Russia 1855-1964 - Chapter 1

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Chapter One - Trying to preserve autocracy, 1855-94

1. The Russian autocracy in 1855 

The political context 

  • In 1855, Russia was autocratic empire
  • At its head was Tsar, who took title 'Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia' 
  • In name only, also Head of Russian Orthodox Church 
  • Regarded by Orthodox believers as embodiment of God on Earth
  • Russians taught to show devotion to Tsar and accept conditions on Earth as will of God 
  • Patriarch of Moscow, who worked closely with Tsar, provided spiritual guidance 
  • Over-Procurator of Holy Synod, post created in 1721, was government minister appointed by Tsar to run Church affairs
  • Meant structures of Church and State were entwined 
  • Archbishops and bishops at head of Church hierarchy subject to tsarist control over appointments, religious education, most of Church finances and issues of administration 
  • Tsar's imperial edicts were law of land
  • Tsar had advisers and ministers, but these were all chosen by Tsar himself and no-one could do anything without his approval 
  • Main advisory bodies were Imperial Council or Chancellory (35-60 nobles picked by Tsar to advise him personally and provide 'expert' opinion) the Council of Ministers (8-14 ministers in charge of different government departments) and the Senate (supposed to oversee workings of government but in practice was largely redundant by 1855) 
  • Tsar and central government based in St Petersburg but regime also depended on provincial nobility for support
  • Nobles had not been obliged to serve State since 1785, although many continued to do so
  • Sense of obligation remained strong and all landowners expected to keep order on their estates
  • Tsars might choose to appoint special committee to carry out an investigation or prepare a report
  • Such committees usually headed by trsuted nobles but there ws no need for Tsar to take any notice of their findings
  • Civil servants who made up the bureaucracy were paid noble officials, selected from 'table of ranks' that laid down requirements for office
  • 14 levels, from rank 1, held by members of Councul of Ministers, to rank 14, which covered minor state positions e.g. collecting taxes or running provincial post office 
  • Bureaucracy riddled by internal corruption and incompetence, but through it orders were passed downwards from central government to provincial governors, and then to district governors and town commandants 
  • One-way operation; no provision for suggestions to travel upwards from lower ranks 
  • Tsar also had world's largest army of around 1.5 million conscripted serfs, each forced into service for 25 years and made to live in 'military colony' 
  • Absorbed around 45% of government's annual spending 
  • Higher ranks of army were prestigious posts, reserved for nobles who brought and sold their commissions, but for lower ranks, discipline was harsh and army life was tough 
  • Army could be called upon to fight wars or put down risings and disturbances in Russia 
  • Tsar also had service of elite regiments of mounted Cossacks, with special social privelages
  • Cossacks acted both as personal bodyguard to Tsar and as police reinforcements
  • To maintain autocracy, country had developed into police state 

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