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The Last Tsar of the Romanov Dynasty
Nicholas II came from the longest unbroken ruling family dynasty in Europe, stretching all the way back into the 17th century, when his ancestor, Peter the Great (1672-1725), moved Russia out of the Central Asian world and squarely into the European sphere. It was Peter the Great, the first powerful tsar in the long history of the Romanov Dynasty, who built the great city of St. Petersburg out of the murky swampland of the river Neva into his grandiose imperial capital. Peter the Great created this new imperial capital for two principle reasons. First, he wanted to indicate his desire to join Europe, linking Russia to Europe via the Baltic Sea. Peter the Great had made tours of European cities and was captivated specifically by the bustle and wealth of the Dutch port city of Amsterdam and its surrounding ship-building industry. St. Petersburg represented Peter the Great’s desire to join the European maritime world, and the 17th and 18th centuries were primarily a era of maritime power. Second, the founding of St. Petersburg emphasized Russia’s increased connection to, and understanding of, the world’s economy. Wealth and power, Peter the Great understood, came from the sea, and thus the founder of St. Petersburg was also the founded of Russia’s first navy. Peter the Great set Russia on a new course. His reforms strengthened Russia’s army and navy and provided a firmer basis for the empire’s emerging bureaucracy and economy. Peter the Great prioritized practical education, science, and technology. By the middle of the 18th century, Russia had developed into a major European power. This power was severely tested and ultimately confirmed by Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812. From then on, nothing could be done in Europe without thinking about how Russia would react. Russia had become the European superpower in the east.
In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna (the meeting of the monarchies that had defeated France) Russia was the most powerful state at the negotiating table. Its empire was expanding in all directions: to the east through Siberia on its way to the Pacific Ocean and then beyond into modern-day Alaska, to the west and into the area of the Ukraine, the Baltic states and parts of Poland, and to the south at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. All told, Russia came to encompass some 20% of the world’s habitable landmass. This mighty empire, the Russian Empire, seemed poised for a long period of Eurasian dominance.
Yet instead of increasing its power after its defeat of Napoleon, the Russian Empire found itself amid a long and slow process of internal decay. In some sense, its victory over France was a Pyrrhic one, because Russia’s conservative turn in the wake of the war was partly inspired by a rejection of the spirit of the French Revolution. This rejection meant that Russia failed to evolve into a modern agricultural and/or industrial economy. Some decades later, Russia would fight a losing battle against the Ottoman Empire for control over territories surrounding the Crimean Peninsula, the Crimean War. In 1904-1905, Japan, a completely medieval state in 1815, simply demolished the Russians both on land and on sea in the Russo-Japanese War. Why wasn’t the Russian Empire able to innovate into a modern industrial and military power? How can we understand this dramatic shift in power?
Two principle reasons constitute the answer to this historical puzzle. First, as already said, the conservative reaction to the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars ran deep throughout the Russian political and aristocratic elite. The French Revolution was associated primarily with participatory democracy and economic freedoms for the middle class. Instead of encouraging the rise of a middle class with its merchants, professionals, and capitalists, tsarist Russia instituted measures specifically designed to suppress economic and intellectual innovation. A newly minted secret police, Nicholas I’s Third Section, patrolled the universities. New tactics of imprisonment and exile to Siberia became a common method of dealing with dissent. The most active intellectuals, writers, and reformers fled Russia for destinations abroad. Perhaps the most famous novelist of the time, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was sentenced to death for his role in a dissident group while still a young man. The tsar pardoned the future writer just minutes before his scheduled execution and sentenced him instead to a period of Siberian exile. Every single line printed in Russia had to be approved by a state censor. The result of such governmental conservatism was a stunning lack of economic, industrial, educational, and agricultural development during the 19th century. The private capital didn’t exist to drive industrial process as it did in the West, and the state was not about to get mixed up in anything that could cause social unrest. Lack of basic social, economic, and political freedom in Russia meant that no middle class or urban bourgeoisie developed to challenge the power of the tsar and his aristocratic supporters. The only other locus of power was the state bureaucracy, hardly a center of robust reform.
The second reason why Russia failed to take advantage of its auspicious position in 1815 to maintain itself as Europe’s preeminent superpower was its dependence on a widespread system of slave labor called serfdom. Serfs were agricultural laborers, who were bound to the estates of the aristocratic class. Much like slaves in the United States during these years, Russian serfs had next to no rights. They could be bought or sold. They were not allowed to leave their masters’ lands. They were required to cultivate land for the profit of the landowners. Huge problems existed with this system. Unlike the situation in the southern United States, Russia was not oriented toward a market economy. As more land came on the agricultural grid worldwide, and as transportation between continents became more efficient, small-scale serf farming in Russia proved to be increasingly less lucrative. This meant that over time the Russian nobility were losing their accumulated fortunes, which were based on ownership and cultivation of the land. Many of these noblemen had been borrowing heavily to pay for an increasingly lavish lifestyle. The result was that the nobility never made a transition from landed wealth to capital wealth. Instead, the nobles’ wealth was simply vanishing. By 1860, their situation was in an acute state of crisis. Tsar Alexander II knew that reform was needed.
In 1861, Alexander II freed the Russian serfs, four years before the South’s surrender in the U.S. Civil War brought similar freedoms for slaves in the United States. The abolition of serfdom in Russia was one of the best business deals in modern history, if you were a Russian landlord. The abolition of serfdom came with the obligation of the serfs to buy the land they had long farmed from the gentry who owned it. The result was that the serfs were forced to pay the gentry for the land. Having no money, the serfs were then forced to borrow from the state, which ended up paying huge amounts of cash to the gentry, thus addressing two problems at once, the inefficiency of serfdom and the increasingly dire financial state of the Russian nobility. In turn, the serfs were required to repay their debts to the state, a process that lasted until 1905 and resulted in the payment of 1.5 billion rubles. While some peasants were able to do well and established successful farms, most were not. In general, the sudden abolition of serfdom created the environment for tremendous peasant unrest throughout the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the twentieth. Partly as a result of this land reform, Russia didn’t develop a modern economy on the model of Britain or the United States, and it could not satisfy the needs of the newly free peasantry.
By the late 1890s, it was clear that Russia needed significant changes in the areas of both agricultural reform and, more acutely, industrial development. Russia’s neighbors, the Germans and even the Ottomans, were far outpacing Russia in terms of production and technological advancement. In 1905, Russia found itself at war with a much more highly equipped Japanese force. The whole world expected Russia to dominate its smaller Asian neighbor. Japan’s crushing victory over the enormous land empire exposed Russia’s lack of development for all to see. The immediate effect of the Russo-Japanese War was a period of revolutionary unrest in Russia. The medium-term result was that Tsar Nicholas II, after regaining order, began a process of massive industrialization, which shocked the Russian Empire into the 20th century and prepared it for a military challenges posed by its increasingly hostile European neighbors, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The result of this rapid and state-driven industrialization was impressive. Russia was able to enter WWI without the overwhelming industrial disadvantage it would have faced a decade or two earlier. And yet Russia’s belated step into the industrial world meant two important things for the future history of the revolution in 1917. First, it meant that Russia created a huge industrial labor force in a very short amount of time. The result of this was that Russia had little time to organize labor organizations. In the West, workers came to rely on union leaders and negotiators to push for their rights, rights that included higher wages, shorter working hours, and safer working conditions. These labor unions and parties, like the German SPD, could become part of the state and even, in a sense, co-opted by state interests, at least from the perspective of revolutionary actors like Rosa Luxemburg. When the Russian workers became radicalized, on the other hand, they had little choice but to take to the streets in strike or to look to intellectuals who espoused their cause. This was still very much peasant radicalism in industrial clothes. Secondly, along with the tremendous increase in the number of industrial workers from the 1890s to 1917, we have an equally massive concentration of these workers in a few major cities, including Moscow and the Russian capital St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914). This is important. It meant that unlike in other countries, which had industrial infrastructure spread throughout their territories, when Russian workers went on strike it meant that hundreds of thousands of people could be mobilized at once.