19th Century Russia


I. Russia’s Peculiar and Persistent Dilemma: What is to be done?


The West

a) long historical movement away from dogma and authority toward increasing individual autonomy (Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Liberalism)

b) results in a dynamic society, economic expansion and powerful states


Russian Handicaps

Tartar Yoke 12th to 16th centuries and

The problem of size and

The problem of defense


Results in a society in which dogma and authority are essential

Forms: Political-autocracy, Social-feudalism, Economic-manorialism, Religious-orthodoxy

The Russian “Social Contract” tsar/nobility/peasants


The Dilemma

Western Style Change will lead to a) chaos and or b) invasion

No Western style change will lead to more backwardness


II. Dealing with the Dilemma—Part I


A. Peter the Great 1689-1725

     Military necessity drove Peter to adopt some Western techniques

BUT military necessity also required that Peter increase the authority of the state

Table of Ranks



B. Catherine the Great 1762-1796

New “Social Contract” liberates the nobility from mandatory state service

Impact of the Enlightenment

BUT Pugachev Revolt 1773-1774 and French Revolution result in

Serfdom tightened


C. Alexander I 1801-1825

Liberal tutors and advisors

BUT French Rev and Napoleon




III.  Dealing with the Dilemma – Part 2


rise of the intelligentsia:   

-          Peculiar situation of reformists: they are from the noble class, yet they agitate for reform of serfdom: against their interests



Nicholas I 1825-1855


Decembrist Revolt 1825

-  An amateurish farce, a little tiny blip, but the first attempt at revolution. Every revolutionary afterwards looked to the Decembrists as their forefathers


            Official Response                                                                              


Official Ideology: “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality”

 - Nicholas’ goal is to preserve the Russia that he inherited in 1825 (which defeated Napoleon). The Slavophiles think that this bureaucracy that has been imposed on them was imported from the West.

“Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationalism”: new emphasis on being Russian, so the huge numbers of ethnic minorities went through Russification.                                         

            “Third Section”                                 




Decembrist Inspired

Opposition Ideologies: Westernizer v Slavophile Reformers  These people are not really radical: they are mostly debating. Their actions have little effect on Russia as a whole.

Moderate in Method 

Decisive Influence: Decembrist Revolt 1825                              



Pushkin 1799-1837

Gogol 1809-1852

Belinsky 1811-1848



Alexander II 1855-1881


Crimean War 1853-1856        War is lost to Britian and the Ottomans, and public opinion has begun to change towards belief that something must be done to reform the autocracy and the class hierarchy.                                                          


Official Response                                                                                                                     

Autocratic Liberalism                        

Emancipation of Serfs (1862) 

Has Alexander II really set the serfs free?

  1. No. He can’t do that because, first, the nobles will be upset even though they are becoming more and more anachronistic.
  2. Second, the country needs peasant labor and who will do the work if the serfs are not forced to do so?
  3. Third, the nobles fear that the peasants will revolt if they are given freedom. 
  4. Finally, the nobles are in debt, and the serfs represent  their most valuable possessions.
  5. Alexander's decision? The peasants are freed, but they remain tied to their communes. Theu only achieve true freedom if they are able to pay off their worth to the nobles. 

Goal: What is to be done so that the country retains its place as a great power in its contest with industrializing enemies?

Paradox: Free the Serfs and Begin the Process of Building a Middle Class (but RiskChaos)

vs. Maintain as Much Control as You Can and Continue to Squeeze the Peasants for All They are Worth  (The Traditional Tyrannical Strategy)

Zemstvo Reforms, etc Liberals believe that this is a very good thing. They want the end of autocracy and the creation of a constitutional government of laws and institutions to stimulate economic development .



Liberal v Nihilist v Populist (radicalized)

Liberals were thrilled to see the Tsar finally emancipate the serfs, and they regarded this momentous move as a first step towards the development of a constitutional government.

But MANY reformers were profoundly disappointed and decided that liberals were in league with the tsar whose cosmetic reforms hardly addressed the continuing injustice. A new group of radical reformers emerged, inspired by the example of Belinsky and educated in Western Socialism. The next generation would be characterized by their Nihilism.

Nihilists believed that the present government and social structure should be swept away completely. They did not know or care what would replace it. Anything would be better.  The Nihilists  were radical materialists. They did not believe in theories. They reject generalizations. They thought that everything that had been created to that point was bogus nad needed to be overturned.

The Populists (descendants of the Slavophiles) believed that the peasants were the future of Russia and their traditional method of organizing their vilages around the concept of the mir (or commune) would provide a model for the future Russian state after the Tsar was overthrown.  The Populists were anarchists. They believed that the central government should be dismantled.  Power should only be held at the local level: in the village communes or emerging labor unions.  As the century progressed, though, they became more and more violent.


Decisive Influence: 1848

1848: All the liberal revolutions in Europe were squelched. What is to be done? Not liberalism anymore! Many members of the intelligentsia became more skeptical about the liberal position.



Turgenev 1818-1883

Dostoevsky 1821-1881



Alexander III 1881-1894


Conservative Modernizer

           Decisive Influence:Assassination of the Tsar Liberator- killed by populist terrorists,

members of the People’s Will.


Official Response



Alexander III set out to complete the Russification of the empire: forcing all citizens to learn the language and adopt Russian manners. He persecuted minorities, particularly the Jews. He supported ultra-conservative political organizations, such as the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds to fight the revolutionary movement and foment nationalism. He weakened the power of the zemstvos and appointed land captains beholden only to the crown to administer the lands. Alexander III encouraged the secret police to hunt down radicals, particularly the People’s Will. In 1888 the secret police captured and executed five members of the group, including Alexander Ulyanov, the older brother of Lenin.


Major Changes: Industrialization



Under Alexander III industrialization begins to take place in Russia  which changes a social structure that used to be composed of nobles and peasants, with a few goofy intelligentsia. Under the leadership of Sergi Witte, the Minister of Communications, a project commenced to link Russia with railways. Witte oversaw the development of heavy metal industries which began to tap the enormous wealth locked in Russian mineral resources. Workers began moving to the cities to work in the new factories.  

A whole new class of people arises: the workers.  Because they are located in the cities, this group will play a more prominent role in future unrest (because governments are located in the cities.) We also have the beginnings of a middle class start to emerge.


Opposition Ideologies: Liberal v Populist v Radical

Decisive Influence: Failure of Reform


            Tolstoy 1828-1910                                                                                                                 

            Chekhov 1860-1904  



Nicholas II 1894-1917


Conservative Modernizer → Disingenuous Liberal


Decisive Influences: Witte, Stolypin


Major Changes: Industrialization & Agricultural Reform

Major changes take place in Russia. Two ministers: Count Witte, father of major industrialization in Russia and the construction of railroads,  begins to tie together the state in ways that had never been done before.

After 1905, Minister Stolypin introduces change in agricultural methods: western style agriculture. He breaks up communes and makes peasants individual landowners. The Russian peasant is finally free but he is tied by debt, tradition and vodka.

The problem for the Russian peasant, though, is that their numbers are growing dramatically due to population explosion which makes it more difficult for them to make a living as a farmer. The Liberal dream of peasant land ownership is stymied by overpopulation.

Opposition Ideologies: Liberal, Peasant Socialist & Marxist

Liberal gentry

Peasant activists with slavophile scent

Nihilists and anarchists have become marxists.



            1905 Revolution

Liberal Constitution is subverted by the tsar.



            World War I 1914-1918


Russian Revolution 1917

Tsar is overthrown after the disaster of World War I


                        February Revolution                          




Opposition Parties:

Monarchism v Populists & Marxism                                               



                        October Revolution



Monarchism v Populists  & Liberals