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Russia 1870 -1917

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Summary: The Czars

Alexander II (1855-1881) Reforming Czar (also spelled "Tsar") who freed the serfs. Refusal to introduce a parliament led to violent opposition resulting in his assassination.
Alexander III (1881-1894) Physical imposing ruler who tried to turn the clock back politically. Repression was designed to strengthen the monarchy, the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism. Reign saw the rapid industrialization of Russia.
Nicholas II (1894-1917) Last Czar of Russia. A kind and gentle man who refused to recognize political reality of Russia and introduce meaningful political reform. Reign characterized by defeat at the hands of Japan and political violence culminating in revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

Alexander IIThe Reign of Alexander II “The Czar Liberator” 1855 - 1881

“It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.” Alexander II on serfdom

The Serfs

Alexander was the eldest son of Emperor Nicholas I and was born in Moscow on 17 April 1818. He came to the throne on 19 February 1855, after the death of his father.

Defeat in the Crimean War convinced the Czar that reform was necessary. He implemented important reforms. Most notable was the abolition of serfdom in 1861 (The Emancipation Decree). Unfortunately under this measure, he offered so many concessions to landlords that many peasants found themselves in worse economic circumstances than before. Many of the plots of land the peasants received were smaller than those they had farmed as serfs. The repayments over forty-nine years were a massive burden for the peasants.

Political and legal reforms

Although he refused to consider introducing an elected parliament, he did bring in some political reforms. This included permitting each district to set up a Zemstvo. These were local councils with powers to provide roads, schools and medical services. However, the right to elect members was restricted to the wealthy.

The legal system was also reformed in 1864. The judiciary became an independent branch of government. Favour under the law for the wealthy and upper classes was replaced by what was supposed to be equality before the law. Trial by jury was introduced for serious criminal offenses.

Alexander also reformed the military, reducing duty from twenty-five years to six and people from all classes were obliged to serve. Corporal punishment was abolished for soldiers and an effort was made to improve the professionalism of the officer corps.

Opposition to his policies

Assassination of Alexander IIThe major weakness of his policy was the absence of a genuinely representative parliament. Reformers in Russia wanted the same democratic rights as those enjoyed in other European countries. In 1876 a group of reformers established Land and Liberty. As it was illegal to criticize the Russian government, the group had to hold its meetings in secret.

The movement split on tactics and in October 1879, a new group, the People's Will was formed. The group advocated the use of violence to achieve reform and decided to assassinate Alexander II.

They made several failed attempts on his life but killed several of his senior officials. On 1 March 1881 they succeeded in killing the Czar when a bomb was thrown at his carriage. His death ended any hope of reform of the system from above.


Reign of Alexander III 1881-1894 “Nationalism,Orthodoxy and Autocracy”

Political policies

A physically imposing man, the new Czar had watched his father die in a St Petersburg Palace. As a result of the assassination, Alexander III would not consider granting a parliament. He tightened censorship of the press and sent thousands of revolutionaries to Siberia.

In his Accession Manifesto, he declared his intention to have "full faith in the justice and strength of the autocracy" that he had been entrusted with. Any liberal proposals in government were quickly dismissed. Judges and officials who were sympathetic to Liberal ideas were removed from office.

Alexander IIIHis reign is often referred to as the Age of Counter Reform. He is known as a reactionary ruler. To many westerners he appeared crude and not very intelligent. Queen Victoria commented that she thought him as "a sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentlemen."

He was greatly influenced by his tutor Constantine Pobedonostsev who instilled into him conservative values. His political ideal was a nation containing only one nationality, one language, one religion and one form of administration.


A policy of Russification was introduced. This involved imposing the Russian language and Russian schools on the Germans, the Poles and the Finns and all other minority nationalities. Russian had also to be used by local officials and in the courts. The policy was not successful and bred resentment.

As Figes commented:

“Trying to stamp out the native language was not just an insulting and demoralizing policy… it was ridiculous as well. Polish students at Warsaw University, for example, had to suffer the absurd indignity of studying their own native literature in Russian translation.”

Schools were also forced to raise their fees to prevent the poorer classes gaining an education. In 1897 the illiteracy rate was 79%. Universities lost most of the freedoms gained under Alexander II and censorship was tightened considerably. He strengthened the security police, reorganizing it into an agency known as the Okhrana.

He encouraged the Orthodox Church at the expense of other religions especially the Catholic Church. It was an offence to convert from the Orthodox Church to another faith. Divorce could only be granted through a church court. The Orthodox Church was given control of primary schools.

Alexander also persecuted the Jews. Many blamed them for the assassination of Alexander II. Over six hundred anti-Jewish measures were introduced. For example the number who could attend university was limited. They were forbidden to trade on Christian holy days. There were many pogroms or attacks on Jews although they were not officially encouraged. Anti-Jewish policies led to large scale Jewish emigration to Europe and the US. Many others joined revolutionary organisations opposed to the Czarist government.


One major success during the reign of Alexander III was the acceleration of industrial development that continued under his son Nicholas II. The man most associated with this policy was Sergei Witte who was Minister of Finance from 1892 until 1903. He encouraged foreign investment and placed the rouble on the gold standard.

From 1889 large amounts of the finance necessary for industrial investment had come from French investors, a factor that contributed to the alliance that developed between the two countries in 1894. British and German money was also significant.

Russia mapIt was in these years that coal mining and great iron and steel plants developed in the Ukraine, oil around Baku (where the Nobel brothers were investors), textiles around Moscow and engineering in the capital St Petersburg.

Russia's coal, iron, steel, and oil production tripled between 1890 and 1900. Her GNP grew more quickly than any other major European power. Railroad mileage almost doubled, giving Russia the most track of any nation other than the United States. The greatest project of the period was the construction of the Trans Siberian Railway linking Moscow and Vladivostok. It was started in 1891 and completed in 1905 and ran for 5,785 miles.

The urban labour force grew rapidly. For example the population of St Petersburg and Moscow increased by over 100%. Nearly 50% of workers worked in factories with over 1000 employees. Wages, hours of work and housing conditions were usually very poor. This was especially true in Moscow. Government attempts to improve conditions were resisted bitterly by employers there. The development of a large industrial working class was to create a lot of political problems for Czar Nicholas II.


Nicholas II 1894-1917: The Last Czar

Nicholas II“His character is the source of all our misfortunes. His outstanding weakness is a lack of willpower.” Sergei Witte

"The Czar can change his mind from one minute to the next; he’s a sad man; he lacks guts.” Rasputin

“It was not a weakness of will that was the undoing of the last Czar but… a wilful determination to rule from the throne, despite the fact that he clearly lacked the necessary qualities to do so.” Orlando Figes

Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor, was the eldest son of Alexander III and was born in 1868. He ascended the throne after the death of his father in 1894, and was crowned on 14 May 1896. The ceremony in Moscow was overshadowed by a catastrophe on Khodynskoe Field, where more than a thousand spectators were crushed to death.

He married the daughter of Grand Duke of Hesse, Alexandra (Grand daughter of Queen Victoria), and had five children. The Czarevich (Heir to the throne) Alexei suffered from haemophilia and was a permanent invalid. He also had four daughters. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.


Highly educated, hard working and deeply religious, Nicholas was gentle and approachable. Those who met him easily forgot that they were face to face with the Emperor. However he could be weak and inconsistent. For example he found it very difficult to dismiss ministers and left it to others. The more powerful a minister became the more jealous Nicholas became and talented ministers were seen as a threat, e.g. Witte and Stolypin.

He was a stubborn supporter of the right of the sovereign, despite growing pressure for revolution. He had had the same tutor as his father. Soon after his accession Nicholas stated that he intended to maintain the autocratic system. He said he saw it as his duty to

“maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable dead father.”

But as Figes wrote

“Nicholas had not been blessed with either his father’s strength of character or his intelligence.”

He would have made a good constitutional monarch but his personality made him unsuited to deal with Russia’s serious political problems. His reign was characterized by revolution at home and defeat abroad.

Main topics are:

Political Opposition to the Czar

The Czar’s failure to consider reform led to the growth of political opposition. Liberals (Kadets) wanted to see the system reformed on the British model (a strong parliament with a figurehead king). They were mainly members of the middle class.

T he growth of the working class saw the development of socialism.In 1898 the Russian Social and Democratic Labour party was formed. The party followed the ideas of Karl Marx and called for an end to the Czarist state. It split in 1903 into two factions, the Bolsheviks (led by Lenin) and the more moderate Mensheviks.

In 1901 the Social Revolutionary Party was formed. It drew its support from the peasantry. It advocated land reform and many of its members favoured direct action or the use of violence. The depth of opposition to the Czar was shown by the events of 1905 that was brought on by defeat in the Russo-Japanese War.


The Russo-Japanese War

Since the Congress of Berlin, Russia had been expanding eastwards and extending her influence into the Chinese province of Manchuria and into Korea. In 1898 she acquired the Chinese town of Port Arthur (now Dalian). She moved troops into Manchuria during the Boxer Rising in 1900. She came into conflict with Japan who also had ambitions in the region.

The Japanese tried to reach a negotiated settlement but the Russian government was inflexible. It was willing to risk an armed conflict in the belief that Japan was bound to be defeated and that a Russian victory would head off the growing threat of internal revolution in Russia.

The negotiations failed and in February 1904 the Japanese attacked Port Arthur and war began. They decided to attack before the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed. The colonial nature of the war was shown by the fact that the land war was fought in China.

The Russians fought bravely but a mixture of poor leadership, supply difficulties, Japanese military ability and poor luck insured her eventual defeat. In January 1905 Port Arthur fell to the Japanese. In March after a two week battle at Mukden, the Japanese emerged victorious.

Peace Treaty

In May, the Russian fleet that had sailed around the world from the Baltic was ambushed and annihilated at the Battle of Tsushima. Both sides were prepared to accept an offer of mediation from the US president Theodore Roosevelt. The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in September and this greatly reduced Russian influence in the region. The war was to have a number of consequences:


The Revolution of 1905

“A dress rehearsal for the real revolution of 1917” Leon Trotsky


Bloody SundayThe revolution was sparked by an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday”. On 22 January 1905 a police agent Fr Gapon led a peaceful demonstration of 200,000 men, women and children to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg calling for reform and an end to the war. The police and troops guarding the palace opened fire and over 1000 people were killed or wounded. This event had two important effects:

Discontent Spreads

Strikes spread throughout the Russian empire especially to the non-Russian lands such as Poland. At the same time peasants attacked the houses of nobles throughout the country. The crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied. This event raised the worrying prospect of the Czar losing the support of the army. Matters were not helped by bad new from the war with Japan.

The Czar refused to listen to demands for political change and in October a general strike occurred as workers in the railways, industry and the banks went on strike.

Soviets or councils were formed in the major cities. The most famous was in the capital St Petersburg. These councils were made up of members who represented the workers. They were very powerful and controlled the towns.

The October Manifesto:

The Czar turned to advice to Count Witte who urged him to agree to fundamental reform. On 30 October the Czar issued the October Manifesto that promised a constitution and a parliament or Duma elected by the people. The Russians were also promised full civil liberties.

The Manifesto succeeded in taking the wind out of the revolution. A further general strike failed and the government acted by closing both the St Petersburg and Moscow soviets.


The Four Dumas

The First Duma: 1906

The new Duma or parliament promised under the October Manifesto was a cause of great hope for reformers in Russia. However Nicholas II was determined to restrict its powers. He issued the Fundamental Law of the Empire that stated

“The Emperor of All Russia has supreme autocratic power”.

The powers of the new Duma were restricted with many powers reserved by the Czar. For example he had the right to declare war and he appointed ministers who were not responsible to the Duma. The elections were boycotted by the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats.

The Kadets won the most seats. The overwhelming majority of deputies were opposed to the Czar and his ministers. They called for political and economic reform and passed a motion of no confidence in the Czarist government. In July frustrated by the actions of the Duma the Czar dissolved it. Kadet leaders issued the Vyborg Manifesto calling for a campaign of civil disobedience but this was largely ignored by the people.

Peter Stolypin

“I must carry through effective measures of reform and at the same time I must face revolution, resist it, and stop it”.

StolypinIn June the Czar appointed Peter Stolypin as PM. He was one of the Czar’s ablest ministers, personally very brave with a strong character. He acted with great ruthlessness against the enemies of the Czar. Martial Law was introduced and courts martial were used to crush opposition. There were over 2,500 executions and the hangman’s noose became known as Stolypin’s neckties (although more people were killed by political terrorism). A further 60,000 were imprisoned or exiled.

When elections for the Second Duma in 1907 produced another anti-Czarist majority he closed it down and changed the electoral law. The Third Duma was elected under a restricted franchise that gave more representation to the wealthy at the expense of the workers and the non-Russian minorities. The new Duma had a majority of moderate supporters of the Czar and lasted until 1912 when a Fourth Duma was elected. These Dumas had good records in agriculture, national insurance for industrial workers and education (over 50,000 primary schools were established) .


However Stolypin realised that repression alone would not succeed. His main device for resisting revolution was the introduction of land reform. He felt that this could make the better-off peasants loyal supporters of the regime. He introduced reforms in 1906 that allowed peasants to leave the local commune (Mir) where land was held in common and receive their share of land in private property. This would allow them to become permanent owners of their own farms. These reforms had some success and by 1915 about half of the peasants in European Russia owned their farms. He also encouraged smaller farmers to enlarge their holdings with aid from a Peasant Bank that he established. Peasants were encouraged to settle in Siberia in order to alleviate land shortage.

He also brought in measures to modernize local government, to improve the courts and the police, to protect civil liberties, the freedom of the press and end discrimination against Jews. However he made many enemies and was particularly hated by revolutionaries. He was assassinated by a police agent in Kiev in 1911. As Figes notes “according to some historians the Czarist regime’s last hope was wiped out by the assassin’s bullets.” The regime that he worked so hard to defend was to crumble as a result of the effects of the First World War.


Russian Foreign Policy

Main aims

Russia’s foreign policy was governed by the size of her Empire that covered one-sixth of the Earth’s Land surface. Her main aims were:

Relations with each of the major powers: -

  1. Britain:

Relations poor for most of this period. Britain distrusted Russian motives in Asia (especially concerning India). Britain was Turkey’s traditional friend against spreading Russian influence in the Balkans e.g. the Congress of Berlin. During the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 tension increased considerably as Britain was an ally of Japan. The Czar’s regime was disliked intensely in Britain, although the Royal families were cousins.

Improbable allies after 1907. However this was an alliance of convenience not of conviction and was directed against a common threat, Germany. Tensions, especially over Iran, remained right up to 1914.

  1. Austria - Hungary:

Both were rivals for control of the Balkans. Although they were allies in the 1870s, this did not last, as both Austrian and Russian aims were fundamentally at odds in the Balkans. Relations broke down at the Congress of Berlin over the issue of Bulgaria. Rivals again in the Bulgarian crisis of 1885-87.

A major issue of contention between the two after 1903 as Serbia became Austria’s enemy and Russia’s friend. Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 further increased the rivalry between the two. Bitterness of feeling between the two was a key cause of World War I.

  1. Germany:

Relations at first very good. Traditional allies in the 19th century. However German neutrality during the Congress of Berlin put severe strain on this friendship. But while Bismarck was in power relations were quite good. However Kaiser William II was anti-Russian along with the German Foreign Office (although he and the Czar were cousins). Relations deteriorated after 1891. Russia was afraid of Germanys growing power in Europe.

  1. France:

Unlikely allies, as the Russians were deeply distrustful of France’s republican system of government. However mutual fear of Germany allied to French financing of Russian industrialisation brought the two together. Core alliance of the Triple Entente (1894).

World War I and the February Revolution of 1917

Note - The Russian calendar was thirteen days behind the one used in the West. The dates given are from the old (i.e. Russian) calendar that was in use until 1918.

Russia had entered the war with universal popular enthusiasm among all classes. Support for the Czarist regime was very strong. The German name of the capital St. Petersburg was changed to the more Russian sounding Petrograd.

However a series of events were to undermine this support until it eventually crumbled.

  1. The Czar took personal command of the army in the summer of 1915 and left the government in the hands of his wife, the hated Czarina (who also had the misfortune of being German). She was called "the German woman".
  2. RasputinThe Czarina was not only unpopular but she was also under the influence of the strange monk Rasputin, who had hypnotic powers. These powers he used with some degree of success to cure the Czarevich Alexei (the heir to the throne), of haemophilia. The absence of the Czar meant that Rasputin's influence was almost total. He dismissed ministers at will and brought complete discredit to the whole Czarist system of government. The Czar knew what was going on but refused to take any action. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916.
  3. The offensive of 1916 had cost the Russians a million casualties and discontent was rife in the army. The soldiers lacked proper military training and the supply of arms and artillery were inadequate.
  4. The whole war effort had being organised in a most haphazard way.

    These factors created serious discontent among the working classes in the cities (the government ban on vodka did not help matters!). There were a number of strikes that had to be put down by troops.

By the start of 1917, political parties were totally dissatisfied with the Czar and his government. The main parties were the Kadets, the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats. This political opposition led to revolution and the removal of the Czar.

The February (March) revolution 1917

In January, 300,000 workers staged a demonstration on the anniversary of the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Petrograd. Conditions were not helped by a particularly severe winter. During February, a strike for higher wages started at the huge Putilov engineering works. The Czar departed from Petrograd for his headquarters at Mogilev and was absent from the capital for the next few crucial days.

Petrograd was soon paralysed with 240,000 workers on strike. From his headquarters the Czar ordered that the strikes were to be crushed by troops. Forty people were killed as troops fired on rioters. The same evening the Petrograd garrison began to mutiny.

27-28 February : The key dates as all military command within the city collapsed as troops joined the strikers. Crucially the Czar had lost effective control in the city.

At the same time the Petrograd Soviet (council) was revived and quickly established itself as the real power in the city. It had full control over the railways and had the loyalty of the troops. The Czar, against advice, sent General Ivanov to the city to restore order. However his troops deserted to the revolutionaries.

At the beginning of March, the Czar left Mogilev to personally deal with the crisis but after taking advice from his leading generals, he decided to abdicate at Pskov. A Provisional government was set up under the leadership of Prince Lvov. This government was to rule until a constituent assembly was elected to draw up a new constitution. Nicholas and his family were placed under house arrest.

Quotes on the February Revolution

Norman Stone: “Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of war, and the effort to do so plunged her economy into chaos.
Dmitri Volkognov
“The Russian government’s failings in the war and its weakness at home led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave of discontent.

Leaving Cert Essays Russia 1870-1917

Key detail is the reign of Nicholas II.

2002 Russia under Czarist rule from 1870-1917 was dominated by reform, reaction and revolution.
1992 Discuss developments in Russia under the Czars, 1870-1917.

No detail required on the October Revolution.

2000 “During the reign of Nicholas II, Russia experienced revolution at home and war abroad”. Discuss

A narrower focus than the previous essay. Events from 1894 are valid.

Recommended websites:

Website from the St Petersburg Times about the different Czars.
Wealth of links from this page of the School of Modern Languages at Exeter University.
A good examination of the topic from an English educational website.
Excellent website from PBS exploring Russian political and cultural history.
Excellent site about Nicholas II’s favourite palace but with a wealth of detail about other aspects of Russian history.
A collection of photographs of life in Czarist Russia, in colour. They were taken by the official photographer to the Czar, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

Recommended reading

Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy; The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
Robert K. Massie Nicholas and Alexandra
Michael Lynch Reaction and Revolutions: Russia 1881-1924

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