[A] Russia under the tsars before 1914


  • Russian dominance
  • The size and diversity of the empire made it extremely difficult to govern
  • National minorities resented Russian control; saw russification as a fundamental attack on their way of life and a monstrously unfair policy that discriminated against them
  • One of the policy of russification involved making non-Russians use the Russian language and adopt Russian customs
  • Russian officials were put in to run regional government in non-Russian parts of the empire
  • Russian language used in schools, law courts and regional governments
  • Russians got important jobs in government and state-sponsored industry
  • During the 19th century, protests and uprisings from national groups seeking more autonomy

[B] The social structure of tsarist Russia


  • Life was hard and unremitting
  • Most were poor, illiterate and uneducated
  • Disease

Land and agriculture

  • Agricultural methods were inefficient and backward
  • Not enough land to go around
  • The vast expansion of the peasant population led to overcrowding and competition for land
  • Before 1905, most peasants had serious debt problems because of land repayments to the gov’t.
  • Freed in 1861 by the nobility and given plots of land
  • But forced to pay for their land by making yearly redemption payments to the gov’t
  • Peasants felt betrayed by this b/c they could not afford to pay
  • Gov’t cancelled the land repayments in 1905

Urban Workers:

  • Wages were generally very low and working conditions very poor


  • Growing industry
  • By 1914, Russia was the world’s 4th largest producer of coal, pig-iron and steel

[C] How was Russia governed under the tsars?

  • Tsarist Russia was an autocracy
  • The tsar had an imperial council to advise him and a cabinet of ministers who ran the various gov’t departments; they reported to him directly
  • The tsar was the pivot on which the system rested
  • To run the enormous empire, there was a huge bureaucracy of civil servants and officials
  • Rigid hierarchy marked by inefficiency
  • Lower ranks were badly paid and a culture of corruption where bribery was common
  • The bureaucracy was practically impenetrable for ordinary citizens, whose interests were rarely served properly
  • Opposition was not tolerated
  • Cossacks: fiercely independent people who came from the Don area of Russia. Once they had been conquered by the Russians, they became loyal supporters of the tsar and could be trusted to act against other peoples in the empire, including the Russians; used to deal with any trouble
  • Tsarist Russia was an oppressive and intolerant regime

The structure of the tsarist state

The Russian Orthodox Church

  • Independent of the Pope and Rome
  • Developed its own traditions and customs
  • Gregory Rasputin
  • Closely aligned with the tsarist system; supported the divine right of the tsar to rule and exhorted believers to obey the tsar as the agent of God
  • Conservative

Opposition to the tsars

  • Opposition included revolutionary populist movements like People’s Will (planned to bring down the gov’t through terrorist acts) ; assassinated Tsar Alexander II
  • The Social Democrats centered around the ideas of Karl Marx
  • Liberals wanted political reform rather than revolution; looking for a parliamentary- style system that would reduce the tsar’s power and turn him into a constitutional monarch
  • Constitutional Monarchy: One where the monarch’s political powers are limited
  • POPULISM: seek support from ordinary ppl; from 1860s to 1880s, the populists (large well-to-do intellectuals) believed that the peasants in Russia could develop their own form of socialism
  • Life would be based around co-operation and sharing in peasant communes on a fairly small scale, meaning that capitalism and its evils could be avoided altogether

[D] Background history to the downfall of the last tsar


They needed to modernize and industrialize for two basic reasons:

  1. To be a great power in the 20th century: wanted their country to play a major role on the world stage
  2. Russia was poor. Agriculture was hopelessly inefficient: starvation

The contradictions of modernization

  • desirable but posed a serious threat to the tsarist regime:
  • Would be difficult to maintain the institutions of tsarist autocracy in a modernized Russia
  • Industrialization created social tensions when millions moved from the countryside to the cities; a discontented working class in poor conditions became volatile and led to instability
  • The need for a more educated workforce made ppl challenge the government
  • The growth of the middle classes would create pressure for political change and for more accountable and representative government

Tsar Nicholas II

  • Unprepared for his throne
  • Faced the enormous problems of modernizing Russia and bringing it into the 20th century
  • Duty to uphold the autocracy and proved unwilling to make any moves towards constitutional gov’t (may have aided his survival and helped Russia solve its political problems)
  • Believed that democracy would bring about the collapse of the Russian empire

Witte’s economic policy

  • Serge Witte, the Finance Minister from 1892 to 1905
  • His plan was to make a huge investment in industry to create a spiral of upward industrial growth
  • Placed much of his faith in the development of the railways
  • These would improve communication btw/ cities but also create demand for iron, steel, coal and other industries associated with railway building
  • Developing the railway was not enough. The government needed to invest in industry on a huge scale to really get it going. This meant buying expensive machinery - CAPITAL EQUIPMENT
  • The question? Where was the money going to come from? Witte had two sources:
  • Foreign investment: he negotiated huge foreign loans; problem with foreign loans was that interest payments had to be made at regular intervals
  • The peasants: he increased both the state taxes they paid and the taxes on everyday items; used surplus grain from harvests to sell abroad, to pay off the interest on foreign loans and to buy more capital equipment
  • Witte’s policy was to squeeze resources out of the peasants to pay for industrialization; kept urban workers’ wages low so that all the money available went into industrial development
  • In 1902, industrial slump happened; home market was not strong b/c peasants had been squeezed so hard they did not have money to spend on manufactured goods
  • Lost jobs, strikes and protests
  • Bad harvests in 1900 and 1902 pushed the peasants into starvation
  • From 1902 to 1904, peasant uprisings erupted sporadically and widespread violence

The 1905 Revolution

  • In 1904, in the midst of the economic depression, the Tsar decided to divert attention by starting a war with the Japanese; the war only exacerbated the economic and social plight of industrial workers and peasantry by creating shortages of goods and raising prices
  • Tension built up towards the end of 1904 and revolution broke wot in St Petersburg following the events of Bloody Sunday (22 January) in 1905, when the Tsars’ troops fired on a peaceful demonstration marching to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II
  • The end of January → 400,000 workers on strike (spread to other cities and countryside)
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Main causes of the 1905 Revolution

  • For most of 1905, the Tsar was at war with his own ppl
  • Liberals, the most powerful political opposition force, demanded reforms; demanded representative gov’t and elections
  • National minorities, demanded independence
  • Soviets- workers’ councils, co-ordinated strikes; St Petersburg Soviet became an influential and powerful body which threatened the government
  • Leon Trotsky
  • In October, a general strike spread throughout major cities in Russia, bringing the country to a standstill
  • Faced with opposition and a lack of control, the Tsar had a choice: to put down the uprisings with bloodshed ...

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