would appear then that nothing could challenge Russian superiority… right?
But alas, there was a catch, and quite the large one at that. In setting its sights on China and Korea, Imperial Russia had completely overlooked the third East Asian power, Meiji Japan (1868–1912). And most unfortunately for the Russian Empire, Japan unlike China or Korea, was certainly no pushover. For even more so than was the case with Russia, Japan too was an Industrialized country, and one which had largely done so (unlike Russia) without much of the adversarial side-effects which came with modernization also.
Now for sure, it was not that Russia wasn’t aware of the potential of Meiji Japan to undermine all their efforts (they were), but it was simply because they refused to believe that Japan could in anyway have stopped them from doing so. This was due to a combination of Western European influenced hubris, which years earlier had failed to predict an overwhelming Meiji victory during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), and because Russia’s past experience seemed to “prove” that Japan was going to be a pushover. Technically, they had nothing to worry about therefore.
An artist’s impression of the Battle of Yalu River (1895) during the Sino-Japanese War, an event which completely took most European countries by surprise when it was announced that Japan, and not China had emerged victorious:
For after the Sino-Japanese War, a phenomenon known as the “Triple Intervention” (1895) occurred whereby three European powers, France, Germany and Russia intervened in the peace negotiations between China and Japan, hoping to gain benefits for themselves.
During said intervention, Russia was able to successfully persuade Japan, into giving up its rights to the entirety of Inner Manchuria in return for a large sum of money. This was a significant milestone in the Japanese-Russian relationship, since hitherto that day, the two had had more than several bitter disputes over the region. But now, it was apparently “problem solved” in the eyes of Russia.
And so with Manchuria within their grasps, Russia gained permission from China in 1898 via a 25 year lease, to extend the Trans-Siberian Railway to Port Arthur, which would allow the Russian Navy to operate all year round, as Vladivostok (Владивосто́к) in Outer Manchuria only functioned during the Summer (when it was warm enough).
With Russian hubris in full bloom, especially with Japan’s apparent de facto “surrender” to Russian power, the entirety of Inner Manchuria was annexed by forces from the Empire, in the year 1903. The consequences? An immensely furious Meiji Japan. Fortunately, war was not yet imminent even despite this turn of events however.
A French map illustrating Manchuria’s whereabouts on the map (Manchuria was originally made up of two parts: Inner and Outer. With the “Treaty of Aigun” (1858) and “Treaty of Peking” (1860), Outer Manchuria was given over to Russia. But Inner Manchuria only came to be annexed by Russia in 1903 when it was occupied by force):
Japan, angered as it was at Russian annexation of Manchuria, was still willing to strike a deal with the Romanov Administration. In return for Russian recognition of Japan’s sphere of influence over the recently ended Korean Empire (1897–1902), Japan was willing to recognize Russian presence within Inner Manchuria. Russia of course, which still thought Japan to be a pushover rejected this proposal leading Japan to halt diplomatic relations between the two polities, in the February of 1904.
The Japanese Empire (1868–1947) thus followed up this event, by ordering Admiral Togo of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) to disperse Russian ships stationed at Chemulpo (Inchon) Harbour by force, a pivotal event which finally signalled the beginning of all out war between Japan and Russia.
And this for Russia, was the beginning of the end of all things good. The preconditions to revolution, already set in stone for several decades, was now to be followed up by a string of domino chain events, all acting as precipitants towards Revolution, a chain which first started off with the highly one sided Russo-Japanese War (1904–05).
An artist’s impression of the ultimately fatal Russo-Japanese War:
Defeat after defeat followed for Russia in short, a tragedy which began with the infamous “Siege of Port Arthur” (August, 1904- January, 1905) in which 9 Japanese destroyers sank a significant portion of the Russian Fleet (4 battlecruisers, 2 cruisers and indirectly also, 1 battleship which was scuttled by Russian forces), a battle in which 50,000 was killed on both sides by one source.
Russian misfortunes then continued at the “Battle of Mukden” (February-March, 1905) in which the Empire contracted 90,000 casualties, amongst which 9,000 were killed, and another 50,000 wounded. All whilst the rest of Russia’s mighty Baltic Fleet, which had gone to great lengths all in the name of the Empire, to even arrive full stop in the first place (having spent 9 months sailing around Africa, before sailing up the Malacca Straits to reach East Asia), was virtually decimated in under 24 hours at the “Battle of Tsushima” (May 27–8th, 1905).
The Japanese Empire once again, had defied European expectations, and twice now they had stood against yet another geographical giant, and won. No one from then on, would ever dare underestimate Japan again. The same however could not be said for Russia, who also defied expectations, albeit for sure, nowhere near in the same way as Japan did.
The route taken by the Baltic Fleet to and back from the Russo-Japanese War:
When news of the Russian defeats – starting with the tragedy at Port Arthur – reached the Western ends of the Empire, it had two simultaneous effects. The public for one reacted with absolute anger, but the government on the other hand reacted with fear. And the reason for this was simple.
Prior to the War with Japan, Russia (it has been suggested) had desperately needed a distraction to which they could use to defer what more and more many thought (and rightfully so) was an imminent revolution. And so, according to Sergei Witte, a colleague of his, the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve (Вячесла́в Пле́ве) was reported to have remarked that Russia needed, “a little, victorious war to stem the revolution.”
Although Historian Richard Pipes challenges the validity of such a statement, even if such a quote were not true, this was however indeed the attitude of Russia’s commanders, foremost amongst whom was General Aleksey Kuropatkin (Алексе́й Куропа́ткин), who indeed did recommend to a greatly reluctant Tsar Nicholas, that the best course of action was to, engage in a short war in order to win an easy victory and boost national pride in a time of looming crisis.
If this was in any way true, then it was sincerely a beyond failed effort. Fierce anger was the only response of the Russian public, and saw to it that Plehve’s strategy not only failed, but also eventually backfired. The War was supposed to divert public attention from the dire economic and social situation of Russia, but only acted instead to highlight its sorrows, especially the Empire’s poor technological infrastructure.
A portrait of Minister Plehve, the man who was purported to have asserted that Russia enter a short war with Japan willingly, in order to restore a sense of national pride to the Empire (Pipes however argues, that Plehve was framed by colleague, Minister Witte):
And so it eventually became quite clear to the Russian public, that Russia, beneath the illusion of unchallenged might, was actually seriously underprepared and ill equipped for any military engagement, with its subpar military lacking in a variety of areas, including adequate training, competent leadership and the necessary logistics needed to wage a war. And in the case of the recent war with Japan, the pride of the nation that was the Trans-Siberian Railway also lay incomplete, and in tatters, and was thus effectively useless.
It quickly became apparent that the Russia of 1905, was in fact no different (even despite all the Industrial changes and reforms which had occurred since) from the Russia that faced off against Britain, France and the Ottomans all those years prior. The same problems in the same army in the same country despite military modernization?
It was completely outrageous; nothing had changed. The response of the Russian nation to these revelations? Strikes, demonstrations, terrorist attacks, and upheaval on a socio-political and economic scale en masse, never before seen in Russia hitherto. Revolution was now imminent.
This was eventually what lead to the assassination of Minister Plehve in July, 1904, as many believed him to be the cause for Russia’s involvement in the Russo-Japanese War. With Plehve gone, the post was filled by a certain Prince Pyotr Mirsky (князь Пётр Ми́рский) instead, which acted to calm the Russian public somewhat, as he was much more liberal minded than his predecessor.
Pyotr understood something that none of the Russian ultra-conservative elements did, that in order for Russia to become a well administered nation, both the State and its people had to have a sense of mutual respect and trust in one another. Towards this end, he thus found it highly relevant therefore to relax Imperial censorship, abolish corporal punishment, and even restore certain prominent liberal minded members of the local zemstvos to their former posts.
A portrait of the liberal Prince Pyotr Mirsky:
The consequences of such decisions saw a wave of liberal inspired developments, occurring consecutively one after the other in short fashion. And sooner rather than later, a public congress was proposed to discuss affairs concerning the zemstvos (hitherto that day, the zemstvos were still quite limited in scope, being assigned to deal merely with local rather than nationwide problems), and other national issues, including a radical proposal which finally suggested the idea of a genuine people’s Constitution for the first time in Russia’s history.
But even for Mirsky, such was a proposal far too radical at time. He was uncomfortable to say the least that his name was being linked to such sentiments, and thus asked that these negotiations be held in private. And so prior to the public congress on the 17th day of September, this was so.
Known as the “Paris Conference”, the convention was attended by a variety of different (and specifically opposing) groups, each with their own vision for change. The “Socialist Revolutionaries” (Партия социалистов-революционеров) and “Union of Liberation” (Союз Освобождения) were merely some the groups in attendance on that day. The ultimate consensus? To create a united front against the Autocracy of the Tsar.
A second, arguably more important meeting (the aforementioned Public Congress) was then followed up in St.Petersburg from 6–9th of November, 1904. Under the guise of a social gathering, this particular meeting was one of historical importance because it effectively served as Russia’s first de facto National Assembly, a historical milestone. Democratic possibilities were the main topic of conversation on those 4 days, and here it was that a Constitution was first officially demanded for by the Russian public.
A photo of Andrei Argunov, one of the many founders of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (in attendance at the secretive Paris Conference in 1904):
Events seemed to be progressing well, perhaps the Empire of Russia would avoid an imminent revolution after all? But it was unfortunately not to be so. Upon presenting the proposed reforms to the Tsar, Mirsky who spoke on behalf of the Russian peoples, was firmly rejected by a most uncooperative Nicholas II, who reinforced his views verbally once more in favour of Autocracy as he had always done, prior to that day:
“I shall never, under any circumstances, agree to the representative form of government because I consider it harmful to the people whom God has entrusted to my care.”
Of course, such a decision would not ultimately prove to be quite so harmful, if, it didn’t take place simply at the wrong place and the wrong time. Instead, the Tsar’s rejection (mostly) of the proposed reforms (he did accept Mirsky’s pleas to ease restriction on the press, and expand the rights of the zemstvos on December 12th however), came at a time when public anger was at its most fierce, directly due to the ongoing Russian military disasters with the Empire of Japan in the Far East.
And so what you were really left with, was a truly broken country. Perpetually in agony both at home, and abroad with no hope for respite nor for change in the status quo, now with no barriers left to stem revolutionary tendencies, a much feared revolution at long last finally broke out.
The 1905 Revolution (Русская революция 1905 года) as it is now called (since there were ultimately two more afterwards), first begun in the December of 1904, all whilst the war with Japan was still ongoing (and would be for another 9 or so months). What happened here, was with regards to the unfair dismissal of 4 workers from the largest industrial factory in St.Petersburg, the “Putilov Steel Works” (Пути́лов Завод). And at a time when everything seemed to be falling apart, this dismissal failed to stay a private matter, and instead quickly became a public matter.
Angered by the oppression of the Capitalists, sickened by the status quo which had forced them into brutal labour for so long, the workers at Putilov had had enough, and decided to finally take a stand against injustice. In support of their fellow workers who had been dismissed, masses upon masses of additional workers refused to also return to labour on their colleagues’ behalf. Such sentiments spread from factory to factory, and from worker to worker, until finally at last, by the January of 1905, a total of 120,000 industrial workers were on strike.
A photograph showcasing discontented workers loitering outside the Putilov Steel Mill:
This event; this mass strike was the first official chapter of the Revolution, an infamous event which would eventually be recorded in history as, “Bloody Sunday” (Крова́вое воскресе́нье). And the central figure in all the midst of this madness, would have had to have been a certain Father Georgy Gapon (Гео́ргий Гапо́н).
Gapon was quite the interesting individual to stand as a figurehead in the 1905 Revolution. Father Gapon had always been quite the troublemaker in the eyes of the Romanov regime, and so they prohibited him from being able to attend university, for fear that his radical ideas would one day spread. And so alternatively, Gapon was forced to become an Orthodox priest instead, where he spent his early days tending to the oppressed and underprivileged classes in Russia.
In 1904, he established the “Assembly of Russian Factory Workers of St.Petersburg”, which eventually grew to 8,000 members, mainly because it was ironically supported by the Ministry of the Interior, which thought it could be used to channel worker’s discontent away from their everyday sorrows. And so in this way, Father Gapon was thus already a well known figure to the Russian workers’ community by age 34. Without any effort thus, he was naturally assigned to be the figurehead of the early anti-establishment discontent.
With this new found power at his hands, and with the Putilov Strike in full swing, he seized his chance to conceive of a plan whereby he and thousands of discontented, would personally approach the Winter Palace (Зимний дворец) and by extension the Tsar himself, in order to present him with a list outlining the people’s grievances.
The Winter Palace, as can still be seen in Russia today where Nicholas II resided at the time:
One key point which this author overwhelmingly desires to make clear especially however, was that the Russian people by this point in time, absolutely still did not despise nor blame their Tsar. On the contrary, they still venerated their “Little Father” and were thus most unwilling to resort to violence to enact change, even change which would directly benefit them.
To this extent, Gapon even went so far as to send several letters in advance to Prince Mirsky, informing him of their intentions, which was for the thousands of workers on strike, along with their families and himself, to march peacefully towards the Winter Palace, specifically on Sunday, January 9th, 1905.
In addition to this, it was also common knowledge that the Tsar would actually be vacationing on the day of their march, so Gapon specifically picked such a day, as he believed that out of love and concern for his people, the Tsar would venture out of his way to return on the day of the strike. And so letters were sent in advance to Nicholas II also.
Unfortunately for Gapon, events did not turn out quite as he had expected. The Tsar received his letters by nightfall of the the day prior to the planned march, and was indeed concerned, but in a radically different way. The end result was that the Palace was now heavily fortified by hundreds of heavily armed infantrymen. But still, Gapon and the workers were determined to reach the Tsar themselves.
On the day of the march the following morning at 10 am, 150,000 workers marched together in solidarity, and peacefully in columns also towards their Tsar’s palace. Singing hymns and carrying religious icons, what appeared more to be, “a religious procession than a workers’ demonstration” was said to have been carried out. And indeed, Gapon himself was carrying a crucifix, all whilst the demonstrators specifically held up a banner which stated, “Soldiers, do not shoot at the people!”
An artist’s impression of Gapon’s march on January 9th, 1905:
For all their intentions of peace however, it was all sadly in vain, and the crowd ultimately never made it to the Winter Palace itself.
There was a panic within the ranks of those guarding the Palace such, that it ended up with the strictly peaceful protestors being fired upon. And to make matters worse, protesters closest to the those armed, were even charged at by bayonets according to unverified claims. With the initial firing upon the crowd, a number of 40 individuals lay dead.
A similar turn of events played out all over the St.Petersburg in other quarters of the city, with the main street, Nevsky Prospect (Не́вский проспе́кт) hit hardest by Tsarist troopers. Though at the time, journalists claimed a death toll of a total 4,600 dead, more recent estimates suggest a casualty count of 1,000, amongst which 200 were killed, and 800 more injured.
Not that the Tsar was even present there on that fateful day (and nor more importantly, ordered the soldiers to fire on the masses), but the Tsar was ultimately held responsible for the Sunday massacres. And so the Little Father stopped being viewed as such, and was now more affiliated with a new term donned upon him, “Bloody Nicholas”. His reputation was damaged, and the people’s love grew cold.
“On that day, the workers received a bloody lesson.”, this was what the official history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had to comment on, with regards to the events which unfurled upon that tragic day.
A photo of the Bloody Sunday crowd in full rout as they were fired upon by Tsarist forces:
The Bloody Sunday massacre had quite a crippling effect on the Tsarist government. It demonstrated for the first time in the history of Russia, a state of widespread contempt for the Imperial Government. And the resulting consequences from said massacres eventually saw to it that domestic and external events would continue to punish an already fragile state, in a further series of domino chain effects, which seemed to occur spontaneously without being commanded to.
For in the aftermath of the Gapon’s failed march, workers still continued to defy orders to back down, and soon a force numbering 400,000 strong went on strike altogether for the rest of January. To make matters worse, when news of Russia’s fate at Tsushima finally reached home, it acted to further add fuel to the flames. Violent disturbances; terrorism now flourished within the urban centers.
And really, not just the urban centers, but in the countryside also where angered peasants lashed out against any authority figures they could find, nobles, landlords and officials all alike. Russia was of course a vast country, and one which was also then still at war, so any chance for retaliation on part of the Central Government was rapidly diminishing, as peasants all over the Empire seemed to spontaneously rebel against Imperial authority.
The Peasantry was an especially interesting case. Many of them seemed to believe that the Romanov Administration, would eventually come for those who could ultimately not afford to repay their mortgages, so what was to be done then? They struck fast, and struck hard at their oppressors, and soon enough, peasant launched preemptive strikes had engulfed the country in civil disorder. Estates, crops and the livestocks of landowners were all seized as part of this “farmer’s rebellion”.
A cartoon illustrating “Death (of All Russia)”, literally taking on the form of Tsar Nicholas II, a commentary of the events which occurred on “Bloody Sunday”:
And this was pretty much a representation of the general status quo which had now come to define Russia, and eventually would for the next 6 months from January to July, 1905. After the Peasants’ revolt, came mutinies of the returning war veterans, who rebelled against Imperial authority and seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Various nationalist groups meanwhile, having always had the ambition to proclaim independence and or demand equality, launched their many separate campaigns in the meantime.
To further exacerbate matters, when they should have been fighting against those who committed treason, the armies of Russia were following suit with this new status quo and soon became guilty as charged also. On the now legendary Russian Battleship, “Prince Potemkin” (Князь Потёмкин Таврический) to cite one of many examples, the crew mutinied and, murdered their superiors, before sailing off with the said warship towards Romania.
This lead Minister Witte to fear that imminently, the Imperial Army and Navy would join in the revolution against the Romanov Dynasty. Fortunately, this would not be so however as the many groups (for the time being) were scattered and without a common purpose. Each, after all had had a different grievance that needed addressing. The ethnic nationalists wanted independence for example, but the Peasantry on the other hand desired fairness with regards to land and labour.
Which does not mean, that the revolution was somehow not chaotic however, it still was and by far. Apart from the nationalist, peasant and military dissent against the Romanov Family, students likewise were also in disharmony with the Empire. At the Imperial Moscow University for example, 3,000 students rallied together in order to stage burnings of the Tsar’s portrait, all whilst being sure to participate in the hanging of red flags over various buildings also.
A Soviet Union Era (1922–91) poster celebrating the mutineers on the Potemkin as heroes (Caption: “Glory to the People’s Heroes of the Potemkin!”:
Theological academies, akin to the ones which had produced Father Gapon, soon became revolutionary minded also. As a result, the Imperial Government commanded on March 18th, that all higher learning institutions be shut down for the remainder of the academic year. Then there was of course the Working Class, who continued to stage strikes and protests all over the major cities, daily without halting even for a mere moment.
In the midst of the chaos, several organizations begun to form, each claiming to be a “Worker’s Council” or “Soviet” (сове́т) which claimed to be representing the rights of the Urban Working Class. Formed in major cities (eg. Moscow), and recognized by major parties such as the Socialist Revolutionaries, they already numbered 80 by the end of the year in 1905.
All in all, the Revolution was in full swing. Nothing seemed to slow it down, and its momentum in fact even seemed to rapidly growing by the day. The zenith of the revolution was finally reached when a certain liberal politician, Pavel Milyukov (Па́вел Милюко́в), took advantage of the chaos, and used it to at last demand from the Tsar, a Constituent Assembly (previously called upon by the zemstvos, and the Public Conference in St.Petersburg) one, and universal voting rights for all, two.
Chapter III: “All in Vain”: The Failures of Romanov Russia
And so by October, 1905, Imperial Russia was effectively paralysed from within. Strikes were the order of the day. The economies of Moscow and St.Petersburg grinded to a halt, and cities stopped functioning as they used to. Nicholas knew that “the game was up”, and so to prevent an imminent collapse of Romanov Autocracy, he reached out to Minister Witte, and inquired as to what was to be done.
And there was really only one thing that could be done of course: reform, and significant meaningful reform at that. This was the only way to bring peace back to a dying nation. Witte specifically mentioned also, that the State Council (Госуда́рственный сове́т), which was the supreme advisory body to the Tsar, had to be considerably improved for one. Severe repression had to be ended in all matters, except for those which threatened the state. And the Tsar had to also adopt a policy of sincerity and freedom.
A photograph of Pavel Milyukov, a liberal politician instrumental in the calling for a Russian Constituent Assembly:
But above all else, the Tsar had to provide the right for the people to elect their own members of government. And most reluctantly thus, the Tsar caved into Witte’s demands, and accepted the wisdom of his brightest minister. Both ecstatic and extremely relieved with the decisions of the Tsar, the minister wasted no time in drafting a document, the famous “October Manifesto” (Октябрьский манифест), which broadcasted to the entire world, a radical change to the Russian Empire itself.
An Absolute Monarchy no more, Russia was now a Constitutional Monarchy rather, this much was implied in the Manifesto itself:
“…We require the government dutifully to execute our unshakeable will:
(1.) To grant to the population the essential foundations of civil freedom, based on the principles of genuine inviolability of the person, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association.
(2.) Without postponing the scheduled elections to the State Duma, to admit to participation in the duma (insofar as possible in the short time that remains before it is scheduled to convene) of all those classes of the population that now are completely deprived of voting rights; and to leave the further development of a general statute on elections to the future legislative order.
(3.) To establish as an unbreakable rule that no law shall take effect without confirmation by the State Duma and that the elected representatives of the people shall be guaranteed the opportunity to participate in the supervision of the legality of the actions of Our appointed officials.
We summon all loyal sons of Russia to remember their duties toward their country, to assist in terminating the unprecedented unrest now prevailing, and together with Us to make every effort to restore peace and tranquility to Our native land.
Given at Peterhof the 17th of October in the 1905th year of Our Lord and of Our reign the eleventh.
“The Release”, an optimistic view of the October Manifesto (here, Nicholas releases “Liberty” from prison), published by the Western political satirist, “Punch” (November 8th, 1905):
Needless to say, the October Manifesto was quite the revolutionary act in itself, because it paved the way for a future (and an arguably brighter one at that) where power lay not with an autocratic ruler, but in a working relationship between a legislative duma and the Tsar. Combined with further promises to lift the strains of censorship on Russian society, and to also gradually “unlock” land to Russia’s most impoverished, the Manifesto on paper was the perfect to the Empire’s perpetual issues.
In reality though, it really wasn’t and post the 1905 Revolution this was quite self-evident, especially with regards to both the Proletariat and the Peasantry. If the Manifesto was indeed designed to address the issues of Russia’s most vulnerable, then it had largely failed because at the end of the proverbial day, neither the workers nor peasants were as satisfied as they should have been.
The Working Classes’ foremost desires case in point, was their desire to see real and meaningful economic reforms. They did not largely care about political changes however by stark contrast. What was however on their agenda, included specific improvements to their day to day living conditions, including an 8 hour working day, better access to quality medical services, and their very own autonomous, and elected Soviet who could better represent, fairly the rights of the Proletariat Class.
In addition to the aforementioned, were the desires of the Peasant, who too were largely disinterested in Nicholas II’s proposed reforms. For the Russian Farmer, immediate short term change was what was foremostly desired. Increases in private land holdings and lower taxes were chief amongst these goals, and it was because this was so, that ultimately acted to appease them more so than compared to their urban cousins. For the Manifesto, aside from political reforms, did also promise to increase land holdings for the Peasantry, whilst also cancelling all their redemption payments for the year 1905.
Another portrait of Tsar Nicholas II in 1905, seen on the right next to his cousin (dressed in a German military uniform), Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire (1871–1918):
The greatest opposition to the October Manifesto however, came not from neither worker nor farmer, but instead from the St.Petersburg Soviet. Their negative attitudes specifically came about from the fact, that many Soviet officials believed these changes to be too unfavourable to the ruling classes for them to ever accept.
The Tsar after all, would never have agreed to a proposal so overwhelmingly both against his favour and personal beliefs, that his acceptance surely had to be strategic right? And that was because it ultimately was.
So in actual fact, Russia was essentially left in limbo now. No one was particularly happy, even more so than before, and it was a Revolution in all but name. And the Soviet, first amongst the Russian people to have seen through the Tsar’s facade, made clear this very discontent, condemning the Manifesto as a whole, likening it as:
“…a fraud on the people, a trick of the Tsar to gain some sort of respite in which to lull the credulous and to win time to rally his forces and then to strike at the revolution.”
Despite knowing full well the de facto futility of both the revolution, and any attempts on their part to enact true change, the Soviet, which had grown immensely popular with the masses, felt quite obligated to enact change on the people’s behalf anyway. To this extent, they demanded in favour of further revolutionary action, and did this by calling for the still ongoing Workers’ strikes to continue.
The Imperial administration was not however all too impressed with their actions, and had 260 Soviet officials (roughly half of all that existed) arrested on December 3rd in response. And yet still, the people refused to back down. Instead, another strike merely 3 days afterwards was called, one in which the Imperial Russian Army (Ру́сская импера́торская а́рмия) suppressed by force, killing approximately 1,000 people.
An artist’s impression of the “Moscow Uprising” (Декабрьское восстание в Москве (1905)) in 1905 which killed hundreds amidst the struggle:
In the aftermath of the failed Moscow Uprising, it finally became clear to the people of Russia, as to just what extent their revolution had failed. For even despite all the promises of the Tsar, the rise of unions, the widespread nature of industrial strikes formed by the dissatisfied of Russian society, and the potential for real change to be enacted… where was this real change? Nowhere. If pre-revolutionary Tsarist-style massacres were still occurring in this supposedly more egalitarian, and pro-people world, then this was indeed some revolution!
For in reality, there really wasn’t a revolution despite all the drama and antics which had come along with it.
Historians such as Sheila Fitzpatrick further reinforce this claim, by insisting that the 1905 Revolution, “was ambiguous and in some ways unsatisfactory to all concerned.” And indeed it was, because even though the government had promised change, in this process of concession, the regime had only managed to be able to manipulate events and developments such, as to send a clear message to all, that any party who should wish to destroy the de facto control of the Tsar, would be met with severe repression.
So long as the Tsarist government held control over the military, any form of protest, peaceful or not could be effectively suppressed. So long as the Russian Nobility swore allegiance to the Tsar, they had the power of money and all that that implied on their side. So long as the “High” clergymen of the Orthodox Church swore to uphold the divinely sanctioned power of the Tsar, they effectively had “God” on their side.
And so it didn’t really matter to the Imperial Government as to whether or not they were appeasing the majority, all they had to do to to retain true power, was to simply appease the privileged minority. For change to have occured, the Tsarist government would have had to have lost the support of the army, nobility, and clergy all in one, and since none of the aforementioned three had any desire to do so any time soon for fear of losing their privileges, the power of the Tsar was still absolute and unchallenged.
And nowhere was this more clear than with regards to the Duma (дума); the Russian Parliament itself, where a collection of events occured all throughout a period of 11 years, which adequately served to highlight just how in vain the 1905 Revolution had been, and how redundant its gains had been, if there were even any true gains that was.
The Building of the Russian State Duma, Moscow City:
The creation of a State Duma in accordance with the October Manifesto was intended to signal the beginnings of a new era for the Empire. It was essentially a sign which made clear to the entire world, that the ancient and proud nation of Russia was willing to start over, to begin anew.
A Constitutional Monarchy, in which power belonged to the people, and to a Parliament which represented the masses on their behalf was this said new world. And in this new world, a formerly omnipotent Tsar was now supposed to voluntarily hand over his previously monopolized power, and accept a lower form of existence as mere Head of State, rather than Head of Government also. This was to be a “perfect” world, resembling the political structures of the West.
But ultimately, the St.Petersburg Soviet was right all along, for how could the Tsar, a man who prior to the Revolution had not only made clear his mistrust and hatred for representative government, but also his love for Russian Autocracy, ever truly agree to Liberal Democracy? It was simply impossible and this proved to be true sooner rather than later.
Post the abolitioning of censorship on November 24th, 1905, new electoral laws were passed merely 17 days later in December, which permitted in favour of allowing all men over the age of 25 to vote indirectly, rather than directly. Essentially, they were only allowed to vote for an individual, who was then to vote on their behalf, rather than vote themselves for who they wanted period.
Of course this proclamation was flawed, as only men with estates in excess of 200 hectares were allowed to vote directly. Universal suffrage remained as elusive as ever, especially when accounting for further exclusions in direct voting, which prohibited various prominent groups from direct voting. To cite one example, any worker from a factory employing less than 50 employees, could not vote directly. 60% of the urban working population were thus ineligible by this definition.
An artist’s impression of all Russia in celebration with the passing of the October Manifesto, especially tragic in hindsight, given how events eventually turned out to be like:
And for even those who could vote indirectly such as the Peasantry, the government designed the suffrage process so as to make it hard to vote still, as they had to do so in 3 separate stages. In short, if the Tsar was being forced to give up power, he was not going to go down without a fight, and this was the proof in favour of just that.
His new Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Durnovo (Пётр Дурновó) proved even more so when he embarked on a series of strict policies, which acted to not only aggressively counter revolutionary action, but once more as per the former status quo, ante bellum, control the press also. Even Durnovo however, was a mere “moderate” when compared to the man who would eventually succeed him, and see to it that all revolutionary gains would forever be lost, the next Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Stolypin (Пётр Столы́пин), who played a prominent part in this said oppression also.
Apart from this, Tsar Nicholas II also attempted to take matters into his own hands in the early months of 1906, by issuing laws in favour of upgrading of the State Council of Imperial Russia, which now permitted it to work in conjunction with the Duma itself. To this extent, the Council was now a 198 member strong upper chamber of parliament, in which half of its members were appointed directly by the Tsar himself. And even the other half which were not, still these individuals were primarily made up of clergymen and wealthy nobles.
Naturally therefore, this so called “State” Council, was really the Tsar’s personal council in reality, one which leaned conservative of course. And it was of course a pushover, serving as a mouthpiece which reflected the Tsar’s de facto beliefs. This therefore, was where the protector of Imperial Russia, the man who had promised radical change, Nicholas II first betrayed his people, by reneging on the concessions made in 1905 with the announcement of the October Manifesto.
A portrait of Pyotr Durnovo, Minister of the Interior, and a key figure in early Imperial attempts to undermine the gains of the 1905 Revolution:
No one was surprised of course. The Tsar still after all this time believed that Liberal Democracy was harmful to his people, whom God had given him the responsibility of protecting. And the only way to protect them was through Autocracy. The Duma in his eyes to this extent, were simply not a legislative body but merely an advisory one to whom he could turn to in times of trouble:
“I created the Duma, not to be directed by it, but to be advised.”
By this point in time, roughly 6 months had passed since the proclamation of the October Manifesto, and all Russia was at peace once more. The Monarchy had had its much needed respite, and was thus ready to wage war on its enemies yet again. This was presumably what gave the Tsar enough confidence on April 23rd, 1906, to once more reiterate his pre-revolutionary views yet again, except this time de jure also via the “Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire” (Основные Государственные Законы Российской империи), a partial list (of the most important points) of which can be viewed below as follows:
“4. The Emperor of All the Russias possesses Supreme Sovereign Power. Obedience to His authority, not only out of fear, but in good conscience, is ordained by God Himself.
5. The person of the Lord Emperor is sacrosanct and inviolable.
8. The initiative in all legislative matters belongs to the Sovereign Emperor. Only upon His initiative may the Fundamental Laws be subject to revision by (in) the State Council and the State Duma.
9. The Sovereign Emperor ratifies laws and without His ratification (approval) no laws can go into effect.
10. Total administrative power belongs to the Sovereign Emperor throughout the entire Russian State. At the highest level of administration His authority is direct; at subordinate levels of administration He entrusts a certain degree of power, in conformity with the law, to the proper agencies or officials, who act in His name and in accordance with His orders…
A portrait of Tsar Nicholas II in 1909 during the “Duma Years” (1906–17):
In short, the Fundamental Laws of Russia not only challenged the October Manifesto (and by extension a derivative 1906 Constitution which was based on it), but also made sure all that its gains were in vain, null and for nothing. The Duma was really powerless, despite an illusion in favour of the the rule of a majority. And in reality, the Tsar retained undisputed power with regards to foreign affairs, military supervision, and states of emergency etc.
Apart from the laws which have been mentioned above, these legal provisions also made it possible for the State Duma and State Council to hold dual power together. Both Houses, according to the Laws would sit for a term of 5 years, but would need to be an agreement for any legislation to be passed. And of course, since the Council was conservative, all whilst the Tsar had veto powers… just exactly what change was possible?
The Duma was powerless when compared to a still all powerful Tsar. Article 87 of the Fundamental Laws, stated that whensoever the Duma was not in session or under “exceptional circumstances”, the Tsar exclusively held power to legislate on his own, but only if the Duma approved of it within 2 months. Predictably though, the latter part of such a clause was often overlooked, and once the Tsar had passed his laws, they were often difficult for the Duma to revoke.
Even in the face of all these developments and major setbacks however, all of Russia with the exception of radical groups such as the Socialist Revolutionaries (who had called for a boycott of the elections due to their dissatisfaction with the principles of Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Governance) was highly enthusiastic come the day of Elections to the State Duma, in the fall of February, 1906, and were determined to vote in favour of a better world.
And so began the “First Duma” (April-July 1906), and by extension an age of consistent failure. Already on the opening day of the Duma it was, April 27th, 1906, that the instrument of Russia’s salvation had failed. An elaborate ceremony intended to impress the deputies who had been elected was planned, but ended up doing the exact opposite.
For when all of Russia had gathered in St.Petersburg, never before had the visual disparity between rich and poor been so obvious as then; the destitute of the Peasantry, standing in stark contrast to the opulence of their Tsar.
A photograph of the Tsar of All Russia delivering his opening speech before the two chambers of the State Council and Duma, inside the Winter Palace (April 27th, 1906):
Now the Peasantry had already had a large percentage share of deputies within the two councils, 38% to be exact. But soon this number grew to 75% when they also formed a coalition with a right-winged political party (right in this case meaning “moderate”, as opposed to the more “radical” left), the “Constitutional Democrats” (Конституционно-демократическая партия), better known as the “Kadets”. Now with a clear, and undisputed majority, the Kadets on behalf of the coalition, thus called for change.
They sponsored an address to the throne, and demanded all of the following from their Tsar:
- Freedom to Strike
- Freedom to Publicly Assemble
- The Abolition of Capital Punishment
- Political Amnesty
- The Abolition of the State Council of Imperial Russia
- Significant Reform to the Civil Service
- Ministerial Responsibility to be handed over to the Duma
- Universal and Direct Voting
- Universal and Free Education
- The Seizures of Large Estates and Redistribution to the Peasants
- More Equitable Distribution of the Tax Burden
Tsar Nicholas was more than enraged to say the least, and condemned these demands to be inherently anti-government. And so thus it was that only after 73 days of operation, the Tsar ordered the State Duma to be in dissolution. A group of 200 deputies, amongst which most were Kadets, attempted to appeal to the Russian people in response to this perceived injustice, by encouraging the masses to refrain from paying their taxes, and also to refuse enlistment in the Imperial Army.
The Russian majority complied, and nationwide insurrection in due course was now the order of the day. Yet, not only did this not solve their problems, but ultimately also made it worse. For the Imperial Administration, seeking to restore order, now found that they had little choice but to put their last hopes in one very certain individual; and a historically ruthless individual at that, one Pyotr Stolypin, who was thus made Prime Minister post the dissolution of the State Duma.
A portrait of Pyotr Stolypin, great sorrow of Romanov Russia:
An ardent monarchist, despite holding office with the official stated goal of reducing social discontent, this was merely a facade. In reality, Stolypin’s foremost goal was to suppress anti-establishment dissent and protect the Tsar at all costs, wheresoever this was applicable. If in Northern Russia for example there existed even a smidgen of pro-revolutionary tendencies, then this treasonous act would be crushed.
If in Eastern Russia, there existed individuals seeking to do harm to the Tsar, then they would – all of them – be exterminated. And if in Western Russia, there existed traitors say even amongst the Imperial government itself, then they would be purged without mercy nor hesitation. This was amongst the darkest days of Late Imperial Russia, for Stolypin went officially by the motto, “suppression first and then, and only then, reform.”
In the several months post the times of the First Duma, Stolypin focused specifically on the “rural crisis” which existed; land shortages and overpopulation, now exacerbated by a series of recent poor harvests also. With the aims of transforming the Peasantry, into a class of independent landowners, Stolypin took advantage of Article 87 of the Fundamental Laws, by passing a series of land reforms with this goal in mind, before insisting that the Tsar ratify such an act (with the Duma now out of session). And it was so.
For Minister Stolypin, avoiding revolution was simple. If the Peasantry, a class which made up 82% of Russia was also a strong potential catalyst for Revolution, why not then just manipulate them such as to win their loyalty? It was a clever idea, by making them independent landowners, they would have a vested interest into the profit motive of Capitalism, and therefore (in theory) should not only be disincentivized from a revolution, but also stand to lose much of their newfound wealth should one have broken out.
To this extent, reforms were unfortunately compulsory; a necessary evil in the eyes of the Minister all for the greater good, who planned to replace the “Mir” (мир) or village communes with private land ownership, all whilst giving peasants more rights in selecting their own zemstvos members. In light of the new reforms also, Peasants were thus now permitted to leave their Mir, and either sell or claim shares of land as they saw fit.
This did act to relieve the Peasantry somewhat, as a lack of land had been amongst their top concerns for quite some time. They just simply didn’t have enough of it. Case in point, here is a table illustrating the historical, diminishing case of average peasant land holdings in hectares, from 1860–90:
At minimal levels within the“Black Soil” areas of Russia, a magnitude of at least 6.5 hectares of land was required to live full stop; and not even comfortably at that. Whilst at “Non-Black Soil” regions of the Empire, a number in excess of 8.7 hectares was required.
So of course, the Peasantry by 1890 did have quite the case for concern, and naturally Stolypin as intelligent as he was, knew exactly what he had to do, and thus did so hoping to stem an imminent second people’s revolution. Case in point, whilst only 2.6 million hectares of State land were being sold off to the Peasant from 1883–95, merely 10 years later under Minister Stolypin, this number had now inflated to 9.2 million.
Apart from this, all land taxes were also halted come the new year of 1907, which acted to strip the Mir of all financial power. The result however was mixed. In Western Russia where the majority of the population lived, the Peasantry was able to benefit directly from the Minister’s reforms, as they were able to acquire more land, and even adopt Western European style farming methods at last. Others in the Far East especially however, were unfortunately left out of the process, as it was more beneficial for them to travel to the urban centers to become workers instead.
And although Stolypin’s reforms did ultimately raise the Russian majority’s general living standards (and by extension according to Richard Pipes, promoted “a sense of national purpose and hope” following the 1905 Revolution), for the most part, the Minister’s program remained largely unfulfilled.
For the inexperience of peasants not only made land redistribution and new farming methods difficult to implement, but land shortages, high building costs, poor irrigation and inefficient transport acted together to made Stolypin’s aims, virtually unattainable.
An artist’s impression of a gathering within a Mir; the traditional village commune in Russia, which had been the basis of Peasant lifestyle for hundreds of years prior to Stolypin’s Land Reforms:
Already traumatic enough for Russia by itself, parallel developments complementing Stolypin’s land reforms were also ordered by the Minister regarding direct repression. And this was done by way of several military tribunals in 1906, which acted to process cases with neither investigation nor delay. Between August 1906 and April 1907 thus, exactly 1,144 dissenters; all “enemies” of the state, were executed by these special courts, and another 2,000 roughly were executed by civilian courts.
Stolypin followed up his “reign of terror” by revoking former Finance Minister, Witte’s reforms as promised in the October Manifesto by reintroducing media censorship once more. Searches, arrests and surveillance of liberal activists, and of course the “hotbed” of liberalism; universities were all carried out in due succession of course. But of all such actions, it was his conduct and response to the official “Second Duma” (February-June 1907) which acted to cement his identity, as one of Russia’ most hated individuals.
Having hoped for a more conservative body after the disaster of the First Duma, pro-Tsarist elements were horrified to discover that the Second Duma was even more radical than the first. Socialist Revolutionaries, and another left winged political party, the Social Democrats (социа́л-демократи́ческая па́ртия) had now had representatives within the Duma itself, after it became clear that their mere presence had the potential to fuel anti-establishment dissent.
Apart from that, the Second Duma was also much more ideologically diverse than the first, which made it quite difficult for the Tsar and Prime Minister to work in collaboration with, despite all surprisingly genuine efforts to do so on part of the latter. Following disturbances throughout April and May that year however, the Duma begun to openly criticize the Imperial Administration. And after it became quite clear, that they were also hostile (both right and left winged parties) to Stolypin’s proposed land reforms.
Angered at this sentiment, both Stolypin and the Tsar dissolved the Russian Parliament yet again, citing “irresponsible and obstructive behaviour” as the leading cause. And thus ended the Second Duma. Unlike the first however, the Russian public had pretty much given up by this point in time, and so there was little resistance on their part upon hearing this news.
An artist’s impression of Minister Stolypin, oppressor of Imperial Russia:
But still even then, of all his contemptuous acts committed up until the dissolution of the Second Duma, none were as so horrific as his actions during the “Third Duma” (November 1907-June 1912) which followed shortly thereafter. Here, hopes of further, genuine reform were shattered (all whilst the Duma was not in session) when the Minister single-handedly made a series of regressive changes to the electoral system.
These changes, prohibited all voting in the areas of Russia which according to the Tsar, “had not yet reached sufficient levels of civic development”. Though such a move was clearly illegal since it violated the Constitution of 1906, no one of course dared to resist such an individual, who had already built up a reputation for being a steadfast executioner of political dissidents. Post the reforms, now only 1 of every 6 men over the age of 25 could vote? The consequences?
A fall in the number of deputies within the Duma originating from the underprivileged classes, whilst the opposite was true for the Russian Gentry. Indeed, of the 441 deputies who were up for election during the 5 year long duration of the Third Duma, approximately 300 had been voted in by merely 1% of the Imperial populace, and the richest and most powerful 1% of course.
And so in this way, unlike the First and Second Dumas, a heavily conservative Russian Parliament was now the norm, one which would of course be subservient to the Tsar and his Prime Minister, one which according to Stolypin, was made up of “responsible and statesmanlike people”. But because the Duma was now like a shark without its teeth (ie. harmless), the final deviation from its original purpose was now complete. There was essentially no longer a State Duma, there were now merely two de facto State Councils, each inferior to the divine authority of the Tsar.
And it was because it was powerless, that this Duma unlike the First and Second, was allowed to serve its full 5 year term. But in any case, the Empire of Russia was now also allied with its British and French counterparts, so there was definitely an incentive to retain such democratic institutions, as to at least give off the impression that Russia was indeed just as modern a country as any Western nation!
A Russian poster (1914) depicting the “Triple-Entente”, a military union of 3 polities including Great Britain (1707-Present Day), the French Third Republic (1870–1940) and of course the Empire of Russia:
In bad a condition and flawed as it was, at least the Empire was still alive by the end of the Third Duma in 1912, the same could not be said however for Minister Stolypin, who was eventually (but unsurprisingly) assassinated come the September of 1911. Still, even though he was no longer around, the spectre of the Prime Minister continued to haunt Russian politics, and was the subject of much concern come the advent of the “Fourth Duma” (November 1912-August 1914).
Arguably the most conservative of the four Dumas thus far, the body was tested by radical protests to which it responded repressively. Prompted by a tragic event known as the “Lena Massacre” (Ленский расстрел), which occurred on April 12th, 1912 involving the outright slaughter of 500 miners by Tsarist forces upon demanding better pay and working conditions, this served only to further highlight the increasingly reactionary methods utilized by the Imperial Administration.
A monument, dedicated to the 500 murdered workers at the former Lena River goldfields:
In the following 2 years which came afterwards, a total of 9,000 unique strikes were instigated by approximately 3 million workers all across the Empire. It was during such a turbulent time, and an important one at that, that even many moderates begun to publicly criticize the de facto resurgent Tsarist regime, which now held absolute power over Russia once more. Amongst these moderates, many also foresaw the coming doom of the Romanovs, and warned the Tsar that if change did not come peacefully from the “top”, then it would come violently from the “bottom”.
And indeed just how right they were. By 1914, it became clear finally after all these long years, that the 1905 Revolution had utterly failed. All gains had been made redundant by the Tsar, oppression was still the order of the day, and the Workers and Peasants of Russia were mostly no better off than they were prior to the Revolution. The Tsar retained de facto power, and now also reacquired a state of quasi-nominal power, all whilst the Nobility and High Clergy reigned supreme.
Dissatisfaction and the miscarriage of justice was at an all time high. The Revolution had failed. Reform had failed. Change had failed. So now the crucial question was, could the people of Russia save their revolution? Or would they have to begin a new one altogether? The failures of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Dumas by way of political, state sponsored and approved regression given what we today know occured next, in hindsight were really thus then merely a second set of preconditions to revolution all things considered and accounted for.
This much was true. A new revolution; a second revolution in the post-1905 world was now in the making, the preconditions were all there, all it needed now were the relevant events and circumstances necessary to precipitate it, to set fire to the already waiting fuel. And unbeknownst to all at the time, change was indeed coming, and came it did finally, but alas, it did so in the form of an unexpected rude awakening.
Chapter IV: “Renunciation”: The Fall of Imperial Russia
The Imperial Russia of 1914, left in limbo since the passing of the Fundamental Laws (for nothing had changed), all the way up until the final year of 1917 was a land which suffered dearly at home, and abroad, both of which ultimately served as the precipitants towards Revolution, a revolution which finally ended 304 years of Romanov rule, and the Russian Empire by extension.
The external troubles of Russia, starting in 1914 had its roots in centuries of unchecked European greed, expansionism and nationalism. For decades, the Western Empires had lived in simultaneous fear, envy and hatred of one another, and to this extent made the investments necessary to see to it, that should war be imminent, they and they alone would prove victorious.
Most knew that a war was coming, but few had predicted just how large such a war would end up being. When a certain Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary (1867–1918), the Empire sought military assistance from Germany’s “Second Reich” in order to bring the Kingdom of Serbia (1882–1918) to heel. Serbia, most displeased with this turn of events, in response sought assistance from the most powerful fellow Slavic nation it could find, which was of course no other than the Empire of Russia itself.
In the eyes of Tsar Nicholas II, a promise was a promise. And so Russia was forced to intervene in due course. An order was issued, and the Imperial Russian Army mobilized, on July 30th, 1914. Russian mobilization was interpreted by Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany to be an act of war, but alas, Nicholas II was his cousin. Still, he did have a country to run, and a threat against Germany was a threat that could not exist. The Kaiser gave the Tsar a letter which warned the Little Father of Russia to cease and desist, but alas this he could not do, literally.
Russia was a huge country after all, communications from one end of the Empire to the other took a virtual lifetime, and so once the army was mobilized, it could rarely if ever be immobilized. And so come August 1st, 1914, the Kaiser, most unwillingly declared war on the Russian Empire, and by extension both of its major allies, France and Britain days later also. The infamous “War to End all Wars” (1914–18) had now begun.
A photograph depicting the Russian Army of World War One:
Despite recent defeats in the previous Russo-Japanese War, Russia’s military prowess was still very much feared throughout the entirety of Europe. Its Army was still the largest after all, earning it the nickname of the “Russian Steamroller”. Then there was the matter of experience, Russia had much where both its allies and enemies had none, or at least quite as so recently.
In theory as such, Russia seemed to be the predestined winner of any would be European War. This was of particular interest to the Tsar, as he viewed World War One essentially as a second chance to “make Russia great again”. But why was this so? Because by declaring war, he had unleashed the omnipotent force of nationalism, a phenomenon so unyielding that if manipulated correctly, could be used to save a dying Romanov Dynasty.
Nationalism thus per the Tsar’s plan, was supposed to be used as a tool to distract the widely discontented masses from their daily struggles, promote a sense of national unity and ultimately defer if not avert a possible revolution in doing so. The changing of the title for Russia’s capital from St.Petersburg, a name which officials argued sounded “too German”, to the more Russian sounding “Petrograd” (Петрогра́д), was a foremost example of this strategy. And it would have worked of course, if not for several crucial factors, and contingencies which made certain otherwise.
1914–18 comparisons of the 4 major powers of World War One’s mobilized populations (numbers and percentages):
The Russian Army on paper was a superior fighting force sure, but in reality, was one that despite years of modernization was still lacking in the spheres which mattered. Europe in general leading up to the War, had failed to understand just how a conflict such as the “Great War” would be fought like.
They underestimated how mechanized for one, the nature of military conflict had become. Case in point, the inventions of the Machine Gun and long range, large scale artillery had made it far more easy to defend a position, than once was, forcing armies to change entire doctrines on war. For sure, the digging of trenches en masse, which was to eventually defined the First World War further exacerbated this very reality.
But even in light of the aforementioned facts, the Empire was unfortunate enough to still be operating on outdated tactics. A certain General Vladimir Sukhomlinov (Владимир Сухомлинов), who served as Russia’s Minister of War for one, had greatly distrusted the technology of his day, and so therefore insisted that such developments had no place in modern warfare. And so even though technology had changed the way that war was now being fought, the default strategy upon which the Army relied, was still to charge in bulk numbers with bayonets at a fortified position, hoping for the best.
Naturally, it wasn’t really that effective, courtesy of enemy machine guns “raining hell” on said charging soldiers. Even if it got the job done, such negligence ensured that Russia’s dead would always be more than it otherwise should have been.
Favouritism was yet another problem within the mighty Russian Army. Competency, though should have been a key role in the allocation of commisioned officers, was neglected in favour of individuals who were loyal to the Tsarist regime instead. The result was an Imperial Russian Army which was greatly reduced in both effectiveness, and morale on the battlefield, greatly contributing to rising death tolls towards the later half of the First World War.
In many cases also, those loyal to the Tsar were often sourced from the upper classes, nobility and the like. This stood in stark contrast meanwhile, to the vast majority of enlisted men who were overwhelmingly made up of members from the Peasantry. And so of course what you had here, was an army in disharmony, and one which refused to cooperate with one another at that. Class conflict, and privilege served to further decimate the Russian Army’s effectiveness.
Artillery of Russia during the events of World War One:
It was especially logistics however, which would ultimately prove to be the great sorrow of the Russian military on the battlefields, all throughout the duration of the War. Though the growth of the Empire’s railways from 21,000 km to 71,000 km from 1881–1914 had been an impressive feature in its own right, still this was not enough to allow Russia to meet the growing demands of war.
The integrated nature of the Railway system meant that a minor hold up in one place had the potential to adversely affect the entire system as a whole. And in the event that such did happen, transporting millions of troops (and also supplies) to the war front, could quickly become quite the Herculean task. And because Murphy’s Law, this eventually did happen all throughout the entire War, further disadvantaging an already handicapped Russian military.
And although the Empire had traditionally spearheaded European developments regarding the sphere of military expenditure, the Russian military was still lacking in crucial wartime supplies, or at least enough to prove true in martial campaigns anyway. Case in point, of the 6.5 million soldiers who had been directed towards combat, only 4.6 million rifles had actually been issued. The significance of this failure could be tied back to an immediately earlier modernization attempt, “the Great Army Program” (1912), which served only to further highlight Russian failure to reform, even militarily.
The Tsar’s armies heading to war via carriage along Russia’s many railways:
And so this was the Russian Army – one which suffered from faults of almost every nature, the one and the same – which now marched also towards war… and it was a absolute disaster for the most part. Alas, the Tsar let his emotions (his fear of losing power) overwhelm all sense of logic toward this regard. Thus to war an underprepared Russian Army went, with little hope of emerging victorious. And much like the Russo-Japanese War before it, this much soon became quite clear of course.
Faced up against a well equipped, well trained and highly competent German Army, martial forces of Imperial Russia suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of their Western counterparts in the war’s first year. At the “Battle of Tannenberg” (August, 1914) to cite one example, 70,000 Russian troops were massacred by the Germans in under 4 days, whilst another 100,000 were captured. By stark contrast, merely 15,000 losses were sustained on the German side.
Such setbacks to make matters worse, were followed up with further tragedies at the “Battle of the Masurian Lakes” (September, 1914) in which a further 60,000 Russian lives were claimed yet again. All in all, Russia got off to an unhealthy start to put it sharp and shortly, and 1914 was just not their year to shine. Even despite these facts however, the Russian ruling elite remained unfazed by such defeats, and the Tsar of All Russia was still determined, more so than ever before, to continue the war effort, and in doing so save the House of Romanov from imminent revolution.
As the war continued on, losses, great in numbers begun to pile up for all involved parties, foremost amongst which was the Russian Empire, who had already lost 1.2 million men by the end of 1914. 1915 was no better in this regard though, and saw twice as many amongst Russia’s dead at 2.5 million causing public unrest to break out all over the Empire.
And by that point in time military supplies were also rapidly diminishing, causing roughly 25% of the Imperial Army to be sent into combat, with explicit instructions to collect weapons from fallen comrades, before fighting on. Naturally, the death toll rose sharply as a result, and the “Russian Steamroller” became far less of a threat thus.
Europe prior to World War One, divided between the Allies, the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) on one side, and the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy) on the other:
The War, already devastating out on the “Eastern Front”, hit home the hardest however, further destroying internally an already broken nation. As the Central Government eventually devoted their entire attention towards the War effort, the people of Russia ultimately became neglected as a result, and living standards were soon in free fall. Petrograd and Moscow, formerly shining exemplars of Russian prosperity, soon became riddled with the curse of nationwide poverty.
And nowhere was this more evident, than regarding the financial and economic status quo of Imperial Russia. For at the start of 1914, the Russian currency; the “Rouble” had reigned supreme, and remained strong and stable, owing primarily to the fact that Russia had had the largest supply of gold reserve in the world. In fact, 98% of its banknotes in this regard were backed by gold.
However, the status quo soon changed as a result of World War One, and from 1914–17, the Empire was forced to spend more than 1.5 billion roubles on the War, forcing the Imperial Administration to increase both taxation and foreign loans in order to finance such policies. The former of which faced stuffed resistance amongst the oppressed classes for sure. Apart from that, the Russian government also resorted to printing more money in an effort to resolve their sorrows, all necessary of course now that the national budget had also increased from 4 to 30 million roubles in merely 3 years from 1913–16.
This proved to be deeply harmful in the long term, as it led to rampant inflation. And in a country in which most people were already half-dead, having been forced to live on the most minimal of means, an exponential increase in the general prices of goods and services; hyperinflation quickly stripped away what meagre purchasing power Russia’s citizens had prior. So whilst wage growth was still a phenomenon, having doubled, the prices of say “basic foods” quadrupled in the same time.
A rapid devaluation of the rouble followed, causing the Peasantry to hoard their grain rather than sell it for what was now, valueless paper, and this in turn led to a food shortage both at the front and in the cities themselves.
Domestic inflation in Imperial Russia, 1914–17:
En masse famines ensued, and towns and cities alike became strongholds of destituteness. Perpetual hunger enveloped the nation, and as the years went on, rationing was also introduced, which consistently declined year by year from 1.22 kg in the January of 1916, to merely 0.82 kg by the times of the February Revolution in the March of 1917.
On a parallel level to both the ongoing War on the Eastern Front, and the economic conditions at home, political turmoil was similarly on the rise also, but on all fronts at that. Three major developments there existed toward this extent.
The first concerned an ever growing menace within the midst of the Imperial Family itself, regarding an individual known as the “Mad Monk”, the infamous Grigori Rasputin (Григо́рий Распу́тин) to be precise, whose presence ultimately contributed partly to the fall of the Romanov Dynasty. The cancer of Rasputin, though visible and despised by many if not all towards the end of 1916, had first begun its infiltration of the Romanov Dynasty all those years prior, back in 1904.
A family with a 300 year old tradition, had been in need of dire help. By way of Imperial decree, the throne could only be passed onto a male heir. And the Tsar had only one son, Alexei Nikolaevich (Алексе́й Никола́евич), a youth who suffered from a genetic condition that prevented his blood from clotting properly, leading to a state of perpetual bleeding. Distraught beyond belief, the Romanovs were willing to put their faith in any cure which was even remotely said to work.
And so here it was, that Rasputin was first introduced into the midst of Imperial affairs in 1905. A faith healer, a mystic, the mad monk went by many titles, but none of this interested the Tsar nor the Tsarina all too much. What did however, was his supposed ability to treat the heir apparent to some measure of success, something that Russian doctors had failed to do. Naturally, the Romanovs were intrigued, and so his status as a state protected individual, was thus cemented.
A portrait of the entire Romanov Family in 1913 (the Tsarevich can be seen on the right):
The love for Rasputin from within the Winter Palace itself, was not however shared by the rest of neither St.Petersburg nor Russia as a whole. To many, the mad monk was seen as a living paradox, holy in the day, and debauched at night. That such an individual could somehow have risen to prominence within such a small time frame, and in the way he did was a source of much jealousy and hatred for many, most prominent amongst which were the Russian nobility.
Favouritism, on part of Alexandra Feodorovna (Александра Фёдоровна), Tsarina of All Russia finally saw to it that his influence within the Imperial Court was now imminently on the rise. Eventually, as the years went on, so did Rasputin’s influence grow within the Winter Palace also, unchallenged by a clearly biased Tsarina, and her husband, who had sought to appease him, fearing that he would leave his post as de facto apothecary to their son, should they have failed to satisfy him. And this was the beginning of the end for all things good.
Jealousy on part of the nobility, combined with clear favouritism from the Romanovs, finally gave rise to widespread rumours, that the Tsar was no longer the true ruler of Russia. Rather, Nicholas II was merely now the public face of a one true “shadow” ruler, Rasputin himself. Such rumours were especially detrimental, as they acted further to convince would be revolutionary groups of the righteousness of their cause, as the Tsar had now left Russia in all but name.
A portrait of Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk” of Imperial Russia:
Speaking of which, secondly, the fact that the Tsar was also physically absent from the Winter Palace itself served to not only further inflame said rumours, but also prevented him from addressing such a problem directly. Nicholas II, most foolishly, in light of Russia’s ongoing failures along the Eastern Front, had decided to take personal command of the army himself, in order to lift the spirits of Russia’s finest.
In theory, it sounded like an excellent idea at the time, given Russia’s then current military status quo in 1915, a year in which a total of 23 million Imperial soldiers had already either been captured, killed or injured directly to German reaction, and the vast majority of the Empire’s territorial gains, previously won over thanks to the efforts of renowned General Aleksei Brusilov (Алексе́й Бруси́лов), was now lost; recaptured by German forces.
In reality, it was a horrible idea and everyone save for the Tsar himself knew it. Nicholas II had little military experience, and lacked the charisma needed to inspire his men to victory, and in fact, faced with a squadron of soldiers, he didn’t even know what to say, let alone how to say it. The then Council of Ministers had especially noted both these flaws in fact, and explicitly begged him to stand down in August, 1915:
“Sire, we make bold once more to tell you that, to the best of our understanding, your adoption of such a decision threatens Russia, yourself, and the dynasty with serious consequences.”
Mikhail Rodzianko (Михаи́л Родзя́нко), President of the State Duma was even less forthright in this regard, and to this extent wrote a letter which more bluntly seconded the Council of Ministers’ recommendation. But still, the Tsar was determined to stay. And so stay he did, much to the anguish of the officers, the horror of the State officials, and to the annoyance of the Army.
A photograph of Tsar Nicholas II taking up the mantle of Commander-in-Chief on the Eastern Front:
The importance of the Tsar taking up the role of Commander-in-Chief, with regards to public dissatisfaction, could not be overstated. By taking over personal command of the Imperial Russian Army, the Tsar was taking part in what was essentially a nation wide “blame game”. Sure, Russia was already suffering greatly even prior to the Tsar’s participation on the battlefield, but at least then, he had limited (more so) liability for any disasters which occured on Eastern Front.
But now by taking charge of the army, he had given the Russian public a singular target towards which they could direct their hate and frustrations at. Russian nationalism therefore, as intended by the Tsar to be manipulated in his favour, was thus failing, and greatly so at that. It had backfired yet again, making it clear that these turn of events were fundamentally a Russo-Japanese War version 2.0. Public dissent, and all around dissatisfaction with the Tsar, had thus grown to an all time high as a result. All of Russia’s sacrifices in the World War, was thus made redundant in this way, and a revolution etched, ever so closer to reality.
Now just because the Tsar was absent from the Winter Palace itself, by no means meant that now the State Duma was in charge. No, of course not. Power was at all times in to remain in the hands of a member of the House of Romanov. The Tsarina now, was thus in charge. But alas, she wasn’t alone. Yet still, the spectre of Rasputin lurked in the shadows, out of sight but not however out of mind. The two together, left unchecked, formed an alliance to rule Russia together.
By itself, this would have merely been damaging somewhat if their unholy union had been taken out of context, free from any past baggage. Alas, it was not. Prior to the Tsarina taking over the reins of Russia in the absence of the Tsar, all was still not well. The Tsarina for one, leading up to 1915, was not a well loved figure. She was a foreigner after all, and German at that, and so when World War One broke out, all eyes were immediately trained on her.
How preposterous the Russian public thought! What kind of Tsar would leave, nay, abandon his people, one, and in favour of a woman also, two, and a German one at that, three, in a time of great disharmony and war, four, a time when Germany was literally killing millions of Russian soldiers out on the Eastern Front, five. A betrayal of Russia on part of their ethnically German Tsarina, was the great fear of the day. The Russian public was angry alright, and soon made sure to voice their dissatisfaction publicly. This was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg however.
A portrait of “Alix of Hesse”, Tsarina of All Russia:
The other, concerned the personal activities of Rasputin himself. Debauched beyond measure of course, he had been marred by several rumours which acted to altogether exacerbate the two’s current situation. Rasputin for one was said to have possessed a “special influence” over women in particular, and unfortunately for him, this was backed up by further accusations that he had been sleeping with at least 24 female members of the Russian nobility, apart from also hosting (and or taking part in) regular orgies.
Not exactly a healthy influence to have inside the Winter Palace for sure. What made such a situation worse however, was that these rumours appeared to actually be quite true. For it was the Tsarina after all, who had decided to in the first place recommend Rasputin as a solution to Alexei’s Hemophilia, but also protect his stature within the prestigious “inner circle” afterwards also. It was her, who had convinced the Tsar, against all his better judgements to allow the monk to stay on much to his annoyance. And it was her, who continued to adhere to his advice now, as caretaker of the throne.
And considering that few actually liked the Tsarina in the first place, it should be quite clear then, as to how and why the Russian public thought she, and by extension her husband (as he had a reputation for being genuinely in love with his wife), were both under the spell of Rasputin, further rumours which had become quite common place by 1916. But since her husband wasn’t actually in St.Petersburg at the time, she ultimately ended up taking much of the public brunt this time around herself.
Thus, whilst the Tsar was become the only target of frustration for the public to direct their anger towards regarding martial affairs, the Tsarina similarly was enduring the same hatred from the public, albeit over more civil centric matters. Although historians generally don’t always agree on much, the vast majority of academic consensus was that Rasputin’s final legacy, was the absolute discrediting of the both a formerly beloved Tsar and, his already hated wife.
A cartoonist’s critique of Rasputin’s perceived influence over both the Tsar and Tsarina:
And speaking of affairs, not only were the Tsarina and Rasputin both the victims of such rumours, which denigrated the two as partakers in an extramarital affair, but supposed proof toward this regard was also discovered in the form of a letter, and finally leaked to the press also in 1912. Words written by Rasputin to the Tsarina, was said to have been something along the lines of the following:
“I kiss your hands and lay my head upon your blessed shoulders.”
Which in due course was reciprocated with a single sentence:
“All I want is to sleep, sleep forever on your shoulder, in your embrace.”
Whether or not this was misinterpreted, or even real, the purported turn of events acted further to damage both the Tsarina’s reputation, and further supported public perception that Rasputin was now in control of the Romanov throne.
A vulgar cartoon, depicting both the Tsarina and Rasputin in a negative light:
It wasn’t only Russia that was beyond annoyed at the fact that the Tsarina and Rasputin had been ruling in place of the Tsar, but foreign emissaries also, most notably an anonymous French ambassador who once remarked upon discovering the true internal state of Russia at the time:
“I am obliged to report that, at the present moment, the Russian Empire is run by lunatics.”
Rasputin of course, was eventually assassinated by December 30th, 1916, but by that point in time, it was already far too late to save the Russian Empire from imminent collapse.
Up until such times however, a third political development transpired, innately tied into the first as a result of the Tsarina’s deep mistrust of anti-establishment members within the State Duma, which acted to hasten the arrival of said imminent revolution, and that was the act of “Ministerial Leapfrogging”. Though not as severe as the first two developments, still, it acted to damage the efficiency of the Russian bureaucracy, seeing to it that from September 1915 to February 1917:
“Russia had four Prime Ministers, five Ministers of the Interior, three Foreign Ministers, three War Ministers, three Ministers of Transport and four Ministers of Agriculture.”
Not only did this make it impossible for these ministers to fully comprehend their roles (before being replaced), but few of these individuals knew exactly as to whom they were ultimately responsible – the Tsar at the front or the Tsarina and Rasputin in Petrograd. Thus a state of political inefficiency now reigned supreme.
A photograph of Rasputin, and some of his admirers from Russian “high society”:
Now, given all of which been ongoing hitherto the year of 1917, very few people thought it realistic, that a revolution could ever have taken place. They were all to be proven wrong however, shortly thereafter. The Russia which had entered into the new year of 1917, was a very broken one after all.
Both Petrograd and Moscow were barely making ends meet, and directly due to the War, which diverted all vital resources to the Front due to prioritization of the military, saw to it that the cities were receiving merely 1/3 of what they should have been getting. Smaller cities, and rural areas were even more so worse off.
By 1917, an additional 1.7 million soldiers had been killed. Another 8 million injured. And yet another 2.5 million were now prisoners in foreign countries. Middle class savings at home was all but spent, made null by ongoing inflation, once more due to the ongoing costs of sustaining the war effort.
In fact, almost everybody who wasn’t part of the privileged classes had already by the previous year, lost complete faith in the Tsar, who they blamed for literally every single last problem which they could think of. Finally, after all those long years of failure to reform, and en masse social neglect, the people had had enough. There was only one way for Russia to progress forward, and that was through a society completely removed of a Tsar and his Romanov Dynasty. A second revolution was now at last looming over the historical horizon.
And it began in the abnormally freezing month of February, 1917. Come the 23rd of that month, and it was now “International Women’s Day”. The result of this occasion saw to it that thousands of women were now marching all throughout Petrograd, demanding both food and equality, directing these complaints towards the Russian State itself.
A photograph illustrating the Women’s March on February 23rd:
A group of 100,000 joined the Women’s March shortly thereafter, similarly concerned at the issue of ever so diminishing food supplies which had come to defined World War One Russia. This resulted in a chain effect, which served to inspire hesitant bystanders such, that soon, even they begun to partake in the mass protests too.
Merely two days afterwards, the march had swelled to include 300,000 protestors. Such a situation as per usual, was deemed as unacceptable to the Tsar, who responded by ordering that the march be suppressed. This was how it came to be, that a public order was issued by one General Sergey Khabalov (Сергей Хабалов), which stipulated that no further protests were to be held, on pain of death.
When crowds gathered a day afterwards, on February 26th to specifically defy Khabalov, they were immediately shot at by a greatly hesitant Imperial Russian Army, who had been temporarily stationed in Petrograd, whilst preparing to depart for the Eastern Front. Though in usual circumstances, this would have been enough to deter the protesters, in this particular, case the contrary was true, and the crowds grew ever more so bold and daring.
Recognizing that the Empire’s last chances at survival were quickly slipping away, the President of the State Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko telegrammed the Tsar the following message on the same day:
“Your most faithful servant reports to your Majesty that popular risings, having begun in Petrograd, are taking on uncontrollable and threatening dimensions. Their cause is a shortage of baked bread… But the main reason is the absolute distrust of the authorities, who are not yet competent t lead the country out of its difficult situation…
Your majesty, save Russia; she is threatened with humiliation and disgrace… Your Majesty, urgently summon a person in whom the whole country can have faith and entrust him with the formation of a government that all the people can trust.”
A photograph of Mikhail Rodzianko, President of the State Duma:
The response of the Tsar? Immediate dissolution of the Duma. And in this way, the last chances of averting a revolution, had now completely dissipated, and needlessly so at that.
The day following these turn of events, the only armed party capable of averting the fall of a rapidly declining Imperial Administration, the very same army who had been reluctant to fire upon their fellow unarmed citizens the day prior, most dissatisfied with the status quo, mutinied. They were still fellow peasants and workers after all, the only difference was that they were now armed, courtesy of wartime conscription.
There was no way they were willing to tolerate such oppression any longer, oppression which had made it compulsory to slaughter their own brothers and sisters. How preposterous! It was simply unacceptable, and this much was apparent through the words of a certain Sergeant Fedor Linde (Фёдор Линде), who urged on the oppressed of Petrograd:
“To arms! To arms! They are killing innocent people, our brothers and sisters!”
A photograph of Sergeant Linde personally co-ordinating revolutionary efforts against the Tsarist regime:
And all at once, as if having had planned for such an occasion, the 160,000 soldiers of the now rebel army, was thrust into the “center stage”, the main instrument in the overthrowing of the hated Old Regime.
Finally acknowledging the severity of the situation, the Tsar resolved to return to Petrograd in order to settle the crowds, unaware of just how much his people now despised him. And it was because they despised him so, that they refused to even let him re-enter the Russian Capital, for fear that a loyalist force would form upon witnessing his return.
So to the City of Pskov (Псков) the Tsar went instead, and here it was that the final end of not only the Russian Empire, but the Romanov Dynasty also, was at last solidified. Under pressure and advice from both loyalist generals, and President Rodzianko alike, the Tsar abdicated in favour of his younger brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich (Михаи́л Александрович) rather than his own son, who had reached the point of no return regarding his health, and was due to pass anytime soon.
“I cannot be separated from him” the Tsar had tearfully insisted. Even in those very last moments of his rule, the Little Father of Russia had still prioritized family above all else. The problem was, that that was what Russia was to him also, a giant family of 180 million… and he had failed them all. And so naturally in those final hours, the Tsar having finally realized his failure towards protecting his people, now resolved himself to do what was right, and therefore willingly for the first time ever in his life, surrendered wholly over to the people of Russia.
Citing safety concerns and only too aware, of the anti-Romanov attitudes the Petrograd crowds now armeded themselves with, Mikhail declined the throne and in doing so, formally ended 304 years of Imperial Russia, under the watchful eye of the House of Romanov. Therefore fell the Russian Empire, and thus arose the new Russian Republic in its place instead.
Coat of Arms of the House of Romanov (Рома́новы), last dynasty of Russia, ended 1917:
The Russian Empire fell because of its unwillingness to accept social, economic and political change, in an era defined by such interruptions to the old world order.
The Empire was a vast, and powerful multi-ethnic country, which in theory should have been one of the world’s most dominant powers, but due to several fundamental flaws regarding many facets of the civil sphere, it was only able to operate at a sub-par level.
Russia’s majority, composed mainly of Peasants and Workers were some of the most neglected in Europe prior to the 1905 Revolution, the first of two to dramatically alter the socio-political structure of the Empire. The Peasantry lacked greatly both in land and bread at any given time, whilst the Working Class laboured endlessly for approximately 15 hours on a good day. Widespread censorship, a ban on unions, and all around poor living standards reflected materially, non-material anger at the Romanov regime for failure to reform.
And even after the 1905 Revolution had occured, all promises directed towards genuine and meaningful change, as advocated under the October Manifesto, were revoked anyway. The Tsar, who believed himself to be the guardian; the “Little Father” of Russia, was committed to keeping Russian Autocracy alive, and so even though he had promised change, this was merely a facade to prolong the existence of the Tsarist regime, despite the introduction of national suffrage, and later even,a Russian Parliament; the State Duma.
Oppression was still the order of the day, and would be so for the next 11 years.
The people of Russia were disappointed to say the least at this turn of events, but still they held on, convinced that a better world was just around the corner, that true change would eventually come. It did not. A war never before experienced anywhere on Earth came instead, and the Tsar, seeking to divert attention away from internal crisis, entered Russia into the First World War.
Such a stratagem ultimately backfired, when the effects of the war brought a state of heavy inflation, and shortages of all kind back into the Empire. And it was at this time, that mass dissatisfaction with the status quo finally reached its peak. If change was not going to come from the top of the social hierarchy, then the people of Russia, it’s mighty majority would enact it themselves, and most violently so at that.
Which was what ultimately happened of course. A revolution, the February Revolution was now in full swing, and it ended with the fall of the Russian Empire. Thus collapsed, an Empire, thus fell, a 304 year old dynasty.
Offline Sources Utilized
- Figes, Orlando. (2014). Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History. Metropolitan Books.
- Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (2008). The Russian Revolution. Oxford University Press.
- Hite, John. (2004). Tsarist Russia, 1801–1917. Causeway Press.
- Lynch, Michael. (2000). Reaction and Revolution: Russia 1881–1921. Hodder & Stoughton.
- Perfect, Lauren; Ryan Tom; Sweeney Scott. (2016). Reinventing Russia. HTAV Publishing.
- Pipes, Richard. (1996). A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. Random House USA Inc.
- Service, Robert. (1999). The Russian Revolution 1900–27. Palgrave.
Onlines Sources Utilized
Originally posted on May 4th, 2018 linked down below as follows: