Russia - A General Overview of 1900's

"I shall maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable dead father”, Nicholas II

Nicholas II was the Czar of Russia from 1896-1917, and his rule was the brute of political disarray. An autocrat, Nicholas II had continued the divine-right monarchy held by the Romanovs for many generations. From the day Russia coronated Nicholas II as Emperor, problems arose with the people. As was tradition at coronations, the Emperor would leave presents for the peasants outside Moscow. The people madly rushed to grab the gifts, and they trampled thousands in the bedlam.

Tsar Nicholas II

As an autocrat, no other monarch in Europe claimed such large powers or stood so high above his subjects as Nicholas II. Autocracy was traditionally impatient and short-tempered. He wielded his power through his bureaucracy, which contained the most knowledgeable and skilled members of Russian high society. Like the Czar, the bureaucracy, or ‘chinovniki’, stood above the people and were always in danger of being poisoned by their own power.

When Sergey Witte acted as Russia's Minister of Finance from 1892 to 1903, he attempted to solve Russia's "riddle of backwardness" in its governmental system. In 1900, Witte wrote a memorandum to Nicholas II, underscoring the necessity of industrialization in Russia. After the government implemented Witte's plan, Russia had an industrial upsurge. All of Russia, however, shared a deep-seated resentment of the sudden jump into an uncongenial way of life. Witte realized that Nicholas II was not meant to carry the burden of leading Russia to an industrial nation as a Great Power. Nicholas II's weakness was even obvious to himself, when he said, "I always give in and in the end I am made the fool, without will, without character." At this time, the Czar did not lead, his ministers bickered amongst themselves, and cliques and special-interest groups interfered with the conduct of government. Nicholas II never took interest in public opinion, and seemed oblivious to what was happening around him. He was still convinced he could handle Russia himself.


Sergey Witte, Minister of Finance

By 1902, the peasants had revolted against Witte's industrialization movements, which were marked by a raise in taxes as Russia spent more than it ever had. Russia was struggling in the European and Asian markets, and with much domestic unrest, Nicholas II did not want foreign affairs muddled as well. Nicholas II dismissed Witte from the Minister of Finance in August 1903.

Socially, Russia was in just about as much of as mess as they were politically. In 1900, the Czar and his government had not decided how to treat its peasants. It kept all the peasants legally and socially segregated from the other social groups. There were essentially two sides to Russian society at this time. On one side stood the peasants, the "dark people." On the other was "privilege Russia," including nobles, bureaucrats, the run of educated Russians, and even the merchants, who often had risen from the peasants. "Privilege Russia" look down upon the "dark people" with much contempt. Chekhov described the peasants in a story that he published in 1897:

”. . . these people lived worse than cattle, and it was terrible to be with them; they were coarse, dishonest, dirty, and drunken; they did not live at peace with one another but quarreled continually, because they feared, suspected, and despised each other . . . The most insignificant little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and as though he had a right to do so.”

Russian Peasants

While "privilege Russia," worked reluctantly to make themselves more western, the "dark people" had remained the same over the years. Most were, until this time, politically unaware. The only Russia that they knew existed within a five-mile radius of their shanty. In the bottom of the peasant's heart, he or she carried a deep, imbedded bitterness and hatred for the "upper crust." All moves toward industrialization and westernization had been done without regard to him or even at his expense. The peasant was simply apathetic and harbored a sense of personal worthlessness to his country. Ultimately, he rejected it, and was not a Russian, but identified himself as merely from his local area. As pathetic as the peasant's situation might be, it was finally them who started the revolution and them who slowly came politically aware. As visionaries believed in the power of the people, the peasants' resilience and drive encouraged them.


"Privilege Russia"

"Privilege Russia," although markedly better-off than the peasantry, was not having a picnic either. As much as it tried to westernize itself, it did not enjoy the equal citizenship of a European democracy. It was divided into state-supervised organizations: the nobility, the bureaucracy, the priesthood, the merchant community, and the "lower middle class." If a citizen had graduated from a school which was considered "higher education," the citizen became known as an "honorary citizen," which granted enough more privileges to appear somewhat like a western citizen.

Greater Russia had groups numbering in triple-digits. There were hundreds of different ethnicities, languages, cultures, and many different religions, ranging from sects of Judeo- Christian to Islam to even Buddhism. Getting along with one another was not easy for these groups, and especially so under Russia's policy of forced assimilation.

January 22, 1905, commonly known as Bloody Sunday, was a revolutionary event only because of what followed, not of what actually happened on that day. A group of workers and their families set out, with the backing of several officials, to present a petition to the Czar. As they approached the Winter Palace, rifles sprayed them with bullets. This cruel act by the Czar shattered what smidgen of faith the workers and peasants still held for Nicholas II, and sparked the quickly-aborted "October Revolution." Peasants and workers revolted in an elemental and anarchic rebellion, ultimately turning a large-scale strike and bringing the government, economy, and all public services to a complete halt. By October 1905, the relations between the Czar and his subjects had come to a complete breakdown.

The October Manifesto, created in 1905, caused two things. First, it granted basic civil liberties to all, despite religion or nationality; it even legalized political parties. This concession was capped by the creation of an elected legislative body, the Imperial Duma. Second, it split the revolutionary front, reconciling the most cautious elements among the moderates, who had no heart for violence, with a government which promised to end the abuses of autocracy. This formed the political party called Octobrist, which lead the Duma.

Members of the Duma, 1905

Russia was a big mess. The people were unhappy and the authority was corrupt. The country was on the verge of a revolution and World War I was near.