The Land, the People and Tsardom

First part of the course covering the history of Russia from 1894-1953

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Russia's geography and people

  • In 1894 Imperial Russia stretched over 8,000,000 square miles (it was huge)
  • It covered a large part of two continents
  • Population betwee 1814 and 1914 quadrupled from 40 million to 165 million
  • Two capital cities (located in European Russia): Moscow and St.Petersburg
  • Its vast size gave the impression of strength; however, as the population contained a wide variety of peoples of different race, language, religion and culture, controlling this large variety had long been a major problem for Russian govs
  • Facts:
  • 55.6% spoke Russian as mother tongue
  • 22.4% spoke Ukranian as mother tongue
  • 22 major languages spoken in Russia in 1897
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The Tsar

  • Russian Empire governed by one person - the Tsar
  • Romanov dynasty since 1613
  • Tsar was an absolute ruler:
    • No restrictions on his power
    • People owed him total obedience
  • His absolute rule had been clearly expressed in the 'Fundamental Laws of the Empire' by Nicholas I in 1832
  • His rule was exercised by three official bodies:
    • The Imperial Council - group of honorary advisers directly responsible to the Tsar
    • The Cabinet of Ministers - ran the various gov departments
    • The Senate - supervised the operation of the law
  • NB: These bodies had much less power than their titles suggested
    • They were appointed, they only advised and had no authority over the Tsar
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Russia's political backwardness

  • By the beginning of the 20th Century, all major western-European countries had some form of democratic or representative government
    • Russia did not - the Tsar's absolute power showed how little it had developed politically
  • Reforming Tsars like Alexander II (1855-81) had tried to modernise the country:
    • Re-built Moscow and St.Petersburg, improved transport system, made army more efficient
    • Only achievements in practical areas - not the extension of political rights
  • 1881 in Russia: still an offence to oppose the tsar or his gov
  • No Parliament
  • Political parties were illegal
  • Never a free press
  • Gov censorship on published books and journals
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Russia's political backwardness (cont.)

  • Liberal ideas had seeped into Russia but couldn't be openly expressed
  • Supporters of reform or change had to go underground
  • These groups were frequently infiltrated by Okhrana agents
    • Raids, arrests, imprisonments and general harassment were regular occurences
  • Denial of free speech drove many poltical activists towards extremism
    • E.g. Tsar Alexander II killed by bomb planted by 'The People's Will'
  • Russia had a society where state oppression was met with revolutionary terrorism
    • No moderate middle ground could develop for ordered poltical debate
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Russian Orthodox Church

  • Branch of Christianity that had been entirely independent of any outside authority
  • Had an essentially Russian character
  • Supported the Tsar in his absolute rule
  • By late 19th century it had become deeply conservative
    • Opposed to political change
    • Determined to preserve the tsarist system in its reactionary form
  • It used its spiritual authority to teach the Russian people that it was their duty to be totally obedient to the tsar as God's annointed
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Social structure

  • Ruling class
  • Upper class
  • Commercial class
  • Working class
  • Peasants
  • Comparatively small commerical, professional and working classes
  • Great predominance of peasants in the population
  • E.g. in 1897:
    • 12% - upper class
    • 4% - working class
    • 82% - peasants
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Russian economy

  • Slow economic development:
    • Low numbers of urban workers, high numbers of peasants
  • Urals did, however, produce considerable amounts of iron
  • Moscow and St. Petersburg had extensive textile factories
  • Most villages had a smelting works and produced wooden, flaxen or woollen goods
  • NB: These were on a relatively small scale


  • Sheer size of Russia and its undeveloped transport system - limited chances for industrial expansion
  • Absence of an effective banking system also limited chances:
    • Hadn't mastered the art of successful borrowing and investment
  • Financial slugglishness discouraged the rise of entrepreneurialism
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Agriculture in Tsarist Russia

  • Although 4/5 population were peasants, a thriving agrarian economy had failed to develop.
  • It had an inefficient pattern of agriculture.
  • The vast size of Russia meant that a lot of its land was unusable:
    • Much of Russia lay too far north to enjoy a climate suitable for crop growing or cattle rearing
    • Arable farming restricted to the Black Earth region
  • Large number of peasants in the population meant there was not enough fertile land to go round
  • Serfs had been emancipated under the Emancipation Decree of 1861:
    • They were entitled to buy land but the prices were too high
      • Caused by a shortage of suitable farming territory and gov taxation of land sales
    • Peasants could therefore only buy land if they borrowed money from a gov special fun
  • The ex-serfs found themselves with large mortgage repayments that would take them generations to pay
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Peasant problem

  • Deep ingrained prejudice against granting rights to the mass of the people among the governing class
  • Peasants were mostly illiterate and uneducated, suspicious of change and lived in great poverty:
    • Points to how socially, politically and economically backward Imperial Russia was
  • The sheer size of the peasant population and their coarse ways made the governing elite scared of them
  • They believed the only way they could keep these 'dark masses' in check would be through severe repression
  • Attempted to educate the peasants in the past:
    • Undermined by the fear that any improvement might threaten the ruling class' privileges
  • By keeping them uneducated and in squalor conditions, they were kept in 'safe ignorance'
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Russian army

  • Lower ranks filled largely by conscription (also used as punishment for law-breakers):
    • Kept the 'dark masses' in check
  • Life in the armed forces was a brutal experience for a common soldier or sailor
  • Notorious for severe discipline and grim conditions
  • The grimness of service life had caused over one million deaths of soldiers in peacetime during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55)
  • Russia believed it needed a large army because of its large empire
  • Around 1 1/2 million men in imperial forces throughout 19th century
  • Cost of maintaining army and navy took 45% of gov annual expenditure:
    • The largest item of state spending - only 4% went to education - clearly gov priorities were unbalanced


  • Higher ranks reserved for the aristocracy
  • Commissions (offical appointments of individuals to officer ranks) were bought and sold:
    • This weakened it as a fighting force (they didn't really earn their positions)
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The bureaucracy (civil service)

  • Beginning of 18th Century:
    • Peter I had tried to modernise Russia by establishing a full-scale civil service with the aim of maintaining central gov control throughout the empire
  • By middle of 19th Century:
    • Many critics codemned the civil service as a corrupt bureaucracy where nepotism was rife and was inherently incompetent
      • Said that's why Russia was so backward
    • NB: Nepotism is where those distributing positions and offices give them to family or friends rather than to people who deserve them
  • At local and national levels:
    • The law, the gov, the police and the militia were in the hands of a set of men who only thought of their own advantage
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Summary: The land, the people and tsardom

The Land

  • Russia's geography
  • Its great size

The Economy

  • Undeveloped industry 
  • Backward agriculture

The People

  • The social structure
  • Tiny dominant elite
  • The 'dark masses'
  • 80% peasant population

The Tsarist System

  • Autocratic government
  • Reactionary Church
  • Corrupt bureaucracy
  • Oppressive army
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