Russia in the 1800s During the nineteenth century, Russia was one of the largest empires in the world, stretching from Alaska to Poland. Russia, unlike many other European empires, did not have overseas colonies, with the sole exception of Alaska in North America. Instead, the Russians continually extended their country by seizing lands that bordered their own. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian empire had expanded from a small state to a large empire with great land holdings in Asia as well as Europe. The men who ruled Russia during the nineteenth century were absolute rulers of the Russian Empire and their rule affected every aspect of Russian life.
Czar Alexander I ruled from 1801-1825. He was a great thinker and talker but a poor man of action. Alexander I eased censorship and promoted education, but after that his reforms were lacking. As Prince Clemons von Metternich of Austria said, “He stirred everything up, but built nothing.” His major achievement was that he was a key figure at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He also granted Poland a more liberal constitution. Because of some of his liberal policies, there was dissent among the poor. In the occupied lands of the Russian Empire, this dissent was increased by Alexander’s speeches. But when Alexander I was actually faced with real dissent, he very quickly became a harsh and strict rule and did away with all thought of liberal reforms.
Czar Nicholas I ruled from 1825-1855. He took over after the death of Alexander I. When he took over there was still widespread unrest in Russia because of the liberal reforms that Alexander I had talked about but never instituted. Czar Nicholas I was a strict ruler who tolerated no liberal movements. He had all liberals arrested, many of whom were shot or hanged. His motto was “submit and obey.” Nicholas is primarily remembered for getting Russia into the Crimean War in 1854 by invading Turkey.
But it was too late, the British and the French came to the aid of the Turks and Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, in which the Czar also died.
Czar Alexander II ruled from 1855-1881. He came to power and had to face the defeat of the Crimean War. The Crimean War made Alexander II realize that Russia was no longer a great military power. His advisors argued that Russia’s serf-based economy could no longer compete with industrialized nations such as Britain and France. He admired the attempts at liberalization of which Czar Alexander I had talked and was determined to put them into action. Alexander II now began to consider the possibility of brining an end to serfdom in Russia. The nobility objected to this move but Alexander told a group of Moscow nobles: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.” In 1861 Alexander issued his Emancipation Manifesto that proposed 17 legislative acts that would free the serfs of Russia. Alexander announced that personal serfdom would be abolished and all peasants would be able to buy land from their landlords. He freed the serfs in 1861 and gave them limited rights. In addition, he attempted other reforms. He had the same problem that Alexander I had. When he gave freedom, people wanted more. He had to put down the Polish revolt of 1863. From there on out, he was a harsh, strict ruler because he felt it was the only way to control the empire. Because of his new stringent rules, terrorists attempted to overthrow the government. In 1881, they succeeded in killing Czar Alexander II with a bomb.
Czar Alexander III ruled from 1881-1894. He was greatly angered by his father’s death, so he put together a ruthless police force that succeeded in crushing the terrorists. The other chief activity during his reign was the gradual industrialization of Russia during the 1880s, much later than that of Europe. His reign, after the crushing of the terrorists, was primarily a calm one, although the seeds of liberal dissent were growing underground and attention was not paid to them. In 1894, Czar Alexander II died and was succeeded by his son Nicholas II. When Nicholas II took over, the seeds for revolution had already been laid.
Nicolas II tried to advance the Russian need for expansion. He built the trans-Siberian railway to help give more access to trading cities throughout Russia. His desire to expand and need for materials caused a war between Russia and Japan. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was an eye opening experience for Russia and the world. Japan defeated Russia and embarrassed the people of Russia. This made the people realize that they could not yet compete with the Western Powers. However, the loss caused widespread humiliation throughout Russia and demand for change began.
A revolution broke out in 1905 that was crushed by Nicholas II. This even was called Bloody Sunday and killed over a thousand people. The problems between the czar and the people would continue when Russia joined WWI. Russia was unprepared for war and was constantly defeated. The actions would lead to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, ending the reign of the Romanov family.