AQA – Autocracy, Reform and Revolution: Russia, 1855–1917
Trying to preserve autocracy, 1855–1894
The Russian autocracy in the 19th century was a system of government in which the Tsar was an absolute monarch and held complete political authority. The Tsar had the power to make and enforce laws, declare war, and negotiate treaties, and his authority was not subject to any form of popular control or oversight. By the end of the 19th Century, most other European powers had become either constitutional monarcharies (Britain), republics (France), or monarchies where the sovereign held significantly less power (Germany).
Under the Russian autocracy, the Tsar was advised by a council of nobles and officials, but had the final say in all matters of state and could ignore anything his advisors suggested if he chose. Tsars believed that they were answerable only to god, and the idea of sharing power or democratising the autocracy was not seriously entertained by any Tsar during the period.
The Russian autocracy was characterized by a lack of political freedoms and civil liberties. Political opposition was suppressed, and the Russian people had little say in the decisions that affected their lives.
During the second half of the 19th Century, Russia underwent a series of powerful economic and social transformations that the Russian autocracy was ill prepared for. Competent autocrats like Alexander II and his son Alexander III managed to rule Russia during this period and maintain the power of the autocracy. Less competant rulers like Nicholas II found ruling a changing and often chaotic country with a rigid and inflexible autocracy almost impossible.
The Politics of Russia in 1855
In 1855, Russia was an autocracy governed by an absolute monarch, Tsar Alexander II. Political authority in Russia was hierarchical and centralized, with the Tsar at the top of the political hierarchy, followed by the nobility, the clergy, and the common people. The Tsar had complete control over the government and the country’s foreign and domestic policies, and his authority was not subject to any form of popular control or oversight. Alexander had come to the throne following the death of his father during the disasterous Crimean War which had begun in 1853, and in which Britain and France, allied with the Ottoman Empire had humiliated Russia. Alexander believed that reform to Russia’s institutions was essential in order to stop the country’s decline, but the one institution that he had no desire to change was the autocracy itself.
Russia’s Political, Social and Economic Problems in 1855
Alexander II, who came to power in 1855, inherited a number of significant problems and challenges when he became Tsar of Russia. Some of the major problems that Alexander II encountered when he came to power included:
- Military defeats: Russia had suffered a series of military defeats in the 19th century, including the Crimean War (1853-1856) against the Ottoman Empire and the loss of territory in the Caucasus region to the Persians. These defeats had damaged Russia’s reputation and weakened its military capabilities.
- Economic problems: Russia’s economy was underdeveloped and reliant on agriculture, which made it vulnerable to fluctuations in crop prices. The country also suffered from a lack of infrastructure, which made it difficult to transport goods and connect different regions.
- Social and political unrest: The growing middle class of the Russian people were dissatisfied with the Tsar’s autocratic rule and the lack of political freedoms and civil liberties. An educated tier of Russians accessed new ideas from Charles Darwin to Karl Marx that came to Russia from the west and began to imagine how different Russia might be.
- Nationality and religion: Russia was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, with many different nationalities and religious groups living within its borders. These groups often had conflicting interests and tensions, which made it difficult to govern the country.
- Modernisation: Alexander II was interested in modernizing Russia in some regards, but this process was met with resistance from some quarters, who saw it as a threat to traditional Russian culture and values.
The impact of the Crimean War
The Crimean War (1853-1856) had a significant impact on Russia. It was a major military conflict fought between Russia and an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, and the United Kingdom. The war was fought over control of the Crimean Peninsula and other disputed territories in the Black Sea region.
The Crimean War was a significant military defeat for Russia, which lost the war and was forced to return territory to the Ottoman Empire and crucially, lost control of the Black Sea, where Russia’s warm water ports were located. The war also had a major impact on Russia’s relations with other European powers, as the defeat damaged Russia’s reputation and weakened its military capabilities.
The Crimean War also had a significant economic impact on Russia. The war was costly and required a large military mobilization, which put a strain on Russia’s resources. The war also disrupted trade and economic activity, leading to a recession in Russia.
Finally, the Crimean War had a major political impact on Russia. It gave Alexander II the political power to argue for wide ranging reform, including the abolition of Serfdom.
Access Section Two: Political authority and attempts at reform