“Only Alexander II’s policies made significant progress in avoiding revolution in Russia.” How valid is this comment on the governments of Russia 1855-1917?
Alexander II’s policies were successful in avoiding a peasant revolution in Russia. However, they helped to create the circumstances under which an urban revolution could occur. His Emancipation of the Serfs and attendant liberal reforms led Russia away from one type of revolution, and towards another.
During Alexander II’s reign, the greatest revolutionary threat came from the peasantry, and its associated intellectual movement, Populism, which rejected Western liberalism in favour of an idyllic, egalitarian peasant society based on Russia’s unique Mir system and the availability of land. The peasantry was by far the largest class, upon whose agricultural labour Russia depended. In 1773 the serf Cossacks in western Russia had rebelled under Yemelyan Pugachev, seriously endangering the Russian state. The possibility was distinct that Populist ideas, namely a “Black Repartition” in which all Russian land would be divided among the people, would lead to a new peasant rebellion: Tsar Alexander II said that “it is better to abolish serfdom from above rather than wait until it abolishes itself from below.”
The Emancipation in 1861 did not remove the threat of revolt or end the Populist movement, and its inadequacies gave Russian peasants plenty to complain about, but it did put the Serfs and the government on the road to reconciliation. They still had to wait at least two years after the initial Emancipation Statutes for their obligation to the landlord to be removed. The landlords kept the best land for themselves, about 20% of what the peasants had worked before 1861, and sold the rest at inflated rates, which the peasants then had to pay to the government at 6% interest over 49 years. The gap between former serf’s expectations of the Emancipation and the reality was emphasised at Bezdna, when an alternative set of Emancipation statutes was read created, claiming that all serfs were immediately free and given ownership of the land thy had worked: this led to riots which were ruthlessly suppressed, with the death of 102 peasants.
Despite all this, over the next two decades a large majority of serfs became the legal owners of the land they worked, and landlords no longer had power over the peasants’ justice system, their marriages, movements and labour, or to send them into military service. Populist groups continued to be active opponents of the Tsar, including the People’s Will, which finally succeeded in assassinating him in 1881 after several attempts. However, the disinterest shown by the peasantry in the Populist’s “going to the people” campaign in the mid 1870s reflects the lack of revolutionary will among the peasants themselves, following Alexander II’s reforms.
Although peasants had a difficult time as Russia began to modernise towards the end of the 19th Century, burdened with the often restrictive rule of the Mir, prohibitive redemption payments, high taxes and insufficient land, most were no longer interested in revolution. Stolypin’s peasant-friendly policies in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution – itself a primarily urban affair – were a continuation of Alexander II’s Emancipation policies half a century earlier, and finally implemented many of the social and economic changes that liberal intellectuals had pushed for during the Alexander II’s reign.
Accompanying the Emancipation were many other reforms, restructuring Russian society and institutions. Many of these reforms were designed to reinvest in the nobility and gentry the power that they had lost with the Emancipation. Local government assemblies, zemstva, were created in the countryside, which although elective were far from democratic. Landowners held 74% of the seats in provincial zemstva (the higher tier), and usually controlled the standing councils elected by each zemstva to undertake local administration. In the towns, similar bodies called dumy were created, controlled by the urban gentry. A new, more Westernised judicial system was created, but it excluded the peasantry, leaving the Mir in charge of justice in the countryside.
Elective local government did act as an outlet for political activism among all classes of Russians, however, which might have helped to prevent revolution. People were able to take their grievances to the local zemstvo or duma, and feel that, in voting, they could exert some power over the state. Local government organisations also allowed for the provision of services like education, healthcare and new infrastructure, potentially improving the peasants’ standard of living.
The reform of the military was of significant benefit to the peasants, since they formed the vast majority of the army’s recruits. The length of military service was reduced from 25 to 15 years, so that whereas previously recruitment was practically for life, now peasants could hope to return to their families and villages after their service. Serving in the army could even be seen as a benefit for the individual peasant, giving him the opportunity to get an education.
Although not particularly effective, Alexander II’s reform of the Orthodox Church, which was under government control, emphasised the Church’s role to instil loyalty among its congregants. Efforts were made to relieve the poverty or rural clergy and churches, and create opportunities for a new generation of priests. The orthodox religion supported the moral right of the Tsar, and its use in creating loyal subjects, foreshadowed Alexander III’s “Nationality, Orthodoxy, Autocracy” anti-revolutionary policies.
These policies evolved from the increasingly illiberal stance taken by Alexander II’s government after his attempted assassination in 1866, which had seen University applications restricted, the Third Section secret service resurrected, the return of censorship, and conservative politicians appointed to ministerial posts. Alexander II’s policies after 1866 were not exclusively conservative and illiberal: censorship and repression was not as bad as it had been under his father Nicholas I, and shortly before his assassination in 1881 he approved the Loris-Melikov proposals for a move towards representative government. However, his close escape from an assassination attempt did influence the Tsar towards asserting greater control in an attempt to stop terrorist and revolutionary groups.
Alexander III attempted to reverse some of the reforms accomplished by his father through his introduction of the “Safeguard System” in the first year of his reign. This system allowed extraordinary powers to be given to governors-general and police during a declared state of emergency, allowing them to arrest and imprison suspects without trial for three months, close down organs of the press, and dismiss the zemstva and dumy. The lower level state of emergency, called the “Reinforced Safeguard”, was immediately applied to most of Russia, extending the powers of the police and centrally appointed governors. Below the provincial level, Alexander III also instituted “Land Captains”, appointed representatives of the provincial governors whose powers collided with those of the zemstva, effectively bringing local government back under central control.
In the wake of his father’s assassination, he conducted a concerted anti-terrorism campaign. Terrorist groups were infiltrated by members of the secret police, 10,000 people were arrested and 2,000 were brought to trial. In April 1881 five People’s Will members involved in the assassination of Alexander II were executed. At the Trial of the Fourteen in September 1884, in which the last member of the People’s Will Executive Committee was tried, two defendants were sentenced to death, eleven to labour camps and one to Siberian exile. Alexander’s campaign wiped out the membership of the People’s Will, along with other terrorist groups.
Alexander II’s Emancipation of the Serfs had decreased the threat of a broad-based peasant revolution. Alexander III’s repressive policies helped end Populism as a revolutionary force and flush out terrorists and revolutionaries: he did not reverse the changes to peasant life caused by the Emancipation, and most peasants were unaffected by his oppression of the press, zemstva and justice system, from which they were largely excluded anyway. The policies of Alexander II made such progress that the greatest to the regime at the beginning of his reign, that of peasant revolution, was all but extinguished. Alexander III did nothing to rekindle it, and went some way to crushing it further, by purging the intellectual agitators and revolutionaries of the Populist movement.
The Emancipation, however, inevitably led to a new and growing proletariat, as the peasants were freed from the land. Nobles who found their agricultural interests unprofitable without free serf labour gradually shifted their investments to industry, which created an increasing requirement for urban workers. Moreover, Alexander II’s liberalisation of local government, judiciary and the press meant that the new proletariat, in conjunction with the existing urban intellectual class had the freedom and the power to become organised. The urban population now formed the most dangerous revolutionary threat in Russia.
Although the zemstva were far from democratic, their members were nevertheless generally progressive. They formed a body of Russian politicians who were for the most part dedicated to further liberal reform, and who could potentially form the nucleus of a revolution. In 1905, zemstva leaders formed part of the Union of Unions calling for a democratically elected Constituent Assembly and finally forcing the Tsar to establish a national representative legislature.
Parallel with the bourgeois liberals, the more extreme proletarian revolutionary movements also grew, adopting revolutionary theory from Western Europe and adapting it to Russia’s unique situation. Marxism took hold among the Russian proletariat and intellectuals alike, as an alternative to the waning Populist movement, and although fractured by disputes over theory, it was a formidable new threat. In the 1880s and 90s therefore, a number of measures were introduced to appease the new urban working class: inspectorates were established to monitor working conditions, tribunals to arbitrate industrial disputes, the hours of work were limited to 11½ hours a week and trades unions were legalised.
The combination of increasing urban population with industrialisation, and the boom in peasant population caused by the policies of the mir, caused Russia’s population to double in the second half of the 19th Century. Inevitably, there was a food shortage, made worse by Finance Minister Ivan Vyshnegradsky’s policy of grain exportation to maintain Russia’s balance of payments. He urged Russians to “go hungry, but export”. Russia’s dire financial situation also meant that peasant taxes were high, as politicians like Witte focused on towns and industry.
This situation provoked rural unrest and the return of revolutionary potential to the peasantry. The Populist movement began to re-emerge in the form of the Social Revolutionaries. In response, a Commission on Agriculture was established that included Pyotr Stolypin. The Commission proposed to weaken the power of the mir and turn the peasants into a class of smallholders: the first step in 1903 was the removal of the mir’s responsibility for collecting taxes. After 1905, when Stolypin was First Minister, these reforms were continued, once again limiting the revolutionary threat from the peasantry.
The revolutionary aspirations of many of the urban liberals were satisfied in 1905, with the October Manifesto and the creation of a national parliament. This move, in response to the general strikes and protests following Bloody Sunday, succeeded in isolating moderate liberals from the revolutionary cause, allowing the unrest to end without a full-scale revolution. Nicholas II’s policies were successful in avoiding a revolution in 1905, although his subsequent treatment of the Duma – simply dissolving it when it opposed his policies - prevented him from maintaining the support of the liberals. By 1917, although the peasantry was once again quiet, both the proletariat and the urban intellectuals were in revolutionary mood. Russia’s failures in the First World War helped to spark of revolutionary activity, just as her failures in the Russo-Japanese war had done in 1905.
No Tsar made significant progress in avoiding revolution in the long term. However, the policies of Alexander II did leave his successor with little threat of revolution, despite the obvious terrorist threat. It would take several decades for the eventual results of the Emancipation – the rise in both urban and rural population, its resulting agricultural crisis – to create a revolutionary crisis. During these decades Alexander III’s was little more than a caretaker regime, his repressive policies making no long-term progress whatsoever in eradicating the threat of revolution.
Nicholas II was able, with the help of skilful ministers, to avoid peasant revolution in 1903, and urban revolution in 1905, but his conservative instincts prevented him in 1905 from creating a true Constitutional monarchy, which may have finally isolated the liberals from the revolutionary movement. His October Manifesto was a sham easily penetrated by the likes of the St. Petersburg Soviet: “a whip wrapped in the paper of a constitution”. By the beginning of the 20th Century, force of Russia’s internal contradictions made the Tsarist autocracy untenable.
Bibliography G.E. Curtis, ed., A Country Study: Russia, Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, 1996.
E. Goss, J.B. Bury et al., Encyclopædia Britannica 11th Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1911.