Sailing against the tide: Tsardom and Russian Society c.1900

Russia – described by Churchill as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ by British political Winston Churchill in 1939 – was as juxtaposed, inscrutable and confusing a political and social entity in 1900 as it has been to many observers from the outside world before and after. Russia at the dawn of the 20th century was a huge, rambling landmass stretching from the Baltic and the plains of Eastern Europe through the steppes, tundra, deserts and high peaks of Siberia and Central Asia to the Pacific shores. The diversity and scope in its geographical features was matched only by the diversity of culture, ethnicity and languages within its borders; a multi-ethnic brew of peoples and religions which central authority believed could only be successfully controlled through an iron-fisted and repressive political apparatus.

The Tsar above all

Russia stood alone of all the great European powers of the age in its refusal to entertain the notion of political evolution towards a form of representative government. The Tsar was acknowledged – not least by himself – as Gods anointed man on earth who had to lead the Russian people by hook or crook. Life under the Tsarist autocracy demanded complete obedience and tribute to the heredity monarchy of the Romanov’s, with critical thinking and political opposition something discouraged in the harshest terms. The ‘Fundamental Laws of Empire’ enshrined this God-like status of the Tsar over his people and defined his autocratic rule as ‘unlimited’ and inviolable. Yet Russia was increasingly seen as a backwards and reactionary bulwark withering in the face of inexorable processes of modernisation and democracy, and it would take a strong and quick-witted Tsar to plot the path the Russian Empire would have to take to avoid falling in line with the processes of change elsewhere in Europe at that time. Tsar Nicholas II definitely was not that man.

The Emperor of all the Russias is an autocratic and unlimited monarch. God himself ordains that all must bow to his supreme power, not only out of fear but also out of conscience.

Fundamental Laws of the Empire, 1832

Nominally, Russia did have official organs of government as the 1900s came into view; the Imperial Council who constituted the aristocratic elites who acted as the Tsar’s close advisors, the Cabinet of Minsters who oversaw the machinations of the vast and sprawling Tsarist bureaucratic machine and the Senate who’s role it was to oversee legal operations and pass laws (only ones the Tsar had to agreed to firstly!). Ultimately – despite the grandiose titles – all these bodies were merely window dressing and acted in an advisory form as they had no authority over the Tsar, who could do as he pleased without reproach or recourse.

Faith & Repression: Russian Orthodox Church c.1900

Nicholas II followed in the footsteps of his own father – Alexander III – in rolling back the reforms and openness (in relative terms – Russia was hardly a progressive tolerant paradise in the 1860s!) which characterised the reign of Alexander II, the ruler who enacted the emancipation of the Russian serfs and generally encouraged economic and political modernisation yet found himself blown up by revolutionaries for his troubles. This act hardened attitudes and stiffened the resolve on the part of the Russian elites to stand strong and resist the winds of change blowing eastwards from Western Europe, and Nicholas II was embedded with arch-conservatism and reactionary values from an early age through his tutor Konstantin Pobedonotsev. This desire to keep Russia free from Western European meddling and influence can be connected to the development of organised Christianity in Russia, with the Orthodox Church fiercely proud of its own independence from Rome and its role as the moral and spiritual voice of the Russian people. The Russian Orthodox Church was arguably the most significant of all the pillar propping up the Tsarist system given its huge influence over everyday Russian life, particularly in the rural areas which were so symbolic and representative of what Russia was (and in many ways still is!) at the onset of the 20th century.

God commands us to love and obey from the innermost recesses of our heart every authority, and particularly that of the Tsar.

Russian Orthodox Church catechism, 19th Century

Whilst the Church preached social conservatism and religious obedience to scripture and Tsar alike, the magnetism of urbanisation and modernisation brought on by the nascent industrialisation of Russia drew peasants away not only from their backwards rural idyll but also away from the dogma of the Orthodox Church. The Church’s compass may have pointed back to medieval feudalism but the direction Russian urban society was moving in was one which was less laden down with religious observance. Indeed, of 40,000 inhabitants of one Moscow industrial suburb in 1900, only one church and priest were ‘serving’ their matters of faith. Increasingly, Russians of the industrial towns and cities were finding other outlets and organs of expression and ‘faith’ – that of political engagement.

Organs of Repression: Police, Military & Okhrana

Another central pillar without which the Tsarist system would have faltered was that of the repressive organs of police and state security services. Despite the lack of opportunity in formalising real and viable political opposition given the ‘Fundamental Laws’ explicitly outlawing such, the full weight of police repression and brutality was meted on those who dared such political alternatives or offered critiques of the Tsarist system. Even moderate political views/criticism could entail internal exile to Siberia or an untimely demise in the network of Tsarist prisons, with the Okhrana merciless and unforgiving in hunting down political opponents real or imagined.

As we will find out as our study of this cataclysmic and volatile period of Russian progresses, having the support and loyalty of the armed forces was integral to being in charge. And so it was in turn of the century Russia, with the Tsar commanding the support of what was yet another repressive, reactionary and backwards organ of power in the Russian Empire. The army (and navy) was a class-ridden, inefficient and ethically corrupt insitituon which was overwhelmingly staffed with poorly motivated illiterate peasants, most of whom had no desire to be part of it let alone fight for whatever purpose they were being told to put their lives on the line for. This was in stark contrast to the increasingly professionalised, modernised and meritocratic militaries taking root in Western Europe (Prussia/Germany, UK for instance) and Russia footed a heavy bill for keeping this bloated and decaying operation afloat – 45% of government expenditure going on armed forces as opposed to 4% on education. Yet for many Russians the military was a source of nationalistic pride and a symbol of Russian power, with past glories a convenient comfort blanket to retreat to. However as they would find out to their intense and crushing humiliation in 1905, the inadequacies and weaknesses of the Russian military machine were masked over by not having faced a European power in pitched combat since the 1855 Crimean War, nor taken part in a European War since 1815.

State of Play: Upper Classes

The social structure of the Tsarist state echoed that of the Ancien Regime of France in the 18th century; a small yet inordinately powerful and influential ruling elite and clergy lording it over a rambling impoverished peasantry and a growing and politically awakening bourgeoisie. And as with revolutionary France ideas and ethics were split as to how best approach the process of reform, progress and equity. Within the upper classes two camps formed; that of the ‘Westerners’ who called for the pressing need for Russia to modernise and reform along representative government lines if it was to keep its place at the table of Great Powers and remain a viable world player. The Slavophiles were the opposing perspective, their vision of Russia’s future embedded in celebration of the unique and organic values and culture which Russia had been founded upon and for Russia to take a separate path from that of mainstream European political thought.

State of Play: Bourgeoisie

The ‘middle’ classes/bourgeoisie – those who had benefited from and capitalised in Russia’s growing Industrial Revolution – was a small but upwardly mobile tranche of Russian society in the 1900s who wished for Russia to go down the ‘Western’ path of progress and development. As components of the globalised industrial world, they were exposed to a flow of ideas, policies and practices from Western Europe which influenced not only their business ideologies but also their political compass too. Naturally, this brought them into conflict with the prevailing autocracy of Tsardom and they used their wealth and influence to begin laying foundations – clandestine or otherwise – for serious political debate and reform. With the increasing reliance on global markets and resources this group became increasingly influential and a thorn in the Tsar’s side given their growing wealth and status. Due to Tsarist suspicion and downright hostility, Russia was still nowhere near maximising her industrial and economic potential with the military taking precedent over society in being the focus of investment and reform. Inadvertently this military obsession helped fuel growth in other aspects of Russian economic output and the ‘Great Spurt’ of the 1890s drove innovation, investment and fresh perspectives on how Russia’s future might look.

State of Play: Peasantry Urban Working Class

The final social class to consider was the largest by far. Constituting 82% of the Russian population in 1897, the ‘dark mass‘ of the Russian peasantry eked out a miserable and hard-bitten existence within the Tsarist system. Despite their emancipation in 1861, life for the Russian peasant was one endured in grinding poverty and with little scope for progress or personal betterment. In part down to their illiteracy and ignorance, the Russian peasantry were utterly beholden to the influence of Tsar and Church, and whilst not overflowing with joy at their lot in life they saw little to draw their ire outwith their immediate mir of village and pastures. Despite their pathetic and miserable lot in life, the peasantry was the focus of much scorn and hostility from the ruling elites, who held a fear that one day the downtrodden masses may wake up then rise up against the unjust and unfair system which repressed them. To this end, education and opportunity were actively discouraged and ‘safe ignorance’ promoted by the officials of Tsardom.

However, despite the cards being loaded against them, the peasantry found a possible avenue out of the drudgery and misery wielded upon them by migrating from countryside to the industrial towns and cities whereupon they formed the nascent urban working class and found themselves exposed to new political ideologies as well as semblances of education and modern life in general. The ‘dark masses’ of the peasant communes would evolve into something altogether more militant, weaponised and difficult to control for a regime which became ever-more out of touch and entrenched against the inexorable rise of the modern world.

Key Takeaways

  • Russia in the 1890s was an increasingly isolated bulwark against modernity and political openness
  • Tsar Nicholas II was particularly ill-suited to being the man at the helm of a nation about to enter such stormy waters
  • Despite the inefficiency and ill-preparedness on behalf of the Tsar and his circle for what was about to hit them – and the lack of trust in the new business and mercantile classes, Russia experienced considerable economic and industrial growth at the dawn of the 20th century
  • Again, despite the litany of mismanagement, ineptitude and aloofness exhibited by the Tsarist regime, most Russians were inherently loyal to him and the Church.
  • Politcal opposition was marginal numerically, but where it did manifest it tended to do so violently and extremism was prevalent.
  • So, how revolutionary was Russia in 1900? Are there any possible factors/catalysts which could alter this situation?


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