How effective was opposition to Russian government during the period 1855-1964?

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How effective was opposition to Russian government during the period 1855-1964?

All Russian governments in this period faced strong opposition to their regime with the period as a whole punctuated by riots, disturbances and revolutions. This question largely hinges on the definition of the word opposition, and one understands it here as an individual or group which resists and combats the ideology, nature, and mechanisms used by the ruling party. From this definition emerge two different classes of opposition in this period, from inside and outside the circles of the ruling elite. For the opposition inside the circles of the ruling elite (the gentry in imperial Russia and fellow Bolsheviks with slightly different political inclinations in the Soviet era) they desired, usually, a change of personnel at the helm or, less frequently, policy to take a different direction. The opposition outside the circles of the ruling elite also had different ambitions, some wanted political concession, some desired an improved social and economic climate whilst others, rather ambitiously, wanted a change of personnel at the summit of government. Due to the plethora of different aims among opposition, it is implicit that one struggles to measure effectiveness easily. That is more easily achieved by categorising the external opposition into those who wanted political or socio-economic change and then considering in turn to what extent each type of opposition realised its ambitions, after which the external opposition in Russia will be evaluated.

Political change was highly sought after in Russia during this period, particularly during the Tsarist regime where the growth of the revolutionary intelligentsia in the wake of the Great Reforms led many to question the mystical bond of love or attachment between Emperor and subjects. The bulk of the opposition looked across to Europe where they saw constitutional monarchies leading countries forward into prosperity, whereas Lenin (inspired by Chernyshevsky’s book ‘What is to be done’) studied Marxist theory which promoted the idea of socialism via a dictatorship of the proletariat. The first main success of political opposition is widely considered to be the assassination of Alexander II at the hands of the People’s Will in 1881. Although assassinating the Emperor is an extraordinary feat it is hotly debated whether or not this event helped the opposition achieve their aims (presumably greater political freedom/democracy). On the eve of his death Alexander II was willing to consider Loris Melikov’s proposal of the public playing a more prominent role in directing administrative and financial policy. Furthermore, the assassination caused Alexander III and Konstantin Pobedonostev to inaugurate an age of constant political reaction in which many counter-reforms were created to limit the impact of the Great Reforms in the 1860’s (for example the University Statute of 1884 concerning autonomy of higher education replaced the much more progressive statute of 1863). Perhaps the only example in the period of effective political opposition was the Bolshevik takeover of 1917, where, unquestionably, they realised their initial ambitions. Even though the Bolsheviks under the guidance of Lenin and Trotsky were exceptionally well drilled, they benefitted hugely from the conditions in 1917 which were hugely conducive to opposition. The Provisional Government preached freedoms of religion, speech and press as well as the outlawing of the secret police, exile to Siberia and even execution. Their continuation of the war also put enormous concomitant pressure on the peasantry, contrasting unfavourably to Lenin’s April Theses which promised bread, peace and land. Despite the unique circumstances, the Communist party never looked back, subsequently shutting down the Constituent Assembly, winning the Civil War and presiding over extraordinary levels of economic success combined with millions of atrocities over the next 60 years. One could equally consider the takeover of the Provisional Government as an example of effective opposition as it took power from Nicholas II, yet it lasted less than 8 months and hence not effective in the long term. Political opposition in Soviet Russia may have existed, but it certainly never made an impression as censorship, propaganda and repression were all used very successfully to secure Communist rule. This is exemplified by two attempted assassinations, one in Communist, one in Tsarist Russia. Through the medium of trial by jury Vera Zasulich was acquitted after trying to kill General Trepov, yet the efforts of Fanya Kaplan to kill Lenin were not tolerated by the Communists who responded with an unprecedented terror which swept mercilessly across Russia.

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Economically and socially opposition was also omnipresent during this period. The astonishing frequency of peasant revolts in the six years and two months of Alexander II’s reign prior to the Emancipation Edict (474 revolts, accounting for 32% of all peasant revolts in 19th century Russia according to Ignatovich’s figures) was clearly a contributory factor.  The result was the abolition of human bondage which was, if nothing else, an increase in status for Russian peasants. The effectiveness of peasant opposition to serfdom can be contrasted with their reluctance under Stalin to become part of collective farms or kolkhoz which had to deliver ...

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