Russian Context and the nature of tsardom

Geography, Climate and Land

  • Largest land empire in modern world history, stretching across one sixth of the world's land surface - 

  • stretched 6,000 miles from Poland and the Baltic States in the West all the way to Vladivostok and the Pacific Ocean in the East.

  •  Enormous diversity of climate, vegetation and physical features, with the Black Sea having a sub-tropical climate while Siberia only has two months without frost.

  • Difficult climate and terrain in many areas made survival tough, and the majority of the population worked with agriculture of some sort.

  • Only 1.6% of the population in 1855 lived in cities or towns of over 100,00 inhabitants.

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The Russian Population and National minorities

  • Russia's population grew rapidly over the course of the nineteenth century, from 56 million in 1831 to 126 million people in 1897.

  • Empire consisted of a wide range ofethnic groups, each with their own languages, religions and traditions - the long list of different nationalities contained within the Tsar's empire includes Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, Tartars and Armenians.

  • The largest and most powerful group were the Russians, and in 1897 there were 55.6 million Russian speakers in the empire. 

  • The Jews in Russia were the largest single Jewish community in the world, and received particularly harsh treatment.

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Russian Society

  • Social system was founded onserfdom, and the vast majority of the Russian population were peasant serfs - of 60 million people in European Russia in 1855, 50 million were serfs, half state-owned half privately-owned.  They could be sold and beaten, on top of backbreaking daily work.

  • Russia only had a small middle class - i.e. doctors, lawyers, university teachers.  Travel abroad made many critical of Russia's backwardness, but Nicholas I reacted by restricting passports.

  • A great distance existed between the minority of forward-looking, free-thinking educated classes (often 'Westernizers', believing Russia needed to learn from the West to develop and make progress) on the one hand, and the majority of the monarchy and its supporters (often 'Slavophiles', believing Russian ways to be best) and the peasantry on the other.

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The Russian Economy

  • Economy dominated by agriculture, and the country's rapidly growing population were dependent upon this agriculture for survival - a bad harvest had a devastating effect on the peasantry.

  • In 1800 Russia had been the world's greatest producer of pig-iron, but by 1855 Britain was producing ten times as much.  Russia's failure to modernize and develop industrially at the same speed as Western Europe was partly a result of an underdeveloped banking system, and partly due to serfdom preventing an available source of workers for new industries.

  • Development was also prevented by Russia's backwards communications and transport system, making the transport of raw materials and finished goods virtually impossible.  By 1860 Russia had 1,600 km of railways compared to Britain's 15,000 km.

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How was Russia ruled?

  •  "autocracy, orthodoxy, nationality".

  • The Tsar ruled the people as a stern father - as a senior police official explained, "his subjects are his children, and children never ought to reason about their parents".  

  • Autocracy was supported by serfdom, as peasants were kept in state of ignorance and superstition.  Peasants believed that: (i) the tsar had been appointed by God, (ii) the tsar was on their side and would be able to right their wrongs, (iii) a visit to the Winter Palace would bring justice in any petty local dispute and (iv) the tsar knew every detail of peasant life and would set things right.  This 'autocracy-serfdom' formula was at the centre of Russia's political and social system in the mid-nineteenth century.

  • To rule the country practically the Tsar was dependent upon the nobility.  At the centre there were 13 government departments run by Ministers drawn from the nobility, but the Tsar appointed these positions and could sack them at any time, as well as ignore their advice if he pleased.

  • To run Russia beyond the capital, there were 114,000 administrators - provincial governors and officials also drawn from the ranks of the nobility.  Many nobles saw government service as a way to increase their incomes though over-taxing and bribery. 

  • Nicholas I set up a secret police force to work against opponents of the regime, and the army was used to maintain law and order and put down any rebellions.  (The army was largely made up of serfs, conscripts forced to serve for 25 years.)

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  • The Orthodox Church and faith played a key role in the lives of European Russians, with religious icons and celebrations playing an important role for the people.

  • Orthodox Church was a major supporter of the Tsarist regime, providing support to the Tsar's claim to be expressing the divine will on earth.  A key teaching of the church was faith in God and unquestioning submission to God's will, encouraging passive obedience to the Tsar.  So the Church played an important role in upholding the social hierarchy and promoting obedience rather than resistance to authority.

  • It is worth also noting that the Church was not independent of the state, but ultimately also controlled by the Tsar (through the government ministerial position of the Holy Synod).  The Tsar had absolute power over Church finances and appointments.

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