The Challenges to the Tsarist state


The extent of change of Russia ,1881-1894 pt. 1

Alexander III and his policies

Alexander II, Tsar of Russia from 1855 to 1881, introduced important reforms, such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Following Alexander II's assassination in 1881, the new Tsar, Alexander III, halted many of his reforms. The conservative Konstantin Pobedonostsev, known for the slogan, 'Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality' influenced Alexander III. As Chief Procuratir of the Holy Synod, Alexander III was very powerful. He linked the assassination directly to Alexander II's reforms and argued that they encouraged radicalism, which threatened the existence of the Tsarist system. Alexander III launched a campaign of repression, and in 1881 thousands of people were arrested. Alexander III used the following measures to secure his power:

  • Reforming ministers such as Loris-Melikov were forced to resign.
  • A manifesto was introduced that emphasised the absolute political power of the Tsar.
  • The 'Statute of State Security' law was passed, and established government-controlled courts. Suspects could be put on trial without a jury.
  • Press freedoms were restricted. Fourteen major newspapers were banned between 1882 and 1889.
  • Foreign books and newspapers were censored.
  • The Okhrana became powerful and feared.
  • University fees were increased and only the wealthy could attend.

Failed assassination of Alexander III

Repression increased after the failed assassination attempt on Alexander III in 1887. In 1889 'Land Captains' from the landed classes were introduced to help rule Russia. They were appointed directly by the Minister of Interior. In 1890 they became members of the Zemstva. Central government control was also extended over education.  It was nearly impossible for the children of peasants and workers to gain an education beyond primary school. The government extended their influence over the judicial system, and after 1890, had the right to choose juries in court cases.

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The extent of change of Russia ,1881-1894 pt. 2

Extending power over Europe

Alexander III strengthened Russification within the Empire. In 1885, Russian became the official language of the Empire and all other languages were banned in schools. Jews were heavily persecuted within the Empire and experienced porgroms.

Economic modernisation of Russia

Alexander III knew that Russia needed a modern economy to compete with international rivals such as Britain. Nikolai Bunge became Alexander's Finance Minister in 1881 and in 1882 he reduced the amount of tax paid by peasants. He established a Peasant Land Bank to provide financial support to the peasant, which would allow them to increase the size of their farms and agricultural productions.

In 1887 Ivan Vyshnegradsky became Finance Minister. He introduced incentives for peasants to move to Siberia, where cheaper land was available, and encouraged foreign countries to loan Russia money for economic modernisations. However, such reforms did not prevent Russia experiencing a severe famine during 1891-1892, when between 1.5 and 2 million people died.

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The Impact of Witte's policies on Russia, 1892-190

Russian economy and society

The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 did not resolve the problems of agricultural production by the end of the nineteenth century. This was very evident with the famine of 1891-2. Some developments to improve the Russian economy occurred in the 1880s. The introduction of tarriffs to encourage the domestic buying of Russian goods was implemeted in 1891. However, Russia was still behind Western Europe in terms of economic development.

Impact of Sergei Witte and the 'Great Spurt', 1892-1903

The key goal of Sergei Witte, the Minister of Finance was to strengthen Russia economically and maintain Russia's position as a Great Power. Witte knew that Russia suffered from the following problems in the late nineteenth century:

  • More foreign investment was needed to develop Russia's economy.
  • Russia needed a larger business class.
  • Russia needed more peasants to move to the cities to work in the factories.

Witte implemented the following policies to modernise the Russian economy:

  • Government became more active in developing the economy.
  • Greater emphasis was placed on producing more coal, iron and steel.
  • Loans were obtained from countries such as France.
  • Taxes on peasants were increased to fund industrialisation.
  • The Trans-Siberian Railway was built to exploit Siberia economically.
  • In 1897 Witte introduced laws to restrict working hours to 11.5 a day for all workers
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The Impact of Witte's policies on Russia, 1892-190

The success and failures of Witte's policies


  • Coal and iron production increased. In the 1890s industrial growth increased by 8% per year.
  • Between 1897 and 1900 Russia received 144 million roubles in foreign investment.
  • By 1903 the Trans-Siberian Railway was almost completed. Railway building across Russia was expanded.
  • Large factories emerged in important cities such as St Petersburg's population grew from 1 million in 1890 to approximately 2 million in 1914.
  • Resources in Siberia were increasingly exploited.
  • Economic modernisation allowed Russia to equip their armed forces with more sophisticated weaponry and compete as a World Power.


  • Living conditions in the cities for the working classes were very poor.
  • More political opposition emerged against the Tsarist system of government.
  • Strikes became more common in Russian cities.
  • Increased taxes on the peasants caused widespread anger.
  • Witte's reforms did not result in Russa overtaking countries such as Germany economically.
  • By 1913 industry contributed only 20% of national income and only 18% of Russians lived in towns.
  • Russia was more in debt than any other European country. In 1914 Russia owed 8 billion roubles.
  • The Russian political system did not modernise and educational opportunities remained limited for the majority.
  • Russia was modernising from a position that was further behind the economies of other countries.
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The nature of Nicholas II's regime and the effecti


Nicholas II came to power in 1894. He had limited understanding of the extreme poverty in which most Russians lived. He relied heavily on a small number of advisers. The conservative Konstantin Pobedonostev, who opposed political reform, had tutored him. He was supported in governing the country by a Council of Ministers.

The Tsar's beliefs

  • He believed firmly in maintaining the Tsarist system of government and keeping absolute power.
  • He did not support political reform.
  • He believed he had the divine right to rule the Russian empire.

The Tsar's dictatorship

  • In the period 1894-1905 he refused to allow a parliament to be established.
  • The Tsar relied heavily upon the Okhrana to maintain security in Russia.
  • He supported the censorship of newspapers and books.
  • Nicholas II was willing to use both the army and elite forces, the Cossacks, to suppress strikes or protests. This can clearly be seen in the suppression of general strikes in Rostov in 1902 and Odessa in 1903.
  • He encouraged pogroms against the Jews.
  • Nicholas II supported the establishment of the 'Black Hundreds'. Members of this group supported Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism. They supported the Tsarist  system of government. They organised marches around working-class districts in support of the Tsar. They often used violence to intimidate workers.
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The nature of Nicholas II's regime and the effecti

Weaknesses in the political system

  • There were thousands of civil servants across Russia who helped the Tsarist regime govern the Empire. However, this system of government was not efficient.
  • Decisions could be slow to be implemented.
  • The majority of civil servants were poorly paid. Hence bribery and corruption were widespread. Nicholas II did not resolve this problem during the period 1894-1905.
  • The Tsar could be indecisive and was easily influenced.

The impact of the Tsar's rule

Nicholas II's refusal to grant political reform or focus on improving the living standards of the peasants and workers caused increasing frustration within Russia. Many Russians supported political opposition groups.

Nicholas II and the Tsarina

Nicholas II was married to Alexandra, and they had a close relationship. She could influence the Tsar and often encouraged him to remain at home with his family instead of attending public events or meeting with his advisers. However, many Russians disliked her, as she was German. This became even more of an issue after 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.

Nicholas II and the Russian Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church had a very important role in Russian society. The Church was linked closely to the Tsar, and the leadership of the Church supported the Tsarist system of government. The Church promoted the message in the countryside that the Tsar had been chosen by God to rule the empire. However, in the early 20th century more Russians were questioning the right of the Tsar to rule over them.

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Political opposition to the Tsarist system of rule

Reasons for opposition

There was a long history of opposition to the Tsar's autocratic rule in the 19th century. Some opposition groups resorted to violent tactics. The 'People's Will' assassinated Alexander II in 1881. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, more Russians wanted a complete change in the way Russia was ruled. a growing middle class began to demand constitutional government and political freedom. Many peasants and workers wanted higher living standards and an end to extreme poverty. Other groups supported the ideas of Karl Marx.

The impact of Marxism

Karl Marx argued that capitalism resulted in the exploitation of the workers, and that the workers would rise up against the ruling classes and remove capitalism. A communist society would emerge which would be fairer and there would be no class struggle. The accelerated industrialisation of Russia in the 1890s and early twentieth century increased the appeal of Mrxism to working-class Russians and resulted in new political parties emerging.

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Political opposition to the Tsarist system of rule

Political opposition groups

The Social Democratic Party

  • The Russian Social Democratic Party was a Marxist party established in 1898.
  • The Social Democrats failed to agree on party organisation and strategy.
  • In 1903 the party split into two groups: the Bolsheviks, 'men of the majority' and the Mensheviks 'men of the minority'.
  • The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, believed that a revolution could only be brought about by a small, secretive, elite group of dedicated Communist revolutionaries.
  • The Mensheviks believed that a revolution should be carried out by a mass party which was open to the whole working class.

The Socialist Revolutionaries

  • The Socialist Revolutionaries drew on some of the ideas of Marxism and were led by Victor Chernov.
  • They focused on attracting the support of the peasants.
  • Peasants experienced economic difficulties in the early twentieth century, which made the Socialist Revolutionaries more popular.
  • The Socialist Revolutionaries had no coherent long-term plan to achieve power and were often poorly organised.
  • One of their key methods was terrorism. They were responsible for the assassination of Plehve the Minister of Interior in 1904.
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Political opposition to the Tsarist system of rule

The Liberals

  • Industrialistation had resulted in a growing educated middle class.
  • Many supported liberalism and wanted to adopt a modern western European style of democratic government, and rejected the ideas of Marxism.
  • There were demands for a new political constitution, which was rejected by Nicholas II before 1905.
  • In the early 20th century, liberal politicians became more aggressive in their demands. Pavel Miliukov and Pyotr Struve demanded political reforms such as free elections and freedom of speech and the press.
  • In 1904, Struve organised public protests to demand more concessions from the Tsar.
  • After the 1905 Revolution, two main Liberal groups emerged known as the Kadets and the Octobrists. The Kadets wanted further political reforms after 1905, whilst the Octobrists fully accepted the reforms proposed in the October Manifesto. The Octobrists did not campaign for further significant changes to the Russian Constitution after 1905.
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The causes of the 1905 Russian Revolution pt. 1

Key background factors

The process of industrialisation begun by Witte in the 1890s encouraged more people to move to the cities. The population of Russia expanded rapidly from 98 million in 1885 to 125 million by 1905. However, in the early 20th century there was an economic slowdown and fewer jobs became available. Large slums developed in cities such as St Petersburg. This resulted in workers becoming more rebellious in the period 1901-1905. Poor agricultural techniques and poor government resulted in a crisis in agriculture, with famines occuring in 1901.

The government was also experiencing more political challenges from terrorists.In 1905 the Grand Duke Sergei, the Tsar's uncle, was assassinated by a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries. The educated middle classes were also demanding more political reforms. Finally a disastrous war with Japan in 1905 triggered protests and rebellions within Russia.

1904: Government concessions

In 1904 it appeared that the government was more prepared to listen to the deamnds of the Liberals, and this raised expectations for political reform. In April 1904 the conservative Minister of Interior was replaced by the more liberal Svyatopolk-Mirsky. He supported a more liberal approach and granted press freedoms. This appointment encouraged Pyotr Struve to set up the 'Union of Liberation', which sought more political freedoms. However, in 1904 the Tsar largely ignored these demands.

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The causes of the 1905 Russian Revolution pt. 2

Key trigger causes

The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and its impact

  • The Japanese inflicted humiliating defeats on the Russian army and navy in the Far East.
  • The Russians were forced to surrender Port Arthur in January 1905.
  • The Russian Baltic Fleet sailed around the world to confront the Japanese navy and was defeated at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905.
  • These defeats ignited rebellions and protests across Russia. 
  • The Tsar was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Japan.
  • The war also meant the Tsar had fewer troops within Russia to control protests in the cities.

The Bloody Sunday protest of January 1905 and its impact

  • Workers in St Petersburg launched protests and produced a petition, demanding an eight hour working day and an elected assembly.
  • A priest called Father Gapon led the protestors. They marched to the Winter Palace in January to present the petition to the Tsar.
  • The march numbered 150,000 people. 
  • The local authorities had to rely on the army to maintain control. The soldiers opened fire on the crowd and over 200 people were killed.
  • The massacre became known as 'Bloody Sunday' and helped unite different groups. Protests became more frequent.
  • In February 1905, 400,000 workers went on strike as a result of the massacre. 
  • There were mutinies by some of the armed forces, such as on the battleship Potemkin. The majority of the army remained loyal to the Tsar. The government began to make concessions to avoid Russian revolution.
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Key events and consequences of the 1905 Revolution

Key events

The disastrous defeats for the Russian army and navy in 1905 and the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre sparked widespread strikes and protests across Russia. By the end of 1905 over 2.7 million workers had been on strike, and a general strike developed between September and October of 1905. There were also peasant uprisings in areas such as Kursk. In July 1905 the first meeting of the All-Russian Peasants Union took place in Moscow. They demanded more political freedoms and the transfer of more land to the peasants from the nobility. In May 1905 Pavel Miliukob established the 'Union of Unions', which united leaders of the Zemstva and professional groups in demanding a new political constitution.

December also saw an armed uprising in Moscow, resulting in over 1000 people being killed. The Bolsheviks played a key role in this revolt, which was crushed by loyal Tsarist soldiers. There were also mutinies in the Russian Baltic and Pacific navies in October 1905.

Consequences and the Tsar's response

In October 1905, Witte successfully persuaded the Tsar's government to issue the October Manifesto, which promised various political reforms. Significantly, it accepted the establishment of a Duma. It also acknowledged that there should be more political freedoms such as ffreedom of speech, assembly and press. Russian liberals welcomed these proposals and accepted it as a final piece of political reform . However, other liberals known as Kadets saw it as the beginning of political reform. The Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks criticised the October Manifesto for being too limiited and not meeting their own political aims. 

After the October Manifesto, the Tsar was able to re-establish his authority. The armed forces largely remained loyal to the Tsar. The Tsar established a new political group called the 'Union of Russian People', which was linked to the 'Black Hundreds'. This group attacked and killed those who supported reform in the countryside and within the cities.

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Key events and consequences of the 1905 Revolution

Weaknesses within the opposition

  • Opposition groups were divided and often poorly organised, which made it easier for groups such as the 'Black Hundreds' to persecute and destroy them.
  • Opposition leaders such as those in the St Petersburg Soviet were arrested in December 1905, which deprived the workers of their leadership.
  • The Socialist Revolutionaries, Liberals, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks all had different political beliefs and aims.
  • The October Manifesto was successful in further increasing these divisions.
  • The Tsar had successfully secured his regime by 1906.

The St Petersburg Soviet

In St Petersburg, an assembly of workers was established known as the St Petersburg Soviet. This assembly represented 96 factories. The Mensheviks and Bolsheviks also participated in the Soviet and it showed that the workers could organise themselves into an opposition group. The Soviet was closed down by Tsaris6t troops in December 1905.

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