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10-08-2015, 15:23

Roots of Revolution in Russia

To the east, in the vast Russian Empire, neither the Industrial Revolution nor the European Enlightenment had exerted much impact. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Russia was overwhelmingly rural, agricultural, and autocratic. The Russian tsar was still regarded as a divine-right monarch with unlimited power, although the physical extent of the empire made the claim impracticable. For centuries, Russian farmers had groaned under the yoke of an oppressive feudal system that tied the peasant to poverty conditions and the legal status of a serf under the authority of his manor lord. An enlightened tsar, Alexander II (r. 1855–1881), had emancipated the serfs in 1861, but under conditions that left most Russian peasants still poor and with little hope for social or economic betterment. In desperation, the muzhik (the Russian term for peasant) periodically lashed out at his oppressors in sporadic rebellions, but all such uprisings were quelled with brutal efficiency by the tsarist regime. In western Europe, as we have seen, it was the urban middle class that took the lead in the struggle for change. In Russia, the middle class was still small in size and lacking in self-confidence. A few, however, had traveled to the West and were determined to import Western values and institutions into the backward Russian environment. At mid-century, a few progressive intellectuals went out to the villages to arouse their rural brethren to the need for change. Known as narodniks (from the Russian term narod, for “people” or “nation”), they sought to energize the peasantry as a force for the transformation of Russian society. Although many saw the answer to Russian problems in the western European model, others insisted on the uniqueness of the Russian experience and sought to bring about a revitalization of the country on the basis of the communal traditions of the native village. For the most part, such efforts achieved little. The muzhik was resistant to change and suspicious of outsiders. In desperation, some radical intellectuals turned to terrorism in the hope that assassinations of public officials would spark tsarist repression, thus demonstrating the brutality of the system and galvanizing popular anger. Chief among such groups was the Narodnaya Volya (“the People’s Will”), a terrorist organization that carried out the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The assassination of Alexander II convinced his son and successor, Alexander III (r. 1881–1894), that reform had been a mistake, and he quickly returned to the repressive measures of earlier tsars. When Alexander III died, his weak son and successor, Nicholas II (r. 1894 – 1917), began his rule armed with his father’s conviction that the absolute power of the tsars should be preserved. But it was too late, for conditions were changing. Although industrialization came late to Russia, it progressed rapidly after 1890, especially with the assistance of foreign investment capital. By 1900, Russia had become the fourth largest producer of steel, behind the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. At the same time, Russia was turning out half of the world’s production of oil. Conditions for the working class, however, were abysmal, and opposition to the tsarist regime from workers, peasants, and intellectuals finally exploded into revolt in 1905. Facing an exhaustive war with Japan in Asia (see Chapter 3), Tsar Nicholas reluctantly granted civil liberties and agreed to create a legislative assembly, the Duma, elected directly by a broad franchise. But real constitutional monarchy proved short-lived. By 1907, the tsar had curtailed the power of the Duma and fell back on the army and the bureaucracy to rule Russia.