Great Reformers That Don’t

Imperial Russia’s Failure to Fully Liberalize, and the End of the Tsars

Great Reformers That Don’t

Introduction: the Tsars close their fist.

Throughout its life, the Russian Empire found itself needing to liberalize to survive. It would find itself behind in technology, or otherwise at a disadvantage to Europeans, so the tsars began adopting European ideas. military reforms, education reforms, and power structure reforms, all used to keep the tsars in power in the face of the threat of dangerous neighbors. At the same time, the tsarist government was unwilling to liberalize the power structure of Russia, again, to keep the throne in power. Unfortunately, with each reform came ideas of freedom in the heads of the Russian population, noble and peasant alike. These ideas were like a virus spreading and developing, infecting the system with discontent. From the Great Reformers Peter and Catherine, to Alexander and Nicholas, to the architects of the Great Reforms, there was no shortage of Russian tsars enacting reforms that only served to increase their own power, and often this would lead to dissatisfaction with the government. The growing dissatisfaction would eventually boil over into the Decembrist Revolt after the death of Alexander, and then the revolutions of the early 1900s, the last of which finally brought an end to the tsars, and their government.

The Great Reformers: Consolidation of Power Through Reform

Peter the Great, the first of the Great Reformers, attempted, in many ways, to make Russia more like his European neighbors. After his early childhood in which he survived a usurpation attempt in Moscow by the Boyars (Russian nobility), he developed a hatred of the Muscovy culture that permeated Russian society, and he envied the power that the European monarchs held, both politically and militarily. To that end, Peter realised that he could accomplish both goals with one solution. By transforming Russia into a European style empire, he could eliminate Muscovy culture, and replace it with European culture, a culture that would put the very nobles that nearly ended his life under his thumb.

As such, Peter undertook a monumental effort to build a European style city in a swamp far from Moscow, the city of St. Petersburg. The land on the Baltic Sea that was chosen for the construction of the new capital of Russia was completely unsuitable for such a city, but Peter went ahead anyway. The construction went by fast, and became enshrined in legend, a testament to the newly declared imperator’s brilliance.

At the same time, Peter reformed the military. Before his restructuring, the Russian military was disorganized, behind the times, and in poor shape, barely a standing army. The only semblance of a decent fighting force, the semi-professional Streltsy, had been eliminated by Peter after they sided against him in the usurpation attempt during his childhood. For Russia to become the empire that Peter desired, there needed to be a new army. Peter began a massive conscription campaign, forcing the conscripted to remain in the military for the rest of their lives, thus creating a professional military. Having obtained the manpower needed, Peter moved to update their practices. Peter personally learned to use every weapon that the Russian army would be using with a new military manual, and learned how to command any number of troops. He started learning to command from the bottom rank, and advanced step by step to the top, and he insisted that everyone else do the same. Peter also developed new weapons, and tactics for his army to use, and then finally dressed them up in Western style militaria. He then created a Russian navy almost entirely out of wholecloth. Before Peter, the Russian fleet consisted of only one out-of-date ship. All of this paid off with Peter’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War, securing Russia a place on the world stage.

Once power abroad had been gained, Peter focused internally, looking to move the power structures of Russia to be firmly under his control. The church, and the nobility also needed to be changed to fit Peter’s vision of a European Russian Empire. The church had far too much power in Peter’s mind, and he needed to fix that. To that end, Peter made the church into an arm of the state, creating the Holy Synod to replace the Patriarch, the Holy Synod being a council appointed by the tsar; a Western idea. The nobility that Peter still hated and distrusted needed to be dealt with as well. Peter decided that the best way to deal with them was to make them compete against themselves, so he created the Table of Ranks, a ranking system that forced the nobles to compete against each other for the tsar’s favor in order to gain power. He also began educating the Russian nobility and military in a European style, trying to change the culture from the roots.

Peter’s efforts to reform had mixed success. Many of them were reversed by later tsars, or never really completed their purpose in the first place, like the banning of animals from gardens. While in many ways he reshaped Muscovy culture to be more European, it ended up creating a creole culture of the two instead; one uniquely Russian.

Catherine the Great, the second Great Reformer, reformed Russia in much the same way as Peter, creating military reforms to gain new territory abroad, while consolidating power at home. Her reforms were in many ways reminiscent of Peter’s, serving her without any grand ideals behind them, although Catherine was not afraid of the Muscovites. Catherine was German born, but learned the Russian language and culture after her marriage to Peter III. She also kept busy with politics in this time, enough so to lead a coup against her husband. This shrewdness followed suit in her reign as she sat on a precarious throne. The only way to keep her title without any proper claim to it was to prove her worth, and she had some enlightenment ideas to import that could enable her to do just that. She had been reading the works of thinkers like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Beccaria, and had come up with ways to integrate their ideals into a Russian system, ensuring an autocracy remained. In her mind, an autocracy was the only way to handle a country as large and diverse as Russia. These ideas were to be put into action by the Legislative Commission. Unfortunately, the commission was unable to effectively legislate anything, and only served to exacerbate class divides. Thus came the first revolt stemming from a reform attempt, Pugachev’s Rebellion. Emelian Pugachev, dissatisfied with the way that power was concentrated under the tsar, went to the serfs to convince them that he was Peter III, come to save them from their servitude (many of the serfs believed that it was Peter III’s intention to free them, and that was why he was killed). Pugachev was eventually crushed, but his rebellion revealed major flaws in the local governments throughout Russia. They had no way of stopping such a revolt until the army arrived, and were unequipped to prevent such a revolt in the first place. So, Catherine’s next reforms focused on those local governments, reorganizing and restructuring the local administrations to serve the state better.

Militarily, Catherine created a more aggressive foreign policy to increase the power and prestige of the nation. During her campaigns, Catherine gained Russia new territories in the Crimea and Poland, bringing in a wide variety of new peoples who required more restructuring in order to be dealt with. Some of Catherine’s most important reforms involved ruling over different peoples. To deal with people who followed different religions, like the Catholics and Jews from Poland, and the Muslims in Crimea, Catherine created spiritual assemblies that would act as the conduit between the state and these religious communities. In a way, this policy was an extension of Peter the Great’s creation of the Holy Synod, as these spiritual assemblies put the various religious communities under the control of the state in a similar manner, and the empire’s treatment of the various religious groups depended solely on their utility to the state.

Alexander I and Nicholas I: Reformers and Reactionaries Surrounding the Decembrist Revolt

Alexander I started his reign as a reformer, entering the tsardom with many big ideas to make Russia more liberalized like the Europeans to the west. Unlike Catherine and Peter before him, Alexander really seemed to believe in liberalizing his empire to the benefit of his people, at least to a certain degree. The people of Russia believed in his potential as well, celebrating his ascension with high hopes. Unfortunately his mental instabilities led to him craving the same power his predecessors had sought. While he did embrace some liberalism and reform — relaxing censorship, abolishing torture for investigation, and granting amnesty to 12,000 men dismissed by his predecessor Paul — these were only the foundations of a liberal policy, with Alexander seeming unwilling to make any substantial change. His liberalizing is generally separated into two eras, the first from 1801 to 1805, and the second from 1807 to 1812 each one followed by war with France.

During Alexander’s reign, the Russian Empire faced some of the greatest military threats it would ever encounter: the Napoleonic Wars. Thrust into global conflict to temper Napoleon’s ambitions, and remove the pretender to the throne, Alexander fought to further secure other monarchies throughout Europe, including the tsardom, in the process. The fight took itself from Eastern Russia to Western Europe, and with it Russian soldiers, noble and serf, many of whom had never left their local area before. In Western Europe the troops, particularly the nobles, would learn of the European ideals, which had not found their way to Russia. France’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” Britain’s Magna Carta, and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands’ new constitution, were fascinating to the Russian soldiers, particularly those educated enough to understand such concepts, and who now had their eyes opened to the realities of their serf comrades in arms. After coming back to Russia, these same noblemen could no longer fit into aristocratic Russian society, and had no interest in doing so either. They wore their swords to balls, unwilling to shed their soldier personas, and rejected European, and aristocratic culture in favour of the peasant culture that seemed to them to be more Russian.

After the death of Alexander I, hopes of reforms coming down from the top were just as dead as the late emperor. The next in line, Constantine, considered to be liberal, had renounced his rights to the throne, leaving Nicholas I, a much more reactionary sort. This created a dynastic crisis, as the capital, and the army, had already sworn allegiance to Constantine. This was a great opportunity for those who had returned from the Napoleonic Wars. In the wake of the wars, they had formed societies which now plotted rebellion, misleading the soldiers into thinking that Nicholas was a usurper. Their plan was to convince the armies not to swear allegiance to Nicholas, but instead to clamor for “Constantine and Constitution,” despite the lower class soldiers not knowing what a constitution was. These Decembrists, as they were known, failed to gain enough support due to confusion and a lack of leadership. They were arrested and Nicholas took the throne.

Nicholas I entered his reign in a state of fury. A revolt had nearly toppled him even before his inauguration, and Nicholas wanted to prevent anything like the Decembrists Revolt from ever happening again. He banished the leaders of the revolt to a very cold life in Siberia, and took measures to revert the reforms he felt had allowed the ideas that sparked the revolt in the first place, to grow. He had no qualms about revoking these liberal policies, and focused the government on militarism and bureaucracy.

Just as he was clamping down on the government, Nicholas was closing up the church’s freedoms as well. Nicholas declared an age of caution, and conformity among the religious circles, using censorship to create a convenient prop for his power. Alexander had passed a major censorship reform during his reign that had raised the ire of some in the government, particularly Admiral Shishkov, who wanted to strengthen censorship, not weaken it. When Nicholas came to power, Shishkov had a wonderful opportunity to get a new censorship law passed, and Nicholas agreed to it.

The Great Reforms: Serfs to Soviets

In the later half of the 19th century, Russian nobles ran up against a conundrum. All of the most powerful nations in Europe were industrializing, and their powers were now soaring. Industrialism seemed to be the way of the future, and Russia needed to follow. Unfortunately for them, the way the nation was structured disallowed such development. The serfs were tied to the land, and the land was in the countryside, not the industrial centers that were the cities. Additionally, the serfs were owned by their nobles, meaning there was little incentive for the nobles to invest in the equipment for industrial-scale agriculture necessary for an industrial economy. There was only one way in which the nobility of Russia could gain the economic and military advantage of industrialization in the Empire, and that was to free the serfs. To this end, the nobility convened to negotiate a deal to emancipate the serfs. This negotiation, of course, involved none of the serfs themselves, as the nobles wanted to make sure that they received a better end of the deal than their serfs. When they had finished, they left the serfs with a trade: those who were farming could buy half of the land they had been tilling, so long as they paid for it. Of course, most of these serfs could not afford the price, in which case they had to take out a treasury bond with the state that would last for 49 years. This would in many cases keep the serfs in their same role as before, just with new economic pressures for them to be concerned about. Essentially the so-called emancipation made their quality of life slip even further. However, there were now many people moving to the cities to start their lives as factory workers. With industrialization comes societal issues though, and those uneducated serfs needed new social programs to keep them productive. Thus, the Emancipation of the Serfs became the Great Reforms, with several other reforms implemented to solve this issue. One of the biggest was a new form of local government called the zemstvo system, which added democratization to the system, and stimulated local initiatives, giving the newly freed serfs, and the rest of the non-elite populace a new taste of self-government. The zemstvo system allowed the local government to build schools in even the most remote areas. While these schools would be quickly censured under the orders of the state, they were still an important way of letting the peasantry gain an education that would enable them be better workers. What the tsars did not plan on was that this education also made them better revolutionaries.

The revolutions of the early nineteen hundreds were the tipping point for Russian liberalization. There were finally too many liberal ideas buzzing throughout the populace, making a successful revolt inevitable. The political strife caused by the emancipation of the serfs created the groundwork for these revolutions, but the scaffolding was created during the reign of Nicholas II. The 1905 revolution was partially inspired by the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. A large European power losing so badly to a small Asian country left a lot of doubt in the minds of the populace about the enlightenment of their “enlightened monarchs.” Dissatisfaction with the government in the aftermath of this event would eventually lead to protests and revolts that were put down by the military on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. With these disgraces, and the newly educated serfs, who were now concentrated in cities, rumors quickly grew of varying veracity. After all of this Nicholas II gave in to demands for a parliament (Duma), although he reserved the rights to make decrees, veto all decisions, and disband the Duma, and hold new elections at any time for any reason.

Probably the most important influence on the 1917 revolutions was the disaster of World War I. WWI did not go as expected for anyone involved, but it went particularly poorly for Russia. Because of Russia’s still mostly unindustrialized nature, a prolonged war of this scale took a particularly terrible toll on the nation. With Nicholas II’s mismanagement of the war, and his near constant disbanding of the Duma, the people of Russia were becoming fed up. This discontent steadily grew until it boiled over in 1917 with the outset of the February revolution. At this point, the Duma took over the governing of the nation, while Nicholas II abdicated, but the Duma continued too many of the old tsarist policies for the people to tolerate, resulting in the October revolution, sweeping Lenin, and the Bolsheviks into power, and putting in their hands in the lives of the royal family, which Lenin quickly snuffed out.

Conclusion: Slipping Between Their Fingers

The aristocracy of Russia created their own doom through their constant half measures. There was only so much the peasants of Russia could withstand living under such despotic rule, yet with liberalization all around them. Tsar after tsar issued reforms in attempts to keep up with the power of Europe, but none were willing to limit their own power like those European nations’ monarchs had. In fact, most of the tsars tried to use the reforms to consolidate their power further. The collapse of the tsardom was not inevitable, but the tsardom required much more careful maintenance than these power hungry monarchs were capable of providing.

Additional Reading and Sources

Orlando Figes. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. (London: Allen Lane, 2002).

Nicholas Riasanovsky. A History of Russia. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Burbank, J. “An Imperial Rights Regime: Law and Citizenship in the Russian Empire.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 7 no. 3, 2006.

Robert Crews; Empire and the Confessional State: Islam and Religious Politics in Nineteenth-Century Russia, The American Historical Review, Volume 108, Issue 1, 1 February 2003.

Edwards, David W. “Russian Ecclesiastical Censorship during the Reign of Tsar Nicholas I.” Journal of Church and State 19, no. 1 (1977).

Figes, Orlando, and B. I. Kolonit︠s︡kiĭ. Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

Murray Frame. “Cultural Mobilization: Russian Theatre and the First World War, 1914–1917.” The Slavonic and East European Review 90, no. 2 (2012).

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