In the nineteenth century, Russia consolidated power over its vast territory by giving absolute power to its Romanov czars. The vast majority of the citizens were serfs with no rights, living an almost slave-like existence. Alexander I and Nicholas I frequently used the secret police to quash rebellions or hints of reform, despite the fact that an increasing number of Russians demanded them.
By the 1860s, long after the Enlightenment had had an effect on most developments in the West, Alexander II began some reforms. He issued the Emancipation Edict, which essentially abolished serfdom. It did little good. The serfs were given very small plots of land for which they had to give huge payments to the government to keep, so it was difficult for them to improve their lot. Some peasants headed to the cities to work in Russia's burgeoning industries, but there, too, the reforms that softened some of the harsher working conditions in the West hadn't made their way eastward. Whether in the fields or in the factories, the Russian peasants continued to live a meager existence, especially when compared to many of their western European counterparts.
Still, during the second half of the nineteenth century, a small but visible middle class started to grow, and the arts began to flourish. In a span of just a few decades, Russian artists produced some of the greatest works of all time: Tolstoy wrote Anna Kariena and War and Peace, Dostoyevsky authored The Brothers Karamazov, and Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Meanwhile, an intellectual cla'ss well-acquainted with political and economic thought in the rest of Europe began to assert itself against the monarchy. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a political group known as The People's Will.
Alexander 1II reacted fiercely by attempting to suppress anything that he perceived as anti-Russian. Through a policy known as Russification, all Russians, including people in the far-flung reaches of the Empire that did not share a cultural history with most of Russia, were expected to learn the Russian language and convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Anyone who didn't comply was persecuted, especially Jews. Meanwhile, terrible conditions in the factories continued, even as production capacity was increased and greater demands were put upon the workers.
By the time Nicholas II reigned (1894-1917), revolution was in the wind. The Socialists began to organize. Nicholas tried to rally Russians around the flag by going to war with Japan over Manchuria in 1904, but the Russians suffered a humiliating defeat. On a Sunday in 1905, moderates marched on the czar's palace in a peaceful protest, an attempt to encourage him to enact Enlightened reforms, but Nicholas felt threatened and ordered his troops to fire on the protestors. The day has since been known as Bloody Sunday.
For the next decade, resentment among the working classes festered. In 1906, the Czar attempted to enact legislative reforms by appointing a Prime Minister, Peter StoIypin, and by creating the Duma, a body intended to represent the Russian people, but every time the Duma was critical of the Czar, he immediately disbanded it. In the end, the attempts at reform were too little, too late. The Romanov Dynasty would soon come to an end.