Opposition to Tsardom



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Opposition to Tsardom




An Introduction


‘The Reaction’ that began under Alexander III and continued under the reign of his son, Nicholas II, oppressed, but did not destroy opposition to the tsarist regime. Indeed, despite greater police surveillance, opposition became more organised, and a greater range of political parties came into being during the period. Factors such as industrialisation, urbanisation, a rapidly increasing population and bouts of economic depression also contributed to undermine social order and the stability of the regime.

War with Japan in the Far East presented the government with an opportunity to divert attention from domestic problems and rebuild the prestige of the monarchy. However, the reverse happened. Russia’s humiliating defeat in 1905 was blamed directly on the government’s inept handling of the war effort. It was no coincidence that workers, peasants and middle class liberals chose the same time to join together in the 1905 ‘Revolution’.


As a result of the disturbances, Nicholas II was forced to make a series of concessions. In his October Manifesto, he reluctantly gave in to demands for the creation of a duma. However, his lack of commitment to the concept of constitutional reform was indicated by the swift declaration of the ‘Fundamental Laws’ and the political repression that followed the events of 1905. The government, led by Stolypin as chief minister from 1906 until 1911, was ruthless in its crushing of political opposition. Nevertheless, strikes and disturbances still continued, and by 1914 many reformists had begun to consider violence as the only means by which to change the oppressive yet incapable tsarist system of government.
Until the issuing of the October Manifesto in 1905, political parties were illegal in Russia. This had not prevented their existence but had had the effect of forcing their activities underground. They therefore tended to resort to extreme methods in order to spread their ideas as they were prevented from developing in any other way. As a result, during the brief period of their legal existence, from 1905 until 1921, the Russian political parties proved generally to be highly suspicious and intolerant of one another. This made co-operation and collective action difficult to organise and sustain. Four main groups opposed to tsardom can be identified in the period 1881-1914: the Populists, the Social Revolutionaries, the Social Democrats and the Liberals.


  1. What effect did the ‘Reaction’ of Alexander III and Nicholas II have upon opposition groups?

  2. How and why did industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth threaten the stability of the regime?

  3. What had the government hoped war with Japan would bring? What actually happened?

  4. What conclusion had many reformists reached by 1914?

  5. During what period were political parties made legal in Russia?

  6. Describe the relationship between the different political groups. Would the government benefit from this? Explain.

  7. Who were the four main groups opposed to tsardom?


1. The Populists

Populism began in the 1870’s. It was a revolutionary movement, which believed that the future of Russia lay in the hands of the nation’s peasantry. The Populists believed that the peasants, by far Russia’s largest social group, would take the lead in transforming Russia, beginning with an overthrow of the tsarist system itself. The Populists were not members of the peasantry themselves. They were drawn, like all major political groups, from the ranks of the middle and upper classes. The Populists saw it as their duty to educate the peasants and therefore prepare them for the revolution which they would lead. This involved a policy of ‘going to the people’. Educated Populists went from universities to the countryside to live for a short time with the peasantry and attempted to incite them to revolution. However, the scheme met with little success. The peasants either did not understand, or did not accept, the revolutionary message being preached to them.


In desperation, some Populists turned to terrorism, which they referred to as ‘the propaganda of the deed’, as the only way of achieving their aims. In 1879 a group called the ‘People’s Will’ was founded with the intention of murdering members of the ruling class. This group, which had no more than 400 members, was responsible for the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. However, this act of violence weakened, rather than strengthened, the movement.
The importance of Populism lay in its methods rather than its ideas. Its concept of a peasant-based revolution seemed unrealistic. A highly conservative, religious and illiterate peasantry was distrustful of the educated middle classes. What was lasting about the Populist movement was the part it played in establishing a revolutionary tradition in Russia. All the revolutionaries of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia were influenced, if not inspired, by the example of the Populist challenge to tsardom.



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