Key Topic 1: The collapse of the Tsarist regime 1917 The Nature of Tsarist rule

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REVISION NOTES – Russia 1905-1941

Key Topic 1: The collapse of the Tsarist regime 1917
The Nature of Tsarist rule

  • Autocracy meant that the Tsar had absolute power. He could make laws, appoint ministers and decide on all polices completely on his own.

  • Even after the setting up of the Duma in 1906, Nicholas II was very reluctant to allow it any real power. This meant that it was impossible to bring about any changes in Russia without Nicholas agreeing to them.

  • Nicholas II was weak and easily influenced by others. Even when he took the right decision, e.g. after the 1905 Revolution, he changed his mind later on.

  • He did not want to be Tsar and was not capable of acting sensibly. But he felt he had to keep going to pass the throne on to his son.

  • The Tsars had traditionally relied on repression to deal with opposition. The secret police, the Okhrana, were very efficient and street disturbances were broken up by the Cossacks.

  • This had always worked in the past and he had no other alternatives. This meant that opposition groups also tended to be violent. Nicholas’s grandfather, Alexander II, was killed by a bomb in 1881.

  • In Russia there were extremes of wealth and poverty, far greater than in any other European country. These were made worse by big increases in the populations of the two main cities, St Petersburg and Moscow.

  • The number of people living in these cities nearly doubled between 1880 and 1914. This led to overcrowding, shortages of food and unrest. The opposition groups in Russia took advantage of this situation. In 1917 events in Petrograd were all important.

  • Russia was a very backward country. Only 2% of the population worked in industry, 80% worked in agriculture, which was often very primitive, and there was 80% illiteracy.

  • Many Russians distrusted Western ideas and preferred to use old-fashioned methods. This included the army commanders who thought the bayonet was the most important weapon.

  • There were many opposition groups in Russia. The most powerful and the biggest was the Socialist-Revolutionaries. They were strongest in the countryside, where they were supported by many peasants.

  • But the Bolsheviks, part of the Social Democrats (the other part was the Mensheviks) were to be the most significant. All of these groups used violence.

  • Industrialisation was proceeding rapidly in the big cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. Their populations increased by more than 50% in the twenty years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

  • This meant that Russia became an important industrial power, but also that tens of thousands of workers were squashed into overcrowded districts in the centres of the cities.

  • In 1904 and 1905 Russia was defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. This was humiliating. It led to protests, like ‘Bloody Sunday’, which helped bring about the 1905 Revolution.

  • There were protests throughout the year and Nicholas was only saved because the army remained loyal. But he did not learn his lesson.

  • The October Manifesto was granted by Nicholas II in October 1905, after the revolution of that year had threatened his overthrow. In the Manifesto Nicholas II promised

  • Civil liberties for all people, including freedom from arrest and freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association

  • The creation of a State Duma, which would have to agree to all laws

  • Universal suffrage for the election of the Duma.

Why was the October Manifesto ineffective?

  • Nicholas soon changed his mind; the Duma met in 1906 but was closed by Nicholas after seventy-two days. Three more Dumas met in the next ten years, but each had fewer powers and was elected on a narrower franchise.

  • Nicholas retained the title of Autocrat and continued to appoint and dismiss ministers. Laws continued to be promulgated by the government without reference to the Duma. There was no apparent relaxation in the power of the Tsar's secret police the Okhrana.

  • In fact Nicholas had probably never intended to honour his promises. He had been forced to agree to the Manifesto under threat of force. He deliberately omitted any reference to the word 'constitution' and retained the word 'Autocrat'.

Why did Tsar Nicholas become unpopular in the years leading up to 1914?

  • Rasputin's influence grew from 1905, but became very important after the Tsar made himself Commander-in-Chief of the Army in 1915. Nicholas left Petrograd and never returned.

  • Alexandra, Nicholas’s wife was stupid and short-sighted. She was unpopular in Russia because she was German and was suspected of being a German spy after the outbreak of war. She gave Nicholas a very misleading picture of events in Petrograd in 1916 and 1917.

The impact of the First World War

  • The First World War was by far the most important factor in Nicholas's unpopularity.

The Army

  • The Russian Government believed that they could win the war against Germany easily. It did not realise how powerful the German Army was. The Russian Army was poorly equipped and old-fashioned.

  • In August all messages were sent by radio. The Germans were able to listen in and find out just what the Russians were doing.

  • The Russians suffered a series of disastrous defeats at the hands of the German army. The Russians relied on the bayonet. They had few machine-guns and most of their soldiers were untrained.

  • Russian industry was not able to keep the army supplied. There were 6,000,000 men in the army, but only 4,500,000 rifles.

  • Soldiers went into action with no rifles. They were told to take them from soldiers who had been killed.

  • There were inadequate medical supplies. Thousands of casualties were left unattended. 18,000 were left on a Petrograd station for a week.

Nicholas II

  • To try to put things right, Nicholas appointed himself Commander-in-Chief in 1915. This meant that he was now directly responsible, before he was able to blame his generals.

  • As he had no military experience, he was no use as a commander. He also left Petrograd never to return. He had to rely on Alexandra for information.

  • As law and order in Petrograd broke down, Nicholas was out of touch with events.

Inflation and shortages

  • The railway network was inadequate and soon broke down. There was plenty of food, but not enough locomotives to pull the trains.

  • What trains were available were diverted to carry food and munitions to the army.

  • This led to severe shortages of food. The worst affected places were Petrograd and Moscow. Food shortages led to inflation.

  • In Petrograd prices rose by 300%, because the war meant that more and more people flocked into the city to work in the munitions factories.

  • Rasputin began to influence the Tsar through the Tsarina. He persuaded her to ask her husband to dismiss ministers and change military tactics.

  • Rumours spread about the influence of Rasputin and his relationship with the Tsarina. Eventually he was murdered in December 1916 by a group of Russian nobles.

  • The unpopularity of the Royal family and Rasputin was strongest in Petrograd. There were many rumours that Rasputin was having an affair with the Tsarina.

  • The reputation of the royal family fell to an all time low. The Tsarina was accused of being a German spy

  • During the war more and more people had crowded into Petrograd to find work in the munitions factories. They lived squashed together in working class districts near the city centre.

  • The effects of inflation and shortages of food were most severe in Petrograd because the population had grown very quickly and the city was relatively isolated.

The fall of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government
The February Revolution

  • By January 1917 there was increasing unrest in Petrograd; then on 22 February the temperature improved by 20 degrees C.

  • International Women’s Day was held on 23 February; there were parades and demonstrations. This led to strikes and by 25 February half the workers were on strike.

  • The Tsar was kept informed by his wife and Rodzianko, the Chairman of the Duma. The Tsarina told him that all was well and that there were only minor disturbances.

  • Rodzianko said that there was a serious crisis and that a new government must be formed. The Tsar believed his wife. He thought that Rodzianko was just trying to use the situation to become prime minister.

  • By 27th and 28th February there were many demonstrations by workers and when troops were sent to stop the unrest, the Garrison of Petrograd supported the strikers. There were 340,000 troops in the city but they were mostly recruits.

  • When the Tsar tried to return on 1 March it was too late. He was forced to abdicate on 2 March in favour of his brother, Michael. His brother abdicated on 3 March.

  • In March 1917 a Provisional Government was formed by members of the Duma. The first prime minister was Prince Lvov.

The problems facing the Provisional Government

  • The Provisional Government was a temporary government created by members of the Duma until a general election could be held. The first prime minister was Prince Lvov. It had no authority whatsoever.

  • The members believed that they could take no major decisions until a proper government had been elected, so they continued the war against Germany.

  • The Provisional Government had little authority outside of Petrograd and even inside the city it had to contend with the Petrograd Soviet

What was the Petrograd Soviet?

  • The Petrograd Soviet was elected by the soldiers and workers of Petrograd, so it had far more authority than the Provisional Government. It governed Petrograd and was controlled at first by the Socialists-Revolutionaries.

  • It issued Military Order Number One; this stated that orders from the Provisional Government were only to be obeyed if they were approved by the Soviet.

  • For the next eight months the Provisional Government always had to gain the approval of the Soviet. This created chaos in Petrograd.

Why did the Provisional Government become unpopular?

  • The Provisional Government became more and more unpopular because it did not end the war. The members did not believe that they had the authority to make peace and did not want to let down the western Allies.

  • The Provisional Government made no attempt to introduce land reform, which many peasants wanted. The Provisional Government did try to tackle the problems of shortages and inflation, but, during the summer of 1917, rations in Petrograd fell.

  • The main problem facing the Provisional Government was Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, which was the smallest of the revolutionary parties in Russia in 1914.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

  • In March 1917 Lenin was living in Switzerland. He was sent back to Russia by the Germans, who hoped that he would create as much trouble as possible, which would undermine the Russian war effort.

  • Lenin returned to Petrograd in April 1917 and immediately published the ‘April Theses’, an end to the war with Germany,

  • the abolition of the Provisional Government and all power to the Soviets, all property and land to be taken over by the state,

  • all banks united into National Bank and put under the control of the Soviets, all factories to come under the control of the Soviets,

  • the army to be transformed into a national militia.

  • Lenin believed that he could take advantage of the chaos caused by the February Revolution to seize power in Russia.

  • He was determined to stir up as much trouble as possible and to attract as much support by making extravagant promises, which he had no intention of keeping, e.g. allowing peasants to take land.

  • The Bolsheviks first tried to seize power in Petrograd in May, but failed. In July they tried again, the ‘July Days', but failed.

  • The Provisional Government was saved by the army. The Bolshevik leaders were all either arrested and put in jail, or they fled to Finland.

  • After the July Days, Prince Lvov resigned and Alexander Kerensky became prime minister. He had been a Socialist-Revolutionary before becoming Minister for War in the Provisional Government.

The Kornilov Revolt

  • In August the army commander-in-chief, General Kornilov believed that Kerensky was about to make himself dictator. He ordered his arrest.

  • As the army marched on Petrograd, Kerensky asked the Bolsheviks to save him. Lenin agreed if they were let out of jail and given weapons.

  • Lenin now realised that the Provisional Government had very few supporters and that the Bolsheviks had a real chance of seizing power.

Tsarist Russia – Past Paper Questions
Source Based Questions – These questions seem to be the ones tackled the worst by GCSE students, and it could be through fear of the unknown, sources that they think they can’t understand because they’re foreign. There is no reason to panic with these, they are just like British sources (and any essential Russian that you will require has been translated into English for you!) You will have to answer three such questions and there are a variety of different types which come up, they tend to pose themselves as follows:

  • What is the message of this cartoon?

    • Do exactly as you would with the British Political Cartoon.

  • Who do you think published this poster?

    • This is often looking for which side made this source and therefore what were they hoping to achieve by making it?

  • Why do you think this source was produced?

    • Don’t forget that many sources are made to win people over or convince them of an idea. Look out for excessive bias as the source might have been propaganda in order to recruit people to their own cause

  • How useful is this source as evidence to us about…?

    • These types of questions usually hint at a part of the answer for something happening, but the source only suggests one reason, you MUST think about what else occurred. Such as an image from Bloody Sunday with the question asking “How useful is this source as evidence about what caused the 1905 Revolution?” In this case you should describe what you see in the source and add your own knowledge to it but also discuss other causes such as the unfair outdated system of autocracy and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.

Sources on Tsarism – The only sources that tend to come up about Tsarist Russia seem to be on either Bloody Sunday and the 1905 Revolution, or Rasputin and the First World War. These are some examples:

A cartoon about Bloody Sunday. It was published in a Russian political magazine in 1905. The skeleton represents the forces of the Tsar.

  • Why do you think this cartoon was published in 1905? Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer

Tsarist Russia – Past Paper Questions


A cartoon entitled ‘Peace and Quiet’. It was published in Russia in 1906 in an illegal journal.

  • What is the message of this cartoon? Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

We workers have come to seek truth, justice and protection from you. We working men have no say in how the taxes we pay are spent.

Do not refuse to help your people. Destroy the barrier that exists between yourself and your people.

From the Petition to the Tsar carried by Father Gappon in 1905

  • How far does this source explain the unrest in Russia by 1905? Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

Sunday 22 January, 1905

A painful day. There have been serious disorders in St Petersburg because workers wanted to come up to the Winter Palace. Troops had to open fire in several places in the city; there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and sad! Mama arrived from town. We went straight to church. I lunched with the family and went for a walk. Mama stayed overnight.

An extract from Tsar Nicholas II’s diary, recording the events of Bloody Sunday

  • How is this source useful evidence to historians studying early twentieth-century Russia? Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

Tsarist Russia – Past Paper Questions
picture 001

A poster issued by the Bolsheviks during the First World War. The people being carried represent the Tsar, the Church and the Russian nobility.

  • Why was this poster published? Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

A Russian cartoon of Rasputin with the Tsar and Tsarina. The caption reads ‘The Russian Tsars at home’.

  • Was this cartoon published by supporters or opponents of the Tsar?

Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.


  • What is the message of this cartoon?

Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

Tsarist Russia – Past Paper Questions
A Russian postcard issued in 1916. It shows the Tsar as Commander-in-Chief.

The words say ‘Rule the country so our enemies are afraid of us’.

It is a line from a song entitled ‘God save the Tsar’.

  • Why was this postcard issued in Russia in 1916?

Use the sources and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

The strikers and rioters in the city are now more defiant than ever. Youngsters are running around shouting that they have no bread. But it will not last providing the Duma does not cause trouble. The papers do not report the most disloyal of the speeches in the Duma. However, I think there should be immediate and severe punishment for speaking against the Tsar.

From a letter from the Tsarina to her husband, the Tsar, 25 February 1917.

  • How useful is this source as evidence about why the Tsar abdicated in March 1917?

Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

Tsarist Russia – Past Paper Questions
Description Question – this is worth 4 marks and only expects a quick description of an event, place or person. You will get one mark for each piece of description so four bullet points will do.
Descriptions of Tsarist Russia – The only description questions that come up about Tsarism seem to be on the nature of Tsarism, the causes and events of the 1905 Revolution, Bloody Sunday and Rasputin. These are some examples:

  • Describe the main features of Tsarist rule in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

  • What were the main causes of the 1905 Revolution?

  • Describe the events of the 1905 Revolution.

  • What happened on ‘Bloody Sunday’, January 1905?

  • Briefly describe Rasputin’s career.

Explanation Question – this is worth 6 marks and requires you to answer a question which asks you why something happened. In order to answer a why question effectively you need to be able to describe the background information and use words like because, therefore, as a result of, this led to in order to explain as clearly as possible.
Explanation of Tsarism Questions – The only explanation questions that come up about Tsarism seem to be on the causes, events or effects of the 1905 revolution and how the First World War affected Tsarism. These are some examples:

  • Explain the main causes of the 1905 revolution.

  • Why did Nicholas II survive the 1905 revolution?

  • Explain why the 1905 revolution was unsuccessful.

  • Why was the Tsar weakened by the First World War?

Tsarist Russia – Past Paper Questions
Judgement Question – This is the most difficult question and is worth 10 marks. It requires you to describe and explain more than one event or reasons for an event and, crucially, give YOUR VIEW on which one you think is the most important and explain why you think this. Sometimes they appear in the style of a quote and you need to judge whether or not you agree with it and say why you think this. Occasionally a judgement question will give you three points to discuss, you must talk about all three and decide which one is the most important. If a question suggests a reason for something, think about what reasons are not included in the question and write about them as well.

E.g. Were Russia’s defeats in the First World War the most important reason why the Tsar abdicated in March 1917? Explain your answer.

In the case of this question you need to describe the state that Russia found itself in during the First World War (e.g. the defeats by the Germans, the leadership of the Tsar on the front line and the fact that resources had been routed to the front leaving people at home running out of food) but then also explain how this caused the downfall of the Tsar, such as Nicholas taking the personal blame for defeats and continued unrest at home as a result of the hunger caused. Then don’t forget to discuss other reasons, such as the role of Rasputin, the Tsarina leading the country in the absence of the Tsar, the backward Tsarist regime and the social unrest all contribute in their own way, and to a degree that you need to decide, to the downfall of the Tsar.
Judgement of Tsarism – The only judgement questions that come up about Tsarism seem to be on why Tsarism collapsed. The different possible causes formed the focal point of this – you should know what you believe caused the downfall of Nicholas II before you go into the exam. Remember there is no one right reason, it’s up to you to decide but you must make it clear why you think this. These are some examples:

  • How successful was the revolution of March 1917? Explain your answer.

  • Were Russia’s defeats in the First World War the most important reason why the Tsar abdicated in March 1917? Explain your answer.

  • ‘The most important reason why Tsarist rule in Russia ended in 1917 was the influence of Rasputin.’ Do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer.

  • Did the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917 make Russia stronger or weaker? Explain your answer.

  • The following were reasons why Tsarist rule ended in 1917:

    • The influence of Rasputin;

    • The collapse of the army;

    • Strikes and food shortages.

Which of these reasons do you think was the most important? Explain you answer referring only to the above points.

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