Assess the importance of the individual in influencing key developments in Russia between 1825 and February 1917

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Jessica Ellis

Assess the importance of the individual in influencing key developments in Russia between 1825 and February 1917

On the face of it Russia’s history appears to be sculpted by key figures of the time and it could be said that the country’s biggest changes came between 1825 – complete autocracy – and February 1917 when the beginnings of a democracy was formed. The developments during this time were due not just to the Tsar’s but also to the influence of western ideas, impact of wars, economic stagnation and social unrest that culminated in the collapse of the Tsarist regime.

The reign of Nicholas I is characterised by his famous line ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’ and it could be easy to say that the nature of the period was due entirely to Nicholas I’s personality. Historian Peter Neville described the Tsar as having an ‘anxious, paranoid personality and wanting to know everything about his people’. This lead to the creation of the Third Section, the predecessor to the Okhrana and Cheka. However the influences on the Tsar must be taken into consideration – in particular the Decembrist revolt at the very beginning of his reign which led to the Tsar’s famous words ‘revolution is at the gates of Russia, but I swear that it shall not enter as long as I have breath in my body’. Tomson argued that after this ‘Nicholas I was haunted for the whole of his reign by the spectre of revolution’. This shows how major a part this conspiracy played in determining the repressive nature of the regime between 1825 and 1856. It is true that Nicholas I took a few small steps towards reform during his reign, for example the Factory Act which improved working conditions, however he would go no further in case reformist attitudes gained momentum. This included his treatment of the serfs – although he alleviated their living conditions he was famously quoted saying that ‘to touch it [serfdom] would be a disastrous evil’. It must also be noted that the period was influenced by opposition – namely opposition which achieved little to nothing. Peasant revolts were not cohesive therefore were stamped out quickly, intellectuals that had travelled abroad attempted to spread some western, liberal ideas but were largely ineffective due to the strict control of the Nicholas system, the ‘Superfluous men’ were bound to the court by a suspicious Tsar and although they wrote of their experiences they preferred words to actions, achieving no substantial reform. One key member of opposition to Russia’s pan-slavism was Chaadayev who published his ‘First Philosophical Letter’ in support of westernisation in 1836, however once again this had little impact as the government declared him insane, showing that as an individual he had little influence, other than to get himself arrested in 1849. Nicholas I’s fear of revolution led to Russia’s economic stagnation during this time as he worried industrialisation would create instability and a desire for reform. He appeared to be successful in this area until his raised taxes on alcohol coincided with a ‘swing towards westernism’ in the 1850s, leading to mass rioting and boycotting in 1859. Had he not made the decision to raise this tax which had an enormous effect on the mood of the peasants who could no longer consume vodka in the quantities desired, this mutinous feeling towards the end of his reign may not have occurred.

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The next stage of Russia’s development is often referred to as the time of the ‘Great Reforms’, notably the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 under Alexander II. Unlike the Tsar’s father, Alexander appeared to embrace reform. However his reasons for unfolding such a seemingly radical change in Russia’s history are not due purely to the Tsar’s morality. The Great Debate of slavophiles versus westernisers had been slowly penetrating Russia through the medium of university lecturers and journalistic and literary work which mobilised public support for reform. This work done in the 1830s and 40s spread from educated society ...

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