The Russian Empire

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Russian Empire

If Austrian monarchs were conservative, Russian monarchs were far more so. The Russian government had been autocratic from the time the nation first drove the Tatars from power, and it would remain that way in the nineteenth century despite the passage of some degree of social reform. Liberalism was strong among Russian intellectuals, but they had little influence or power com- pared to the nobles, military officers, and high-ranking clergy, who were mainly conservative.

By 1818, serfs in the Baltic provinces had been emancipated. Alexander I then ordered his aides to draw up a plan for abolishing serfdom throughout Russia, but the idea was so unpopular that he abandoned it by 1820. However, the serfs did achieve some rights and privileges in the 1820s and 1830s: a mea- sure of self-government, village schools, and health clinics. As was so often the case in Russia, all these reforms were chaotic in their administration, however neat they appeared on paper. Serfs in the Baltic were given no land, so in fact they gained only the freedom to move.

Alexander’s brothers, Constantine and Nicholas, were each in a position to succeed him. Constantine, the elder of the two, had no desire to rule. He renounced his position in the line of succession in 1822, leaving Nicholas to become czar in 1825. Nicholas I soon proved himself an old-style autocrat, very different from his generally liberal brother Alexander I. Nicholas believed in Russian nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, keeping the lower classes in what he regarded as their proper place, and the rule of the absolute monarch throughout Europe. Under his rule, only the nobility could attend secondary schools and universities, and the civil rights of religious and ethnic minorities within Russia were curtailed. In foreign affairs, Nicholas supported any monarch facing a popular uprising.

Both Alexander I and Nicholas I oversaw major territorial expansion. Russia had completed its westward march with the partitions of Poland, but it continued to expand to the south, reaching the Aral Sea in 1853 and as far south as the Afghanistan border in 1885. Russia also expanded south on its eastern border, taking over territory on the Pacific that allowed it to establish the port city of Vladivostok; for the first time Russia gained access to the East by water. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1904 made overland travel from Vladivostok to Moscow possible. These two developments were extremely important for trade.

In 1853, war broke out in the Crimea, a region controlled by the Ottoman Turks on the coast of the Black Sea. Nicholas I started the war with two goals. First, he wanted to take over Turkish-controlled provinces along the southern reaches of the Danube River. Second, he wanted to seize control of certain “Christian shrines” within the Ottoman Empire. The Russian invasion of the Crimea aroused the opposition of Britain and France, who had their own Mediterranean interests to protect. Historians agree that the Crimean War was disastrously mismanaged on all sides, particularly by the British commanders. Russia concluded a peace treaty with the Turks in 1856, but it did not last. Russia and Turkey were at war again by 1877.

Nicholas I died before the Crimean War was over. His son and successor Alexander II would rule until 1881. Alexander understood that the age of the autocratic ruler was over; he was determined to emancipate the serfs. This was a long and complex process. Since serfs owned no land, the government would have to provide it for them at the start. Changes to the judicial system and to local government would be needed. In addition, landowners argued that emancipation would deprive them of valuable property; Alexander and his aides would have to find a way to compensate them for the loss. In 1861, the serfs were officially freed from bondage.

Although Alexander ruled as a moderate, many liberals in Russian society felt that his reforms did not go far enough. During the 1870s, violent demonstrations became common as students and other liberals tried to gain support for their political cause. This period of unrest ended abruptly in 1881 when a bomb hurled by an anarchist in a crowd exploded at the czar’s feet. Severely wounded, Alexander died later that day.

Alexander III succeeded his father, Alexander II. He reacted to his father’s assassination by suppressing all liberal tendencies in society, rather than giving in to liberal demands. His policies included strengthening the central bureaucracy, extending the powers of the police, and revoking freedom of the press.

The year 1905 was pivotal for Russia. The country lost the Russo-Japanese War, in which Japan flatly put a stop to Russian expansion into China. It was also the year of a major popular uprising that would eventually culminate in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The 1905 revolution had several contributing causes. First, liberal, Marxist, and socialist ideas had traveled eastward to Russia, whose intellectuals and workers had enthusiastically espoused them. Second, the government had instituted widespread industrialization in Russia without understanding the consequences to either the peasants or the workers. Third, a severe famine in 1891 had taken its toll on the people.

Workers throughout Russia went on strike in 1905, establishing soviets—the word means “workers’ councils”—everywhere. These bodies, intended to serve as local governments, were based on the Marxist ideal of turning society over to the rule of the workers. They did not last, but would return in 1917. Peasants also rose up in fury over social conditions, especially the issue of land owner- ship. All of these issues would play into the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of the empire in 1917.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires Practice Test

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