Russia: a Century of Upheaval.

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Question 1

   Picture this: the largest country in the world, the stretching plain, a land with important mountain ranges, a land that covers a sixth of the globe…

   This is Russia, a proud nation, with a rich and varied history, a nation that has, after years of isolationism we usually attribute to the USA, come out and taken its place as a capitalist power in the East and the West, yet, despite the social and political upheaval Russia has seen over the years, has anything really changed. It is true that a capitalist country is by no means always a democracy, but why is it that Russia, despite some huge political changes, is still viewed with a suspicion and scepticism that is usually reserved for the ‘republics’ of the Middle East, and the Backward, Stalinist regime of North Korea? Maybe it is because people remember what Nation inspired the north Koreans, what Nations leaders have become shining examples to the jumped up dictators of the modern world.

   The new world faces many problems, and many of them can be linked to the huge conflicts of this century, ahh, I hear you say, at last you know what I’m on about, the first and second world wars. Well yes, but there is another, more recent conflict, a hidden one, that has by no means seen as many deaths, but has arguably done more to mess up this world than the others put together. To truly understand we have to come back to the centre of this study, Russia, look at its history, and the way in which the relationship it has with the west is still changing today.

   Imperial Russia, to the south mountains and deserts divide it from Asia, and most of the ‘advanced’ nations of the west are seen as hostile. It is partly because the Russians have always been surrounded by possible enemies that they have tried to make their vast county even bigger. Since the rule of Ivan the terrible in the sixteenth century, they have been conquering new lands, expanding what is theirs, and growing in might.

   By 1900 the population of this great nation had reached 130 million, it had doubled since 1850, and continued to grow rapidly. Many of these people were subject races, belonging to the lands the Russians had conquered. The majority of these ‘Russians’ disliked Imperial rule, and few were content under Russian nobles.

   This wasn’t a problem exclusive to the subject peoples though, until 1861, the peasants (poor farmers, by no means a derogatory title) had been serfs. This meant that they were the property of the nobles, a political and social concept that had died out hundreds of years ago in Europe. Russia was, as you have probably realised, the most backward of the great powers. Her villages could have been likened unto those of medieval England, huge open fields, farmed using clumsy and outdated tools, such as hand ploughs and scythes.

   Even when Alexander II had liberated them from serfdom, the peasants lived a meagre existence. Although the Nobles had been forced to give up much of their land to the peasants living on it, little changed, as they had to pay for the land over 40 years. Worse still than this, the land was owned in common, which meant that no man could call the land he farmed his own. This led to another problem in the form of the rapid growth of the population. Almost every peasant had to divide the land he owned between his sons, this meant that the farms got smaller and smaller. The peasants had to rent out from the nobles, who still owned much. Still, there was not enough to go round, and this led to greedy nobles, realising the competition, could charge high rates. This made them extremely unpopular.

   We would be very much mistaken if we thought of Russia as a completely medieval style state, progress was being made. The government had begun to see the importance in industry, and how it was necessary if Russia was to compete with other world powers. As industry grew, the number of industrial workers quickly increased. These workers were often the more opportunist peasants, who knew that they could earn more money in the towns and factories than they could on the farms. This change did little to end discontent though, the huge majority of Russians were still struggling just to survive, and those that moved to the towns had to live in appalling conditions. They were forced to live in slums or communal barracks, such barracks did little for self-respect, and the workers hated those who lived well, but did not care. The factories themselves were just as bad, and the workers spent long hours, trying to make the most of the dirty, dangerous and hard jobs they needed to feed themselves and their families.

   Another group growing in numbers was the middle class. This group consisted of factory owners, bankers, merchants, lawyers and doctors. Although they made up a tiny proportion of the population they were all well educated, and, because they had all had to work their way up, were for the most part intelligent. They knew of the world outside Russia, and resented their countries undemocratic government, and the way in which it deliberately strived to keep the population ignorant. In turn, the government despised the middle classes, and were worried at the way in which their influence grew.

   The Government was as backward as anything else in the country. Russia was for all intents and purposes an absolute monarchy, and the Tsar Nicholas II believed that he had been chosen by God, this meant that any decision he made was Gods will, and that those who stood against him, stood against God. This particular political stance died out in Britain in the early seventeenth century. For years the Tsars (absolute rulers/ Emperors) had led an autocratic government, there had never been a place for democracy, and no one could check the decisions made by the Tsars, they were the masters, the fathers of the people. Unfortunately for the Imperial government, Nicholas did not have the strength of character an autocrat needs. He was stubborn, yet easy manipulate. He somehow lacked the personal confidence needed to come up with his own ideas, and was overly influenced by members of his family, especially his wife, the German born Alexandra.

   The Tsar had a council of ministers appointed directly by him, whose job it was to advice him on matters of state. Below them came the civil service, which carried out the decisions made by the Tsar and his ministers. The civil service was over bureaucratised, with fourteen different grades, each with its own salary, uniform and title. Men in the highest grades ranked with the nobility. (Although the majority of those working in the civil service were nobles in their own right.) Another government branch was the Okrana, the secret police, who arrested people suspected of plotting against the Tsar. Those arrested were often condemned without trial, and many were executed, imprisoned, or exiled to Siberia, the harshest land in all of Russia.

   Although the tsar was absolute ruler of Russia, there was nothing absolute about the support he had. A number of social groups formed political parties hostile to the Tsar. There was the middle class, mainly liberals who wanted Russia to be a democracy, like Britain and France. In 1905 they formed a constitutional democratic party, known from its Russian initial as the cadet party. Another group that looked to the west was the intellectuals. Artists, writers, teachers and university students. However, many of these intellectuals were not interested in forming a democracy, they had more extreme and radical views. They formed revolutionary societies, and were successful in assassinating Alexander II, Grandfather of Nicholas II. Unfortunately for them they were too few in numbers, and had little support among the Russian people. Because of this they tried to take their idea to the wider populace.

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   One group went to the peasants, but were not successful in gathering support, this was mainly because the peasants were under the influence of the church, and this meant that many of them were loyal to the Tsar. Another problem was that their desire for social change didn’t extend much further than the wish to take the nobles land, and share it out amongst themselves. They had no ambition to oust the Tsar, the only kind of ruler they had known in centuries. However, there were a few intelligent and angry enough to form a political party, which ...

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